Turkey´s Kurdish peace process: regional implications

The rise of the pro-Kurdish HDP coincides with the country´s growing democratic deficit under the AKP and a re-intensification of armed conflict against the PKK, with implications for the entire region.

Maria Christina Vibe
23 May 2016

PKK militant watches people flee the Sur district of the mainly-Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, after the authorities expand the curfew, January, 2016. Murat Bay /Press Association. All rights reserved. In Turkey, the pro-Kurdish People´s Democratic (HDP) Party won an unprecedented 13 percent of the national vote during Turkey’s General Election on June 7, 2015. For the first time since 2002, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority. Though this trend was reversed in the November election, with the AKP regaining political dominance and exhibiting increasing authoritarian tendencies, Turkey´s political landscape had clearly shifted. The growing influence of Kurds in the country both politically and militarily, for better or worse, means Turkey is holding the key to either fostering peace and stability in the region, or more violence and chaos.

These political developments in Turkey are influencing the peace negotiations with the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which are currently at a standstill. The Kurdish conflict and recent developments in Turkey are also affected by larger conflict dynamics in the region; even though Kurds’ situation varies from country to country, they are all in the end interconnected. The escalating violence in Syria has displaced millions, resulting in an influx of refugees to Turkey, the region, and particularly to Europe. This has focused international attention on the need for a political solution both in Turkey and in Syria.

Turkey’s changing political landscape

The perceived need for stability is the principal reason why the AKP received such an upsurge in votes during the November election. Armed confrontations between the PKK and the Turkish military intensified between the two elections. The increasing violence of the Islamic State (ISIS) constituted a second factor. One of the largest terror attacks in Turkey’s history, killing 102 people peacefully demanding a resolution to the Kurdish conflict, took place in Ankara in October 2015 and was attributed to the Islamic State (ISIS). In 2015 Turkey´s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) was accused of having secretly provided weapons to the militant group, demonstrating the complex transnational nature of these regional conflicts. Ankara´s shift in political priorities… to a military solution, in the face of a strengthened PKK in Turkey and the region, grows clearer.

As ISIS moved closer to the Turkish border in August 2015, Turkish fighter jets started targeting them; however, the attacks have been few and ineffective. Simultaneously a much more intense air strike campaign was launched by Turkey against the long-standing PKK bases in Northern Iraq. Ankara´s shift in political priorities from pursuing a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish conflict to a military solution, in the face of a strengthened PKK in Turkey and the region, grows clearer.

The AKP increased their share of votes in the latest elections, particularly from nationalists, and now the outlook for resuming the peace process with the PKK is bleak. Despite the broad mandate given to the HDP in the first election and the wave of hope for peace in the Turkish public, the enthusiasm was short-lived. The PKK used this previous period of relative calm to collect weapons, recruit and strengthen its position both in rural and urban settings, and abroad. Since mid-December 2015, a fresh round of violence has escalated both in the southeast of Turkey and its borders.

Peace negotiations in a regional context

Iran, Iraq and Syria have over the years supported and accepted the presence of PKK fighters in their territories to counteract Turkey´s influence in the region. Today, the Kurds seem to enjoy a solid tolerance by, if not cooperation with, Damascus in the fight against ISIS as their common enemy. The Kurds in Syria and Turkey have historically always shared close ties.[i] While many Syrian Kurds previously joined the ranks of the PKK, many Turkish Kurds now join the Kurdish People´s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women´s Protection Units (YPJ) in Syria. These armed groups actively fought ISIS during the siege of Kobani in Syria, starting in September 2014, which unleashed widespread solidarity protests throughout Turkey, leading to 50 deaths, despite the actual fight taking place across the border. There is now a competition between Russia and the US and its western allies to secure the support of the Kurds. Turkey is the odd one out in this whole process.

The Turkish state sees it necessary to disrupt what they see as the formation of a “Kurdish state” on its’ border, and has bombed Kurdish YPG forces in northern Syria since the latter half of 2015. Ankara has several times stressed the need for a “buffer zone” along its border with northern Syria, to counter these developments, despite the risks this may pose to Syrian IDPs.[ii] Critics in the Kurdish political and armed movement see this as a way to curb the Kurds’ autonomy and influence here.

Unlike the close relations between Kurds in Turkey and Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Iraq has increasingly strengthened its ties to Erdogan’s AKP, particularly in the economic and political realm. KDP leader Masoud Barzani had even previously attempted to mediate in the peace process in Turkey, where he was viewed as AKP´s man. When violence escalated after the July 2015 Suruç bombings in Turkey, the PKK, which has long been tolerated in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, was asked by the KDP to withdraw from the area. These inconsistencies come in the face of internal rivalries among Kurds in northern Iraq but also across the region, demonstrating a fluid landscape of changes in Kurds’ factionalism.

In the last year Kurdish YPG forces have come to control more than half of Syria’s border with Turkey. Despite being de facto allies of the Assad regime, the Kurds are considered useful allies of the US in the fight against ISIS here, revealing the contradictory alliances that have formed. On the other hand, the US’s commitment to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) region of northern Iraq puts it in a delicate situation vis-à-vis both its position on the YPG and the PKK, not to mention Turkey.

Russian air campaigns in support of the Assad regimes forces, which began in October 2015, together with the presence of Iranian forces and Shia militia groups further complicates the picture. Having historically supported the Kurds, Russia sees the Kurds as a useful ally against Turkey. There is now a competition between Russia and the US and its western allies to secure the support of the Kurds.[iii] Turkey is the odd one out in this whole process, requiring it to seek rapprochement with the Kurds in Turkey and beyond in order to continue negotiations. Due to the intimate connections among the various Kurdish groups in the region, Turkey’s decisions abroad will affect perceptions and its credibility in a future peace process at home, as well as its regional role in any resolution of the crises in Iraq and Syria.

A dying peace process?

The Turkish state has been in the so-called ”solution” process with the Kurdistan Workers Party since 2012. The HDP emerged in the period during the negotiations and has played a role as facilitator between the two parties, and the wider Kurdish political movement.  However, the dual strategy of holding negotiations with the PKK in parallel with clampdowns on their political wings continued. Lately, thousands of leftist and Kurdish activists have been detained across Turkey in a crack-down on “terrorism”, despite only a handful of arrests of ISIS members which the government cited to justify their actions.[iv] Such actions detract from the government’s perceived commitment to a peaceful resolution with the Kurds. A solution to the war in Syria is inextricably linked to a sustainable peace in Turkey and the resolution of its own Kurdish conflict, once and for all.

Yet, contrary to the belief that the HDP and AKP are incompatible, the HDP and its predecessor party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), have jointly worked on mechanisms of the peace process including the multi-party Constitutional Reconciliation Commission in parliament, and the Wise People´s Commission, a nation-wide public reconciliation mechanism. Though AKP´s power struggles have proved challenging, they´re credited with being the party which did the most to tackle the Kurdish issue – though its steps, until now, have proved insufficient and inconsistent. These efforts are seen as missed opportunities in light of recent regional escalation. 

The HDP has repeatedly called on both parties, the Turkish State and the PKK, to halt the violence and focus on a political solution. The Erdogan government on the other hand, has announced that the peace process cannot continue with the present environment of daily violent clashes, both nationally and regionally, and until the PKK lay down arms. Fuelled by regional developments, conflict is only escalating.  

What is the way forward?

Despite the negative political rhetoric, the gains in obtaining a tentative acceptance from the state bureaucracy and military for the peace process cannot be easily reversed. Turkey´s regional and international image, not to mention its internal security and stability, are at stake over its handling of the Kurdish issue.  

The Turkish government and the PKK, both need to tread the fine line of sustaining political dialogue while answering hardline elements in their constituencies. What is clear from a regional assessment is that a solution to the war in Syria is inextricably linked to a sustainable peace in Turkey and the resolution of its own Kurdish conflict, once and for all.

This article is published in cooperation with the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF). www.peacebuilding.no

[i] Marcus, Aliza ”Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence”, 2009, New York University Press: New York and London.

[ii]  Balian, Hrair, “Why “no-fly zones” or “ISIS-free zones” are not a solution”, 19 August, 2015, Norewegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre; Yado Arin, Kubilay, ”Working Paper: The Pro-Kurdish Party HDP, the blocker for the AKP”, Posted July 13, 2015, Transcultural Islam Research Network.

[iii] Balanche, Fabrice, ”The Struggle for Azaz Corridor Could Spur a Turkish Intervention ” , The Washington Institute, December 11, 2015.

[iv] Balta, Evren, “How the Turkish Elections changed the foreign policy of Turkey”, July 27, 2015,; “Violations Ascertained Between 21 July – 30 August 2015”, Human Rights Association (İHD) website, n.d., accessed September 28, 2015.

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