Last week Turkey announced the beginning of Operation Kiran, an offensive in the southeast of the country against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Simultaneously, Turkey's Operation Claw is targeting PKK bases in neighbouring Iraq. Turkey also remains poised for a third intervention in Syria against the People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara claims is a PKK affiliate.
Also last week, Ankara removed three democratically elected pro-Kurdish mayors from office, as well as several elected muhtars, or village heads, under dubious terrorism-related charges. This led to wide-spread demonstrations in the southeast and harsh police crackdowns against protesters. The mayors were elected just months ago and came into office after similar removals of Kurdish mayors in 2016. It is now a cycle that Ankara replaces elected Kurdish officials with its own handpicked allies.
These developments highlight Turkey’s enduring Kurdish conflict, which, from a global perspective, stands out as an anomaly. In recent years, similar conflicts across the world have been resolved. In 1998, the Provisional Irish Republican Army laid down its weapons and signed the Good Friday power-sharing agreement. In 2010, the Basque separatist group Eta, which had been fighting the Spanish government for decades, agreed to a ceasefire, leading to the end of armed conflict last year. In 2016 the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, otherwise known as the Farc, ended its decades-long Marxist guerrilla war and an agreement with the state was ratified the following year.
However, Turkey’s conflict with the PKK endures and continues to spill over into neighbouring countries. The reason is threefold; the lack of legitimacy of the Turkish state among significant segments of the Kurdish population; Ankara’s crackdown on not just the PKK but also non-violent outlets of Kurdish political expression; and the unwillingness of the Turkish state to make significant political concessions.
Turkey's war against the PKK has been fought since the 1980s. It has claimed the lives of an estimated 40,000 people. Thousands of villages were destroyed, millions were displaced and human rights abuses, disappearances and extrajudicial killings were the norm. The brutal nature of the violence and the denial of Kurdish cultural rights and national identity contributed to the lack of legitimacy of the Turkish state in the eyes of many Kurds. This, plus the underdevelopment of the southeast, sowed the seeds of perpetual conflict.
In 1999, Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK's co-founder and leader, was captured by Turkish special forces. After his trial, he was found guilty and imprisoned. However, it took a decade after Ocalan's conviction for the government, under the leadership of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, to make overtures to solve the Kurdish issue. First there was the so-called Kurdish Opening, which saw secret discussions with the PKK and a limited easing of restrictions, including the public use of Kurdish. When these talks stalled, it wasn't until 2013 that the "solution process", an even more meaningful dialogue between the state and the PKK, took place.
However, throughout this period of supposed reconciliation, the government continued its crackdown. Between 2009 and 2011, many activists from the political organisation Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), which Ankara says is the urban wing of the PKK, were arrested and tried, shattering Kurdish trust. This was despite many of the detained being members of the parliamentary Democratic Society Party which itself was then banned, the usual fate of Kurdish political parties.
However, the efforts from 2013 to 2015 were in vain. They were severely strained by developments in neighbouring Syria – first by the anger of Turkish Kurds, who watched in horror as their brethren faced an ISIS onslaught while the Turkish government looked on, and then by the PKK, which felt emboldened by YPG gains in Syria.
The ceasefire collapsed and once again the southeast resembled a war zone. To make matters worse, the pro-Kurdish and liberal Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which gained seats in parliament after attracting millions of voters in 2015 and 2018, has had its leadership decimated, including the continued detention of its charismatic presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas. In other words, the state continues to not only target the violent activities of the PKK, which it deems a terrorist organisation, but Ankara also restricts alternative non-violent expressions of Kurdishness as well, denying millions a voice and exacerbating tensions.
Truth be told, the opening and the 2013 to 2015 dialogue was unlikely to succeed. Although Ankara showed willingness to grant cultural rights, the minimum of Kurdish political aspirations was not met. For that to happen Turkey would need to make significant constitutional amendments, concede some kind of local autonomy and revise its anti-terror laws. There would also have to be full Kurdish language rights and a genuine effort at justice, reconciliation and investigations into the abuses, disappearances and extrajudicial killings of the 1980s and 1990s.
However, Turkey is still not yet ready to make such concessions and by repressing not just the PKK but also non-violent Kurdish political outlets, the Turkish state further erodes its legitimacy in the eyes of many Kurds. As a result, sadly, it will be conflict, not dialogue, that will probably continue for yet another generation, affecting not just Turkey but also its neighbours.
Dr Simon Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London