Skip to main content

ANALYSIS: Is the Kurdish peace process at stake?

As Turkey's 'Kurdish question' shifts from a domestic to a regional issue, the consequences of a derailed peace process are heightened, say observers
Kurdish fighters clashes with Islamic State militants on the outskirts of Hasakeh on 30 June 2015 (AFP)

Since the Islamic State group's attack in Suruc last week that killed 32 people and Ankara’s subsequent expansion of its security operations, tensions in the predominantly Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey have heated up.

After a wave of ensuing attacks by militants on Turkish soil, the government, which had previously been reluctant to intervene in the Syrian civil war, launched raids against IS in Syria and Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq.

Turkish airstrikes on the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) positions appear to be in response to the group’s own attacks on Turkish security forces in the past week. In turn, the PKK - considered a terrorist organisation by the government – says it is retaliating against Ankara's inaction over IS and blames Turkish authorities for inaction ahead of the Suruc attack.

Amid continued violence, observers are concerned both by the escalation of IS attacks on the Syrian-Turkish border and the potential breakdown of the precarious Kurdish peace process. Initiated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in March 2013, the truce brought an end to an insurgency that led to the death of 40,000 people.

On Tuesday, Erdogan announced that it was impossible to continue a peace process with Kurdish militants amid continued PKK attacks and urged parliament to strip politicians with links to “terrorist groups” – tacitly referring to members of the pro-Kurdish HDP - of their immunity from prosecution.

Erdogan’s comments came as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced during a Brussels emergency meeting on Tuesday that the military alliance stands in “strong solidarity” with Turkey in the face of “terrible acts of terror”.

While analysts see Erdogan’s statement – and the support of allies - as a signalling of rising tensions, a total breakdown of the fragile truce between Turkey and PKK appears far from certain.

“The world is betting on [the developments] being more about sending an immediate political signal from Ankara rather than a deeper abandonment of the peace process and a repositioning of Turkey,” said Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR0.

The support Erdogan has received from his allies, Levy said, is based on the assumption that the escalation of tensions will be over soon and that “a broader collapse of the peace process would be throwing an additional destabilising factor into the region”.

“The real question now is whether this is a temporary escalation from both sides before quickly going back to the previous lines along which they have operated, or whether there will be further escalation and hostility,” he added.

Electoral uncertainty

The situation is further complicated by the electoral uncertainty that has hung over the country since the AKP, for the first time since its formation in 2002, failed to win an overall majority in 7 June polls.

The party has been attempting to forge a grand coalition with its main opposition party, the secular CHP, before a 45-day window shuts and a snap election is called.

A possible early election, analysts say, is a major stimulus behind the Turkish government’s actions at its border and against the PKK.

“The uncertainty about the formation of the next government provides motivation for the AKP to revise the peace process and contributes to the exclusion of and fear from the PKK,” said Galip Dalay, research director at Al-Sharq Forum and senior associate fellow on Turkey and Kurdish affairs at Aljazeera Center for Studies.

The AKP engages in “bloody arm-twisting”, Dalay said, and Erdogan’s statements mean the process is “frozen but not over”.

Although it was under the AKP that the peace process was initiated and Kurdish rights were normalised for the first time in modern Turkish history, the party has been reluctant to finalise the truce, Mehmet Asutay, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Durham University, told MEE.

“There is a trade-off for AKP. If it commits itself to the peace process, it risks losing votes in central Anatolia,” Asutay said. “Therefore, AKP has avoided institutionalising the peace process so that whenever it needs, it can tap into its constituency to ease electoral problems.”

Dalay agrees: “AKP is trying to appeal more to its conservative, nationalist voters in the case of early elections.”

“The only thing it has done for Kurdish voters is lower the electoral threshold. Even this step might push Kurds, who have traditionally voted for AKP and only gone for HDP in the last elections, to move back again to their old party,” he said.

Regional ramifications

While the formation of Turkey’s next government will play a vital role in whatever shape the peace process takes next, analysts agree that the overlapping objectives among Kurds across Syria, Turkey and Iraq, has turned a domestic issue into one with serious regional implications.

“A breakdown in the PKK-Turkey peace process would not only risk destabilising southeastern Turkey, but could also add a new dimension of conflict in Iraq and Syria,” said Kurdish expert and ECFR fellow Cale Salih.

At a time when the Kurdish issue has become a regional one, Dalay said Turkey has been caught off guard.

“Turkey does not have a regional Kurdish policy while, on the other hand, a common Kurdish public sphere in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria is now present,” said Dalay.

“Turkey’s approach towards the PKK, PYD and YPG has an immense impact on how Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Turkey view the Turkish government and while before the Kurds in different countries were not connected, actions towards one group will invoke reactions from all the others,” he added.

The US and Turkey have agreed to work together to drive IS militants from northern Syria by establishing an “IS-free zone”.  After months of tough negotiations, Turkey formally gave the US permission this week to use its Incirlik air base to attack IS.

While the recent developments with the US are positive for those solely focused on the battle against IS, they may further complicate the peace process.

“The PKK sees these steps [US-Turkey alliance] as an aggression against the PYD and Rojava, which to the PKK are an integral part of the peace process that could not be sacrificed,” said Dalay.

Furthermore, while the US-led coalition against IS has long awaited Turkey's involvement, the US and other allies have reservations over Turkey’s targeting of the PKK as it has been seen as one of the few armed groups in the region putting up a fight against IS.

At the same time in Iraq, the PKK’s fight against IS has revitalised the Kurdish group and restored its legitimacy while the rise of IS has exposed the vulnerabilities of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s Peshmerga forces, giving the PKK an opportunity to shine in Iraq and Syria.

“It is clear now that almost nobody, with the exception of Turkey, wants the PKK outside of Turkey to disarm, because of the role it is playing in the fight against IS. It therefore doesn’t make sense to think of the PKK peace process as a domestic Turkish process,” said Salih.

According to Salih, the PKK’s rise as a powerful, transnational player has led to transformation of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a PKK-aligned party in Syria, and its associated militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) into dominant political and military powers inside Syria and garnered popular support in Iraqi Kurdistan for their roles in fighting IS.

If Ankara fails to differentiate between IS and the PKK - a position repeated on Monday by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu - its latest moves would appear to present the US-led coalition and the peace process with a major dilemma.