Skip to main content

PKK’s war of choice lacks Kurdish public support in Turkey

The Turkish government will be wise to maintain dialogue with the HDP and the pro-Kurdish party should adopt a more responsible position

The cost of the recent low-intensity urban warfare between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is becoming clearer by the day. To respond to the PKK’s attempt to turn the Kurdish southeast of Turkey into a "mini Syria" by initiating urban-warfare, the government imposed curfews on 17 districts in seven cities. This has affected the lives of 1.3 million people. Official statistics estimate that more than 100,000 people have fled their homes as a result of this fighting. According to the Human Rights Associations, over 400 PKK members, police and soldiers have died, and around 350 civilians have lost their lives.

The government vowed that the military operations will continue so long as the PKK sticks to its urban-warfare strategy and forcibly imposes itself as de-facto public authority in the Kurdish cities and towns in Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that as long as the PKK continues with its trench politics, there will be no return to the talks. Though this statement seems uncompromising and unyielding on the first reading, it sets out the condition and illustrates the openness for the resumption of talks, which is the cessation of the PKK’s urban-warfare strategy.

As an indirect response, the Democratic Society Organisation (DTK), which serves as an umbrella organisation for the various Kurdish parties and initiatives including the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), convened an extraordinary congress in Diyarbakir on 27 December 2015.

While strongly supporting the PKK’s new urban warfare strategy, the congress produced a 14-point communique which requested a significant level of power devolution and sharing of sovereignty as imperatives to move forward in the settlement of the Kurdish issue. All or part of these points in the communique can and will be discussed within the framework of the political settlement of the Kurdish issue. In fact, the communique itself also indicated that these points are open for public debate.

But the major fault with this congress and the communique that it produced is that it treats the PKK’s recent temporary fait accomplis which were achieved through brute force as "legitimate" and "democratic" gains. In fact, not long ago (30 August 2015), the HDP’s co-chairman Demirtas himself criticised the PKK’s declaration of autonomy by force. Democratic method and societal support are the sine qua non for the legitimately achieving political goals. 

Both of these are glaringly absent in the PKK’s recent strategy. Particularly, despite all the PKK’s appeals, the societal participation in the PKK’s new strategy is almost negligible. A significant portion of the Kurdish constituency holds the PKK responsible for this recent fight that wreaks havoc on their lives.

Despite this, the PKK seems to calculate that the more these clashes endure, the more it is likely that the people will forget why this entire calamity happened in the first place. Instead, they will focus on the outcomes and outgrowths of these clashes. The curfews and the government’s attempt to reinstate public order in the PKK-occupied places will inevitably negatively affect the lives of the ordinary citizens. The PKK appears to believe that it can capitalise on this feeling by turning the growing public angst and frustration against the government.

This is the political psychology that the PKK bets upon. But the interviews that have thus far been conducted with the victims of this fighting show that this calculation is only partially valid. These interviews have revealed growing public angers towards the government in the affected places. But these interviews failed to register any considerable sympathy towards the PKK for initiating this urban warfare strategy.

To the contrary, the Kurdish public seems to hold the PKK equally accountable for their recent suffering. The low-level public support, a fact that has also been openly recognised by one of the top PKK leaders, Duran Kalkan, when he complained about the apathy of the Kurdish youth towards this recent fight, confirm this point. And this also reveals that whereas the public knows where to direct its anger, it is yet to know where to turn to for hope to escape from its current predicaments. It is apt to describe most of the Kurdish public living under this recent urban fighting as experiencing a state of emotional flux. 

In this respect, the government should be careful not to hand the PKK a psychological victory. The PKK’s current war of choice lacks public support. The majority of people don’t believe that the PKK’s recent strategy is justified. The main thing that can change the present public perception in favour of the PKK will be the image of the Kurdish politicians being victimised and unfairly treated by the state.

In this regard, Diyarbakir and Ankara courts’ filing of the lawsuits against the HDP co-chairmen Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag are ill-conceived and counter-productive. So is President Erdogan’s support for the lifting of the parliamentary immunity of these politicians so they can be brought in front of the judges.

This current toxic political climate can’t go on indefinitely. In one way or another, the talks need to resume. It is crucial to not to burn all bridges and exhaust all possible interlocutors. The communication channels needs to be kept open.

Of all the Kurdish actors, the HDP, irrespective of all its flaws and shortcomings, is the one that has the democratic legitimacy and political mandate. The government will be wise to maintain the dialogue with the HDP. The HDP should reciprocate and adopt a more responsible position, and strive to become more than the verbatim mouthpiece of the PKK.

- Galip Dalay works as a research director at al-Sharq Forum and senior associate fellow on Turkey and Kurdish Affairs at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A flag of Kurdish workers Party (PKK) hangs on a barricade as armed Kurdish militants man a barricade, on 18 November 2015 in the Sur district of Diyarbakir (AFP).