Turkey and PKK ‘back to square one’
What is behind Ankara’s major turnabout on the PKK?
Erbil, Iraq – As Turkey plunges into a two-front war, pounding Kurdish armed groups in Iraq and Syria as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, it has effectively ended its fragile peace process with the Kurds.
On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was impossible to continue a peace process with Kurdish fighters and that politicians with links to “terrorist groups” should be stripped of their immunity from prosecution.
Launched in the final days of 2012, this peace process was one of Erdogan’s signature achievements, ending decades of violence that had left thousands of people dead.
Turkey’s air strikes on Kurdish and ISIL positions came after rising violence inside its own territory, including a series of attacks by ISIL and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on civilian and state targets.
Turkish police have also rounded up more than 1,000 suspects across the country. These include some suspected of being leftist fighters or ISIL members, but many of those arrested were also alleged to be affiliated with the PKK or its allies.
On Wednesday, a Turkish government spokesperson said that in Turkey’s “full-fledged battle against terrorist groups”, 847 are accused of links to the PKK and just 137 to ISIL.
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Turkey has also permitted the United States to use its Incirlik airbase near Diyarbakir to launch air attacks against ISIL in Syria.
Ashraf Mehmood, a fighter with the People’s Defence Units (YPG), a Kurdish armed group, told Al Jazeera that Turkish tanks had attacked YPG soldiers fighting ISIL in villages near the border city of Kobane.
Kurdish activists say Turkey’s action against the PKK has ended any possibility for the peace process to continue.
“By carrying out the recent attacks, Turkey has practically and unilaterally ended the state of non-conflict and the peace process,” said Zagros Hiwa, the spokesperson for the Kurdish Communities Union, the PKK’s political wing, from Iraq’s Qandil Mountains, where Turkish bombing raids continue.
“These attacks on the PKK will have no success. By giving an implicit approval, the US has damaged its image among the Kurds,” Hiwa continued. “The best option is a democratic solution to the Kurdish question.”
These attacks on the PKK will have no success. By giving an implicit approval, the US has damaged its image among the Kurds.
Some Turkish and Kurdish analysts see Turkey’s move as a strategy to intensify its rivalry with the PKK and influence a potential call for new elections in the near future, while using the war against ISIL as a means to advance its military attack on the PKK.
“In the election rallies of HDP [the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party] in Istanbul, there were quite a lot of Turkish flags,” noted Ilya U Topper, an Istanbul-based analyst on foreign affairs and democracy for the M’Sur, a Spanish media outlet.
Topper said Kurds in Turkey generally support the peace process, adding that the PKK is no longer fighting for independence.
As for the HDP, he noted: “No one in the party has used the word independence for many years, and being part of Turkey is always an element in their arguments.”
“When AK party lost [its] absolute majority [in parliament] on June 7, while HDP won, getting over the 10 percent barrier, the results showed how people started seeing that not every Kurd is a terrorist,” Topper added.
He noted that HDP was able to perform so well in June’s elections because there was peace.
“Two years of peace make people forget bloodshed and give them hope. Now we are back to square one. Kurds are ‘terrorists’ again,” he said. “If elections are repeated, HDP might fall under the barrier and AK party will achieve [an] absolute majority in the elections. The big question is why the PKK accepted that game.”
In May, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Yalçin Akdogan criticised the HDP for what he claimed were its strong links with the PKK, and urged the party to abandon these ties lest they weaken the peace process. Topper believes that if violence escalates, it will harm neither the PKK nor the AK party.
Turkey still designates PKK as a “terrorist group”, which allows it to justify its attacks.
“It’s time to reconsider the terrorist status which was given to PKK long time ago,” said Mutlu Civiroglu, an independent Kurdish analyst based in Washington, DC. “When you talk about radicalism and terrorist groups at the calibre of ISIL, many people within Turkey and other parts of the world don’t find PKK a terrorist group.”
Civiroglu added that PKK’s designation as a “terrorist group” causes NATO, the US, and the international coalition against ISIL, to support Turkey in its actions against PKK, which may, as a result, destabilise the Kurdish peace process.
Soli Özel, a professor of international relations and political science at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said that after the general elections in June, the AK party has used language that questions the HDP’s legitimacy.
“The government should go back to the peace process with the Kurds,” Özel added. “And for that, Turkey must at all costs block attempts to … [hold] snap elections.”
The recent PKK attacks in Turkey have undermined both the HDP’s electoral gains and the military success of the armed branch of their Syrian affiliates, the YPG, which is fighting ISIL in Syria.
Lara Fatah, a Kurdish affairs specialist and co-founder of Zanraw Consulting based in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, said any further military response by the PKK would play into the hands of the Turkish government and give Erdogan a justification to act against them.
“The Kurds may have so far been the most effective forces against ISIL on the ground, but as non-state actors they are not on a level footing with other coalition members,” she said. “And as such, their actions are judged differently.”
But one Peshmerga leader, affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party KDP in Iraq who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said Turkey’s concerns over the PKK were “reasonable”. “I can’t agree more [that] they [PKK] are no different from ISIL. They attack and kill innocent people in Turkey, and it’s a shame for Kurds,” he said.
Analysts argue that Selahattin Demirtas, head of HDP, should publicly distance himself from the PKK and its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan. “The majority of people in Turkey, including many Kurds, find PKK extremely provocative and violent,” said Fikret Gulcer, an Istanbul-based specialist on the banned group.
“The fundamental problem with HDP, in the eyes of many voters, has been its association with the terrorist group.”
“While many liberal and left-wing Turks have given a chance to HDP, it should stand up to their expectations and assure its supporters that HDP will not back a group that hurts the peace in this country.”