Turkey’s Kurdish issue: From peace to low intensity-war

The clashes between the PKK and the Turkish military have spread to urban centres, making thousands flee their homes.

Men drive past a building which was damaged during the security operations and clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants, in the southeastern town of Silvan in Diyarbakir province,
By investing heavily into urban warfare, the PKK appears to force the government to overreact, writes Dalay [Reuters]

It wasn’t long ago when optimism was the gist of the day on Turkey’s Kurdish issue. Many believed that there was about to be a substantial settlement of this century-old problem.

In the early days of 2013, the armed conflict ceased. Peace as a new normality was setting in.

Reaping the spoils of the peaceful political climate, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) scored the highest electoral achievement in the history of the Kurdish political movement.

Although support for the Kurdish parties in Turkey has traditionally hovered at 5-6 percent, the HDP’s young leader Selahattin Demirtas received 9.8 percent of the votes in the presidential election of August 2014, and the HDP acquired 13 percent in the June 2015 elections. That figure later dropped to 10.7 percent in November’s snap elections.

Changing dynamics

At present, this picture seems to belong to a bygone era as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkey have once again resumed armed violence.

The PKK – inspired by the success of its sister organisation the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, is trying to replicate PYD tactics in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey.

It is attempting to establish what it proclaims as “democratic autonomy” in some of the Kurdish towns – by digging trenches, building barricades and resorting to brute force.

The fallacy in this approach is that Turkey is not Syria. Despite all its shortcomings, Turkey is a functioning democracy, where the HDP very recently could mount a powerful opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK party) government.

At a time when the Kurdish movement has its largest parliamentary representation and is the strongest in its history, it is difficult to justify the recourse to the arms - especially considering the political climate induced by the peace process and strength of the Kurdish politics.


In such a context, the PKK’s strategy to turn Kurdish cities, towns and neighbourhoods into a battleground expectedly invites a forceful response from the government.

Since conditions of security and order are completely different in Turkey, a strategy inspired by the imbroglio in Syria is unlikely to work.

The fact that the PKK has thus far failed to generate significant societal support and participation in its endeavour shows how ill-conceived this new approach has been.

The HDP’s failure to distance itself from the PKK’s strategy cost the party more than one million votes. And the resumption of fighting after the June elections was another reason for the decreased support for the HDP at the snap elections.

Nevertheless, the PKK appears to be determined in this new tactic. It is trying to impose its design on a number of Kurdish towns or districts, including Cizre in Sirnak, Sur in Diyarbakir and Nusaybin in Mardin.

In this endeavour, it particularly uses militants from its urban wing the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H). By investing heavily in urban warfare, the PKK appears to have forced the government to overreact, so it can easily stoke anti-government feelings and turn them into a public backlash against the government.

In fact, this is the second such attempt by the PKK. Inspired by the events in the Arab world, it tried to wage a “Revolutionary People’s War in 2011. Nevertheless, this ill-fated attempt failed to deliver a “Kurdish spring”.

But the PKK’s new urban warfare tactics, ensuing clashes and governments’ military operations wreak havoc on people’s daily lives.

The government imposed curfews across the region. The death toll resulting from this war is increasing.

And the Kurds are on the move: They are migrating in tens of thousands from their homes. In the 1990s, the state displaced millions of Kurds from their homes. But this time, the PKK’s actions and the subsequent operations are causing the displacement of the Kurds.

No easy way out

Undoubtedly the Turkish government has lacked a sophisticated understanding of the Kurdish issue. The problem is no longer confined to lack of democratisation or economic hardships. Its collective aspect and regional dimension can’t be overlooked considering Turkey still doesn’t have a sustainable policy towards the Syrian Kurds.

Moreover, it is clear that the Kurdish peace process has been given a back seat as the government has focused on other priorities and set new agendas in the past two years.

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In this respect, the increasingly nationalistic parlance and policies adopted by the officials has not helped the matter either. But it is the PKK that bears primary responsibility for the latest outbreak of violence and growing death tolls. It was the PKK that first pulled the trigger that terminated the 2.5-year-long ceasefire on July 22 by killing two police officers.

At a time when the Kurdish movement has its largest parliamentary representation and is the strongest in its history, it is difficult to justify the recourse to arms – especially considering the political climate induced by the peace process and the strength of Kurdish politics.

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It is valid to ask, if not now, when will the time be ripe for politics to play its role in the Kurdish issue?


Only months ago, the Kurdish political movement – from its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan to the election manifesto of the HDP – pledged loyalty to the settlement of the issue within the boundaries of Turkey. They claimed that their political platform was striving to create a more democratic Turkey.

One can plausibly argue that for the Kurdish political movement, a democratic Turkey means a country formed of autonomous regions or federal provinces, in which the Kurds will have a bigger say in the political arrangements of their areas.

But the means to achieve this is as important as the end. How can turning cities into war zones achieve this purported “democratic autonomy”?

As the region is dramatically changing, the PKK seems to be dynamically redefining its priorities as it identifies emerging opportunities with new potential gains and rising international prestige. And this bodes ill for the settlement of the Kurdish issue in Turkey.

Galip Dalay is a senior associate fellow on Turkey and Kurdish Affairs at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, and research director at Al Sharq Forum.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.