The Kurds are a Persian-descended ethnic group whose historic homeland is divided between portions of present-day Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Turkey’s estimated 13 million Kurds make up approximately 17% of the country’s population. [i] Though the Kurdish population lives all over Turkey, they retain a strong presence in the eastern and southeastern portions of the country, also known as Turkish Kurdistan.
The Kurds have long considered themselves persecuted by the Turkish government and Kemalist enforcement of the “Turkification” process, which attempted to strengthen the unique Turkish national identity by removing competing ethnic, religious, or national identities from the nascent Turkish state. Turkey’s Kurdish population has in turn demanded cultural, linguistic, and political autonomy. In 1978, the Kurdish Peoples’ Party (PKK) was founded as a left-wing organization advocating for the creation of an independent Kurdish state carved from portions of Turkey. The PKK at the time also adhered to a Marxist-Leninist ideology that envisioned the new Kurdish state as an egalitarian, anti-capitalist community.
The PKK embarked on what would become a decades-long war against the Turkish government, often using guerilla and insurrectionist tactics including car bombings, suicide bombings, and guerilla attacks. Turkey’s response has varied over the years along with the rate of violence against the Kurds. In the 1990s the Turkish government adopted a scorched earth policy that razed thousands of Kurdish villages and displaced upwards of a million Turkish Kurds.[ii]
Since its establishment, the PKK has modified its demands and demonstrated willingness to enter into negotiations with the Turkish government, as it did in 2012. Over the course of its decades-long struggle, however, it has also produced offshoot groups like the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) in Turkey and the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) in Iran. Though little is known about TAK’s origins, structure or current members, its demands and ideology are far more stringent and maximalist than its parent organization’s, demanding uncompromising independence for Turkey’s Kurds.
Additionally, since armed Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria are often seen as affiliates or chapters of the PKK, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict has an international dimension that complicates it as well as frustrates unilateral policy attempts to combat the groups or negotiations that ignore the broader regional picture.
One of the deadliest and longest-running ethnic conflicts in the world, the ongoing Turkish-Kurdish war has lasted over three decades. While a definitive casualty count is difficult to ascertain, it is widely believed to have claimed up to 40,000 lives to date.[iii]
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, Kemal Atatürk became a central figure in forging a Turkish national identify and paving the way for a secular, democratic state in present-day Turkey. This new identity relied on a blend of Islamic values and a secular, democratic political system with a Turkish ethnic identity as its keystone.
Any diversion from those tenets of identity were seen as a danger to the nascent Turkish state, home to several national minorities including the Kurds and Armenians. Refusing to compromise the territorial integrity of the country or give in to the PKK’s other demands, the Turkish government has rejected Kurdish calls for secession or autonomy since the beginning of the uprising.
Furthermore, the Turkish national identity under Atatürk brought dramatic reforms that entailed a political and cultural paradigm shift unique in the region. The idea of secular modernization, tempered by Islamic influences, threatened to alienate devout Muslims. Likewise, the integration of heavy Islamic values into the state could undermine the national project and constrain Turkey’s development and integration into the international community. The Kurds, in addition to being ethnic minorities within Turkey vying for linguistic, cultural, and political autonomy, are largely Sunni Muslims, adding another source of tension between them and the emergent Turkish state. They viewed the state’s renunciation of Islamic practice as unacceptable and initially revolted against Atatürk’s attempts to implement such a system.[iv]
Various governments since the 1990s have made several attempts to enter into negotiations with the PKK to find a common ground, but those have all since fallen apart and the conflict remains ongoing.
[i] Erdem, Tarhan. “How many Kurds live in Turkey?” Hurriyet Daily News. 26 April 2013.
[ii][ii] Jongerden, Joost. “Under (Re)Construction: The State, the Production of Identity, and the Countryside in the Kurdistan Region in Turkey.” in After Civil War: Division, Reconstruction, and Reconciliation in Contemporary Europe, edited by Bill Kissane, Pages 152. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
[iii] Mandiraci, Berkay. “Turkey’s PKK Conflict: The Death Toll.” International Crisis Group. 20 July 2016. http://blog.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/2016/07/20/turkey-s-pkk-conflict-the-rising-toll/
[iv] “Kurdistan – Turkey.” Global Security. Accessed May 19 2017. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/kurdistan-turkey.htm
- 1923 – 1938: The Early Kemalist Years
The first president and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk oversaw the political, social, and cultural restructuring of the Turkish society in the aftermath of the First World War, the subsequent Turkish war for independence, and the Treaty of Lausanne. The forging of a singular Turkish identity was a core component of Atatürk’s plans.
While in many respects progressive for the era and unique among the successor states to the Ottoman Empire, Atatürk’s process of Turkification favored the burgeoning identity of Turks and the Turkish language to the detriment of national minority groups, who suffered under the nascent government’s policies. Characterizations of Turkey’s early history remain controversial, most notably for its actions against the Armenians between 1914 and 1916 that resulted in the deaths of over 1.5 million Armenians. While the international community considers what occurred to be genocide, it has long remained unacknowledged as such by Turkey and its allies.
The Kurds, likewise, considered themselves to be repressed by reforms that not only privileged Turkish ethnic identity and language but actively suppressed all others. Kurdish revolts against what was seen as forced assimilation began as early as the 1920s and 1930s. The Turks from the beginning maintained the need for a unified Turkish nation, and many feared that to give in to any Kurdish demands could eventually lead to a partition of the Turkish state.[ii] As such, repression, assimilation, or forced displacement of the Kurds were seen as the only options of the state if it wished to maintain its territorial integrity and national identity.[iii] Displacement and resettlement had the added benefit, from the Turkish perspective, of disrupting Kurdish familial and tribal structures, which were paramount to Kurdish identity and integrity.[iv]
- 1938 – 1978
With Atatürk’s death in 1938, Turkey continued to evolve politically, coping with new strategic and geopolitical challenges. As World War Two reshaped the political calculus in Europe and Eurasia, Turkey began to draw a bit closer to the West, remaining neutral until the final days but eventually declaring war on the Axis powers in 1945 when a German defeat seemed inevitable. The Cold War, likewise, factored into Turkish decision-making, leading Turkey to butt heads with the Soviet Union and align itself more closely with the US and Europe.
In 1946, Turkey held its first free, multiparty elections and a few years later, joined NATO in 1951.[v] [vi] In 1965, Süleiman Demirel was elected to his first term as Prime Minister. Demirel was a popular political figure who served until 1971, and then from 1971 until 1980. He later served as President under Özal and as Prime Minister a third time after Özal’s death.[vii]
During the 1960s and 70s, Turkey’s strategies to facilitate assimilation among its Kurdish population depended primarily on language suppression; the early 1980s saw laws put in place to prevent the speaking, teaching, or publishing of the Kurdish language.[viii] The Turkish-Kurdish conflict in general, however, remained generally low-level at this point. The exception is that once political violence began to escalate throughout the country in the 70s, Kurds were over-represented among the far-left militant movements.[ix] Those movements would later influence Öcalan in his founding of the PKK.
Kurdish assimilation under Demirel’s rule rested on the latter’s tepid embrace of the Kurds, both during this time and later in the early 1990s upon his succession of Özal. As the governing coalition in Turkey began to shift its policies away from a strict Kemalist agenda to liberalize the country, extend some minority and civil rights to groups such as the Kurds, and make steps toward EU membership, Demirel attempted to eased tensions with the Kurds while simultaneously undercutting the legitimacy of the PKK, with mixed results.[x] [xi] [xii]
The Turkish military, which would twice removed Demirel from power – once in 1971 and again in 1980 – in the long term saw its role as the main opposition force in the Kemalist system undercut by Demirel’s strategy. An economically liberalized, European-oriented Turkey governed by minority rights and rule of law threatened to make the military’s role as fifth column obsolete.[xiii]
Demirel’s reign in the 1990s as well would see some Turkish support for Kurds in Iraq against Saddam Hussein, as the Turkish government made overtures toward implementing better conditions for the Kurds at home as an extension of Özal’s policies[xiv].
Despite presiding over a period of growth in Turkey and advancing economic policies that stabilized the country’s tentative fiscal landscape, Demirel faced numerous challenges to his power. With political violence worsening in Turkey and economic woes compounded by rapid inflation, Demirel’s government was seen as ineffective and incapable of grappling with these challenges. This eventually resulted in a 1971 military intervention where the Turkish forces issued an ultimatum to the government to shore up a stable, democratic administration or face deposition.[xv]
Declining economic conditions in the late 1970s combined with the global oil crisis at that time put substantial strain on Turkey’s economy. Demirel and his government responded with liberalization policies that were likewise unpopular, and growing unrest eventually led to political violence and, eventually, the 1980 coup that removed him from power and would see him banned from Turkish politics for life.[xvi] It would take a constitutional referendum seven years later to lift the ban.
- 1978 – 1990: The founding of the PKK and its pivot towards insurgency
In 1978, Abdullah Öcalan founded the PKK as a Marxist-Leninist student group that advocated for Kurdish rights and independence from Turkey. In 1984 the group militarized and began an open insurgency against the Turkish government, beginning with dual attacks in the villages of Eruh and Semdinli in August of that year that left two police officers dead.[xvii] The PKK’s use of guerilla tactics against the Turkish government, military, and law enforcement has had them branded by Turkey and many western governments as a terrorist organization.
- 1990 – 1999: First attempts at mediation, Özal’s death, and subsequent Turkish crackdowns
While early Kurdish attempts to engage in the Turkish political system and enter parliamentary races were barred by the courts, the early 1990s also saw the first attempted peace talks between the government of Turkish President Turgut Özal and the Kurds. However, the peace talks were aborted due to Özal’s premature death in 1993.
Following Özal’s succession, the government of Turkey took a more aggressive approach in confronting the PKK, implementing a scorched earth approach to Kurdish regions in east and southeast Turkey. The Turkish Armed Forces, beginning in 1991, evacuated and razed about 3,000 rural settlements in the region – nearly a quarter of all villages in the area.[xviii] Estimates on the number of people displaced during this time range from 950,000 up to 4 million.[xix] The massive disruption to Kurdish life galvanized many who may have been ambivalent toward the PKK’s tactics early on. Indeed, Aliza Marcus and other scholars noted that the government did not discriminate between fighters and members of the organization, civilian supporters, or sympathizers, and punished anyone suspected of PKK activity, collaboration, or sympathy.[xx]
- 1999 – Present: The capture of Öcalan and subsequent mediation attempts, and the “Kurdish window
In 1999, Abdullah Öcalan was captured in Kenya and has been imprisoned on a remote island prison ever since.[xxi] His writings since imprisonment have reflected an ideological shift; Öcalan has renounced the initial Marxist-Leninist ideology the PKK was founded on, in favor of the notion of “democratic confederalism”.[xxii] Additionally, as a result of his writings the PKK has moderated its demands from that of an independent Kurdish state in parts of present-day Turkey to the granting of political, linguistic, and cultural autonomy by the Turkish government.[xxiii]
Öcalan entered into secret peace talks with the Turkish government in the fall of 2012. While these led to the establishment of a ceasefire that held for two and a half years, regional turmoil in neighboring Syria and Iraq have drawn Kurdish communities into places of armed struggles – primarily against the Islamic State and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Due to the interconnected nature of many Kurdish organizations and groups, the conflicts in Iraq and Syria exerted pressure on Turkey’s Kurds and in turn, Turkish-Kurdish relations.
At the same time, the PKK’s close organizational ties with other armed Kurdish groups such as the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) in Iraq, which has been at the forefront of battling ISIS, has complicated multilateral attempts either to engage groups like the YPG or by contrast, to isolate and pressure the PKK into renewed negotiations.
[i] Tezcür, Güneş Murat. “Prospects for Resolution of the Kurdish Question: A Realist Perspective.” Insight Turkey Vol. 15 No. 2 / 2013, pp. 69-84. http://file.insightturkey.com/Files/Pdf/15_2_2013_tezcur.pdf
[ii] Gunter, Michael M. “The Turkish-Kurdish Peace Process.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter/Spring 2013),
[iii] Jongerden, Joost. “Under (Re)Construction: The State, the Production of Identity, and the Countryside in the Kurdistan Region in Turkey.” in After Civil War: Division, Reconstruction, and Reconciliation in Contemporary Europe, edited by Bill Kissane, Pages 152. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
[v] Ekinci, Ekrem Bugra”The brief history of elections in Turkey.” Daily Sabah. October 30 2015. https://www.dailysabah.com/feature/2015/10/30/the-brief-history-of-elections-in-turkey
[vi] “Greece and Turkey join NATO (London, 22 October 1951).” University of Luxembourg CVCE (Centre virtuel de la connaissance sur l’Europe). Retrieved May 9 2017. http://www.cvce.eu/en/obj/greece_and_turkey_join_nato_london_22_october_1951-en-c193a825-2f1c-4e12-b26d-d35fabc6559f.html
[vii] Kinzer, Stephen. “Suleyman Demirel, Seven Times Turkey’s Prime Minister, Dies at 90.” The New York Times. June 16 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/17/world/europe/suleyman-demirel-former-prime-minister-of-turkey-dies-at-90.html
[viii] “Kurdistan – Turkey.” Global Security. Accessed May 19 2017. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/kurdistan-turkey.htm
[ix] Romano, David. The Kurdish Nationalist Movement. 1st ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp 46.
[x] Pope, Hugh. “TURKEY : New Leadership in Ankara Awakes to ‘Kurdish Reality’ : After decades of ethnic strife, officials promise cultural freedoms and respect for minority rights.” The Los Angeles Times. December 14 1991. http://articles.latimes.com/1991-12-14/news/mn-191_1_human-rights
[xi] Weymouth, Lally. “Turkey’s New Leader Keeps His Distance.” The Washington Post. February 21 1992. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1992/02/21/turkeys-new-leader-keeps-his-distance/76cde1d7-848d-46e5-8951-5735895011f7/?utm_term=.12260f163796
[xii] Harden, Blaine. “Turkish Kurds’ Revolt Sparks Wide Violence.” The Washington Post. March 25 1992. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1992/03/25/turkish-kurds-revolt-sparks-wide-violence/c0474195-4b70-4533-92bf-52853bfc2236/?utm_term=.2c0fd74772fd
[xiii] Taşpınar, Ömer. “Demirel, the system, and change.” The Brookings Institution. June 21 2015. https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/demirel-the-system-and-change/
[xiv] Pope, Hugh. “TURKEY : New Leadership in Ankara Awakes to ‘Kurdish Reality’ : After decades of ethnic strife, officials promise cultural freedoms and respect for minority rights.” The Los Angeles Times. December 14 1991. http://articles.latimes.com/1991-12-14/news/mn-191_1_human-rights
[xv] “Turkish Regime Is Ousted By the Military Leaders.” March 13 1971. The Associated Press / The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1971/03/13/archives/turkish-regime-is-ousted-by-the-military-leaders-no-move-made-to.html
[xvi] Barchard, David. “Süleyman Demirel obituary”. June 17 2015. The Guardian.com. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/17/suleyman-demirel
[xviii] Jongerden, Joost. “Under (Re)Construction: The State, the Production of Identity, and the Countryside in the Kurdistan Region in Turkey.” in After Civil War: Division, Reconstruction, and Reconciliation in Contemporary Europe, edited by Bill Kissane, Pages 150-183. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
[xxi] Letsch, Constanze. “Kurds dare to hope as PKK fighters’ ceasefire with Turkey takes hold.” The Guardian. 7 May 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/07/kurds-pkk-turkey-peace-talks
[xxii] Öcalan, Abdullah. Democratic Confederalism. London: Transmedia, 2011.
[xxiii] “PKK sets date for withdrawal from Turkey.” Al Jazeera. 25 April 2013. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/04/201342513922579836.html
In the early 1990s, at the overture of the government, the PKK entered into negotiations with Turkey’s then-President Turgut Özal. The peace process was unpopular among Turkey’s politicians, but the talks brought about a ceasefire in 1993. Özal, however, died under suspicious circumstances before he could announce further developments in the negotiation process.[i] A PKK attack the following month sounded the death knell for the peace process.[ii] Under the cover of renewed violence, the Turkish government implemented its Castle Plan, which took a far more aggressive approach to solving the Kurdish question and which Özal had opposed.[iii]
Second mediation attempt (1999-2003) :
In 1999, Abdullah Öcalan was arrested in Kenya while fleeing his former place of exile in Syria and sentenced to death. While the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment, Öcalan has been kept largely isolated on a Turkish island prison for the last 18 years.[iv] As the figurehead of the movement, the PKK was vulnerable after Öcalan’s arrest and faced pressure to limit its terror activities, especially in Europe. Soon after, the PKK would declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hopes that it could eventually lead to renewed talks. This ceasefire collapsed in 2004, after internal power struggles within the PKK and repeated refusals by the Turkish government to engage in renewed negotiations.[v]
Third mediation attempt (2009-2015):
The so-called Kurdish Opening is a period of time, rather than a single event, from the late 2000s to the early 2010s that marked a willingness by the Turkish government to engage in negotiations with the PKK and Öcalan as well as to pare down some pre-existing anti-Kurdish legislation.[vi] While some gestures toward reconciliation were made in this period, the Syrian uprising and descent into civil war saw the rise of armed Kurdish groups over the border in Iraq and Syria achieving formidable military successes – enjoying autonomy from weakened regimes. Likewise, Turkish reticence to grant further concessions to the Kurds led to a slowdown of the rapprochement process.[vii]
A renewed round of formal negotiations began in October 2012, leading to the eventual declaration of a ceasefire in April of the following year.[viii] [ix] The ceasefire collapsed in mid-2015, with the PKK accusing Turkey of not following through with its concessions.[x]
[i] Michael M. Gunter, “Turgut Özal and the Kurdish question”, in Marlies Casier, Joost Jongerden (eds, 2010), Nationalisms and Politics in Turkey: Political Islam, Kemalism and the Kurdish Issue, Taylor & Francis, 9 August 2010. pp. 94–95
[ii] The Kurdish Conflict in Turkey: Obstacles and Chances for Peace and Democracy. Page 199. eds. Ferhad Ibrahim, Gülistan Gürbey. LIT Verlag: Münster and St. Martin’s Press: New York, 2000.
[iii] “1998 Report” (PDF). Ankara: Human Rights Foundation of Turkey. Page 57. 200. Accessed through web.archive.org: https://web.archive.org/web/20090205022400/http://www.tihv.org.tr/tihve/data/Yayinlar/Human_Rights_Reports/Ra1998HumanRigthsReport.pdf
[iv] Letsch, Constanze. “Kurdish families separated by decades of conflict hold their breath for peace.” The Guardian. 21 March 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/21/kurdish-families-conflict-peace
[v] “Chronology of the Important Events in the World/PKK Chronology (1976–2006)”. Turkish Weekly. Accessed via web.archive.org: http://web.archive.org/web/20160202053439/http://www.turkishweekly.net/2007/05/27/article/chronology-of-the-important-events-in-the-world-pkk-chronology-1976-2006/
[vi] Aydin, Ayşegül and Cem Emrence. “Two Routes to an Impasse: Understanding Turkey’s Kurdish Policy.” 2016 December. Turkey Project Policy Paper No 10. The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/aydin-and-emrence-two-routes-to-an-impasse.pdf
[viii] Letsch, Constanze. “Kurdish families separated by decades of conflict hold their breath for peace.” The Guardian. 21 March 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/21/kurdish-families-conflict-peace
[ix] Letsch, Constanze. “Kurds dare to hope as PKK fighters’ ceasefire with Turkey takes hold.” The Guardian. 7 May 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/07/kurds-pkk-turkey-peace-talks
[x] “PKK group says Turkish ceasefire over.” Rudaw. 7 December 2015. http://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/turkey/120720151
The porous, interconnected nature of many Kurdish communities means that it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the full levels of involvement of armed Kurdish groups that may be operating across borders or in secret, some of whom share weapons, resources, and even members. It has also led to a penchant for creating factions – the most notable and violent instance being the splintering of the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) from the PKK.
While the PKK has moderated both its professed political orientation as well as its terms – moving away from a staunch Marxist-Leninist orientation to one advocating for democratic confederalism within a decentralized Turkish state, the TAK retains fidelity to an earlier, more radical list of Kurdish demands.[i] TAK has reportedly opposed all and any negotiation with the Turkish government, and has attacked civilian and tourist-populated targets in addition to just political or military ones, killing dozens of people in 2016 alone.[ii] Turkey has a long history of crossing the border to bombard Kurdish militia strongholds and training camps in Iraq, which it has continued in the aftermath of these attacks.[iii]
In a 2016 statement released by TAK, they were quoted as saying, “Some may miss peace, but we have just started the war”.[iv]
The transnational nature of the Kurds and Kurdish groups mean that the conflict between Turkey, the PKK, and its affiliates is beholden to the shifting winds of the broader regional scenario. Continued conflict in Syria along with the mass influx of over two million refugees has brought additional security concerns to Turkey, which has suffered several ISIS-sponsored and ISIS–inspired attacks in the last year. As Erdogan’s government attempts to continue its consolidation of power in the executive branch, Erdogan himself seems less interested in pursuing renewed peace talks with the Kurds – a move that was never popular among his own party or coalition members, as opposed to bringing the country’s economy and security threats under control.
The successes of armed Kurdish groups like the PYD and YPG in Syria and Iraq, both of which have affiliations with the PKK, have also been cause for concern within Turkey. While it could tolerate the chaos of the Syrian revolution in the early years, hoping that ISIS and the Assad regime might damage each other to Turkey’s benefit, Turkey took on a stronger role when its border security became too compromised to bear and the Kurdish groups next door too strong to tolerate.[v]
According to the U.S. Department of State, Turkey administers two major programs to counter radicalization within the country; an outreach program run by the Turkish National Police that attempts to build inroads to vulnerable communities preemptively as well as to provide counter-messaging to radical or inciting material. The second program runs through Diyanet, Turkey’s Religious Affairs Office, which similarly attempts to subvert the radicalization process by engaging their communities through religious figureheads and programs.[vi] All Sunni imams in Turkey are employed by Diyanet.[vii]
An attempted coup in Turkey in August of 2016 was followed by an extensive purging of government, military and political leaders and employees, as well as in the education sphere. The response to the attempted uprising mirrored the response to the Kurdish insurgency, with across the board arrests and detainments that have been criticized by human rights activists as well as the international community.[viii] [ix] [x] [xi] [xii]
The results have left the Turkish Armed Forces weakened in the aftermath even as it confronts ISIS next door.[xiii] As the state makes gains in cooperation with some members of the rebel forces, most notably the Free Syrian Army, it has taken advantage of ISIS’s setbacks to also strike at Kurdish forces in Syria.[xiv]
The ambiguity of Turkey’s policy – working against the Assad regime, ISIS and the PYD simultaneously, while having ignored its own border security and growth of ISIS for too long, has greatly complicated the situation on the ground, and made any resolution in the Syrian theater difficult to imagine in the near term.
Likewise, within Turkey’s borders, the conflict with the PKK and TAK, and those suspected of collaborating with them, remains ongoing, experiencing surges of violence and some periods of relative quiet. This is likely to remain the status quo barring dramatic shifts in Turkey’s domestic coalition politics in its next general election, in October 2019 or further developments on the ground in Syria.
2016 was a violent year, with high-profile attacks carried out in Turkey including the December assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey.[xv] While not carried out by a Kurdish militant, the dual specters of armed Kurdish groups and radical Islamic terrorism contribute to a heightened sense of alarm and need for security within Turkey.
Although data for 2016 is not yet available, the information released for 2015 indicated that Turkey experienced a 353% increase in the number of terrorist attacks from the previous year, a 1,498% increase in injuries, and a 1,630% increase in fatalities.[xvi]
[i] Loveluck, Louisa. “Kurdish militant group warns foreigners to stay away from Turkey as it takes responsibility for Istanbul attack.” The Telegraph. 10 June 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/10/kurdish-militant-group-warns-foreigners-to-stay-away-from-turkey/
[ii] Cunningham, Eric. “Kurdish militant group claims Istanbul blast, warns that tourists aren’t safe.” The Washington Post. 10 June 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/kurdish-militant-group-claims-istanbul-bombing-warns-tourists-not-safe/2016/06/10/bae9c074-2edd-11e6-9b37-42985f6a265c_story.html
[iv] Loveluck, Louisa. “Kurdish militant group warns foreigners to stay away from Turkey as it takes responsibility for Istanbul attack.” The Telegraph. 10 June 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/10/kurdish-militant-group-warns-foreigners-to-stay-away-from-turkey/
[v] Spencer, Richard. “For Erdogan, Turkish assault is about containing the Kurds as much as fighting Isil.” The Telegraph. 25 July 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/turkey/11762210/For-Erdogan-Turkish-assault-is-about-containing-the-Kurds-as-much-as-fighting-Isil.html
[vi] “Country Reports on Terrorism 2013.” April 2014. U.S. Department of State. https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2013/224822.htm
[x] “Turkey Post-Coup Purge: 15,000 More Government Employees Fired.” NBC News. 22 November 2016. http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/turkey-military-coup/turkey-post-coup-purge-15-000-more-government-employees-fired-n687181
[xi] Keller, Josh, Iaryna Mykhyalsyshyn, and Safak Timur. “The scale of Turkey’s purge is nearly unprecedented.” The New York Times. 2 August 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/08/02/world/europe/turkey-purge-erdogan-scale.html
[xii] Cupolo, Diego. “Voices of Turkey’s purged.” The Atlantic. 19 August 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/08/turkey-erdogan-coup-purge-kurds-akp/496535/
[xiii] Krever, Mick and Atika Shuvert. “Turkish purges leave armed forces weak, dismissed officer warns.” CNN News. 1 February 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/01/world/turkey-purge-officer-amanpour-shubert/
[xiv] “With al-Bab free from Daesh, Turkey’s anti-terror operation turns attention to Manbij, Raqqa.” Daily Sabah. 24 February 2017. https://www.dailysabah.com/war-on-terror/2017/02/24/with-al-bab-free-from-daesh-turkeys-anti-terror-operation-turns-attention-to-manbij-raqqa
[xv] Arango, Tim and Rick Gladstone. “Russian Ambassador to Turkey Is Assassinated in Ankara.”
19 December 2016. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/19/world/europe/russia-ambassador-shot-ankara-turkey.html
[xvi] “National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism: Annex of Statistical Information.” BUREAU OF COUNTERTERRORISM AND COUNTERING VIOLENT EXTREMISM. https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2015/257526.htm
The history of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict has its roots in the formation of the Turkish state, and predates the establishment of the PKK or the network of loosely-related organizations across the historic Kurdish homeland. The seeming intractability of the conflict is anchored not only in the cultural repression of the Kurds and the ongoing policies of “Turkification”, but decades of violence and failed attempts at rapprochement, and differing aspirations for the character of the Turkish state.
The PKK is a left-wing group that considered itself part of the global Marxist movement at the time of its founding in 1978. Even though the stated goals of the organization have moderated, from an independent Kurdish nation to demands for “Kurdish political, social, and cultural rights within a decentralized Turkey”, it is this very notion of a decentralized Turkey that makes a larger political compromise unlikely. [ii] The inherent nature of the Turkish state is one of a strong centralized power, from the inception of Kemalism to the Turkification process and on through Erdogan’s consolidation of power since ascending to the presidency in 2003.
Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish Groups: The YPG and PYD
Across borders, the Kurds’ ongoing insurgency against the Turkish government has had a strong and sustained impact on the Syrian civil war, where Kurdish groups are engaged in both anti-regime fighting as well as anti-Islamic State operations there and in Iraq. Historical enmities between Turkey and Syria mean that the PYD, Syria’s armed Kurdish group, used to be supported by the Assad regime.[iii] Until 2013 the PYD was attacked by other rebel movements who suspected it of continued collaboration.[iv]
The YPG in Iraq, the PYD in Syria, and the PKK in Turkey form three of the largest, most influential armed Kurdish groups at the intersection of these inter-related crises. Turkey’s initial reticence to aid anti-ISIS forces across the border in Syria rested on concerns about inadvertently benefiting – or even arming – the Syrian Kurds. This hesitation instead led to an indecision that paralyzed the Erdogan government until after it had been forced to absorb two million Syrian refugees, straining the Turkish social and economic systems as well as raising concern about terrorists that have taken advantage of the then-porous Turkey-Syria border to smuggle weapons and plan attacks in Turkey and Europe.[v]
The United States
The US, on the other hand, has harbored a strong sympathy for the Kurds in the fight against ISIS as well as, to a lesser extent, autonomy and even independence for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. American cooperation with Kurdish groups combating the Islamic State has strained U.S.-Turkey relations at times, and slowed coordination on the ground. When Turkey eventually conceded to allow American access to Incirlik airbase from which to launch anti-ISIS strikes, Turkey took advantage of the diplomatic leverage to then bombard Syrian Kurdish positions.[vi] [vii]
Russia has become a major stakeholder in the regional crisis since beginning their intervention in 2015. Its bombing campaign, ostensibly targeting ISIS, attacked the rebel coalition as well, and has had the ultimate effect of tipping the balance of Syria’s war in favor of Bashar al-Assad and the stability of his regime.
Less directly, Iranian interests in the Turkish-PKK conflict are two-fold. Firstly, Iran has its own Kurdish population of between six and eight million – nearly ten percent of the population. Iran has been engaged in an armed conflict with PJAK, the Kurdistan Free Life Party, since 2004, which puts them at odds with the broader Kurdish rights and separatist movements.[viii] Though information about the group and its origins is unclear, PJAK is widely considered to be an offshoot or affiliate of the PKK.[ix] [x]
Moreover, Iranian aspirations of regional hegemony have extended to heavy involvement in the Syrian conflict, where the Islamic Republic props up the Assad government that the Kurds wish to unseat, both directly and through the use of Hezbollah as proxy.
Additional Kurdish Groups
The current political party in Turkey advocating for Kurdish causes is the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP is the fraternal party of the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP), though it is not strictly Kurdish in origin or advocacy; HDP is an umbrella of many left-wing activist causes and associations that cooperate in attempt to surpass Turkey’s challenging ten percent election threshold.
Other stakeholders include additional Kurdish groups, like the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Kurdish umbrella organization Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK).
Amid this network of conflicts, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Rojava in Syria both have evident interests in the ongoing status of the Kurds outside their borders and the conflicts involved.
[iv] van Wilgenburg, Wladimir. 2014. “Syrian Kurds, Rebels Find Common Enemy in ISIS.” Al-Monitor. March 27. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/03/syria-kurds-pyd-ypg-isis-rebels-kobani-afrin.html
[v] Coughlin, Con. “Turkey is paying a high price for its double standards over Islamic State.” The Telegraph. 28 July 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/turkey/11768841/Turkey-is-paying-a-high-price-for-its-double-standards-over-Islamic-State.html
[vii] Spencer, Richard. “PKK urges US to mediate in its war with Turkey and admits to secret talks with Washington.” The Telegraph. 17 August 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/turkey/11806481/PKK-urges-US-to-mediate-in-its-war-with-Turkey-and-admits-to-secret-talks-with-Washington.html
[viii] Asal, Victor H. and R. Karl Rethemeyer. “Kurdistan Free Life Party.” Big Allied and Dangerous Dataset Version 2. 2015. http://www.start.umd.edu/baad/narratives/kurdistan-free-life-party
[x] Cagaptay, Soner and Zeynep Eroglu. “The PKK, PJAK, and Iran: Implications for U.S.-Turkish Relations.” Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 13 June 2007. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-pkk-pjak-and-iran-implications-for-u.s.-turkish-relations
Over the long view, the nearly century-long Turkish policies of forced displacement and resettlement against the Kurds have been both successful and a failure. In a sense, these policies succeeded because over half of Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish population no longer resides in the Turkish portion of historic Kurdistan, but rather in an internal diaspora through the country.[i] At the same time, Kurdish demands may have moderated over the last few decades but the sense of Kurdish identity within Turkey has not faded and the PKK and TAK activity have renewed their campaign against the government.
These conflicts and more make long-term peace a challenging prospect. The long-running conflict has also suffered from several false starts and failed expectations of ceasefires and negotiation overtures. When Öcalan was arrested in 1999, the PKK announced a one-sided truce in the eventual hopes of pursuing renewed negotiations, but they ended the truce in 2003.[ii]
While the later “Kurdish opening” and the specter of the 2012 peace talks were promising at the time, the tepid nature of the reforms undertaken and the since-expired ceasefire raise questions about the stability of any long-term peace arising out of a negotiated settlement. Since the last round, Erdogan’s government seems to have moved away from discussions of a renewed peace process, prioritizing other factors over a solution to the Kurdish question. These shifting priorities, along with the continued violence among Turkey’s neighbors and the resulting refugee flux, make it unlikely that the conflict will be resolved any time soon.
In addition to two willing parties, any possible scenario of full rapprochement would likely also require a period of quiet along Turkey’s Syrian border and restrictions on the PKK’s abilities to move quite so freely between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq as they have in the past when fleeing the long arm of the Turkish Armed Forces.
Since the collapse of the negotiated ceasefire in 2015, Turkey has seen an increase in violence in attacks attributed to the PKK and the TAK.[iii] While not likely, it is possible that these attacks in conjunction with the many other terror threats that Turkey currently faces – including attacks carried out by ISIS – could risk endangering future negotiating positions and delegitimizing the armed Kurdish groups. By grouping them under the same umbrella as other insurrectionist or terror organizations operating domestically, the government may use the guise of national security to carry out further harsh measures against Kurdish communities in the name of national security.
Furthermore, the formation of the TAK has heralded a group that, while little is known of it, appears to be more radical than its parent organization, calling into question the continued ability of the PKK to negotiate on behalf of Kurdish militias. If TAK is not willing to accept concessions that would satisfy the PKK’s lesser demands, Erdogan’s government has little incentive to renew the negotiation process in hopes of resolution and disarmament.
One potential cause for optimism is that the Turkish government has shown that despite its misgivings toward Öcalan and the PKK, it is willing to deal with them both directly in negotiations. This has been critical as they are still widely seen as the legitimate representatives of the Kurds, by the Kurds. This willingness to engage in direct talks, implement limited reforms, and arrive at a ceasefire – even if only for a year or two – demonstrated precedent. If Erdogan’s government is willing to return to the negotiating table and tackle more meaningful reforms that lift political and cultural restrictions on the Kurds, it is very likely that the PKK would feel secure enough to pivot toward becoming a party of political engagement and the long-term goal of eventual disarmament. It is possible that the failures of the Kurdish opening and the 2012 talks could provide a roadmap for future successes.
Turkey should, then, attempt to re-engage Öcalan and broker another round of ceasefire. This time, however, the agreement must include further concessions from the Turkish government on issues such as Kurdish language instruction and cultural transmission and autonomy, since the Kurds see themselves as having given up a lot in the gradual moderating of the PKK’s stances and mission. Meaningful concessions from the Erdogan government could grant it credibility and reanimate a lethargic peace process.
[iii] Loveluck, Louisa. “Kurdish militant group warns foreigners to stay away from Turkey as it takes responsibility for Istanbul attack.” 10 June 2016. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/10/kurdish-militant-group-warns-foreigners-to-stay-away-from-turkey/
- Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey). An NGO and think tank devoted to Turkey and Turkish politics, in addition to published content and updates on their website, they publish the biannual, peer-reviewed Research & Policy on Turkey Their publications appear to cover a diversity of opinion and political stances. https://www.researchturkey.org
- The German Marshall Fund of the United States’s On Turkey white paper series.
A subset of the German Marshall Fund’s extensive policy writings on Turkey, these writings tackle a broad set of issues facing the Turkish state, both foreign and domestic. GMF-US is a non-profit, non-partisan think tank that promotes transatlantic cooperation and understanding. GMF-US is a well-respected institution that strives to maintain impartiality though it has been accused of pro-Turkish bias in its efforts to promote Turkish EU membership and promoting continued close EU-US and US-NATO relations. http://www.gmfus.org/policy/turkey
- Bruno, Greg. “Inside the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).” Council on Foreign Relations. CFR’s primer on the PKK provides detailed background information about the group’s formation, activities, and evolution. CFR is a widely-known and respected US academic organization that promotes bipartisan research and policy. http://www.cfr.org/turkey/inside-kurdistan-workers-party-pkk/p14576
Data sets and organizational profiles:
- Asal, Victor H. and R. Karl Rethemeyer. “Big Allied and Dangerous Dataset Version 2.” 2015.
A joint project between the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and the Project on Violent Conflict from SUNY Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, the Big Allied and Dangerous (BAAD2) dataset provides historical and qualitative data for armed groups, including the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish People’s Party. www.start.umd.edu/baad/database
- “Counterterrorism Calendar 2015.” U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. https://www.nctc.gov/site/pdfs/ct_calendar.pdf
- “Country Reports on Terrorism 2013”. April 2014. U.S. Department of State. https://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/crt/2013/224822.htm
Both the State Department and NCTC publications provide useful and detailed information about domestic terror groups within Turkey, from an obvious standpoint of American interests and biases, including high-level counterterror cooperation with the Turkish government, and rejection of terror as an acceptable means of operations.
Books, chapters, and articles:
- Aydin, Ayşegül and Cem Emrence. “Two Routes to an Impasse: Understanding Turkey’s Kurdish Policy.” 2016 December. Turkey Project Policy Paper No 10. The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/aydin-and-emrence-two-routes-to-an-impasse.pdf Aydin, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Emrence, a Visiting Researcher at Leiden University, have also co-authored Zones of Rebellion: Kurdish Insurgents and the Turkish State. The Brookings article interrogates the Turkish-Kurdish conflict in a regional framework, outlining the often-contradictory nature of the many questions that arise – such as the need for Kurdish resistance to ISIS as well as Turkish involvement in Syrian border control. The article provides a balanced, deeply nuanced vision of some of the thorniest challenges of the troubled Turkish-Kurdish relationship.
- Tezcur, Gunes Murat. “Prospects for Resolution of the Kurdish Question: A Realist Perspective.” Insight Turkey 15 / No. 2 / 2013, pp. 69-84. http://file.insightturkey.com/Files/Pdf/15_2_2013_tezcur.pdf Tezcur, an Associate Professor for political science at Loyola University Chicago, provides the self-described realist assessment of the conflict. His 2013 assessment that the status quo was likely to hold indefinitely and peace would remain elusive has so far proven prescient.
- Jongerden, Joost. “Under (Re)Construction: The State, the Production of Identity, and the Countryside in the Kurdistan Region in Turkey.” in After Civil War: Division, Reconstruction, and Reconciliation in Contemporary Europe, edited by Bill Kissane, Pages 150-183. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. An intensive, in-depth look at the early years of nation-building in post-Ottoman Turkey, Jongerden traces the land and political policies used to forge a cogent Turkish national identity. While ostensibly neutral, Jongerden can be read as deeply critical of the statebuilding project – and Turkey and Turkish actions – specifically.
- Egin, Oray. “The Game Changer: Syria, Iran, and Kurdish Independence.” World Affairs, Vol. 176, No. 1 (MAY / JUNE 2013), pp. 64-72. http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/game-changer-syria-iran-and-kurdish-independence Egin provides a neutral, long-term look at the changes in Turkey from the beginning of the Syrian conflict to today, including the collapse of the Turkey-PKK ceasefire and the renewed fighting. A brief but detailed account at the shifting political dynamics at play in Turkey.
- Marcus, Aliza. “The Kurds’ Evolving Strategy: The Struggle Goes Political in Turkey.” World Affairs, Vol. 175, No. 4 (November/December 2012), pp. 15-22. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41639029 A prominent writer on Turkish and Kurdish affairs, Marcus is regularly published here as well as in high-profile forums such as Foreign Policy. She authored Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence. This article provides a view that is critical of the Turkish government but also savvy to the evolution of the PKK and how it has expanded its appeal among Kurds in Turkey. Marcus does not advocate for the PKK on moral grounds so much as advocate for acknowledging its perennial impact on Kurdish politics – as a matter of pragmatism.
- Wood, Grame. “Among the Kurds.” 2007 October. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/10/among-the-kurds/306448/ Wood here documents his visit to PKK training camps in northern Iraq. Despite his closing criticism, his overall stance is highly sympathetic to the Kurds as well as the PKK’s mission and movement; the article provides solid background to the conflict as well as expresses the position of the Kurdish resistance.
- A useful timeline of 2015-16 terror attacks in Turkey. 10 June 2016. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/10/kurdish-militant-group-warns-foreigners-to-stay-away-from-turkey/
- Kurdish Studies Journal, an international peer-reviewed publication (http://www.kurdishstudies.net) and its associate editors, including but not limited to:
- Joost Jongerden. Jongerden is Assistant Professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the Associate Editor of the Kurdish Studies journal.
- Ibrahim Sirkeci. Professor Sirkeci teaches at Regent’s University London UK and is the author of several books including Exploring the Kurdish Population in the Turkish Context (Genus, 2000) and The Environment of Insecurity in Turkey and the Emigration of Turkish Kurds to Germany.
- Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association (previously the Turkish Studies Association Journal). Available on JSTOR. https://www.jstory.org/journal/jotturstuass and https://www.jstory.org/journal/turkstudassoj
A selection of reporters, media accounts, and news outlets that provide regular coverage on Turkish domestic politics and/or Kurdish issues.
Borzou Daraghi is an Istanbul-based Buzzfeed Middle East Correspondent. A former Financial Times and LA Times with extensive regional experience and expertise. He tweets at https://twitter.com/borzou
Yaroslav Trofimov, the Greater Middle East columnist for The Wall Street Journal. https://twitter.com/yarotrof
Jared Malsin, Middle East Bureau Chief for TIME. https://twitter.com/jmalsin
CNN Türk ENG, the official English-language version of CNN Türk. https://twitter.com/CNNTURK_ENG
Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey Director, Human Rights Watch. https://twitter.com/esinclairwebb
Ziya Meral, PhD. A British-Turkish researcher and writer, current Resident Fellow at the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research. https://twitter.com/Ziya_Meral
Constanze Letsch, Turkey Correspondent for The Guardian. https://twitter.com/ConstanzeLetsch
Kurdistan24 English. The English-language Twitter of Kurdistan24, a prominent Kurdish news channel based in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. https://twitter.com/K24English
HDP English. The official Twitter account of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey. https://twitter.com/HDPenglish
BirGün Daily. An independently owned and operated Turkish daily paper. A left-wing source that is highly critical of the government but provides good real-time updates about Turkish events and policies. http://www.birgun.net/birgun-daily and https://twitter.com/BirGunDaily
Yeni Şafak English. The English version of a conservative Turkish daily newspaper, which tends to take a hard line of support for the Erdogan government and the ruling AKP party. The newspaper has been a source of propaganda and at times outright fabrication, and is known for being anti-LGBT, anti-Semitic, and anti-women’s rights, among other things. For a window into the reasoning and propaganda of the ruling government, however, it may provide valuable insight. http://english.yenisafak.com and https://twitter.com/yenisafakEN