Turkey’s war against Kurdistan Workers Party holds implications for U.S. policy

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The recent collapse of coalition government talks between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and
Republican People’s Party (CHP) has increased the chances for early elections in Turkey in November. The domestic political maneuvering is also an important factor in Ankara’s shifting policy on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). On July 24, Turkey began a bombing campaign against PKK bases in Iraq, a development that followed the PKK’s murder of three Turkish police and military officers on July 20 and 22. Now that the two-year ceasefire is over, who will be the winners of this fight, and what implications does it hold for U.S. policy?

The United States, NATO and Ankara all consider the PKK a terrorist organization. Turkey fought the group for nearly four decades before entering formal peace talks with its founder, Abdullah Ocalan, in 2012. Jailed since 1999, Ocalan remains a charismatic and dominant personality who wields tremendous influence over the PKK and the broader Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey. Ankara had hoped that the talks would bring the PKK issue to a peaceful resolution and help defuse tensions with the group’s Syrian franchise, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which controls enclaves across the border.


The PYD has come to the forefront recently through its fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, most notably its U.S.-supported campaign to defend the Kobane enclave.

On July 20, however, two deadly attacks spurred a Turkish reaction. An ISIS suicide bombing in the Turkish Kurdish town of Suruc, across the border from Kobane, killed 32 people, hastening Ankara’s decision to let the United States use Turkish bases for strikes against ISIS targets in Syria after more than a year of negotiations on the issue. The same day, the PKK killed a military officer and injured two soldiers in the southeastern province of Adiyaman, followed two days later by the murder of two police officers in Ceylanpinar, a town near Suruc; the group claimed the officers were complicit in the ISIS attack on Suruc. In response, Ankara launched attacks against the PKK on July 24, bombing the group’s bases along the Qandil Mountains inside Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The PKK has retaliated by increasing its own attacks, killing at least 21 Turkish security officers since then.

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Despite the growing violence, Turkey does not appear to be entering a period of cataclysmic bloodshed a la the 1990s, when the PKK conflict claimed hundreds of lives each month. Rather, the county appears to be experiencing a period of controlled conflict, with neither the PKK nor the government aiming for full-scale war.

If the fighting remains limited and ends soon, it could strengthen both Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Ocalan.


Erdogan may well emerge as the strongman who “beat the PKK,” which would help his AKP if early elections are held in November — as now seems likely given the collapsed coalition talks with the CHP.

As for Ocalan, he has not spoken out against the fighting thus far. Yet there is no doubt that PKK violence would come to an immediate end if he calls for it to stop in the near term. This would reinstate his grip over the Kurdish movement and show the Turks that only he can deliver peace; he would once again become Erdogan’s interlocutor in negotiations.

The risk for Ocalan is that the violence could spiral out of control in the coming months. And even if he is able to end the bloodshed, many Turks may refuse to reaccept him in any role during future peace talks. Similarly, Erdogan’s AKP could slide in the polls if the fighting turns into full-scale war, with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) rising in its place.

Given these risks, Ocalan will likely call for an end to the violence sooner rather than later, most likely before November. This could in turn give the AKP a bump in the polls leading into early elections.

For now, the United States is going along with Ankara’s campaign against the PKK as the price for support against ISIS. Yet Washington was deeply engaged on the margins of the Turkey-PKK reconciliation process and certainly is not happy that it has all been put in danger.

More broadly, while Washington will continue to defend Turkey’s right to protect itself against the PKK, it will also draw a line between attacks against the PKK and attacks against the PYD, which remains an active combatant against ISIS in Syria. Washington is pleased that Ankara has come on board against ISIS; on Aug. 12, U.S. planes took off from Turkey’s Incirlik base to bomb ISIS targets. This does not mean, however, that U.S. policymakers will completely drop the PYD in return for Turkish support.

Accordingly, Washington will press Turkey to not target the PYD. An unintended consequence of this policy is that it could create fissures between the PKK and PYD, a development that both Ankara and Washington would welcome.

Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family Fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute.

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