On April 10, pro-Kurdish parliamentarian Burcu Celik Ozkan was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of promoting terrorism for making a threatening remark to a Turkish soldier and also allegedly giving a speech supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) at a funeral—although her attendance was not verified. The current crackdown on Kurdish activism in Turkey has reached levels of oppression reminiscent of Kenan Evren’s rule. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used this crackdown to prop up nationalist sentiment in order to secure votes for a string of highly defining elections—including parliamentary elections in June and November 2015 and the constitutional referendum of 2017—and the future of the political system of Turkey. The shock of losing its parliamentary majority in the June 2015 elections, alongside the Turkish government’s perception of a growing Kurdish threat outside its borders, particularly from Syria, led AKP to change its strategy from attempting to resolve the Kurdish question based on reform and dialogue to creating the impression that it is able to solve it on the battlefield and through repressive measures.
Militarily, the 30-year-old struggle between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) re-erupted in 2015. Despite the fact that the PKK is one of the richest Kurdish actors within Turkey and arguably the most influential in the region—through affiliates such as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria (PYD), the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PCDK) in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) in Iran—its military activity within Turkey seems to have slowed down, particularly in the past few months. Although the PKK is typically less militarily active in Turkey during the winter, casualties from the conflict dropped 400 percent for the three months between December 2017 and February 2018 compared to the same period last winter—and 1400 percent down compared to the same period two years ago. Likewise, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK)—which consists of hardliners who broke away from the PKK over its willingness to negotiate with the Turkish state but which some believe is still controlled by it—promised to relaunch a series of attacks in big Turkish metropolises such as Izmir, Istanbul, and Ankara in June 2017. These proclaimed attacks were aimed at hurting investments and tourism in the rest of Turkey. However, since then, TAK has not yet acted on its words.
The immediate conclusion would be that Kurdish militant activism has been worn down and incapacitated in the face of an intense campaign by a determined Turkish military. At least this is the narrative the Turkish government is trying to sell to the Turkish public. Speaking at a ceremony to open new schools and gymnasiums in Istanbul on April 2, Erdoğan said, “They [PKK terrorists] are hiding, we are chasing them. What happened? They ran off to Syria, to Afrin, to Sinjar,” implying that the PKK’s war-weariness is the reason Turkey invaded Syria (and might also invade the Kurdistan Region of Iraq).
However, this disregards the transnational nature of the PKK’s struggle. In Syria the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an organization with linked to the PKK through the PYD, has about 60,000 fighters. And in Iraq, the PKK has helped the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), a Yazidi militia controlling strategic territory around the Sinjar Mountains, grow to more than 1,500 fighters, though many have since left to join the peshmerga. The PKK’s decreased activity within Turkey should therefore be understood in the light of its sister organizations’ increased activity outside of Turkey to cement control of vital and strategic areas. Although the PKK is choosing to focus on building up these local branches’ military and political influence, Turkey’s military engagement in these areas could potentially lead the PKK to increase its activity within Turkey in retaliation.
In the realm of politics and civil life, arguably the same conclusion can be drawn. Despite very high levels of repression and criminalization, non-military Kurdish actors remain mobilized, if quietly. Among the Turkish government’s more remarkable crackdowns is the removal of parliamentary immunity on May 20, 2016, which has allowed the government to imprison many of the most charismatic MPs from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The move was aimed to silence the Kurdish opposition, further facilitating Erdoğan’s ambitions to establish an executive presidential system, as cemented by the subsequent constitutional referendum in April 2017. However, pro-Kurdish parties have a long history of becoming criminalized and then restructuring themselves to exploit loopholes in Turkish legislation to gain seats in the Turkish parliament. According to a poll published in February 2018, the HDP would win 12 percent of the vote if elections were held now—about what it received in both parliamentary elections in 2015—despite the intensification of both rhetoric and measures to silence the Kurdish opposition.
At the heart of Turkey’s military campaign and its political crackdown is the AKP’s reinterpretation of the Turkish national identity. In the past, it had focused more on Muslim solidarity rather than Turkic ethno-chauvinism, which had provided unprecedented platforms for Kurdish expression, allowed for a more constructive dialogue, and acted as a shock absorber for Kurdish violence and radicalization. Furthermore, the brief Kurdish ceasefire and negotiations with Turkey between 2013 and 2015 also eroded and challenged what had up until then been a highly PKK-oriented Kurdish agenda. Although this gave the guerilla commanders in Qandil an opportunity to secure concessions from the Turkish government, their influence also diminished as more attention was given to the HDP, whose goals differed slightly from the PKK’s despite strong organic links and a common cause. And it only follows logically that the Turkish government, by jailing and criminalizing MPs from the HDP, leaves few other options for Kurdish activists than to fall back on the PKK’s military approach. If political persecution persists, this will only serve to create a greater recruiting pool for the PKK and radicalize and revert years of peaceful Kurdish activism.
Although a future solution to the Kurdish issue cannot be ruled out, this will not happen anytime soon. Divisions are set to deepen for the time being, as the AKP has reverted to an exclusivist nationalism in its quest for ballot box success—hoping to avoid the electoral loss it suffered in June 2015, when it was pursuing a softer approach. Although years of booming economic growth and worldwide appraisal for the AKP’s ability to fuse Islam and democracy enabled the party to engage in peaceful dialogue with the PKK in 2013, the AKP is not in a such position of strength today given regional turmoil and an authoritarian decline. Nor can its current military approach solve the Kurdish issue definitively, instead likely to reinvigorate Kurdish insurgency—a scenario the Turkish state is ill-prepared to face since 40 percent of Turkey’s top commanders were purged from the military following the July 2016 coup attempt. And if Turkey is successful in seizing territorial control from the PKK in Syria and Iraq, with Erdoğan threatening to conduct military operations in Sinjar, Manbij, and Tal Rifaat, then PKK will reorient its focus back toward Turkey and cause greater internal unrest.
Ferhat Gurini is a BSc student in International Relations at the London School of Economics and is the Middle East editor of the Danish quarterly RÆSON. Follow him on Twitter @FerhatGurini.