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Ceasefire Ceased? New Kurdish Tensions Complicate Turkey’s Presidential Election and Foreign Policy

The ceasefire negotiated last year between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), one of the government’s major accomplishments, is now in danger of collapsing as discontent grows over the lack of progress toward a lasting peace deal. This has serious implications for Turkish politics because the Kurds are an important voting bloc in Turkey that could help determine the winner of August’s presidential elections. It also complicates Turkey’s ability to respond to the worsening security situation in the region, where the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is pitted against both Shiite-led governments in Damascus and Baghdad as well as Kurdish factions in Syria and Iraq.

As the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Turkey Initiative argued over a year ago in a paper on U.S.-Turkish Cooperation Toward a Post-Assad Syria, “avoiding outcomes that further undermine regional stability and disadvantage U.S. interests will require the United States…to take an energetic role in persuading Turkey to establish ties with any relatively moderate elements in the opposition….” Instead, frustrated by lack of U.S. action in Syria, Turkey’s government, at the very least, turned a blind eye as extremist groups amassed fighters, arms, land, and power. There is evidence to suggest it even aided their ascendancy. Now Ankara faces a choice between an uncontrollable jihadi group it might have helped create and the Kurdish groups it once opposed.

PKK Peace Process

On March 21, 2013, Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, declared a ceasefire with Turkey after three decades of armed conflict. “This is not giving up the struggle, this is a new struggle,” Öcalan said in comments read at the Kurdish Nowruz celebration in Turkey’s southeastern city of Diyarbakir, “Today, we are waking up to a new Turkey, to a new Middle East, to a new future.”

Öcalan called for PKK fighters to withdraw from Turkey’s borders and for the PKK to seek a political solution with the Turkish government. In September 2013, the PKK halted that withdrawal in protest of a perceived lack of action by the Turkish government and, the following month, the government passed a reform package, designed to address Kurdish demands for greater political rights, but it received a lukewarm reception from Kurdish groups. A March statement by the PKK-affiliated Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) characterized the government’s efforts as “nothing more than distractive packaging to dawdle this great opportunity until the elections,” and declared that “the AKP has ceased to be an interlocutor in the democratization drive.”After a year and a half of non-hostility, tensions in Turkey’s southeast seem to be once again heating up, and new clashes between the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Turkish state threaten to undermine the ceasefire.

Resurgent PKK Violence

The government’s attempts to construct new gendarmerie outposts in Turkey’s majority Kurdish southeast has prompted concern and protests among the Kurds, leading to increasingly violent clashes with security forces. The PKK asserts that the construction of such outposts is an indication that the government is preparing to launch a war against Kurds. The government, on the other hand, contends that the outposts are being built in response to the continued presence of Kurdish militants in the southeast. According to the Turkish state, if PKK fighters had withdrawn from Turkey as dictated by the peace process, there would be no need for the outposts.

In protest, members of the PKK and its youth wing, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDGH), have kept the Diyarbakır-Bingöl highway, and other highways in the province, blocked since May 24. Security forces’ attempting to clear the obstacles have clashed with Kurdish militants, leaving several soldiers wounded and others taken captive.

The PKK has also resumed its previous practice of kidnapping Kurdish minors to join the ranks of its fighters. In the past six months, the group has abducted more than 330 children. Mothers of the kidnapped children have staged sit-in protests, putting pressure on the government to take action. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan has characterized himself as the champion of these mothers, blaming Kurdish political parties, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) for their inaction, saying “I am asking the BDP and the HDP, where are you? There has been times when you went to the PKK, and brought back other kidnapped people. Why don’t you do the same for these children?”

Both the BDP and the HDP have claimed that the majority of the children went to the mountains willingly, joining the PKK, while the BDP has accused some of the protestors as being on the payroll of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization. Nevertheless, BDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş reported that both parties had communicated the families’ wishes to PKK leaders in Iraq’s Kandil Mountains.

In recent days, this tension has mounted, leading to violence. In Lice, a pro-PKK district in Turkey’s southeastern province of Diyarbakir, two weeks of protests and clashes between security forces and demonstrators culminated in the first Kurdish deaths format the hands of security forces since the ceasefire. Two protesters, Ramazan Baran and Abdülbaki Akdemir, died on June 7 from gunshot wounds sustained during clashes with security forces.

Large protests followed the deaths. After Baran’s funeral on June 8th, a masked protester managed to sneak into the 2nd Air Force Command, a military base in Diyarbakir, and take down the Turkish flag flying at compound. This prompted Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Leader Devlet Bahçeli to assert that “if there is [somebody] who remains silent when the flag is being taken down, then there is occupation and the homeland is under captivity,” calling on the 2nd Air Force Commander and Chief of General Staff to resign. Erdoğan insisted that the demonstrator and those who allowed him to remove the flag would “pay a heavy price.”

Kurds and the Presidential Election

This renewed conflict is occurring as Turkey approaches its first direct presidential election, slated for August 10. Although he has not officially declared his candidacy, it is assumed that Prime Minister Erdoğan will be the AKP’s candidate. It is also widely acknowledged that the Kurdish vote will be crucial in the presidential elections and that Erdoğan, in order to win in the first round and avoid a runoff vote, will need Kurdish support.

While Kurds have previously backed the AKP in national elections, Kurdish support for Erdoğan in the presidential elections, set against a backdrop of a stagnant peace process and violence in the southeast, is by no means guaranteed. Indeed, BDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş cautioned that “nobody should think that Çankaya [Turkey’s presidential residence] is a done deal.”

The HDP has stated its intent to put forward its own candidate for the presidency, one that would “show that there is a third way” between the AKP and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). While a BDP/HDP candidate will not secure enough votes to be a viable contender, a Kurdish candidate will prevent Erdoğan from winning outright, forcing a runoff election. In the second round, whether the Kurds back the AKP or the CHP could determine the outcome of the election.

The need to court the critical Kurdish voting bloc is requiring both the AKP to walk a delicate line: enticing Kurdish voters with conciliatory language while avoiding taking actions that would alienate nationalists. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s strategy up to this point has been to promise everything and do nothing. However, that policy may be rapidly becoming untenable, requiring the government to decide where the greatest risk lies and choose between taking more concrete actions to garner Kurdish support or pursue the presidency with their existing base.

Aware of this electoral math, the CHP, too, is trying to cobble together a coalition. It has attempted to court Kurdish voters, with leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu asserting that “the only party who will refresh mutual trust and solve the [Kurdish] issue with determination is us. This is why we are seeking their votes.” But the CHP also needs to secure the backing of other opposition parties, particularly the nationalist MHP. The two parties have been in discussions to run a joint candidate but these new Kurdish tensions highlight how difficult it will be bring so many Turkish factions under a single big tent. Talks between the CHP and MHP have yet to result in a candidate, who would have to satisfy a broad range of demands in order to be a viable contender. “A candidate will have to be a staunch secularist and modernist to satisfy the CHP’s Kemalist grass-roots supporters,” writes Semih Idiz, “while also appealing to strong conservative, religious and nationalist sentiments among MHP followers as well as AKP supporters, without alienating secular Alevi or Kurdish voters.” Whether such a candidate can be found remains to be seen.

In light of these political considerations, Erdoğan has remained largely silent on the PKK’s recent actions. “As the settlement process is an element through which the prime minister can present himself as successful to the society, he remains silent to the presence of the PKK in the mountains and cities,” said Turkish scholar Atilla Sandıklı. In addition to preserving the peace process as an indication of his success, Erdoğan is wary of losing the Kurdish vote through escalated conflict with the PKK. As a CHP deputy put it, “It is to be able get the votes of the HDP supporters, which Erdoğan badly needs…Erdoğan is overlooking actions of the PKK.” That is why the government has encouraged Kurdish parliamentarians to appeal to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to calm tensions. HDP officials met with Öcalan on Imrali Island, where he is jailed, on June 1st, where the PKK leader called on both sides to “avoid any attitudes that might harm the [settlement] process.”

Regional Considerations

Turkey’s relationship with its domestic Kurds also has regional implications, and the situation is further complicated by the raging Syrian conflict. The PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) accuses Turkey of supporting extremist elements of the Sunni opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In particular, Turkey has been implicated in arming ISIS and supporting the group’s efforts to stifle emerging Kurdish independence in Syria.

Syria’s map in Figure 1 reflects this diversity, with ethno-sectarian divisions largely falling along geographic lines, although a mélange of identities and beliefs can be found in the larger cities. Syria’s Kurds live almost entirely in the northeast, atop many of the country’s oilfields and contiguous with Turkey’s and Iraq’s larger Kurdish populations.

Now, however, ISIS has taken control of Mosul, Tikrit, and other major Iraqi cities, where they have seized Turkey’s consulate and taken Turkish truck drivers hostage. Moreover, they are threatening Iraqi pipelines that carry oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan as well as the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, both of which are important to Turkey’s economy. This situation is forcing Turkey to reconsider its relations with radical Sunni groups in the region—already, in a rapid about-face, it has declared the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front a terrorist group—and contemplate making common cause with Kurdish groups.

The PKK and YPG are seeking Turkish assistance against ISIS, and Turkey’s MIT is reportedly engaging in talks with the YPG’s political arm. Meanwhile, Öcalan, in an attempt to make a change in strategy easier to swallow for Ankara, has allegedly instructed Kurds in Syria to “stop talking about Turkey’s support for ISIS.” The mounting tensions between Turkey and the PKK, however, might make such cooperation more difficult. Or they might be more easily overcome given the more pressing need to halt the region’s slide into chaos.

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