Ankara has come under increasing pressure to act more decisively against the Islamic State (IS), particularly as the jihadists battle the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) defending the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane just across the Turkish border. The Turkish government, however, has instead found itself facing an old enemy, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The PKK has fought for decades for greater political and cultural recognition for Kurds in Turkey, along with their self-determination. On October 14, Turkish warplanes reportedly bombed several PKK militant positions in Daglica, in the mountains near the border with Iraq, in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast. Those air raids were said to be in response to three days of PKK attacks against a nearby Turkish military post. The recent flare up, the most significant since the Turkish-PKK ceasefire talks began in the spring of 2013, is threatening to end those talks and renew hostilities between the two sides.
The timing of the recent events is no coincidence. Tensions between the Turkish government and the Kurdish community, a sizeable minority in Turkey, have escalated dramatically. Turkish Kurds are irate with the government’s handling of the ongoing IS offensive against Kurdish fighters in Kobane. Not only are they demanding Turkey supply the Kurdish defenders or take action against the jihadists to drive them from Kobane’s outskirts, many are demanding permission to infiltrate and fight alongside their ethnic kin. The intense media coverage of the fighting, and the fact that many Turkish Kurds are able to see and hear the fighting, has only exacerbated discontent against Ankara. Kurds across Turkey rose up earlier this month, leading to daily clashes against security forces and Islamist rivals that have left dozens dead. This included several police officers when suspected Kurdish gunmen attempted to assassinate a provincial police chief. Clashes were also experienced in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s two most important cities.
For most militant groups, instability can present significant opportunities, mainly in terms of mobilization, support, and legitimacy. The same holds true for the PKK, which has responded to the recent violence involving Turkey’s Kurds with various threats. Cemil Bayik, one of the PKK’s founders, claimed the group’s fighters were returning to Turkey from Iraq to further protests against the government. A number of PKK fighters redeployed to northern Iraq, in their camps on the Qandil Mountains, as part of the ceasefire talks. Bayik also warned that his fighters would resume attacks in Turkey, thereby ending the peace process.
That process, however, had already stalled. Well before the siege of Kobane began, tensions between the PKK and Islamist-led Turkish government were on the rise. Both sides accused the other of failing to follow through with steps needed to further the process of reaching a final agreement to end the decades-long conflict. This has led to several isolated clashes, but they ultimately did not end negotiations. The combination of stalled peace talks, increased PKK mobilization for combat in Iraq and Syria, along with Kurdish opposition to Turkey’s handling of the Kobane situation, foreshadowed further confrontations.
A confrontation has just occurred, but it remains questionable how far both sides are willing to take it. In that context, the coming days will be crucial. The PKK has responded to the recent air raids by alleging the Turks have violated the ceasefire. The PKK again renewed its threats to resume the insurgency this week if Turkey does not address its concerns over peace negotiations. Similar warnings were declared in the past, meaning they were negotiating tactics. The same could very well be true again, but it is worth noting that earlier warnings were not made following airstrikes, serious unrest in Turkey, and a siege of PKK-allied forces in Syria. One thing is clear, however, should both Turkey and the PKK stand firm, negotiations could be just another chapter in an ongoing conflict.