Growing Violence in Turkey’s Southeast

After a two-year ceasefire between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish government ended in July 2015, Turkish security forces and PKK-affiliated militias have clashed in urban centers in Turkey’s southeast. The bulk of the fighting has taken place in Kurdish-majority towns between the Turkish authorities and Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H)—a militia comprised mainly of young Kurdish males who have declared “autonomy” from Ankara in different districts of southeastern towns. A small number of PKK fighters appear to have embedded with the YDG-H in these towns, helping to direct the daily clashes against Turkish security forces. The fighting has now leeched into Turkish politics, threatening to further entrench differences and fuel a cycle of violence.

To fight the YDG-H and PKK, the Turkish government has increased the number of police and gendarmerie forces in the area, alongside a deployment of at least 1500 Turkish military forces. As part of the security services overarching effort to clear the YDG-H from the urban centers it currently occupies, district governors (appointed by Ankara, rather than being directly elected) have declared curfews. According to many news outlets, security forces fired artillery rounds into urban areas. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey said that at least 52 areas have been placed under curfew in seven different cities since August 2015, reportedly forcing residents in curfew areas to live without electricity or water for up to 12 days.

The Turkish Air Force has launched thousands of airstrikes against PKK strongholds in northern Iraq and along the Turkish-Iraqi/Syrian borders. The YDG-H, in response, has turned to improvised explosive devices, rocket propelled grenades, and mortars to attack security forces it deems as “foreign occupiers.” As of late December, the conflict had claimed the lives of 194 security officials, at least 221 PKK insurgents, and as many as 151 civilians, according to the International Crisis Group.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the violence. Kurdish mayors who joined the YDG-H in calling for autonomy have been jailed. The popularity of the Kurdish-majority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)—Turkey’s fourth largest political party—has suffered, owing to their affiliation with the PKK. For now, the violence has been largely contained in southeastern Turkey, insulating Turkish citizens in the western and central parts of the country from the deepening crisis. However, the PKK and a more hardline group affiliated with it have threatened to attack government targets in Istanbul and along the western coast.

In response to the violence, the HDP has sharpened its calls for political autonomy, endorsing a recent proposal from the PKK-linked Democratic Society Congress (DTK) to form autonomous regional governments that operate independent of Ankara, and eventually in accordance with an updated constitution that includes provisions for political autonomy. This proposed political model is based on the work of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, whose call for democratic federalism is also hailed as a model Kurdish-majority Syrian areas now under the control of the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD)—a close US ally in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Thus far, Turkey has refrained from taking any serious military action against the PYD, but it has intermittently fired on the PYD’s militia, and recently moved a small number of troops over the border, perhaps as part of a more comprehensive effort to prevent the smuggling of weapons and fighters via Syria to Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the HDP’s endorsement of the push for autonomy and proposed that the judiciary open an investigation into the party’s co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, for their alleged support for the PKK. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) supports Erdogan’s proposal, but has sought to portray this action as a targeted response to the HDP leadership’s alleged support for terrorism, not part of a broader effort to close down the HDP. The judiciary has since obliged, opening an investigation into Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ in late December 2015.

The far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) also endorsed the AKP’s proposal, but in doing so made clear that they blame the AKP for their previous embrace of peace talks with the PKK which led to the violence. Turkey’s leftist nationalist party, the CHP, had previously expressed support for the HDP, saying that it would vote to lift immunity for all parliamentarians—a proposal that the HDP said it would support in response to the AKP/MHP-backed call to only target Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ.

The recent surge in violence began in July, after an umbrella Kurdish group that includes the PKK ended a ceasefire with the Turkish government. The ceasefire had already come under strain after the PKK refused to withdraw from Turkish territory and President Erdogan cancelled the so-called Dolmabahçe Consensus, a ten-point document that outlined the principles under which formal peace negotiations would take place between Ankara and PKK leader Öcalan.

Since July, Ankara has indicated that it would not return to the negotiating table until the PKK completely withdraws from Turkish territory and its actions indicate that it has no qualms with using military force to coerce the group into making concessions. On the political side, the AKP and MHP have also targeted the HDP, labeling it as nothing more than a vassal for the PKK, despite Demirtaş’ previous calls for all sides to abandon violence. These early calls were, in fact, at odds with more hardline HDP members, the PKK’s leadership, and with Yüksekdağ’s backing of hardline elements affiliated with the party who engaged in violence.

In recent months, the continued military operations and the large number of civilian casualties narrowed the gap between these two leaders, papering over differences that existed within the party after the HDP lost political support in the November 2015 election. The AKP has the votes to strip parliamentarians of their immunity, but has yet to act, choosing instead to continue attacking the group in the media. In parallel, the AKP has also sought to isolate the HDP, refusing to meet the leadership to discuss its proposal to draft a new constitution that includes the creation of a centralized presidential system—a proposal no opposition party supports, despite widespread agreement on updating elements of Turkey’s constitution.

These efforts to isolate the party mirror the government’s proposal to sidestep the HDP/PKK/Öcalan in any future attempt to resolve the Kurdish issue and instead work with other Kurdish actors. This course is at odds with the AKP’s previous efforts to find common ground with both the HDP and Öcalan, including rumors that the two sides could come to agreement on the AKP-preferred presidential system in return for the some semblance of political decentralization. For now, the HDP has ruled out any compromise on the presidential system, while the AKP continues to threaten to take action against Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ.

In the near term, it is unclear whether or not the AKP and the MHP will vote to lift Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ’s immunity. The HDP has previously described the jailing of its mayors as “political genocide,” a term used to help justify the anger fueling the YDG-H’s attacks against the Turkish security services. Any move to charge either Demirtaş or Yüksekdağ with a crime would increase polarization and help justify the PKK/YDG-H actions in the southeast.

In the longer term, the isolation of the HDP suggests that the government remains committed to using military force to clear the YDG-H from urban centers and to try and force the PKK to make concessions. However, at the time of writing, Turkish security forces have not yet been able to clear and hold any urban center, despite declaring curfews and committing thousands of personnel to the task. The YDG-H, the PKK, and increasingly the HDP have reiterated their support for political autonomy. This dynamic suggests that the two sides will remain at odds, fueling the current insurgent violence in Turkey’s southeast.

Aaron Stein is the Senior Resident Fellow for Turkey with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Turkish riot police use rubber pellets to disperse pro-Kurdish demonstrators during a protest against security operations in the Kurdish dominated southeast, in central Istanbul, Turkey January 3, 2016. (Reuters)