By Amanda Bergmann
For over a generation, the Turkish State and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) have been embroiled in a conflict over Kurdish rights/autonomy that has cost over 45,000 lives and produced upwards of 3-4 million internally displaced persons in the span of 32+ years. A variety of conflict management measures –from hard-handed military campaigns that have forced unilateral ceasefires, to bargains meant to appease greedy leaders—have been employed. However, transnational ethnic ties, porous borders, the presence of spoilers on both sides, and the lack of a credible third-party guarantors have all contributed to the failure of achieving long-lasting peace.
Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – the father of Modern Turkey – sought to establish a purely secular state around the notion of ‘civic nationalism’. In addition to promoting a common Turkish cultural, history, and language in an attempt to consolidate a Turkish civic-national identity, Turkey sought to assimilate all others by introducing blanket bans on religious and ethnically-based political groups, and education of minority languages and histories. The Kurds –who perceive themselves as different based on ethnicity, language, and culture- faced mounting disenfranchisement within this increasingly exclusive system. While previously fragmented, Turkey’s assimilative practices consolidated minority Kurds into one oppositional force: the PKK, who sought to establish an independent and united socialist republic.
The PKK has previously launched two deadly insurgencies against the Turkish state: the first from 1984-1999, and the second from 2004-2012. These were largely possible thanks to the trans-ethnic support offered to the PKK by other Kurdish ethno-nationalist groups in the region, specifically those based in Iraq and Syria. Encouraged by these groups’ individual uprisings (known as the ‘Demonstration Effect’), and assisted tangibly in their establishment of safe havens (which allowed the PKK to recruit and train soldiers, and disseminate propaganda), the PKK has thus far been able to sustain over 23 years of conflict.
In contrast, these trans-border links have prompted the Turkish government to respond with increasing hostility. Afraid Kurdish successes in the region will lead to the establishment of an independent Kurdistani state that then threatens Turkey’s territorial sovereignty, the Turkish government has responded to these insurgencies with an incredible amount of force. While this worked during the first insurgency –where the capture of Öcalan and the exhaustion of the PKK eventually saw the PKK declare a unilateral ceasefire and undergo a restructuring process—their failure to fully secure the border have allowed the PKK to continually use these international safe havens to mount responses.
Greedy Actors “hold goals that expand or contract based on calculations of cost and risk.” As greedy actors, both Öcalan (PKK) and Erdogan (Turkish Government) have contributed to the extended length of the conflict.
When founded, the PKK (and Öcalan) established itself as the sole representative of the Kurdish people in Turkey by promising autonomy. After the PKK’s defeat in 1999, Öcalan’s goals scaled back, insteading looking to secure Kurdish rights within the system. However, once Öcalan realized that incorporation into the system may undermine his political powers within a fragmented Kurdish group, Öcalan once again sought autonomy, reverted to violence, and initiated the second insurgency in 2004.
Meanwhile, Erdogan’s goals have also shifted based on cost-benefit analysis. The AKP has traditionally been pro-Kurdish in order to secure the Kurdish vote. Furthermore, when Turkey’s membership accession to the EU was initially accepted, the AKP pushed through a number of pro-Kurdish changes. However, a slowdown in EU membership accession and threats to the AKP’s (and by extension, Erdogan’s) power have seen Erdogan revert to violence. Recognizing that he may entrench power more easily by creating a sense of chaos over fulfilling his promises to the Kurds, Erdogan has opted for the former.
LACK OF CREDIBLE THIRD-PARTY GUARANTOR
Following the first insurgency, one major reason why Turkey sought to open the political process to the Kurds was the credible commitment of the EU. Instead of wiping the Kurds out once and for all, EU Membership prompted their inclusion. The EU was instrumental in ensuring that Turkey enacted harmonization packages which expanded the rights of Kurds. For example, it was the EU’s oversight which saw Öcalan’s sentence reduced from death to life imprisonment.
However, the accession of Cyprus in 2004, coupled by a number of other geo-strategic considerations, have undercut the credibility of the EU as a guarantor. As such, there was a substantial slowdown in Turkey’s adherence to their requirements. Decisions were instead made with domestic cost-benefit analyses in mind, as opposed to EU conditionality. This allowed the Turks to renege on their commitments to the Kurds, creating conditions that incentivized the Kurds to rebel.
SO WHAT NEXT?
Turkey and the PKK have renewed violent clashes once again. Trans-border ties, greedy actors, and a lack of a credible third-party guarantor will likely once again contribute to continued violence. Initiatives which strengthen border security, socialize greedy actors into compliance, and hold actors accountable are all likely to help mitigate continued conflict. However, their feasibility is another question altogether.