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Turkey Is Back at War with the Kurds

demonstration in Ankara against suicide bombing in Suruc
Turkish police pushes back protestors condemning the suicide bombing claimed by IS in Suruc, Ankara, Turkey, 20 July 2015. Photo Corbis

The peace process between the PKK (the armed Kurdish Workers Party) and the Turkish state is finished, including the ceasefire that had held for two and a half years. It all started with a suicide bombing in the border town of Suruc on 20 July 2015, which killed 32 Kurdish and Turkish activists who wanted to help rebuild the Syrian town of Kobani in the border area with Turkey. It prompted the Kurdish PKK to retaliate with the assassination of two policemen. How did things get this far?

From the beginning of the Syrian civil war, in March 2011, the Turkish government has been open about the goals of its Syria policy: President al-Assad has to be removed from power, and the Syrian Kurds can’t be allowed autonomy.

These are the reasons for Turkey’s half-hearted participation in the international coalition (of which it is a member) against the Sunni extremists of Islamic State (IS). The Kurdish troops of the Syrian Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units)—who have been working to establish the autonomy Turkey has so feared since Assad’s troops left the Kurdish-majority regions to focus on conflicts elsewhere in the country in the summer of 2012—are the most effective ground forces in the fight against IS: the more strenuously Turkey combats IS, the stronger the Kurds will get.

For the Turkish government, the situation became dire halfway through June 2015, when the YPG captured the border town of Tal Abyad (Girespi in Kurdish) from IS. With that victory, the Kurds managed to connect two of their cantons, namely Cizire, bordering Iraqi Kurdistan, and Kobani, the town and its surroundings that they had successfully defended against an IS siege earlier in 2015. Turkey’s greatest fear is that the YPG will connect the third Kurdish canton, Afrin, in the west, to Cizire and Kobani. This would mean that the entire area of northern Syria bordering Turkey would be in autonomous Kurdish hands.

Why does Turkey consider its YPG neighbour as a greater threat than having IS on its border? The forces of the YPG are affiliated directly with the PKK, which has been at war with the Turkish state since 1984. From late 2012 a ceasefire was holding between the PKK and the Turkish army. The ceasefire should have led to a democratic process to solve the Kurdish issue in Turkey, but little has come of it: promises for a new constitution, for example, have come to nothing. And, although the state has refrained from killing PKK fighters, dozens of civilians have been killed by the army and military and civilian police during several demonstrations and clashes.

Turkey was anticipating the end of the ceasefire, which had been fragile for months. Imagine a Kurdish autonomous region covering the whole border area with Turkey on the Syrian side, protected militarily by a PKK affiliate: a nightmare for Turkey, which would expect attacks not only from the Qandil mountains in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where the PKK has sanctuaries, but also from the Syrian Kurdish entity.

Some, including Salih Muslim, the co-leader of the PYD (the political counterpart of the YPG), say Turkey has nothing to fear from the Kurds in Rojava (western Kurdistan), in peacetime or in wartime. The Kurds in Syria are busy building their autonomy and would hamper their own efforts by getting involved directly in war between the PKK and Turkey. They have their hands full fighting IS, a battle not likely to end soon. Also, the Turkish-Syrian border, unlike the Turkish border with Iraq, is almost completely flat, making it unsuitable for guerrilla infiltration into Turkey.

At the end of June, the National Security Council (NSC) of Turkey—which consists of members of the highest military echelons, President Erdoğan, Prime Minister Davutoğlu, and several ministers—was convening in Ankara. This caused frantic speculation in the Turkish media about a coming incursion by the Turkish army into Syria. After all, the YPG had taken Tal Abyad in opposition to Turkey’s interests, and Ankara was continuing its years-long pleas to the international community to create a buffer zone in northern Syria.

What the media lost sight of is that the NSC was having its regular, scheduled two-monthly meeting, which is always held at the end of June, and not a hastily summoned one. More importantly, they failed to reason the situation through. Turkey would gain nothing by an invasion, which would certainly occur without the support of the United States. Turkey would get involved in a war it couldn’t easily extricate itself from, bringing home many Turkish soldiers in coffins—and Kurdish fighters too, further jeopardizing the country’s relations with its domestic Kurds. Even more refugees would flood into Turkey, which already harbours about two million, refugees whose welcome is already wearing thin in many Turkish cities.

Killing Two Birds with One Stone

Turkey did, however, deploy more troops on the Syrian border, which added to the agitation of the Turkish press. But the increased military presence did exactly what Ankara wanted it to do: it pressured the United States and the Kurds in Syria to do what Turkey couldn’t do on the ground: stop the westward advance of the YPG. Although unconfirmed, there seems to be some behind-the-scenes deal with both the YPG and the United States. The YPG allegedly promised not to cross the Euphrates, and the US seems to have agreed to stop bombing IS positions in the area between the Kobani and Afrin cantons, which had started around Jarablus after IS carried out a massive attack on Kobani on 25 June.

Such an agreement has not been confirmed, and it wouldn’t even be necessary to protect Turkey’s interests. The Kurds have, for now, reached the limits of their military capabilities and wouldn’t succeed in linking the Afrin canton to the other two in any case. And without the Kurds as forces on the ground, there is no point in the US forces bombing Jarablus and other cities in the north.

Turkey thus kills two birds with one stone with its increased troops presence at the border: it pressures their enemy the YPG and their ally the US, and they have something to show when they are criticized for failing to take the IS threat seriously (the army is supposed to secure the border).

These developments also gave Turkey the chance to crack down on the PKK. The retaliation murders by the PKK were retaliated for by Turkey with massive bombings of PKK camps in northern Iraq. Turkey could do that without fearing criticism by its NATO allies. These allies may find it troubling and even damaging to their cooperation with the YPG against IS, but their hands are tied by the fact that the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization not only by Turkey but also by the US and the EU. How could they deny Turkey’s right to fight terrorism?

Some say that it was the Suruc massacre that finally prompted Turkey to join seriously the international coalition against IS, but that wasn’t the case: Turkey didn’t even declare a day of national mourning for its 32 murdered citizens. It was the killing of a Turkish soldier that led not only to the attacks on IS but also to more violence inside Turkey.

It remains to be seen whether, with new elections looming, the AKP will regain the majority in parliament it needs in order to change the constitution and install a presidential system in the country, with Erdoğan as president. Many believe that that is the government’s ultimate goal—to increase violence, frame the pro-Kurdish HDP as “terrorist,” and force them back under the ten-percent election threshold in snap elections, probably to be held in November 2015.

Cynical—but then, Turkish politics often is.