People in Turkey jubilantly celebrated the Kurdish peace process for nearly three years, predicting that the negotiations could spawn an era of calm following three decades of conflict. They were unaware, however, that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) had exploited the lull in the conflict to replenish its forces, stock up on arms and increase its military posture.
For years, critics and opposition parties asked the government to be more transparent in peace negotiations, and warned against the PKK’s increasingly visible posture in towns and cities in the southeast, where the rebel group is more active and dominant. It seems the government was aware of the situation all along. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acknowledged in a live TV interview this month that the Kurdish rebel group had exploited the peace process to stock up on arms.
Both sides must return to peace talks, with conditions that they must be held transparently with no strings attached.Mahir Zeynalov
Only last year, the Turkish army asked governors in three provinces for a permission to conduct military operations against PKK militants. Out of 110 demands in Sirnak, 100 in Hakkari and 80 in Tunceli, governors only allowed eight operations, revealing how the authorities tolerated the PKK activities in restive areas in southeast Turkey.
Erdogan’s primary goal to commit himself to a peace process was to have a chance to secure Kurdish support for his presidential ambitions. That tentative agreement with Kurds fell apart when Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas built his electoral campaign in early summer on a promise that his party would thwart Erdogan’s presidential bid. Erdogan’s former chief aide and current deputy prime minister Yalcin Akdogan acknowledged that the peace process was halted because Demirtas railed against Erdogan’s presidential gambit.
Shortly after the Kurdish party surged in the polls to cost the AKP its 13-year single-party rule, the fighting between the PKK and the Turkish army resumed in one of the deadliest confrontations in the recent past. More than 130 members of Turkish security services were killed. There is no credible report of the death toll on the PKK side, but Erdogan claims the number of PKK militants killed is nearly 2,000. Hundreds were killed in massive air campaign against PKK targets in northern Iraq. Washington reluctantly extended its support to Turkey’s operations against the PKK at a time when U.S. diplomats worked assiduously to get Ankara on board in the fight against the ISIS.
The PKK’s approval rate in Turkey is very low, hovering around 6 percent. More than half of Turkey’s Kurds even loathe the PKK for its continued armed campaign. The Kurdish HDP party’s surge in the June elections was possible because the party – and its charismatic leader Demirtas – distanced itself from the PKK.
To garner nationalist votes and defame Demirtas as “PKK’s pawn,” the government has significantly escalated the war following the elections and the pro-government newspapers decorated their front pages with Demirtas-bashing. It was a well-calculated strategy to strip the HDP from necessary votes in upcoming elections slated for Nov. 1. If the Kurdish party fails to pass the threshold necessary to gain parliamentary seats, the AKP could regain its parliamentary majority.
PKK’s new military tactic
In the past, the PKK usually ganged up in huge numbers to attack gendarmerie posts in the rural southeast, with armed skirmishes continuing for hours. They retreated to nurse their wounds and to avoid upcoming air support for Turkish troops. With U.S. support in drone intelligence-gathering, it was hard for the PKK to attack the troops in big numbers.
The new method of assault is roadside bombs, which have been nightmare in Iraq for years. With explosives buried underground, PKK militants could now blow up Turkish armored vehicles carrying soldiers, avoiding armed shootouts and escaping with minimal casualties, if any.
On Sept. 6, the PKK detonated three roadside bombs in Daglica, killing 16 Turkish soldiers, the biggest attack on Turkish security forces since 2011, when at least 26 Turkish soldiers were killed in a night-long clash. A day later, a truck loaded with explosives was detonated in Igdir, killing at least 13 police officers. In the past two months, dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in 27 separate bombing attacks.
The Turkish army is unable to retaliate against these attacks within Turkey. The government declared bounty for informants tipping off PKK militants and usually responded by heavily bombing PKK camps in northern Iraq.
Is peace possible?
In any negotiations to solve a military conflict, the different sides seek to gain an upper hand so that they have more say in peace talks. In this regard, the PKK’s intention to embolden its ranks could be considered rational. It is also obvious that the Turkish authorities sought to maintain the peace process by avoiding going after the PKK; but allowing the militant group to increase its presence in southeastern Turkey is a cause for concern. The majority of the Turkish people supported the peace process, because the government promised that the PKK would bury arms as a result. Quite the opposite took place.
Because the PKK’s strength comes from constant recruitment, there is no military solution to the conflict. The youth wing of the PKK is fighting the security forces in highly dense urban areas, making it very difficult for the Turkish army to retaliate without civilian casualties.
Peace talks failed because both sides had different motivations to maintain them. The government wanted to increase Erdogan’s chance for expanded presidency while the PKK sought to bolster its military presence at a time of ceasefire. Both sides must return to peace talks, with conditions that they must be held transparently with no strings attached. Support for the PKK will erode slowly if Kurds are granted necessary rights and freedoms. No rebel group could fight the establishment without a legitimate cause. The content of peace talks must be simple: PKK will commit to cease its military existence as Kurds are given their rights and freedoms.
Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov