Turkey: The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement

Europe Report N°219 11 Sep 2012 – INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP


Turkey’s Kurdish conflict is becoming more violent, with more than 700 dead in fourteen months, the highest casualties in thirteen years. Prolonged clashes with militants in the south east, kidnappings and attacks on civilians suggest hardliners are gaining the upper hand in the insurgent PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The government and mainstream media should resist the impulse to call for all-out anti-terrorist war and focus instead, together with Kurds, on long-term conflict resolution.

There is need to reform oppressive laws that jail legitimate Kurdish politicians and make amends for security forces’ excess. The Kurdish move­ment, including PKK leaders, must abjure terrorist attacks and publicly commit to realistic political goals. Above all, politicians on all sides must legalise the rights most of Turkey’s Kurds seek, including mother-language education; an end to discriminatory laws; fair political representation; and more decentralisation. Turkey’s Kurds would then have full equality and rights, support for PKK violence would drop, and the government would be better placed to negotiate insurgent disarmament and demobilisation.

The government has zigzagged in its commitment to Kurds’ rights. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) initiated a “Democratic Opening” in 2005, but its commitment faltered in 2009. At times, AKP leaders give positive signals, including scheduling optional Kurdish lessons in school and agreeing to collaborate in parliament with other parties on more reforms. At others, they appear intent on crushing the PKK militarily, minimise the true extent of fighting, fail to sympathise with Kurdish civilian casualties, openly show their deep distrust of the Kurdish movement, do nothing to stop the arrest of thousands of non-violent activists and generally remain complacent as international partners mute their criticism at a time of Middle East turmoil.

Contradictory signals have also come from the Kurdish movement, including leaders of legal factions and the PKK, which is condemned in Turkey and many other countries as a terrorist organisation. They have made conciliatory statements, tried to stick to legal avenues of association and protest in the European diaspora and repeatedly called for a mutual truce. At the same time, few have disavowed the suicide bombings, car bombs, attacks on civilians and kidnappings that have increased in 2012. Hardliners promote the armed struggle, radical youth defy more moderate leaders, and hundreds of young men and women volunteer to join the insurgency. European and U.S. counter-terrorism officials still accuse the PKK of extortion and drug dealing. Mixed messages have convinced mainstream public opinion that Turkey’s Kurds seek an independent state, even though most just want full rights within Turkey. The Kurdish movement needs to speak with one voice and honour its leaders’ commitments, if it is to be taken seriously in Ankara and its grievances are to be heard sympathetically by the rest of the country.

Finding the way to a settlement is hard, as terrorist attacks continue and the PKK mounts increasingly lengthy offensives. Turmoil in neighbouring Syria, where a PKK-affil­iated group has taken control of at least one major Kurdish area near the border with Turkey, worries Ankara and may be inflating the insurgents’ sense of power. Some on both sides are talking again of winning militarily and seem to have accepted many hundreds of dead each year as the cost, even though after nearly three decades of inconclusive fighting, public opinion among Turks and Kurds alike increasingly concedes that military action alone will not solve their mutual problem.

What has been missing is a clear conflict resolution strategy, implemented in parallel with measured security efforts to combat armed militants, to convince Turkey’s Kurds that their rights will be gradually but convincingly extended in a democratising Turkey. Now is a good time for this to change. An election (presidential) is not expected for two years. A new constitution is being drafted. The AKP has a secure parliamentary majority. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should seize the opportunity to champion democratic reforms that would meet many of the demands voiced by most of Turkey’s Kurds. This would not require negotiations with the PKK, but the prime minister should engage with the legal Kurdish movement, take its grievances into account and make it feel ownership over reforms.

Major misapprehensions exist on the question of what the Kurdish movement is and what it wants. The actions recommended below would move the conflict closer to resolution than military operations alone.


To establish an environment for progress

To the Turkish government and the leaders of the Kurdish movement:

1.  Work toward a ceasefire, urge insurgents to stop attacks, avoid large-scale military operations, including aerial bombings, and stand up to pressure for ever-stronger armed responses.

2.  Urge the PKK to rein in factions that attack and kidnap civilians, plant bombs and trash property or throw Molotov cocktails in demonstrations, and to pledge not to use a ceasefire to rearm, resupply or relocate. The security forces must limit aggressive crowd control methods, including tear or pepper gas, to an absolute minimum.

Even in the absence of a ceasefire

3.  Address the legitimate, broad demands of Kurdish society for mother-language education, the lowering of national election thresholds, more decentralised local government and removal of discriminatory ethnic bias in the constitution and laws.


4.  Change the Anti-Terror Law, Penal Code and other legislation to end the practices of indefinite pre-trial detention and prosecution of thousands of peaceful Kurdish movement activists as “terrorists”, and ensure that non-violent discussion of Kurdish issues is not punished by law.


5.  Help inform public opinion about the international legitimacy of multi-lingualism in education, ethnic diversity and wider powers for local government.


6.  Use the parliament and, in particular, its constitutional reform commission to facilitate discussion between political parties on reform and assure wide buy-in.

7.  Make public a package of measures for reintegration and retraining of former Kurdish insurgents, once the time comes to agree on full demobilisation.

To leaders of the Kurdish movement:

8.  Clarify what reforms Kurds want in language, education and public life; codify ideas for decentralisation or devolution; identify precisely which laws and constitutional articles should be changed; commit to these reforms, advocate for them in parliament and make a determined effort to explain them to mainstream Turkish opinion.


9.  Stop demanding a “self-defence militia” in Kurdish-speaking areas, end any kind of illegal political organisation in Turkey that could be construed as a parallel state and remain committed to ending the fighting and disbanding insurgent units.


To Turkey’s allies and friends, notably the U.S., Canada, UK, Ireland and Spain:

10.  Engage with the Turkish government and opinion leaders to share experiences of defusing ethnic, linguistic, and regional tensions, including through travel programs for officials, politicians and opinion-makers from all relevant sides and parties in Turkey.

11.  Continue to encourage Turkey to abide by its international commitments to protection of minority rights, freedom of expression and access to a fair trial without extended periods of pre-trial detention.

Istanbul/Brussels, 11 September 2012

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