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Any hope left for the Turkish-Kurdish peace process?

Alice Lõhmus
Tartu Ülikool
Rahvusvahelised Suhted, MA

The conflict between the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the Turkish military forces has been going on since 1984 with over 40,000 people having lost their lives. Ever since, there have been some rather successful and many unsuccessful attempts to resolve the conflict. Recently, political and language rights that are the main cause of tension have escalated into the most violent conflict seen since the 1990s between the PKK and the military forces, with civilians in the Southeast being affected the most.

The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has previously been quite successful in its approach to adopt a more welcoming stance towards the Kurdish issue since it came to power in 2002. They continued with the previous government’s amendments and adopted a more tolerant view towards the rights of its Kurdish population due to the EU’s required reforms. After a rough start of negotiations between the PKK and the government, going back and forth with violence, rather successful peace negotiations started again in 2013 that lasted for two and half years.

The overall aim of this process was the disarmament of the PKK in return for better political and cultural rights for the Kurds as well as involvement of the third party to oversee the peace process. As a successful initiative, by 2013 several amendments were introduced in terms of rights of the Kurdish population. These included private school education in Kurdish, allowing Kurdish place names, legalizing the use of Kurdish language in political party campaigns, establishment of Kurdish language and literature departments in universities, removal of the (Turkish) nationalist oath recited by students at schools, removal of criminal sanctions for the use of the letters Q, X and W used in Kurdish as well as establishment of public state TV channel in Kurdish. The issue remains in terms of using Kurdish language in public schools in the Kurdish populated areas and more de-centralization that would leave Kurds with more decision-making.

HDP Demirtas

Selahattin Demirtaş (HDP co-chair)

Throughout the peace negotiations there was a lack of trust between both the PKK and the government officials that made the process fragile. The PKK claims that the government never lived up to the democratization phase and started building military barracks to the roads that the PKK had used to surrender, while the government says that the disarmament was not finalized and the PKK did not keep up to its promises. Another important step during peace negotiations was the Dolmabahçe Agreement, which is a document outlining a 10-item list of priorities for the resolution of the Kurdish issue, published on February 28th 2015. With the document, PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, urged the PKK to hold a congress in spring 2015 to discuss disarmament in Turkey. A joint press conference was also held between the government and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) officials at Dolmabahçe Palace to discuss the process. However, in July 2015, president Erdoğan stated that he does not recognize the phrase “Dolmabahçe Agreement”. This statement came after the HDP had passed the 10 percent electoral threshold to the Parliament and the peace process was seen to be benefitting the HDP rather than AKP.

When it comes to external factors, Syria’s civil war and the situation with Kurds in Syria has played a big role in regards to Turkey’s own Kurdish population. Things got sour in Turkey during October 2014, when Kurds went to the streets to protest against the unwillingness of the Turkish government to use relevant measures against the Islamic State and the siege of Kobani in Syria. The Kurds in Turkey were motivated to fight for Kobani as they had already witnessed the atrocities committed by the Islamic State in the Yazidi-Kurdish populated Shengal of Iraqi Kurdistan. At first, the Turkish government was against letting the Kurdish Peshmerga forces cross the Turkish border to go fight in Kobani. After the protests and escalation of violence among its own Kurds, the Turkish government allowed the fighters to cross its borders.

The ceasefire that lasted for two and a half years collapsed officially in July 2015 and since then, violence in the Southeast has escalated to a level that has not been seen since the 1990s. The triggering effect of this securitization was the Suruç attack on July 20th 2015 when activists, mostly students, were supposed to travel to Kobani to rebuild the town and the aftermath of Suruç when 2 policemen where allegedly killed by the PKK militants. After firstly denying the attack, the PKK later took the responsibility. It is also speculated that the attackers might have been the PKK youth members from the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H). From this moment on, the government announced that the peace process had been put to the ‘fridge’ and violence escalated with strict security measures taken by the Turkish military in the mostly Kurdish populated Southeast.

Sur district Diyarbakir

Sur district Diyarbakir

What makes this conflict different today is the fact that the PKK brought the war to the cities that had previously been fought in the mountains. People in Diyarbakir were the one of the most affected as some of the areas are still under curfew in Sur district and the fights between the remaining PKK fighters in the area and the military forces continue to the present day. Curfews have also been declared in other areas in the Southeast but the situation recently saw somewhat return back to normality. However, this might be changing due to the escalation of violence by the PKK. Although the government has come up with the new Action Plan to rebuild destroyed areas in the Southeast, the question remains how can the psychological aspect be treated. This question is unanswered even by the governing party’s deputies as seen from my MA thesis interviews who are also unaware how will the new plan be working in practice. This does not seem to be the first priority either.

Externally, the Syrian civil war and the Kurdish factions’ gaining of control in Syria close to the Turkish border have played an important role in the Turkish domestic politics. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, affiliate of the PKK, is seen as a threat to Turkey’s national security and integrity. However, the PYD has been wise enough not to attack Turkey directly while getting legitimacy in the eyes of the anti-ISIS coalition. The PYD’s efforts to gain more control in the West of Euphrates has been declared to be a ‘red line’ for Turkey and the Turkish military forces have responded by air bombardments to the group controlled areas.

The Turkish government’s security discourse towards the PYD and also the PKK increased towards the elections in June 2015. This was the first time that the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) passed the electoral threshold and gained about 13%1 of the votes that left the AKP without gaining the full majority in the Parliament to be able to change the Constitution. After this, the security situation changed dramatically between the PKK militants and the Turkish military forces, with civilians in the cities being affected the most. During the snap elections in November 2015, the election campaign of the AKP was along the security and stability lines, which made some of the previous HDP voters switch their votes to the AKP in the hope for the security situation to stabilize. However, this was not the case and things escalated further.


While in the media, the AKP members are the most vocal ones, this is not the case when interviewing people in private. Most deputies interviewed for the thesis took a defensive stance while other members expressed their concern over the security measures taken in the Southeast and its consequences. While generally all AKP deputies have ruled out the possibility to return to the peace negotiations involving the PKK, some governing party’s members interviewed together with all other civil society experts say that this is necessary in order to solve the Kurdish-Turkish issue.

The AKP politicians generally see the triggering effect of why the peace process collapsed to be the killing of the two policemen after Suruç attacks. The HDP and the civil society interviewed for the thesis mostly say that this is more of a symbolic event and the real reasons lie somewhere else. Some related this to President Erdoğan’s denial of the Dolmabahce agreement, others to the success of the HDP in June 2015 elections, civil war in Syria or that the AKP was not gaining from the peace process and this was only beneficial for the Kurdish fraction.

In public, the AKP officials hold a general view that the PKK has lost its chance to start the peace process again and that the government does not negotiate with terrorists. The ones that can negotiate with the PKK, is the Turkish Intelligence (MIT). Previous Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu was seen to have a somewhat softer stance in returning to the peace talks when it collapsed, his resignation does not make the situation easier in regards to the Kurdish issue. The HDP would probably like to see itself as a mediator between the PKK and the government and ideally have an international third party to overlook the process. On the other hand, Turkey sees the Kurdish issue as a domestic problem. However, this is getting harder to resolve due to the fact that the Syrian civil war has now spilled over to Turkey.
Moreover, what emerged from the interviews is that the language rights are still the most important question for the Kurds and the root causes need to be addressed to have a sustainable solution for the Kurdish issue. The HDP is a strong supporter of this in public schools, but the recent violent actions of the PKK make it hard to even be debatable on a political level.

Although the AKP justifies the restrictive security measures taken in the Southeast and this being successful in terms of the fight against the PKK, reality is different for the civilians. After the restrictive measures taken by the security forces, the support for the PKK started to rise. The young Kurds in the Southeast are being more radicalized due to the curfews and other security measures taken ever since the peace process collapsed and this will be very hard to change as the security situation has started to escalate in the Southeast further after the failed-coup. Yet the PKK has probably lost its support due to recent violent attacks.

The government officials also see the Syrian civil war as an obstacle to resume the peace process as the PKK affiliated PYD is gaining more control close to the Turkish border, making the PKK’s influence stronger outside of Turkey. On the other hand, the pro-Kurdish HDP holds the view that the Turkish government should cooperate with the PYD to settle its own Kurdish issue. The government wants the HDP to openly declare that the PKK is a terrorist organization.

Situation after the failed coup?

After the failed coup attempt and the declaration of the state of emergency in Turkey, things have started to escalate even further. The failed coup attempt on the 15th July would have probably been a good initiative for unity of all people and the political parties in Turkey to also pave the way for a negotiated solution for the Turkish-Kurdish peace process. However, the reality turned out to be somewhat different.

The pro-Kurdish HDP party was the first one to officially condemn the failed coup attempt with a statement and HDP’s co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş called for democratic rallies across Turkey. In the past, Kurds have probably been the most affected groups by different coup d’etats and have had a rough relationship with the military. Interestingly, according to the latest survey, Kurds composed of 12 percent of the people on the streets who protested against the coup attempt . This is a high percentage, taking into account that the Kurds form around 20 percent of the population in Turkey.

Yenikapi democratic rally

Yenikapi democratic rally

Selahattin Demirtaş was also the first one who called for the meeting of political leaders. While the opposition leaders from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) were invited to President Erdoğan’s Presidential Palace, HDP’s co-chair Demirtaş was excluded. HDP was later also not invited to the joint parties’ democratic rally in Yenikapi, Istanbul. The story goes that if President Erdoğan would have invited the People’s Democratic Party to the rally, he wouldn’t have been able to explain it to the families of martyrs and veterans who have left their lives in the fight against the PKK. This unification of people and the opposition parties would have been a good initiative to involve the HDP in the anti-coup rallies as well for a common cause against the coup for people. Unfortunately, this opportunity that would have had potential gains in regards to the future peace process is now lost and recently, things only seem to escalate with arrests, detentions and a fragile rule of law to count on in the future.

After somewhat calm period, the recent PKK attacks on 8th of August in the Southeast have escalated the tensions and have contributed in ruining the negotiated peace talks after the coup attempt. 8 people were killed and many others injured in two separate bomb attacks when the roadside explosive was detonated by the PKK militants who targeted a police vehicle . Another PKK attack was also launched against a police vehicle in Diyarbakir the same day. Before this, the Turkish military announced that they had killed 35 PKK militants because of their links into attacking the military base in the Southeastern Turkey. Early on Aug. 18th, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım promised a fierce response to the PKK who had killed at least 12 people and injuring hundreds of others in three separate attacks in less than 24 hours .

Although the HDP has strongly condemned these attacks, the future return to the peace process negotiations might have also disappeared due to PKK’s actions after the failed coup and the government’s response to intensify the strategy against the PKK. The HDP has continuously been calling for the government to return to talks between the state and the PKK. The question remains, how would the PKK have reacted if the HDP was included in the post-coup ‘democracy talks’ and the official rally with the other parties. There have been speculations that some members of the PKK might not like the success of HDP in the Parliament and its non-violent stance when condemning the actions of the PKK.

Furthermore, prosecutors in Turkey are now seeking 5 years in jail for Selahattin Demirtaş and another HDP’s deputy for “terrorist group propaganda” spread in their speeches during 2013, allegedly supporting the PKK . This can further lead to confrontations in the Southeast. President Erdoğan accuses the HDP of being a political wing of the PKK, while the HDP denies any direct links with the autonomy seeking militant group. President Erdoğan was the main leader behind Turkish parliament’s move to lift the immunity of many HDP deputies, along with the immunity of deputies from other parties. However, the accusations of other parties have been partially taken back after the coup attempt to show solidarity.

Things have started to take another turn when it comes to different media outlets. For instance, some pro-government media sources poured oil into the fire saying that some high commanders had escaped to the Kandil mountains, where the PKK is also based, after the failed coup attempt. Shortly after, the intelligence condemned this saying it is not true. Now, there are some outlets saying that the PKK and the Gülen-movement have links to each other to cause more tension in the society. However, the Gülen movement has always been very anti-PKK and refused any kinds of talks between the two groups, when the PKK has tried to make some contacts in the past. PKK has accused the Gülen movement of jeopardizing the peace process previously. President Edoğan said after the Aug. 18th PKK attacks in Elazığ that “no one needed to be an oracle to see that FETÖ is behind the recent PKK attacks in terms of intelligence sharing and promotion,” referring to the followers of Gülen movement, behind the July 15 coup attempt . While previously the PKK has not been linked to the movement, the situation is starting to take interesting turns. Suddenly some previous actions, such as downing of the Russian plane in November 2015, are being linked to the Gülen movement orders. This new trend will make it harder to solve any questions in regards to the Kurdish issue too.

These accusations can cause further escalation of the conflict between the PKK and the military forces as well as destroy hopes of returning to the negotiation table. Moreover, some analysts claim that when the AKP would use such accusations, this would pave the way in the society and it would make mobilization of people easier. Right now, the focus is on the Gülen-movement but soon this can switch to escalation of the conflict in the Southeast as the increase of the PKK attacks show.

Currently, the threat perception after the failed coup in Turkey is higher than before. This makes any kind of solution to the Kurdish-Turkish peace process questionable in the near future. Although involving the HDP to the official democratic rallies and to the talks of unity by the political leaders would of perhaps calmed the society and paved the way for the Kurdish-Turkish peace negotiations, the reality is different. Political games are now more obvious than ever with the shift of the CHP to a more moderate stance towards the governing party. Many Kurds are afraid of the escalation of the situation in the Southeast. Alternatively, this all might lead to the exclusion of HDP from the Parliament during next elections and a never ending struggle for the peace process negotiations. Recent arrests after the failed coup do not help either, with more than 2000 judges being detained and a current crack down on academics as well as journalists. One can only hope for a fair trial of people with proper evidence and not an overall crackdown on the opposition after the failed coup attempt. International organizations together with the EU could have a bigger role in this as a third eye.

There is no shared vision between the government and the Turkish Kurds that would contribute to the lasting peace. Even after the failed coup it seems that the AKP, CHP and MHP have united under some kind of shared nationalism that excludes the HDP that has taken a general view that it is not only standing for the Kurds, but for all the minorities and people in Turkey. However, without involving the PKK to the peace talks, that the government has completely ruled out, it is impossible to solve the tensions that are currently escalating in the Southeast. On the other hand, if the HDP does not declare the PKK to be a terrorist organization as the government is asking, they will continue to be excluded from any talks that are necessary to build the future of Turkey after the failed coup attempt.


Hurriyet, 10.08.2016. “Twin PKK attacks kill eight in Turkey’s southeast.”

Hurriyet 13.08.2016. “Does this road go to the peace process”.

Hurriyet 19.08.2016. “Turkish PM pledges fierce response to PKK attacks that killed at least 12”.

Reuters, 12.08.2016. “Turkey prosecutors seek five years in jail for pro-Kurdish party leader: media”.

Yeğen, M. 2015. Global Turkey in Europe. “The Kurdish Peace Process in Turkey: Genesis, Evolution and Prospects”. Pp. 2-15.

Loe lisaks

Alice Lõhmuse magistritöö – What is the impact of the Kurdish factor on securitization of the Turkish domestic politics and foreign affairs?