Changing characteristics of the conflict between Ankara and the PKK

Changing characteristics of the conflict between Ankara and the PKK

Since July 20, 2015, Turkey has been mired in a spiral of violence. During the clashes in which around 1,000 people have lost their lives, the level of violence initiated by both the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish security forces has rapidly increased as the clashes have spread into urban areas. In addition to the rising death toll, the direct consequence of these urban clashes is socio-economic destruction, which has been getting worse with every passing day. Unfortunately, if the critical violence thresholds that have been crossed are not well analyzed, the spiral of violence in Turkey may turn into a trap of violence, implying a new wave of prolonged conflict which would be difficult to resolve in years to come.

Simply put, the post-Nov. 1 elections setting is a power struggle between two actors who feel empowered. Ankara seems intent on breaking off the international support gained by the PKK, and the PKK’s goal of popularizing its base. In turn, the PKK seems focused on eroding the credibility of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP.

Some in Turkey are inclined to describe this new wave of conflict as regressing back to the state of affairs in the 1990s. This conflict, however, should be addressed with a linear understanding of history as the space of conflict, actors involved, and the very nature of it have changed.

From rural to urban clashes: In the 1990s, the clashes were contained to rural areas away from civilians. Now, however, the PKK has turned human terrain into an arena of conflict, where the clashes are amidst civilians in towns and the increase in civilian casualties is inevitable. The fact that 80 percent of total civilian losses were in the city centers or in their vicinity in the five-month period between July 20 and Dec. 20, 2015 is a clear indicator of this trend.

The rise of youth militias: The distinction between combatant-civilian, terrorist-militia, and guerilla-sympathizer was more or less clear during the 1990s. In this new setting, however, civilians, particularly youngsters, are the ones on the frontlines. The issue of how much activist and military violence these youngsters are initiating on behalf of the PKK, to what extent they are terrorists or civilians, and how armed or unarmed they are has been getting blurred. The involvement of YDG-H militias under the age of 18 is perhaps the most important dynamic affecting the very nature of clashes. 

New strategies: The PKK thinks that it can further its aim of “democratic autonomy” with a new strategy by setting thresholds it thinks the state cannot exceed. In this sense, the PKK seems to be using new tactics of violence, which are not as extreme as those of the guerrilla war, but whose symbolic effect is strong enough to achieve its political objectives. 

Franchising the violence and the entry of proxies: In the clashes of the 1990s, the PKK and the state both seemed to be highly hierarchical and disciplined actors that made decisions about critical actions/operations at very high levels. But now, one might say that the PKK has been “franchising” armed violence. The field commands at the local level are given initiative to make decisions regarding action, planning, and execution. In addition, collaboration with other armed groups espousing radical leftist ideology is being sought to enhance operational effectiveness. 

Increasing ambiguity: In the 1990s, the start and end of actions/operations were definite. Now, most of the actions/operations start with ambiguous processes, grow spontaneously, and proceed in an open-ended fashion. This increasingly obscure process means greater difficulty for decision makers (both locally and in Ankara) in crisis management.

Increased importance of regional dynamics: In the 1990s, violence between Turkey and the PKK was more domestically contained in comparison to today. But now, understanding the dynamics of the Turkey-PKK clashes has become almost impossible without understanding the dynamics shaping the civil war in Syria, the combat strategies of ISIL, the decisions of the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition, and Russia and Iran’s strategic vision in the region. 

* Metin Gürcan is a columnist for Al-Monitor and a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University, Ankara. This is an abridged version of an original article published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Winter 2016 issue.