Resuming dialogue with PKK does not look easy

Resuming dialogue with PKK does not look easy

Despite calls from the West, resuming talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) does not seem likely or easy for the Turkish government for the time being, according to security officials.

A speech delivered by President Tayyip Erdoğan on April 19 clearly stated that the idea of another round of talks is still firmly “in the fridge” and will not be taken out until acts by the PKK come to an end and all militants are “eradicated.” This was the latest of a number of firm statements Erdoğan has made over the past two weeks. The rhetoric has been so strong that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu - who hinted at the possibility of resuming dialogue if the PKK is ready to return to the “set of circumstances of 2013” (meaning a hands-off-arms policy) - has now shifted to Erdoğan’s line and said dialogue is impossible without an end to PKK terrorism.

This policy of Erdoğan seems to have popular support beyond the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) base. A recent poll showed that a large majority of Turkish citizens are in favor of the “state” showing its “strength” against the wave of violence. That rate has also pushed up support for Erdoğan’s political plan for a constitutional shift to an executive presidential system.

There are also other reasons that make the resumption of dialogue difficult for now.

The first and most important one is the ongoing “uprising” by the PKK in a number of towns near Turkey’s borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. After resuming its attacks in July 2015 - ending the three-year-old dialogue between the government, the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), the HDP and the PKK – the PKK started a “self-rule” campaign in those towns with weapons, ammunition, explosives and militants. It had apparently prepared for this eventuality throughout the dialogue process. 

The state security forces responded with massive force, not hesitating to use heavy weapons in urban areas in order to prevent the PKK from taking the towns under full control. This counter-campaign took longer than the government predicted, but the PKK has ultimately failed to emulate the self-rule system that it managed to establish in many towns in Syria through its extension there, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), taking advantage of the failed Syrian state because of the civil war.

The second reason why the resumption of dialogue is unlikely for now relates to the learning curve that the Turkish security forces have been on since September 2015 against the innovative tactics and urban warfare of the PKK. The PKK has not only been digging trenches, building barricades, and booby trapping almost everything in sight, it has also committed suicide bomb attacks in big cities like the capital Ankara, indiscriminately killing civilians. The security forces have learned how to counter these tactics through combined military-police-intelligence operations, developing new strategies. The PKK’s losses are huge and its forced recruit campaign has caused discontent among many local people. The mood in the government is that the PKK is on the verge of being defeated, so it must be the PKK that gives up. 

The third reason is the current situation in Syria and Iraq. The only reason why Turkey cannot get the assistance it desires against the PKK from its Western allies is that the U.S. wants to use the PKK and/or the PYD militia as a ground force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), known as Daesh in Arabic. Ankara does not want the PKK or the PYD to combine forces to step up their campaign along Turkey’s border with Syria border.

Could the situation change if the PKK gives in and declares that its latest campaign was a bad idea and a failure? It may, but this is not likely to happen for a while either. Murat Karayılan, a key figure within the PKK, recently said in an interview that the campaign was the PKK’s “last opportunity,” so it must now fight until the end.

For all these reasons, a resumption of dialogue between the Turkish government and the PKK does not look very easy or likely under the current circumstances.