Turkey’s chronic PKK problem enters a new phase

Turkey’s chronic PKK problem enters a new phase

Negotiations between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are in a state of controlled crisis. Both domestic and foreign affairs are under pressure. In the highly divisive environment defined by nearing elections and mass protests, the idea that the PKK can utilize its capacity to perform “professional violence” must be driving Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan mad.

The PKK announced that it had stopped withdrawing its militants from within Turkey’s borders, because the government’s “reforms” are inadequate and Erdoğan is stalling the process. They also stated that the process would not completely stop and that they are doing this to force the government to take further steps. In other words, they are sending the government a “costly signal.” To show their determination, they are saying that they can resort to force, if needed.

The government will surely declare a new “reform” package in the coming days, but it is hard to say that the PKK will be satisfied with this package. Erdoğan can clearly see the challenge of establishing a “bilingual system” that will be of utmost strategic importance in “power sharing,” but will also cause the government to incur serious political costs in the short run, especially in the approaching elections.

On the other hand, the risk of resurgent PKK violence is real. In that case, the government can be expected to react harshly. Still, the PKK can limit the government’s capacity to react by initially focusing on acts that put civilians on center stage. Such acts can also be perpetrated in coordination with the already stirring street demonstrations.

Like every government under the threat of terrorism, the Erdoğan government will want to take additional measures against the PKK. Unfortunately, the psychological, legal and administrative reconstruction of the security and intelligence apparatus in recent years is now a burden for Erdoğan.
Taking security measures against a hybrid organization like the PKK, experienced in guerrilla and street tactics and active in a wide field, is more difficult than it was in the past. Moreover, as part of its “national negotiation strategy,” the government has already appointed the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan as the sole representative of the Kurdish people. In recent months, security forces have sat in their barracks or stations and left the Kurdish population entirely to the PKK’s control. They now lack active popular support and are bound to face difficulties in providing effective security.

Provocations by the PKK can put the government in a difficult position in the eyes of domestic and foreign public opinion. Erdoğan can try to bide his time by making “strategically insignificant” concessions to the PKK until the elections. The PKK, however, thinks that it has caught the government in its weakest moments.