Bombing the PKK: It’s the (domestic) politics, stupid!

Below is a couple of assorted thoughts on what lies behind the recent decision to resume bombing the PKK by the Turkish government. (It’s all my own opinion, obviously):

There seems to have formed another “narrative” on why Turkey is engaging militarily along its borders at this time, here expressed by a recent Guardian editorial:

The Turkish government may thus have acted now because it feared an outbreak of hostilities between the PKK and Isis on Turkish soil after a suicide bombing attack earlier this week, attributed to Isis, which killed 32 people in a town near the Syrian border. That was followed by PKK attacks on Turkish police, supposedly for failing to protect Turkish Kurds.

There is another reason too, which has less to do with ISIS-PKK fighting spilling over into Turkey, and more to do with strategic political calculations of the AKP government.

Despite the clear threat of ISIS in Turkey, the Turkish government continues to see political Kurdish organizations, whether they are peaceful or violent, as greater threats. A key reason for this is that empowered political Kurds could seek to devolve power away from Ankara to the provinces, something that unites most Turkish political elites as threatening national integrity and security. My opinion is that it is less an inherent dislike for Kurds that drives state repression of this minority than the state’s fear for the institutional consequences and loss of centralized power a leveled playing field for the Kurds would have.

The Turkish government’s accommodation of ISIS in Syria so far follows mostly from the rise of the Syrian Kurds, the PYD/YPG. Its animosity toward Assad also increased after the dictator pulled back from Kurdish areas of Syria, effectively leaving the field open for the Kurds. Having an organization largely indistinguishable from the terrorist-designated PKK running your border checkpoints is undoubtedly a problem, but perhaps more so is how the Syrian Kurds’ political ascent has affected the PKK’s outside option in its talks with the Turkish government.

The “peace talks”, “solution process”, “Imrali process”, or whatever you want to call the talks between members of the PKK and those of the Turkish government, was always an asymmetric engagement and, at best, a long shot. What should have been a broad discussion of political enfranchisement has many times seem to focus more on what would befall PKK leaders and the circumstances of Ocalan’s imprisonment. From the Turkish side, talks appear mostly as means to disarm PKK, negotiating surrender, rather than anything else. But more striking is perhaps how the regional environment has changed since the talks started. When the peace talks started in the late 2000s, PKK had its back against the wall, squeezed between Turkey, Iran, the KRG in Iraq, Assad in Syria, and a Europe that then still saw Turkey as promising and ripe for EU talks.

The peace talks seem to have started when the PKK’s outside option – continued warfare – was at its worst. At that point, one can imagine that any negotiated deal would have resulted in rather modest concessions from the Turkish government, causing similarily modest political costs among the AKP’s more nationalist Turkish base. Furthermore, relatively weak Kurdish political parties made sure PKK was the main spokesperson for Turkey’s Kurds. As such, in 2009, the political gains involved in resolving its most serious conflict likely outweighted its political costs.

With the Syrian civil war, Assad’s pulling back from Kurdish areas, and the rise of the Syrian Kurds, the PKK’s outside option improved markedly. With its success in Syria, PKK was no longer in such a bad state, with military successes in Sincar, and even greater political successes in its cooperation with US forces in beating back ISIS. Undoubtedly the terms demanded by the PKK likely swung into red territory for the AKP. To make things worse, the electoral success of the Kurdish party HDP made things even more complicated as the AKP would now have to negotiate with two organizations, each looking to claim specific concessions and each wanting to be seen as the main spokesperson for Turkey’s Kurds. But most damaging, the surge in “political Kurdishness” caused direct political harm to AKP in the last election, as HDP climbed above the ten percent threshold needed for parliamentary representation, scuttling an AKP supermajority in parliament and its plans for an executive-presidential constitution. As I’ve discussed previously on this blog, a large share of this surge came from Kurds previously voting for the AKP.

Bombing PKK camps in Iraq is unlikely to destroy the organization, or to weaken it to levels it can’t recuperate from. Turkey has witnessed multiple rounds of mass incarceration of Kurdish activists (recently in the KCK trials), and bombed Qandil mountains as recently as in 2011. The Turkish government probably knows it can’t defeat PKK military, so then why is it resorting to violence then?

The likely target here is instead the HDP. By striking hard at the PKK, the Turkish government is pressuring the HDP to pick a side. Either it denounces PKK to end violence, risking political blowback among its Kurdish base, or it adopts a more pro-Kurdish rhetoric, risking the ire of the Turkish public as well as the judiciary, which has a long history of banning Kurdish parties and politicians. The strain could furthermore risk breaking the HDP party, with its more pro-PKK members leaving to pursue its goals elsewhere.

As coalition talks to form a new government are stalling, Turkey may soon see another round of elections. If the current conflict results in HDP polling below the ten percent threshold, this could leave the field open for an AKP supermajority, an Erdogan presidency, and a new era of political AKP dominance in Turkish politics.