Kurdish militia fighters on Sunday killed two Turkish soldiers in separate attacks, the culmination of a week of tit-for-tat violence that accompanied the intensification of a Turkish government bombing campaign against Kurdish positions. The week of fighting — which has left scores dead — and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's comments on Wednesday that peace talks are now impossible have effectively derailed Turkey’s precarious peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The collapse of the talks has been dramatic. Just over two years ago, in April 2013, Turkey struck a deal with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan to end decades of violence by beginning a peace process with the country’s Kurdish minority. The announcement inspired jubilant celebrations in much of the Kurdish-dominant parts of Turkey, and was heralded as a new beginning.
But despite a great deal of early hopes, the peace process has floundered. The government has accused the PKK of failing to fully withdraw its armed forces from Turkey, while the Kurds have accused the government of failing to implement key legislation regarding legal protections for Kurdish fighters during the disarmament process. PKK fighters have also accused the government of gearing up for future clashes by building security infrastructure in areas vacated by Kurdish fighters. And as the peace process was conducted largely on an individual level between Erdogan and Ocalan, it has never moved beyond the personal to institutional level.
Over the course of the last several months, however, Erdogan’s political calculations appear to have changed. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Pary (AKP) once united disparate interests under the umbrella of a single party, from Turkish nationalists to large swathes of the Kurdish population. However, this balancing act proved impossible to sustain. In the course of the last year, many Kurds switched their support the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP), frustrated with what they considered the AKP’s indifference to Kurdish suffering at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in northern Syria, among other issues. Meanwhile, Turkish nationalist conservatives began switching their allegiance to the Nationalist Movement Party. The AKP’s fragile alliances came crashing down during the last election in June, in which the AKP lost its outright majority in parliament.
Some Turkish analysts say these shifting political allegiances have undermined for the AKP the value of the peace process and that it could be a political gambit to win back the votes it lost during the last election, particularly from nationalist quarters. An early election could be called as soon as this November.
The ongoing conflict in northern Syria has also come to represent a major opportunity for the PKK to do something that it cannot do in Turkey: carve out an autonomous, contiguous region. Its sister organization, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has been instrumental in fighting ISIL in the area, but the PKK considers Turkey to have been attempting to undermine these efforts, particularly since last fall's ISIL siege of Kobane. Turkey itself has said that it will never allow a state to be formed in northern Syria no matter the cost.
In this atmosphere of mutual distrust and rivalry, old tropes of Turkish hostility to the Kurdish struggle for nationhood have been resurrected. In Erdogan’s comments on Monday, he promised to call to account the “terrorists” responsible for spilling the blood of “martyrs." The comments also suggest that Turkey could be gearing up for a renewed crackdown on the Kurdish political movement and civil society. Moves have already been made to prosecute key figures in the HDP following Erdogan’s suggestion that parliamentary immunity could be lifted against individuals from the pro-Kurdish party.
The ramifications of the collapse of the peace process on Turkey’s policy toward the Kurds in northern Syria remain to be seen. So far, Turkey appears to have been targeting the PKK in its Iraqi strongholds and within its own borders but not in northern Syria, at least not as a matter of official policy. Should this change, it could have enormous implications for the war in Syria and Turkey’s relations with other members of the international, Western-backed anti-ISIL coalition who have seen the Syrian Kurds as an indispensable bulwark against ISIL.
But while the collapse of the peace process in Turkey in the short-term is likely to see violence continue for some time, the viability of the peace process as a long-term prospect cannot yet be written off. A protracted conflict is still not an ideal status quo for either Ankara or the PKK. The peace process has spread beyond the initial diplomatic outreach of Erdogan and Ocalan, and since found widespread backing across Turkish and Kurdish society, something that is likely to make a renewed state of domestic conflict very unpopular. Meanwhile, for the PKK, a war with the Turkish armed forces represents an unwelcome distraction from its existential struggle against ISIL in northern Syria.
Galip Dalay, research director at Al Sharq Forum, recently argued that this renewed state of conflict is untenable: “Turkey and the PKK have no choice but to work towards a political solution. Neither Turkey, nor the PKK, can attain anything other than a pyrrhic victory by reinstating a long-lasting, exhausting war — especially at a moment when Turkish and Kurdish society have had a taste of normalcy and non-violence.” The beleaguered Turkish and Kurdish public will be hoping that such measured rationality will overcome the short-term concerns again fueling the rising conflict.