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Turkey’s protracted PKK problem

Although many Kurds do not like the leftist and secular agenda of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the PKK has shown great resilience, in part as the result of the fragmented Iraqi and Syrian states and political missteps by Turkey.

Escalating violence between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) reflects yet another broken cease-fire in the 30-year conflict. Turkey has recommenced a cross-border bombing campaign and declared martial law in its southeastern Kurdish region while the PKK has relaunched deadly attacks against Turkish forces, institutions and assets. Still, this round of violence reflects a more protracted PKK problem. The PKK now controls its own deep-state institutions and satellite groups across Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran and has been empowered in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). It has become as much a trans-border Kurdish nationalist movement as it is a terrorist group. Any attempt to effectively counter the PKK will require dis-embedding it from Kurdish society and increasing the costs of conflict beyond a military campaign.  

Those who lived through the 1990s in Turkey have reason to worry about the renewed violence. During that period, southeastern Turkey was a deadly battle zone, defined by mass killings, extra-judicial arrests, torture, population displacements and full-scale destruction of towns and villages by the Turkish military and PKK militants. In those days, you could hear and see the nightly bombardments that lit the sky from the Iraqi Kurdish border town of Zakho. Violence was driven by xenophobic nationalisms: Turkey’s refusal to recognize and respect Kurdish ethnic identity and the PKK’s radical agenda that sought nothing less than an independent Kurdish state. 

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