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Ankara needs to explain its turnaround in dealings with PKK

As confrontations persist between Turkish government forces and the Kurdistan Workers Party, the government has remained mum about the reasons for the breakdown of the Kurdish peace process.

People in Turkey today are deeply confused about what to make of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Kurdish peace process, which is now "in the fridge" — in the words of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Seasoned journalists such as Al-Monitor's columnist Amberin Zaman have asked, “Has the PKK been tricked?” Others debate the differences between the PKK and the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

In recent years, pro-Justice and Development Party (AKP) media have done an impeccable job of showing the friendly face of the Kurdish movement and propagating that peace will arrive if only the pundits could accept that the peace process was inevitable.

Yet, now the same media is preaching to us all how dangerous the PKK and how evil the Kurdish movement is. Anyone who dares to ask a question is promptly labeled as an ally of terrorist groups and a traitor. On Aug. 27, Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan was quoted as saying, “People voted for the HDP but the HDP failed to continue the peace process.” There is a lingering confusion about why the process ended, as well as how to differentiate between the HDP and the PKK.

Rather than trying to reach an agreement on how to disarm the PKK, current policies seem to encourage the organization to arm further. Not a day passes without news of escalating violence in Turkey. So what has really changed about the PKK, and is the strategy the Turkish government is applying appropriate?

Ari Heskifi, a young journalist following the events on the ground, told Al-Monitor, “PKK leader Duran Kalkan made an announcement on Aug. 24 highlighting the renewed military strategy of the PKK. Don’t attack any civilians, don’t attack any security personnel [police or soldiers] who do not participate in operations. Only those who are involved in war crimes should be punished.” Heskifi stressed that the PKK is just retaliating and not fighting the Turkish military. Their priority is the Islamic State (IS) and some of the events that take place, he argues, are not necessarily with direct orders from the PKK. “The PKK youth are reacting to the unwarranted arrests by declaring independent cantons and digging ditches around towns,” he said.

Another Kurdish political activist who spoke on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor, “The PKK was about to be taken off the terror lists of the West and achieve legitimacy up until the June 7 election results were released. They had established a solid reputation fighting IS. Now the bombings of the Turkish government are hurting their financial and logistical structure.” On Aug. 27, the PKK requested that the people should take to the streets while the security forces crack down on Kurdish towns such as Gewer and Cizre. Their fine-tuned demand for autonomy has currently become louder.

Since the collapse of the peace process, the PKK has been trying hard to convince the public that they are more than an armed resistance movement, by checking IDs on main roads, not targeting civilians, giving female fighters a prominent place on the front-line and creating photo opportunities.

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a renowned scholar specializing in the PKK, told Al-Monitor, “There has been no ideological changes within the PKK during the peace process. They still demand an autonomous Kurdish state. For tactical purposes, they agreed to a confederation. In the notorious Dolmabahce protocol on Feb. 28 they declared it to the AKP leaders. That said, there are two factors that benefited the PKK. First, the Syrian civil war, through which the PKK’s legitimacy has been recognized at the military and diplomatic levels. Second, the AKP [sustained losses] in the June 7 elections, which led to its loss of legitimacy at the negotiating table. The combined effect shows us that the Kurdish movement has gathered about 6 million votes in June, and militarily managed to utilize the peace process to increase its base, number of militants and supporters, as well as its arms arsenals.”

Serdar Erdurmaz, a retired army officer and vice president of Ankara-based think tank TURKSAM, told Al-Monitor, “After the elections there has been a rift between the military [PKK] and political [HDP] wing of the Kurdish movement. The PKK must have counted on the situation in Syria as the optimal time to strike, but the US said ‘Turkey has the right to defend itself.’"

The IS threat had also brought together Kurdish groups across the region. The PKK was founded in 1978 and has been operational since 1983. Pundits agree that the longer an armed nonstate actor survives, the harder it is to eradicate its existence.

All the Kurdish activists and the Turkish soldiers Al-Monitor spoke with concurred that the military strategies are only as good as their political goals. Erhan Kutay, a retired colonel, asked, “What is the viable political end goal here? The military cannot decide upon the end goal, but can only advise about the methods to get there. That said, there is now violence, which requires imminent attention, meaning field dominance. The military had established this at one point, but now?”

An active duty officer who asked to remain unnamed told Al-Monitor, “The military’s responsibilities have been transferred to the police. Now if we want to put the military back in, we need strong coordination of intelligence sharing between the two. It is difficult because morale in both are quite low. Both the police and the soldiers have been victims of political dramas.”

A retired general told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The Turkish armed forces have not been in combat since the peace process started. Their top echelons have all been scattered due to a series of political and wrongful arrests. Reputations of heroic names in the battle against the PKK have been tarnished. The soldiers question the purpose of the fight.”

Retired Col. Guler told Al-Monitor, “Rules of conscription have been relaxed, while the rotation system in the military also affects the battle against the PKK. A PKK fighter serves in the region on average three to five years, while a Turkish officer serves two. Soldiers’ knowledge of the area is limited, and so the PKK has the upper hand.”

How can this war end? This is not a war that can be won exclusively by the army. Guler said, “It depends on what our political goal is. The Turkish army has the power to win, if we know the target. It cannot be won halfheartedly, which means in [certain] areas soldiers need permission to go on foot. The army needs a consistent policy and the government needs to show full commitment to its stated goals.”

This may just be the most difficult part of it all. The peace process was carried through on terms yet unknown to the public; now that it has been abruptly suspended, no one can tell if it will collapse entirely or continue.

In the meantime, both sides struggle to permeate the hearts and minds of people in Turkey about their own morality. The mainstream media, for instance, laments about the PKK’s child soldiers, while the PKK insists no minors are allowed in combat missions.

Sooner, rather than later, the Turkish government will need to explain to the public whether the PKK was a credible partner at the negotiating table only a few months ago, and why the government insists on glorifying martyrdom now.

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