A Last Gasp for the Peace Process in Turkey

How did Ankara’s relationship with the Kurds deteriorate so dramatically over the past decade and where is it headed?

A Last Gasp for the Peace Process in Turkey
Mizgin Ekin, a mayoral candidate for the People’s Equality and Democracy Party, at a candidates presentation event. (Mehmet Masum Suer/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In the waning days of 2023, Turkey’s conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group with which it has engaged in periodic military conflict for 40 years, reached a new flash point. Twelve Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes along the Iraqi-Turkish border, along with a small handful of PKK militants. Turkey responded with retaliatory air strikes, not only in Iraq but also in northeastern Syria against PKK-aligned Kurdish groups who have held pockets of territory (with assistance from the United States military) in that area since the outset of the civil conflict in Syria in 2011.

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), intermittent clashes between Ankara and the PKK have claimed over 5,000 lives, including civilians, since the coup attempt of July 15, 2016, which marked the end of the bloodiest year in Turkey’s recent history. Over this period, there has also been a steady repression of Kurdish political parties in Turkey. Since entering Parliament for the first time in June 2015, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has seen its party leaders imprisoned on trumped-up charges, its popularly elected mayors unilaterally replaced with trustees from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and, most recently, been subject to a series of specious legal cases aimed at permanently shutting down the party itself. Erdogan has consistently argued that the HDP is a mere political puppet for the PKK and its Syrian affiliates, often tossing them into an alphabet soup of purported co-conspirators in the 2016 coup attempt, along with al Qaeda, the Islamic State group, the Gulenists (followers of Fethullah Gulen’s Hizmet movement), extreme-left groups like the DHKP/C (Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front) and so on.

What we are observing in these moments, before municipal elections to be held on March 31, are the last gasps of a peace process between Turkey and its Kurdish minorities that began in 2013. The process formally ended in 2015, but the relationship and the chances of a restart have since deteriorated into periodic violence and repression. As Kurds find their voices utterly marginalized in formal politics, the resort to armed resistance has become an increasingly real — and worrisome — prospect. It is important in this moment to understand how we arrived at this point and the choices that were made to bring it about.

As Roj Girasun, director of the Kurdish-oriented think tank Rawest Research, has detailed, repression dampened Kurdish participation in the last round of presidential and parliamentary elections earlier in 2023 and likely contributed to Erdogan’s reelection, despite serious economic and structural headwinds in favor of the opposition. In the wake of those elections, Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned leader of the HDP, announced through his lawyers that he would be withdrawing from party politics to “continue the struggle from inside prison.” That valedictory note, and the ensuing struggle against closure by the reconstituted HDP — now under a new name, the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party) — signal the Kurdish community’s retreat from formal politics, which could portend an intensification of this conflict in the months ahead. While political repression and violent conflict have intensified in tandem since 2015, last year’s elections and Demirtas’ exit were a clear turning point: Until this last campaign, the possibility of a restart of the peace process, of a return to normal politics for the HDP and Demirtas, was an option at Erdogan’s disposal if the situation had called for it.

The intensification of the conflict since the 2023 general election, and in particular since late December 2023, continues the recent pattern of Turkish-Kurdish relations with increasingly constrained political avenues as violence gradually ratchets up. This pattern strongly suggests that a more intense armed conflict is Erdogan’s desired outcome and the AKP-led government’s strategy toward the PKK specifically and Kurdish groups in Turkey generally. The “peace process” that had defined Erdogan’s rapprochement with the Kurds early in his tenure has been unraveling ever since Kurdish groups mobilized a party strong enough to enter Parliament, but the 2023 election and the events since appear to be the final straw. This shift has also been reflected in Kurdish politics, both inside and outside Turkey.

As Mohammed A. Salih recently wrote in these pages, political consolidation in Kurdish-held regions of Syria has progressed even as Turkey has ramped up attacks, including on civilian targets in the region. That political consolidation has certainly not dampened the willingness of the PKK and its affiliates to carry out reprisals. Faced with these prospects, Erdogan has decided he would rather confront Kurds with guns, bombs and a good many drones than continue to face pressure from them in the political arena.

What is commonly known in Turkish as the “solution process” between Erdogan’s government and the PKK was in essence a two-year-long cease-fire from March 2013 to July 2015. It began with a long-negotiated announcement on behalf of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan at Newroz (New Year) festivities that the PKK would cease activity inside Turkey and retreat its positions to northern Iraq. The cease-fire would formally come to an end in July 2015, when two Turkish police officers in southeastern Turkey were murdered by unidentified assailants — which Erdogan blamed on the PKK and used as a pretext for reengaging militarily, striking at Kurdish YPG positions in northern Syria, and ultimately placing the entire southeastern region of Turkey under emergency administration.The opening of the peace process encouraged Kurdish civilian politicians in Turkey, like Demirtas, to build their political base and capitalize on growing frustration with Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism and restrictive, Islamist social outlook. Protests across Turkey had become increasingly strident in the months and years leading up to the announcement of the cease-fire, and then in late May 2013 things exploded as a police raid on a small environmentalist protest encampment in Istanbul’s Gezi Park sparked a two-month-long protest movement that drew in the traditional Kemalists (followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic) in the Republican People’s Party (CHP), as well as Kurdish parties and featured significant violent clashes with police.

In August 2014 Turkey held the first popular vote for president in the country’s history, which Erdogan won with 52%. The HDP spent the year after the presidential election aggressively reaching out to voters who had traditionally voted for other opposition parties, especially the CHP. Voters who may otherwise have been hostile to the traditional aims of Kurdish identity politics understood that by helping the HDP into Parliament in 2015, they stood a chance of pulling the AKP below a majority share of the seats, forcing a coalition government. They may even have understood that while they had apprehensions about the aspirations of the Kurdish movement writ large, bringing the HDP into the normal political arena could temper the more radical segments of the movement.

I was in Turkey during this time, and such was the nature of conversations over meals with friends, colleagues, host families and the like throughout the spring of 2015. In 17 years of traveling in and studying Turkey, I cannot remember a more hopeful time for Turkey’s political opposition — it seemed as if some of the old consensus about Turkish politics was changing and that the Gezi generation was on the cusp of its first great victory. Indeed, as the results of the June polls came in, it seemed as if that victory was at hand. The HDP came in with 13% of the vote, well past the 10% threshold for parliamentary representation. It won the same number of seats (80) as the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). More significantly, the AKP pulled in only 40% of the vote and came up 18 seats short of a majority. It was, and remains, the only national election of the past 20 years that could be described as a defeat for the AKP.

This was the greatest success of the “peace process.” Kurds won the kind of sway in Parliament they had never had in the past, their ideological opponents — both in the AKP and the opposition — would be forced to negotiate with them, and Kurdish politics had to be taken seriously in Turkey.

The choices that led to the current deterioration began here. The AKP and Erdogan were as well positioned as anyone else to negotiate with the HDP and may even have achieved further deradicalization through that process. Erdogan had been increasingly concerned by developments in Syria, as the wings of the PKK there were deeply engaged in combating the Islamic State and beginning to win for themselves the sort of sovereignty that the organization had never been able to achieve in Turkey or Iraq. In so many ways, the June 2015 elections could have been the end of the beginning of the peace process and a stage for further reconciliation, healing and democratization for a long-aggrieved minority. Instead, it was the beginning of the end.

Faced with the option of building on the political capital the peace process had built over the previous two years, Erdogan instead chose violence despite having suffered an electoral defeat. The year following the June 2015 elections, continuing through to the failed coup attempt of July 2016, was the bloodiest in Turkey since at least 1980. Violence began shortly after the elections as suspected Islamic State operatives bombed a Kurdish group in southeastern Turkey, which was followed by the murder of two Turkish police. A spiral of reprisals followed. Much of southeastern Turkey was placed under martial law. A rally that was organized by the HDP and a group of labor unions in Ankara was bombed a month before scheduled snap elections in November — 109 died in the deadliest terror attack in Turkey’s history, before or since.

Behind the scenes of this summer of violence, Erdogan was negotiating a pact with the MHP that would ultimately deliver the AKP a return to parliamentary power. The November polls would provide the AKP with a majority — 317 of 550 seats — and the HDP would barely hang on to its parliamentary presence as the surge in violence, the collapse of the peace process and widespread martial law and crackdowns on political activity in Kurdish strongholds in the southeast weakened its support. From that point up until the present, the threat of PKK violence, for which the HDP has been routinely blamed, has been a key feature of Erdogan’s political calculus, meant to solidify support from Devlet Bahceli’s MHP, without which he would not have succeeded in the 2017 constitutional referendum that granted the presidency an enormous suite of new powers or probably in either the 2018 or 2023 general elections.

The AKP’s return to a majority did nothing to quell the violence. The first half of 2016 would witness a pair of horrific attacks. First, a bombing in central Ankara in March, claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TKA), a PKK breakaway group, killed 37 people. Then Islamic State terrorists armed with automatic rifles and suicide vests attacked inside Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul killing 45 people and wounding over 200. Immediately following that was the July 15 coup attempt, in which 179 civilians died. As Erdogan’s grip tightened via state-of-emergency powers following the coup attempt, violence would eventually subside, but as the ICG analysis has shown, since 2016 there has been a consistent pattern of attacks and responses, most dramatically 2018’s Operation Olive Branch, a combined air and ground offensive by the Turkish military and the Syrian National Army (an oppositional coalition force closely aligned with Ankara) that resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties and as many as 300,000 Kurds being displaced from Afrin. This operation, and later suggestions from the AKP that Arab refugees in Turkey would be relocated to this area of predominantly Kurdish Syria, have led some to characterize the AKP’s policy toward Afrin and its surroundings as ethnic cleansing. To loosely analogize this pattern to another conflict in the region, you could say Erdogan’s strategy toward the PKK since 2016 has been like that of a lawnmower.

It bears underscoring here that the PKK and its affiliates in Syria have been willing partners in this dance — dozens of civilians and a few hundred Turkish state security forces have been killed in attacks inside Turkey since 2016. However, as the ICG statistics have shown, the PKK and its affiliates have suffered casualties at a rate four to eight times that of their Turkish counterparts.

Likewise, throughout this period the HDP’s room for maneuver has been consistently restricted. The failed coup attempt in 2016 gave Erdogan plenty of leeway to purge competitors to his authority both within his own ranks and among opposition figures — both Demirtas and his HDP co-leader Figen Yuksekdag were imprisoned on political charges in the wake of the coup attempt and neither has yet been released. The gambit has paid political dividends for Erdogan, as it has shifted the entire political spectrum to the right and toward nationalism, prompting the CHP, the largest opposition party, to tacitly reach out to the HDP and form strategies, so far fairly unsuccessful, to break voters away from the MHP. Furthermore, the increased tensions with the PKK have pulled more bourgeois, conflict-averse Kurds into Erdogan’s AKP. The HDP, and the broader left-wing coalition at whose center it sits, has been isolated in Turkey’s political environment ever since November 2015. It has nevertheless remained committed to nonviolence and exhibited surprising resilience and creativity in countering political repression: Despite the closure case, the reformed HDP maintained its place in Parliament, having lost only a few net seats since 2015. Even in the face of structural and economic headwinds, the situation Erdogan has created has made it exceedingly difficult for his political opponents to bridge their divides and form a broad, ideologically heterogeneous front against him. The steady pattern of back-and-forth violence with the PKK since 2016 has served only to maintain a political dynamic whereby nationalist opponents of Erdogan refuse to join any coalition that has a formal tie to the country’s Kurdish opposition.

Many Turks — supporters of the AKP and MHP as well as many on the nationalist end of the opposition spectrum — have bought into the way Erdogan has collapsed distinctions between the PKK and HDP. The goal, clearly, has been to delegitimize normal Kurdish politics outside of the AKP’s chosen parameters; notably, there are members of a Kurdish party who have joined with Erdogan in the new Parliament — HUDA-PAR, a radical Islamist party with its own history of violence (the party is often referred to as Turkey’s Hezbollah). There should be great concern, then, that Kurds may view the prospect of securing their rights and well-being through political participation as dismal, and turn more heavily in favor of radical measures on offer by the PKK and other extreme groups. Furthermore, the prospect of normalization between Ankara and Damascus has crept onto the horizon since the summer of 2023. The key to these efforts, which for now are idling at the ministerial levels, has been a common perception of the threat posed by the Kurdish SDF forces and their cooperation with the American military. Normalization between Turkey and Syria could bring with it increased pressure to push the U.S. forces out of the region, and strangle burgeoning Kurdish autonomy. These developments would only intensify the cyclical violence Turkey has engaged in with the PKK in Iraq and Syria, and contribute to further destabilization across Kurdish regions of the Middle East.

For its part, the HDP — now re-formed under the banner of DEM Party — has announced that it will field candidates in Istanbul and Izmir in mayoral elections on March 31. This announcement is a departure from its 2019 strategy, when it did not field candidates, and provided tacit support for the CHP — a strategy that has been credited with the surprising success of Ekrem Imamoglu in Istanbul, a figure seen as the strongest potential challenger to Erdogan. The HDP/DEM decision follows an announcement that the nationalist opposition Iyi Party will also field its own candidate in these races. This decision is both a clear rebuke of the CHP’s inability to deliver for Kurds in the general election and what feels like a final, possibly doomed attempt to reinvigorate Kurdish participation in the electoral process. Mayors in Turkey still hold a great deal of power, and these elections are likely to be the last before the next scheduled general elections in 2028.

Initially, it was strongly suspected that Basak Demirtas, the spouse of the jailed HDP leader, would stand for election, but she ultimately bowed out. Prior to her decision there had been rumors that her candidacy — which would have posed a strong challenge to the CHP incumbent, Imamoglu — was part of a back-room deal to deliver Istanbul to AKP nominee Murat Kurum, in exchange for Selahattin Demirtas’ release. The rumors were strenuously refuted by the DEM Party and Basak Demirtas, but it appears the mutual decision to nominate Meral Danis Bestas and Murat Cepni as co-candidates instead was motivated by the desire to avoid any presumption of a quid pro quo with the AKP. Bestas, who will be the “lead” candidate (the DEM Party is committed to gender equality in all of its leadership decisions, hence the nomination of “co-candidates” for offices that can only nominally be held by one person) has served in Parliament for the HDP/DEM Party since 2015 and has served as director of the Human Rights Association of Turkey at three different intervals. Cepni, himself a former parliamentarian who lost his seat in the 2023 elections, has said that the DEM Party’s goal is squarely to stand up for the “oppressed” of Turkey’s system and that its campaign will be focused on “Alevis [a Muslim sect in Turkey], women, workers and youth, and especially the Kurdish question.” Given the low profile and name recognition of these candidates, there is little reason to believe the DEM Party has a chance of winning.

This decision clearly makes the path to victory for Imamoglu and the CHP more difficult. His victory in 2019 was convincing, but he relied heavily on tacit support from HDP voters and was facing a deeply unpopular and uncharismatic AKP candidate in former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. This time around, not only does Imamoglu have to contend with a more crowded field, but the AKP has chosen a younger, more charismatic candidate in Murat Kurum, whose political experience has focused squarely on issues of development, housing and climate change, both in Parliament and in prior postings at TOKI, the Mass Housing Development Administration, which has been greatly empowered under Erdogan. If the AKP can pick up Istanbul, which seems much more likely given the decisions by Iyi and the DEM Party, authoritarian consolidation under the AKP will be all but complete.

As Erdogan’s regime advances into its third decade and social divisions across Turkish society deepen, the risk of more extreme violence will increase unless Kurds are given a more legitimate avenue to express their sovereign rights. In many ways, Erdogan’s political calculus with the Kurds since 2015 has reflected contentment with low-level skirmishes and cross-border bombing campaigns, which validate threats that bolster his government’s right flank and help it to collapse distinctions between political aspirations and terroristic ones.

Polling ahead of the March 31 local elections indicates that Erdogan’s strategy is reaping rewards — Imamoglu has lost a small percentage of Kurdish support, but his support from the nationalist wing of the opposition has cratered almost 20 points since January, according to Metropoll. The election in Istanbul bears a special significance. It is a position often seen as a launching pad to the executive office, as it was for Erdogan himself, and Erdogan has recently said this election will be his last. It is also an election to represent the largest concentration of Kurds in Turkey, as 2 million of Turkey’s roughly 14 million Kurds live in the metropolis. While the outcome is very much in doubt, it is certain that Erdogan will be faced with yet another set of choices that could bring about the end of formal Kurdish politics in Turkey for the foreseeable future.

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