These have been particularly gruesome days for Turkey as its domestic conflict with the Kurds has once again erupted with a vengeance. Turkish security forces experienced two devastating attacks that caused some thirty deaths in as many days. In response, mobs around Turkey have targeted Kurdish political party headquarters nationwide setting them ablaze. Also, individual Kurds, newspapers, businesses and schools have been the target of unruly mobs, sometimes with deadly consequences. Meanwhile, some Kurdish-majority towns are under strict martial law and reports about civilians deaths abound.
In short, the government seems to have lost or elected to loose control of a rapidly deteriorating situation.
The sudden chaotic developments were triggered by an unexplained bomb attack—presumably committed by the Islamic State (IS)—that started a chain reaction as the main Kurdish insurgent group, the PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party, used it to start its own military campaign.
However, at the root of the crisis is the inconclusive June 7 parliamentary elections that culminated in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, losing its parliamentary majority for the first time. The primary issue in the elections was the president himself; he wanted his former party to win a commanding majority so that he could engineer the transformation of Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one. His party came in first, but failed to garner the requisite 276 seats for a majority primarily because most Turks saw in his quest for constitutional change an insatiable desire for absolute power.
The winner was the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party, HDP, led by a charismatic young lawyer, Selahattin Demirtas, that for the first time crossed the 10-percent national threshold needed to get members into parliament. Erdogan’s Herculean efforts to prevent HDP garnering votes—his partisan behavior was clearly unconstitutional—backfired, as he alienated many citizens. As a result, with 80 seats, the HDP became the third-largest party—tying the arch Turkish nationalist party, the National Action Party, MHP.
Ever since the elections results were announced, Erdogan has been maneuvering to have them repeated, hoping to induce an outcome favorable to him. He did get his wish with new elections announced for November 1. Erdogan is also exploiting the current violence to convince the electorate that voting for the AKP is the route back to stability. The oft-repeated refrain is that had the AKP gotten the 400 seats Erdogan desired, none of this violence would have occurred.
It would be wrong to only blame the government. There is another culprit here and that is the PKK. The PKK’s military leadership ensconced in northern Iraq has escalated this conflict needlessly, especially at a time when the Kurdish democratic forces had finally caught a break and the populace’s imagination. It appears as if Erdogan and the PKK both agree that the HDP, with its wide base of support, constitutes a threat to them. Demirtas’ success and popularity risks eclipsing the PKK and thereby reducing the organization’s ability to call the shots down the road. In many ways, the PKK and Erdogan have mirrored each other in their pursuit of total power and dominance.
Paradoxically, both actors were party to a peace process and negotiations that had started with a 2013 unilateral PKK ceasefire. While all is not lost, a hiatus to the violence is absolutely imperative if the November 1 elections are to take place in relative calm and thus free of any perceptions of undue pressure, particularly in the Kurdish southeast. Any overt manipulation of the process, especially to smother the Kurdish vote, would not only challenge the legitimacy of the elections, but also likely lead to great bouts of disturbances and violence in some of the shantytowns in major cities where large numbers of young Kurds reside. The spiral of violence would then be difficult to contain. In sum, the solution to the Kurdish problem, always predicated upon the expansion of the democratic space in Turkey, is foundering precisely because both Erdogan and the PKK have little regard for democracy.
For the Obama administration, this could not have come at a worse moment. Just when the Turks had, after arduous negotiations, agreed to make three air bases available for American use against the IS, this conflagration jeopardizes Washington’s only successful component of its anti-IS campaign—its collaboration with the Syrian Kurdish militia, the PYD or Democratic Union Party. American aircraft and PYD fighters have successfully pushed back the IS in a number of critical locations.
The PYD is the PKK’s sister organization. While separate, many PKK members fight with the PYD against the IS. The Turks, naturally, view the PYD with extreme antipathy and have repeatedly pressured Washington not to engage with the PYD. The current escalation puts U.S. gains and collaboration with the PYD at risk.
Perhaps because Washington has for the first time a direct stake in Turkey’s Kurdish problem, it could imaginatively engage to engineer an immediate ceasefire. But it won’t be easy.
Henri J. Barkey is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.