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Why Turks, Kurds may want to keep wounded peace process alive

The easy analysis about the clashes between Turkey and Kurdish PKK militants has been that the peace process is finished. But both sides have benefited from peace.

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People set up makeshift barricades to block entrance of the cemevi, an Alevi place of worship, in Gazi neighborhood in Istanbul, Turkey, July 27, 2015. Turkey attacked Kurdish insurgent camps in Iraq for a second night on Sunday, security sources said, in a campaign that could end its peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Umit Bektas/Reuters

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Turkey’s Kurdish peace process is quickly unraveling, with Ankara currently putting more effort into crippling Kurdish militants than stepping up its role in the US-led alliance against the Islamic State.

The risky policy has baffled analysts and raised concerns that the government’s real agenda is to reverse Kurdish gains at home and in the region. Yet neither party to the gravely wounded peace process seem hesitant to call a time of death – and a review of past events suggest it is in both sides’ interest to avoid killing it off altogether. 

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On Tuesday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared it impossible for Turkey to continue engaging with Kurdish militants. But that harsh message was toned down just hours later when a spokesman of the Justice and Construction Party (AKP), Besir Atalay, said the peace process could resume if “terrorist elements” laid down their weapons and left Turkey. “We cannot say the peace process is de facto over,” Mr. Atalay assured journalists in Ankara.

This week’s sharp escalation, however, suggests a resumption of talks remains off the table. Turkish F-16 fighter jets have relentlessly pounded Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) camps and depots in the mountains of northern Iraq and targeted Kurdish militants in the southeastern province of Sirnak. And Turkey has arrested hundreds of “terrorism” suspects, the majority accused of links to the PKK.

While the transnational Kurdish faction says the airstrikes, which coincided with the launch of similar attacks against IS, render the peace process meaningless, it has yet to formally pull out.

Nevertheless the PKK, which had largely stuck to a cease-fire cinched two years ago, is now staging deadly attacks against security forces in Turkey almost daily. Just Thursday, three Turkish gendarmes were killed in clashes with the PKK in Sirnak. 

Both sides benefited from peace

The Turkish Armed Forces and PKK are old foes. For three decades, the PKK led a violent campaign for self-determination and greater Kurdish rights in Turkey. The conflict claimed 37,000 lives, displaced at least one million people, and emptied thousands of villages. It cost the state, which exercised its own brand of violence, billions of dollars. 

Then, in 2013, the Turkish government and Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s jailed leader, agreed to a cease-fire.

Even Mr. Erdogan’s critics hailed the defusing of the Kurdish situation. But many analysts worry that a faltering, half-hearted peace process may not survive the latest upsurge of hostilities, though it still holds out a fallback position for both parties. 

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After finally getting Turkey on board in the war against the IS, Western allies acknowledged Turkey’s right to self-defense but also urged it to keep up peace efforts with the PKK. The separatist group is listed by Turkey, the US, and EU as a terrorist organization, although it enjoys growing prestige as an effective fighting force against IS.

Washington-based analyst Aliza Marcus says the severity of the crackdown on the PKK suggests Turkey wants to shape regional and domestic dynamics that have largely favored the Kurds. 

“The problem is Turkey gives no indication that (deescalation) is its goal right now,” says Ms. Marcus, author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence. “Deescalating is important for the PKK because it is taking a lot of hits.”

Both parties stand to lose from the collapse of the peace process, which opened up a space for Kurdish identity, language, and political activism. Those gains were highlighted in June polls that brought a pro-Kurdish party into parliament.

Neither side can win

For Turkey, which has suffered tumultuous decades yo-yoing between democratic and authoritarian trends, the peace process brought a period of calm, without the deaths of soldiers and policemen dominating headlines.

“Stability, means prosperity – there was a real peace dividend,” says Andrew Finkel, author of Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know. “Now they seem to be trying to undo all the good work.”

The Turkish lira, he points out, has gone down 4 percent against the dollar in recent weeks. 

Peacetime allowed the Turkish army to build up military fortresses and enclaves in the volatile southeast, but the PKK has also boosted its presence there and become a far more mobile force, notes Marcus. “They know the region, they have depots of arms. It isn’t going to be a simple fight this time,” she cautions.

The timing of the offensive has raised questions over the AKP's political calculus. One theory is that the AKP wishes to stoke nationalist sentiment and trigger snap elections rather than enter into a coalition government that could expose the extent of its alleged corruption. The other is that the AKP could not sell a war on IS to its conservative voter base so it embarked on a broader war on militancy. 

Undermining allies' gains

“It seems an incredibly dangerous strategy,” says Mr. Finkel. “If it doesn't backfire in electoral terms, it will backfire in terms of social stability." 

By attacking the PKK, Turkey could undermine recent gains made by US allies in Syria. A string of victories by Syrian Kurds have magnified Turkey's fear that PKK affiliates are laying the foundations for an autonomous region in Syria akin to the one established in northern Iraq.

“Splitting forces between domestic insurgency while also gearing up to take on IS next door is unwise for Turkey,” says Aaron Stein, author of Turkey’s New Foreign Policy. “Same for the PKK. The PKK and Turkey would be entering into a two-front war, neither of which they can win.”

“Ultimately, to contain IS, they need each other,” says the International Crisis Group’s Nigar Goksel. “It is in both sides interests to move forward on the peace process and collaborate against the threat of IS.”