Güneş Murat Tezcür writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
The last year saw a significant escalation in the armed conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish insurgency (PKK) fighting for autonomy. 2012 was the most violent year since the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. At least 541 individuals lost their lives, a significant increase from the previous years. As the meetings between the representatives of the Turkish government and the insurgents came to an end in summer 2011, the Turkish security forces and the PKK militants engaged in frequent skirmishes. The gains of the Syrian Kurds led by the PYD, an affiliate of the PKK, further aggravated the threat perception of the AK Party, which has been in power since 2002. The Turkish government responded by sponsoring Islamist Arab militants that who engaged in heavy clashes with the PYD militia for the control of Ras al-Ayn (Sêrekaniyê) since November 2012.
Given this violent trend, it came as a surprise when two parliamentarians from the Kurdish nationalist party (BDP) visited Öcalan, who was largely kept incommunicado since July 2011, in his prison island. The visit generated high expectations that Prime Minister Erdoğan is finally determined to end political violence. While the murder of three women Kurdish activists, one of them being a founder of the PKK, in Paris on January 9 stalled the process, both sides express their willigness to continue the process.
I argue that it is unrealistic to expect a peaceful reconciliation of the armed conflict in the foreseeble future for three reasons. First, the costs of fighting remain tolerable for both sides. Hence, the conflict has not yet reached a mutually hurting stalemate that would generate strong incentives for both sides to reach a deal. Especially for the Kurdish insurgency, it may be in their better interests to continue fighting and hope that geopolitical developments and electoral victories would strengthen their bargaining position. Second, huge differences separate what the AK Party is willing to concede to make the insurgency to law down its arms and what the insurgency demands to disarm itself. It is very unlikely that the negotiations would enable them to overcome their differences. Finally, the AK Parti’s strategy to seek a solution through Öcalan is unlikely to produce a breakthrough. Öcalan may call the insurgeny to end its operations, but it is very uncertain if the insurgent leadership would actually follow his lead despite their rhetorical commitments to his leadership. Let me elaborate on these three points.
The PKK started its military operations against the Turkish state in 1984 and reached the zenith of its power in the aftermath of the First Gulf War in the early 1990s. By the time Öcalan was captured in 1999, however, the PKK was already severely weakened as a military force. The fighting has been much more restrained in the second stage starting in 2004. Several observations can be made according to an original dataset I generated. First, total fatalities in a single year including civilians, security forces and militants never exceeded 400 until 2012. This is a huge decline compared to the 1990s when several thousand people were killed every year. Second, the fighting was highly professional meaning that civilian casualties were low. In no year since since 1999, more than 100 civilians killed in a year as a direct or indirect result of the armed conflict. In contrast to conflict in countries in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, conflict is neither characterized by indiscriminate violence nor pronounced ethnic or sectarian dimension. Third, violence was geographically and temporally limited. More than 40 percent of all insurgency related fatalities took place only in two mountainous border provinces bordering the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
As in a typical guerilla warfare, most fighting took place between May and October when warm weather makes the rugged terrain passable. Consequently, the insurgency remains a manageable problem for the AK Party. In fact, the party continue to win elections, achieve sustainable growth and consolidate its power side by side with the Kurdish insurgency. Similarly, the Kurdish insurgency continues to be sustainable business. It has access to large pool of recruits, safe havens, and financial resources, and enjoys a high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of many Kurds.
The second factor concerns political differences separating the two sides. While the AK Party aims to end the insurgency through a series of political reforms further removing the restrictions on Kurdish identity and language, the Kurdish nationalist movement is primarily interested in some sort of autonomy would give the Kurdis nationalists significant amount of power. If the historical record of the AK Party in the last decade is any guidance, the government would never be willing to share power with the Kurdish nationalists.
Finally, it is not clear how much actual power Öcalan enjoys over the actions of the insurgency. Öcalan’s would risk his credibility if he asks the insurgency lay down their arms and the insurgent leadership acts otherwise. As long as the PKK militants roam the countryside in Kurdish provinces of Turkey, there is always a possibility of a clash that would result in mutual casualties and undermine the process. The Kurdish insurgency would be unwilling to withdraw all of its forces to its bases in the Iraqi Kurdistan without substantial concessions from the government.
Then, what we can expect from the latest “Kurdish initiative” in Turkey? At best, it would diminish the intensity of violence as both sides would position themselves for the local and presidential elections in 2014. The PKK may announce a temporary ceasefire and adopt a wait-and-see attitude until the election period. A decrease in violence by itself is a positive development, but an overambitious initiative generating unfounded expectations may result in more bloodshed in the long run. In fact, the negotiations in 2009 significantly reduced violence in that year but their failure led to intensified violence since then.
*Güneş Murat Tezcür, an Associate Professor at Loyola University Chicago, is currently writing a book on the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey on the basis of his field research and original datasets. He is also the author of Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation (2010).