After fighting the Turkish army for decades, the Kurdistan Workers Party is now confronting a foe that’s shared by its erstwhile enemy, strengthening the group’s hand in talks on a political settlement.
Fighters linked to the PKK, as the group is known, are battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, according to Turkish and Kurdish officials and media. The PKK, branded a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and European Union, is also in talks with the Ankara government to end a 30-year armed struggle for autonomy.
Moves toward Kurdish self-rule elsewhere in the Middle East have accelerated during the crisis spurred by the Islamic State advance. The Kurds who rule a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, are receiving U.S. and European weapons to aid their fight against the militants. Syrian Kurdish groups linked to the PKK have also joined the battle, and were credited with helping to rescue ethnic Yezidis driven from their homes by Islamic State and facing slaughter.
The PKK’s role may help it win “legitimacy in the international arena, which would make it demand more” in the peace talks with Turkey, Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara, said by phone.
On the other side of those talks, a Turkish government that faces its own threat from Islamic State may also be more willing to consider concessions to the Kurds. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to pursue the Kurdish peace process “more determinedly” when he took over as head of state last week after 11 years as prime minister.
Turkey’s 560-mile (900-kilometer) border with Syria provides the major route for foreign fighters joining the civil war there. Until recently, Turkish policy has focused on supporting rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. With the emergence of Islamic State as the strongest of those groups, the calculus may be changing.
Islamic State “has the resources and arguably the appetite to launch large-scale bomb attacks” in Turkey, said Anthony Skinner, head of analysis at Maplecroft, a U.K.-based global risk forecasting company, said in an e-mail on Aug. 26.
That threat “increases the incentive for a peace deal with the Kurds,” he said. “At no other point has Turkey needed a strong Kurdish buffer against this menacing force as now.”
Turkey has shut down three crossings with Syria after Islamist militants seized pockets of land across from customs points and border towns.
As the Kurds fight Islamic State and the U.S. seeks to build a broader coalition against it, Turkey is unlikely to join the fight directly. It’s constrained because Islamic State forces in June abducted 49 people at the Turkish consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, as well as by its opposition to any action that may bolster Assad’s rule, Ozcan said.
“Turkey is the only NATO country that is directly threatened by” Islamic State, Oytun Orhan, an analyst at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, said in an interview. Many Islamic State “targets fall within range of Turkish guns on the border, but Turkey’s hands are tied due to the hostage crisis. The PKK, meanwhile, sees its hand strengthened.”
Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the Middle East without their own state, already control energy-rich northern Iraq and have declared self-rule in northeast Syria since civil war broke out in 2011, fueling the aspirations for autonomy of their ethnic cousins in Turkey.
After the deaths of tens of thousands in the conflict since 1984, Turkey has recently enjoyed a lull. Turkey spent an average 3.9 percent of gross domestic product on the military in the 1990s when the war with the PKK was at its height, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That dropped to 2.3 percent of GDP last year.
Disarming the rebel group and integrating its members into society is a top state priority, according to an action plan announced by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Parliament today. The government has taken steps to meet some Kurdish demands, easing decades-old curbs on use of the language, as well as starting a once-taboo dialogue with the PKK.
Kurds are calling on the government to go further by recognizing ethnic Kurdish identity in a new constitution, freeing imprisoned rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan, allowing full Kurdish-language education in schools, and expanding powers for local authorities.
As Kurdish families in Turkey mourn sons who died battling Islamic State, Kurdish politician Muslum Tank says they are “fighting for regional peace.” Tank is regional head of the People’s Democracy Party, which has links with the PKK, in the Mediterranean port of Mersin. He said three Kurds from the city were killed in Syria last month.
“People in the region have started to see the PKK as their savior,” Tank said by phone on Aug. 28. The PKK’s designation as terrorists is already coming under renewed scrutiny, he said. “Inevitably, it will encourage the PKK to press for essential demands of the Kurdish people from the Turkish government, including autonomy.”