At dawn Tuesday, around 100 fighters belonging to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) attacked three army outposts in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish-populated southeast. The clashes left 26 people (eight Turkish soldiers and 18 PKK fighters) dead.
The attack comes as Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) continues to gradually advance a strategy to address the problem between the state and its Kurdish population. The AKP had to take several steps to reach this point.
First, the party needed to redefine the Kurdish problem as a political conflict and not solely an insurgency. This enabled the AKP to pry the issue out of the military’s hands and dilute the military’s overall influence in the state.
The AKP also needed to forge some level of national consensus. The sensitivity surrounding the Kurdish issue in Turkey cannot be overstated. Every Turkish male between the ages of 20 and 40 is obligated to serve in the military, and the elaborate send-offs for conscripts are a sight to behold for outsiders unaccustomed to such deeply rooted military cultures. Even with a supermajority in parliament, the AKP learned it could not proceed with its own Kurdish strategy when its main rivals in the opposition could play on such nationalist sensitivities to hamstring the ruling party.
The AKP appears to be making progress toward this end. The leader of the main opposition and secularist Republican People’s Party is working with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to form a parliamentary committee to develop a joint strategy on the Kurdish issue; the committee would also include other AKP rivals like the Nationalist Movement Party. Even Kurdish political figures like Leyla Zana have paid lip service to the prime minister in claiming he is the only one who can resolve this issue, while Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party made a rare call Tuesday for the PKK to lay down its arms.
The next leg of this strategy entails Turkey going beyond its borders. Qandil Mountain, which sits at the rugged juncture of Turkey, Iraq and Iran in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, is the primary refuge for the PKK and its affiliates. For Turkey to have any hope of neutralizing Kurdish militancy at home, Ankara must establish a working relationship with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This means Turkey will face some harrowing questions as Ankara tries to figure out how much Kurdish autonomy it can tolerate.
Turkey has closely observed the solidification of Iran’s influence in Iraq and the growing distance between Baghdad and the Kurdish north. With former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein no longer in the picture, Turkey can no longer rule out a scenario wherein Iraq fractures along sectarian lines and Iraq’s Kurdish region issues a call for independence. The best preparation for such a scenario is for Turkey to position itself to make Iraqi Kurdistan - a landlocked region surrounded by hostile nations with no sea outlet - wholly dependent on the good graces of Ankara for its economic livelihood. Indeed, this is the core imperative influencing a recently announced plan for the KRG and Turkey to build a pipeline that will deliver a million barrels of crude per day to Turkey. Ankara would use the strengthened economic grip on the KRG to induce cooperation in denying refuge to the PKK. Turkey could then also exploit a pool of energy resources to fulfill its geopolitical potential as Eurasia’s primary energy hub.
Turkey is also confronting its Kurdish vulnerabilities in matters of foreign policy. Over the past year and a half, Turkey was spun in multiple directions as it tried to seek out opportunities and contain threats stemming from the Arab unrest. Ankara ended up focusing its attention on Syria, where Turkey could try to undermine Iran’s leverage in the Levant and also limit any spillover violence in the Kurdish borderland. When Turkey publicly committed itself to fortifying the Syrian rebellion to bring down the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus, Iran and Syria quickly responded, threatening Ankara with Kurdish militancy if Turkey pushed them too far.
So far, Turkey has not blamed a foreign hand in the latest attack, but the idea is certainly on the minds of many Turkish policymakers. Turkish editorials are also increasingly highlighting Russia’s connections to Kurdish militant groups and advising the government to exercise caution in its energy policy. Russia, after all, has a strategic interest in preventing Turkey from facilitating Europe’s efforts to escape the Kremlin’s grip on energy.
The Kurdish problem sits at the heart of Turkish strategy. There are a number of fundamental reasons why tensions with Turkey’s Kurdish population have persisted for decades, and it may still be too ambitious to speak of a resolution to the issue. But Turkey wants to assume a greater geopolitical role in this region and so is putting in place a containment strategy that looks beyond Turkey’s borders. Attacks like the one Tuesday are not-so-subtle reminders that this task will occupy Turkey’s attention for some time to come.