Turkey acts like a state sponsor of terrorism

David L. Phillips

Turkey attacked locations in Kurdish-controlled Northeast Syria following a bomb attack in Ankara, for which the PKK was allegedly responsible. Instead of trying to minimize civilian casualties, Turkey struck near camp for displaced people and several villages, citing Article 51 of the UN Charter to justify its actions. Turkey’s Ministry of Defense revels in killing Kurds, citing self-defense.

Terror can never be condoned. But the PKK must be viewed in context. Kurds in Turkey have suffered a century of betrayal and abuse, starting with the Treaty of Sevres and continuing to this day.

Up to 250,000 Kurds fled Turkey for Syria in the 1930s in response to Kemalist aggression in Dersim. Another wave of emigration followed Turkey’s scorched earth policy in the 1980s and 1990s, targeting villages which allegedly harbored the PKK.

The PKK emerged in 1984 as a national liberation movement and initially embraced armed struggle. Resistance was tactic to get Turkey to the negotiating table. The PKK has repeatedly sought negotiations with Turkey, but was rebuffed.

The PKK garnered support from Kurds for standing up to the Turkish state and demanding Kurdish rights. In response to PKK cross-border operations, Turkish armed forces massed on the Syrian border in September 1998, demanding that Syria sign the Adana Agreement, which required Syria to list the PKK as a terrorist organization, close PKK bases in Syria, and evict Abdullah Ocalan.

Ocalan was ultimately captured and jailed. From his prison on Imrali Island, he announced a unilateral truce. Ocalan proposed a roadmap to end the conflict that had claimed more than 40,000 lives since 1984.

To build confidence, the PKK released eight Turkish hostages held in Iraqi Kurdistan. PKK fighters withdrew from Turkish territory, and Ocalan announced the disarmament and reintegration of PKK fighters. The PKK abandoned its demands for independence and instead sought greater political and cultural rights within Turkey.

Erdogan would have none of it. He pursued a path of confrontation with the Kurds for cynical domestic political purposes aimed at consolidating popular support for the AKP and marginalize pro-Kurdish political parties.

Not all Turkish politicians agreed. President Abdullah Gul broke with Erdogan and called for reconciliation with the Kurds. During a visit to Hakkari soon after being elected, Gul stressed that resolution of the Kurdish question lay in further democratization of the country and integration with the EU. Gul was removed by Erdogan in favor of someone more pliant and pugilistic.

Nonetheless, peace talks with Ocalan started in 2012. But a deadly attack scuttled the process. An ISIS suicide bombing in the Suruc across the border from Kobane, killed thirty-two people. Erdogan blamed the PKK.

In February 2015, Erdogan denied the Dolmabache Consensus, the product of meetings between Kurds and Turks and an important step towards a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question. Erdogan favored negotiations which consolidated and advanced his goal of constitutional reform establishing an executive prudency.

Erdogan had reason to blame the Kurds for his political travails. AKP won only 40.7% of the popular vote in national elections on June 7, 2015. The pro-Kurdish HDP received 13.12%, denying the AKP control of the national assembly. Erdogan scorned the HDP, accusing it of being an armed terrorist organization and the political wing of the PKK. Selahattin Demirtas and Co-chair Figen Yuksekdag were arrested and removed from the political scene.  

Instead of cooperating with the HDP, Erdogan formed an alliance with the Turkish National Movement (MHP), a marginal neo-fascist and nationalist party. Erdogan became more Islamist, supporting parties affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, such as ISIS and Hamas, as well as the Nusra Front in Syria.

Whenever there was a prospect of peace with the Kurds, there was an incident and Erdogan would blame the PKK. Turkey has carried out a steady stream of operations against the PKK domestically as well as cross-border operations into Syria. For example, Ankara accused the PKK of a bomb attack in Istanbul that killed six and injured dozens in November 2022, before attacking PKK facilities in Iraqi Kurdistan.

It is unclear whether the PKK is responsible for this week’s bombing in Ankara. If the PKK was involved, the US should carefully consider its response. When there is no political space for dissent and the state sponsors violence and terrorism, what recourse exists?

They can play a constructive role by intensifying mediation aimed at a political solution to the Kurdish issue. Removing the PKK from the list of foreign terrorist organizations would catalyze negotiations and strengthen Turkey’s democracy.

David Phillips is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in conflict resolution and mediation. He served as a Senior Adviser to the State Department during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.