A march for those killed in the 2015 Suruç bombing that resulted in 33 dead and 104 injured. Photo by VOA. (public domain)
After the surprise victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the November 2015 general elections, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proclaimed that the Turkish people had “voted in favor of stability.” After five months of AKP rule, the stability that Erdoğan promised appears to be nowhere in sight. Turkey has seen some of the worst terrorist attacks in its history since the start of the year, while the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its affiliates intensifies in cities across the country. Turkey appears to be entering a period of unprecedented violence, yet the Turkish government’s responses are only exacerbating security concerns.
Erdoğan managed to achieve victory in November through a combination of crippling his opposition and reigniting the conflict with the PKK in order to to garner support from outside his political base. Efforts to handicap the opposition via widespread repression of its media and mob-like violence against its political units ensured that the opposition parties, primarily the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), were unable to effectively organize their constituents on election day. In addition to the tactics used against the opposition, the termination of the ceasefire with the PKK also played a key role in the AKP victory. Although the ceasefire had begun to fray, the decision to resume military operations appeared to be a political maneuver by Erdoğan. By resuming the war with the PKK, Erdoğan presented the group as a threat in an effort to rally the support of Turkish nationalists as well as punish the Kurds who abandoned the AKP to support the HDP. These actions were further buttressed by Erdoğan’s repeated calls for a return to stability. Erdoğan advocated voting for the AKP throughout the election as a means to end the instability – the same instability Erdoğan helped to create. The message to voters was clear: Erdoğan wanted to resume power and would bring the country to the edge of ruin unless he had his victory.
Despite promising stability, Erdoğan has not significantly altered his policies and continues to rely on the ones that helped get him elected – namely, fighting the PKK and cracking down on his opposition. The military operation against the PKK has not only continued unabated, but has also expanded to targeting the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in neighboring Syria. Although the Turkish government has been careful to frame the conflict as an operation against the PKK and not against Kurds as a whole, urban Kurds are feeling much of the brunt of the violence. The conflict has left urban areas in ruins and displaced more than 355,000 people. These policies have left many Kurds lacking a legitimate avenue to protest their frustration and anger, allowing the PKK to present itself as a protector and continue to gain support in its fight against the government.
What makes this phase of the conflict different than previous episodes is the focus on urban combat and its bloodier nature. In the wake of the violence, a wave of radicalized Kurdish youth joined the newly formed Civil Protection Units (YPS), a decentralized urban militia that has been conducting most of the fighting against the Turkish military. Not content with fleeing to the empty countryside to fight in the mountains like their PKK predecessors, the YPS are fighting in cities and urban areas where their members are deeply embedded. This makes the government’s effort to remove them much more difficult, frequently affecting civilians in the process.
Kurdish fighters are also adopting urban warfare tactics used by the YPG and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). While the YPS is adopting more advanced tactics, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK)—a splinter faction of the PKK—has made suicide terrorism a key component of their operations. Turkey is not only experiencing an increase in deadly attacks that target security forces and state apparatuses, but also its civilians. Although the PKK is reportedly embedding a small number of its own forces to support the YPS, it lacks command over the group. Independent of centralized control and radicalized by the actions of the Turkish security forces, Kurdish fighters now pose a much greater threat to Turkey than they have in years. If the Turkish government was interested in returning to the negotiating table, it’s unlikely that the PKK would be able to enforce a ceasefire due to the decentralized nature of the conflict.
Should the PKK ever express a desire to return to negotiations in the near future, it is highly unlikely that Erdoğan would accept it. The threat from the PKK, ISIL, and other terrorist organizations has given Erdoğan the opening to further silence his critics in the media and to clamp down on opposition party members. He has even gone as far to implicate those who criticize him as supporting terrorism and, by extension, are terrorists themselves. Chief among those in his sights are critical members of the HDP and suspected followers of Fethullah Gülen—an influential imam and former ally of Erdoğan—who the government refers to as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization. Erdoğan and his allies have tried to conflate the blame of attacks to include as many of his enemies as possible, sometimes even rejecting claims of responsibility. By silencing his critics, Erdoğan is likely to face weaker oppostion to his ultimate aims: establishing a strong presidential system that would give him de jure power. Yet without the war, these tactics would be much more difficult to pull off if there was no conflict.
There is no indication that the violence and instability is going to subside in the near future. If anything, the worst has yet to come. The changes in the composition and capabilities of the PKK, YPS, and TAK ensure that the violence will not remain contained to the hinterland and will continue for some time. Furthermore, Erdoğan is more focused on securing his own political power while using the conflict as an opportunity to silence his critics. Erdoğan’s promise of stability turned out to be a false promise, one that came at the cost of the security of the country. Erdoğan appears to care less about securing the country than he is about securing his power, and it will be the ordinary Turkish citizens who will be the ones to bear the consequences of his actions.
Brendan Sozer has been studying the Middle East for nearly a decade and specializes in terrorism, intrastate warfare, and proxy wars in the region. He previously worked at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and Physicians for Human Rights, where he analyzed security issues in Syria and Turkey. He received his M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University and his B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and Anthropology from The College of William and Mary.