Late last month, the war between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish state restarted with brutal ferocity. Between July 21 and Aug. 12, a total of 90 PKK attacks led to 30 security and 11 civilian deaths.
The renewed fighting in Turkey came as a surprise to many who believed that there had been a change of heart on both sides of the conflict in recent years. The Islamist government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) initiated a peace process and courted Kurdish voters by promising to end the war. Meanwhile, the PKK emphasized political struggle over violence and refrained from killing civilians. In June, for the first time in its 25-year history, the pro-Kurdish, People’s Democratic Party (HDP) crossed the 10 percent electoral threshold, winning 80 seats in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. The public strongly believed that the Kurdish conflict would be solved at the negotiation table and that both sides had learned from the mistakes of the past. However, a careful look at the history of this long-standing conflict and the patterns of this most recent unrest tells a much different story.
What should we now expect in light of this shocking new violence? In our new book, “Zones of Rebellion,” we examine the patterns of violence in the long-running war between the PKK and the Turkish state in which the combatants’ long-term ties to the disputed territory and its people explain resilient sub-national patterns in the distribution of insurgent and state control. In short, violence in the Turkish civil war has strong historical lineages. Both the state and the insurgency have a clear set of policies that they repeatedly drew upon in the three decades of conflict that engulfed Turkey’s southeast. We are unlikely to observe any change in this final episode of war: Control remains fixed, and combatants’ military tactics closely reflect their control over territory and people.
Kurdish insurgency in Turkey presents an important case of intractable civil war. Ongoing since 1984, the war has claimed more than 40,000 lives. In line with its independence ideology, the PKK systematically attacked state-allied village guards, security forces and national facilities. Though rebels could not achieve any territorial control over the course of the war, their hit-and-run tactics prolonged a low intensity conflict indefinitely. We have identified three zones where insurgents enjoyed varying capabilities. We named the heartland of insurgency Zone 1, a territory that includes border districts and those adjacent to them. These districts were previously under emergency rule that allowed security forces and governors in southeast Anatolia to adopt population control measures such as village evacuations, search and detentions, and censorship. In the past three decades, like today, the PKK primarily has operated in these 30 districts, mostly targeting security forces.
In recent years, the insurgency has deepened its control in Zone 1. The PKK’s youth organization, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), has developed an intimidating presence, particularly in Cizre, Nusaybin and Silopi districts in southeast Turkey along the borders with Syria and Iraq. PKK sympathizers in this zone routinely dig holes and install barricades to halt police entry into neighborhoods or lure the police into traps. PKK’s remarkable social control is also reflected in the assassination of high-ranking commanders and the self-rule demands by groups affiliated with the insurgency.
In other zones, the PKK has been unable to replicate such success. We classify the remaining 74 districts in the now defunct emergency zone as Zone 2, and here the PKK is weaker. Its tactics are limited to laying out roadblocks and attacking economic targets. Since 1990, attacks in this zone have been fairly stable, constituting one-third of all PKK activity. Outside the emergency zone where large cities such as Istanbul, Adana and Izmir are located (our Zone 3), the PKK relied on indiscriminate violence and sabotage in its heyday. Today, indiscriminate violence is costly, as it may damage the organization’s legitimacy.
In sum, there has been strong continuity in the geographical distribution of insurgent control. In the last three weeks, the PKK stepped up its attacks to levels only comparable to 1993, the peak of the Turkish civil war. Yet heightened insurgent activity does not reflect a qualitative change in the distribution of control: The PKK’s military capacity remains mostly unchanged across the zones.
A prominent feature of the Turkish civil war has been the continuity of the state response. Like its predecessors, the AKP government drew upon the Turkish state’s vast experience dealing with insurgencies. Similar to the 1980s, the current government’s immediate response was mass detentions and house-by-house identification checks. On July 24, thousands of houses were searched and 851 suspects were detained in an overnight operation that took place simultaneously in 34 provinces across the country. Then, province governors announced special security zones, areas to which civilians are not allowed access. This policy is a micro application of the state of emergency (OHAL) that covered 13 provinces between 1987 and 2002. Finally, as in the past, the Turkish government relied on aerial bombing of the PKK’s camps in northern Iraq to calm domestic audiences.
These counterinsurgency practices do not necessarily punish the insurgent. The nature of insurgent attacks seem to have no effect on where and when the state will employ its catch-and-release or special administrative policies (Map 1). Despite PKK’s small presence in these settings, the state draws upon its institutional memory to target areas deemed “strategic” or “hostile.” It is intriguing that detentions target large cities where the Turkish state has a strong interest in preserving control. Similarly, the Tunceli province in eastern Turkey seems to have born the brunt of special security zones given its rebellious history. However such control measures have political consequences: They constrain civilians’ liberties and alienate civilians from the counterinsurgent. In a new manuscript, we find that the creation of OHAL region and detentions conducted inside its boundaries translated into popular support for the pro-insurgent party in the 1990s.
If history is any guide, the AKP government will increasingly rely on detentions to target insurgency’s urban organization, while the PKK will try to spread the conflict to areas beyond Zone 1. Some observers of Turkish politics may claim that the protracted peace process points to a change in strategy. In their view, violence occurs because both sides fail to credibly commit to peace. However, the inability to commit depends on the historical backdrop against which such choices are made. The combatants’ ties to the disputed territory and people develop over a long period of time and cannot be altered overnight. In that respect, the peace process was not a change of heart. State reflex immediately took over in response to mounting attacks. On the PKK side, return to violence was also an expected outcome: Over the years, violence has kept the organization afloat and mobilized its constituencies.
In July, the Kurdish insurgency and the Turkish state went back to old ways of doing business in southeast Turkey. Neither side, however, has any hope of defeating the other, instead repeating in vain the policies permitted by their institutional memory.
Aysegul Aydin is an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Cem Emrence is a sociologist and author of “Remapping the Ottoman Middle East” (I.B. Tauris, 2012). Their new book, “Zones of Rebellion: Kurdish Insurgents and the Turkish State” (Cornell University Press, 2015), examines patterns of insurgent violence and counterinsurgent response in this long-standing conflict.