Truman National Security Project

Turkey’s Kurdish Problem


On March 21, the jailed leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, called for a ceasefire in its armed conflict within Turkey, consequently ending a 29-year offensive. Violent conflict with the PKK has long been a thorn in Turkey’s side, hindering its regional and international aspirations and robbing the country of $300 billion and over 40,000 lives. But now that Ocalan has commanded “the guns to fall silent and for ideas to speak”, is Turkey’s Kurdish problem over? And what are the implications for our national security? Read on for an explanation:

Who are the PKK and what do they want?

Founded in 1974, the PKK sought to create an independent Kurdish state encompassing areas of southeastern Turkey, as well as parts of northern Iraq and Syria that are heavily populated by Kurds. The goal of independence has de-escalated to demands for autonomy in recent years, with its leaders seeking some degree of organization and sovereignty for the roughly 35 million stateless Kurds, rather than an internationally recognized state. Kurds represent the largest stateless minority in the world, and comprise 20 percent of the population in Turkey. Although the 1920 Sevres Peace Treaty carved out a Kurdish state, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne quickly reversed this position, granting Turkey sovereignty, its current borders, and no obligation to create a nation for the Kurds. Kurdish insurgencies since then have been ferociously suppressed, and the Turkish state has gone so far as to publicly deny the existence of a distinct Kurdish culture. Turkey’s constitution, adopted in 1980 after a military coup, legally entrenched this discrimination by forbidding demonstrations of Kurdish identity and authorizing martial law in Kurd-dominated regions.

The PKK has been led from the start by Ocalan, a Turkish Kurd inspired by Marxism-Leninism in his university days in Ankara. Inspired by Cold War proletarian revolutionary rhetoric, Ocalan sought to fight against the “repressive exploitation of Kurds” and establish a “democratic and united Kurdistan”. A highly charismatic leader, Ocalan leads a grassroots movement uniting Kurds from different religious sects, countries, and cultures. However, his espousal of terrorist tactics as well as his affiliations with unsavory organizations such as the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah earned the ire of the international world, and landed the PKK on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) lists of a number of countries, including the United States. After Syria expelled him along with other Kurdish rebels in 1998, Ocalan sought asylum in Russia, Italy, and Kenya before Turkish forces captured him in the Greek embassy in Kenya in early 1999. A Turkish state security court sentenced him to death for treason, but following a surprisingly bold and public apology and renunciation of his cause, the sentence was commuted to life in solitary confinement. Since his trial, he has been imprisoned on an island in the Marmara Sea, not far from Istanbul.

Recent years have seen the PKK grow weaker, at least in sheer numerical terms. Originally boasting a force of 50,000 fighters, the PKK force is now estimated to number between 3,000-4,000. The guerilla tactics that the PKK found so effective in the 1980s and 1990s have been stymied by an intense effort from the Turkish military, culminating in the capture of Ocalan, leaving the movement largely declawed and enfeebled. Despite these setbacks, support among Kurds remains high. Furthermore, Kurds remain a large minority in neighboring countries and related separatist groups such as Iran’s Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) have vociferously fought for autonomy. Still, Ocalan’s ceasefire represents an acknowledgement that guerilla tactics should be abandoned as a failing strategy and that words might be more effective than grenades.

What does the ceasefire entail and where did it come from?

The ceasefire follows months of negotiations between Ocalan and Turkey’s head of intelligence, Hakan Fidan. The exact details remain unclear, but concessions seem to come mainly from the PKK camp, with the group releasing Turkish hostages and making symbolic overtures of peace. Perhaps most dramatically, the PKK has switched sides in Syrian conflict, abandoning its loyalty for the beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad in order to aid rebel groups. This about-face is striking, since Assad has taken a conciliatory stance toward Kurds in recent years, ceding control over a number of Kurdish towns near the Turkish border to the Syrian Kurdish group PYD, who are closely affiliated with the PKK. The PKK’s sudden pivot away from Assad could tip balance of power and spell an end to the stalemate in Syria.

The tentative deal struck between Ocalan and Turkish officials is not entirely one-sided, however; a new Turkish constitution is in the works that would curtail the de facto cultural discrimination against Kurds. Moreover, there is talk of revising legislation that has kept thousands of Kurds in jail under flimsy accusations of terrorism. However, one of the Kurds’ most important priorities, Ocalan’s release, is still likely to be met with outright refusal; Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unlikely to risk inflaming Kurdish sympathies by releasing the PKK’s most visible leader and rallying point.

What does this mean for Turkey? Does this spell the end of the PKK?

For Turkey, the ceasefire brings a number of benefits. On the most basic level, it spells an end to a costly and bloody guerilla war that had long eaten up resources and frustrated the nation. Its conclusion reflects positively upon Erdogan, who faces an election in spring of 2014. Although he faces no serious rivals at this point, Erdogan’s political fortunes are by no means secure, as he must contend with a bevy of issues including a Syrian refugee crisis that has already cost the nation $1.5 billion and shows no signs of abating. Fighting to secure his nation’s precarious position as a regional power, Erdogan will likely earn support from both the Turkish electorate and the West for bringing an end to the conflict. Finally, an end to the fight with the PKK might help Turkey in its 25-year quest for accession to the European Union. Both the lack of resolution of the Kurdish issue and a failure to create a more democratic constitution have been cited as obstacles to Turkey’s application to the EU.

However, the Turkey-PKK conflict is not a zero-sum game. A ceasefire offers the PKK strategic benefits, as they put an end to the bloodletting that has long drained money, lives, and separatist fervor from its supporters. A retreat back to their foothold in northern Iraq allows the leadership to regroup and strategize, and perhaps consider appeals to Kurdish sympathizers in the region and abroad. Indeed, in his ceasefire announcement, Ocalan declared, “This is not giving up our struggle, it is about staging a new phase of struggle.” Concessions on Erdogan’s part, such as the promise to release thousands of PKK activists, further bolster the movement’s position. Finally, negotiations with Turkey imply a sense of legitimacy for the movement, casting them not as a guerilla force committing terrorist acts in the name of Kurdish independence but rather a lawful and acknowledged movement that is willing to engage in diplomacy.

What does this mean for US national security?

At this point, the PKK’s actions have only minor implications for the United States, which has little interest in embroiling itself in this heated and longstanding conflict. However, a boost to Turkey’s regional power would hugely benefit America, as Turkey is one of the US’ largest and most important allies in the Middle East. The more prestige and leverage that Erdogan and his nation maintain, the more opportunities for US involvement in the volatile region. With help from Ankara, top shelf priorities such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran’s nuclear weapons, and global terror can be more effectively managed.

However, there is no guarantee that the national security priorities of Turkey align with those of the United States.  Given the conflicts on its borders and its tentative moves toward Russia and Iran as major trade partners, Turkey may be pivoting east. As Truman National Security Fellow Lionel Beehner discusses in a post for World Policy Blog:

“Westerners fret that Turkey is reorienting itself eastward and away from Europe…Moreover, Ankara’s foreign policy of ‘zero problems’ on its borders appears to be in tatters. Its relationship with Iraq was imperiled after Ankara gave shelter to Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice president accused by the al-Maliki regime of being involved in death squads. Turkey’s relations with Israel, though reportedly on the mend, remain strained after the infamous 2010 Marmara flotilla raid.”

Given these conflicts, it is uncertain whether an increase in Turkish soft power will aid American national security goals.


At this point, neither Ocalan nor Erdogan can promise that recent months will see the dawn of a new peace. Ceasefires have been declared and violated before, and it is unlikely that the Turkish people will be quick to forget the atrocities committed by the PKK, whose terrorist attacks claimed the lives of 40,000 Turks. However, Ocalan’s announcement represents a vital promise for a resolution to this long and bloody conflict. If it were to proceed as planned, major changes for the Kurds, Turks, and the larger diplomatic community can be expected.

Shana Mansbach is a Contributing Writer to the Truman Doctrine.