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Turkey

The following text forms part of Crisis Group’s Early Warning Watch List for December 2015, compiled for the European Union (EU) and its member states to provide analysis and updates on conflicts, and on opportunities for preventive action. Each Watch List identifies up to ten countries or conflicts which are particularly vulnerable to an outbreak or intensification of conflict or crisis – or which in some cases offer an opportunity for prevention or resolution – in the following six to twelve months.

Each country or conflict is chosen from the 70 crisis situations monitored by Crisis Group and regularly reported on in CrisisWatch; the choice of countries is representative of a range of conflicts and is not meant to be all-inclusive or a ranking of deadly violence. Each country summary contains an outline of recent developments and forthcoming events that may increase risks, and lays out opportunities for action for national, regional and international actors, in particular the EU and its member states.


Overview

The November Turkey-EU summit’s commitment to re-energise the relationship, enhance political and financial engagement, and address the migration crisis, is interwoven with a complex mix of challenges that Ankara is facing: the crisis in neighbouring Syria and regional implications; threats of Islamic State (IS)’s attacks on its soil; growing social and political polarisation accentuated by the state’s heavy-handed rule; and a spiral of violence in the country’s south east. While not in the EU’s spotlight, Turkey’s Kurdish issue has also witnessed the most violent period in its recent history, with fighting engulfing various urban settlements in Kurdish-majority areas over the past six months. The collapse of the two-and-a-half year ceasefire between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in July has given way to clashes in which hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced. Turkey is facing a critical choice: to pursue a military strategy aimed at eradicating the PKK which ultimately cannot lead to a comprehensive solution of the Kurdish issue, or else to revise its approach, resume peace talks and take concrete steps to address Kurdish rights demands.

The EU and its member states should:
  • As part of the positive momentum created by the EU-Turkey summit, and ahead of further discussions on opening Chapters 23 and 24 pertaining to the judiciary, fundamental rights and security, and progressing on visa free travel requirements for Turkish citizens, encourage Ankara to reassess its approach to the Kurdish issue. Among other measures, Turkey should be encouraged to quickly resume peace talks with the PKK to end the violence; to develop long-term strategies to reach a comprehensive settlement on the Kurdish issue; and to make progress on delivering accountability for past abuses.
  • Provide constitutional expertise to Ankara as it develops a new constitution for the country, particularly on local governance and mother-tongue-based public education, which are perceived as fundamental issues for Kurdish political leaders.
  • Call on Ankara to ensure, as a critical confidence building measure, that past and present human rights abuses toward the Kurdish population are effectively investigated so that all those responsible are brought to justice. Should opportunities arise to establish a transitional justice mechanism, which encompasses truth measures, offer technical, and if appropriate financial assistance, to design and run such a process.
  • Request that the government ensures that independent media and civil society are free from intimidation and/or prosecution as a result of their Kurdish related activities.
Background

The Turkey-PKK peace process which began in March 2013 with the goal of ending three decades of armed insurgency collapsed earlier this year. With mistrust between the parties mounting throughout 2014, a turning point came in October 2014 when Ankara refused to allow support across the border to the IS-besieged city of Kobani – which was being defended by PKK’s offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and which hosts a large Kurdish population – infuriating the Kurdish movement. The belief that Ankara was covertly supporting IS gained wide acceptance among Turkey’s Kurds, while cross-border Kurdish solidarity fuelled concerns in Ankara. Further, talks between imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and the Turkish state ended in April, paving the way for new violence in the Kurdish-inhabited south-east part of the country.

With almost 500 deaths in less than six months, and many thousands displaced, the conflict has reached its most violent point in more than two decades. The sides urgently need to agree on a reinforced ceasefire. Ankara has however vowed not to return to the negotiation table with the PKK until militants have entirely withdrawn, and neither side appears likely to back down: the PKK is emboldened by Kurdish gains in northern Syria through the PYD, which operates there, and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is revitalised by its recent electoral victory and Turkey’s strategic importance for the West in the fight against IS and in handling the refugee flow.

The return to armed conflict between Turkey’s security forces and the PKK was accompanied by President Erdoğan’s and AKP’s attempt to marginalise and discredit the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), whose results in the June elections stripped the AKP of its parliamentary majority. The HDP secured votes at the time from non-Kurdish liberals in part by campaigning against Erdoğan’s attempt to introduce a presidential political system. The showdown between the AKP and the HDP has since deepened, especially as the November repeat elections neared, and following four alleged IS attacks between May and October on pro-Kurdish activists in Turkey for which the Kurdish movement blamed Ankara.

Although some government officials have signalled an interest in addressing Kurdish demands for greater rights, no concrete reform agenda has yet been developed on core issues such as decentralisation, mother-tongue-based public education, eradication of ethnic references in defining citizenship, reforming the anti-terror law, or lowering the 10 per cent electoral threshold. The government program announced on 25 November emphasised above all a security-oriented approach to the Kurdish issue. While the much-debated prospect of a new constitution could well address Kurdish rights, it is weighed down by the likelihood that President Erdoğan will attempt to shift the governance system from parliamentary to presidential, with weak checks and balances. The political debate on many Kurdish demands, for example for greater autonomy of local bodies or on reforming the anti-terror law (so that it cannot be used for political purposes) have also been stifled due to the perceived potential security risks such changes may bring.

The Syrian conflict and Turkey’s involvement have also been complicating the resumption of Ankara-PKK negotiations: both sides have been waiting to see how the Syrian war will unfold to gauge their respective power over each other. With heightened tensions between Moscow and Ankara after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on 24 November, speculation has risen that Russia may further engage with the PYD to fuel the Kurdish-Turkish confrontation. Turkey’s increased friction with Russia and the U.S., in particular over their support to the PYD, and differences over dealings with Sunni Arab “moderate” Islamist insurgents and Turkmens in Syria, will likely continue to complicate Turkey’s role in global efforts to tackle IS and further fuel Ankara-PKK tensions. Meanwhile, the burden of hosting some 2.5 million Syrian refugees is expected to grow following the new conflict escalation.

Though Ankara’s priority in Syria has long been President Assad’s removal and PYD containment, it now also includes halting IS progress, especially since it became a national security threat when a twin suicide bombing left over 100 dead in Turkey’s capital last October. Over 680 people have since been detained, and at least 92 arrested, because of alleged IS affiliation. Police raids on the extremist group’s safe houses have also increased, and border security along IS-held Syrian territory has been fortified.

Despite Turkey facing a range of threats, the new EU-Turkey momentum could potentially bring a range of benefits, including a genuine revitalisation of the enlargement process, progress toward visa-liberalisation, and effective measures to address the migration and refugee crisis. This positive outlook remains fragile however with risks ranging from confidence breaking over implementation of the migration deal, to slow progress on requirements for visa-free travel and opening of Chapters 23 and 24, or stalling of the now dynamic Cyprus process. While the momentum is strong, not using it to also address and tackle the Kurdish issue would be a lost opportunity and a future risk.


Read the full Watch List for December 2015 (pdf).

Learn more about the Watch List.


Note: The Watch List is produced as part of the project “Strengthening Early Warning and Mobilising Early Action”, co-funded by the European Union. The project aims to strengthen the links between early warning, conflict analysis and early response, and to build civil society’s capacity for early warning.

The Crisis Group EU Early Warning Watch List is one of many products the organisation produces to alert policy makers and the general public on unfolding crisis or conflicts, and which offers them solutions to support conflict prevention, management and resolution initiatives.

 
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