Turkey and the PKK After the Failed Coup

August 18, 2016

Following Turkey’s July 15th coup attempt, the government has launched an unprecedented purge of alleged coup-plotters, detaining an estimated 80,000 people in the round up so far. Included among those arrested are roughly 10,000 soldiers, including over a hundred generals. It is estimated that 9,000 police officers have also been removed from their posts.

In the midst of all this, the country’s war with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) remains as deadly as ever.  The Turkish army has dramatically reduced its operations, but the PKK has continued to strike at the same pace as before.  If the weeks since the coup attempt give us any indication, it appears that the coup attempt may change the military balance in this conflict but it will not cause either side to rethink its basic strategy. This, in turn, carries a risk of escalation that would immensely complicate Washington’s long-term fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

In the months leading up to the coup, the war against Kurdish militants produced some of the most intense fighting witnessed in the conflict’s history. In May, for example, the PKK killed over 100 Turkish soldiers. In June, the group launched daily attacks on security forces. In those same months, Turkish forces carried out roughly 130 operations against the militant group.  While Turkish forces conducted at least 22 operations against the PKK in the first two weeks of July, only three such operations occurred in the two weeks following the July 15th insurrection. The first two weeks of August have also witnessed dramatically reduced activity from the Turkish military, with only five operations recorded. With the head of Turkey’s Second Army, among others, now under arrest, operations against the PKK have unsurprisingly decreased by a substantial degree.

Source: Bipartisan Policy Center

In contrast, the PKK’s operational tempo did not slow down after the coup attempt. It matched the intensity of their campaign in the two weeks prior. Furthermore, the PKK’s operational tempo kept pace with the intensity seen in the previous two months of fighting.  They continued with low-intensity warfare, characterized by small-scale attacks killing one to two  security forces and on July 30th even attempted a large scale assault on a military base in Cukurca. Turkish forces at the base repelled the assault, killing 35 militants at the cost of eight soldiers. While the Turkish army did deal the PKK notable losses in the three weeks following the coup, killing a total of 113 militants, at least 40 Turkish soldiers were killed by PKK attacks during this same time period.

In other words, following the coup attempt, both the government and the PKK seemed content to return to the bloody state of business as usual. While the PKK continued attacks in the southeast, one of its leaders declared that the group would “spread its war to the cities.” A few days later, a bomb in front of a police station killed several officers and a number of civilians.

The government also made it clear that its eagerness to invoke a new conciliatory spirit would not extent to Kurdish nationalists. While the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) condemned both the military’s behavior and the PKK’s decision to resume attacks, representatives from the Kurdish party were pointedly not invited to participate alongside the country’s other main opposition parties. Pro-government media has also continued to emphasize the supposed links between the PKK and the so-called Fetullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO), trying to direct some popular anger over the coup at the PKK. And now, most recently, the government has further forestalled any prospects for a change of course by moving ahead with efforts to prosecute the HDP’s leadership for engaging in pro-PKK propaganda.

Unfortunately, at the moment, there are sound strategic reasons for both sides to continue fighting. The PKK undoubtedly senses a unique opportunity, both on account of Turkey’s military purges and the rapid advances of the group’s Syrian affiliate in the war against ISIL. Erdogan remains wedded to nationalist rhetoric as he seeks to consolidate his power after the coup attempt. What’s more, it cannot have escaped him that even many of the military officers who remained loyal to him during the attempt were deeply upset by his government’s previous efforts to negotiate with the PKK. Now is hardly the moment that Erdogan would risk alienating this crucial constituency by backing down from a conflict his military wanted.

By virtue of Washington’s support for Kurdish militants in Syria affiliated with the PKK, U.S. policymakers have a role to play in trying to manage this conflict. The combination of an increasingly angry and anti-American Turkish regime focused on its own survival and a potentially emboldened PKK could further escalate the fighting, making it impossible for Washington to keep both Turkey and the Kurds on board against ISIL. For policymakers in Washington increasingly exasperated with Ankara, the temptation will be to abandon any effort to manage Turkish concerns over Kurdish advances in Syria. Yet, giving up on this frustrating balancing act will only exacerbate the Turkish government’s concerns and push its war with the PKK in a more dangerous direction.


Nick Danforth is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He completed a PhD in Turkish History at Georgetown University and has written widely on Middle Eastern politics.

Dylan Runde is an MA student in International Affairs at American University. He previously served as a Research Assistant for the Program on Extremism in the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University.

Image: KurdishStruggle, Flickr, CC