Since the Islamic State (IS) siege of Kobane began in mid-September, the Turkish government has faced vociferous calls from Turkish Kurds to support the Syrian Kurdish-majority city. The Turkish posture is symptomatic of the difficulties Ankara faces in balancing domestic and foreign policy goals. Critically, it also threatens to undermine a tentative ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and rejuvenate the domestic insurgency.
The three-decade PKK insurgency in Turkey has declined since the commencement of a gradual peace process in 2012. Although sporadic outbreaks of violence have persisted, the plight of the Syrian Kurds in Kobane – also known as Ayn al-Arab – has proved a potent flashpoint for resurgent militant activity. On 23 September, PKK commander Murat Karayilan blamed Ankara for the Islamic State assault on Kobane, and said that the peace process was effectively over. The group’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan has also warned the process would be aborted should Kobane fall to IS. Kobane holds a strategic position in the Kurdish area of northern Syria, which is controlled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) with whom the PKK has strong ties. The city falls between the Kurdish-dominated areas of Efrin and Jazeera, and its loss could prove profoundly damaging to the territorial integrity of the Syrian Kurds, especially as IS already controls the town of Tel Abyad, on the corridor between Kobane and Jazeera.
Rising unrest and a series of attacks in the past month indicate a growing risk of the PKK insurgency resuming. With IS forces advancing on Kobane, on 6-7 October PKK-inspired protests broke out across Turkey, particularly in the southeast, where the resulting riots led to violent clashes with the security forces and the deaths of at least 37 people. Compounding the tensions, on 13 October the Turkish air force bombed PKK positions for the first time in two years. Military operations against the group have increased, with troops killing three PKK members in Kars province on 23 October. Shortly after, three off-duty soldiers were killed in Yuksekova, Hakkari province, in what the government claimed was a PKK retaliation, although the group has denied involvement. The situation escalated further still on 27 October with the hijacking by PKK of a truck containing 400 kg of explosives from a coalmine in Silopi, Sirnak province.
Erdogan’s attempts to appease the country’s Kurdish population have so far failed. After repeated delays, the Turkish government has agreed to allow 150 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan to transit Turkey toward Kobane. However, the policy is indicative of the difficulties the Turkish government faces in balancing competing domestic and foreign policy goals. While keen to maintain peace domestically and not cede independence to Kurdish-majority regions in Turkey, Ankara has developed close economic ties with Iraqi Kurdistan, subsequently bolstering its autonomy from Baghdad. Reluctance to participate militarily in Kobane has also stemmed from staunch opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom it claims could benefit from international efforts against IS in Syria.
The future of the peace deal in Turkey is evidently at a key juncture and vulnerable to deterioration. Comments by figures on both sides suggest that a revival of the process may be attainable. Ocalan has said that the Kurdish riots marked a new, urgent phase in the process, and in the wake of the Yuksekova incident, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted that the government was undaunted in its pursuit of peace. Yet a PKK statement on 28 October said that resumption of the process would depend upon concrete steps from then government. In this regard, the fate of Kobane could be a major influence, especially if the city ultimately falls to IS. A short-term increase of attacks in the southeast Turkey, most likely to manifest in small-scale bombings and ambushes on security forces, as well as intensifying military reprisals, could see the situation escalate. This is especially likely if the more extremist PKK offshoots in Turkey such as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) increase activities, independent of the continuation of the broader government-PKK peace initiative.