The Conflict at a Glance
Who (are the main combatants): The government of Turkey is in conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which contains a militant wing with ties in northern Iraq. The PKK is viewed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and other countries, including the United States. Since civil war gripped neighbouring Syria, the Turkish military has also shelled Kurdish fighters who are fighting in Popular Protection Units (YPG) inside northern Syria; the United Nations, United States and European Union have repeatedly condemned these actions. The international community sees the YPG as one of the most effective forces resisting the Islamic State, while Turkey views the YPG as an extension of its domestic PKK (BBC).
What (are the major aims and events): The PKK aims for greater autonomy for the Kurdish people, who comprise a small minority of the Turkish population and have been historically marginalized. The Turkish government has actively oppressed the Kurds through restrictive policies, including limitations on language use. Fighting has been continuous since 2003, resulting in over 2,000 deaths and the displacement of many Turkish Kurds. In 2013, a tentative ceasefire was extended by the PKK, conditional on governmental political reforms; some forces began to withdraw. Protests and arbitrary detentions are frequent occurrences. The government continues to put down peaceful protests with force; broadly defined terrorism laws have permitted prolonged detention of human rights activists.
When (has fighting occurred): The current phase of the conflict began in 2003, with violence surging between 2007 and 2012. The PKK declared a brief unilateral ceasefire in 2010. Stalled negotiations between the government and the PKK resumed in 2012 and continued into 2013. In the winter of 2015/2016, PKK-backed youth militias erected barricades and trenches to claim control of urban areas; clashes between state security and the PKK peaked when security officials established urban curfews that lasted weeks or months to “restore public order” (International Crisis Group).
Where (has the conflict taken place): Most fighting has taken place in southeastern Turkey. However, sporadic and increasing conflict has also occurred in the northern mountainous area along Turkey’s border with Iraq. Since the Syrian civil war began, the Turkish military has also launched attacks on the Islamic State and Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) in Syria (BBC News).
2016 Conflict continued between Turkish security forces and the PKK and its offshoot organization, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), as well as between Turkish security forces and the Islamic State. Airstrikes and suicide bombings caused the deaths of at least 644 security forces, 449 PKK members, and 307 civilians. In July, elements within the Turkish military attempted to oust President Erdoğan in an unsuccessful coup. The President responded with an unprecedented crackdown, arresting 50,000 by July 15 and firing and suspending more than 100,000 civil servants from their jobs (Al Jazeera). Those who were punished were accused of having links to Fethullah Gülen, a former Erdoğan ally and exiled political figure in the United States. Relations between the European Union and Turkey then deteriorated sharply.
2015 Conflict continued between the PKK and Turkish security forces. Negotiations resumed in February but stalled in May and June. Multiple airstrikes in the southeast and increased violence in July and August resulted in many soldier and civilian casualties. A September bomb attack in Ankara killed 28. In June elections, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority in parliament, but regained it in the snap November election called by President Erdogan.
2014: Turkish Kurds led protests across Turkey to incite the government to take action against the rising threat of Islamic State. Demonstrations caused some deaths and many injuries. The government and PKK began peace talks, although the PKK threatened to resume armed action if there were no progress. IS activity in Syria led to more than 300,000 refugees in Turkey this year. Elections were held in August. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ended his term as Prime Minister and was elected Turkey’s President. Ahmet Davutoğlu became Prime Minister.
2013 A ceasefire was announced by the PKK in March and maintained during the year, with sporadic violence. Armed conflict caused at least 101 deaths, according to International Crisis Group. PKK withdrawal from Turkey to northern Iraq began in May, but stalled in the early fall when the government did not meet Kurdish demands. While the government’s September democratization reform package offered some concessions to the Kurdish minority, it was considered insufficient by many. A violent crackdown in June by police on widespread protests captured the world’s attention. The constant, growing surge of Syrian refugees into Turkey along its southern border also became a source of conflict as Turkey attempted to protect its borders. The presence of more than half-a-million registered refugees placed a significant financial burden on Turkey, which had spent an estimated $2-billion, while the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and international donor funding and resource provision were described as highly insufficient.
2012 The conflict between the Kurds (Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK) and Turkey escalated markedly, with waves of armed clashes between Kurdish supporters and Turkish police, mass incarceration of Kurdish activists, escalating attacks from the PKK, and kidnappings and assassinations of Turkish officials by the PKK. According to International Crisis Group, at least 460 deaths occurred in 2012. Turkey used broad and vague terrorism laws to prosecute individuals suspected of associating with the PKK and prolong the detention of thousands of Kurdish activists. Previously stalled negotiations between Turkey and the PKK resumed in 2012 and the Turkish government announced negotiations with imprisoned PKK founder Öcalan.
2011 In February, the PKK ended its August 2010 unilateral ceasefire, citing the uncompromising position of the government. In June elections the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party was comfortably reelected, but a boycott of the parliament swearing-in ceremony by the main opposition parties cast a shadow over the results. Heavy summer fighting, particularly in August, killed up to 40 Turkish forces and 160 PKK militants. Demonstrations demanding increased rights for Kurds often turned violent, and the year saw politically motivated, sporadic attacks by the PKK and the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) on non-military targets.
2010 Fighting intensified in the spring when the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) ended a unilateral ceasefire, citing government attacks, and stepped up its own attacks. The government responded with aggressive incursions into northern Iraq, targeting PKK bases. The PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire in August. Two events in 2010 highlighted the power struggle between Turkey’s military and the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In a September referendum, Turks supported Erdogan’s constitutional amendment, which, inter alia, makes the military more accountable to civilian courts. And in November, the government suspended three officers pending the outcome of a trial in which a group of military officers stood accused of plotting to overthrow the government. It was the first time the Turkish government had removed officers from duty.
2009 The first air strikes of 2009 occurred in February in northern Iraq. Set to expire in October 2009, the authorization of Turkish forces to launch strikes against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in Iraq was extended another year by parliament. October saw a potential peace breakthrough as 34 Kurds crossed the border back into Turkey from Iraq in a symbolic peace gesture. However, this action was followed by one of the deadliest clashes in months between Turkish security forces and the PKK. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) claimed victory in the local March elections, but suffered significant losses. In August, the government released its strategy for solving the conflict, although details were not widely communicated. In December, Turkey’s constitutional court banned Turkey’s only pro-Kurdish political party, the Democratic Society Party (DTP).
2008 A major offensive by the Turkish military into northern Iraq aimed to displace Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants operating in the region. The ground offensive lasted a week and killed at least 230 PKK fighters and approximately 24 government forces, according to the Turkish military. Turkish forces withdrew from Iraq, stating it had “achieved its initial targets.” Government air strikes inside Iraq continued in 2008. In October, the Turkish military was given another year-long mandate for cross-border military action. Late 2008 and early 2009 saw implementation of a committee comprised of Turkey, the United States and Iraq to find ways to increase cooperation in combating PKK militants in the border region.
2007 Bombings in Turkish cities, notably Ankara, Diyarbakir and Marmaris, were blamed on Kurdish rebels. There were a number of attacks on the Turkish armed forces, including an October ambush that killed 13 soldiers. In response, Turkey conducted several cross-border raids against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters based in Iraq. At the end of 2007, 100,000 Turkish troops were reportedly massed near the northern Iraqi border. An estimated 3,000 PKK fighters were based in northern Iraq.
1. Government of Turkey: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001 and was elected prime minister in 2002, 2007, and 2011, when popular support for the AKP was just under 50 per cent. While there were calls for his resignation during summer protests in 2013, Erdoğan held onto power. Erdoğan was elected President in 2014. Ahmet Davutoğlu then became leader of the AKP and prime minister; he was replaced by Binali Yildirim in May 2016 (Al Jazeera).
2. Turkish Armed Forces: The land, naval, and air forces are subordinate to the Turkish General Staff. During peacetime, the gendarmerie and coastguard report to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. General Hulusi Akar was appointed Commander of the Turkish Armed Forces on August 18, 2015 (Turkish Armed Forces General Staff).
3. Turkish Police: Police continue to play a major role in suppressing peaceful and non-peaceful protests, often violently with teargas and water cannons. The general population is wary of the police. Police are involved in counter-terrorism activities against radicalized elements in Turkish society.
4. Pariya Kareken Kurdistan/Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK): In recent years, the PKK has sought greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish population within Turkey’s existing borders. This marks a departure from the previous goal of creating a new Kurdish state. The group was formed in the late 1970s and is led by imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan (BBC News). Leadership of the PKK’s armed wing, which also has bases in northern Iraq, shifted from Murat Karayilan to Cemil Bayik and Bese Hozat in 2013. Turkey, the European Union, and the United States regard the PKK as a terrorist organization.
5. Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK): TAK is an offshoot of the PKK and has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States. The TAK was formed in 2004 after a large, increasingly vocal group of young mostly urban PKK recruits split from the PKK. TAK blames the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for the current violence in Turkey (Los Angeles Times).
2016 Violence intensified, with the Turkish government continuing to crack down on individuals associated or affiliated with the PKK. Southeast Turkey continued to bear the brunt of the fighting, with bomb attacks, Islamic State suicide attacks, and clashes between the PKK and the Turkish security apparatus. April and October were particularly violent, with 99 members of Turkish security forces, at least 147 verifiable PKK-linked militants, and 38 civilians killed (International Crisis Group). On June 21, Prime Minister Yıldırım announced an end to Turkish military operations in the urban areas of southeast Turkey and promised to begin a reconstruction campaign for districts damaged by the violence. Many military operations continued to be conducted in rural areas (International Crisis Group). The Turkish military carried out several operations against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq (International Crisis Group).
2015 Violence intensified in March, with artillery fire and mortar shell attacks on military positions near the Iraqi border. A 2013 government ceasefire with the PKK collapsed in July, sparking increased violence (IRIN). A July 20 bombing in the Suruc district killed 32 (International Crisis Group). Between July 24 and August 28 violence between security forces and the PKK escalated in southeast Turkey, killing close to 150 soldiers and civilians (International Crisis Group). After the government initiated multiple airstrikes against the PKK, the PKK offered to cease violent action.
Kurdish forces claimed that on July 26, Turkish tanks stationed at the Turkey-Syria border near Kobani attacked Kurdish-held villages in northern Syria. Turkey insisted that the targets were IS in Syria and the PKK in northern Iraq.
In September PKK attacks in Hakkari province killed 31 soldiers. An October 10 bomb attack at a peace rally in Ankara killed 102 and injured 240 in what was considered the deadliest attack in the Turkish Republic’s history (International Crisis Group). The same day, PKK Leader Murat Karayilan declared a unilateral ceasefire, which lasted until November 5. Conflict between government security forces and the PKK in November, including a 10-day attack started by security forces in the Diyarbakir district, killed 24 civilians and more than 19 PKK fighters. High-intensity fighting in the southeast in December killed 44 civilians and 25 security forces personnel (International Crisis Group).
2014: PKK members perceived construction projects by the Turkish government in Diyarbakır province, which include security outposts and dams, as a security threat. June clashes between security forces and people demonstrating against construction caused the deaths of two protestors. In October the PKK accused the Turkish military of launching an airstrike at one of its locations. Although no PKK members were known to have been killed, the PKK stated that the attack violated an ongoing ceasefire, which it had unilaterally declared in March 2013. The Turkish military claimed that the airstrikes were in response to PKK attacks. The government reported 293 PKK attacks using firearms and 785 PKK attacks using explosives in 2014. In September and October Turkish Kurds protested the lack of government action to the rising threat of IS in Kobani, a bordering Kurdish town in Syria. Clashes around the protests left 36 dead and many more wounded.
2013 The year began with positive developments in the fragile peace talks between the PKK and the Turkish government, although January also saw continued violence, with more than 20 PKK fatalities. Following calls by jailed leader Öcalan, the PKK declared a ceasefire on March 23 and PKK militants began a gradual withdrawal to northern Iraq in May. In the same month, 52 people were killed after two car bombs went off in Rayhanli—the highest death toll from a single incident in Turkey in 2013. Claims that the incident was linked to the conflict in Syria were denied by the Syrian government.
The Turkish government continued to stall on releasing a democratization reform package, for fear of a political backlash. In response, the PKK halted its withdrawal in September, but maintained the ceasefire in spite of threats to the contrary. The release of the democratization package on September 30 was met with protests from Kurdish citizens, who saw the package as inadequate. Sporadic violence between government forces and the PKK continued until the end of the year.
Border violence increased as the Turkish government tried to hold back the dramatic influx of Syrian refugees. Syrian oil smugglers also clashed with police and Turkish armed forces.
2012 The conflict between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkey escalated markedly in 2012, with waves of armed clashes between Kurds and Turkish police, mass incarceration of Kurdish activists, escalating attacks from the PKK, and kidnappings and assassinations of Turkish officials by the PKK. The year started with multiple clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK resulting in numerous deaths. These clashes continued and were the primary cause of conflict deaths in 2012. In February, Turkish forces bombed suspected Kurdish rebel hideouts in northern Iraq. In March, police clashed with the Kurdish community in Istanbul and Diyarakir during Kurdish New Year celebrations, which are banned in Turkey. One Kurdish politician was killed and 135 people arrested. In May, the PKK began a new wave of kidnappings and assassinations. In July pro-Kurdish demonstrations led by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to demand an end to Öcalan’s imprisonment were met by heavy police attacks. Eighty-seven people were detained during the demonstration. During the rest of the year, Turkey’s security situation continued to deteriorate; PKK attacks caused many casualties.
2011 In March and May, Turkish military forces killed 15 PKK militants crossing the Iraq border into Turkey. One Turkish soldier was also killed. During violent street protests in April, Turkish forces killed three PKK members. Violence increased in the months after the June elections; PKK attacks in July and August killed 40 Turkish soldiers. The first and deadliest of these attacks, on July 14, killed 13 Turkish soldiers and seven PKK militants. In August, Turkish forces launched air strikes on PKK targets, reportedly killing approximately 160 PKK militants and seven civilians. In October, PKK attacks in Hakkari killed 24 Turkish military forces. Turkish ground troops and air forces launched attacks that continued into December, killing approximately 50 PKK rebels. PKK bombings seemed to have a political message. On May 4, the PKK attacked a police convoy after an election rally for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, killing one police officer. On September 20, the same day that U.S. President Barack Obama was visiting Turkey, two PKK attacks killed seven civilians and the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons detonated a car bomb, killing three. On October 29, a female PKK suicide bomber detonated a bomb near an AKP office in the Bingol region, killing three. In November, a PKK militant was killed after hijacking a ferry on the Sea of Marmara.
2010 In May, Turkish air strikes hit PKK bases in northern Iraq and the PKK launched a rocket attack on Turkey’s Iskenderun naval base. In June, the PKK ended a unilateral year-long ceasefire in response to ongoing government attacks and intensified its own attacks. On June 19, the bloodiest day for government forces in two years, a PKK ambush killed 12 soldiers. In response, the Turkish military launched further ground and air incursions into northern Iraq. In July, the PKK bombed an Iraq-Turkey oil pipeline in southeast Turkey. In August, the PKK proposed a conditional ceasefire. In October, parliament extended authorization for cross-border attacks into Iraq for an additional year. In November, a group called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack in Istanbul that injured more than 30 people. The PKK was initially blamed for the attack.
2009 The first confirmed air strikes of 2009 occurred in the northern Iraqi province of Hakurk in February. In December 2007, the Turkish army started attacking PKK targets in Iraq with the help of U.S. intelligence and with parliamentary authorization. In October, 34 Kurds crossed the Iraqi border and returned to Turkey in a symbolic gesture of peace. But the deadliest clashes in months followed a parade to celebrate their return. Violent civilian protests occurred in early December after the announcement of harsher terms for jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and a ban of the only pro-Kurdish party in Turkey’s parliament.
2008 Early 2008 saw a major ground offensive by the Turkish military across its northern border with Iraq. After a week, the Turkish military pulled out of Iraq, having “achieved its initial targets.” Turkey continued cross-border air strikes in northern Iraq in response to attacks by PKK militants in the border region. In October, Parliament renewed authorization for cross-border military action for an additional year.
2007 Bombings in Turkish cities, notably Ankara, Diyarbakir and Marmaris, were blamed on Kurdish rebels. There were a number of attacks on the Turkish armed forces, including an October ambush that killed 13 soldiers. In response, Turkey conducted several cross-border raids against PKK fighters based in Iraq. At the end of 2007, some 100,000 Turkish troops were reportedly massed near the northern Iraqi border. An estimated 3,000 PKK fighters were based inside northern Iraq.
Total: An estimated 3,500 people have been killed in the current phase of the conflict, which started in 2003. In the previous phase (1984 to 2002) between 30,000 and 42,000 people were killed. According to 2016 figures, a total of 1,108,000 persons have been internally displaced as a result of the conflict (International Displacement Monitoring Centre).
2016 Between July 20, 2015 and July 19, 2016, conflict in Turkey killed at least 1,761 people, including 307 civilians, 582 security force members, 653 PKK militants, and 219 “youth of unknown affiliation” (International Crisis Group).
Refugees and IDPs: In 2016, 204,000 people were reported internally displaced (IDMC).
2015 According to the International Crisis Group, conflict resulted in the deaths of more than 250 civilians and 312 soldiers (International Crisis Group). The UNHCR could not provide an accurate account of the number of displaced persons. The agency reported that as of June 2015 there were 10,302 asylum seekers and 63,004 refugees originating from Turkey (UNHCR). Islamic State involvement in Syria pushed more Syrian refugees into Turkey.
2014: According to the Turkish government, the PKK were responsible for 58 deaths: nine security officers and 49 civilians. Reported PKK deaths included two in July and three in October. At least 38 people died during protests.
Refugees and IDPs: In May 2014, the International Displacement Monitoring Centre had registered 954,000 internally displaced persons in Turkey and listed 66,607 refugees from Turkey. Turkey also received an estimated 300,000 new Syrian refugees; the total number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is estimated at 824,381, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Turkey also received approximately 81,000 Iraqi refugees.
2013 The death toll dropped significantly to an estimated 101 fatalities, as reported by International Crisis Group. One police officer and one guard were killed in separate incidents, but most of the dead were civilians—approximately 69 people. The only identified PKK deaths occurred in January.
Refugees In the mid-1990s, Turkish security forces began clearing villages suspected of harbouring people sympathetic to the PKK. Many villagers in the southeast escaped to the slums of Turkey’s big cities and others escaped to northern Iraq, which became an autonomous region after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In 2004, the UN reached an agreement with Turkey and Iraq on the return of the villagers at Makhmour, but the agreement never went into effect and very few returned home for fear of ongoing violence and persecution. Mid-2013 estimates by the UNHCR placed the number of Turkish refugees at almost 69,000 and the number of asylum seekers at 8,500. As well, by the end of 2013, the UNHCR had registered more than 580,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey.
2012 According to International Crisis Group, at least 460 deaths occurred in 2012, including 89 Turkish soldiers, 247 alleged PKK militants and 124 civilians.
2011 The International Crisis Group and various media sources reported between 394 and 413 fatalities in 2011, including 41-49 civilians, 264-295 PKK militants and 77-81 Turkish security forces. Approximately half died in August.
2010 Between 160 and 300 people were killed, most in the summer. They included 80-150 government forces, 60-130 militants and approximately 20 civilians.
2009 The International Crisis Group reported fewer than 200 deaths this year, a sharp decrease from 2008. This figure included 44 government forces, 78 militants and 67 civilians.
2008 According to government reports, the conflict killed 849 people this year, including 49 civilians, 143 government forces and 657 militants.
2016 On March 18, the European Union and Turkey reached a landmark agreement that offered Turkey visa liberalization, acceleration of negotiations to admit it to the EU, and a €3-billion extension of aid for refugee-related costs until the end of 2018 (International Crisis Group) in exchange for accepting Syrian refugees who had been deported from Greece. On May 5, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s resigned after the AKP removed his office’s authority to appoint provincial party officials. On May 1, Binali Yıldırım became Prime Minister.
On July 15, dissidents in the Turkish army staged an unsuccessful coup. Large crowds of citizens, police officers, and soldiers gathered in and around Anatolia to oppose the coup, which killed 241 and injured 2,194 (Al Jazeera). President Erdoğan blamed the coup on Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish preacher, former imam, writer, and political figure exiled in the United States. Between July 16 and 28, the military discharged 117 generals, 32 admirals, and 1,505 officers, while approximately 60,000 public officials were dismissed from their positions. On July 22, the government declared a three-month state of emergency that allowed the state to remove from office anyone implicated in the coup attempt (Al Jazeera). The state of emergency was extended for an additional three months in October (International Crisis Group). By September, more than 100,000 public officials had been dismissed or suspended, and approximately 32,000 individuals had been arrested (International Crisis Group). The West expressed concern over Turkey’s commitment to the rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms, and its ability to address security concerns. In light of Turkey’s post-coup crackdown, the European Parliament voted to freeze EU-Turkey membership talks on November 24 (International Crisis Group).
2015 On February 28 the Turkish government said it was ready to continue negotiating with the Kurds. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called on the PKK to hold a meeting and proposed a 10-point framework for negotiations. The HDP, the main Kurdish political party, and the government agreed to use this framework as the basis for the next round of negotiations. On March 21 Ocalan called on the Kurds to hold a congress to end the conflict. President Erdogan rejected the 10-point framework on March 22. The PKK cancelled its congress on May 18 when the government refused to commit to the peace process.
On June 7 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority in parliament, winning only 41 per cent of the vote. The Pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) exceeded the minimum threshold for parliament (10 per cent), winning 80 seats (13 per cent). The result was a hung parliament. On August 21 Erdogan called for a snap election on November 1.
The state-PKK ceasefire collapsed in August; the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire on October 10. On the same day, Prime Minister Davutoglu announced continuing attacks against the PKK. On November 1 the AKP regained a parliamentary majority. On November 4 the peace process was renamed the “National Brotherhood and Unity Process.”
2014: The 2014 Turkey elections saw Recep Tayyip Erdoğan make the shift from prime minster to president. Ahmet Davutoğlu was elected prime minister. Parliamentary elections were scheduled for the summer of 2015. As the Syrian conflict with the Islamic State escalates, there are concerns that the conflict in Turkey, whose PKK has ties with Syrian armed parties, will also grow. PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan called on Kurds to resist IS.In September and October Turkish Kurds protested the lack of government action against IS. International Crisis Group indicated that the March 2013 ceasefire, established unilaterally by the PKK, had been largely maintained, and might have resulted from its desire to cooperate with the government against IS. Peace talks continued late in the year, although the PKK threatened to resume armed action if there was no progress. The PKK suspended its withdrawal of militants to sites outside Turkey, alleging that the Turkish government had not reciprocated.
2013 The Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Gül, began work on a new constitution. Legislation to establish a National Human Rights Institution was approved by Parliament in March and in April a judicial reform package was passed. The reforms were criticized by international advocacy groups as not meeting global standards for human rights, including restrictions on freedom of expression and overly broad anti-terrorism laws, which have resulted in the continued imprisonment of many Kurds and journalists in Turkey.
Peaceful protests, including occupation of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, began in late May in opposition to redevelopment of the park. Riot police responded to the occupation of the park and later, Taksim Square, with arrests, tear gas and water cannons. The protests rapidly spread to other cities across the country. Several protestors were killed and thousands injured. While the deputy Prime Minister apologized for the excessive use of force, Prime Minister Erdoğan remained staunchly opposed to the protestors. On June 15, police cleared protestors from Gezi Park.
The much anticipated democratization package was released by the government on September 30. It proposed advancements on key themes advocated for by the Kurdish population, including reducing the vote percentage threshold for granting parties representation in Parliament, allowing mother-tongue education in private schools, restoring the names of Kurdish villages and lifting a ban on the use of letters used in the Kurdish, but not Turkish, language. However, many Kurds found the package insufficient. Prime Minister Erdoğan stated that it was not the first, nor would it be the last, of proposed reforms.
In December, a corruption scandal resulted in the resignation of three cabinet ministers and the arrest of 91 people. Human Rights Watch expressed concern over the handling of the allegations, as the government moved to remove approximately 100 police officers working on the investigations.
2012. Turkey continued to use broad and vague terrorism laws to prosecute individuals suspected of associating with the PKK and prolong the detention of thousands of Kurdish activists. Free speech and media continued to be restricted. The year saw numerous demonstrations, clashes, and arrests. Stalled negotiations between Turkey and the PKK did resume late in the year.
In January, a raid of the offices of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) resulted in the immediate detention of 20 people and an additional 31 arrests two days later. In March, counterterrorism units arrested 85 people, including journalists and BDP members, in an operation against the Kurdish Communities Union. In April, the Prime Minister declared that the Turkish Armed Forces would halt operations against the PKK if they laid down their arms. Turkish security forces detained 22 villagers on suspicion of aiding the PKK and a further seven for membership in an alleged PKK youth branch. More than 140 people, including politicians and BDP officials, were detained in June during Turkish police operations against the Kurdish Communities Union. In July, Erdoğan ruled out the possibility of negotiations with the PKK prior to their disarmament. Also in July, the Iraqi Prime Minister warned Turkey against violations of airspace following a Turkish cross-border raid against the PKK in northern Iraq. Later in the month, the BDP led demonstrations demanding an end to Kurdish leader Öcalan’s imprisonment, which ended in clashes with Turkish police. In September, Erdoğan indicated that talks with the PKK could restart. In November, hundreds of pro-PKK prisoners in Turkey obeyed a message from Öcalan by ending their two-month hunger strike. The government responded by meeting some of their demands; it was announced that Öcalan could resume meetings with lawyers, a debate in parliament would begin on the legalization of the use of Kurdish in courts, and talks with the PKK would be restarted.
2011 In February, the PKK ended its August 2010 unilateral ceasefire, set to last until the June national elections, because of what it described as the uncompromising position of the Turkish government. Between March and May, more than 2,500 Kurdish protestors were detained after demonstrations supporting the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) turned violent. At least two protestors were killed. In May, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan vowed a “great war” against the Turkish government unless it agreed to negotiate. In June, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was comfortably reelected, with only a slight decrease in support. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected to his third-term. The BDP increased its seat count to 36, but after one BDP candidate was convicted of spreading terrorist propaganda and five others were detained on charges of having ties to Kurdish rebels, the BDP boycotted the parliament’s swearing-in ceremony. The BDP and other opposition parties that joined the boycott argued that the Election Commission and courts had favoured the government. In October, a parliamentary committee began work on a new constitution. In late December, the killing of 35 Kurdish civilians led to protests in Diyarbakir and Istanbul, where protestors threw stones and police responded with tear gas and water cannons.
2010 In August, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire against Turkish military forces for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, offering to extend it if the government agreed to certain conditions. President Abdullah Gül said he hoped the month of Ramadan would give the PKK a chance to change its ways, adding that the country would never give in to “terror.” The Turkish government has in the past rejected the PKK’s unilateral ceasefire declarations. In September, the PKK extended the ceasefire another month, and later extended it to the June 2011 elections. In a referendum held in September, 58 per cent of Turks approved Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proposed changes to the constitution, which among other things would make the military more accountable to civilian courts. In November, Turkey’s government suspended three military officers pending the outcome of a trial in which a group of military officers were accused of plotting to overthrow the ruling party. The suspensions were the first time the Turkish government has removed officers from duty and marked the latest round in the power struggle between the military and Erdoğan’s government. The military, which has overthrown three governments since 1960, has long regarded itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secular system.
2009 The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered significant losses in the March local elections. In April, Turkish authorities arrested dozens of members of the Democratic Society Party (DTP), the only pro-Kurdish party in the Turkish parliament. The DTP had won the majority of votes in southeast Turkey, a former AKP stronghold. After speculation that jailed former PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan would release a “road map” strategy for ending the conflict, the government created its own proposal for conflict resolution. The government encouraged PKK fighters to return to Turkey so that their grievances could be addressed, but victory parades celebrating the return of 34 Kurds from Iraq sparked outrage among Turks. In December, Turkey’s constitutional court, in a unanimous decision, voted to impose a five-year ban on the DTP after finding it guilty of cooperating with the PKK. By shutting down the only pro-Kurdish party in parliament, the government charged, the court strengthened the PKK’s hand by undermining Kurdish confidence in both the democratic process and the government’s reform initiatives.
2008 Fear was building among the country’s secular elite that the government was moving to create an Islamist state. Turkey’s constitutional court heard the case for banning the AKP party. Although it did not ban the party, it did impose financial sanctions on it. Toward the end of the year, the United States, Iraq and Turkey initiated a joint committee to discuss a strategy for dealing with PKK militants in the Turkey-Iraq border area.
2007 Parliamentary elections held in July were judged to be free and fair. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the majority of seats and formed a one-party government with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan returning as Prime Minister. Those opposed to the Islamist-rooted AKP feared this victory could undermine Turkey’s secular traditions, but Erdoğan refuted this charge, pledging to work for national unity and to continue the effort to join the European Union as well as the battle against Kurdish rebels in the east of Turkey. The 2007 election was originally called after opposition parties blocked the AKP’s nominee for president, Abdullah Gül, because of fears that Gül, a devout Muslim, would steer the country toward becoming an Islamic state. Following the AKP win, Gül’s name was again put forward and in August he became President, vowing that “Islam and the state should be separate” and promising to be impartial while in office. Gül also became the chief of the military, which strongly opposed any movement away from secular governance. Senior officers boycotted Gül’s swearing-in ceremony. The military and the opposition supported stronger action against the PKK and in October, parliament voted to allow the military to launch attacks into northern Iraq.
The Kurdish people make up one-fifth of Turkey’s population. The conflict between Turkey and the Kurds can be traced to the end of the First World War when the Kurdish region of the Ottoman Empire was divided among Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. From its early statehood, the Turkish government has actively repressed Kurdish culture through restrictive laws embedded in the constitution. Article 42, for instance, requires schools to teach exclusively in Turkish, effectively banning Kurdish language instruction.
The Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, formed in the late 1970s and has been waging a guerrilla war in southeastern Turkey since 1984. In the 1990s, the PKK moved away from its original goal of an independent Kurdish state, instead seeking greater autonomy for Kurdish people within Turkey and basic rights, including the right to teach Kurdish in schools. A government campaign to depopulate pro-PKK villages in Turkey created at least 500,000 internal refugees (some estimates are as high as two million). Since 1992, the Turkish government has launched periodic air strikes and ground assaults on PKK camps in Turkey’s northern mountainous region, which borders on Iraq.
In 1999, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was imprisoned; the PKK declared a ceasefire after he called on it to take a peaceful approach to negotiations. Hostilities and casualties related to the insurgency declined markedly, and this conflict was removed from the Armed Conflicts Report in 2002. Unfortunately, no real peace process was established; armed clashes between the military and Kurdish rebels increased in 2003 and civilian, military, and rebel deaths exceeded 1,000 by the end of 2007, marking a new phase of conflict.
At the end of 2012, stalled negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish government resumed. By the end of 2015, however, negotiations had become deadlocked.
In 2011 and 2012, Turkey’s defence expenditure was 2.2 per cent of GDP. The 2015 defence budget was $8.35-billion and the 2016 budget was $8.76-billion (The Military Balance, 2016, 147). Turkey was one of the few countries in the world between 2000 and 2015 to import more than $100-million of small arms in one calendar year (Small Arms Survey).
Turkey procures most of its weaponry from the United States, Spain, Netherlands, Italy and Germany. In 2009, it signed a $2.8-billion agreement with Germany to produce Type-214 submarines in Turkey. In 2011, the United States provided four Predator drones to help Turkey fight the PKK. In December 2012 NATO approved the deployment of Patriot missiles to the Turkey-Syria border for defensive purposes. In 2015, the United States accounted for one-third of all arms exports worldwide, and Turkey was its third largest customer (Fortune). Israel, the Republic of Korea and the domestic armaments manufacturers also provided weapons to Turkey. In 2013, Turkey signed a $4-billion deal with China for the production of a long-range air and missile defence system, despite opposition from NATO counterparts.
On November 24, 2016, the Austrian government decided to restrict its arms exports to Turkey in response to Turkey’s growing human rights violations. The same month, German manufacturing company Heckler & Koch also announced that it would no longer sell weapons to Turkey (ARA News).
In 2015, Turkey cancelled its $3.4 billion bid for a long-range missile defence system that had been temporarily given to China. By June 2017, Turkey and Russia had reached a “final stage” in talks over a Russian S-400 air missile defence system, but no deal was finalized (Business Insider). Fikri Isik, Turkey’s Minister of National Defence, stated that should Turkey succeed in purchasing the system from Russia, it could not be integrated into NATO’s missile defence system (Business Insider). Turkey relies on NATO-deployed ballistic missiles (Al Jazeera).
The PKK has received support in the past from sister parties in Syria and Iran, as well as from Iraq. In the current phase of conflict, the PKK is reportedly moving to a strategy of using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against the Turkish military. The PKK reportedly buys conventional weapons on eastern and western European markets and from developing countries in Africa and Asia. In 2007, reports indicated that lax controls over the distribution of U.S. weapons in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 allowed some of these weapons to find their way to Kurdish rebels.
Economic disparity has fueled alienation and disenfranchisement in the poorest parts of the country, particularly the southeast where a majority of the Kurds reside (Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies). Kurds have not benefitted from Turkey’s industrialized and developed core and have tended to work in low-paying sectors, such as agriculture. Political exclusion, a lack of social services and historical injustices have left the minority group economically disadvantaged. Many Turkish Kurds could not afford primary and secondary education for their children.
In 2011, the wealthiest 20 per cent of Turkey’s population accounted for almost half the national income. The poorest 20 per cent accounted for just six per cent. Despite economic growth, unemployment rates remained high, with vast regional disparities; women were particularly vulnerable to poverty.
The gross national product grew 6.1 per cent in 2015, but only 2.9 per cent in 2016, as the international investment and tourism declined (The World Bank). In the second quarter of 2016, Turkish tourism fell 36 per cent (EconoMonitor). At the start of 2017, the value of the Turkish lira fell about seven per cent, adding to double-digit declines in the currency in 2015 and 2016, and rising inflation rates (Gulf News Economy).
map: CIA Factbook