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According to the Turkish media, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said of the current airstrikes in Iraq and his continuing threats against armed Kurdish groups in Syria, who are in partnership with the US, “We are always blowing terrorists’ brains out. We are burying them in the trenches that they dig and will continue to do so.” The action and rhetoric are inevitably leading to a ratcheting up of tensions between Erdoğan and Donald Trump. Part of the Council on Foreign Relations website, Global Conflict Tracker provides regular updates on the increasingly volatile situation. The article we are using here is an overview of the recent situation.

Published on CFR

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Recent Developments

Attacks in Turkey and clashes with Kurdish groups significantly increased in 2016. A coup attempt in July 2016 against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also raised the country’s political instability. While there has been growing discontent under Erdogan’s tenure, especially since the Gezi park protests in June 2013, tensions have also risen between Turkish authorities and Kurdish groups—in particular, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) (a leftwing pro-Kurdish party), and the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) (the armed wing of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) with ties to the PKK).

Following the July 2016 coup attempt, President Erdogan has cracked down on suspected coup conspirators and arrested an estimated thirty-two thousand people. He has also increased air strikes on PKK militants in Turkey and extended operations into Syria to battle the YPG and the self-declared Islamic State with air strikes and ground troops.

Peace talks between the Turkish government and the PKK broke down in July 2015. Since then, over two thousand people have been killed in clashes between security forces and the PKK. In his first public statement since April 2015, the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, called for the resumption of peace talks with the Turkish government in September 2016.

Background

Since 1984, the PKK has waged an insurgency against Turkish authorities for greater cultural and political rights that has resulted in nearly forty thousand deaths. Designated by the Turkish government as a “terrorist group,” PKK members have refused to withdraw from Turkey to Kurdish Iraq; their primary objective has been to establish an independent Kurdish state.

There are approximately thirty million Kurds living in the Middle East. The Kurds constitute nearly one-fifth of Turkey’s seventy-nine million population and have neighboring Kurdish populations in Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Consequently, the fight for independence has had many fronts. The conflict between Kurdish groups and the Turkish government has been inflamed by the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

In July 2015, a two-year cease-fire between Turkey’s government and the PKK collapsed following a suicide bombing by suspected Islamic State militants killed nearly thirty Kurds near the Syrian border. The PKK has accused Turkish forces of not doing enough to prevent the attack against Kurdish civilians.

Turkey’s deadliest attack occurred at a peace rally in Ankara in October 2015. It was claimed by TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Hawks)—an offshoot of the PKK—and killed more than one hundred people.

The growing role of Kurdish representatives in Turkey’s parliament has alarmed the Erdogan government, especially as it continues to tamp down internal dissent. Nearly a year before the July coup in June 2015, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won more than 12 percent of the vote, forcing President Erdogan’s more conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) to form a coalition government. In November 2015, however, the AKP regained control of parliament, winning nearly 50 percent of the vote in a parliamentary election. Political divisions in Turkey were further exacerbated by the July 2016 coup attempt.

Beyond Turkey, Syrian Kurds have been combating the Islamic State and have formed a semi-autonomous region in Northern Syria. In September 2014, the Kurdish-controlled town of Kobani was besieged and eventually captured by the Islamic State; the violence resulted in more than 1,200 deaths. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters backed by the United States—liberated the strategic Syrian city of Manbij  from the Islamic State in late August 2016. Later in August, YPG forces (part of the SDF coalition) clashed with Turkish-backed rebels attempting to gain control of Manbij.

The alliance of Kurdish fighters has also converged in Iraq, where the Islamic State has advanced toward the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The Peshmerga—armed fighters who protect Iraqi Kurdistan—have joined with Iraqi security forces and received arms and financial assistance from the United States.

PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has called for mass mobilization among Kurds to start an “all-out resistance” in the fight against the Islamic State. Despite this common enemy, many of Turkey’s air strikes have targeted Kurdish fighters rather than militants of the Islamic State.

Concerns

If the Kurds succeed in establishing an independent state in Syria amid the chaos gripping the region, this could accelerate secessionist movements in other Kurdish areas of the Middle East. Heightened terrorist activity by Kurdish separatists is also a growing concern for the United States, which has designated the PKK a foreign terrorist organization.

U.S.-Turkey relations have faltered since President Erdogan renewed calls for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen—a Turkish political and religious leader in self-imposed exile in the United States—whom Erdogan believes to be an organizer of the coup. Relations have also suffered because of the United States’ close relationship with Kurdish groups; the United States continues to supply arms to Peshmerga troops fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and is also considering arming Syrian Kurds.

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