August was a bloody month for Turkish security forces, being targeted by the Kurdish rebel group the PKK with a series of powerful truck bombs. The attacks that killed dozens and injured many more were across Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast.
The Turkish armed forces are seen as being in disarray after a failed coup in July. Observers say the Kurdish rebel leaders see an opportunity to press home an advantage in the decades-long battle for greater minority rights.
The offensive comes as the country’s legal Kurdish movement has been frozen out of Turkish politics, being labeled as terrorist supporters by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
International relations expert Soli Ozel, of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said he fears the PKK offensive will only further add to the worrying surge in Turkish nationalism in the aftermath of the coup attempt.
“In the immediate aftermath of the coup, with a coalition formed between traditional conservative nationalists, Islamists and secular nationalists, I do not think there is any room for the Kurds to be included in the new definition of the nation, and in the construction of a new Turkish state. And the PKK does everything that it can to help that kind of approach by rekindling the war,” said Ozel.
Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gundem was temporarily shut down by a court in August for “terrorist propaganda” and dozens of its journalists were detained, along with well-known writers who contribute columns to the paper.
Pressure on the pro-Kurdish HDP, which is the third largest party in parliament, is intensifying. Legal proceedings are continuing against many of its deputies, since their parliamentary immunities were lifted.
“The HDP is under heavy pressure. It was almost ousted from parliament and is isolated in the media,” said HDP deputy Ertugrul Kurkcu, who is himself facing jail time. “People are giving signs of expressions of hopelessness for a peaceful end of this war. Therefore many people are now urging the HDP to withdraw from the parliament and to come to their side to fight against Turkish aggression.”
The polarization is being deepened, said Kurkcu, with the surge in anti-Kurdish sentiments being stirred up in the country’s media, much of which are under government control. The polarization has intensified with Turkey’s military incursion into Syria, aimed not only at Islamic State, but the Syrian Kurdish militia the YPG, which Ankara accuses of being a terrorist organization linked to the PKK.
Former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served in Iraq and the Iraqi Kurdish region, says the Syrian incursion potentially poses the risk of unprecedented inter-ethnic clashes in Turkey; but, Selcen said Ankara could be positioning itself for a resumption of a peace process with the PKK, based in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq.
“In the best case scenario, once Ankara is convinced that it stopped the PKK’s Syrian flank and suppressed it militarily in Turkey, and with the coming of winter by November, there can be some feelers towards Qandil and maybe Ocalan, who is a prisoner on Imrali Island, can be brought back to the table and some sort of peace process, or cease-fire process or cessation of hostilities can be back on track by winter or late fall,” said Selcen.
In July of last year, a nearly three-year peace process between Ankara and the PKK collapsed. Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader who is held in a Turkish prison, played a key role in those talks. HDP deputy Kurkcu said Ocalan is key to pulling back hardliners within the rebel group.
“Unless Ocalan is allowed to speak in his name, there will be no concessions, but after that there may be. Because the PKK gives Ocalan such a credit, they stopped armed actions even if they didn't believe,” he said.
For several months, Ocalan authorities have banned any communication or news on his well-being. One of the key members of the peace process on the government's side, Yalcin Akdogan, has ruled out any return to the peace process. President Erdogan’s international relations chief, Ayse Sozen Usluer, has said, “There is always the possibility of going back to the peace process.”
For now, all sides are bracing for an intensification of the conflict at least until the fall of winter snow, which traditionally curtails the fighting.