Kurdish militants and nationalist mobs in Turkey have traded increasingly violent attacks in recent days, threatening the stability of a country that the United States hopes to partner with against the Islamic State terrorist group.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, a Kurdish militant group that has been designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States, reportedly killed at least 29 members of Turkish security forces in attacks on Sunday and Tuesday. Nationalist supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, responded by setting fire to several offices of the HDP, the main Kurdish political party, and storming the building of the Hurriyet newspaper for allegedly misquoting Erdogan.
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The spate of violence raised fears of a civil war in one of the most influential countries in the Middle East as the region grapples with the expansion of the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) and an increasingly aggressive regime in Iran.
A 2013 ceasefire between the PKK and Turkish forces lapsed in July after an alleged IS suicide bomber killed 33 people, mostly Kurdish activists. The Kurds have accused Erdogan of targeting the minority ethnic group rather than helping to combat IS across Turkey’s southern border in Syria, where Syrian Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, pushed the terrorist group out of the city of Kobani in January.
Analysts say the surge in violence can partly be attributed to electoral dynamics in Turkey. Erdogan’s party, AKP, lost its outright majority in June’s parliamentary elections as the pro-Kurdish party consolidated support in the primarily Kurdish areas of southeast Turkey.
After calling snap elections in November, analysts say Erdogan has attempted to stir up nationalist sentiments among his supporters and other conservative Turks, an effort that has now spilled into violence. His strategy appears to be working—Erdogan’s AKP is now the slight favorite to win back a parliamentary majority, according to initial election projections.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) who researches the Kurds and Turkish politics, said Erdogan’s actions have driven more and more Kurds into the hands of the militant PKK. The end result could be a partition of Turkey in the coming years with a separate Kurdish state.
"The PKK made far greater concessions than did the Turks during the ceasefire," he said. "Rightly or wrongly, they have concluded that they cannot trust the Turkish government and that Ankara is insincere in reform and in changing its attitudes toward the Kurds."
"Erdogan has convinced a new generation of Kurds that they cannot trust Turkey," he said. "And, while the Turks may dismiss the PKK as an autocratic personality cult (it may be), the Kurds would be right to suggest that the AKP isn't much different, so they might as well work with the PKK."
Blaise Misztal, director of national security for the Bipartisan Policy Center, said in a statement that Erdogan is ultimately pursuing a "divide and conquer policy" to regain full control of parliament.
"In a drastic attempt to regain its majority in the upcoming snap election, President Erdogan’s party appears to have adopted a divide and conquer policy: ending a two-year ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and even calling them a greater threat than ISIS, in order to court nationalist voters," Misztal said.
"This strategy threatens to both destabilize Turkey and undermine U.S.-led efforts to defeat ISIS, but it could very well prove successful."
U.S. forces have partnered with Kurds in both Syria and Iraq to combat IS, but officials have also attempted to integrate Turkey, a NATO ally, into the anti-IS coalition. Turkish forces launched their first air strikes against IS in Syria last month as part of the U.S.-led coalition.
Critics have accused Erdogan of attempting to expand his powers by proposing constitutional amendments that would shift the Turkish government into more of a presidential system, rather than a parliamentary one. Turkey is also one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, rights groups say.
Frederike Geerdink, a Dutch journalist based in Turkey who has covered the PKK, was reportedly asked to leave the country on Wednesday after she was accused of "aiding a terrorist organization." There were also reports that the Turkish government had blocked access to Twitter after users began posting pictures of nationalist mobs attacking Kurds.
The U.S. embassy in Ankara expressed concerns on Wednesday about the rise in violent attacks.
"We urge Turkish citizens to adhere to democratic ideals by supporting free speech and engaging only in peaceful protests," the embassy tweeted.