The guerrilla war between the Turkish state and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) dates back to 1984. The government has often believed itself close to military victory only to see the PKK survive. Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been in a Turkish prison since 1999, but the PKK remains the dominant political force among the Turkish Kurds, who number an estimated 14 million – or 18 per cent of Turkey’s population.
The PKK is a well-disciplined organisation with its headquarters in the inaccessible Qandil mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan close to the border with Iran. Within Kurdish areas of south east Turkey it launches occasional armed attacks, but also operates through a series of political and cultural front organisations. It is highly influential within the diaspora of Turkish Kurds which lives mainly in Western Europe.
The PKK’s most active guerrilla phase in the late 1980s and early 1990s ultimately failed with some 40,000 people, mostly Kurds, being killed. Kurdish villages throughout south east Turkey were razed to the ground by the Turkish army, forcing Kurds to move into cities like Dyarbakir or others in western Turkey.
Though Ocalan was captured and the PKK declared a long truce, the Turkish government never made sufficient concessions to the Kurds to permanently undercut support for the PKK. Detention of Kurdish political activists and journalists has never ceased despite occasional conciliatory statements by the ruling AKP party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In recent years the political fortunes of the PKK have revived primarily because of Turkish government intransigence. Its declared aims are Kurdish rights and autonomy rather than separatism. Fighting in 2012 was more intense than at any time since the 1990s. Although the Turkish army is very much in control militarily of the Kurdish provinces, political resistance remains strong.
The PKK’s position has been strengthened over the last year by the uprising in Syria that has enabled the Syrian Kurds, numbering 2.5 million, to seize control of their own districts. The most important political and military organisations among the Syrian Kurds are effectively controlled by the PKK.
Ocalan, the single most influential Turkish Kurd leader, has been conducting talks with the Turkish government. In the past such negotiations have raised hopes that have never been realised. Mr Erdogan and the AKP may feel they have established their dominance of Turkish politics without making concessions to the Kurds and there is no need to do so now.