Turkey's Fight With ISIL and PKK: A Return to the 1990s?

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) suicide bombing in the border town of Suruç on July 20 that killed 32 socialist youth activists - mostly ethnic Kurds - and wounded dozens more, the subsequent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terror attacks and the ISIL attack on a Turkish soldier at the Syrian border led Turkey to rethink its approach to both ISIL and the PKK. Turkey not only changed its former position and officially joined the war against ISIL and opened its Incirlik Airbase for U.S. warplanes, the government also launched anti-terror operations across Turkey targeting ISIL, PKK and DHKP/C (the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party) militants, carried out air strikes and ground attacks on both ISIL and PKK targets in Syria and Northern Iraq to extinguish the terror threat.

Statements made by officials following these developments remind me of Turkey's approach to the Kurdish issue in the 1990s, which is based on security-oriented domestic and foreign policy. The new version of this policy first led to the government to suspend the Democratic Opening Process (it is known as the Kurdish opening as well), which was initiated in July 2009 and marked the achievement of several rights for Kurds and led to negotiations and a truce in 2013. Even the closure of a pro-Kurdish party (HDP) began to be discussed among the AKP circles and the declaration of a state of emergency in the southeastern provinces in response to the PKK's insurgency came to the agenda. All these developments created a new obstacle in front of all hopes for a peaceful solution to the issue and a more democratic Turkey, which emerged with democratic reforms and the Opening Process and finally the HDP's entrance as a party to the Parliament by passing the 10 percent threshold in the June 7, 2015 elections.

The reactions of global and regional powers also reminded me of the 1990s. The European Union, which listed the PKK as a terror group, backed Ankara's right to strike against the PKK. U.S. President Barack Obama said Turkey is legitimate in defending itself against the PKK, which is listed as a terror organization by the U.S., while stressing that an agreement between Washington and Ankara is carefully bound around the threat posed by the ISIL in Syria. The NATO expressed support for Turkey's fight against both ISIL and the PKK. Contrary to the Western leaders' and organizations' statements on the issue, Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev questioned the legitimacy of Turkish air strikes in Northern Iraq against the PKK camps. The Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby made a similar statement to Russian Prime Minister Medvedev and denounced Turkey's PKK operations in Northern Iraq.

Developments naturally have regional repercussions, which were voiced by officials in the neighboring countries. The PKK fighters who joined the Kurdish Peshmerga to expel ISIL bombed the oil pipelines that connect Kurdistan's oil resources via Turkey to the world market, complicating the situation for the Iraqi Kurds. All political parties and the parliament in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) condemned the PKK's attacks on the oil pipeline, which is the main revenue source for Kurds in KRG after the Iraqi central government cut down their share from Iraq's oil revenues. The KRG asked the PKK to move their bases and war away.

This raises the question that whether there is a new version of intra-Kurdish rivalry over the region, although the PKK and Barzani agreed on joint actions against the common enemy ISIL. Historically, the PKK and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Barzani, have competed over the leadership of Kurds living in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. In the 1990s, the KDP supported Turkish military operations against the PKK. The First Gulf War (1990-1991) prepared the ground for Kurdish autonomy in Northern Iraq and withdrawal of Iraq's military and government officials from the region in 1991 led to de facto independence under the leadership of rival Kurdish factions in Iraqi Kurdistan. The fight for leadership between KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led to a civil war. During the four-year (1994-1998) civil war between the KDP and the PUK in Northern Iraq, Turkey supported the KDP against the PUK supported by Iran. This time, the Arab uprising in Syria prepared the ground for Kurdish autonomy by the PKK affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) that marginalized Barzani supporters in Syria- a country provided support to PKK against Turkey in the Beq'a Valley region from 1979 to 1999 -. KDP accuses the PYD of working with Syrian government, which is also supported by Russia and Iran.

Although the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), which is affiliated with the PKK, took up arms for self-rule in the Kurdistan province of Iran since 2004 declared a ceasefire in 2011, Iran recently experienced mass protests of Kurds in the city of Mahabad (the city where Kurds declared their first independent state, the Kurdistan Republic of Mahabad [1945-1946] in Iran with the help of the Soviet Union) after Farinaz Khosravani's fell from the window of the fourth floor of the Tara Hotel on May 7, 2015. Iranian jets targeted PJAK militants in Qandil, Northern Iraq and rained bombs. As emphasized by Iraqi civic activist AbdulSalam Medeni, Iraq's central government reaction and criticism toward Turkey's intervention in Northern Iraq is unlike their situation towards Iran's intervention.

Competing regional agendas, which were quite obvious during the 1990s and eliminated at least temporarily set-aside decades-old disputes during the heydays of relations between Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq between 2007-2011, resurfaced as a result of the Syrian conflict, which led to demographic changes and brought the fundamentalists in the region to provoke sectarian strife and ethnic conflicts that can be easily exploited. The current situation in the region is not simply the situation of "my enemy's enemy is my friend" since "my enemy's enemy might be my enemy easily". Return to a peaceful solution for all parties is needed and urgent but quite difficult and complicated in the emerging picture in the region, which has similarities with the picture of the 1990s.