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Non-international armed conflict in Turkey

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

Currently there is a non-international armed conflict in Turkey between the Turkish armed and security forces and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which had lasted with some interruption from the 1980s until 2013 resumed in July 2015.

There is currently a non-international armed conflict in Turkey between the Turkish armed and security forces and the Kurdistan Workers' Party PKK. The non-international armed conflict against the PKK spills over into Syria and Iraq where the Turkish action is intertwined with the ongoing non-international armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Due to the Turkish use of force on Iraqi and Syrian territory and occupation of parts of the latter without consent of the territorial State, the spill over of the non-international armed conflict in Turkey also leads to parallel international armed conflicts with Iraq and Syria.

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict.

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side to the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see the 'non-international armed conflict' in our classification section.

Intensity of the violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration, and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing; and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict - intensity of violence' in our classification section.

The Kurds are an ethnic group native of Kurdistan, a region that encompasses portions of territory of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The origins of the Kurdish conflict can be dated back to the end of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The idea of founding a Kurdish state was initially supported by the British, but it was abandoned in 1923 due to the emergence of the Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. As a consequence, the Kurdish settlement areas were divided among several newly created states, namely Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Although then President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk initially guaranteed the Kurds limited autonomy, the status of a protected minority was ultimately granted only to Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. This led to the first Kurdish uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s, when Kurdish insurgents tried to manifest their voice in the new founded Turkish Republic. M. A. Mihatsch, 'Kurdenkonflikt', Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 24 January 2018.

Following the 1980 coup d’etat in Turkey, ‘Turkey's 1980 military coup leaders stand trial’, BBC News, 4 April 2012. tensions between the Turkish government and the Kurds continued to increase. On 15 August 1984, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) launched the first attacks: 200 trained and armed militants were reported to have attacked a number of Turkish army posts close to the border between Turkey and Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Yazıcı, N. (2016). PKK’nın Hakkâri Projesi (1984-2013). 1. baskı. Sıhhiye, Ankara: Alibi Yayıncılık. This led to the outbreak of the first NIAC between the PKK and the Turkish forces, which ended in September 1999: following the arrest of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK declared a cease-fire that determined the end of the conflict. ‘Kongra-Gel Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK) Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)’, Global Security; M. A. Mihatsch, 'Kurdenkonflikt', Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 24 January 2018.

A second wave of violence started in 2004, when the PKK resumed attacks against Turkish forces, notably with ambushes and bomb attacks. This caused the outbreak of a second NIAC that lasted until 2013, when a cease-fire agreement was concluded between the PKK and the Turkish government. ‘Timeline: PKK conflict with Turkey’, Aljazeera, 21 March 2013. Nevertheless, peace lasted only two years: in July 2015, renewed fighting broke out between the PKK and Turkish armed and security forces following a suicide attack in the Turkish-Syrian border town Suruç. While the government blamed the Islamic State group for the attack, the PKK attacked and killed two Turkish policemen in response. C. Letsch, 'The Turkish Kurds Who Want Peace - But Not at Any Price', The Guardian, 11 August 2015. Since then, there has been continuous and intense fighting between the PKK and Turkish armed forces. 

Reportedly, the PKK undertook 90 attacks between 21 July and 12 August 2015. A. Aydin and C. Emrence, ' A New Episode in the Turkish Civil War?', The Washington Post, 21 August 2015; see also Council on Foreign Relations, “Conflict Between Turkey and Armed Kurdish Groups”, Global Conflict Tracker, last updated 28 August 2019. In response, the government launched airstrikes against PKK targets in both Turkey and northern Iraq, claiming to have killed 390 PKK militants by mid-August. 'Turkey: Jets Strike Kurdish Rebels', Associated Press, 4 August 2015; C. Yeginsu, 'Turkey Atttacks Kurdish Militant Camps in Northern Iraq', The New York Times, 25 July 2015; D. Kenner, 'Turkey's War Within', Foreign Policy, 17 August 2015; L. Bohn, '"All Our Young People Have Gone to the Mountain". Inside Turkey's Revived War Against the Kurds', The Atlantic, 18 August 2015; T. Arango, 'As Turkey Targets Militants, War Grips Kurdish Lands Once Again', The New York Times, 24 August 2015. The government also arrested hundreds of people with suspected links to either the PKK or the Islamic State group in July 2014. S. Capeluouto and G. Tuysuz, 'Turkey Arrests Hundreds of Suspected Terrorists, Prime Minister Says', CNN, 25 July 2015.

According to the International Crisis Group, as of 2 August 2019, at least 4, 551 people have been killed in clashes since 20 July 2015, with a notable spike from August 2015 onwards. See the International Crisis Group's open source casualty tall, last updated on 2 August 2019: Turkey's PKK Conflict: A Visual Explainer. Moreover, contrary to earlier phases of the armed conflict, armed clashes have also been taking place in urban areas of south-east Turkey, G. Murat Tezcür and C. Beslaw, 'Violence in Turkey is Increasingly Resembling Violence in Syria - Here's Data to Show Why', Political Violence @ a Glance Blog, 23 September 2016; A. Stein 'Kurdish Militants and Turkey's New Urban Insurgency', War on the Rocks Blog, 23 March 2016. in particular between December 2015 and June 2016 when Kurdish forces retreated from their last urban strongholds. M. Konaev and B. Kadercan, 'Old Dogs, New Tricks: Urban Warfare in Turkey's War with the PKK', War on the Rocks Blog, 3 January 2018. Since then, fighting has been taking place predominantly in rural areas. Curfews have repeatedly been imposed on towns and city districts in south-east Turkey since August 2015. 'C. Letsch, 'Sur, Turkey: Residents Pay Price of Violence as Curfew Enters Fourth Month', The Guardian, 3 March 2016. According to information provided for by the Turkish Human Rights Foundation, there have been '58 officially confirmed open-ended and round-the-clock (daylong) curfews, in at least 19 districts of 7 cities in Southeastern Turkey' between 16 August 2015 and 5 February 2016. In December 2015, the European Court communicated to the Turkish government 34 applications concerning the curfew measures taken in Turkey since August 2015. 'European Court of Human Rights Looks into Complaints About Curfew Measures in Turkey, Press Release, Doc no ECHR 420 (2016), 15 December 2016. Amnesty International estimated that 'at least half a million people have been forcibly displaced by the violence, large-scale destruction of property and by ongoing curfews across the south-east' by December 2016. Displaced and Dispossed. Sur Residents' Right to Return Home, Amnesty International, 6 December 2016, p 5.  The use of heavy weaponry by the Turkish armed forces resulted in extensive destruction of some of the urban areas affected. For example, in its March 2017 report the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner estmated that 70 percent of the building in the easter part of the Sur District of Diyarbakir where destroyed as a result of heavy shelling. See Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in South East Turkey, July 2015 to December 2016, February 2017.

Clashes continued in the spring and summer 2019, leading to the killing of members of the PKK, Turkish forces, and civilians. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, June and July 2019. Notably, in August 2019 Turkey launched operation ‘Kiran’, which targeted alleged PKK positions in Van, Hakkari and Sirnak provinces (South-east Turkey). E. Avundukluoğlu, ‘Turkey’s Operation Kiran neutralizes 121 PKK terrorists’, Anadolu Agency, 20 November 2019. The Interior Ministry of Turkey announced that Turkish Security forces had “neutralized” 144 PKK fighters since launching the Kiran operation. A. Karadag, ‘Turkey's Operation Kiran completed 'successfully'’, Anadolu Agency, 11 January 2011. Furthermore, they have carried out an operation against the PKK between 8 and 12 December 2019 in Diyarbakır and Şanlıurfa, which led to the seizure of an arsenal that served as the centre to distribute bombs and high explosives to members of the PKK. 372 kg explosive material, 8 grenades, 12 handcrafted missiles and 7 rifles as well as many bombs, that aimed at large-scale attacks, were seized. It was reported that the high explosive material has been brought into the country via Northern Iraq and Syria in order to be stored in Diyarbakır. 21 of the 44 people detained during the operation were finally arrested. ‘PKK'nın bomba ve patlayıcı ağı çökertildi’, CNN Turk, 23 December 2019.

In 2020, violence continued between the PKK and the Turkish armed forces. On 11 January 2020, Turkey launched ‘Operation Kapan’ (kapan means trap) against the PKK. ‘Turkey launches fresh operation against PKK in eastern provinces’, Rudaw, 13 March 2020. According to Turkey’s Ministry of Interior, in March 2020 governmental security forces have launched the eighth phase of the operation, which included the involvement of 1012 security personnel working in 62 operational teams consisting of gendarmerie commandos, gendarmerie special operations and security guards. In the statement, it was reported that this operation is carried out in order to eliminate terrorism at the domestic level. ‘Kapan-8 operasyonu başlatıldı’, CNN Türk, 13 March 2020. Moreover, in March 2020 the PKK launched a large-scale military operation against the Turkish army in the Serhat region in northern Kurdistan. Specifically, the PKK attacked a military convoy of the Turkish army on 2 March between the Bazid (Doğubeyazıt) district and Gürbulak village in the province of Ağrı. It has been reported that 79 Turkish soldiers were killed in the attack without any fatalities on the PKK side. ‘HPG: 79 soldiers killed in revolutionary operation in Ağrı’, ANF News, 9 March 2020.

In light of the frequency of attacks by the PKK and government armed and security forces, the number of casualties and the number of people forced to leave the areas affected by violence, the required degree of intensity was arguably reached again on August 2015 and it continues to be as of 2020.

 

Organization

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms, the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms, the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations, the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. cease fire or peace agreements. If the criterion of a minimum organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see 'non-international armed conflict - organization' in our classification section.

Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)

The origins of the PKK can be dated back to the foundation of the Ankara Democratic Higher Education Association (Ankara Demokratik Yüksek Öğrenim Derneği, ADYÖD), that was founded in 1974 in Ankara under the presidency of Öcalan. From 1984, the PKK has been eager to both mobilise and recruit new militants. In 1986, a PKK training camp was set up in the valley of Bekaa in Lebanon. This served as a model for further strategic measures ranging from organisation and additional formation to the surveillance and control of the militants. Grojean, O. ‘Turquie: Le mouvement kurde à l’heure du « processus de paix »’, Politique étrangère, 2014, vol. 2, pp.27-37.

There is relatively little information available about the current organization of the PKK. See 'Who Are Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) Rebels', BBC, 4 November 2016. The command of the group is reportedly based in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq and  Abdullah Ӧcalan is still thought to be the leader of the group despite him serving life imprisonment in Turkey since his arrest in 1999. Cemil Bayik is believed to be the number two in the PKK and has repeatedly spoken on behalf of the PKK from its basis in the Qandil region in Iraq. The group reportedly recruits the majority of its members through personal acquaintance from the Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey. See for example IISS, “Turkey”, Armed Conflicts Database, last consulted August 2019, and the following interviews: D. Yücel, 'Ja, es gab Hinrichtungen', Die Welt, 23 August 2015; I. Pannell, 'Kurdish PKK Warns Turkey of Long Fight for Freedom', BBC, 25 April 2016.  The PKK is able to sustain military operations not only in Turkey, but also in Iraq as part of the non-international armed conflict against the Islamic State group, which illustrates that the group is fullfing the requisite degree of organization. R. Hall, 'Kurdish Group Fighting Islamic State Tells America: Stop Calling Us Terrorist', Global Post, 22 December 2014; M. A. Salih, 'PKK Forces Impress in Fight Against Islamic State', Al Monitor, 1 September 2014.

The Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK)

The TAK (Teyrêbazên Azadîya Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks) is a Kurdish youth organisation and a splinter group of the PKK. It was founded in 1999, following the arrest of Abdullah Öcalan. It is reported that the TAK issued from a new generation of "frustrated young Kurds" who grew up in the poor districts of Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara after their parents fled from the clashes between the PKK and the Turkish army in south-eastern Turkey in the 1990s. The average age of the members is around 25 years. There is little information regarding the organization of the TAK. Reportedly, it is organized in small cells and that its members receive their paramilitary training in the Kurdish areas in North Syria (e.g. Kobane) under the control of the YPG, considered by Turkey as the Syrian arm of the PKK. M. Reichl, ‘Terror in kleinen Zellen’, Die Zeit, 14 December 2016; R. Hähnlein, ‘Die PKK muss einseitig Gewaltverzicht proklamieren’, Die Zeit, 21 December 2016; A. Schwabe, ‘Kurdische Freiheitsfalken, Boten der Hölle’, Der Spiegel, 30 August 2006. In 2004, the TAK officially separated from the mother organisation PKK and justified its decision by arguing that the PKK’s military arm HPG would be too weak to fight the Turkish government. The main trigger might have been the termination of the peace process. The relationship between the PKK and the TAK and the degree of independence of the splinter group is unclear. According to Sinan Ülgen, president of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy (EDAM): ‘even if the members of the TAK argue that they are independent from the PKK, these different organizations are intimately linked, the lines of belonging are blurred.’ Q. Raverdy, ‘Attentat d’Ankara : qui se cache derrière les Faucons de la liberté ?’, Le Point, 20 February 2016. 

The TAK targets in particular civilians, especially tourists. The armed group has justified its actions on the basis that tourism is an important source of income for the government, which could use the sources coming from tourism to finance the war against the PKK. I. Küpeli, ‘Die Wiederkehr der “Freiheitsfalken”’, Neues Deutschland, 24 February 2016. The first attack of the TAK was carried out on a tourist bus in Aydın on 17 July 2005, after the Turkish security forces had launched intensive military operations in the Kurdish regions in the spring of the same year. Since summer 2005, the TAK has carried out over a dozen terrorist acts and it has increased its armed activities. Notably, the group has carried out attacks in popular tourist cities such as Antalya, Marmaris, Izmir and Istanbul. According to the Kurdish militants, the main targets are especially policemen as exponents of the Turkish state, although it has been reported that the death of ordinary civilians is equally accepted by the TAK.  M. Reichl, ‘Terror in kleinen Zellen’, Die Zeit, 14 December 2016; R. Hähnlein, ‘Die PKK muss einseitig Gewaltverzicht proklamieren’, Die Zeit, 21 December 2016.

Between 2010 and 2015, the TAK suspended its attacks because it did not want to endanger the negotiations that took place between the Turkish government and the PKK. However, after the peace process’s failure in summer 2015 and following large-scale military offensives carried out against the PKK in Cizre, Silopi and other towns in the South-east, the TAK resumed its armed struggle and launched an attack against the Istanbul airport Sabiha Gökçen on 23 December 2015. R. Hähnlein, ‘Die PKK muss einseitig Gewaltverzicht proklamieren’, Die Zeit, 21 December 2016.

Due to the limited information at our disposal regarding the organization of the group and the fact that armed confrontations with the Turkish armed forces appear limited, it seems possible to conclude that the TAK is not party to a NIAC against Turkey, although it might be that their acts of violence and those of governmental forces against them are governed by IHL of NIACs because of the nexus that exists between them and the existing NIAC.

 

Spill over

The non-international armed conflict against the PKK spills over into Syria and Iraq where the Turkish action is intertwined with the ongoing non-international armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, Turkey has been shelling Kurdish militia and the Islamic State group. T. Arango, 'Turkey Confirms Strikes Against Kurdish Militias in Syria', The New York Times, 27 October 2015; see also Council on Foreign Relations, “Conflict Between Turkey and Armed Kurdish Groups”, Global Conflict Tracker, last updated 28 August 2019. The spill over of the non-international armed conflict in Turkey also leads to parallel international armed conflicts with Iraq and Syria. Moreover, Turkey is occuppying part of northern Syria.

On 6 October 2019, US President Trump ordered its troops to withdraw from northeastern Syria, where they were supporting the Kurdish forces. Three days later, Turkish President Erdogan announced the launch of ‘Operation Peace Spring’, to be carried out by the Turkish military and allied Syrian rebel forces, in order to ‘to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area.’ ‘Trump makes way for Turkey operation against Kurds in Syria’, BBC News, 7 October 2019; ‘Turkey's Syria offensive explained in four maps’, BBC News, 14 October 2019. A top United Nations humanitarian official reported that ‘nearly 180,000 people have fled that border region’ in the two weeks following the military intervention. ‘Turkey’s Military Operation Has Displaced Thousands of Civilians, Worsened Syria’s Dire Humanitarian Crisis, Top Official Warns Security Council’, United Nations, Meeting Coverage and Press Releases, 24 October 2019.

 

Views of the parties to the conflict

According to the Turkish government, the PKK is a terrorist organization. ‘PKK’, Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After launching airstrikes targeting the PKK, the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan announced the end of the peace process with the PKK. F. Ozerkan, 'Turkeys Erdogan Says Peace Process with Kurds Over', AFP, 28 July 2015; A. Barnard, 'Turkey's Focus on Crushing Kurdish Separatists Complicates the Fight Against ISIS', The New York Times, 28 July 2015. After denying in an interview in August 2015 that the PKK was in a war with Turkey, its purported leader Cemil Bayik referred to the war against Turkey in an interview in April 2016. D. Yücel, 'Ja, es gab Hinrichtungen', Die Welt, 23 August 2015; I. Pannell, 'Kurdish PKK Warns Turkey of Long Fight for Freedom', BBC, 25 April 2016. In July 2019 he referred to “the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish people”.  Cemil Bayik, “Now is the moment for peace between Kurds and the Turkish state. Let’s not waste it”, Washington Post, 3 July 2019.

Turkey is a state party to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions, but did not ratify the 1977 Additional Protocol applicable to non-international armed conflicts. Both Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers' Party are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions that provides for the minimum standard to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active parts in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials. In addition, they are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflicts. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law. Turkey is a state party to the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Convention. For further information on the Anti-Personnel Mine Convention, see '1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention', Weapons Law Encylopedia, Geneva Academy. Amongst others, the Convention prohibits the use of anti-personnel mines for state parties and requires them to destroy all anti-personnel mines in mined areas under their jurisdiction. See Article 5 of the treaty. In December 2013, states parties accepted the Turkish request to extend its mine clearance deadline for eight years until 1 March 2022. See the Extension report submitted by Turkey in March 2013 and the Decision on the request by Turkey in December 2013.

On 24 January 1995, the PKK issued a statement at a press conference in Geneva, where it declared that it ‘undertakes to respect the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the First Protocol of 1977 regarding the conduct of hostilities and the protection of the victims of war and to treat those obligations as having the force of law within its own forces and the areas within its control.’ ‘Turkey, PKK Rules for the Conduct of Hostilities’, IHL in Action, ICRC. See also ‘PKK Statement To The United Nations’, 24 January 1995.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and to investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors.

State parties

Non-state parties

Founded in 1978 by Abdullah Ӧcalan, the Kurdistan Workers' Party PKK launched an armed struggle against the Turkish government with the aim of creating a Kurdish state. In the 90s, the PKK abandoned its aim of statehood for the Kurds and started to call for Kurdish autonomy instead. Since his arrest in 1999, PKK leader Abdullah Ӧcalan has been imprisoned. In the 2000s, the PKK renamed itself Kurdistan People’s Congress (Kongra Gel, KGK). It is mainly active in south-east Turkey and northern Iraq and is linked to the main Kurdish party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its armed wing, the Popular Protection Units (YPG). The PKK is listed as a terrorist group by a series of countries, including Turkey, the United States and the United Kingdom. The EU designated the PKK as a terrorist group in 2002.

Last updated: Wednesday 10th June 2020