Ankara’s Lingering Kurdish Challenge


A suicide bomber triggered an explosion in front of the  Ministry of Interior building in Ankara on October 1, 2023, injuring two police officers. According to reports, there are suspicions that  two attackers were involved, one detonated the bomb while the other was neutralized. The attack was  soon claimed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Prima facie, it seems that the blast targeted the ministry  rather than civilians, suggesting the premeditated nature of the attack. Despite his electoral success, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under pressure against the backdrop of  ongoing socioeconomic and political challenges in Turkey. He consistently emphasized national security as a central theme in his electoral campaign and managed to secure victory in this year’s closely contested election by fuelling and capitalizing on concerns about terrorism, while also depicting the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as having close ties to the PKK.

The Kurdish issue remains a key concern for Turkey  as it poses a significant internal and border security challenge. In the wake of the recent blast,  the Turkish government’s swift response enabled President Erdogan to increase the crackdown on PKK elements and  supporters within and beyond   the country’s borders. Turkish authorities carried out a massive nationwide security operation involving 13,400 security personnel. Minister of Interior  Ali Yerlikaya announced that Turkish authorities  had captured 2,554 fugitives so far in the nationwide counter-terrorism operation.

 Ankara  also used this blast as an opportunity to increase its airstrikes in Syria and Iraq and  asserted that the Kurdish shelters in the aforesaid countries  were legitimate targets   as they posed a threat to the country’s national security. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said, “All infrastructure, superstructure and energy facilities that belong to the PKK and the YPG, especially in Iraq and Syria, are legitimate targets of our security forces, armed forces and intelligence units from now on.” Fidan during his visit to Baghdad in August urged Iraq to designate the PKK as a terror outfit.  He also aimed to influence the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to stop collaborating with the PKK further reflecting Ankara’s concerns about domestic developments in Iraq. Fidan’s diplomacy signalled  Turkey more assertive foreign policy approach, building on the connections he had during his stint as the country’s intelligence chief and strengthening  its influence in the region.

During the airstrikes in Syria, Turkey  targeted the People’s Defense Units (YPG) which  fought alongside the  United States against ISIS.  Ankara urged the  United States to cease its cooperation with the YPG in Syria and pledged to continue its cross-border offensives against Kurdish elements  in Syria, following  Washington’s downing of a Turkish drone in the region. According to a readout statement,  Fidan conveyed to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken “with strong expressions that the US, as an ally, should stop working with the terrorist organization YPG in northern Syria.”

Ankara  also leveraged the Kurdish issue  as a bargaining chip with Finland and Sweden. As the regional security and geopolitical landscape in Europe is confronted with challenges against the backdrop of   the Russia-Ukraine war, Sweden is more inclined to enter NATO and Ankara in recent months  pushed for the extradition of  Kurdish suspects before backing Sweden’s NATO bid. Sweden  encountered setbacks as a result of Turkey reservations regarding the PKK’s demonstrations and protests in Sweden over  Stockholm’s anti-terror law that was passed recently. Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom commended the new legislation as the final action Sweden needed to take under an agreement signed with Türkiye last year, aimed at securing Ankara’s approval for Sweden’s NATO membership. The recent developments clearly indicate that Sweden faces significant pressure to come to terms with Ankara on the Kurdish issue.

For the past several months  PKK leaders alleged that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq  was assisting Türkiye in its crackdown. Murat Karayılan, a member of the PKK executive committee, accused the KDP, which governs the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, of cooperating with Turkey against Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq. Karayılan stressed the disparity between the military forces and accused the Turkish forces of committing war crimes. He also raised concerns about concealed Turkish casualties, suggesting that the Turkish government  was hiding the true extent of the losses. Regarding the KDP’s role, in a recent interview he said, “You must not forget that if we weren’t here, the Turkish state with its anti-Kurdish mentality would not even recognize your existence. If they eliminate us, you will be next. You must see this reality. You should stop supporting the Turkish state against the guerillas. The guerillas are patriots.” Karayılan’s accusations underscore the prevailing deep divisions among various Kurdish factions, with some cooperating with regional powers like Türkiye primarily  because of economic interests while others, like the PKK, pursue an armed struggle for Kurdish rights and autonomy.

The interplay of Turkey’s security concerns, the Kurdish conflict and regional dynamics  represent a multifaceted geopolitical puzzle that has significant implications for both  Ankara’s domestic stability and its role in the broader Middle East. As Turkey navigates its domestic and foreign policy landscape, the Kurdish issue remains a critical factor in shaping its approach toward Europe and the Middle East. Meanwhile, the persistent tensions and divergences within the Kurdish movement may complicate the path to a sustainable resolution with Ankara.

Editorial Team