The UK’s relations with Turkey Contents

5The Turkish government’s response to the threat from the PKK

The threat from the PKK, and the collapse of the ceasefire

129.Terrorism, whether committed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), ISIL, or any other group represents a denial of the most basic of human rights and freedoms, as well as of the values of democracy. We said the same of the coup attempt in Chapter 3 and, like its response to the coup attempt, Turkey also accepts specific limitations—including under the terms of its current State of Emergency—to the actions that it can legally undertake while countering terrorism. The FCO told us that the UK, along with other states such as the US and those of the EU, has designated the PKK as a terrorist organisation and that the UK supports Turkey in the fight against the group.208

130.The PKK describes its aim as the achievement of self-governing autonomy, but not independence per se, for the predominantly-Kurdish areas of Turkey in the south east, and is inspired by the ideology of its principal figurehead, Abdullah Öcalan, a founder of the group who has been imprisoned by Turkey since 1999. The Turkish government views the PKK as a separatist organisation,209 has declared it as a terrorist group, and has fought it since 1984 in a conflict that—although interspersed by periodic but so–far unsuccessful ceasefires—has killed tens of thousands of people,210 displaced at least one million and likely more,211 and caused destruction and disruption to the lives of many, primarily in the Kurdish-majority south-east of Turkey.

131.Turkey’s ethnic Kurdish minority forms around 20% of the population.212 But, under legal and constitutional arrangements inspired by ethnic-Turkish nationalism—arrangements whose origins date to those of the Turkish Republic—elements of distinctive Kurdish identity, such as the use of the Kurdish language, were denied recognition by the state. After coming to power in 2002, the AK Party took significant and historically unprecedented steps to reverse some of these restrictions.213 The AK Party government has also formed strong ties with Kurdish elements, both domestically—where the AK Party has drawn significant electoral support from some Kurds214—and internationally through, for example, the strong relations that Turkey has enjoyed with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.215 The Turkish government has consistently emphasised that its conflict is with the PKK, rather than with its Kurdish citizens who it described to us as an integral part of Turkey.216

132.Despite the conflict, the AK Party government took bold steps by entering into a ceasefire and negotiations with the PKK,217 the latest of which collapsed in July 2015. The reasons for this collapse are disputed. One month earlier, in the elections of June 2015, the AK Party had lost its majority in parliament for the first time since assuming power, and it did so in part because of the gains made by the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a specifically pro-Kurdish party. Some witnesses did therefore suggest that President Erdoğan abandoned the peace process, or at least decided not to prevent it collapsing, in the hope that the security crisis would benefit his party electorally.218 After the fighting resumed, the AK Party re-gained its majority in fresh elections called four months later in November. Other observers have blamed the collapse on the Turkish government, for what they described as its failure to recognise a basis for the peace process known as the ‘Dolmabahçe’ agreement.219

133.But we now agree with most of our witnesses who described a complex and mutual rise in tensions between the Turkish government and the PKK, rooted primarily in developments in Syria.220 Under this explanation, the expansion first of ISIL in Syria and later the expansion of armed Kurdish groups in northern Syria caused mounting mistrust between the PKK and the government that was ultimately ignited when ISIL bombed a Kurdish demonstration in the Syrian town of Suruç in July 2015. Attacks by the ‘Kurdistan Freedom Falcons’ (TAK) terrorist group were a further catalyst to the deterioration of the ceasefire.221 Even by the time a Kurdish coalition affiliated with the PKK declared an end to the ceasefire on 11 July,222 the PKK claimed the killing of two Turkish police officers on 22 July, and Turkish military operations recommenced in earnest thereafter,223 both sides had likely come to regard negotiations as futile.

134.While the reasons for the ceasefire’s collapse are contested, its results are indisputable: a resumption of the conflict, and its associated death, destruction, and disruption. A report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which was published in March 2017, reported that between July 2015 and December 2016 the latest phase of this long–running conflict had displaced between 355,000 and half a million people, and killed approximately 2,000.224

135.In July 2015, the ceasefire between the Turkish government and the PKK collapsed primarily due to a complex and mutual rise in tensions between them, rooted largely in developments in Syria. This conclusion represents a correction to our Third Report of Session 2015–16, in which we were too unequivocal in placing the primary responsibility on the Turkish government for the end of the ceasefire.

136.The FCO must both support Turkey in its fight against the terrorist threat from the PKK and encourage both sides to re-engage with the peace process. The ceasefire between the PKK and the state between 2013 and 2015 allowed an unprecedented de-facto improvement in Kurdish rights, but the FCO must press the Turkish government to enshrine them into law.

137.The resumption of the conflict since 2015 has deeply damaging implications for Turkey. Ultimately, there is no military solution to this conflict. The FCO should explain how it is working with the Turkish government to secure a path towards both a ceasefire with the PKK, and a wider process of reconciliation to address the causes of the conflict. Turkey may be able to benefit from the FCO sharing the example of the UK’s experience in Northern Ireland.

Human rights in the war against the PKK

138.In the context of the war against the PKK, which has focused predominantly on the towns and cities within the majority–Kurdish south-east of Turkey, concerns have been raised about whether some aspects of Turkey’s counter-terrorism operation are necessary, proportionate, and legal.


139.One issue has been the imposition by the state of round-the-clock curfews, which have sometimes been open-ended and are described by some observers as having caused indiscriminate suffering within civilian areas. In a Memorandum published in December 2016, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights reported that the government’s practice of imposing curfews in war-affected areas began in August 2015. The Memorandum said that “while these curfews were initially declared for shorter periods in relatively restricted areas, their length, scope and intensity increased quickly and considerably”:225

The Commissioner observes that these curfews range from periods of less than 24 hours up to round-the-clock curfews lasting 79 days in Cizre and Yüksekova, 81 days in Şırnak or 134 days in Nusaybin. [ … ] Despite the end of antiterrorist operations, the round-the-clock curfew in one neighbourhood of Sur was being maintained since 11 December 2015, after more than 10 months.226

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that

The use of curfews raises extremely serious human rights questions, the most important being their lawfulness and proportionality, the two main criteria which would determine their compatibility with Turkey’s international human rights obligations. As Turkey did not officially derogate from the ECHR until after 15 July 2016, no deviation from any of Turkey’s negative or positive obligations (both substantive and procedural) under the ECHR can be admitted for the period until then, during which the longest curfews and heaviest operations took place.227

140.The Commissioner estimated that as many as 1.6 million people could have potentially been affected by curfews in Turkey’s south east,228 and that the length of the curfews was so long that civilians had no practical choice but to break the law and defy the curfew in order to survive.229 The Memorandum reached the conclusion that “under these circumstances, the Commissioner cannot consider that the curfews and the anti–terrorist operations accompanying them as having been proportionate to the aims pursued.”230

Deaths of civilians, and damage to civilian property

141.There are also accusations that Turkish security forces have taken inadequate measures to prevent the deaths of civilians, and to prevent the destruction of civilian property. Figures of civilian deaths during operations in Turkey’s south east are highly contentious, but the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights referred to reports of the security forces firing on those attempting to retrieve the bodies of the dead as well as other incidents of indiscriminate fire in densely-populated areas under the effect of perpetual curfew.231

142.The extensive destruction of civilian infrastructure has been another aspect of the war in the south east that has been criticised. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, concluded in May 2016 that there had been “massive, and seemingly highly disproportionate, destruction of property and key communal infrastructure”, with reference to the town of Cizre in south-eastern Turkey.232 In March 2017, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) produced a report that concluded:

While comprehensive statistics on destroyed housing are not available, the analysis of satellite imagery provided by UNOSAT shows extensive damage across south-east Turkey. [ … ] In Nusaybin (Mardin province), for example, a UNOSAT damage assessment through satellite imagery identified 1,786 damaged buildings, 398 of which were completely destroyed, 383 severely damaged, and 1,005 moderately damaged [ … ]. Based on satellite image analysis, UNOSAT attributes such damage to the use of heavy weapons and, possibly, air-dropped munitions.233

143.The Turkish government blames the PKK’s strategy of urban entrenchment for the damage, and has committed to re–building the affected areas. Prime Minister Benali Yildirim announced on 27 January 2017, for example, that the state would build 35,000 new homes in south-eastern Turkey.234 The submission from the Turkish Embassy told the Committee that

The PKK’s tactic to wage urban uprising has backfired. But it has also caused considerable human suffering and material loss as well. According to the initial accounts, 1 billion [Turkish Lira] (approximately €300,000,000) has to be allocated for the recovery of the damage caused by PKK. 4,000 houses need to be rehabilitated only in Diyarbakır. The Turkish government continues to provide housing and food assistance to the dislocated people due to terrorist acts in the region and the people, who suffered from terrorism, are compensated. Reconstruction work is also underway in the region.235

Allegations of torture

144.The use of torture is another concerning allegation made in the context of the war in the south east. The group Freedom From Torture detailed evidence of torture being practiced in Turkey in its written submission,236 and said: “for the past five years Turkey has been one of the top ten countries of origin for those referred to us for clinical services [in response to torture] and last year it moved into the top five”.237 In its concluding observations for its report on Turkey in June 2016, the UN Committee against Torture described:

Numerous credible reports of law enforcement officials engaging in torture and ill-treatment of detainees while responding to perceived and alleged security threats in the south-eastern part of the country (e.g. Cizre and Silopi). [ … ] The Committee is further concerned at the reported impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of such acts.238

The UN Committee re-stated that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”239

A lack of access for external observers

145.Any claims with regard to what exactly has taken place in south–eastern Turkey are difficult to verify, largely owing to the restrictions imposed by the government on access to the area. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) wrote , in relation to its March 2017 report,240 that it had sought access to the affected parts of south-east Turkey for “almost a year”, but that no “meaningful access” had been granted by the Turkish government.241 Separately, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights reported that

The special circumstances surrounding these curfews and antiterrorism operations make these allegations particularly difficult to refute: the areas in question were blockaded and cut off from the outside world, making media access impossible. In addition, journalists seeking to report on the events faced serious risks.242

The Commissioner’s memorandum also “stresses that the problem of effective investigations and impunity of security forces is a very long-standing and entrenched problem in Turkey”.243

146.While the conflict in Turkey’s southeast continues, we recommend that the FCO presses the Turkish government to ensure:

a)that the operations undertaken by the Turkish security forces to counter PKK terrorism are legal, necessary and proportionate. There is significant evidence to indicate that they are not. In particular, the FCO should press for the use of open-ended and wide-reaching curfews to be ended, and damage to civilian infrastructure to be both minimised as a matter of policy and repaired as a matter of urgency.

b)that allegations of the killing of civilians and the use of torture by the Turkish security forces, and allegations of a culture of impunity within these forces, are properly investigated.

c)that independent observers are given access to the conflict–affected areas.

The PKK, the YPG, and Turkey’s policy in northern Syria

147.As explained in Chapter 2, Turkey largely justified its military intervention in northern Syria—Operation Euphrates Shield—on the grounds of confronting ISIL. A submission to this inquiry by the Turkish Embassy in London specifically told the Committee that “this is a counter-Daesh operation”.244 The Turkish Embassy also told us that another objective of Euphrates Shield was to establish a safe zone, which it called a ‘terror free zone’, where Syrian refugees could be settled in Syrian territory.245 Operation Euphrates Shield succeeded in pushing ISIL from the areas under its control adjacent to Turkey within a month of being launched,246 and by 23 February 2017 it had captured the strategic town of Al-Bab from ISIL. After that, and as senior Turkish officials including President Erdoğan had been saying for months that they would,247 the forces of Euphrates Shield advanced east, towards the town of Manbij.

148.The fighting around Manbij represented a change of direction for Euphrates Shield, in a strategic as well as a geographic sense. The Operation was no longer fighting ISIL. Instead, Manbij, the area around it, and large swathes of northern and eastern Syria were held at the time by predominantly Kurdish units. The most powerful of these units were the People’s Protection Forces (YPG), a Kurdish militia that is close to the Syrian-Kurdish ‘Democratic Union Party’ (PYD). The YPG had also entered into an alliance with other, smaller militias—including Syrian Arab components–under the auspices of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition, of which the YPG was the predominant component. The SDF had succeeded in capturing large areas of northern Syria from ISIL. As it did so, the SDF received weapons and military support from the United States in particular, as part of the US strategy to defeat ISIL.

149.Turkey considers the YPG to be the armed wing of the PYD, and it considers both groups to be an extension of the PKK.248 Therefore, and although their advances took territory from ISIL, Turkey considered the expansion of YPG-led forces across northern Syria—and their political consolidation into an autonomous, Kurdish-led region termed ‘Rojava’—to have direct and negative implications for its own fight against PKK terrorism.249 Many of our witnesses told us that, although ostensibly justified as an operation to counter ISIL, the primary objective of Euphrates Shield had always been to impede the YPG. Evidence to this inquiry argued that Euphrates Shield appeared to intend, first, to prevent ‘Rojava’ from encompassing a contiguous stretch along Syria’s northern border with Turkey and, secondly, to push back YPG-led forces from areas to the west of the Euphrates River in particular.250

150.Most of the witnesses to our inquiry who commented on the question agreed that the YPG had a close relationship with the PKK.251 It was based, they said, on political coordination as well as the exchange of experience and fighters. As well as describing other links between the YPG and the PKK, for example, Bill Park, from King’s College, University of London, told us that

There are calculations that suggest that up to a third of PKK fighters in Turkey in the past have been Kurds of Syrian origin crossing the border, so that interlocking relationship is really very close. Technically, they are different—they have a different label on their front door—but ideologically and organisationally, they are very much under one umbrella.252

151.The Turkish government says that the exchanges between the PKK and the YPG also involves the exchange of weapons. A submission from the Turkish Embassy argues that

The obvious organic ties between PKK and PYD/YPG is crystal clear: PKK suicide bombers are trained in the YPG camps in Syria (Rojava). PKK’s use of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons are also on increase. There is clear evidence that they are procuring this equipment through YPG in Syria and in Iraq.253

Turkey specifically contends that weapons supplied by NATO countries—in particular the US—to fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria are being transferred to the PKK for use in Turkey. The Turkish Embassy provided us with written evidence, and accompanying photographs, to illustrate this assertion.254

152.The Turkish Embassy said that Turkey has presented this evidence, and raised these concerns, with the US. It was hoping, it said, for a change in US policy and an end to what Turkey regards as US support for the YPG against ISIL.255 A statement received by the Committee from the US Department of Defense nevertheless said that it had seen no evidence of the weapons that the US supplied into Syria being transferred to Turkey, and that the US only armed the Arab elements of the SDF:

The Coalition has provided equipment to the Syrian Arab Coalition, which are vetted Arab elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces. [ … ] The U.S. has not, to date, provided materiel support to Kurdish elements of the SDF. [ … ] We certainly do not provide any support whatsoever to the PKK and have had no indications that any DoD [Department of Defense] equipment has been transferred to the PKK.256

153.When explaining its policy towards the PYD and the YPG, the FCO told us that

The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have made an important contribution to counter-Daesh efforts. However, we are also concerned that they maintain links with the PKK, a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK. While a range of Kurdish groups will play an important role in a political settlement for Syria, we do not recognise the declaration by the PYD of a federal structure in northern Syria.257

154.The FCO told us that the UK does have contact and dialogue with the PYD, but Lindsay Appleby, a Director for Europe at the FCO, told us that “the conversations we have had with the PYD are about politics, about them separating themselves from the PKK and about the future of Syria”.258

155.The FCO also told us that it understood Operation Euphrates Shield to be aimed at countering ISIL.259 But when the Committee asked, weeks before clashes took place, what the implications would be if the YPG and the Euphrates Shield forces fought one another rather than fighting ISIL, Sir Alan Duncan appeared uncertain:

I understand the picture you are painting of possible conflict with US policy and things like that. I am not sure it is helpful to speculate, and, again, it is not specifically my brief as a Minister. I am not sure there is more I can say than that, at this stage, but I see what you are driving at.260 [ … ] The broad answer to your series of questions is that our main focus would be to urge Turkey to keep the focus on fighting Daesh.261

When asked to elaborate on the UK’s policy through written evidence, the FCO replied that

Turkey continues to make an invaluable contribution to the international campaign against Daesh. The UK welcomes the operation by Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters to remove Daesh from the border area. The Syrian Democratic Forces also continue to make an important contribution to counter Daesh. We call on all parties to work constructively alongside the Global Coalition to achieve our shared objective of defeating Daesh.262

156.The Turkish forces have, in part through the direct participation in the fighting of its armed forces and in part by supporting anti-regime Syrian militias, created and held an enclave of territory in northern Syria. They have done so in part to create what they call a ‘terror-free zone’ in which refugees can live safely, in part to confront ISIL, and in part to confront the Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey says is tied to the PKK terrorist group. Turkey’s policies in northern Syria pose important questions for the UK, and the FCO should:

a)Explain whether the UK supports the creation of a safe-zone by Turkish forces and their allies in northern Syria, and provide an assessment of the implications that the creation of such a zone carries for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and any peace process, as well as for the safety and security of those within such a zone.

b)Explain whether the UK supports the settlement of Syrian refugees within territory controlled by Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups in Syria.

c)Explain whether it shares our assessment that the YPG, rather than ISIL, are now the primary target of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield.

d)Explain whether it agrees with Turkey’s assertion that the YPG are linked with the PKK to such an extent that they should share the latter’s designation as terrorists. This is of immediate importance, given that the YPG are the predominant Kurdish group in northern Syria, have significantly expanded their territory there, and are the main component of the SDF coalition which both the UK and US support against ISIL.

157.Conflict between the YPG and Turkey is not in the interest of the UK or the wider international community, and the FCO must explain how it is going to work to end the fighting between two forces that have been the primary armies fighting ISIL on the ground in Syria.

158.We recommend a determined effort by the FCO to persuade Turkey to recommence the peace process with the PKK. This should include support for Turkish recognition and enablement of Kurdish cultural identity, and discussion of sustainable local autonomy as the basis for the wider reconciliation of Turkish, Kurdish, and international interests.

208 See, for example, the FCO’s position on Turkey and the PKK in Foreign and Commonwealth Office TUR0010 paras 15—16, 21, and Q10.

209 Turkish Embassy TUR0012 p 16—17

210 Turkish Embassy TUR0012 p 16—17

211 The numbers of those displaced by the conflict are disputed Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and the “Return to Village and Rehabilitation Program” in Turkey, accessed 13 March 2017. Some NGOs have provided high estimates, of two to three million Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Turkey: Internal displacement in brief, 31 December 2013

212 Union of European Turkish Democrats TUR0014 para 21

213 Peace in Kurdistan TUR0013 para 4; Union of European Turkish Democrats TUR0014 para 22; Q40

214 Q36 [Professor William Hale]

215 Specifically, President Erdoğan and the AK PARTY enjoy a strong relationship with the KRG’s current leadership, President Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), in particular. But the view is not confined to the AK PARTY. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) also refers to KRG and Barzani as Turkey’s ally in Republican People’s Party (CHP) TUR0038, Section 5.

216 Turkish Embassy TUR0012 p 16

217 Turkish Embassy TUR0012 p 16—17

218 See, for example, Dr Natalie Martin TUR0016 para 4

219 Peace in Kurdistan TUR0013 para 9; HDP para 1

220 See, for example, Dr Katerina Dalacoura TUR0021 Summary and para 8; Q39 [Ziya Meral, Bill Park]

221 Q39 [Professor William Hale]

222 Q215 [Lindsay Appleby]; Peace in Kurdistan TUR0013 para 9

223 Foreign and Commonwealth Office TUR0042 Q2

224 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the human rights situation in South-East Turkey (February 2017),p 4—5

232 ‘Alarming’ reports of major violations in south-east Turkey – UN rights chief, UN News Centre, 10 May 2016

233 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the human rights situation in South-East Turkey (February 2017), para 4

235 Turkish Embassy TUR0012 p 18

236 Freedom from Torture TUR0019

237 Freedom from Torture TUR0019 para 1

238 UN Committee against Torture, Concluding observations on the fourth periodic reports of Turkey, 2 June 2016, para 11

239 UN Committee against Torture, Concluding observations on the fourth periodic reports of Turkey, 2 June 2016, para 12

240 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the human rights situation in South-East Turkey (February 2017)

241 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN report details massive destruction and serious rights violations since July 2015 in southeast Turkey, 10 March 2017

244 For the Turkish Embassy’s description of Euphrates Shield see Turkish Embassy TUR0012 p 14–15

245 Turkish Embassy TUR0043 Q7

246 Turkish Embassy TUR0012 p 2

248 See Turkish Embassy TUR0012 p 15

249 Turkish Embassy TUR0012 p 18

250 See, for example, William Hale TUR0007 para 12; Bill Park TUR0032 para 20; Dr Katerina Dalacoura TUR0021 para 9; Dr Natalie Martin TUR0016; Ziya Meral in Q6 and Q10

251 Hale reports but does not commit BUT Dr Natalie Martin TUR0016 section 4; Dr Katerina Dalacoura TUR0021 para 8

252 Q9 [Bill Park]

253 Turkish Embassy TUR0012 p 18

254 Turkish Embassy TUR0043 Q6 and Attachments

255 Turkish Embassy TUR0043 Q6b

256 Statement from Defense Press Operations, US Department of Defense, to the Foreign Affairs Committee, received on 3 February 2017

257 Foreign and Commonwealth Office TUR0010 para 21

258 Q233

259 Foreign and Commonwealth Office TUR0010 para 20

260 Q241

261 Q242

262 Foreign and Commonwealth Office TUR0042 Section 3

23 March 2017