Recent back-and-forth violence between the Turkish government and PKK militants has created a situation of uncertainty in many parts of both rural and urban Turkey. The conflict presents a security risk not only to affiliates of the AKP-led government, but to civilians and business operations, as well.
On July 20th, a suicide bomber allegedly linked to the Islamic State (IS) hit the Amara Culture Center in the southern town of Suruc, Sanliurfa Province. The incident resulted in 32 deaths, the majority of which were linked to the pro-Kurdish Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP).
Officials of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) stated that they held Turkish authorities responsible for the bombing, and began a campaign of low-level attacks targeting Turkish security personnel. Following this escalation of violence, Turkish military forces began hitting PKK personnel and strongholds in Kurdish-majority areas in southern and southeastern Turkey, as well as in Iraq.
In response, the military, paramilitary (gendarmerie), and police carried out a nationwide crackdown on the PKK, as well as on IS and far-left militants, which led to the detention of approximately 1,600 suspects. This security operation has again escalated PKK-authored violence, resulting in the de facto collapse of the peace process that was initiated in 2012.
Since July 20th, more than 50 Turkish security personnel and 400 PKK militants have died as part of the ongoing waves of violence.
Three aspects of the current escalation
The current escalation is based on three inter-connected levels of violence. The bulk of fighting pitting PKK militants against Turkish forces takes place in the country’s southern, southeastern, and eastern regions, and is characterized by PKK roadside bombs, targeted shootings, suicide bombings, and assaults against security forces’ outposts.
The provinces that are most at risk of experiencing additional violence in the coming weeks are the following: Adiyaman, Sanliurfa, Diyarbakir, Batman, Mardin, Mus, Bitlis, Siirt, Sirnal, Van, Hakkari, Agri, Igdir, Kars and Ardahan.
PKK fighters also carried out at least two attacks against natural gas pipelines, disrupting the flow from neighboring Iraq. This led the government to step up security measures along critical energy infrastructure in the southern border region.
The second aspect of the ongoing conflict is an increased risk of attacks against Turkish administrative or security personnel and assets in the country’s main cities. The bombing that targeted a police station in Istanbul on August 10th is a stern reminder of this risk.
At this point, PKK militants have not expressed their intention to target foreign personnel, diplomatic missions, or organizations. However, there is an enduring threat of additional terrorist attacks that may take place in tourist areas or known foreign enclaves in Istanbul and/or Ankara, augmenting the risk faced by all those operating in these cities.
The third level of risk is the one linked to violent unrest. Since July 20th, riots took place in Istanbul and in other parts of the country, and members of the Kurdish community and those opposing the ongoing security crackdown have clashed with police forces on several occasions. Such episodes of violence are likely to remain a threat in the country’s main cities in the coming weeks, as tensions pitting Kurdish and anti-government activists against security forces and pro-government personnel are not likely to abate in the short-term.
A threat to the local operating environment
These three aspects of the current escalation in violence increase the risk to personnel safety and business continuity for foreign operators. Most directly, there is a threat to all operations in the aforementioned high-risk southern and southeastern provinces, including to travel and supply-chains.
Roadside bombs, indiscriminate gunfire in civilian areas, and attacks explicitly targeting energy infrastructure are specific points of concern. Such incidents may lead to protracted and costly energy disruptions for those operating in the affected areas, and may negatively impact international oil and gas companies with interests in Turkey.
A second risk is presented by the potential escalation of violence in the country’s major urban centers. PKK-affiliated Kurdish militants and left-wing militant groups have in the past carried out terrorist bombings in Istanbul and Ankara. These attacks have occurred in crowded public areas, wounding and killing security officials as well as bystanders.
Marxist groups may also try to capitalize on the enhanced focus of the authorities on anti-PKK operations to carry out additional attacks in the country’s major urban centers. Any surge in terrorist attacks in the central districts of Istanbul or Ankara would negatively affect the safety of international business travelers, and is certain to lead to tighter security control at transportation hubs and throughout the targeted cities.
At this point, it appears that the ongoing wave of violence and instability generated by the Turkish government-PKK conflict will continue along the three highlighted trends in the short-term. However, pro-Kurdish members of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), along with officials of the PKK and of the AKP, have stated that the peace process is not completely over, as all parties may still return to prior negotiations.
Nevertheless, given the harshening stance of the AKP-led government, along with the ongoing violence in Kurdish-majority areas, those with interests in the country should plan for an upcoming period of protracted tensions and enhanced security risks both in Turkey’s main cities as well as in the country’s Kurdish-majority areas.