The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has announced its first unilateral cessation of hostilities in years, citing the need to prioritize relief efforts after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated southeastern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6th.
The United States should build on this development by urging Turkey to take reciprocal steps. In the short term, this would help ensure that Turkish-Kurdish escalation does not impede humanitarian recovery in Syria or Turkey. In the long term, it would help address the long-standing challenges to regional security, stability and governance posed by the Turkish-Kurdish conflict.
Reading the Announcement
In a statement issued on February 9th, Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) Co-Chair Cemil Bayik said:
Because of the catastrophe and suffering that our people are going through, we, as the leadership of our movement, have decided to evaluate the latest developments and have reached some conclusions on this basis. We have done so out of respect for the peoples and human life. Therefore, we do not want to cause pain upon pain. We have evaluated the situation from a humanitarian, conscientious and moral point of view. Consequently, we call on all our forces engaged in military actions to stop all military attacks in Turkey, including in the cities. We have also decided not to carry out any attacks as long as the Turkish state does not attack us. This decision is valid until the suffering of our people subsides and until they have healed their wounds. Of course, the attitude of the Turkish state will also be decisive for our decision.
In practical terms, this is a decision to halt military activities on Turkish territory. That means any subsequent fighting will likely be confined to the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan—where most clashes already occur. Both Turkish and Kurdish sources have reported conflict in this region since the announcement was made.
At least one Turkish drone strike against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria has also been reported. Turkey does not distinguish between the SDF and the PKK. In November, Turkey carried out a bombing campaign targeting civilians, critical infrastructure, and SDF fighters engaged in key counter-ISIS missions after baselessly accusing the PKK and the SDF of responsibility for a bombing in Istanbul.
The statement emphasizes that the PKK will not attack unless attacked first and that Turkey’s response will factor into its future calculations. As such, any change in Turkey’s actions in Iraqi Kurdistan is likely to be met with further de-escalation: if Turkey were to cease its ongoing attacks on the PKK there, the PKK would reciprocate.
It also does not specify an end date. While the statement ties the pause in military activities to the earthquake recovery, Kurdish decision-makers would likely be more than willing to maintain and build on the initiative if it is met with a positive response.
Politically, this decision puts the fact that the PKK is open to a negotiated solution and is willing to take unilateral steps in order to achieve one out in the open. This message is likely directed both to audiences in Turkey and to Turkey’s allies. Reciprocal action by the current government is extremely unlikely without international engagement. If a new government comes to power with the support of Kurdish voters in the upcoming elections, it may be in a position to approach the Kurdish issue differently. These policy shifts are likely more palatable across the board now that the PKK has made the first move.
At the same time, it illustrates that earthquake recovery could be a unifying point for all parties involved—and for the Turkish and Kurdish constituencies that would need to be on board for any sustainable peace agreement to move forward. If all sides can prioritize relief efforts, there is a basis for agreement that actions that might damage these efforts—such as military escalation—ought to be avoided. Such a point of consensus did not exist before.
Implications for the United States
Before the earthquake, Turkey’s upcoming elections, its demands that Finland and Sweden bend their own laws to join NATO, and its most significant escalation in northeast Syria since the October 2019 invasion of Serekaniye (Ras al-Ain) and Tal Abyad (Gire Spi) had put the negative impacts of its attempts to resolve its Kurdish issue militarily on the agenda.
Today, the scale of the humanitarian crisis in southern Turkey and northern Syria makes preventing destabilizing violence in this region all the more important. While the impact of the earthquake makes a threatened Turkish ground incursion into northern Syria less likely, it is still possible.
An incursion under these circumstances could cause a severe humanitarian crisis and lead to an ISIS resurgence—two developments that would compound the devastation caused by the earthquake and impede necessary response efforts. Depending on the scale and location of an incursion, fighting could spill over into Turkey—a worst-case scenario for the border communities that have already survived a disaster.
The PKK’s partial ceasefire gives the United States a critical opportunity to prevent these outcomes. Careful, timely engagement would have strategic benefits.
U.S. policymakers already recognize the interests at play here. In 2019, the bipartisan Syria Study Group recommended that the “the United States should encourage the resumption of Turkey-PKK peace talks, which hold the best possibility of leading to a détente between Turkey and the SDF.” In July, a Biden administration official stated there is “no military solution” to the conflict and that Turkey ought to reconsider the efficacy of cross-border operations in Iraq and Syria. The administration’s 2022 National Security Strategy criticized the use of force to resolve conflicts in the Middle East and instead urged “using diplomacy to de-escalate tensions, reduce risks of new conflicts, and set a long-term foundation for stability.”
At this stage, the U.S. need not do more than acknowledge the development as a welcome step towards peace at a time when conflict is a dangerous distraction from humanitarian issues and urge continued de-escalation. This would signal to both sides that an international third party was invested. Public messaging beyond this could be counterproductive.
Behind the scenes, the U.S. could communicate to Turkey that it ought to reciprocate by ceasing offensive operations there. Turkey could be encouraged to frame this domestically as a move to ensure that state resources are going where they are most needed. The declared pause in PKK military activity in Turkey would give the U.S. greater political cover to push back on Turkey’s claims that cross-border operations are necessary for the security of its territory. The importance of international support and goodwill for Turkey at this critical time could make U.S. pressure more impactful.
The U.S. could then communicate to the PKK that, in line with the group’s promise to only attack if it is attacked first, an end to Turkish actions in Iraq ought to be seen as grounds for declaring an overall ceasefire.
(Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images)