Speaking at a conference in Washington hosted by the Middle East Institute on Wednesday, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Dana Stroul said there was “no military solution” to the conflict between the government of Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), suggested that a political process was necessary to end the violence, and questioned the efficacy of Turkey’s cross-border military operations.
Her comments, responding to a question about addressing Turkey’s security interests in Syria, were as follows:
“So, first of all, when we’re talking about D-ISIS operations, counter-PKK operations, I think it goes without saying after more than 20 years of collective experience in counter-terrorism that there is no military solution. So I think when it comes to addressing Turkey’s very legitimate security concerns and the very real loss of life that their forces and citizens have incurred at the hands of the PKK, there does need to be serious consideration for a political process, and a dialogue, on how to address these concerns, number one. Number two, we have seen cyclical Turkish operations both in Iraq and Syria. I think there needs to be some serious thinking about what is achievable with military operations like this without a commensurate political and economic process.”
Quite simply, this is a new and notable public position on the conflict for a U.S. official to take.
The United States has historically been the primary foreign backer of Turkey’s efforts to seek a military solution to its Kurdish question, driven by Cold War considerations of Turkey’s NATO membership and the need to keep a friendly pro-Western regime in Ankara.
Through arms sales, security assistance, intelligence cooperation, legal designations, and other measures, U.S. policymakers have ensured that the most repressive and pro-war elements of the state in Turkey have had a constant supply of resources to wage war not only on the PKK, but on entire Kurdish communities.
This approach has disincentivized dialogue, exacerbated the root causes of conflict, and likely prolonged the violence. Turkey has used its U.S.-origin weaponry and technology in actions that violate the laws of war and trample on international human rights norms—including against its own people. Turkish security personnel who benefitted from U.S. military training have gone on to oversee serious rights violations and anti-democratic actions. U.S. laws have had a chilling effect on diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict.
The degree of U.S. engagement in historic peace talks between the government of Turkey and the PKK between 2012 and 2015 was negligible. But after the collapse of the talks, shifting dynamics in Syria began to change Washington’s calculations about the conflict. The same developments in the counter-ISIS campaign that were pushing Turkey towards a more aggressive policy towards Syria’s Kurds were pushing the United States towards a more nuanced understanding of the Kurdish issue.
In his 2020 book Turkey’s Mission Impossible: War and Peace with the Kurds, Cengiz Candar cited an anonymous U.S. official who revealed that, behind closed doors, the U.S. offered to revive peace negotiations between Turkey and the PKK in early 2016—a move that angered Turkish officials already upset about American assistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces.
In the run-up to Turkey’s disastrous invasion of Syria in 2019, prospects for a political solution were discussed in more detail.
Critics of the Trump administration’s approach to mediating between Turkey and the SDF often put the idea of peace negotiations forward as a more comprehensive solution. The bipartisan Syria Study Group recommended that the U.S. support the resumption of Turkey-PKK talks as the best strategy for achieving détente between Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
There were serious, credible signals that the Kurdish movement would have accepted U.S. mediation at the time: imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan issued a statement through his lawyers calling for Turkey-SDF tensions to be resolved peacefully in May of that year, and Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) Co-Chair Cemil Bayik wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post arguing that it was time for a negotiated solution in July.
The Trump administration ignored these signals, however, and pressed forward with a one-sided “safe zone” deal that proved unenforceable and ultimately set the stage for Operation Peace Spring.
The October 2019 ceasefire agreement that brought the invasion to an end had a similar limited scope and similar enforcement problems, and remains a source of instability today.
Why It Matters Now
Turkey’s aggressive approach to the Kurdish issue has been at the center of two key issues that have occupied U.S. policymakers in the past several weeks: Erdogan’s opposition to Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession during an active land war in Europe and the ongoing threats of a new Turkish operation in northern Syria that would jeopardize both the counter-ISIS campaign and a solution to the Syrian conflict under UN Resolution 2254.
Growing frustration with this behavior may have forced the Biden administration to acknowledge and address the sources of Turkish conduct at their roots. A political solution to the Kurdish question is ultimately the only sustainable way to keep Turkey out of northern Syria for good and to shift the country away from a model of threat prioritization that has brought it into conflict with its longtime allies.
This understanding of the situation also aligns better with current realities on the ground.
Turkey’s latest incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan is at an apparent stalemate, with Kurdish media making credible allegations that the government is downplaying its losses in the Zap region. While Turkey has succeeded in taking control of wide swaths of Syrian territory, these areas are paradoxically now more volatile and pose greater security risks than they did when they were peacefully under the control of the SDF and the Autonomous Administration.
Recent polling has shown that a majority of Turkish citizens now oppose cross-border military operations and foreign military bases—likely due to the economic impact of endless campaigns in Syria and Iraq amidst a devastating economic crisis. The same survey found majority support for non-military solutions to the issue of ‘terrorism’ in Turkey and growing dissatisfaction with government policies on the Kurdish issue.
With high-stakes elections approaching in Turkey, the United States may want a wide variety of political actors in the country to understand that it sees the current situation as untenable—and a different approach as in everyone’s best interests.
If the United States is serious about rejecting a military solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question, there are several steps it could take to encourage a new approach: some unilaterally, and some through concentrated diplomatic engagement.
Acting on its own, it can first align its actions with its words and end material support for Erdogan’s war effort. Some of the most impactful measures here—like blocking the sale of particularly destructive weapons and technology, including combat aircraft and drone parts—have already been proposed by Congress.
Any future arms sales or security assistance should be conditioned on the full implementation of a just and sustainable peace agreement and commensurate improvements on democracy and human rights metrics. Overall, the approach should convey to Turkish policymakers that the United States will no longer help Turkey seek a military solution to the conflict, but will assist with a political approach.
U.S. policymakers could also reconsider the PKK’s terror designation, as legal processes in Europe are already beginning to do. The designation’s applicability was widely criticized as the PKK became a major player in the fight against ISIS. It limits the ability of the U.S. to engage with all sides of the conflict in a manner that would benefit a political solution. Removing it would also signal to the Kurdish movement that the U.S. was serious about talks, incentivizing their participation.
Other diplomatic pressure on Turkey should focus on opening political space for peace. Key political actors who participated in the previous dialogue and would likely participate again are currently marginalized.
At a minimum, the U.S. should push for Turkey to drop legal cases against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and release the thousands of HDP members, activists, and elected officials arbitrarily detained since 2015 from prison. The HDP represents the large constituency of Kurds in Turkey who want to resolve the Kurdish question by non-violent means, and its officials are well-positioned to mediate between Kurdish communities, the government, and the PKK. It has also put forward extensive proposals for how a solution could be achieved.
The U.S. should also demand that the government of Turkey implement its own laws and allow Abdullah Ocalan to meet with his family and lawyers. Meetings with Ocalan were an essential part of the last peace process, and the Kurdish movement and many of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens view Ocalan’s participation as essential for any new talks.
Continuing to oppose any new Turkish operation in Syria—and taking a stronger position against Turkish operations in Iraq—will also be necessary. If Turkey does invade Syria again, nationalist agitation in Turkey and the devastating impact of a third incursion on Kurdish communities will make reconciliation a more difficult task than it already is.
Closely observing action in all of these issue areas will be essential to determine if the U.S. has changed its approach to the Kurdish question in reality as well as rhetoric.