Why did the PKK declare Revolutionary People’s War in July 2015?

By Şener Aktürk, Koç University, Istanbul 

*This memo was prepared for presentation at the Contemporary Turkish Politics Workshop at Rice University’s Baker Institute on  October 14, 2016

On July 11, 2015, KCK, a political umbrella organization for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), declared an end to the ceasefire with Turkey due to the hydroelectric “dams being built for a military purpose” by the Turkish state (T24 2015). Three days later, Bese Hozat (2015), the co-chair of the KCK, published an op-ed in Özgür Gündem, the semiofficial newspaper of the PKK, titled, “The new process is Revolutionary People’s War,” where she declared the beginning of the PKK’s offensive. What followed was the most violent episode of uninterrupted fighting between the PKK and the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) since the 1990s, compounded with frequent suicide bombing attacks that hit civilians in major urban centers such as Istanbul, Ankara, Bitlis, Bursa, Elazığ and Van, among others. The violence between the PKK and TAF that began in July 2015 has been continuing as of this writing in October 2016.

Why did the PKK declare “Revolutionary People’s War” in July 2015? This is a genuine puzzle of the highest order for both political scientists and policy makers alike, since the political historical significance of the spiral of violence that began in July 2015 cannot be overstated. PKK’s decision to go to war is a significant puzzle at least for two primary reasons. First, based on the progress Turkey made in terms of ethno-linguistic rights for the Kurds under the AK Party governments, such as Kurdish public television and Kurdish languages as elective courses in public schools (Akturk 2012), one may not expect the PKK to launch a major offensive that could be very difficult to justify to its Kurdish recruiting base. Second, based on the meteoric rise of the pro-PKK, socialist Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi or HDP), one would think that the PKK would like to capitalize on this election victory and leverage the political clout rather than launch a major offensive likely to marginalize it.

In this brief memo, I posit five explanations for the PKK’s decision that are seemingly logical at a very basic level, then scrutinize each by using publicly available data that challenge or corroborate it. The first three explanations are based on Turkey’s domestic politics, whereas the latter two explanations are based on Turkey’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Syria. Except for the third hypothesis, these hypotheses cover possible short-term, proximate causes of the PKK’s offensive, and thus do not include any long-term, structural reasons that may explain why the PKK has been at war against Turkey for the last three decades. Long-term, structural reasons that are not specific to 2015 may give some insights about the nature of the conflict but they cannot explain why the largest PKK offensive in the last 15 years occurred in July 2015. In other words, this brief piece seeks to uncover the immediate, short-term “trigger” that led to the PKK offensive in July 2015.

Hypothesis 1: HDP-PKK Rivalry    

First, the spectacular and unprecedented surge of the HDP in Turkey’s June 2015 elections may have threatened to undo the unofficial subordination of the legal political party, HDP, to the illegal PKK. This rivalry potentially motivated the PKK to launch its largest offensive in more than a decade as a show of force vis-à-vis Kurds and non-Kurds alike including the HDP. Among many leftist columnists, opinion leaders, and politicians, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition party, Kemalist CHP, explicitly stated that “PKK is aiming to keep HDP out of the parliament” (Habertürk 2015) by launching this offensive. There is some evidence to support this hypothesis. In an op-ed published in PKK’s Özgür Gündem in August 2015, Duran Kalkan, a member of the PKK executive committee, listed the faults of the HDP and called on the party to engage in self-criticism on these issues (Diken 2015). PKK’s sporadic criticisms of the HDP continued after the November 2015 elections. For example, KCK co-chair Cemil Bayik claimed right after HDP’s election victory that, “if it wasn’t for us [i.e., KCK-PKK], HDP could not even garner 5% [of the vote]” (AlJazeera Turk 2015). Despite Bayik’s (and PKK’s) claims, let me briefly note that HDP’s popular base is greater than the sympathizers of the PKK, and it includes a significant share of Kurdish and non-Kurdish socialists, as well as some liberals, and even Islamic conservatives. Thus, PKK sympathizers are but a subset, albeit the most demographically significant, of HDP supporters.

What makes this hypothesis ultimately unconvincing is the virtual absence of any direct condemnation or criticism coming from the HDP against the PKK, which, if it existed, could substantiate the alleged aspiration of the HDP to free itself from the yoke of the PKK. Even when the PKK detonated 15 tons of explosives killing 16 Kurdish civilians, including teenagers (BBC 2015; Sabah 2015), the HDP did not condemn the PKK for its actions. The HPD had 80 members of the parliament (MPs) after June 2015 elections, and 59 MPs after the November 2015 elections. Not a single one resigned from the party to protest PKK’s Revolutionary People’s War, or the HDP’s silence vis-à-vis PKK’s new offensive, which increasingly included urban terrorism that killed many civilians. The only notable HDP representative who openly criticized PKK was a former political Islamist, Altan Tan, who was then criticized for his criticisms. Thus, this hypothesis relies on a secret if not wishful/imaginary split between the PKK and the HDP, explaining PKK’s offensive as an attempt to discipline and subordinate the HDP, whereas no publicly available evidence shows HDP’s insubordination to, let alone conflict with, the PKK.

Hypothesis 2: Mobilizational Spillover

Second, and based on an assumption that is almost exact opposite of the first hypothesis, one can argue that the PKK interpreted the historic electoral highpoint of the HDP as a popular mandate for a revolutionary insurrection to establish a Kurdish socialist state. This may be a radical misinterpretation of the reasons why six million people voted for the HDP in June 2015, since many explicitly justified their endorsement of the HDP by arguing that strong electoral support for the HDP would strengthen the party and weaken the PKK and end to its decades-long violent armed struggle. “Supporting HDP in order to pacify PKK” was perhaps the most popular argument in favor of endorsing the HDP prior to the June 2015 elections, as the leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş himself explicitly stated (IMC 2015). However, PKK is likely to have disagreed with this line of argument, instead seeing the swelling of electoral support for the HDP as an endorsement of the PKK, as Cemil Bayik’s statement quoted earlier (AlJazeera Turk 2015) also corroborates. In that case, PKK may have sought to utilize the mobilizational success achieved during the election cycle for the purposes of its violent insurgency. Lending credence to this claim is the empirical observation that there has been a somewhat regular spike in PKK attacks around the 2007 general elections (Tezcür 2009, p.781), and 2011 general elections (Çağaptay 2013), the two preceding electoral cycles.

In contrast, one can also plausibly argue that both the magnitude of the PKK offensive in July 2015, which was unprecedented since the 1990s (before Abdullah Ocalan’s capture in 1999), and the fact that it did not subside but rather increased after the end of the second general election in (November) 2015, both challenge the plausibility of this hypothesis. Moreover, HDP lost more than a million votes, and its national vote declined from 13.1 to 10.7 percent in just over three months after the PKK’s offensive began. Thus, the end of the election cycle, if not the especially precipitous fall in the HDP votes, should have also led to PKK’s demobilization, if violence was indeed caused primarily by Turkish election cycles.

Hypothesis 3: Government Inaction

Third, government (re)action, or rather government inaction, in the face of PKK demands for power sharing over the years could be posited as a reason for the beginning of the PKK offensive in July 2015. After all, in the declaration ending the ceasefire in July 11, 2015, in addition to “dams being built for a military purpose,” the PKK also accused Turkish government of committing a “political genocide” against it. Kurdish socialist HDP and the AK Party government in Turkey fiercely compete for the ethnic Kurdish vote, and in certain electoral cycles such as in 2007, AK Party received significantly more Kurdish votes than the Kurdish socialist parties, which could be interpreted as a “political genocide” by the PKK. However, the June 2015 election would have been the least supportive of this argument since HDP received the highest number and percentage of votes of any Kurdish socialist party in history. Although the Turkish government refuses to enter into some kind of a power-sharing agreement with the PKK, this refusal is not new, since numerous Turkish governments over the last 32 years all refused to enter into any formal power sharing agreement with the PKK. Such a refusal now would not distinguish July 2015 from any other period in the last three decades.

These three hypotheses provide domestic level explanations for the PKK’s decision to end ceasefire and launch Revolutionary People’s War in the first half of July 2015. However, one can also posit at least two different but related international level explanations for the PKK’s critical decision in this historical juncture, both of which relate to the developments in the Syrian civil war at the time.

Hypothesis 4: the PYD State

Fourth explanation for the PKK’s decision to end the ceasefire and launch its offensive in July 2015 would be the protection of the de facto state that has been established by the PYD in northeastern Syria. PYD is the Syrian branch of the PKK (Aktürk 2016). There was a brief period of rapprochement between Turkey and the PYD leadership. For example, PYD leader Salih Muslim visited Ankara in October 2014 (AlJazeera Turk 2014) and soon thereafter Turkey facilitated the passage of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga through Turkey to Kobane, which was critical in defeating the ISIS assault on that city. However, this ambiguous episode was the exception rather than the rule in Turkish-PYD relations, and Turkey has been steadfastly against the consolidation of PYD power in northern Syria since then. Moreover, in the spring and early summer of 2015, the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition was advancing against the Assad regime forces. Thus, the critical period between the June and November 2015 elections, when Turkey only had a provisional government and intermittent coalition negotiations, presented a window of opportunity for the PKK to launch a preemptive attack against Turkey in order to safeguard the existence of the PYD state in northern Syria, or Rojava (literally translated as “the West,” meaning Western Kurdistan). Elevation of the “Rojava Revolution” myth in the domestic and international PKK propaganda lends credence to this hypothesis as does the mobilization of numerous socialist (Kurdish and non-Kurdish) militants within Turkey, who traveled to Syria to join the PYD. Indeed, the Turkish military was primarily occupied with fighting the PKK between July 2015 and July 2016, and was only able to launch an incursion into northern Syria in late August 2016. This one-year period gave the PYD the opportunity to consolidate and even expand its territorial control across much of northern Syria.

Hypothesis 5: the Russian-Iranian Axis

Fifth, there may have been a tacit mutual understanding, or perhaps a secret agreement, among Russia, Iran, the Assad regime, and the PYD earlier in 2015. Although unbeknownst to almost everyone, including many Russia observers, Russia had been planning to militarily intervene in Syria, which it eventually did in September 2015. In preparation for this intervention, Russia, Iran, and the regime may have struck a deal with the PYD-PKK, in which the PKK would launch a major offensive within Turkey to prevent the Turkish military from intervening in Syria before or during the initial stages of the impending Russian intervention. The rapid escalation of tensions between Russia and Turkey after the Russian intervention in Syria, which culminated in Turkey shooting down a Russian bomber in November 24, 2015, and was followed by increased Russian military and political support for the PYD, all lend credence to this hypothesis. This hypothesis is also theoretically consistent with the arguments found in international relations scholarship that emphasizes the critical role of external patrons of terrorist organizations (San-Akca 2016) or insurgent ethnic groups (Mylonas 2012). In just a couple of months in late 2015, Russian intervention was able to reverse the decline of the Assad regime, and change the military strategic calculus against the Syrian opposition forces backed by Turkey.

What can we learn from counterfactuals?

Counterfactuals are useful if not necessary in the absence of real experiments in the social sciences. In an effort to summarize the five hypotheses outlined in this brief memo, one can summarize each in the form of a counterfactual question and posit a tentative answer on the basis of what we know from publicly available sources. Would the PKK launch its July 2015 offensive in the absence of the HDP’s historically high polling in the June 2015 elections? Would the PKK launch its offensive if the HDP demonstrated unswerving and indisputable obedience to the PKK? My answer to each of these questions would be a tentative “yes.” Would the PKK launch its offensive if Turkey unofficially recognized and even supported the PYD state in Syria? I think the answer to that question is “almost certainly no,” because such recognition would provide the PKK leadership and the rank-and-file both a symbolic and a substantive victory in achieving their ultimate goal of creating a Kurdish socialist state in the Middle East, and hence would justify extending the ceasefire with Turkey. Finally, if Turkey struck a deal with Russia, Iran, and even the Assad regime itself, about the future of Syria that envisioned shrinking the territory controlled by the PYD, would the PKK launch its offensive? My answer would be, “possibly yes, but with much greater difficulty,” because the PKK is not an actor that is entirely or primarily subservient to the Iranian-Syrian geopolitical axis, as some Turkish observers seem to think. The PKK could launch an offensive against Turkey, as long as it felt the PYD entity in Syria or the PKK’s position within Turkey were threatened, even if Turkey mended its relations with Russia, Iran, or the Assad regime in Syria, which are considered geopolitical patrons of the PKK at one time or another.

In short, PKK’s fateful decision to end the ceasefire and launch Revolutionary People’s War against Turkey in the first half of July 2015 had enormous social and political consequences that cannot be overstated. Despite its significance, however, the cause(s) that motivated this critical decision have not been systematically studied and scrutinized. In this brief memo I formulated five potentially plausible hypotheses based on some of the popularly cited reasons for the PKK offensive in order explain this decision, and discussed some of the claims in favor and against them.


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