Tempo of major militant attacks will slow ahead of vote but rate of violence likely to increase afterwards
Cemil Bayik, a militant commander of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), said in an interview on 23 March that, ahead of the 16 April referendum, the PKK would only respond in a limited manner to the increased Turkish military pressure on Kurds. Bayik explained that he feared that a major attack could galvanise nationalist support for the “yes” vote ahead of the referendum, and that this was against Kurdish interests.
Bayik’s statement likely explains the lack of any major Kurdish strikes in recent weeks, which would indeed likely boost Erdogan’s position, as he has argued that an executive presidency is needed to effectively tackle Kurdish militancy. Consequently it is unlikely that there will be any major attacks before 16 April, although isolated and low-level incidents – such as a bomb attack which injured two policemen in Mersin province on 3 April – will continue. As discussed above, however, regardless of the referendum’s outcome, Ankara will continue to pressure Kurds, which means that PKK violence is likely to increase again after the referendum, regardless of its outcome.
Meanwhile, Turkey announced the end of its operation in northern Syria on 29 March, though Ankara said it will maintain a military presence in the country. This decision was likely taken in part due to Turkey’s failure to convince the US not to rely on the PKK-linked Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to liberate Raqqa from Islamic State (IS). Turkey’s desire to maintain military influence in northern Syria likely reflects its fears of future PKK influence along Turkey’s southern border, and confirms our previous analysis of a raised risk of sustained cross-border conflict with the YPG after Raqqa’s liberation, as well as the threat of a further escalation in domestic Kurdish militancy.
The decision to end the operation also likely reflects Ankara’s success in creating a buffer zone between IS and its territory. This, coupled with Turkey’s very limited role in the Raqqa operation, suggests that the threat from IS to Turkey is unlikely to rise further in coming months, as other countries may represent a higher priority and the group’s capabilities have likely been reduced. However, Turkey has played a significant role in weakening IS’s position, and so will remain a potential target for revenge violence, particularly as the group will continue to suffer setbacks, including losing control of Mosul, in the coming few months. The arrest of a Chechen, who was attempting to cross the border from Syria and was carrying explosives on 4 April, illustrates this ongoing risk. Therefore, the current level of relative calm in Turkey is unlikely to persist and both Kurdish militants and jihadists will have significant motivation to undertake further major strikes in the coming year.