Mon, Oct 24, 2011 | Turkey Analyst, vol. 4 no. 20 | By Richard Weitz
Turkey’s Anti-PKK Operation Faces Major Obstacles
This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. © Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2011.
The Turkish government has now responded with one of its largest counterinsurgency operations in years. The current Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq in pursuit of the PKK guerillas, differs from earlier operations in the larger number of troops involved within Turkey, their multiple points of entry into northern Iraq, the support the operation is receiving from foreign governments, including the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the possibility that the current campaign will last longer and penetrate deeper than the previous cross-border operations that have occurred in recent years. Yet progress is difficult to measure since the PKK is using its traditional tactic of melting into the mountains and local population. There is a general recognition among Turkish officials as well as foreign and domestic military analysts that military means alone will not solve the country’s Kurdish problem. The Turkish military’s vigorous response to the latest attacks might at best deter further foreign backing for PKK actions against Turkey and provide political maneuvering room for the government.
On October 19, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants killed 24 Turkish soldiers, with many more injured, in a mountain ambush at several locations in Hakkari province on the Turkish-Iraqi border. The PKK’s surprisingly well-coordinated attack was the most deadly assault against the Turkish security forces since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government launched its Kurdish “democratic opening” in 2009. Earlier PKK attacks and bombings in recent months have killed dozens of other Turkish security personnel.
The Turkish government has now responded with one of its largest counterinsurgency operations in years. The current Turkish response differs from earlier operations in the larger number of troops involved within Turkey, their multiple points of entry into northern Iraq, the support the operation is receiving from foreign governments, including the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the possibility that the current campaign will last longer and penetrate deeper than the previous cross-border operations that have occurred in recent years.
The government has mobilized some 10,000 military and police personnel for its counterterrorist operations in southeast Turkey. Although Turkish officials have stressed that the main counterinsurgency effort is occurring on Turkish territory, more than 1,000 Turkish Special Forces have intervened in northern Iraq. The operations in both places have received extensive air support by Turkish warplanes and attack helicopters.
Progress is difficult to measure since the PKK is using its traditional tactic of melting into the mountains and local population. The latter maneuver has the advantage of yielding new recruits if the Turkish forces or zealous Turkish nationalists respond by harassing innocent Kurdish civilians. The harassment then results in radicalization. Innocent bystanders become PKK sympathizers, while existing sympathizers become PKK militants. Nonetheless, the popular mood is sufficiently strong that the Turkish government and military will probably do enough to at least claim the operation has killed many “terrorists” before declaring victory and withdrawing.
PKK representatives justify their latest attacks by claiming that they are responding to earlier Turkish military and police assaults on their fighters and sympathizers, as well as the imprisonment of legally elected Kurdish politicians and other measures seen as repressing Kurdish freedoms. For example, they complain that the Turkish government has repressed both the Peace and Development Party (BDP), whose membership includes many PKK sympathizers but which seeks to engage in parliamentary politics, and the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK). Turkish authorities consider both groups as de facto political wings of the PKK and are reluctant to give them free reign to propagate their views among Kurds who might become further radicalized. The organization of the KCK is viewed as an attempt to establish a parallel, governing structure in the Kurdish-dominated southeast; that explains the mass arrests since 2009 of Kurdish activists and elected representatives who are accused of being KCK operatives.
Conversely, the leaders of Turkey’s main political opposition parties have blamed the ruling AKP, especially its failed peace negotiations with the PKK and its Kurdish reform program, for making the Turkish government look soft and thereby encouraging the latest PKK attacks. Opposition leaders have typically adopted a strongly nationalist and anti-Kurdish line that has however enjoyed decreasing support among Turkish voters.
For their part, AKP leaders have pledged a firm response to the resurging PKK violence. President Abdullah Gül warned that the PKK “will see that the revenge for these attacks will be massive and much stronger.” AKP leaders have also accused foreign governments of sponsoring the terrorist attacks as a means to weaken Turkey’s growing regional influence.
For months, Turkish media commentators have speculated that Syria, its Iranian allies, or both hard-line regimes would seek to retaliate against Turkey’s denunciations of the President Bashar al-Assad’s repression of peaceful Syrian demonstrators and support for Syrian opposition groups by resuming its support for PKK operations against Turkey. The Syrian government which in the 1990s was the main state sponsor of the PKK, no longer shares counterterrorism intelligence with Turkey.
Prominent Iranians have also denounced Turkey’s criticism of Assad and its agreeing to host a missile defense radar designed to help NATO shoot down Iranian missiles. PKK military leader Cemil Bayık, who has close ties to Iranian hardliners, has been one of the most vocal opponents of peace talks with the Turkish government. He recently pledged to defend Iran and Syria from alleged Turkish plots to change their regimes.
To dispel Turks’ concerns, the Iranian Foreign Minister quickly flew to Turkey following the latest PKK attacks and pledged his government’s cooperation against the insurgents. He also denied media reports that Iranian authorities had briefly detained PKK leader Murat Karayılan, but then released him rather than remand him to Turkish custody. Both Iran and Syria have their own discontented Kurdish minorities and the three governments have in recent years cooperated more extensively against Kurdish militants. Even so, many Turks remain skeptical that Tehran and Damascus would refrain from returning to their earlier policies of hurting Turkey through the PKK, if only as a warning to Ankara that Turkey cannot act with impunity against its regional rivals.
More recent Turkish press speculation has seen an Israeli hand behind the upsurge in violence. The Turkish and Israeli governments used to cooperate extensively against the PKK and other regional security issues, but this cooperation has atrophied in recent years due to their differences over Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. Although concrete evidence of Israeli operational support for the PKK is lacking, blaming Mossad for internal violence is a popular government tactic in much of the Middle East.
There is a general recognition among Turkish officials as well as among foreign and domestic military analysts that military means alone will not solve the country’s Kurdish problem, which has led to decades of violence in which some 40,000, most of them Kurds, have died. The Turkish military can drive the PKK back into its isolated hideouts in northern Iraq or in the remote mountains inside Turkey, but cannot avert future attacks or further PKK recruiting.
Support for separatism has also declined among Kurds since so many of them now live outside southeast Turkey. Estimates are that millions of Kurds, whose totals approximate one-fifth of Turkey’s population, now reside in the large cities of western Turkey. Istanbul has become the largest Kurdish city in the world. Rather than a separate state, Turkey’s Kurds crave constitutional recognition of their identity and aspire for equal political and cultural rights as well as economic and social opportunities within Turkey.
The resulting mutual recriminations and accusations of bad faith between Kurds and Turks following the recent collapse of the peace preliminaries that had been ongoing between the Turkish state and the PKK have empowered hard-liners on both sides. The AKP government has yet to make a bold move in accommodating the Kurdish aspirations. PKK hardliners look ascendant, and may be receiving foreign backing by Turkey’s regional rivals.
Unless all involved parties step back and decisively commit to resolve the current military stalemate through political means, the recent fighting will only make it harder to secure a negotiated resolution to the protracted conflict. The upsurge in fighting in Turkey is a reminder that the AKP government has made only incomplete progress in its efforts to transform the Kurdish question from primarily a military-security issue centered on opposition to the PKK to a social-political question that can be addressed by non-violent means. The renewal of violence threatens to entangle other countries. The Turkish military’s vigorous response to the latest attacks might at best deter further foreign backing for PKK actions against Turkey as well as provide the maneuvering room the AKP government needs to be able to make concessions in the new constitution to address Kurdish grievances. But it remains unclear whether the AKP will so use this opportunity for that purpose or that the divided PKK leadership is genuinely open to a lasting settlement short of the improbable granting by Ankara of Kurdish independence or self-government in Turkey.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.