Tuesday, March 4, 2008

An Emboldened PKK?

Consequences of the most recent military incursion into northern Iraq are still very much in the air, but existent is the fear that the invading Turkish forces might have done little but stir up bee hives. The elusive PKK is indeed hard to penetrate via air strikes (because they can hide in the mountainous terrain and well-trod caves), but the land invasion cannot be said to be too much more successful. While PKK resources were no doubt to some extent diminished, resources are easily enough resupplied. From the Jamestown Group's Eurasia Daily Monitor:
While the Turkish army claims to have killed some 250 PKK militants and lost 24 soldiers, the PKK admits to only a handful of losses and claims 130 Turkish soldiers killed and one helicopter downed (which Turkey admits to as well). Karayilan also tried hard to portray the Turkish incursion as an attack on all Kurds, rather than just the PKK. Other Kurdish sources claim that in addition to the PKK’s stiff resistance, the heavy snows of this remote part of Iraqi Kurdistan forced Turkey to abandon the operation (Kurdistan Observer, February 29).

From the Iraqi Kurds’ perspective, the difficulties that the Turkish operation faced vindicates their reluctance to move against the PKK militarily. If Turkey, with advanced attack helicopters, F-16s, heavy artillery, tanks, and airborne commandos can not dislodge the PKK, how can the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) be expected to do so? KRG representative Safeen Dizayee commented to Turkish media that “5,000, even 50,000 troops” could not control Qandil, just as Saddam never managed to control the area either (Hurriyet, February 28).

Although Turkey undoubtedly caused the PKK some damage with this latest incursion, guerrilla forces typically disperse quickly in the face of large scale attacks, leaving few casualties. Lost supply depots and recruits can then be replaced in short order, particularly if the fighting raises the profile and legitimacy of the guerrillas. In fact, Iraqi Kurdish leaders told Jamestown that they suspect that the latest round of fighting made a weak and isolated PKK more politically relevant than before (Interview with Qubad Talabany, KRG Representative to the U.S., March 1).

The tally of casualties for the PKK and Turkey in this latest round of fighting may remain difficult to determine conclusively. In the larger scheme of things, it may not matter much either: if the PKK manages to portray itself as having given the Turkish army a bloody nose this time around, the group will have burnished its Kurdish nationalist credentials, legitimacy, and stature – which are the main objectives in this kind of guerrilla war.

To really undercut the PKK’s legitimacy and support base, Ankara would need to go further in convincing Kurds in the country that there is little justification for the PKK’s resort to violence. Prime Minister Erdogan’s government may now turn around and tell Turkey’s public and powerful military that a change in strategy is needed, and to push more economic development in the southeast as well as human rights, minority rights, and other political reforms. This kind of political program might also get a more willing collaboration from the Iraqi Kurds. KRG officials are eager to act as intermediaries in negotiations for a political settlement that would bring the PKK down from their mountain camps. The PKK itself has called for this dialogue. Such a strategy has a better chance of scoring a real victory against the PKK, in contrast to the frequently proclaimed, but ever elusive, military solutions.
Most disconcerting is that military action might further provoke the PKK and strengthen the position of hardliners within the terrorist organization and/or the activities of extremist groups existing outside the PKK's central core. One of the most extreme of these groups is the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, which might or might not be indirectly affiliated with the PKK. (The group is certainly not part the PKK leadership). A Jan. 31 interview with Barhoz Erdal, the PKK military wing commander, gives cause for concern that the PKK might step up attacks. The interview was posted on the website http://www.elaph.com/. Here is an excerpt:
Until Now, the PKK Has Been Using Only 20% of Its Forces

Asked how the PKK would respond to continued Turkish attacks, Dr. Erdal replied that his movement was well prepared for such an eventuality, saying: "...The results will be no different from the results of previous attacks: We will counter these continued [attacks] with equal force. This means that the tension will mount and the clashes will intensify, and it is not inconceivable that the fighting will reach the centers of Turkey's cities. Continued attacks will not only cause economic, political, and social crises, but may adversely affect stability in Iraq, especially in southern Kurdistan [i.e. Iraqi Kurdistan]...

"We are not attacking anyone. We are not fighting without cause, but are defending our national values, and we show sensitivity - especially when it comes to civilians. We have never harmed civilians intentionally, and we will not do so in the future.

"However, if the Turkish state persists in its policy of denying [the rights of the Kurdish people], and continues its military attacks on us, the millions of Kurds living in Turkish cities will be provoked into responding harshly - as was the case in the aftermath of the recent aerial attacks [of December 15, 2007], when Kurdish youths torched government vehicles in Turkish cities.

"Incidents of this kind may proliferate, and eventually, this may lead to the outbreak of a popular uprising in all the Turkish and Kurdish cities that nobody will be able to suppress or control..."

In response to another question about the PKK's reaction to the attacks on it, Dr. Erdal added: "...We have been compelled to use our special forces and the fedayeen battalions in battle. So far, we have been using only about 20% of our forces. We might reassess our defense policy, and this will tip the scales, intensify the clashes, and broaden the scope of the fighting, causing Turkey to become an exact replica of Iraq. But we do not want to reach that point..."

Tourists Are Advised to Stay Out of Turkey

Regarding the potential danger to tourists in Turkey, Dr. Erdal said: "...So far, we have never directly targeted tourists, but now there is a war going on in Turkey. [The Turkish military deployed] more than 50 planes in a single attack [on the PKK], and hundreds of thousands of soldiers engage in daily searches [for PKK operatives]. [The army] also uses tanks, APCs, and cannon, and there are clashes everywhere. In other words, there is a war going on in Turkey, and it adversely affects all areas of life, including tourism.

"Turkey is not safe for tourists, and we advise them to stay away from it. Extremist Kurdish organizations like the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) have targeted tourists in the past, and continue to threaten them in Turkey [today]. We cannot predict what will happen in the future..."

Turkey and Iran Are Working Together to "Crush Kurdish Aspirations"

In response to a question about Iranian-Turkish cooperation against the PKK, Dr. Erdal stated that the two countries had a joint interest to "crush Kurdish aspirations."

As for the U.S. policy vis-à-vis the Kurdish problem, he said: "...[The U.S.] wants to go on playing the Kurdish card whenever it wants. It knows that our movement is the main obstacle [preventing it] from attaining its goals. Our movement... has its own independent approach and relies on its own forces. Its policy is to avoid relying on any side, and it refuses on principle to belong to any bloc.

"Know that the solution to all the region's problems - including the Kurdish problem - lies in freedom and in peaceful coexistence of all peoples in the region, without external intervention. Such intervention has only exacerbated the crises. America is troubled by the concept [of peaceful coexistence without external intervention], and therefore objects to the existence of an independent Kurdish force. This is the main reason it wants to [harm] us."

The PKK Wants to Resolve the Kurdish Problem through Negotiations

About past attempts at negotiations with the Turks, Dr. Erdal stated: "...Ever since the ceasefire expired, on June 1, 2004, we have tried to keep clashes [with the Turkish military] to a minimum. We have been careful not to intensify the clashes, in order to give the political negotiations a chance and in order to create a climate in which a peaceful resolution could be reached.

"Over the last four years, we twice initiated a unilateral ceasefire. We did not do so out of weakness, or because we were unable to face [the enemy], or because we had deteriorated as a military organization, as the Turks and others tried to claim. Not at all. Our [policy] was based on our historical responsibility not to drain [the strength of] our people.

"But the Turkish government did not heed our initiatives, and took advantage of the ceasefires to intensify its attacks and its military operations aimed at destroying us...

"We do not see our struggle as a strictly military struggle. Our cause is primarily a political one, and we believe that the real solution will [likewise] be political, and will be attained through peaceful negotiations..."
Another piece of interest is analysis by Hasan Turunç, published on the website openDemocracy.org. Although the piece plays up AKP's contributions to granting Kurds cultural rights and ignores AKP stumbles, the analysis it offers into the Turkey-U.S.-Barzani-Talabani dialogue is interesting. To me, Barzani still seems very much a favored player in U.S. diplomatic efforts, but I do not have the expertise to adequately evaluate such claims. Perhaps someone can comment.

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