Background: Since it started its insurgency in 1984, the PKK has primarily been a traditional rural guerrilla group, fighting mostly in the mountains of south-eastern Turkey. Throughout the years, however, the organization has demonstrated flexibility, both strategically and tactically, implementing adjusted objectives, ideologies, but also making use of different types of armed struggle, including terrorist attacks in urban areas. Meanwhile the PKK has tried to dissociate itself from terrorism by letting a formally separate group called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) assume the responsibility for the acts of terrorism. Since it was founded in 2004, the TAK has committed numerous violent bomb attacks in the western and central parts of Turkey, targeting security forces and civilians alike.
Alongside the traditional rural guerrilla warfare and terrorism, the PKK has also resorted to urban guerrilla warfare. In 2015/2016, the teenage militants of the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) clashed with the Turkish security forces in the predominantly Kurdish cities in south-east of the country. Throughout the fighting, the YDG-H were joined by experienced PKK guerrilla fighters and merged into the Civil Protection Units (YPS). Supported by the terrorist campaign of TAK in the west of the country, YDG-H and YPS resisted the Turkish army and police for several months.
However, since the brutal suppression of the resistance in the urban areas, the PKK has been on the strategic defensive in Turkey. Pushed hard by the Turkish security forces, the organization has not been able to start its usual spring and summer rural guerrilla offensives in the country. Meanwhile, the terrorist campaign that was officially carried out by TAK in the western metropolises of Turkey had ceased by January 2017, most likely because of the negative image it created for the PKK which has gained a new international status after having fought against the IS in Syria.
The initiative has been in the hands of Ankara almost completely, not only inside the territory of Turkey, but also across its southern borders. Turkey has carried out two major campaigns in Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch, targeting the PKK-affiliated group PYD/YPG which together with the recent advances of the Turkish forces in northern Iraq has put the PKK under a heavy pressure, forcing the organization to withdraw from Shingal in northern Iraq. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stated that the military operations against Kurdish militants in Syria and Iraq are going to continue. Despite its currently strained relation with the United States, Turkey nonetheless succeeded in convincing the U.S. to expel the Kurdish YPG militia from Manbij in northern Syria, with Washington also agreeing to joint U.S.-Turkish patrols in the region.
Implications: In the last few years, the PKK has been successful in taking advantage of the developments in the region and adjusting its strategy and tactics accordingly. The war in Syria has offered the PKK the opportunity to entrench itself in the northern part of the country, Rojava, where it aspires to create an autonomous entity. The PKK has also benefited from fighting the IS in Iraq and Syria, which has improved its international image. However, the collapse of the peace process with Ankara in 2015 and the military pressure that Turkey has continued to apply during the last three years has resulted in heavy losses among the PKK's cadres and has deprived the organization of manoeuvring space, even though Rojava is still largely in the hands of the PKK. The fortunes of the PKK in Rojava will ultimately be decided by the United States. Were the U.S. to withdraw, the PKK would be left unprotected.
But it is northern Iraq that the PKK faces a major setback. Since the spring this year, the Turkish army has slowly been encircling the Kandil Mountains, and is aiming to severe the lines of communication between the PKK headquarters and the rest of the PKK forces in the region. There is also a distinct possibility that Turkey will try to deliver a direct blow against Kandil in the coming months, as President Erdoğan has vowed that new operations against Kurdish militants in Iraq and Syria will be undertaken. The Turkish regime has an incentive to divert the attention of the public from the unpopular economic measures that the economic crisis calls for. An operation against Kandil would be highly popular among the nationalist public.
Yet such an operation will in all likelihood trigger a reaction from the PKK. It will likely seek alternative ways to resist. To counter the numerical and technical superiority of the Turkish military that has effectively denied the PKK the possibility to wage a rural guerrilla campaign, the PKK would most likely resort to the tactics it used effectively before - an urban bombing campaign under the flag of TAK.
Such a campaign would have a propaganda impact as it would demonstrate that the PKK is still alive and capable to strike Turkey. Moreover, it would cause serious damage to Turkey’s tourism industry which is one of the key sectors of the Turkish economy. And the PKK would hope that a terrorism campaign in the western parts of Turkey will weaken the military pressure on it on the main battlefront in the southeast, and that the ensuing, ethnic polarization in society will benefit its long-term political goals.
It would also be dangerous to underestimate the willingness and ability of the PKK to put up a continued resistance by guerrilla warfare, especially in the mountainous terrain the Kandil area. Moreover, even a Turkish occupation of Kandil would not herald the end of the organization’s military presence in the region, as it will be extremely difficult for the Turkish forces to keep the area under full control in the long run, especially so during the winter season. The PKK will also be able to reposition itself quite easily in the rough terrain of the Zagros mountain range. The mere risk of Kandil falling to Turkish hands will in itself induce the PKK to take countermeasures, given the symbolic importance of the area.
Conclusions: The PKK is being squeezed by the unprecedented pressure that the Turkish state has been applying against the organization inside and outside Turkey since the restart of the war in 2015. Turkey has vowed to pursue its military and political campaign against the PKK, and the Turkish military continues to encircle the headquarters of the organization in northern Iraq. Backed into a corner, there is a risk that PKK will once again resort to a terrorist campaign in Turkish cities. Despite the questionable results in the past, this strategy has a potential to deliver a severe blow to the already crumbling Turkish economy as it is particularly vulnerable at this conjuncture.
The Turkish state has since 2015 resolved to end the PKK insurgency with military measures, but solving the Kurdish question will require a different set of political measures. The use of force alone cannot be the answer. On the contrary, the increased Turkish military pressure on the PKK risks triggering a new round of Kurdish terrorist violence that in the worst case could lead to a total breakdown of Turkish-Kurdish relations. Defeating the PKK by occupying its headquarters in Kandil would in that case prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for Turkey.
Matus Jevcak is Research Fellow at STRATPOL - Strategic policy institute
Picture credit: Flickr accessed on September 24, 2018