Monday, 21 June 2010

The PKK Insurgency Enters a New Era

Published in Articles

By Gareth H. Jenkins (vol. 3, no. 12 of the Turkey Analyst)

On June 19, 2010, eleven Turkish soldiers were killed and sixteen wounded in an attack by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on a gendarmerie outpost in Şemdinli, close to Turkey’s border with Iraq. The death toll was the highest in a single PKK attack for nearly two years and came amid increasing evidence of an intensification and a broadening of the organization’s 26 year-old insurgency, including both new methods and new categories of target. 

BACKGROUND: After resuming violence in June 2004 following a five-year unilateral ceasefire, the PKK pursued a two-front strategy, combining a rural insurgency in the mountains of the predominantly Kurdish southeast Turkey with an urban bombing campaign in the west of the country. Unable to defeat the Turkish military on the battlefield, the organization used violence as an instrument of psychological attrition in the hope that the continuing death toll would wear down the Turkish state’s resistance to entering into direct negotiations over the rights and status of the country’s Kurdish minority.

On April 13, 2009, amid rumors that it was holding indirect negotiations with the Turkish state, the PKK announced a suspension of all offensive operations. However, in practice, it continued to stage attacks in rural areas in southeast Turkey, albeit at a lower level than in previous years. There were no major PKK attacks in metropolitan areas in 2009.

In June 2009, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) launched what it termed its “Democratic Opening”, which was presented as a process of engagement and consultation which would eventually culminate in a number of concessions to Kurdish cultural and political rights. It was never clear what these concessions were going to be and the process began to lose momentum as soon as the opposition parties announced that they would oppose it. Nevertheless, on October 19, 2009, eight serving members of the PKK crossed unmolested from Iraq into Turkey at the Habur border gate in what the AKP predicted would be the beginning of a process by which the entire organization would lay down its arms. However, the government had neither created a legal framework for the returning militants nor secured a commitment from the PKK that it would renounce violence. More critically, the AKP had also failed to predict the public reaction. As Turkish nationalist outrage boiled over into violent street protests, the AKP cancelled the return of any more PKK militants and the Democratic Opening effectively collapsed.

The fiasco at Habur was a propaganda gift for the PKK at a time when the fall of the first winter snows in the mountains of southeast Turkey marked the end of the 2009 campaigning season. Over the months that followed, the PKK issued a series of statements claiming that it had demonstrated its commitment to a peaceful solution to the conflict by engaging in dialogue and sending the eight militants to Habur. It was, claimed the PKK, the Turkish state which was intransigently perpetuating the violence.

On December 11, 2009, in another indication of a hardening in attitudes, the Constitutional Court formally outlawed the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), which had long been regarded by both its supporters and opponents as being close to the PKK. The application for the DTP’s closure had originally been filed on November 16, 2007. It was only following the debacle at Habur that, after eighteen months in which it had hardly even discussed the case, the Constitutional Court decided to issue a ruling. DTP supporters were quick to note both the timing of the verdict and the irony of the AKP’s “Democratic Opening” culminating in the closure of a political party. The DTP was replaced by a new pro-Kurdish party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). But Kurdish nationalists – many of whom privately made no secret of the links between the DTP and the PKK and claimed that the party had often served as a back channel for negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish state – warned that, by restricting their room for maneuver politically, the government was pushing them towards violence. The Turkish authorities were undeterred. Through late December 2009 and into the first months of 2010, hundreds of non-violent Kurdish nationalists were arrested and charged with being members of PKK front organizations.

For the PKK, the closure of the DTP and the arrests that followed were further proof that the Turkish state was still not prepared to try to resolve the Kurdish problem by peaceful means; and needed to be reminded of the cost of rejecting the organization’s offer of direct negotiations. On May 14, 2010, imprisoned PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan issued a statement via his lawyers warning of an escalation in violence if the Turkish state did not announce substantive concessions on Kurdish cultural and political rights by the end of the month. On June 2, 2010, the PKK stated that it was abandoning the suspension of offensive operations announced on April 13, 2009. On June 5, 2010, Murat Karayılan, the head of the PKK’s Executive Committee, gave a long interview to the Fırat News Agency (FNA), which is closely affiliated with the organization. Karayılan declared that the PKK’s insurgency had now entered a new era. He warned that the organization would intensify and broaden its campaign of violence, not only in the mountains of southeast Turkey but also by attacking what Karayılan described as “economic and military targets” in the metropolises in the west of the country.

In reality, the PKK insurgency had already entered a new phase on May 31, 2010, when the militants killed six members of the Turkish navy during an assault on a logistics base near Iskenderun on Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean coast. It was the first PKK attack on a Turkish naval facility since the organization launched its insurgency in 1984.

IMPLICATIONS: Unlike during the early 1990s, when it effectively controlled large swaths of southeast Turkey after dark, the PKK is no longer strong enough to confront the Turkish security forces on the battlefield. Since it resumed violence in June 2004, most of the PKK’s attacks have consisted of the detonation of landlines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), ambushes and long-range harassing fire against military outposts. In order to improve mobility and reduce casualties, the organization began deploying smaller units of eight or nine militants, down from twenty to thirty during the period 1984-1999. Without a state sponsor it has experienced difficulties in procuring more sophisticated weaponry, such as shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, which it used to down several Turkish helicopters during the 1990s. Although it acquired a large quantity of A4 and C4 explosives on the Iraqi black market following the US-led invasion of March 2003, its stocks appear to be running low. An increasing number of PKK IEDs now use commercially available dual purpose explosive materials, such as the ammonium nitrates used in some artificial fertilizers. However, there appears to be no shortage of new recruits to replace losses among the organization’s approximately 3,500 armed militants.

In contrast, the Turkish military is considerably better equipped and better trained than during the 1980s and 1990s. It is able to make extensive use of air power, particularly Cobra attack helicopters for hot pursuit operations. It also has better intelligence. In addition to satellite imaging provided by the US, the Turkish military has thermal cameras positioned along the PKK’s main infiltration routes and can deploy its newly-acquired Israeli-made Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance missions. Although conscripts performing their military service are still used for defensive duties, a growing proportion of offensive operations are now conducted by specially trained, professional commando units.

Since the end of May 2010, the PKK has stepped up the number of its attacks, while reducing the average size of its fighting units still further, often to four or five militants. Most attacks have followed the previous pattern of landmines, IEDs, ambushes and long-range harassing fire and been confined to southeast Turkey. However, there have also been a number of attacks in the Black Sea region. On June 14, 2010, a PKK unit halted traffic on the Tunceli-Erzincan highway and lectured the occupants of the vehicles on the organization’s insurgency before allowing them to continue with their journeys. Such incidents were relatively common during 1984-1999 but have been extremely rare since 2004.

The June 19, 2010, assault in Şemdinli was the first large-scale attack by the PKK since October 2008; even if it only involved approximately 25 PKK militants rather than the 200-250 originally reported in the Turkish media. Nine of the approximately 100 soldiers in the outpost died in the assault itself. Another two soldiers were killed by a landline. The PKK is believed to have lost at least 12 militants.

Previous large-scale attacks by the PKK have tended to occur in early fall and appear to have been primarily designed to secure a victory before the enforced hiatus of the winter. Although they have a potential high propaganda value – not least through their ability to inflict heavy losses – such attacks are also very risky; particularly given the assailants’ vulnerability to high casualties if the Turkish military is able to deploy its air power in a rapid counterattack. As a result, the PKK is unlikely to try to stage large-scale attacks on a regular basis. However, the staging of such an assault so early in the campaigning suggests that, in the months ahead, the PKK will attempt to supplement its traditional campaign of low level attrition with occasional high profile, high casualty attacks. But there are also concerns that these high profile attacks may include targeting civilians in cities in the west of the country.

In the period 2004 to 2008, the PKK’s urban bombing campaign claimed approximately 55 lives, including seven foreigners who were killed in an attempt to cripple the lucrative Turkish tourism industry. On June 11, 2010, police in the Aegean city of Izmir discovered an IED containing around 50 kilograms of explosives in the trunk of a passenger car. All of the evidence suggests that the car was going to be used in a PKK attack. More disturbingly, the IED had been wired to a manual switch next to the driver’s seat, suggesting that it was going to be used in a suicide attack. Although the PKK has a record of using car bombs and suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their bodies, it has never previously attempted to carry out a suicide car bombing.

CONCLUSIONS: The disparity between the military capabilities of the Turkish security forces and the PKK has produced contrasting definitions of success and failure. For the Turkish military, victory means the cessation of PKK violence and the eradication of the organization. Almost every death of a Turkish soldier has become a form of defeat and humiliation. But, for the PKK, mere survival in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds has become a form of victory; and its continued ability to use violence can be cited as proof that it cannot be ignored either by the Turkish state or by the Turkish Kurds whom it claims to represent.

But, although it is likely to retain the ability to cause casualties, it is unclear whether the PKK will be able to sustain the momentum created by the intensification and diversification of its insurgency since the end of May 2010; particularly as the Turkish military is likely to increase its operations against both PKK units inside Turkey and the organization’s main bases in the mountains of northern Iraq – something which, even if it did not succeed in eliminating the PKK, would force it onto the defensive. As a result, although it is far from inevitable, there does now seem to be a higher risk that the PKK will stage attacks against high profile, relatively soft, targets in the cities of western Turkey.

In his interview with FNA on June 5, 2010, Karayılan stated that the PKK’s ultimate goal was “democratic autonomy” for Turkey’s Kurds. Although Karayılan described the latest phase in the PKK’s insurgency as a “new era”, the ultimate goal of its campaign of violence appears unchanged: namely, not military victory but wearing down the resistance of the Turkish state to entering into negotiations. However, under the prevailing circumstances, increased violence is likely to make the Turkish state less, not more, willing to hold talks. The AKP was so alarmed by public outrage at the fiasco in Habur in October 2009 that discreet indirect contacts with the PKK came to an abrupt halt. If anything, public attitudes towards the PKK have hardened, not softened, over the last eight months. With the next general election due by July 2011 at the latest and the government struggling in the opinion polls, it would take enormous political courage for the AKP to initiate any fresh negotiations about a peaceful resolution of the PKK insurgency. It is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Gareth Jenkins, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the CACI & SRSP Joint Center, is an Istanbul-based writer and specialist of Turkish Affairs.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".


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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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