BACKGROUND: When it resumed its insurgency in 2004 after a five-year ceasefire, the PKK was aware that it could not hope to defeat the Turkish military on the battlefield. Instead, it used violence as a form of psychological attrition in order to try to force the Turkish state into peace negotiations.
There had been intermittent contacts between the Turkish state and the PKK ever since it first launched its insurgency in 1984. Starting in 2009, a renewed exchange gradually developed into discreet face-to-face talks in what has become known as the “Oslo Process” after the city in which the negotiations took place. At times during the process, both sides reduced – but never completely halted – their offensive operations. The process was suspended in the run-up to the general election of June 12, 2011, which resulted in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) being returned to power for a third successive term with 49.8 percent of the popular vote.
The election victory was a personal triumph for Erdoğan. Despite concerns about his growing authoritarianism, the slow strangulation of freedom of expression and the ever greater concentration of political power in his own hands, Erdoğan nevertheless succeeded in increasing the AKP’s vote. After the election, surrounded by yes-men and buffered by a supine and sycophantic press, Erdoğan appears to have believed that there was no issue that could not be bent to his personal will.
Erdoğan repeatedly insisted that there could be no negotiations with the PKK and no concessions to the demands of the broader Kurdish nationalist movement for full Kurdish language rights and the devolution of some of the powers of the central government to local authorities. On July 14, 2011, a broad cross-section of Kurdish nationalist groups known as the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) responded by issuing a proclamation of what they termed “democratic autonomy” for the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey. The proclamation was backed by the PKK, whose sympathizers exercise considerable influence within – though not total control over – the DTK.
Over the months that followed, the PKK stepped up its insurgency; not only staging hit and run attacks against the Turkish security forces but also trying to support the declaration of “democratic authority” by assert its authority in Kurdish areas, including setting up roadblocks and kidnapping local officials and perceived AKP sympathizers.
During the winter of 2011-2012, when the snow traditionally forces the PKK to suspend its insurgency in rural areas, the PKK’s propaganda outlets carried numerous warnings of an escalation in fighting during 2012. In a series of interviews, PKK commanders bitterly accused the AKP of insincerity, claiming that its refusal to resume negotiations was proof that it had never been genuinely interested in resolving the Kurdish issue. They warned that 2012 would be the year when they demonstrated to the AKP that the organization could not be eradicated. When the 2012 spring thaw freed up the mountain passes, the PKK duly stepped up its campaign of violence.
Starting on July 23, 2012, the PKK began to supplement its “hit and run” attacks against the Turkish security forces with what Murat Karayılan – the most influential of the PKK commanders in the mountains of northern Iraq – described as a strategy of “hit and stay”; namely, an attempt to take control of territory, starting with designated areas of Şemdinli. The Turkish security forces responded with a 19-day military operation, which was subsequently trumpeted in the Turkish media as a resounding success, resulting in the deaths of 318 PKK militants – or nearly 10 percent of the organization’s total fighting strength -- and the re-imposition of total state control in Şemdinli.
This was clearly misleading; not least because PKK units continued to establish attack targets in Şemdinli with apparent impunity. On August 17, 2012, a large convoy of vehicles carrying journalists and delegation of BDP parliamentary deputies, who had gone to Şemdinli to investigate the aftermath of the military operation, was itself stopped at a PKK roadblock. Photographs of the BDP deputies warmly embracing the PKK militants caused a predictable furor in the Turkish media. But few journalists were bold enough to ask how the PKK, which had supposedly been purged from the region, was able to set up a road block at all.
IMPLICATIONS In recent weeks, PKK violence has continued and intensified to a level not seen since the early 1990s. For the moment at least, despite years of combat experience and a massive advantage in military and intelligence-gathering capabilities, the Turkish security forces appear to be losing ground.
Few things occur in Turkey that are not attributed to a conspiracy. Inevitably, both the AKP and the Turkish media have been quick to claim that the PKK’s recent successes are because it is now receiving support from Syria and Iran; just as it has previously been alleged to be being controlled by Israel, the US, the EU, Russia or whichever other country Turkey happened to have troublesome relations with at the time.
It is true that, in some Kurdish towns in Syria, the PKK’s Syrian-Kurdish affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has filled the vacuum left by the withdrawal of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the PYD’s main priority is to remain aloof from the fighting and not to become closely aligned with either side in the civil war. The Iranian security forces and PKK’s Iranian-Kurdish affiliate, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), have been observing a ceasefire since September 2011. Yet the ceasefire is fragile and PKK commanders have made it clear that they expect the war with Iran to resume at some point in the future. Nor has there been any evidence of Syrian or Iranian aid to the PKK, much less that it has made a significant contribution to its operational capabilities.
There is no doubt that the morale of the Turkish officer corps has been severely damaged – and chains of command disrupted – by judicial investigations such as the notorious Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. At the end of July 2012, when the PKK launched its “hit and stay” strategy, 68 serving generals and admirals, or nearly one in five of the 362 serving generals and admirals in the Turkish military, were in prison pending trial, mostly on patently fabricated charges. The impact of these investigations should not be exaggerated. But it is difficult to see how they could have improved military efficiency.
In recent years, the PKK has displayed greater operational variation and sophistication. There is evidence to suggest that it has learned both from its own experience and from observing the methods used by other groups, particularly insurgents in Iraq. The PKK also enjoys a considerable support base amongst the country’s Kurds, particularly amongst younger generations. Yet there still seems to be little understanding in the AKP that the key indicator in its war against the PKK is not the number of militants who are killed but the number that the PKK is able to recruit.
Nor does there appear to be an awareness in the AKP that Erdoğan’s hard-line policies are likely to strengthen, not weaken, the PKK. Recent weeks have seen an increase in speculation – which Erdoğan has done nothing to discourage – that the meeting at the roadblock on August 17, 2012 will be used to try to lift the parliamentary immunity of the BDP deputies involved; leading not only to their prosecution and imprisonment but also to the banning of the party itself. In the short-term, the outlawing of the BDP would be a setback for the Kurdish nationalist movement, including the PKK. But in the longer term, there is little question that the PKK would benefit – not least because the ban would be used to support its argument that the Turkish state is not interested in a political solution and that the only way the country’s Kurds can achieve their goals is through the use of violence.
CONCLUSIONS: The PKK is a brutal organization. In the past, it has frequently deliberately targeted civilians, assassinated political rivals and executed suspected dissenters within its own ranks. It continues to have no compunction about detonating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in crowded areas. Its bombings in western Turkey regularly kill more civilians than state officials or members of the security forces. Yet the hard-line policies currently being espoused by Erdoğan have manifestly failed to destroy it. If anything, the PKK has become stronger.
The PKK needs violence. Ever since it was founded, the PKK has been fighting what is effectively a two-front war: one against the Turkish state and the other to try to make itself synonymous with Kurdish nationalism. In fact, the Kurdish nationalist movement is diverse. Although the PKK is undoubtedly the strongest, it is merely one of several strands. During the organization’s suspension of its insurgency from 1999-2004, and during each of its subsequent unilateral ceasefires, there was a discernible shift in the focus of Kurdish nationalism away from the PKK to non-violent Kurdish nationalists. When there is an escalation in violence, it is not just the Turkish state which drives Kurdish nationalists together by treating them all as PKK members. At such times, there is also a tendency for Kurdish nationalists – including those who are appalled by the organization’s violence – to rally behind the PKK, or at least become more reluctant to criticize it, because its members are giving their lives for the Kurdish nationalist cause.
There are also signs that, even if the Turkish military regains the upper hand and wins every battle against the PKK, an even more dangerous war is being lost. A decade ago, it was relatively rare to hear Turks expressing racist, anti-Kurdish sentiments. Now such comments are disturbingly common. Even more alarming has been the rise in ethnic violence. Under pressure from the AKP, few incidents are reported in the Turkish media. But such attacks – particularly by Turkish youths against Kurds living in western Turkey – are becoming increasingly widespread. Unless something is done quickly, the damage to the social fabric of the country could be severe and irreparable.
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, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "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".