BACKGROUND: Ever since it staged its first attack in August 1984, the PKK has focused primarily on a rural insurgency in southeast Turkey, where its militants have been able to utilize the mountainous terrain and the porous border with northern Iraq, where the organization maintains its main bases and training camps. Throughout its insurgency, the PKK has occasionally sought to support its rural operations with bombings in western Turkey.
In recent years, these have mostly targeted the security forces. However, in 2004-2005 a unit formed by the PKK – and known as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) -- sought to inflict economic damage through an urban bombing campaign in western Turkey, including by killing foreign tourists. But, although it maintained support and recruitment networks in towns and cities – especially in the southeast – it never established a structured organization for the conduct of urban guerilla warfare. This has now changed.
In late 2012, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – who was then prime minister – initiated a dialogue with PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan, who has been incarcerated on the prison island of İmralı just outside Istanbul since February 1999. The PKK was deeply suspicious, mindful that when Erdoğan had initiated talks before he had focused exclusively on trying to force the organization to renounce its armed struggle – or at least announce a temporary ceasefire -- rather than addressing the issues of Kurdish rights and freedoms that had led to it first taking up arms. Erdoğan had then abrogated the talks when he believed that he no longer needed them. But the PKK’s propaganda outlets had elevated Öcalan to pseudo-religious status as the almost mythical embodiment of the Kurdish nationalist cause. Despite its distrust of Erdoğan, when Öcalan called on the PKK to announce a unilateral ceasefire in March 2013 it had little choice but to agree to comply.
The PKK’s rural insurgency is conducted by its military wing, the People’s Defense Force (HPG). The HPG is relatively tightly structured with regional and unit commanders. Its militants undergo training in northern Iraq, where PKK instructors are able to draw on more than thirty years of the organization’s accumulated experience.
Following the March 2013 ceasefire, the PKK sought to compensate for the HPG’s reduced profile in rural areas by forming its young supporters in towns and cities in the southeast into the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth – Movement (YDG-H). Unlike the HPG, the YDG-H was very loosely structured and its members did not undergo organized military training. Most were teenagers organized into neighborhood groups under the command of someone in their twenties who also served as the main point of contact with the PKK’s broader command and control networks.
A large proportion of the members of the YDG-H were drawn from the underclass created by the scorched earth policy pursued by the Turkish military in the 1990s, which resulted in over one million Kurds – some estimates put the figure at closer to three million – being evicted from their villages, which were then burned down. Most took refuge in towns and cities in southeast Turkey. In many cases, the adult males left, either to join the PKK or to migrate to western Turkey in search of work – often eventually severing all links with the family they left behind. The result was not only desperate poverty and a deep sense of social alienation but (particularly for the young boys) also the psychological dislocation of growing up in a still deeply patriarchal society without an older male figure of authority in the family.
Initially, the YDG-H focused mainly on asserting its control over the neighborhoods where its members lived, such as the vigilante punishment of perceived criminal elements. However, it sometimes also sought to usurp some of the other functions of the Turkish security forces – such as by setting up roadblocks and conducting identity checks – and took the lead in activities such as street protests.
Erdoğan’s unilateral abrogation of the dialogue with Öcalan in March 2015 and the rapid escalation in fighting between the PKK and the security forces from July 2015 onwards (see Turkey Analyst, August 20, 2015) changed the role of the YDG-H. Since summer 2014, the HPG has been heavily deployed in the war against the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS), a conflict which has considerably boosted the PKK’s international image while simultaneously limiting the resources available for a renewal of its rural insurgency inside Turkey. The PKK is also aware that trying to compensate by conducting a sustained bombing campaign in western Turkey would risk damaging its enhanced international reputation and could even jeopardize the air support that the United States has been providing to HPG units engaged in operations against ISIS.
IMPLICATIONS: In August 2015, the PKK ordered the YDG-H to establish no-go areas in a number of towns and cities across the southeast. In theory, these no-go areas would form the foundations for the eventual creation of an autonomous Kurdish region in southeast Turkey from which the institutions of the Turkish state would be excluded. The Turkish government responded by imposing curfews to enable the security forces to try to reassert their control over the no-go areas. Since August 2015, curfews have been imposed on more than 1.3 million people in twenty urban areas in seven provinces in the southeast. Yet the security forces have struggled to assert their control, particularly in the neighborhood of Sur in the city of Diyarbakır and in the towns of Cizre and Silopi in Şırnak province.
Erdoğan has repeatedly vowed that there can be no return to talks and that he will eradicate the PKK by force. Far from cowing the PKK into submission, such rhetoric has made it even more determined to prove that Erdoğan has not succeeded – and, since the onset of winter has severely restricted the HPG’s ability to conduct a rural insurgency in the mountains, the continued survival of the urban no-go areas is the most effective means of doing so.
The PKK will also have been aware that the inevitable corollary of a shift in emphasis to heavily populated areas is an increase in non-combatant casualties, particularly by the Turkish security forces, which – in their frustration at being unable to assert their control – are now deploying tanks and artillery against the no-go areas. No reliable casualty figures are available for either the combatants or the non-combatants in the fighting in the no-go areas, although double digit fatalities appear to be an almost daily occurrence. In addition, more than 200,000 people have fled their homes to try to escape the violence. Basic services like health and education have been severely disrupted. Hundreds of schools remain closed.
Sur has been under continuous curfew since December 2, 2015. Cizre and Silopi have been under continuous curfew since December 14, 2015. However, since January 19, 2016, the curfew has been lifted between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. each day in Silopi.
Since December 2015, the highly committed but untrained members of the YDG-H have been reinforced by HPG militants who have been infiltrated into the cities. On December 25, 2015, the PKK announced a major reorganization and the merger of the YDG-H and the HPG into what are known as Civil Defense Units (YPS). In early January 2016 this was followed by the establishment of the all-female Women’s Civil Defense Units (YPS-Jin). In practice, the change means that in urban areas the PKK is now able to combine the local knowledge and connections of the YDG-H with the training and discipline of the HPG.
Even if the Turkish security forces are eventually able to use their superior firepower to assert control over the no-go areas, it is unlikely to be permanent. Indeed, the fact that YDG-H/YPS has managed to hold out for long – two months in the case of Sur – is already a victory for the PKK. The heavy-handed methods being employed by the security forces are not only expanding the pool of future recruits for the PKK but pushing a much larger number of Kurds even further away from the Turkish state. In addition, the extensive censorship of what is happening in the southeast – whether by the government itself or self-censorship by journalists and editors fearful of losing their jobs – has exacerbated a sense of abandonment by the rest of the country, and further fueled the already widespread support for some form of detachment from Ankara, whether through autonomy or full independence.
CONCLUSIONS: Both privately and publicly members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) insist that the PKK can be crushed by military means. This is a delusion. Indeed, by insisting on trying to resolve the Kurdish issue by force, and Erdoğan and the AKP are strengthening, not weakening the PKK.
The longer the government delays returning to talks, the higher the price that will be paid – both in terms of blood and the concessions that will need to be made to resolve the Kurdish issue. From one perspective, the war being waged by the Turkish state is already lost. The Kurdish issue can no longer be resolved without some form of devolution. The only questions are how much and when.
Most critically, the longer the delay before a return to talks the greater the likelihood of the fighting developing into a full-blown civil war – with the danger that the violence will not only envelop the southeast but spread to the large Kurdish communities in the metropolises of western Turkey. It is no longer a matter of whether it is possible to prevent Turkey from moving towards a civil war. That movement has already begun. The challenge now is to halt and reverse it.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
Image attribution: news.yahoo.com, accessed on Feb 1, 2016