Aserious escalation is currently under way in the ongoing conflict between the
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish state.
The renewed clashes
come amid claims by Turkish officials that the PKK is increasing pressure on
Ankara as part of a renewed alliance between the Kurdish organization and the
Assad regime in Syria.
In the latest round of fighting, the PKK last week
attacked four Turkish state and security installations in the Sirnak Province of
southeastern Turkey. Ten members of the Turkish security forces were
The Turks struck back, launching a major ground and air operation
against PKK positions beginning at the end of last week.
Turkish troops took part in the operation.
While the ground attack was
limited to Turkish territory, Turkish aircraft also bombed targets in the Qandil
Mountains in northern Iraq. The PKK maintains its main headquarters in this
mountainous area adjoining the borders with Turkey and Iran.
general staff this week released figures claiming that its forces have killed
373 PKK militants over the past five months. The Turkish statement also
acknowledged that 88 members of Turkish security forces were killed.
PKK, meanwhile, dismissed these figures. The Firat news agency, which is close
to the organization, issued a rival statement saying that 1,035 Turkish soldiers
and 101 PKK fighters have been killed over the past five months.
has also issued a number of direct statements in recent weeks alleging that the
Turkish authorities are using the bodies of slain PKK fighters for organ
Whatever the precise truth regarding casualty figures, the
last period has been the bloodiest seen in this conflict since PKK founder and
leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999.
Amidst the ongoing violence
and the flurry of claims and counter claims between the Turks and the PKK, a
fascinating question remains: why is the PKK choosing to escalate hostilities at
the present time? For the Turkish authorities, the reason is very clear: Ankara
claims that the Assad regime has in recent months re-kindled its long defunct
alliance with the organization. Ankara also alleges the existence of a renewed
agreement between the PKK and Iran, and claims that the Iranians are actively
aiding the Kurds in the latest round of attacks.
Prior to the outbreak of
revolt and civil war in Syria, relations between Ankara and Damascus and Teheran
had been steadily improving. But Turkey has taken a harsh stance against the
Syrian dictator, domiciling the political and military opposition against him
and calling for his ouster.
In response, according to Huseyin Celik,
deputy leader of the ruling Turkish AKP party, “Assad is pursuing the idea that
‘my enemy’s enemy is my ally… he’s taking the PKK under his wing and using it
against Turkey.’” The Turks point to the peaceful ceding by the Assad regime of
a number of towns in the Kurdish northeast of Syria as further proof of
rapprochement between the PKK and the Syrian regime.
Control of the towns
has passed to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the pro-PKK franchise
among the Syrian Kurds. Turkish officials have alleged that the Syrian
authorities left heavy weapons in the area, which are now under the control of
Kurdish sources close to the PKK dismiss claims of a renewed
strategic alliance between the organization and the Assad regime. They point to
recent instances of violence between PYD militants and the Syrian armed
Three Syrian soldiers were killed this week in the Sheikh Masoud
area of Aleppo by PYD militants. This attack was carried out, according to
Kurdish media sources, following the killing of 21 Syrian Kurds by Syrian forces
in the city.
PYD leaders have made clear, however, that they are opposed
to any Turkish military intervention into Syria. PKK leader Murat Karayilan
stated clearly that any attempt by Turkish forces to enter areas of Kurdish
population in northern Syria would be resisted. This is presented by sources
close to the PKK as deriving from the determination of the movement to protect
Kurds in Syria from Turkish assault, rather than as an element of a grand
bargain between the movement and the Assad regime.
Similarly, the Kurds
note that the Assad regime has been arming Arab tribes opposed to Kurdish
autonomy in northeast Syria.
Kurdish sources, in relating to the renewed
fighting in southeast Turkey, prefer to focus on Turkey’s longstanding failure
to address the grievances and demands of the Kurds. They note the failure to
rescind discriminatory laws, inadequate political representation and refusal to
allow Kurds to educate their children in the Kurdish language as factors
ensuring the continuation of conflict.
Kurdish denial notwithstanding, it
appears that a certain amount of coordination between the PYD and the Assad
regime did take place as the regime prepared to pull out of designated areas of
northeast Syria. This, however, may well have been due to a narrow and transient
confluence of interests rather than a strategic grand bargain.
short of men and is therefore reluctant to expend scarce manpower on securing
remote parts of Syria’s north. The PYD, meanwhile, is glad to take control of a
de facto autonomous Kurdish area at almost no cost. Of course, Assad and his
father followed for 40 years a policy of brutal repression against Syria’s
This legacy and account has not been forgotten. A resurgent Assad
would have no hesitation in reverting back to type.
is the Kurds’ opportunity. Ankara is currently deeply embroiled in the Syrian
Turkey is facing the possibility of a long civil war just across
its south-western border. There is a refugee problem. Turkey is committed to the
victory of the rebels against Assad, but this victory does not currently appear
Even without a formal alliance between Turkey’s enemies, it is
easy to say why the PKK would find the present time an opportune moment for
renewing pressure on the Turks. As for the possibility of a “grand bargain”
between Iran, Syria and the PKK – it should not be ruled out, but it would be
wise to wait for further clear evidence to emerge beyond statements by the
Turkish authorities before drawing any definite conclusions in this regard.