The monthlong cease-fire declared unilaterally by the PKK (Kurdish Workers
Party) for the Ramadan period is set to finally expire this week. As it does so,
the prospects for renewed violence are very real.
PKK guerrillas, based
in their stronghold in the Qandil mountain range in northern Iraq, have carried
out a series of successful operations since abandoning their earlier ceasefire
The most daring of these was a mine blast along the Kirkuk-
Ceyhan oil pipeline on July 21. The explosion claimed two lives,
temporarily halted the flow of oil along the strategic pipeline, and served
notice of the PKK’s undimmed abilities to strike at their Turkish
The “Triangle” border area between Iraq, Turkey and Iran is
becoming one of the region’s most volatile flashpoints. More than 80
Turkish soldiers have been killed by the PKK this year.
Minister Besir Atalay was in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish
zone in northern Iraq, this week, to discuss the issue of the PKK with Massoud
Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government.
Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan, for his part, has promised that rebels will
“drown in their own blood.”
PKK leaders have told this writer that Turkey
is seeking to prepare the diplomatic ground for a major incursion against the
movement’s stronghold in the mountains. They fear that Erdogan seeks to impose
what they call a “Sri Lankan-style” solution on his Kurdish enemies.
can be stated with some certainty is that any initial hopes aroused by Erdogan’s
initiatives toward the Kurds have been dissipated.
The AKP leader,
unencumbered by Turkish secular nationalism’s traditional suspicion of any
manifestation of Kurdish identity, last year promised reforms to end the
second-class citizen status of Turkey’s Kurds. To encourage this process,
the PKK announced a formal ceasefire in April 2009.
The Turkish military
ignored the declaration of cease-fire. Instead, it demanded that the PKK
unconditionally disarm and surrender. The promised reforms failed to
materialize. Turkey’s AKP government struck at the legal pro-Kurdish
Democratic Society Party, arresting a number of its representatives on suspicion
of links to the PKK.
151 Kurdish politicians and activists, including
eight elected mayors, are on trial in southeast Turkey on suspicion of links to
Kurdish disillusionment regarding the possibility of peaceful
reform in Turkey is leading to increased support for the guerrillas across the
The PKK, meanwhile, is seeking to maintain pressure on the
Turkish government, without providing a pretext for a large military incursion
into the mountain area.
Founded in 1978, the PKK began its armed campaign
against the Turkish authorities in 1984.
The Turkish military responded
with ferocity. In the 1984-99 period, around 30,000 people lost their lives in
The capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 led to a
sharp downturn in the movement’s fortunes.
Turkish governments failed,
however, to address Kurdish grievances following the capture of Ocalan. As a
result, from its bases in the impenetrable Qandil mountains, the PKK slowly
The current situation in Qandil is volatile in the
extreme. Turkish aerial attacks have recommenced.
But the Turkish air
force is not the only peril with which the inhabitants of the Qandil area must
contend. Iranian bombardment and incursions are also a common
The PKK’s “sister organization” among the Iranian Kurds –
PJAK – is also headquartered in Qandil and uses the area as its base for
operations against the Iranian armed forces and Revolutionary
Iranian news media reported that the Iranian security forces
killed 30 Kurdish fighters in an incursion last weekend, though the Kurds
dismissed this claim.
But the threat is real enough.
Murat Karayilan, in an interview with this writer, noted a recent visit by
Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi to Turkey, in which, in a
joint statement with Prime Minister Erdogan, he announced the launching of a
joint strategy to develop economic relations.
Karayilan suggested that
such a strategy would help Iran bypass the economic embargo against it. It would
also serve as a basis for joint action against the twin Kurdish guerrilla
organizations present in the Qandil mountains.
Erdogan is currently
preparing for general elections in 2011. Any moves toward reconciliation with
the Kurds are unlikely to go down well with his support base.
freer hand to the military to strike at the PKK in Qandil, by contrast, could
serve to burnish Erdogan’s credentials in the eyes of secular
The latter suspect that the AKP is seeking to destroy the
power of the Turkish army.
A controlled escalation against the PKK might
help to lessen such suspicions – which have been raised further in recent weeks
because of the arrest of a number of senior military officers for allegedly
planning a coup against the AKP government.
This scenario is not yet a
The Kurdish issue in southeast Turkey is ultimately a
political matter, not a military one. As such, it cannot be solved by military
Nevertheless, Erdogan’s stated aims suggest that in the coming
months, the prospect is for increased Turkish cross-border attacks into
Qandil mountains in northern Iraq.
This would inevitably bring in its
wake a counter-escalation in PKK actions in southeast Turkey and perhaps
Policy-makers across the region will be carefully observing
developments.Jonathan Spyer’s full interview with
PKK leader Murat
Kurayilan will be published later this month.