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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Sept/Oct 2010, Pages 40-41

Special Report

Turkey's War Against the PKK

By Patrick Seale

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (c) speaks with Chief of the Turkish General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug (l) during his June 20 visit to the Turkish city of Hakkari on the border with Iraq. Turkish forces pushed into northern Iraq that day, killing four people, including a 15-year-old girl, as they hit back against Kurdish rebels after they killed 11 Turkish soldiers the previous day, in the deadliest spell of violence in two years. (AFP photo/Kayhanozer/Anatolia)

Renewed fighting between the Turkish state and rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) carries grave political risks for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both his domestic and foreign policies seem bound to suffer.

On June 19, a PKK force of some 250 men attacked a barracks in the region of Semdinli, in the extreme southeast of the country, killing 23 people, including 11 soldiers. This brought the total number of Turkish military casualties to over 50 in the past four months. Turkish commandos, backed by helicopters, struck back, penetrating up to 10 kilometers inside Iraq in an attempt to surround and destroy the PKK bands. The Turkish army claims to have killed more than 130 rebels since March.

The outbreak of violence marks the failure of Erdogan's attempt, launched last year, to put an end to Kurdish terrorism by offering the Kurds broader cultural and civil rights. It also rules out any possibility of direct talks with the PKK, and of a political settlement with its jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

Instead, Turkey must now brace itself for more PKK terrorist attacks, while Kurdish areas of the country, as well as PKK bases in northern Iraq, will face new ground and air onslaughts by Turkish forces.

Erdogan's outreach to the Kurds has aroused bitter criticism from diehard Turkish nationalists. He has been accused of pursuing policies which have weakened the struggle against the PKK. Some have called for emergency rule to be re-imposed on Kurdish-inhabited areas. For the opposition, any expression of Kurdish nationalism is anathema, since it carries with it a potential threat to the territorial integrity of Ataturk's Turkish Republic. Since Erdogan faces elections in the coming year, he cannot afford to ignore this nationalist groundswell.

In a ceremony at Van to commemorate the fallen soldiers, Erdogan delivered an emotional speech. "Our sorrow is immense," he declared. "Our grief is as high as the mountains. We will not bow. We will bury our grief in the depths of our hearts and will not make those traitors happy. I am putting it very clearly: They will not win. They will not gain anything. They will melt in their own darkness. They will dry up in their own swamps. They will drown in their own blood. We have never been daunted, and will never be so. We will never surrender to violence and acts of terror."

Questions are being asked why the military failed to step up security at border outposts. Turkey's National Security Council (MGK)—attended by President Abdallah Gul, Prime Minister Erdogan, Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug, and other senior figures—met to agree on new measures against the PKK. It decided to increase the number of units in the border region, improve intelligence sharing with other countries, tighten security in cities, and dry up financial sources of the PKK, notably from the Kurdish diaspora.

The PKK started its armed campaign against the Turkish state in 1984. But after a 25-year insurgency, which claimed some 40,000 victims, the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire in April 2009. According to Murat Karayilan, Abdullah Ocalan's deputy, this move was intended to encourage a political solution. But last March, the PKK announced that it was ending its cease-fire, claiming that the Turkish state had not responded.

Two events seem to have tipped the balance away from a peaceful settlement. Last October, a group of PKK fighters entered Turkey from northern Iraq to surrender to the authorities. But the triumphal reception they received at the border by tens of thousands of sympathizers angered Turkish opinion. Instead of being granted an amnesty, they were brought before a court and sentenced. In March, Turkey's Constitutional Court outlawed the Democratic Society Party (DTP) on charges of being the political wing of the PKK. Many of its prominent members were arrested.

This prompted the PKK leader Murat Karayilan to declare: "The base for a political solution is being destroyed. Kurds are being forced into war."

One result of the violence will be to worsen still further Turkey's already severely strained relations with Israel. In late June, in what seemed to be a thinly-veiled reference to Israel, Erdogan declared that "the Turkish nation knows very well on whose behalf the terror organization works as a subcontractor." Sedat Laciner, head of a Turkish think tank, the International Strategic Research Organization, was quoted by Turkey's English-language newspaper Today's Zaman as saying that Mossad agents and retired Israeli military personnel had been sighted providing training to the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Israel has a long history, extending over several decades, of arming and training the Kurds in Iraq in order to weaken the Baghdad government. Since it is now at odds with both Iran and Turkey, it would not be surprising if it had extended its clandestine backing to Kurdish rebels in both these countries.

Military operations against the PKK could undermine Turkey's ambitious regional policy of "zero problems with its neighbors," and will cast a shadow over its negotiations for European Union membership. The violence cannot but disrupt the close economic relations which Ankara has established with the Kurdish Provisional Government in northern Iraq.

Some commentators go so far as suspecting that the ultimate goal of the renewed violence—whether or not it is fomented from outside—is to damage the Erdogan government and eventually bring it down.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2010 Patrick Seale. Distributed by Agence Global.