Turkey At Crossroads: Countering The PKK – Analysis


By Hasan Selim Özertem*

Since the summer of 2015, the PKK and ISIS have exponentially increased attacks against Turkey. Starting last autumn, bombings in Ankara, Istanbul and Bursa have targeted metropolitan life and everyday civilians of those cities, whereas terrorism has broadly distorted the daily lives of people living in the eastern and southeastern provinces of Turkey, particularly in the regions bordering Syria and Iraq.

Several factors have contributed to the complexity of Turkey’s fight against the PKK: suicide bombings in city centers, state policy towards the PYD within the context of the Syrian civil war, and the ongoing air operations in northern Iraq. Security forces have actively staged terror operations against the PKK, but considering the outcome of the previous negotiation process, the political dimension of this struggle has serious weaknesses.

Preparing for War, Neglecting Peace

The PKK has moved the bulk of its activities to city centers, namely those of Cizre and Sur, and aimed at creating so-called ‘rebel zones’ following their model in Syria. Their initial strategy was to lure security forces into the region and force them to make mistakes. Terrorists also assumed that they would receive greater support from the local populations. Recalling the pro-Kurdish HDP’s (People’s Democratic Party) surprising success in the June 1 elections, where they won 13.1% of the votes, the PKK assumed that this transferred into support for the organization. However, the underlying causes of the HDP’s electoral success were, first, the political process that had been plaguing Turkey for several months, and second, the HDP’s attempt to steer away from ethnic-based politics towards becoming “Turkey’s party” with broader cross-segment appeal. This analysis was later affirmed by the results of November 1 elections in which the HDP barely surpassed the 10% threshold, indicating that the electors disapproved of the PKK’s strategy of violence, and held the HDP at least partially accountable for the turmoil of the preceding months.

The PKK’s attempts to use civilians remaining in their homes after commencement of the clashes as human shields failed as a result of intolerant attitude of locals towards violence and their ensuing successful evacuation from the conflict zones. Images arriving from the cities of Sur, Cizre and Nusaybin – all of which were significantly damaged by booby traps, deep tranches, and explosives placed by the PKK during the peace process – shocked viewers with their resemblance to the torn up cities of Syria. Unlike Syria, the devastation evident in these pictures did not stem from air bombardment, but from explosives stored under buildings and cross fire from the PKK’s heavy guns.

In December of 2015, seven tons of explosives were found across 250 different locations in Nusaybin. Some news agencies reported that in Idil a total of ten tons of explosives were destroyed. The significant amount of found explosives hidden in vehicles hints at the vast stores of explosives accrued. As a recent incident, in Diyabakir’s countryside 17 civilians lost their lives opposing PKK’s attempt to leave a truck with 15 tones of explosives last week. Some analysts estimate that there could be hundreds of tons of explosives hidden in different locations. In addition, the snipers and heavy machine guns used by the PKK in urban areas alarmingly indicated that the PKK have adapted some of their experiences gained in Syria to their fight in Turkey.

Today, it is clear that we are far from a “solution process” joining the various fractions of Turkish society. In analyzing the current state of the conflict, we must keep in mind some critical events like the October 6-7, in which some 50 civilians were killed; declaration of autonomy in Cizre; and the PKK’s kidnapping of soldiers in order to fully perceive and reveal the aims and intentions of the PKK.

The PKK strongly criticized the continued construction of “kalekol” (military-managed patrol-stations). As a sovereign and legitimate state, Turkey has the right to consolidate and modernize its military guard posts. In this regard, comparing the storing up of explosives in urban areas to the construction of kalekols in rural areas is inherently contradictory.

The PKK’s attitude during the solution process testifies that the organization was building up for war, rather than peace. There is no point in blaming security forces for implementing laws, conducting operations, and engaging with hostiles. This is a reflection of the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of force against any threats to its power.

When is the right time to start using political tools in counter-terrorism?

On account of operations occurring over the past few months, the security dimension of the issue has become paramount. Choices made by the political powers as well as the strategy pursued by the PKK have resulted in the prevalence of the security dimension. However, some analysts, including Gen. Ilker Başbuğ, former Commander of the Turkish Armed Forces, criticize the continuation of a security-based policy. As Başbuğ states “countering terrorists is the soldier’s business, countering terrorism is the state’s responsibility. The latter has economic, socio-cultural, psychological, operational, and international political dimensions. Mere ‘security’ does not guarantee success, but acknowledging the importance of the security dimension is also important… it is not possible to exterminate terrorists, you must marginalize them.” In other words, the security policy constitutes only one aspect of counter-terrorism, and must be complimented by planning and implementation of a political solution. This initiative has to be taken up on a political platform by political parties.

The oxygen tank sustaining the room of politics is rapidly running low. The PKK has a repressive image and does not appear inclined towards taking a conciliatory stance. It conducts terror activities in large cities targeting civilians. It oppresses the local population in regions where it wields more control and imposes its one-sided will upon them. This situation constrains the Kurdish political movement’s room for maneuver, making it ever more difficult for it to hold its political base.

How should we read Cemil Bayık’s message?

One of the top figures of the PKK, Cemil Bayik, gave two interviews over a one-and-a-half month period to The Times and BBC. These two interviews evidenced all the elements of this repressive attitude. In his statements to BBC in April, he said that negotiations depended on a reciprocal ceasefire. He also noted that the TAK, a PKK-affiliated terrorist organization which has staged deadly terror attacks against civilians, gained much sympathy from the people following the attacks in Ankara. He further hinted that the TAK might continue its aggressive acts in Turkey’s western provinces as the state continues its hard power measures. While delivering such a message, he also remembered to state that he is sensitive to and wary of civilian deaths.

Having some strong subliminal messages, Bayik’s remarks can be construed as an attempt to preserve the international sympathy gained by the PKK, beginning with its struggle in Kobane, and later in its struggle against ISIS. Nevertheless, considering the October 6-7 incidents and the Ankara attacks, it can be observed that the PKK is not concerned with establishing legitimacy, as its activities target both Kurds and civilians in the West. Bayik gave even more hard-line and straightforward message in his interview with The Times last March. He declared that, as their struggle was existential, any step they took would be legitimate, war would spread everywhere in Turkey, and the summer of 2016 would be one of vengeance.

Both interviews contain elements of a discourse aiming to shape the political process through violence. While the issue of negotiation was expressed more openly in the interview with the BBC, even this message was relayed in conjecture with a sub-message of spreading violence across the country.

Considering the current state of politics, at this point there seems to be no easy way-out. It is not a secret that negotiation and conflict resolution cannot be implemented through one-sided impositions. Bayik’s messages indicate that the upcoming summer will not witness any decrease in the level of violence.

Violence is a vicious cycle. If it cannot be terminated, ruptures at the societal level will inevitably deepen and eventually lead to greater vulnerabilities. In this regard, it is of utmost importance to continue all operations with care and in accordance with the rule of law. The sustainability of large-scale long-term security measures can be questioned in terms of their social and political dynamics. This does not mean that the steps taken so far to uphold public order should be reversed. That said, it is imperative that we now start planning when and how the political body will intervene. Inclusion of the parliament in this planning process will benefit everyone involved. Therefore, the government should develop new strategies and work out different case scenarios for a long-term political solution in order to strengthen communal bonds across society. Otherwise, success in the battlefield will not guarantee sustained victory and long term peace.

*Hasan Selim Özertem is the Director of Centre for Energy Security Studies at the International Strategic Research Organization.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *