As Turkey continues to mull limited air strikes and commando raids against the camps of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, Turkish authorities appear to be stepping up their efforts to weaken the PKK by exacerbating divisions inside the organization.
In late October Turkey began massing troops on its border with Iraq and threatening to invade unless the international community, particularly the United States, took concrete measures against the PKK presence in northern Iraq. From the Turkish perspective, the display of raw military power succeeded where years of words and diplomatic contacts had failed. On November 5, the United States promised to provide Turkey with actionable intelligence against the PKK (see EDM, November 6). Even EU officials, who have traditionally been very critical of Turkey’s efforts to suppress the PKK insurgency, publicly acknowledged Turkey’s right to defend itself.
“Until now the West has always interfered with Turkey’s struggle against terrorism. It is the first time that Turkey has received support,” President Abdullah Gul told Turkish journalists (Hurriyet, Zaman, November 28).
Most Turks believe that, in return for Turkey not launching a full-scale invasion of northern Iraq, the United States would be prepared to tolerate limited air strikes and commando raids against PKK positions, while pressing the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to disrupt the PKK’s supply lines and force the organization onto the defensive by isolating it in its main camps in the Qandil Mountains. In recent weeks, domestic pressure on the Turkish government to launch military action against the PKK presence in northern Iraq has begun to ease and the winter snows have begun to fall in the mountains along the Turkish-Iraq border, blocking the passes and effectively putting an end to the PKK’s campaigning season.
However, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) still has nothing substantial to show either for the massive military buildup or the subsequent U.S. promises of actionable intelligence. Over the last week, the ever-excitable Turkish media has been full of unconfirmed reports that several leading members of the PKK leadership in the Qandil Mountains had been detained by the KRG and would soon be handed over to Turkey (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Sabah, November 22-24). The claims were dismissed by AKP Government Spokesman Cemil Cicek (NTV, CNNTurk, November 25), although he confirmed that Turkey had presented the Iraqi Kurds with a list of names of leading members of the PKK and asked for them to be arrested and sent to Turkey.
Even if the stories in the Turkish media were untrue, there is little doubt that the PKK leadership is under intense pressure. Several PKK websites have carried a statement by Cemil Bayik, one of the most hawkish members of the PKK Executive Committee, condemning what he described as attempts to divide the organization and vowing to continue the armed struggle. In addition, there has been a noticeable hardening in PKK attitudes towards Washington and an increase in denunciations of “U.S. imperialism.”
The Turkish military has also stepped up the psychological pressure on PKK units inside Turkey, distributing thousands of leaflets by helicopter in areas where the organization has been most active and calling on militants to: “Make a decision, leave the organization. Go to the nearest military unit, gendarmerie, or police station. You will be greeted with love” (Hurriyet, Yeni Safak, Dogan Haber Ajansi, November 28). There is as yet no indication as to whether any militants have responded positively to the offer, and Turkish authorities continue to insist that there can be no general amnesty and that any militants who do surrender will be liable to prosecution (CNNTurk, November 27).
But there are signs that the AKP is already becoming frustrated at the KRG’s failure to take concrete measures against the PKK. Yesterday (November 28), Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan not only dismissed media reports that he had earlier said that Turkey was cooperating with Massoud Barzani, the head of the KRG, but also criticized him for what he described as his inaction. “We see some differences in the statements made in the last few weeks, but did they take steps that would earn our confidence? The answer to that is unfortunately no,” he said (Anadolu Ajansi, November 27).
Babacan also restated Turkey’s insistence that it would not deal on an official level with the KRG; something that it fears could be regarded as de facto recognition of the KRG’s political authority in northern Iraq and fuel the Iraqi Kurds’ dreams of establishing an independent state.
Although domestic public pressure on the AKP to launch an incursion into northern Iraq has recently eased, the opposition is still pressing for Turkey to launch a military strike against the PKK camps. Devlet Bahceli, leader of the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which is the third-largest party in parliament, asked whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had bowed to U.S. pressure and abandoned plans for military action. “We expect you to do your duty as prime minister,” Bahceli told him (Radikal, November 28).
Although the winter weather makes it difficult for the PKK to launch a large-scale operation in the mountainous southeast of Turkey, there is considerable concern that it might attempt to stage an attack in one of the cities of western Turkey, if only as a demonstration to its supporters of its continuing capabilities and its determination to defy international pressure. On November 21, the police in the Mediterranean port of Izmir, the scene of several recent PKK bombings (see EDM, October 10), arrested nine suspected PKK militants who were allegedly planning a series of bomb attacks at New Year (Vatan, November 22). Other trained PKK bombers are known to be in situ in western Turkey. There is no doubt that, if there was a major bombing in western Turkey, the AKP government would once again come under intense pressure from domestic public opinion to take military action against the PKK in northern Iraq.