Confrontation Looms as PKK Ceasefire Fails to Stop Turkish Security Operations

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 27

Aftermath of violence between riot police and pro-Kurdish protesters in Istanbul in late June.

Turkish security forces did not wait for the June 15 deadline set by Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK – Kurdistan Workers’ Party), to make his decision on extending the PKK’s unilateral “non-attack” ceasefire. On June 14, hundreds of Turkish troops supported by helicopters launched an operation against ten PKK militants in the central Anatolian province of Sivas. Three PKK fighters were killed, including a Syrian national who is believed to have been part of a group that killed seven Turkish soldiers in a 2009 ambush in Tokat. The PKK cell in Sivas was far from the movement’s usual area of operations in southeast Anatolia and was believed to be on its way to the Black Sea coast (Sabah, June 15).

It is unclear whether the timing of the counterterrorist operation in Sivas had any relation to the June 15 deadline, but Turkey’s disregard for Ocalan’s self-imposed ceasefire is consistent with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statement following the victory of his Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP – Justice and Development Party) in the June 12 parliamentary elections, in which he declared that his government would not hold talks with “terrorists” (Sabah, June 15).  On June 17, Ocalan announced through his lawyers that he would extend the ceasefire and give the newly elected Turkish government several months to work toward a solution to the Kurdish question (RojHelat, June 17). However, his announcement has had little influence on the Turkish military, which continues operations against the PKK and follows Erdogan’s line regarding no negotiations.  

The PKK refers to the ceasefire as a “non-attack” decision in which PKK guerrilla units adhere to a strategy of “active defense.” As defined by the PKK, active defense allows the PKK to attack the Turkish military only in retaliation for earlier attacks by the army or if the Turkish military is preparing to strike PKK positions (RojHelat, May 3;, February 28, 2011). For example, on June 22 the PKK claimed responsibility for the bombing of a police vehicle in Tunceli that killed two policemen, saying it was retaliation for the June 14 Sivas operation. In response to the Tunceli attack, Turkish Interior Minister Osman Günes said that more operations would be launched against the PKK (AK News [Erbil], June 25).

Ahmet Turk, the former chairman of the pro-Kurdish Demokratik Toplum Partisi (DTP – Democratic Society Party) believes that the ongoing war is only between the Turkish state and the PKK. However, he believes that the demands of the Kurdish people and the leaders of the pro-Kurdish Baris ve Demokrasi Partisi (BDP – Peace and Democracy Party, successor to the DTP, banned in 2009) are the same as those of the PKK and that the aspirations of Kurds from the mountains to the cities are now everywhere linked to the PKK’s struggle. Ahmet Turk predicts that this will result in the war extending everywhere Kurds live unless the Turkish state addresses Kurdish demands. [1]

The main demands proposed by the PKK and the BDP in order to solve the “Kurdish question” are:

• Turkey must amend its constitution to emphasize equal citizenship rights for Kurds and Turks, including the right to Kurdish language education.

• Kurds must have a degree of autonomy in the southeast region where they are the majority.

• Turkey must release Kurdish leaders from prison, including Ocalan, and lower the 10% threshold required for a political party to enter parliament. Currently the Kurdish-led BDP is incapable of reaching the threshold, so its members run as independents.   

Although the PKK’s geographic range is expanding from the traditional battle zone in the Kurdish-dominated southeast region, its tactics and intelligence are becoming more sophisticated – as seen in the May 4 attack on a convoy of AKP officials near Kastamonu that the militants may have thought included Prime Minister Erdogan. Though the PKK’s appeal shows signs of strengthening among the Kurdish population, Turkey has not moved any closer to meeting the Kurdish demands. On the contrary, Turkey has ignored Ocalan’s ceasefire, alienated Kurdish elites by engaging in a massive clampdown on their leaders and continued operations against the PKK (such as the one in Sivas).  

In October 2010, Turkey brought to trial 152 high-profile Kurdish politicians and activists suspected of being members of PKK offshoot Koma Civaken Kurdistan (KCK – Union of Communities in Kurdistan). The suspects were charged with crimes such as “aiming to destroy the unity and integrity of the State,” “being a leading member of an illegal organization [i.e. the PKK]”, and “making propaganda for an illegal organization.” Although none of the defendants were accused of committing violence themselves, 11 of the defendants were sentenced to imprisonment for various terms averaging 8.5 years each on June 14 (, June 16;, June 16).

The KCK case and prohibitions on BDP-supported candidates from running in the parliamentary elections sparked the anger of Kurdish masses in protests held throughout the country from March until the June 12 elections. Turkish police arrested more than 2,000 protestors, which further alienated the pro-BDP and PKK masses from the Turkish State. 

Turkey has refused Ocalan a role in settling the conflict, burned bridges with the BDP, and lost credibility among large swathes of the country’s Kurdish population. If the past is any indication, the Turkish military and the PKK will become the main forces to act on behalf of the Turkish state and the Kurdish minority in the absence of dialogue between the two groups’ political leaders.

In May 2011, Ocalan predicted that after June 15 there would be either “an historic agreement or an all-out war that will lead to chaos and turmoil” (AK News, May 16). Despite extending the ceasefire, no agreement is under discussion and attacks and counter-attacks are on the rise throughout Turkey. The evolution of the conflict is heading in the direction of
Ocalan’s prediction of “all-out war.”


1. Author’s interview with Ahmet Turk at his headquarters in Kiziltepe. June 5, 2011.