The latest operations by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) against the facilities and personnel of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq and in southeastern Turkey have displayed a growing competence on the part of the TSK in the use of real-time information in directing its forces in quick-reaction operations. As a result of this heightened level of skill, the TSK gives every appearance of having markedly altered the balance of power between the TSK and the PKK guerrillas since December 2007. The terrain of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq has long been one of the chief obstacles faced by Turkey in its ongoing battle with PKK forces since 1984. The hostile wintertime climate has only added further to Turkey’s difficulty in pinpointing and reaching PKK locations in a timely fashion to carry out effective operations. In many cases over the years, Turkish forces have found themselves in the role of being forced to react to PKK attacks rather than being able to take the offensive. In its latest actions against the PKK, Operation Sancak 2, which have included cross-border artillery fire and airstrikes and ground forces operations in southeastern Turkey, it has been the PKK that has found itself on the defensive and on the run continually.
While the late-March TSK operations have garnered the most media coverage, the stage for these operations was actually set earlier in the month. The TSK, as it promised, subjected the PKK to an ongoing series of assaults following February’s eight-day-long Operation Gunes (Sun) in the Zap area of northern Iraq, during which the TSK reported at least 240 PKK members killed. In the course of a TSK operation that began in Turkey’s Sirnak Province on March 10, a dozen or more PKK guerrillas were killed and explosives seized after a group of guerrillas was detected by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) (Hurriyet, March 13). On March 20, Turkish Air Force jets based in Diyarbakir flew against PKK targets in northern Iraq. Kurdish political protests under the umbrella of celebrations of Nevruz, the Kurdish New Year, on and around March 21 exacerbated an already tense situation in Turkey’s southeast. A total of approximately 80,000 Kurds commemorated the New Year, many in what Turkey termed “unauthorized” demonstrations. The demonstrations erupted into confrontations with police authorities in a number of cities, during which demonstrators pelted police with rocks, set fires, damaged stores, tore down a Turkish flag and displayed photos of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Hundreds of demonstrators were injured in clashes with police and hundreds more arrested in what Turkish media accounts characterized as a “war zone” and “a reign of terror” (Hurriyet, April 3).
In a prelude to the late-March operations, a convoy of some 250 TSK trucks and buses was spotted in Hakkari Province heading toward the border with Iraq late on March 26, traveling with their headlights turned off. TSK helicopters were noted the following morning, ferrying dozens of TSK troops to an area near the Iraqi border (Dogan News Agency, March 26; March 27). Those reports were followed in short order by an announcement on the Turkish General Staff website that 15 PKK personnel had been killed across the border in northern Iraq during two days of bombardment by TSK long-range artillery. The bombardment, the announcement said, was conducted to prevent the PKK from infiltrating Turkey. Turkish air units carried out an assault in the same area on March 28, killing an undetermined number of PKK personnel (Milliyet, March 30).
In a demonstration of PKK resourcefulness and preparation, helicopter-borne TSK troops encountered unprecedented countermeasures in the form of a number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) placed at landing sites in the Kutuderesi Valley area near Tunceli, where some 30 PKK guerrillas were reportedly spotted preparing to attack. While some of the IEDs were described as being “pressure-activated,” others were designed to be detonated remotely, having been wired with devices adapted from an automobile alarm system (Vatan, March 29).
TSK Special Forces troops were dispatched to Sirnak Province after information was received from a UAV that a force of nearly 200 PKK guerrillas had infiltrated the area. The Turkish General Staff reported that 15 PKK personnel were killed in the battle (Milliyet, March 30). Another nine PKK guerrillas were killed by the TSK in continuing operations in Sirnak on March 31, according to the General Staff. Three TSK troops lost their lives in the encounter and five others were injured. The TSK also confiscated ammunition, medicine, and stored foodstuffs discovered in a number of caches (Anadolu Agency, April 1). As the operation continued into April, another seven PKK members were killed in Sirnak Province on April 2 for a total of 16 PKK killed in that area alone since the operation began on March 31 (Anadolu Agency, April 2).
The Turkish General Staff reported the deaths of four senior members of the PKK leadership during the operation in Sirnak (Milliyet, April 4). Those reported killed included Saban Aktas, a.k.a. Piling Hakkari; Mustafa Iscan, a.k.a. Siyar Van; and a PKK member of Syrian heritage, Ali Mursit, a.k.a. Brusk Kobani. The most senior of the guerrilla leaders killed was Abdulkerim Ertas, a.k.a. Kurtay Farasin. Ertas was a leading figure in the PKK’s armed faction for a number of years, having joined in 1992. Ertas was reported to have organized attacks in Iran in 2004 and was promoted to the senior cadre level on the instructions of PKK leader Murat Karayilan in 2005. Ertas was said to be very close to Karayilan and was responsible for PKK facilities in the Haftanin region of northern Iraq between 2006 and 2007. In January 2008, Ertas replaced Yusuf Turhalli, a.k.a. Dr Ali, a close associate of the Syrian Kurd in charge of the PKK’s armed wing—Fehman Huseyin, a.k.a. Dr Bahoz—as the leader responsible for Sirnak, Siirt, Bingol and Bitlis provinces in Turkey.
Following a public announcement via radio that Ertas had been killed, TSK monitors reportedly overheard PKK members voicing their belief that Fehman Huseyin had been responsible for Ertas’ death. Huseyin was accused in the exchanges of sending Ertas on risky missions. “The Syrian got his revenge for Dr. Ali by expending comrade Kurtay” and “How many more of our friends is that Syrian’s ambition going to burn?” were among the exchanges allegedly overheard. Turkish security sources state that Ertas’ death is a manifestation of an ongoing struggle for supremacy inside the PKK leadership. There are also claims that terrorists loyal to Ertas have fled the organization and intend to “surrender” soon. The power struggle between Karayilan and Fehman Huseyin, according to the Turkish security sources, has resulted in a number of PKK members being poisoned and others being shot to death. While it is certainly possible that these reports are the result of a Turkish effort to sow further discord inside the group, it is likely that, even if embellished, there is at least a kernel of truth to the reports given the extreme pressure the movement has operated under for several months now.
The TSK’s forces are unquestionably competent and highly motivated. It is equally undeniable that the addition of UAV technology has markedly transformed the TSK’s ability to counter the PKK. The lessons learned since December by the TSK should also be lessons for a good number of other countries now attempting to combat irregular forces around the world. The addition to a fighting force of an additional pair of “eyes,” allowing a view of the battlefield ahead, has proven itself indispensable in the Turkish war on terrorism.