As of August 2008, it appears that operations of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK) have shifted toward a strip of Turkish territory crossing through Tunceli, Bingol, Mus, and Bitlis provinces, a region where the PKK previously conducted limited activities. The following incidents clearly demonstrate a rise in PKK activity in this strip:
• August 2 – three separate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were detected in the Tunceli town of Hozat.
• August 5 – a large clash erupted between Turkish security forces and the PKK in Tunceli’s Pulumur Valley.
• August 6 – another clash occurred in the region between the Tunceli town of Nizamiye and the town of Malazgirt in Mus province.
• August 11 – PKK militants ambushed a military convoy and killed nine soldiers near Kemah town of Erzincan province (bordering Tunceli province).
• August 24 – two civilians were kidnapped in Genc town of Bingol province.
• August 26 – 15 PKK members were killed in the town of Mutki in Bitlis province.
• August 31 – the PKK killed 4 soldiers in Bingol’s Yesilsu town.
• September 3 – two soldiers were killed in the town of Kigi in Bingol province (Hurriyet, August 3 – September 7).
The PKK’s activities in August and early September were, of course, not limited to these attacks and clashes. However, since the mid-1990s the PKK has not previously increased its activities to this level of intensity in this geographic strip. What could explain the PKK’s sudden intensification of activity in this region?
A simple deduction would lead us to believe that PKK activities in its traditionally dominant region, located along the Turkish-Iraqi border and rural parts of Batman and Diyarbakir provinces, had been successfully limited by operations of the Turkish Gendarmerie and Armed Forces (Turk Silahlı Kuvvetleri – TSK), with the PKK having to move its units into the Tunceli, Bingol, Mus, and Bitlis strip. However, the PKK’s terror activities in this region do not seem to indicate that the PKK is escaping from a region where its activities are limited to establish new bases in another region. The PKK has not just been carrying out passive operations, such as planting IEDs in deep valleys and waiting for military convoys to hit them. Instead, the PKK has been organizing bold offensive operations, including attacks on police stations, military barracks, and even the kidnapping of civilians. Thus, the nature of the PKK’s recent activities in this new operational region needs to be examined.
Three interrelated answers can be offered. The first deals with geographic concerns. As shown in the accompanying map, the strip marked in red is composed of high mountains and deep valleys where the PKK can easily operate. Indeed, this terrain was one of the most active areas of operation for the PKK throughout the 1990s. What remains to be answered, however, is why the PKK has begun to concentrate its activities in this region. Why not last year, or any other time since 2004 when the PKK ended its unilateral ceasefire? An interesting argument was raised during an interview with a provincial governor in this strip: “In my opinion the PKK does not consider its camps in northern Iraq as safe havens to spend the winter season…. Thus, [the PKK] are in search of new places to spend the winter” (Phone interview with the Governor of Mus, September 8). It was reported that the joint PKK group that killed four soldiers in Bingol on August 31 came from the camps in northern Iraq, Tunceli and Erzurum provinces (Milliyet, August 31). This may suggest that the groups from these areas are intended to be the pioneers in establishing new safe refuges for the winter season. If indeed the PKK is in search of safe bases (at least for some of its members), it demonstrates that the Turkish military has been very successful in its land and aerial operations against PKK bases in northern Iraq.
The second reason behind the PKK’s intensification of activities in this strip could be related to the demographics of the region. The strip is densely populated by Alevi Kurdish communities. Unlike Sunni Kurds, the Alevis do not practice orthodox Islam, but instead follow a syncretistic amalgam of Shi’ism, Sufism and pre-Islamic beliefs. Kurdish Alevis in this region have a mixed reaction toward the PKK’s terror campaign. In the 1980s the Alevis distanced themselves from the PKK because they considered the PKK a Sunni-based organization. Many Alevis support Turkey’s state secularism as an alternative to Sunni domination. Nevertheless, the PKK established successful ties with some Alevi communities in the region beginning in the early 1990s. Earlier this year, imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan suggested his followers open a new chapter in developing better relations with the Alevi communities. In March, Ocalan suggested a new focus on “democratic politics” and the establishment of a Democratic Politics and Alevi Culture Academy in Dersim (Rojaciwan, March 4). Ocalan thinks that Alevism has entered a “degenerated” and fragmented state. Thus, serious research has to be conducted on Alevism and Alevi culture to reverse its fragmented nature (Rojaciwan.com, March 4, 2008). Last July it was reported that the PKK has established an Alevi Academy, where the PKK will seek to reconstruct Alevism along the lines of the PKK’s Kurdish nationalist project (Hurriyet, July 13). The goal is to unify Alevi and Sunni Kurds under the umbrella of a Kurdish national identity.
The PKK’s recent activities in this region could also be related with this approach. It is a classic method of the PKK to intensify terror activities in a region by bringing ordinary people into a confrontation with the state. Most of the PKK’s recent attacks on Turkish security forces have been carried out near Alevi villages or towns. Given that it is a sensitive issue for both the Alevi communities and the Turkish state to examine the PKK’s relationship with the Alevi communities, a number of terrorism experts within Turkey are still in agreement that provocation is a well-known PKK tactic for bringing the heavy hand of state security forces into a region where the organization wishes to establish roots (Author’s interviews, Ankara, Diyarbakir, Batman, and Bingol, August 8).
The third reason behind the new geographic focus could be part of a PKK strategy to ease the intense pressure created by the military activities of the TSK along and across the Turkey-Iraq border.
If the PKK continues to concentrate its attacks in the Tunceli, Bingol, Mus, and Bitlis strip, Turkish security forces will have to implement counter-terrorism strategies in this region that could harm the Alevi communities’ relations with the state. Further terrorist attacks in this region could draw the Turkish public’s attention from northern Iraq to the Turkish interior as a source of separatist terrorism.