Kurdish Unrest Escalates in Turkey’s Southeast

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 17

The issue of national security appears to be again coming to the forefront of Turkish politics. The continuing infiltration of Kurdish insurgents into Turkey from Iraq, the clashes between the army and domestic Kurdish youths, the spate of terrorist acts carried out by Kurdish militant groups and, finally, the recent arrest of al-Qaeda militants in the country’s southeastern province all underscore the Turkish government’s preoccupation with the looming threat of terrorism.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the issue that figured most prominently during the April 25 discussions between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Turkish leaders in Ankara was the bilateral cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

Rice, who made a brief stop-over in Turkey in the course of her tour of the region, sought to persuade the Turkish government that Washington would “redouble” its efforts to help Ankara battle a resurgence of attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), operating from a base in northern Iraq. Both the United States and Turkey consider the PKK a terrorist organization. Rice, however, was quick to discourage Turkey from taking any unilateral action against the PKK. Instead, she stressed that Ankara must cooperate with the Iraqi leadership and the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq in implementing security measures (Turkish Daily News, April 26).

The U.S. administration was likely disturbed by the reports in the Turkish press that Ankara was building up its forces in areas near Iraq to intensify operations against Kurdish fighters based across the border (Bugun, April 25). In an apparent effort to allay the fears prompted by the alleged military buildup, Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff General Hilmi Ozkok stated that the media reports were “overblown,” adding that there’s a usual spike in terrorist activities every spring when the snow starts melting in the mountains. Turkey’s top commander, however, did concede that this spring there was a need to bring more troops to the border with Iraq. Ozkok also did not exclude the possibility of the Turkish army launching a cross-border operation into northern Iraq, saying Turkey is a sovereign country and has the full right, under international law, to protect itself (Milliyet, April 24). The prospect of a unilateral Turkish action prompted a quick response from U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Ross Wilson, who reportedly said, “I don’t believe that it’s a good idea” (Milliyet, April 25).

Although Rice was going out of her way to convince the Turkish leadership that the establishment of a permanent Iraqi government would help curtail Kurdish attacks against Turkey, her interlocutors were likely not terribly impressed. As Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul bluntly noted, since everyone accepts that the PKK is a terrorist organization, there must also be a fight against it. In reality, he continued, there’s a security vacuum in northern Iraq, which “thousands” of PKK fighters have turned into a training ground and a launching pad for attacks against Turkey. Under these circumstances, Gul concluded, Ankara is obliged to have better control of its borders (Turkishpress.com, April 26).

A separate development further highlighted Ankara’s security concerns. As a result of a recent police raid in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, six suspected al-Qaeda militants were arrested; according to security officials, the suspects were planning attacks in Turkey (Anatolia News Agency, April 23). At least one of the suspects is a foreigner, possibly with links to Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to the report. These arrests seem to indicate al-Qaeda’s continued interest in Turkey—a development that significantly aggravates the already-tense security situation caused by the activity of Kurdish militants.

Some terrorism experts suggest that al-Qaeda might be seeking to benefit from this increased Kurdish militant activity, using it as a cover for, or to divert attention from, the jihadist network’s own movements. It is also possible, experts say, that some degree of “cross-pollination” between Kurdish insurgents and al-Qaeda operatives does take place, giving al-Qaeda the opportunity to exploit the Turkish security system’s weak points that the Kurdish fighters have identified.

The PKK has fought a separatist insurgency in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish populated southeast for nearly two decades; more than 30,000 people—mostly Kurds—were killed between 1984 and 1999, when a cease-fire was declared following the arrest of PKK chieftain Abdullah Ocalan. The hardened elements of the group, however, have resumed attacks in the past two years, with the fighting becoming particularly intensive over the last month, which saw several bomb blasts in Istanbul reportedly organized by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a PKK splinter group, as well as the rioting by Kurdish youths in the cities of southeastern Turkey that left at least 16 people dead.

Militant Kurdish separatists say they are dissatisfied with what they call the limited political agenda set forth by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to resolve the “Kurdish issue.” Sensing that Ankara’s European bid and the Kurds’ current prominence in Iraq have created a window of opportunity, the Kurdish separatist forces appear to be trying to advance their interests by forcing the AKP government to deal with their demands.

The most recent Kurdish unrest seems to have led even some liberal-minded Turkish commentators to lose hope in the possibility of a political solution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem. Historical ethnic conflicts based on secessionist sentiment, one commentary suggests, cannot be resolved “only” by political reforms. In fact, such conflicts “cannot be resolved peacefully: there is historical proof that either the ‘oppressor’ gives up, or the ‘oppressed.’ In any case, there is always bloodshed” (Turkish Daily News, April 5).