At around 5:30 P.M. on October 8, six people were killed and 21 wounded when militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) ambushed a bus carrying police personnel in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. Eye-witnesses reported that the assailants hurled hand grenades and sprayed the bus with automatic rifle fire before abandoning their weapons and disappearing into the side streets. Five of the dead and 16 of the wounded were police officers. The other fatality was the reserve driver for the bus. Five bystanders were also wounded in the attack (Radikal, Dogan Haber Ajansi, October 8).
There is little doubt that the ambush in Diyarbakir was timed both to follow-up on the PKK’s attack on the military outpost in Aktutun on October 3 (see EDM, October 5) and to coincide with the parliamentary vote in Ankara extending authorization for the Turkish military to conduct cross-border military operations against PKK assets in northern Iraq for another 12 months starting October 17. Voting was already underway when the PKK staged the attack, and the motion was eventually passed by 497 votes to 18, with only members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) and a handful of minor parties and independents voting against it (Milliyet, Vatan, Zaman, October 9).
After the first 12-month authorization was approved on October 17, 2007, the Turkish military began massing troops and armor on the country’s border with Iraq. On November 5, 2007, the United States finally lifted its opposition to Turkish raids against the PKK in northern Iraq, promising to provide intelligence in return for Ankara limiting the scope and duration of any military operations (see EDM, November 6, 2007). The first Turkish air raids against PKK camps and bases in northern Iraq were launched in December 2007 and have continued at regular intervals ever since. In February Turkey even staged a nine-day commando raid against PKK camps in northern Iraq (see Terrorism Monitor, March 7). There is little doubt that the cross-border operations have damaged the PKK, disrupting its communications and supply lines, and forcing the organization onto the defensive, both militarily and psychologically, while reducing its ability to stage offensive operations inside Turkey.
Consequently, in recent months many Turks had begun to believe that the PKK was, if not finished, at least in decline. Ever since the organization returned to violence in June 2004, there had been considerable frustration and often fury in Turkey over Washington’s refusal to allow the Turkish military to strike at PKK camps in northern Iraq. The apparent decline in the PKK’s operational abilities once the raids into northern Iraq began was thus regarded by many in Turkey as a vindication of their previous protests against Washington’s refusal to allow the country’s military to cross the border.
As a result, the attack on Aktutun came as a huge shock and triggered an unprecedented level of criticism in the country’s media about the Turkish Armed Forces’ military abilities. The damage to the country’s prestige was compounded by the hospitalization of General Ilker Basbug, the chief of the Turkish General Staff (TGS), for the removal of a kidney stone, which meant that he was unable to attend the funerals of any of the 17 soldiers killed at Aktutun (Press Statement No. BA-43/08, TGS website, www.tsk.mil.tr). More damagingly, on October 4, as Turkey reeled from the news of the attack, General Aydogan Babaoglu, the commander of the Turkish Air Force, was photographed blithely playing golf in carefully pressed designer clothes in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya (Radikal, Milliyet, October 5). On October 8 the TGS released a statement claiming that Babaoglu had not been informed of the attack on Aktutun until the evening of October 4 (TGS Press Statement No. BA-48.08, www.tsk.mil.tr). This may be true, but there are few in Turkey who will believe it. The rest of the country was informed of the attack in a TGS press briefing which began at 9.00 A.M. on October 4 (NTV, CNN Turk, October 4). “Does the General Staff expect us to believe this statement?” demanded the liberal daily Radikal on its front page (Radikal, October 9).
The doubts that many Turks had begun to have about the competence of their security forces have been reinforced by the apparent ease with which the PKK was able to stage an ambush in the center of Diyarbakir, which is one of the most heavily policed cities in the country. In the aftermath of the attack, the security forces flooded the streets, setting up road blocks and detaining anyone who looked suspicious but appeared no closer to apprehending the culprits (Jamestown observations, Diyarbakir, October 8).
Even before the ambush in Diyarbakir, PKK sympathizers had already been arguing that the attack on Aktutun had demonstrated the futility of the Turkish authorities’ strategy of trying to eradicate the PKK through the use of force; and they argued that the government should finally accede to the organization’s call for an negotiated end to the conflict.
Speaking in the party’s provincial headquarters in Diyarbakir a few hours before the ambush, his words being drowned out by the roar of F-16s from the city’s military airbase taking off on sorties against the PKK, Nejdet Atalay, the chairman of the local branch of the DTP, told Jamestown: “The parliamentary motion to stage cross-operations will not solve anything, just lead to more deaths and more people going up into the mountains to join the PKK. The government has been resorting to violence for the last 25 years. It is not working. The PKK is still strong. It is time to try dialogue” (Jamestown interview, Diyarbakir, October 8).
Yet Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remained defiant: “No one should expect any concessions from us under these circumstances” (Milliyet, Radikal, October 9).
The Turkish Air Force has struck at PKK camps and bases in northern Iraq almost every day since the attack on Aktutun. The general expectation is that military action will be increased over the days and weeks ahead. There is even speculation that the TGS may attempt to stage another cross-border operation (Radikal, October 9). The problem for the Turkish authorities, however, is likely to be trying to convince the Turkish public that an escalation in military action will achieve anything more than satisfying a desire for revenge against the PKK. Even though they may despise the PKK, there appear to be a growing number of Turks who are beginning to wonder whether an increased dosage of violence is really the cure to the problem.