The decades-long armed conflict between Turkey and the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK) has witnessed a number of major policy shifts by key participants in the past year. The greatest such shift thus far – one in the “sea-change” category – may very well sound the death knell for the PKK, already very much on the defensive in its northern Iraqi redoubt. Following a deadly October 3 PKK attack on a Turkish military outpost in Aktutun, no less a figure than Nechirvan Barzani, Prime Minister of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and nephew of long-time Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) leader and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani, stated that the PKK attacks were aimed at harming relations between Turkey and northern Iraq’s Kurds (Hurriyet, October 9). The idea that an Iraqi Kurdish leader would make such a statement would have been virtually unthinkable over the past twenty five years.
The catalyst for the change in the PKK’s political and cultural environment was the Aktutun attack that killed seventeen Turkish soldiers and wounded twenty more, followed shortly after by an attack on a Diyarbakir police shuttle bus that killed six and wounded approximately two dozen others (Hurriyet, October 9; Today’s Zaman, October 9).
Allegations that Turkish military intelligence was aware of PKK intentions to attack Aktutun a month before it happened have not bolstered public confidence in Turkey’s current approach to security issues (Taraf, October 14). The revelations prompted an angry response from the Chief of the Turkish General Staff, Ilker Basbug, who denounced the publication of classified information: “Those who present the actions of the separatist terrorist organization [a euphemism for the PKK] as successful acts are responsible for the blood that has been shed and will be shed… This is my last word: I invite everyone to be careful and to stand in the right place” (Sunday’s Zaman, October 14).
The first of the significant policy shifts in the effort to untangle what has become one of the world’s longest-lasting military conflicts – almost a quarter of a century – occurred in November, 2007, when the U.S. administration gave Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan assurances that Turkey’s military would receive real-time, actionable intelligence that would permit a more effective prosecution of the war against PKK guerrilla forces and their facilities in Iraq’s mountainous northern region (see Terrorism Focus, November 6, 2007). The initial Turkish counterattacks took place on December 16, when Turkish aircraft struck numerous PKK targets in northern Iraq, soon evolving into precision operations of an unprecedented scope (al-Arabiya.net, December 22, 2007).
While U.S.-supplied intelligence information on PKK guerrillas and facilities has been invaluable to Turkey, it has not been a complete success. As in other military conflicts, conventional and unconventional, the PKK has adapted its tactics to the enhanced Turkish capabilities, and Turkish casualties have continued to mount. Turkey, though, has also continued to implement additional phases of a multi-pronged counter-offensive, including measures beyond purely military ones.
In the diplomatic sphere, it has become obvious in recent weeks that Iraqi Kurds maintain a fairly robust but low-key presence at the national level with Turkey, aimed at enhancing relations with their northern neighbor on a broad spectrum of issues. The relationship took a considerable step forward when senior Turkish officials Murat Ozcelik (special envoy to Iraq) and Ahmet Davutoglu (principal foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Erdogan) met face to face with Nechirvan Barzani in Baghdad in May of this year (Today’s Zaman, October 14). An analogous Kurdish representative to Ankara is Bahroz Galali of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party of Iraqi President and PUK leader Jalal Talibani (Hurriyet, October 13). The solidity of the new relationship was demonstrated on the day of the Aktutun attack, when Safin Dizayee, representing KRG president Massoud Barzani, met with Turkish officials at the Foreign Ministry in Ankara (Today’s Zaman, October 13). Publicly announced visits by Turkish officials to Iraq, with a concentration on Kurdish matters, are suddenly in evidence. Turkish President Abdullah Gul is expected to visit Baghdad in the coming weeks to meet with President Talabani. Prime Minister Erdogan has already concluded a visit to Baghdad (Anatolian News Agency, July 10). Gul’s visit follows a return visit earlier this month to Iraq by Turkish representatives Özcelik and Davutoglu, this time to meet KRG President Massoud Barzani in sessions both sides termed “positive” (Today’s Zaman, October 15). According to Turkish intelligence sources, Massoud Barzani may begin talks with the PKK aimed at bringing the group’s attacks on Turkish targets to a halt (Today’s Zaman, October 16). KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani is also expected to visit Ankara in the near future (Turkishny.com, October 13).
Turkey’s goal is the long-held objective of lessening and eventually eliminating the threat posed by increasingly sophisticated and lethal PKK attacks inside Turkey. In addition to maintaining KRG efforts to reduce PKK access to Turkish border-crossing points from the Iraqi side, Ankara also hopes for Kurdish efforts to cut PKK supply lines inside northern Iraq. Ankara also wants Iraqi Kurdish authorities to implement stricter controls at the Irbil and Sulaimaniya airports as a means of cutting the access of PKK members from other countries to the group’s camps in northern Iraq (Hurriyet, October 15). In addition, Ankara will propose joint military operations against the PKK, which would represent a significant change from the KRG’s defensive approach (Hurriyet, October 11). The proposal for the establishment of a buffer zone within northern Iraq, another measure now being debated among Turkish officials, would also, of necessity, require the concurrence of KRG authorities and the Baghdad administration (Hurriyet, October 9).
The seriousness with which Turkey views the value of this multifaceted approach to the PKK problem was shown clearly in the recent creation of a new organization within the civilian sphere that will oversee the gradual transfer over four years of responsibility for combating domestic terrorism from the military to special operations units under the command of the Interior Ministry. The decision was announced after an October 14 meeting of the Higher Counter-Terrorism Board (Terorle Mucadele Yuksek Kurulu – TMYK), which includes senior military officers, senior police officers, the heads of intelligence organizations, and cabinet-level ministers of the Justice, Defense, Interior and Finance departments. The TMYK is chaired by Prime Minister Erdogan. It was also announced at the meeting that a new era has begun for Ankara, one in which a coordinated approach to terrorism including legal and social measures will be instituted alongside purely military countermeasures (Hurriyet, October 14; Today’s Zaman, October 16; see Eurasia Daily Monitor, October 16).
Turkey has not, however, abandoned the military option, as shown by the October 12 bombings of PKK bases within Iraq, even as talks with Iraqi Kurdish leaders were continuing. The air raid was the seventh such mission since the October 3 PKK attack on the Aktutun border post (Today’s Zaman, October 14).
The public response by Iraq’s Kurdish leaders can be safely presumed to be very discomfiting to the PKK’s remaining leadership. While once free to transit northern Iraq to conduct attacks within Turkey, the group has found itself beset by a seemingly unending series of attacks by Turkish aircraft and artillery, guided by precise targeting information. To the precisely aimed munitions of the Turkish military can now be added Nechirvan Barzani’s precisely aimed charge that the PKK attacks aim to harm relations with Turkey. No longer can the PKK depend on hearing its pronouncements echoed by other parties in northern Iraq, with a blanket condemnation of all things Turkish and acceptance of all things Kurdish, including the PKK.
Indisputably, the shift in U.S. foreign policy permitting the provision of real-time, actionable intelligence to Turkish military forces led to major enhancements in Turkey’s efficiency against the PKK in the field. The shift in the long-held policy of Kurdish groups such as the PUK and KDP of siding with the PKK will have even greater potential consequences, because the most precise information possible on the PKK will come from other Kurdish groups. Time may be running out for a continued PKK presence in northern Iraq.