PKK Changes Battlefield Tactics to Force Turkey into Negotiations

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 34

Recent attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) suggest that the organization is adopting new battlefield tactics in order to increase the psychological pressure on Turkey in the hope of forcing the Turkish authorities to enter into peace negotiations.

Since it resumed its armed struggle in June 2004, the PKK has been pursuing a two-front strategy: an urban bombing campaign in western Turkey and a rural insurgency in the mountainous southeast of the country.

During its first armed campaign, which lasted from 1984 to 1999, the PKK initially sought to control large swathes of territory in southeast Turkey, particularly at night. During the early 1990s, it also staged several large-scale attacks on military outposts. However, the practice was abandoned after the Turkish military began to inflict heavy casualties through the use of Cobra attack helicopters in hot pursuit operations. Gradually, through a combination of a scorched earth policy, aggressive search-and-destroy patrols and the development of a cadre of battle-hardened NCOs, the Turkish security forces gained the initiative. By the time that the PKK announced it was abandoning the armed struggle in 1999, it had already effectively been defeated on the battlefield, while political pressure had forced Syria, its main state sponsor, to withdraw its support.

The decision to return to violence in June 2004 was taken despite the opposition of many PKK field commanders, who argued that the organization was too weak militarily, lacked a state sponsor and had only around 4,000 militants under arms, which was down from a peak of around 8,000 in the early 1990s. When it resumed its insurgency, the PKK tacitly acknowledged its relative weakness through its choice of battlefield tactics. It reduced the average size of its active field units to around six to eight militants, compared to 15-20 in the 1990s, and avoided direct confrontations with the Turkish military. Although it staged small ambushes, it concentrated primarily on the use of mines, snipers and long-range strafing of military outposts, after which its units rapidly withdrew before the Turkish military could call up land reinforcements and air support.

The first sign of a change came in the October 7 ambush of a Turkish commando unit in the Gabar mountains in which 13 Turkish soldiers were killed (Eurasia Daily Monitor, October 10). Not only was it the highest Turkish death toll in more than a decade, but the ambush appears to have been laid by 45-50 PKK militants, the largest concentration of PKK forces in a single attack since the resumption of the armed campaign in June 2004.

At 12:20 AM on October 21, an estimated 150-200 militants attacked a 50-strong infantry battalion in a military outpost close to the village of Daglica, approximately five kilometers from Turkey’s border with Iraq. The attack appears to have been planned well in advance (Eurasia Daily Monitor, October 22). Local villagers reported that first electricity and telephone lines were cut and then the only bridge to the outpost was blown up (Dogan Haber Ajansi, October 23). A total of 12 soldiers were killed and 17 wounded. One of the wounded later told Sabah daily newspaper that they were able to see the PKK militants taking up positions through night-vision binoculars and thermal imaging devices, while listening to their wireless communications. When the PKK attacked, they overran the outpost before reinforcements could arrive (Sabah, October 23). They then withdrew under fire into northern Iraq, taking with them eight Turkish soldiers as prisoners. On October 23, the PKK released photographs of the soldiers in captivity (Firat News Agency, October 23).

The PKK’s decision to incur the operational burden of escorting the prisoners through difficult mountain terrain while under fire appears to indicate that it was part of a preconceived plan. It was the first time that the organization had seized a group of prisoners since the mid-1990s, and at the time they subsequently exploited them for propaganda purposes. It was only after a Turkish parliamentary delegation led by members of the Islamist Welfare Party (RP) traveled to northern Iraq to negotiate with the PKK that the prisoners were finally released. Members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), which is widely believed to be linked to the PKK, have already offered to negotiate the release of the eight soldiers seized on October 21 (NTV, CNNTurk, October 22).

The Turkish military claimed to have killed 32 PKK militants in hot pursuit operations following the attack on Daglica (NTV, CNNTurk, October 21). The claim, however, has been denied by the PKK and the Turkish authorities have yet to produce any corpses of slain PKK militants (Vatan, October 23). Nevertheless, given their experience in the 1990s, the PKK high command would have known that the attack of October 21 carried the risk of high casualties. It appears that they calculated that the cost would be more than offset by the propaganda benefits and the psychological impact on the Turkish public not only of the high death toll but also of the capture of the eight soldiers. The Turkish media has already begun publishing photographs of the prisoners’ traumatized relatives (Sabah, NTV, October 23).

The seizure of the eight soldiers also appears to be part of a wider strategy of trying to force the Turkish authorities into negotiations. The staging of the attack on October 21, just days after the Turkish parliament approved a motion authorizing the deployment of Turkish troops in a cross-border operation against the PKK’s presence in northern Iraq, seems to have been designed to try to provoke Turkey to threaten an incursion in the hopes that the international community would intervene and argue that a permanent solution to PKK violence could only come through the opening of negotiations (Eurasia Daily Monitor, October 22).