The latest attack by militants of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) seems to be an attempt to provoke Turkey into trying to stage a cross-border military strike into northern Iraq in the apparent hope of damaging relations between Turkey and its allies and ultimately internationalizing the PKK’s long-running insurgency.
In the early hours of October 21, an estimated 150-200 PKK militants attacked a Turkish military outpost, manned by an infantry battalion, close to the village of Daglica about five kilometers (three miles) from Turkey’s border with Iraq. Turkish military sources said that the PKK militants had infiltrated from northern Iraq, blown up a bridge to prevent reinforcements arriving by road, and taken up positions around the outpost. A small group of PKK militants strafed the outpost to draw fire and force the Turkish soldiers to reveal their location in the darkness. The rest of the PKK assailants then attacked the outpost with grenades, rockets, semi-automatic rifles, and machine guns. A total of 12 soldiers were killed and 16 wounded. The Turkish military responded by calling up Cobra helicopters. In clashes that continued throughout the night and deep into the morning the Turkish military announced that its forces had killed 32 militants and shelled PKK positions across the border in Iraq. Sources close to the PKK have published the names of seven of eight Turkish soldiers they say that were captured during the operation. The Turkish authorities initially denied the claim, although on October 22 they belatedly admitted that eight of their soldiers were missing (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Vatan, Sabah, Radikal, NTV, CNNTurk, Anadolu Ajans, October 22).
The attack was the largest staged by the PKK since the early 1990s. During the PKK’s first insurgency, which lasted from 1984 to 1999, the organization occasionally launched mass attacks involving up to 500 militants in attempts to overrun military outposts. But heavy losses, particularly as the result of the deployment of Turkish Cobra helicopters in hot pursuit operations, resulted in the PKK shifting its attention to smaller-scale attacks.
Since returning to violence in June 2004, members of the organization’s military wing, the People’s Defense Force (HPG), have usually operated in small units of 6-8 militants. However, in recent weeks the PKK has started to launch mass attacks in the apparent hope of inflicting sufficient casualties to provoke Turkey into launching an incursion into northern Iraq. On October 7 around 50 PKK militants staged an ambush in which they killed 13 Turkish soldiers (see EDM, October 10).
The attack of October 21 occurred four days after the Turkish parliament passed a motion authorizing the deployment of Turkish troops in a military operation against the PKK’s camps in northern Iraq. The attack was clearly carefully planned and prepared well in advance, perhaps even before the parliamentary motion. However, there is no doubt that the PKK must have known that, if the attack was successful, public pressure on the Turkish government would be so intense as to leave it with little choice but to utilize the authority granted to it by parliament. Yet the PKK leadership did not call off the attack. This is in stark contrast to the months leading up to the July 22 parliamentary election, when the fear that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would respond to populist pressure and order an incursion into northern Iraq led to the PKK scaling back its attacks inside Turkey.
The PKK has not publicly explained why it is attempting to provoke Turkey into a cross-border operation. However, Turkish analysts have speculated that it is hoping that the international community will intervene to curb any military operation before it has had the opportunity to inflict much damage. This would not only humiliate the Turkish government and military but, so the reasoning goes, could increase international pressure on Turkey to sit down at the negotiating table with the PKK (NTV, October 21).
The PKK appears to have succeeded in its initial aim. On the evening of October 21, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan implied that Turkey would be prepared to postpone a cross-border operation to allow the United States a few days in which to try to find a solution (NTV, CNNTurk, October 21). But it is likely to be only a temporary respite.
The attack of October 21 triggered unprecedented expressions of public outrage. Television stations cancelled entertainment programs, such as music and game shows, scheduled for that evening. The Turkish media reported spontaneous mass protests across the entire country, including in the cities of Trabzon, Afyon, Izmir, Eskisehir, Kocaeli, Mugla, Nigde, Edirne, Zonguldak, Karabuk, Aksaray, Hatay, and Mersin (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Radikal, October 21). More worryingly, in Bursa a mob of 1,000 people attacked the local office of the Democratic Society Party (DTP), which is widely believed to have close links with the PKK and was the only political party to vote against the parliamentary motion authorizing a cross-border operation. The police prevented similar attacks on DTP offices in the cities of Erzurum, Elazig, and Istanbul. In the southeastern city of Malatya, nine youths narrowly escaped being lynched after one was reportedly overheard praising the PKK (Vatan, Hurriyet, Zaman, October 22).
Although a handful of newspaper columnists, such as Ihsan Dagi of the Islamist daily Today’s Zaman, have warned against falling into the PKK’s trap by launching a cross- border operation (Today’s Zaman, October 22), none has been able to suggest an alternative course of action. Even those who are opposed to a cross-border operation believe that some kind of military action is now inevitable. The only questions are what, when and how. The nationalist daily Hurriyet even quotes unnamed senior military sources as saying that, in effect; a military operation has already begun, in that logistics and troops are now being deployed ready to cross the border (Hurriyet, October 22).
However, the general expectation is that, if and when it comes, military action is likely to involve limited operation against PKK positions — including helicopter-borne commando raids and the bombing of PKK camps by F-16 — rather than a full-scale invasion.