Reviving a Forgotten Threat: The PKK in Nagorno-Karabakh

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 24

The decades-long war between the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish army has had a significant impact on Azerbaijani politics. Being a staunch ally of Turkey and suffering from problems of separatism and terrorism itself, Azerbaijan has always expressed its full support for the counter-terrorist actions of its neighbor and has even offered its assistance. The recent escalation of the conflict in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq has not left the Azerbaijani establishment passive. This time, however, the conflict has directly affected the interests of Azerbaijan. The reason is the alleged decision of the PKK’s leadership to move its bases from the Qandil mountain range in Iraqi Kurdistan to the Armenian-occupied regions of Nagorno-Karabakh (Azeri Press Agency, December 18; UPI, November 30; Today’s Zaman, November 30). Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani press has carried reports about the possible creation of a Kurdish autonomous district in the Armenian-occupied Lachin and Kelbajar regions (Day.az, December 3). While some analysts consider the prospect of establishing a new Kurdish state in the Caucasus as mere fiction, other experts do not deny the possibility of such a scenario developing. Before moving to an analysis of the current situation, it is worthwhile to look at the historical aspects of the problem.

Red Kurdistan

The idea of establishing a Kurdish state in Azerbaijan is not new. After the Bolsheviks seized power in Azerbaijan in 1920, the idea of using Kurdish nationalism to spread proletarian revolution over the Middle East occupied the minds of the Soviet leadership. In 1923 the communist government of Azerbaijan decided to establish Kurdistanskiy district (referred to as “Red Kurdistan”), encompassing Kelbajar, Lachin and part of the Gubatli region. Lachin city was chosen as the administrative capital of the new district. Soviet authorities hoped that the creation of a Kurdish district would serve as an inspiration for oppressed Kurds in the Middle East. In the case of a possible separation of Kurdish areas from Iran or Turkey, it would have been easy for Soviet authorities to “accommodate” or unite them with an already existing Kurdish district. Later, however, the Soviets abandoned this idea, abolished Kurdish autonomy and deported most of the Kurds to Kazakhstan and Central Asia [1].

The Kurdish factor entered Azerbaijan’s politics again after the end of World War II. With the fall of the short-lived Kurdish Mahabad Republic in northwestern Iran, the backbone of its army, led by Iraqi Kurd Mustafa Barzani, entered Azerbaijan and became “guests of honor” of the autocratic leader of Soviet Azerbaijan, Mir-Jafar Bagirov. The Soviet Azerbaijani government was trying to use Barzani’s group as a pawn by sending them back to Iran to start guerrilla warfare in Iranian Kurdistan. The Soviet authorities, however, dropped this idea later when Barzani’s desire to create a Kurdish kingdom for himself became apparent [2]. The “Independent Kurdistan” scenario was reanimated again in the early 1990s. After finishing the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian forces captured Lachin and six other districts of Lower Karabakh, including areas constituting the former “Red Kurdistan.” In 1992 the Armenian-backed but unrecognized government in Karabakh announced the establishment of a Kurdish republic with its capital in Lachin. Using the Kurdish card, Armenian authorities were trying to show that not only was the Armenian minority fighting for independence from Azerbaijan, but the Kurdish minority was as well. However, this last attempt to revive the Kurdish issue failed again because of several reasons. First, due to the ethnic cleansing in the occupied territories, most of the Muslim Kurdish population had already fled to other regions of Azerbaijan. Second, by creating a Kurdish state in the region, Armenian authorities would have contradicted the basic Armenian argument in the Karabakh war: that Karabakh belonged historically to Armenia.

Kurdistan in Karabakh

Azerbaijan has not been directly involved in Turkey’s conflict with the PKK, instead limiting their assistance to information-sharing. After the launching of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, PKK activities in Turkey began to endanger this economically lucrative regional project. In October Murat Karayılan, leader of the PKK’s military wing, announced that “since pipelines that cross Kurdistan (southeastern Turkey) provide the economic resources for the Turkish army’s aggression, it is possible the guerrillas will target them” (Fırat, October 19). With the BTC pipeline crossing through territory in which the PKK operates, the possibility of such an attack cannot be discounted. An attack of this sort would send a shock wave all over the Caucasian region and would result in Azerbaijan being less attractive to foreign investors.

Earlier this month, both Turkish and Azerbaijani sources started to express their concerns about a possible relocation of PKK bases from northern Iraq to Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh. According to the Turkish press, intelligence reports revealed that the PKK planned to move ten of its camps from northern Iraq’s Qandil mountain range to Armenian-occupied areas of Karabakh. The reports also said that a number of PKK gunmen had visited 12 Kurdish villages in the Karabakh region and asked the villagers to help them. The newspaper also revealed that a fighter who had escaped from the PKK camp and surrendered to Turkish forces had given important information on the organization’s plan to move its camps to Karabakh. Allegedly, the PKK bases would be located in the cities of Shusha, Fizuli and definitely Lachin (Today’s Zaman, November 30).

The Azerbaijani establishment did not act with surprise at the news of a possible PKK relocation to Nagorno-Karabakh. Already in April 1998, the Turkish press was reporting that Armenia had seven PKK camps in its territory (Turkish Daily News, April 16, 1998). Azerbaijan’s minister of defense stated in 1999 that up to 200 Kurdish terrorists were being trained in the Lachin region of occupied Azerbaijan (Obshchaya gazeta, February 12, 1999). For several years Azerbaijan’s authorities have collected and reported information concerning the settlement of Armenians and Kurds from the Middle East in the Karabakh region. During the recent visit of the Turkish president to Azerbaijan, both sides discussed the issue of a possible PKK relocation to Azerbaijan and the establishment of new Kurdish settlements in Karabakh (Day.az, December 3). Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov stressed that, if necessary, Baku might consider counter-terrorist measures against PKK bases in Nagorno-Karabakh (Zerkalo, December 11).

For a long time experts in international relations have warned that non-recognized territories can become rogue states—sources of terrorism and criminal activities. These territories are de facto independent but not bound by any international treaties. They have their own armies, law enforcement, and political institutions, but a lack of financial viability may force them to earn money through weapon sales, drug-trafficking and hosting insurgent training camps. Karabakh, for example, remains one of the most militarized areas in the world. The PKK’s decision to move to Karabakh is rational, well thought-out and could benefit both sides. Karabakh is the only territory in the Middle East and Caucasus that is immune from any military action by Turkey. Most of the countries of the region would hardly risk hosting the PKK for fear of the wrath of Turkey’s military. Even for Armenia it would be suicidal to establish PKK camps on its territory. Yerevan would need to give explanations to the world community and could have sanctions imposed on it. But Karabakh is a different story; the Turkish army is unlikely to chase PKK terrorists there. Any Turkish military activity in that area would involve the Armenian troops deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian participation in a conflict would automatically bring Russia into the conflict as the guarantor of the security of its southern ally. Russian involvement in a conflict with a member of NATO is a nightmare scenario for the international community.

Conclusion

The PKK will not be considered an alien element in Karabakh. Many Armenian terrorist organizations—including the notorious Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA)—cooperated successfully for a long time with the PKK. In April 1980 both organizations held a press conference in Sidon, Lebanon, where they issued a joint declaration on fighting against Turkey. Later, ASALA members, including guerrilla leader Monte Melkonian, took part in the 1988-1994 war against Azerbaijan.

The Karabakh separatist government could benefit from the relocation of PKK bases on its territory. First, hundreds of Kurdish families would move to Karabakh, allowing Karabakh authorities to bolster the region’s diminishing population. Second, Karabakh authorities would get hundreds—if not thousands—of experienced guerrilla fighters. Should Azerbaijan decide to begin a war to recover its lost territories, its army would need first to fight through PKK-controlled areas before reaching Karabakh’s heartland.

The establishment of PKK safe haven in Lachin and Kelbajar could be the first step in the creation of a Kurdish state. There is already a Kurdish minority of 60,000 people in Armenia who hope that Armenia may grant them autonomy [3]. The PKK has all the features of a government and could take such responsibility. The idea of a Kurdistan in the Caucasus was met with great sympathy in Iraqi Kurdistan, where calls were made for direct relations with such a region. Iraqi Kurds believe the emergence of another “Kurdistan” could be a counter-balance to Pan-Turkism in the region [4].

On December 17, the Russian press reported that Seyvan Barzani, the PKK representative in France, threatened that in case of a Turkish invasion into northern Iraq, Kurds would start military actions in Azerbaijan (Utro.ru, December 17). It is very difficult to predict how the situation will evolve, but one can be sure that the introduction of a new nationalist-terrorist element in a volatile region like the Caucasus would play a severely negative role. While Azerbaijani and Armenian authorities are trying to reach peace accords over Karabakh, the PKK factor could significantly undermine the entire process. If all peace initiatives are exhausted and Baku begins to view conflict as the only means of regaining lost territory in Nagorno-Karabakh, the presence of the PKK could be used by Azerbaijan’s hawks as yet another argument in favor of war.

Notes

1. For detailed information about Red Kurdistan please refer to Daniel Muller, “The Kurds of Soviet Azerbaijan 1920-1991” in Central Asian Survey (2000), 19(1), 41–77.

2. See Anar Valiyev, “Kurds in Azerbaijan: A Threat or Game the Powers Play,” Central Asia and Caucasus, 2(8) 2001, 115-22.

3. Paul Goble “Windows on Eurasia: Armenia’s Kurds Get in the Way of any Karabakh Solution,” http://windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/2007/12/window-on-eurasia-armenias-kurds-get-in.html

4. Alexei Baliyev, “Kurds and Karabakh” (in Russian), Russky Predprinimatel Foundation Monitor, www.rpmonitor.ru , December 11, 2007.