Over the last few years, senior officers of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT – Milli Istihbarat Teskilati) have held several meetings with cadres of the separatist terrorist organization Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) in order to find points of agreement for the group’s potential surrender. However, this process was abruptly halted in July 2011, when an ambush carried out by PKK members killed 13 Turkish soldiers. The attack was interpreted as a clear sign that part of the PKK did not consider negotiations with the Turkish state an option (Today’s Zaman, July 17, 2011). One year on, Turkey seems to be facing a similar situation, as it tries to separate the politics of the Kurdish issue from the security and military aspects of the PKK insurgency. High-level representatives from the country’s two main parties, the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP – Justice and Development Party), and the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP – Republican’s People Party), have met in the last weeks to discuss the strategies they have developed to address the Kurdish issue (Hurriyet, June 5; Today’s Zaman, June 6). In a break with last years’ strategy, dialogue with the PKK is no longer being pursued.
The main reason seems to be that Turkey is now working on a purely political solution for the Kurdish issue. Should these efforts prove successful, such a move would potentially bypass the PKK as an actor in the process. Accordingly, the PKK and its hard-line offshoot, the Teyrebazen Azadiya Kurdistan (TAK – Kurdistan Freedom Falcons), are likely to try and sabotage the process through attacks against soldiers and civilians. In fact, PKK operations against Turkish troops continue incessantly, with at least 28 soldiers killed in the last two months in ambushes carried out by the group. Earlier this month, a large-scale attack hit a military outpost in the Hakkari District’s outskirts, killing eight soldiers and wounding 16, while four more soldiers were killed in a June 27 clash with the PKK in the southeastern province of Siirt (Today’s Zaman, June 19; Hurriyet, June 19; June 27). As the summer season facilitates movements in the mountainous areas of southeastern Turkey, the PKK has also revived its kidnapping campaign, which in the past has targeted both soldiers and civilians. In the last month, around 30 people (mainly civilians) were abducted while travelling in the region, usually after their vehicles were stopped at improvised checkpoints manned by PKK militants (Hurriyet Daily News, June 7; Today’s Zaman, May 29).
The renewed reliance on hostage-taking is worth closer examination. It goes without saying that kidnappings represent a blow to the image of Turkish authorities and security forces, while boosting the PKK’s image of being in de facto control of the region – especially given the presence among the hostages of local political figures and soldiers (Hurriyet, May 15; Today’s Zaman, July 13, 2011). Members of the organization never openly engaged Turkish authorities in negotiating the liberation of the hostages (some of whom have been in captivity for almost a year), so the PKK does not seem to want to use them as a bargaining chip. What is more important, however, is that hostages also seem to bring a military advantage for PKK. Turkish authorities have often made use of military units for operations aimed at locating the hostages’ whereabouts and attempting to rescue them. Not only have these operations been unsuccessful so far, but Turkish rescue units tend to be a frequent target of PKK attacks; in fact the clash that ended MIT-PKK negotiations in July 2011 erupted during a hostage search and rescue operation in Silvan, a district of the Diyarbakir province. The PKK might then be using hostage-taking as a tactic to generate clashes with Turkish troops. The terrorist group also seems careful to avoid attracting unwanted international attention. Some of the recent kidnapping operations happened to involve foreigners, namely two Azeri and one British citizen. While the latter was kidnapped and released the following day, the Azeris were left untouched while the Turks travelling with them were abducted (Today’s Zaman, June 4; Hurriyet, May 30).
Different considerations prevail with regards to the more radical TAK. The group is known for targeting tourist areas during the summer period, as occurred between 2005 and 2006, when TAK bombings killed about 10 people (including foreign tourists) and injured more than 70. As their attacks have shown, TAK operatives use improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as their weapon of choice. After a period of apparent inactivity, the TAK claimed responsibility for a series of bombings carried out between the summer of 2010 and September 2011, in which some ten people were killed. In March 2012, the TAK published a statement on its website, criticizing Turkey’s attacks “against the Kurdish people.”  The communiqué continues by denouncing the Turkish Air Force’s December, 2011 airstrike in Uludere, where 34 civilians were killed, and claims that the TAK is planning to avenge every attack carried out by the Turkish state by hitting tourism.  Turkish police recently arrested a man who was carrying two kilograms of C4, a type of plastic explosive, in the outskirts of Izmir. After being arrested, the man cooperated with security forces, who managed to locate 22 more kilograms of C4 he buried in different locations. The suspect appears to have links with Fehman Huseyin (a.k.a. Bahoz Erdal), considered one of the senior operational commanders of TAK, while the presence of a large quantity of explosives in a city like Izmir seems to be a sign that the TAK is planning major attacks against tourist areas (Today’s Zaman, June 20).
As Turkey’s main parties try to address the Kurdish issue from a political perspective, the PKK and TAK are committed to hijacking the process and dragging it back to a purely security-centric dimension. PKK cadres know that any step forward on the Kurdish issue that does not include them as a main actor is a blow to the organization’s image and political power; they are similarly aware that every attack carried out by PKK operatives is a blow to the political dialogue that the AKP and CHP are trying to kick start. By keeping the tension high while trying to disrupt the current attempt at multi-party dialogue, the PKK aims to reclaim its status as an indispensable player in any effort to resolve the Kurdish issue.
Francesco F. Milan is a PhD Candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London.
1. http://teyrenkurdistan.com/2012%20aciklamalar.html (in Turkish).