Over the next few days the Turkish parliament is expected to approval a motion authorizing a cross-border military operation into northern Iraq to strike at camps belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Qandil Mountains.
On October 9, a three and one-half hour meeting of the Supreme Anti-Terrorism Board (TMYK), which comprises government ministers and military and intelligence officials, agreed to establish the necessary legal framework to take additional measures against the PKK, starting with parliamentary approval for the deployment of Turkish troops outside the country.
The TMYK meeting came two days after the PKK killed 15 Turkish soldiers within 24 hours on October 7-8. Thirteen of the fatalities came on the afternoon of October 7 when a large force of PKK militants ambushed an 18-man Turkish commando unit in the Garbar Mountains in Sirnak province, close to Turkey’s border with Iraq. Three other commandoes were wounded.
The Garbar Mountains are one of the main chokepoints for the PKK’s supply routes between its camps in the Qandil Mountains and its main battlegrounds inside Turkey. The PKK’s campaigning season usually ends around the end of October, when the winter snows begin to block the mountain passes. In the fall the PKK has traditionally withdrawn most of its units from Turkey to wait out the winter in the organization’s camps in the Qandil Mountains. In mid-September this year the Turkish military launched a major search-and-destroy operation in an attempt to inflict as much damage before the PKK militants could withdraw to the relative safety of northern Iraq (see EDM, September 19). Over the last month Sirnak province has been the scene of heavy fighting. Of the 35 PKK militant reported killed by the Turkish military in the month from September 7 to October 7, 23 were in Sirnak (Vatan, October 9). The province was also the scene of the September 29 massacre of 12 villagers, seven of them members of the state militia known as the “Village Guard” (see EDM, October 1). The massacre is widely believed to have been carried out by the PKK, although the organization has denied responsibility.
The fatalities in the October 7 ambush represent the highest death toll suffered by the Turkish military in over a decade and triggered widespread public outrage. In the days following the ambush, the Turkish press was dominated by sketches of the slain soldiers and photographs of their funerals and the grieving relatives they left behind. All the dead were conscripts from poor Anatolian families, several of them ethnic Kurds (Hurriyet, Milliyet, Yeni Cag, Radikal, Sabah, Zaman, October 8, 9, 10).
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had long resisted calls for a military strike against the PKK camps in northern Iraq, mainly because of opposition from the United States. As a result, many Turks hold Washington at least partly responsible for the death of any Turkish soldier killed by the PKK. In the wake of the latest killings, the public pressure is so great that, despite its landslide victory in the July 22 general election (see EDM, July 23), the AKP can no longer afford to be seen to be doing nothing (Milliyet, October 8).
However, it is unclear when or if the Turkish military will launch a major cross-border military operation similar to those of the 1990s, when up to 35,000 troops were deployed against PKK camps in northern Iraq. A religious holiday to mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is due to start tomorrow, October 11. Even if parliament passes a motion approving the operation before the religious holiday, for logistical reasons, a full-scale military will still take time to prepare. The PKK camps in the Qandil Mountains lie 40 miles inside Iraqi territory in relatively difficult mountainous terrain. The Turkish military has had a brigade deployed permanently just over the border inside northern Iraq since the 1990s under an agreement with the Iraqi Kurds. However, the brigade is deployed in the western portion of northern Iraq, too far from the PKK camps to be able to serve as a forward base. There are also doubts about the possible response of the Iraqi Kurds, who in the past have frequently threatened to resist any Turkish incursion in the apparent hope that they would receive backing from Washington.
There are also questions about how effective a cross-border military operation would be. The PKK does not have any heavy weapons. Unless Turkey can persuade either the Iraqi Kurds or the United States to seal off the PKK’s escape routes south – both of which appear highly unlikely – the PKK fighters will be able to flee any Turkish incursion well in advance. The Turkish military is well aware that the cross border operations of the 1990s merely disrupted, rather than eradicated, the PKK by destroying supplies and infrastructure in the camps. In each case, the PKK merely waited for the Turkish troops to withdraw before rebuilding their camps. A cross-border operation in the spring would undoubtedly have affected PKK’s offensive capabilities during the subsequent campaigning season. However, an autumn operation, when the campaigning season is already drawing to a close, is likely to have only a limited effect on the PKK’s ability to return to the offensive once the winter snows begin to melt in spring 2008.