Turkey Urges International Cooperation in its Struggle against Kurdish Militants

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 39

Turkey has recently intensified its international effort to limit the activities of the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK) in the international arena. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has written a letter to European leaders, suggesting that merely recognizing the PKK as a terrorist organization is not enough. Those who recognize the PKK as a terror organization should take effective measures against the group’s structure and activities in Europe. Parallel to Erdogan’s letter, the Turkish Foreign Ministry asked its diplomats in Europe to initiate an active strategy to put emphasis on the PKK’s activities in Europe. (Hurriyet, November 14). In his address to the UN General Assembly on November 14, Erdogan once again called on world leaders to cooperate against terrorism without making distinctions between “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists.” Whatever the source may be, terrorism is a “crime against humanity,” said Erdogan (Aksam, November 14).

With this vision, Turkey began its international approach with Switzerland, one of the European countries where PKK activities are highly visible. Turkey has repeatedly criticized Switzerland for not taking enough steps to combat the PKK, whose members are accused of laundering money in Swiss banks. Unlike member states of the European Union, Switzerland does not list the PKK as a terrorist organization. In September, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan visited the Swiss capital of Bern, where he complained about the lack of Turkish-Swiss cooperation against the PKK. His Swiss counterpart, Micheline Calmy-Rey, assured Babacan that Switzerland was intent on fighting terrorism even if it does not have a list of designated terrorist organizations and individuals (Today’s Zaman, November 7).

It seems that Turkey’s efforts to stop PKK activities in Switzerland have already paid off. After Babacan’s visit, Swiss authorities have taken some measures against PKK activities in their country. Switzerland’s highest administrative body, the Federal Council, issued a communiqué on November 5, urging the cantons to intensify measures to investigate activities by the PKK and its affiliated organizations. The communiqué stated; "The Federal Council thinks the new measures will prevent the escalation of violence in Switzerland and the abuse of Swiss territory as a fund-raising zone for organizations that conduct violent, extremist action abroad" (Hurriyet Daily News, November 7). New restrictions on fundraising activities and public demonstrations followed. PKK activists have been striking Turkish-owned businesses in Switzerland since October.

The communiqué was issued right before Swiss President Pascal Couchepin’s official visit to Turkey on November 7. Speaking in Turkey, President Couchepin noted the PKK was a “dangerous” organization while speaking about the new restrictions; "The Turks would have probably preferred a ban on the PKK but they know the Swiss reality looks different… The measures became necessary after the attacks on Turkish businesses in Switzerland” (swissinfo.ch, November 9).

Turkey continues to blame foreign support for the continuing threat posed by the PKK. Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek recently alleged, “Some international powers are disturbed by a developing Turkey. Therefore, the terror issue in Turkey does not consist only of a continued struggle with a couple of terrorists [in the] mountains; there are international powers supporting this situation. We know who these are. Most of the terrorists are not Turkish citizens, in other words, the struggle is a global one” (Hurriyet Daily News, November 2).

Cicek’s assertion that most members of the PKK are not Turkish citizens is not indisputable. A detailed examination of the origins of PKK fighters based on information provided by Turkey’s intelligence services stated the ratio of foreigners in the PKK was 31.4% in 2006 (Aksiyon, November 6, 2006). While the PKK does recruit citizens of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Europe, it is critical to note that the actual citizenship of the PKK militants is not that important because they are all Kurds. It is only in the minds of the Turks, Arabs and Persians that the borders in this region separate the modern nation-states – in the Kurds’ minds, these borders do not exclude their fellow Kurds from belonging to a greater and pre-existing Kurdish community. In addition, Syria, the largest source of “foreign” PKK fighters, has been cooperating closely with Ankara since 2000 to eliminate PKK activities. In this sense, Cicek’s complaint of international support for the PKK is baseless. However, official complaints of “international support of the PKK” play an important part in maintaining peaceful relations between Turks and Kurds within Turkey. So long as ordinary Turks believe the PKK is founded and funded by foreign powers who do not want Turkey to be a leading country in the region, they are able to separate the PKK from ordinary Kurds and not assume all their Kurdish neighbors are supporting the PKK.

By emphasizing the global struggle against the PKK, Turkey wants to gain international support for its struggle. For this purpose, Turkey’s recent international approach has not been limited to areas where the PKK has an active presence, such as Europe, Iran, Iraq and Syria, but also in places where the PKK is not currently active. For example, Turkey has just signed an accord with Lebanon on cooperation against terrorism, drug-trafficking and organized crime (Anadolu Ajansi, November 3). Prime Minister Erdogan stated that the PKK “is forming new activities in that country [Lebanon] under the cover of innocent social associations and we are closely watching these developments” (Cumhuriyet, November 3). An editorial in a Lebanese newspaper argued that the Arab League should follow Lebanon’s example in sealing a terrorism cooperation pact, despite a legacy of Arab suspicion about Turkey dating back to the days of Ottoman rule in the Middle East; “The technical benefits of a Turkey-Arab League compact on terrorism should be obvious: less loss of life and property damage, improved stability, better cooperation on related security issues, the building of confidence among all participants, etc. It would also establish indirect and/or informal links of varying types and purposes to some of Turkey’s other partners, which include the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. The tangible and intangible benefits – diplomatic, energy, social and trade-related – of such links cannot be overstated” (Daily Star [Beirut], November 5).

In addition to signing an accord with Lebanon, Turkey has taken an active role in bringing Afghanistan and Pakistan to the negotiating table to find common ground in addressing mutual problems. In his recent visit to Turkey, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Prime Minister Erdogan agreed on Turkey’s intermediary role in the Pakistan-Afghanistan peace talks. It was also agreed to further develop bilateral efforts at combating terrorism (Cumhuriyet, October 31; Dawn [Karachi], October 28). Turkey’s ambassador to Pakistan, Rauf Engin Soysal, offered Turkey’s continued support in the fight against international terrorism; “We strongly condemn the abhorrent terrorist attacks aimed at the unity and integrity, as well as the democracy and stability of brotherly Pakistan” (Associated Press of Pakistan, November 6).

Although the terrorism accords with Pakistan and Lebanon are not directly related to PKK activities in those countries, Turkey’s diplomatic efforts have dual aims. First, by taking such steps, Turkey wants to deepen its strategic importance in the eyes of the global community. In turn, Turkey wants to use its strategic maneuvers as leverage to bring the global powers against the PKK. More importantly, given that the new Barack Obama administration has signaled its intention to put more emphasis on its war against al-Qaeda terror in Afghanistan, Ankara’s efforts to bring Afghanistan and Pakistan together is an attempt to deepen Turkey’s strategic importance and help it maintain a critical position in the deliberations of the upcoming Obama administration.

The PKK has also taken steps to convince U.S. policy makers to stop aiding Turkey. PKK leaders Murat Karayilan and Zubeyir Aydar sent a letter to President-Elect Obama congratulating him on his electoral victory and stating; “Our organization [the PKK] is a secular democratic organization that can be a model in the Middle East. We are ready to find a solution to the Kurdish problem on the basis of equal rights that does not threat the unity of the countries within the existing borders in the Middle East.” Karayilan added; “To please Turkey, Mr. Bush declared our movement the enemy of Iraq and Turkey. He gave Turkey high-technology weapons and intelligence support. We are not enemies of anyone, especially not Iraq or the United States. We have never directed our actions against the United States or the American people. We want to solve the problem with Turkey through dialogue and in a peaceful and democratic way. Your country has multilateral relations with Turkey. We don’t demand that you disturb those relations for us. We ask you to use your relations to help solve the problem through dialogue” (Referans, November 7; Today’s Zaman, November 7).

It appears that both parties in the Kurdish question are trying to adjust their position to convince the West in general, and the Obama administration in particular, to put pressure on the other side. Finally sensing some movement in the previously inflexible positions of European states towards the PKK, Turkey’s diplomats may be expected to use Turkey’s growing presence and influence in the Middle East as a bargaining chip in convincing the United States and Europe to crack down on PKK activities.