Turkey had high hopes its cross-border operations in the winter of 2007-8 would eliminate the threat posed by the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK). The ability of the PKK to strike back in the spring and summer of 2008 through staggering attacks raised questions about the effectiveness of Turkey’s strategy. The PKK survived the Turkish winter offensive and endured heavy weather conditions without losing its operational capability, thanks to its safe havens in northern Iraq. This situation led to a reevaluation of Turkey’s policies. Boosting the dialogue between Turkey and northern Iraqi authorities has emerged as the new approach to the solution of the PKK problem.
The center of gravity for the PKK problem has shifted to the political and diplomatic realm, and will remain so in the coming months. Unlike the relative calm in the area of military operations in rural southeastern Turkey, the political debates continue unabated and will intensify further as municipal elections approach. The PKK also has been a subject of Turkey’s international and regional diplomatic initiatives (see Terrorism Focus, November 19). We will analyze the AKP government’s new openings in domestic and foreign policy and the PKK’s response to the new political setting.
Preparing for the Winter
PKK activity in Southeastern Turkey has declined considerably with the approach of winter. Most PKK militants are getting prepared to cope with the harsh winter conditions; some have withdrawn to their safe havens in northern Iraq, while others are moving to higher elevations where they have traditionally sought shelter in hidden caves. The PKK militants will need to survive through the winter with minimum mobility, living on the limited amount of food they were able to store during the summer. The Turkish Armed Forces (Turk Silahli Kuvvetleri – TSK) has also called back most of the commando units from the region; most will be stationed in their barracks, preparing for new offensives in the spring. The TSK will most probably continue to use high-tech winter equipment to carry out its special operations. The level of armed activity in the region may remain low over the next few months as the PKK shifts to attacks in urban areas, like its December 1 attack on the Istanbul offices of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalk?nma Partisi – AKP) (Milliyet, December 3). The key question is whether Turkey will be able to quell the PKK threat through political openings and prevent new attacks next spring and summer.
Turkey’s Dialogue with the Northern Iraqi Regional Administration
The PKK has taken advantage of the mountainous terrain of northern Iraq and used the region as one of its encampment areas since 1983. This situation has had direct implications for Turkey’s relations with northern Iraq’s majority Kurdish population. The main determinant of the nature of this relationship has been the changing balance of power in the region. Despite the historic importance attached to Turkey’s recent dialogue with the Kurdish authorities in Iraq, such cooperation is not a political taboo. Turkey worked closely with Kurdish peshmerga forces and conducted joint operations against the PKK throughout the 1990s. However, the dynamics of regional politics over the last couple of years changed this picture drastically. Growing American influence in the region following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 resulted in the severance of ties between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds. The Iraqi Kurds’ newfound partnership with the United States heightened the Kurds’ perception of their relative power in the region, resulting in a rather daring and at times confrontational attitude toward Turkey. Kurdish authorities in Northern Iraq did not refrain from increasing tensions with Turkey when Turkey protested the Iraqi Kurds’ lenient attitude toward the activities of PKK guerillas in northern Iraq (Radikal, October 22, 2007).
Within Turkey, the image of northern Iraq’s Kurds as the sponsor of the PKK has created a domestic constituency against any sort of dialogue with the Kurdish authorities, thus contributing to the hostile environment. Relations between Turkey and Iraq’s Kurds are nevertheless going through a new period of optimism lately, after hitting several low points over the last year. The Turkish media abandoned its policy of bashing Jalal Talabani (President of Iraq and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan – PUK) and Massoud Barzani (President of the Kurdistan Regional Government – KRG – and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party – KDP). Barzani has since adopted a softer language toward Turkey. There are signs the pragmatism of the 1990s might be returning.
Developments on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border lay behind these changes. On the one hand, the anticipated changes in America’s Iraq policies in the wake of the U.S. presidential elections and new developments in Iraqi domestic politics have forced the Kurdish groups to re-evaluate their uncooperative attitude vis-à-vis Turkey’s demands. On the other hand, the growing consensus within the Turkish security establishment on the need to cooperate with the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq has facilitated changes in Turkey’s policies.
The Impact of the U.S.-Iraqi Security Accord
The U.S.-Iraqi security accord requiring the United States to pull out from Iraq by 2011 has important implications for the PKK and the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq. The KRG is uneasy about the growing power of Shiite and Sunni Arabs in Iraq. In a post-American Iraq, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership will not only lose the political leverage they obtained through alliance with the United States, but will also have to calculate the possible risks of a civil war scenario. To hedge their bets against these future uncertainties, Iraqi Kurds have reasons to be on good terms with Turkey.  The Kurdish leadership has come to realize that the key to normalization with Turkey is abandoning their tolerance of the PKK by limiting the group’s freedom of movement in areas controlled by the KRG. Recent developments indicate a consensus between the Turkish government and the Barzani administration to increase their grip on the PKK. The question may no longer be whether to fight the PKK together, but how.
The Trilateral Permanent Security Commission
Although the first signs of a possible Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish rapprochement emerged during Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington in October 2007, the AKP government took concrete steps toward normalization only recently. Here one has to note the crucial role played by the TSK’s decision to support establishing relations with the Kurdish administration.
The AKP government made its initial overtures last spring. Most significantly, following the decision of the National Security Council (Milli Guvenlik Kurulu – MGK) to enhance relations with “all Iraqi groups” in its meeting on April 24, a Turkish delegation led by Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s chief foreign policy advisor, met a team of Iraqi officials, including Nechirvan Barzani, the KRG Prime Minister and nephew of Masoud Barzani (Zaman, May 2).  The real impetus came with the second phase in early October. An official Turkish delegation composed of high-level representatives including Davutoglu and Murat Ozcelik (Turkey’s Special Envoy to Iraq), met Masoud Barzani in Baghdad (NTV, October 15). In the ensuing days, diplomatic relations improved significantly and areas of cooperation diversified. Turkish Interior Minister Besir Atalay visited Baghdad and held a tripartite meeting with representatives of the Iraqi central government and the United States on November 19, only a few days after the Iraqi-American security accord was agreed upon. The parties decided to establish a permanent commission to streamline Turkish, American and Iraqi efforts in fighting the PKK and to regulate Turkey’s access to Iraqi airspace and territory to carry out cross-border operations in northern Iraq (NTV, November 20). KRG representatives were included as part of the Iraqi delegation. By sending the interior minister, the Turkish government signaled its determination to recognize the Kurdish administration, but only as part of the central government (Radikal, November 23).
PKK to Kurdistan Regional Government: Don’t Spoil Kurdish Gains
PKK sources have been observing the KRG’s attempts to reorient its policies closely and with growing anxiety. They view this development as the main threat to the gains of the Kurdish nationalist movement. The collaboration of the Kurdish administration with the trilateral permanent commission is seen as a shortsighted move that is extremely damaging to the national cause. For the PKK, the only novelty of this new arrangement is its pitting the southern Kurds against the PKK, for the United States and Baghdad government have already worked with Turkey to eliminate the PKK (see Terrorism Focus, November 26). Therefore, the PKK criticizes the shift in Barzani and Talabani’s positions, as this will inevitably undermine the Kurds’ position in the region and in Iraq. From the PKK’s perspective, Turkey’s decision to initiate dialogue with the Barzani administration marks Turkey’s return to its old strategy of the 1990s, which in the PKK’s opinion is bound to fail (Gundem Online, November 30).
More specifically, PKK sources are critical of the operations carried out by Barzani’s peshmerga militias. The PKK accuses Barzani’s peshmerga of limiting civilian movement in PKK-controlled areas and confiscating villagers’ excess food. The PKK militants depend on local food and the continuation of their freedom of movement in northern Iraq to maintain their logistical infrastructure. Tactically, the PKK seeks to settle civilians in proximity to its camping grounds in order to blend into the local population. Moreover, in case of Turkish airstrikes against these camps, the PKK might use civilian casualties to mobilize international public opinion against Turkey. Another PKK criticism takes aim at the KRG’s failure to protest TSK airstrikes against PKK positions (Gundem Online, November 30).
PKK to Turkey: Put Your Own House in Order
The representatives of Turkey’s Kurdish Democratic Society Party (Demokratik Toplum Partisi – DTP) have started to criticize Turkey’s rapprochement with Barzani. For instance, Selahattin Demirtas, deputy chairman of the DTP, criticized the AKP government’s willingness to speak with Barzani while at the same time refusing to talk to the DTP. For Demirtas, Barzani “is a party to the problem. He is an outside power,” whereas the DTP is a native force represented in Turkey’s Parliament. Demirtas also distanced the DTP ideologically from the KRG by labeling it a “feudal, conservative, rightist movement,” while the DTP represents a “democratic, pro-human rights and leftist movement” (Zaman, November 30-December 1).
As the municipal elections approach, the competition between the governing AKP and DTP over winning Kurdish votes has heightened. In the midst of growing tensions caused by the exchange of fighting words between the representatives of the two parties, as well as violent demonstrations in streets, Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin suggested that if imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called on the PKK militants to lay down their arms, the government might consider easing his conditions in the prison.
For Ocalan, the real solution is contingent on dialogue. Domestically, he called for the establishment of a “truth and reconciliation commission,’” similar to those established in other post-civil war societies. Only a democratic project at home could save the state and solve the Kurdish question and make Turkey a true regional power. Ocalan seeks to reach out to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani by asking him to get involved by using his status in the Socialist International to promote a democratic solution by mobilizing international actors. Ocalan, however, did not give up covert threats to Turkey; “Right now there is a condition of uprising. It might turn into a hurricane in spring” (Gundem Online, November 28).
PKK commander Murat Karayilan noted the movement is in favor of a peaceful solution through dialogue but ruled out a unilateral ceasefire; “If the Turkish state comes out and says that it seeks dialogue, and ceases its operations, no bullet will be fired. We are not the attacking side, we are in defense … How can we lay down our arms? We survive thanks to our arms” (Gunderm Online, December 2). Karayilan criticized Erdogan for failing to live up to his promise to find a democratic solution to Kurdish problem by reverting back to the military option. Karayilan underlined that the PKK is prepared for a political solution but also remains vigilant to meet military challenges. He also paralleled Ocalan’s’ threats, by maintaining that if Turkey continues its military operations and fails to develop a settlement that recognized the role of the PKK, the group would abandon its defensive strategy of “low-intensity warfare” and elevate its armed campaign to offensive “medium-intensity warfare.”
Karayilan, however, recognizes that the PKK is being pressed hard militarily. The mounting Iranian offensive on Kurdish positions along the Iranian-Iraqi border, conducted in coordination with Turkey’s airstrikes, has caused worries for the PKK. Karayilan has criticized Iran for supporting Turkey, citing the economic and energy cooperation between the two countries. He called on Iran to give up futile military measures, and embrace the Kurdish people’s demands for peace and dialogue (Gundem Online, December 2).
Through its diplomatic initiatives, the Turkish government may be hoping to worsen the conditions for the PKK during the winter, curbing its operational ability in the spring. In their rapprochement with Turkey, the Iraqi Kurds are driven by a concern to readjust to the new strategic reality of Iraq after an American withdrawal and the development of Iraqi domestic politics.
The PKK leadership and the DTP are worried about the implications of Turkey’s diplomatic opening to Kurdish groups in northern Iraq. On the military front, the PKK claims to possess the military capability needed to resume its armed activities in Turkey. Through its sabotage attack against the Kirkuk-Yumurtalik pipeline on November 22, the PKK might have been sending a warning to both the Iraqi central government and the KRG about their decision to support Turkey.
The PKK has sought to bring to the fore the argument that a real solution to the Kurdish problem requires the Turkish government to deliver political reforms, meaning it should recognize the PKK as a legitimate actor. In regards to electoral competition, the DTP and the PKK have started to invoke speculation that the Turkish government could use fraudulent techniques to manipulate the local elections. DTP deputies have emphasized this point as part of their election campaign.
The AKP government came under criticism from pro-reform forces and international observers for abandoning domestic reforms and prioritizing a military solution to the Kurdish issue. It has sought since to use diplomacy and limited political openings to further curb the PKK’s military strength. The DTP, however, consistently calls for “true democratic openings” at home, without relinquishing PKK violence. The AKP is forced to engage in a delicate balancing act—on the one hand, it has to assume political responsibility for the armed struggle against the PKK’s terror campaign; on the other hand, it has to compete with the DTP in the democratic field. While the AKP realizes that tightening the military grip on the PKK may harm its electoral chances in southeastern Turkey, letting up on the PKK now risks more attacks in the spring and may harm the party’s prestige in the West.
1. Turkish analysts believe that a common understanding between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds about the future of Iraq is emerging. Some claim that in case of a civil war, Turkey might throw its support behind the Kurds. See Mete Cubukcu, “Turkiye’nin Irak’taki B Planinda Kurtler Var,” Referans, November 27.
2. National Security Council Press Briefing, April 24, 2008, https://www.mgk.gov.tr/Turkce/basinbildiri2008/24nisan2008.htm.