Around 10,000 members of the Turkish security forces have been deployed in a major military operation against units of the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in eastern and southeastern Anatolia.
The operation is concentrated in mountainous areas of the provinces of Sirnak, Siirt, and Hakkari. It is being led by commando units, supported on the ground by infantry and the local militia known as “village guards” and from the air by Cobra and Super Cobra helicopters (Milliyet, Vatan, CNNTurk, September 19).
The main objective is to hit PKK units and block access routes before they retreat to their winter sanctuaries. In eastern Anatolia and the mountains that straddle Turkey’s border with Iraq, the first winter snow usually begins to fall in October. Within a few weeks the mountain passes become blocked and insurgent activity in the region dwindles to a minimum, before increasing again when the spring thaw frees up the passes.
Traditionally, most of the estimated 5,000 members of the PKK’s military wing, called the People’s Defense Force (HPG), spend the winter in the organization’s camps in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq. However, around 1,000 to 1,500 usually stay behind in Turkey, taking refuge in caves and shelters under the snow.
Although winter reduces access to the insurgents’ hideouts, it also makes them more vulnerable to detection. However effective the camouflage, human activity — particularly the need to keep warm — usually melts some of the snow and makes the hideouts easier to spot from the air, after which Turkish military units trained in mountain warfare can be helicoptered in to attack the hideouts. The HPG units that stay behind in Turkey are also heavily reliant on previously stored depots of food, which can usually support only a small number of militants. As a result, it is to the Turkish military’s advantage to prevent as many HPG militants as possible from taking refuge across the border in Iraq, where they are relatively immune to attack and where they have access to a well-established supply network.
In addition to attacking HPG units and blocking escape routes to northern Iraq, the ongoing military operation is also targeting the HPG’s supply depots. On September 19 the Turkish media reported that, acting on intelligence reports, six depots had been discovered in Batman province, while another five had been destroyed in mountainous areas of the province of Hakkari and seven in the province of Sirnak, which borders Iraq and has traditionally seen some of the most intense insurgent activity (CNNTurk, September 19). No casualty figures have yet been announced. But, on September 19, the Turkish authorities claimed to have killed 151 members of the PKK and captured 172 more in the province of Sirnak alone since the beginning of the 2007 campaigning season (Vatan, September 19).
However, HPG units have continued to attack members of the Turkish security forces. During its first insurgency in 1984-99, the PKK attempted to capture military outposts and often sought confrontation with the Turkish military on the battlefield; sometimes combining units to form forces 500 or more strong. However, since resuming its insurgency in June 2004, the PKK has concentrated on ambushes, mines, and long-range harassing fire using small units of a maximum of 20 militants. In a typical attack on a Turkish army outpost in Bitlis on the night of September 18, one soldier was killed and another seriously injured by long-range strafing fire (Vatan, Radikal, CNNTurk, September 19). The slain soldier was later identified as a cousin of Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan (Hurriyet, September 19).
Speaking before leaving for a trip to the United States, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan once again criticized both Washington and the EU for failing to be more supportive of Turkey in its fight against the PKK. “Merely naming the PKK a terrorist organization is not enough,” he said. “What is burning us today could burn you tomorrow. Cooperation and solidarity are essential in the struggle against terrorism. One needs to be honest and sincere” (Radikal, Milliyet, Hurriyet, September 19).
Turkey has long complained that, even though the U.S. State Department lists the PKK as a terrorist organization, Washington has refused to move against the PKK camps in the Qandil Mountains or to allow the Turkish military to do so.
“We are saying that a joint platform needs to be created in the struggle with this crime against humanity.” said Erdogan. “We are calling on you to support us in our rightful struggle” (Radikal, Milliyet, September 19).