Fighting to remain relevant? The PKK in 2012

The AKP has gained the support of 50 percent of the Kurdish population via cooption rather than coercion. That means that its recent crackdown on Kurdish civil society in general - and the PKK in particular - risks making the latter more popular than it actually is in the eyes of the Kurdish general public.
Franco Galdini
19 February 2012

The killing of 34 Kurdish civilians last December in an airstrike in Uludere, on the Turkish-Iraqi border, is as good a starting point as any in trying to fathom the dynamics at work in the latest round of confrontation between the Turkish state and the PKK.1 The official version of events is that the victims were mistaken for PKK fighters smuggling weapons into Turkey from Iraq. They later turned out to be civilians smuggling cigarettes and diesel.

In the last few months, the situation has been heating up in the south-eastern part of Turkey. After the June 2011 general elections, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan), ended its unilaterally declared ceasefire alleging that the government of Prime Minister Erdoğan had failed to comply with their electoral promises vis-à-vis Turkey’s Kurdish population. The ruling AKP (Justice and Development) party has embarked on a series of arrests of Kurdish journalists, activists, students and even elected parliamentarians from the pro-Kurdish BDP (Peace and Democracy) opposition party. At the time of writing, six elected Kurdish members of parliament are still languishing in prison.

This escalation bodes ill for the future of the AKP Kurdish Initiative, which was heralded amid much fanfare in 2009 as the fast track forward to a solution of Turkey’s ‘Kurdish question.’ In fact, the latter seems to have come back to haunt the Turkish leadership with a vengeance after a decade of relative calm and steadily rising living standards under the AKP’s stewardship.

Apart from the obvious watershed of general elections in June last year, other factors may help to explain the fast-rising tension in the Turkish south-east at this specific time. Such factors are informed by the internal workings of the Turkish Republic and its changing political environment, whilst simultaneously being influenced by the dramatic shifts taking place in Turkey’s neighbourhood, in a constant dialectical feedback between the national and regional/international spheres.

The AKP’s perspective

Returning for a moment to the Uludere incident, the most militant version of what happened in the streets of eastern Turkey argues that there has existed a long-standing deliberate policy by the state to annihilate the Kurdish population. Given that the Kurds make up approximately 20 percent of Turkey’s 74 million people, that is obviously a grossly exaggerated suspicion - generated in the heat of the moment by a suffering population. In fact, the ruling AKP party has made significant political inroads in the area. A look at election results in the Van region, for instance, is revealing: in most villages the vote is split a neat 50-50 between the ruling AKP and the pro-Kurdish BDP. This is apparently representative of results throughout the country’s east.

It is also nothing short of remarkable. If the period of prosperity and social peace ushered in by the election of the AKP in the early 2000s accounts for such a major political shift in such a short time, the Islamist credentials of the ruling party must have edged a significant part of the more conservative and religious-oriented electorate into its fold. Thus, voters have gradually abandoned ‘old’ community divide lines, notably Turkish-Kurdish, to embrace the AKP’s Islamist mantle.

Instead, the most intriguing version of the story points towards the historic role of the army in Turkish politics and its hostility vis-à-vis the AKP’s Islamist leanings. In other words, such a strike may have been an attempt by the Kemalist/nationalist faction within the army to undermine the AKP’s efforts to gain the trust of the Kurdish population of Turkey and, eventually, come to a negotiated settlement of the Kurdish issue.2

To support this view, observers stress how, since taking power, Mr Erdoğan’s government and the army have been constantly facing off against each other in a slow but steady push by the former to insulate the political arena from the interference of the latter, which occurred so often in the 1980s and 1990s. This confrontation has reached its climax with the Ergenekon case and the charging of several high-ranking officials in the armed forces with conspiracy against the government with the intention of overthrowing it.3

From this perspective, whereas the strike and ensuing killing of 34 civilians may be an attempt to undermine the government’s credibility and standing amongst Turkey’s Kurdish population, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s increasingly militant rhetoric concerning the Kurdish question may be a direct response to the Kemalist faction within the army in order to stress his government (and party)’s nationalist credentials. This newly-found belligerence would be aimed both at assuaging pro-government sections within the army and maintaining the allegiance of the Turkish electorate in the centre. Such strong rhetoric has been coupled with mass arrests and harassment against Kurdish civil society and, more importantly, large scale military action, including in Iraqi Kurdistan.

However, as the military option has repeatedly failed in the past to find a durable solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question, it is highly unlikely that enacting the same script will radically change the play’s end. That is, unless the Turkish government has a Sri Lanka option in mind and is ready to go all the way to eradicate the PKK, which seems tantamount to political suicide for the AKP as it would signify the end of Turkey’s EU membership aspirations.

Instead, Mr Erdoğan is treading a fine line between keeping the political centre in line, including pro-government sections of the army, without alienating the big part of the Kurdish population that voted for his party, whilst simultaneously isolating the PKK. This is where talk of foreign conspiracy comes in handy. The Prime Minister was fast to condemn ‘foreign powers’ meddling in Turkey’s internal affairs by supporting the PKK, whom he called a ‘subcontractor’ of such powers.4

The background to such statements can be found in the current wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world. Since it came to power in 2002, AKP foreign policy has championed a zero-problem approach to Turkey’s neighbours, as expounded by former academic now turned Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Davutoğlu. Such a stance, which combined close military-economic cooperation with Israel with friendly ties with countries such as Syria and Iran, started cracking at the seams during Israel’s Gaza war in 2008-9, only to completely unravel with the Arab Spring of revolutionary upheaval.

Warm relations with the Syrian regime fast turned frosty when, after intense shuttle diplomacy that led nowhere, President Abdullah Gül stated that Turkey had ‘lost confidence’ in Assad on 28 August 2011. Please notice that such overt support for the Arab street in 2011, though praiseworthy, rings hollow if compared to the Turkish government’s silence during the violent repression of Iran’s ‘green revolution’ in 2009. However, it seems now obvious that Turkey’s friendship with the Iranian and Syrian regimes has become politically untenable.

As recently as last year, Ankara and Tehran had seemed to slowly come to a collaborative agreement, including intelligence sharing, regarding the PKK, especially after the latter’s sister organisation PJAK (or Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) had conducted an operation against Iranian elite forces in the country’s north-west.5 However, there are increasing signs now that Iran and the PKK may be eyeing new avenues of cooperation against Turkey as a form of retaliation for the latter’s support of the Syrian opposition against President Assad, a key ally of Iran.6

Likewise, whereas Syria was expecting – along with Lebanon and Jordan – to join a free-trade area with Turkey as early as January 2011, that idea is all but abandoned now and the regime of Bashar al-Assad may be considering a revamping of his late father’s traditional support to the PKK as a tool to apply pressure on Turkey, which has become a safe haven for Syrian oppositionists of all stripes. Hence the talk of foreign elements and conspiracy on both sides of the border. Of course, one should not miss the irony of Turkey stepping up the crackdown on its own Kurdish population, whilst protecting and at least indirectly supporting Syria’s Kurds against the al-Assad regime.

Finally, the AKP’s apparent change of heart in dealing with Turkey’s Kurdish question ominously echoes former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s quip that Israel should ‘pursue the peace process as if there is no terrorism, and fight terrorism as if there is no peace process.’ Considering the current situation in the Territories, this could well be a recipe for disaster.

Still relevant? The PKK in 2012

Meanwhile, the PKK seems to be following the same trajectory of the Turkish government, only from the opposite side of the fence. Whilst other non-state armed groups in the region have been obliged to position themselves in relation to the Arab Spring, the PKK has had to spruce up old alliances in order to keep the money flowing at a time when its fundraising operations in Europe were being curtailed.

Practically, this has meant linking up with old patrons, namely Iran and Syria, whilst conveniently overlooking these regimes’ crackdown on their own Kurdish populations. The double irony here, once again, lies in Turkey (at least in theory) supporting Kurds in countries whose governments are suppressing them – all with the tacit consent of the PKK.

However, whereas groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, both staunch supporters of the regime in Damascus, have joined mainstream politics and enjoy a vast electoral following, the PKK seems to be on the defensive on all fronts.7 From this perspective, the recent spate of attacks can be interpreted as an attempt by the PKK to remain relevant in a dramatically changing political environment.

Domestically, the AKP has eaten up in little less than a decade approximately half of the potential support base of the organisation, whilst the Kurdish political agenda has gradually but radically shifted from outright independence for a not-so-well defined Kurdistan to an equally blurry and vague model of ‘democratic autonomy.’8 Concomitantly, this has meant the gradual rejection of violence as a political tactic in the Kurdish mainstream, thus undermining the PKK’s raison d’être at a crucially fluid political juncture when political allegiances are being revisited and Kurdish concerns, though imperfectly, can be more openly voiced in the political arena.

Internationally, apart from the US list, the PKK has been placed on the EU’s list of terrorist organisations since 2003, and its European fundraising operations have received severe blows in the past few years. Turkey, a NATO member, remains a key ally in Washington’s Middle East strategy and, despite recent strains in that relation due to the US rejection of a Turkish-Brazilian mediated settlement to the Iranian nuclear standoff, the US desperately need Turkey on board at a time when American troops have left Iraq.

More importantly, the Arab Spring has realigned Washington’s interests with Ankara’s, as the latter has moved away from the Syrian and Iranian regimes to at least implicitly support a Saudi-Qatari-Jordanian ‘Sunni’ axis, and – occasional bouts of diplomacy notwithstanding – providing a strong counterbalance to Iranian influence in the region. Turkey’s combination of a mildly Islamist government with strong market credentials has gained universal accolades as a welcome alternative to more radical forms of political Islam, and an example to emulate in the region after the revolutionary dust settles and tentative moves towards democracy are taken.

Likewise, the Kurdish population seems to be as divided within Turkey as it is between its neighbouring countries. Having won its third consecutive term in power, the AKP has continued the old practice of surreptitiously arming local pro-government militias in order to counterbalance the PKK’s military power. Locally, this could escalate into a low-level conflict between what may amount to armed gangs bent on gaining control of territory and resources. Like other guerrilla movements, the PKK has been collecting taxes from the local population, which it may risk losing, along with the ‘protection money’ that it receives from local drugs and arms kingpins.

In order to ensure Iranian funds and logistical support, the PKK appears to have withdrawn its Iranian sister organisation, the PJAK, from Iran. The same can be said for Syria, where the PKK indirectly supports the regime, whereas the Syrian Kurdish population has been part of the uprising from day one, in spite of its heavy Arab nationalist tinge and Kurdish suspicions vis-à-vis the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main umbrella organisation of the Syrian opposition.

Finally, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, tacitly agreed to a massive cross border bombing campaign and search operation by the Turkish army and air force aimed at degrading PKK’s outposts and pursuing PKK fighters deep inside Northern Iraq. Although the populace there nurses some romantic support for the cause of their brothers and sisters in Turkey, the KRG cannot afford to lose US support in its efforts to enforce a federal system in Iraq, from which it would greatly benefit. Likewise, Turkish backing would come in handy in the ongoing dispute between the KRG and Baghdad over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, where Turkey has thus far supported the Iraqi central government whilst citing the interests of the city’s Turkmen.

Actually, trade between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan has boomed in recent years and already in 2010 it represented 70 percent of an estimated yearly total of 6.3 billion USD between the two countries. Unsurprisingly, Turkish companies represent half of all 1,760 foreign companies registered in Iraqi Kurdistan, winning bids for major infrastructural projects and featuring strongly in the region’s business fairs. Also, the KRG could supply most of the capacity of the Nabucco pipeline project, taking Middle Eastern natural gas to the European markets via Turkey. For this reason, businessmen and politicians alike are keen to stress that Turkey is Kurdistan’s bridge to Europe, whereas Kurdistan is in turn Turkey’s bridge to Iraq and the Gulf region.9

Undeniably, incidents such as the one in Uludere last December breathe much needed lifeblood into the PKK, by pandering to the radical argument that the Turkish government can be brought to negotiate only via the political use of violence. Further, whereas the organisation’s influence seems on the wane, such a trend may be dramatically reversed if the government is seen to fall prey of the military-security response without taking serious steps in finding a political solution to the Kurdish question. Even if most Kurds have renounced violence, the PKK can still muster enough support as the historic movement championing Kurdish rights. In other words, whereas many now disagree with its tactics, they do support its overall strategic goals, which coincide with those of the great majority of Kurds.


Although it is too early to write the PKK off, the organisation is facing one of its greatest challenges in the more than three decades of its existence, threatening to put into question its relevance and thus its very survival. Though imperfect and incomplete, the relative opening of the last decade has allowed Turkey’s Kurdish population to voice their grievances at the political level, with the majority of Kurds gradually relinquishing violence as a tactic.

However, the current crackdown by the government – possibly emboldened by its third consecutive victory at the polls – combined with the PKK’s declining star hold the potential to re-plunge the country into a vicious cycle of violence, in which the PKK would effectively step up its violent attacks thus exacting yet more state violence. From the organisation’s perspective, such escalation would serve the double purpose of justifying its relevance in the eyes of the Kurdish population and their money’s worth in the eyes of Turkey’s regional foes, namely Syria and Iran. In this context, it remains anyone’s guess what PKK field chief Murat Karayılan’s statement that ‘2012 will be our year…a year of change of strategy’ effectively means, although it seems fair to say that a continuation of the current trend would spell disaster for the country.

As the ‘zero-problems with neighbours’ policy fast becomes untenable, it is an illusion to think that Turkey will be able to continue playing such a dominant role in the region without having to confront the effects of the Arab Spring at home. This may come in terms of old-friends-now-turned-foes funding a return to violence on Turkish soil, or in terms of loss of credibility and standing, if not of accusations of outright hypocrisy, when supporting calls for democracy in the region whilst repressing the Kurdish population at home. The government should carefully re-consider its aggressive approach towards the Kurdish question, as it could backfire by pushing large segments of the Kurdish mainstream it has worked so hard to win over back into the PKK’s fold, thus bolstering the very organisation it is fighting against.

Finally, as the revolutionary upheavals are set to continue well into 2012, the question of future alternatives emerging in the Kurdish mainstream, especially from the youth, becomes crucial. In other words, if both the traditional (armed) and new (political) axes of the struggle are increasingly perceived as either irrelevant or too weak, respectively, to enforce a change of policy by the Turkish state, the possibility of a Kurdish (youth-led) movement taking matters in their own hands on the recent example of several countries around the region becomes very real.

And if such a movement were to transcend old Turkish-Kurdish divisions and unite the country’s youth – who represents more than half of its total population and is plagued by 21 percent unemployment, making one in three young Turks declare he has no trust in any institution – this would represent an insurmountable challenge not only to the PKK, but also to the ruling AKP who would both appear as obsolete and out-of-touch with the new reality as the various Mubaraks, Gaddafis, Assads and Ben Alis.

It remains to be seen if, in the face of increasing restrictions, the Kurdish population of Turkey will choose a return to the old methods of guerrilla embodied by the PKK or, in keeping with the spirit of the new revolutionary times, will choose the (mostly) non-violent path of massive mobilisation first taken by Tunisians and Egyptians and then followed by so many others around the region, and beyond.

1 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16352388

2 Turkey and the Kurds. Death upon death / The Economist 07.01.12

3 One of the most highly mediatic cases in the Ergenekon saga involves the former head of the armed forces, retired General Ilker Basbug. The trial of the thousands of people arrested is expected to last for years.

4 http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2011/10/2011102272338493300.html

5 http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/iran-and-turkey

6 ‘Iran is [also] said to be retaliating against Turkey's decisions to host the radar component of the NATO anti-missile shield.’ See Oxford Analitica – Kurdish stalemate exposes Turkey to foreign pressures, Monday, October 24 2011.

7 Over recent weeks it seems that Hamas has slowly been taking its distance from Damascus, where its political bureau is located, and the movement’s political leader Khaled Mashaal is reportedly spending more time outside of Syria than in the country. Likewise, Hamas deposed PM Ismail Haniya avoided Damascus in his latest diplomatic tour, whilst visiting instead Ankara and meeting with Mr Erdoğan. 

8 See the latest ICG report entitled Turkey: Ending the PKK insurgency, which eloquently calls it ‘the unbearable vagueness of ‘democratic autonomy.’’

9 http://www.globalpolitician.com/27139-rukey-iraq-relations

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