On The Ledge

4 days after the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) attacked a Turkish battalion stationed near the Northern Iraq border (with least 12 Turkish soldiers killed, 16 injured, and 8 reportedly captured by PKK forces) the mood in Ankara, Irbil, and Washington remains tense. Despite a reported ceasefire offer from the PKK on Tuesday and promises from Iraqi government officials that Baghdad will step up efforts to reign in rebel forces based in Northern Iraq, Turkey has continued to escalate its hawkish rhetoric–and tactics.

BBC News:

Turkish fighter jets have bombed several Kurdish PKK rebel positions on the border with Iraq, according to the semi-official Anatolia news agency.

Fighter jets reportedly destroyed mountain bases in the Turkish provinces of Sirnak, Hakkiri, Siirt and Van, and bombed mountain paths used by fighters.

[…]

A Turkish government official confirmed that Turkish artillery units shelled rebel positions on Tuesday night but refused to give further information.

Earlier Hurriyet newspaper quoted Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek as saying that Turkish F-16 bombers had flown at least 20km (12.4 miles) into Iraqi territory on Sunday and struck guerrilla training camps.

Public pressure is mounting on the moderate Islamic AK government to take the fight to Northern Iraq, a prospect that could threaten to destabilize the entire region.

Mark MacKinnon of the Globe and Mail:

Many Turks believe that [Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud] Barzani, who has thick ties to the PKK dating back to his days as a guerrilla leader fighting for Kurdish independence from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, has been providing support and bases to the group.

“People are calling for something to be done about Barzani also,” said Ihsan Bal, a terrorism expert at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization. “Every day he’s on the television saying he cannot do anything against the PKK, and that the PKK is not a terrorist organization. Now people want to see him punished also.”

Mr. Bal said that because of the intense public pressure, some sort of Turkish military action was likely “sooner rather than later.”

[…]
Mehmet Ali Kislali, veteran military correspondent at the Radikal newspaper, said that while a full-scale invasion isn’t likely in the cards, the military is contemplating establishing bases on the Iraqi side of the border – akin to the “security zone” Israel once maintained in south Lebanon – in order to cut off the PKK’s routes through the mountains into Turkey.

Mr. Kislali said that while the mildly Islamist government of Mr. Erdogan and the staunchly secular military have had strong differences in the past, there is no quarrel between them over the need to deal with the PKK. “There is full understanding on this between the military and the government,” he said. “The government has left all the decisions to the military.”
[…]
“This is not about a cross-border operation any more. If Turkey gets into northern Iraq, it is total war,” wrote Yalcin Dogan, a columnist with the Hurriyet daily newspaper. “You might get into northern Iraq, claiming it is about the PKK, but it may turn into a war between Turkey and northern Iraq or even Iraq.”

As Turkish officials mull the operational concerns of a ground incursion into northern Iraq and ponder alternatives to military action, some analysts believe the PKK is deliberately attempting to draw Turkey into a guerrilla-style conflict that could bog down Ankara and potentially sweep up US and Iraqi forces:

A Turkish offensive would bring NATO-ally Turkey face-to-face with US and Iraqi Kurdish forces, as well as the PKK. It could also destabilize northern Iraq – the one area of Iraq relatively calm since the 2003 US invasion – and embroil its troops in a quagmire.

“The PKK wants Turkey to engage in full-scale, extensive warfare – not just with the PKK in northern Iraq, but with the Iraqi Kurdish [forces] and to draw in the US and other foreign powers,” says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the Chatham House think tank in London.

One purpose, says Mr. Hakura, would be to “reenergize their popular base” which has “been on a rapid decline” in southeast Turkey, where ethnic Kurds are broadly sympathetic to PKK aims, but often oppose violent methods.

That PKK strategy is “based on the assumption that the Turkish government is trigger-happy, nationalistic, and willing to take a knee-jerk reaction,” says Mr. Hakura. “But the Erdogan government is far more calculating … and has indicated a clear preference for diplomacy over military action.”

Despite the build up of some 60,000 Turkish troops – and repeated assurances from Ankara that Turkey will limit its attacks to PKK targets – so far generals are pushing diplomacy, aware that 24 cross-border operations in past decades have failed to destroy the militants.

Gareth Jenkins of the Jamestown Foundation believes the PKK is aware of the Turkish government’s reluctance to engage in a full-scale assault, and is “adopting new battlefield tactics in order to increase the psychological pressure on Turkey in the hope of forcing the Turkish authorities to enter into peace negotiations”:

The staging of the attack on October 21, just days after the Turkish parliament approved a motion authorizing the deployment of Turkish troops in a cross-border operation against the PKK’s presence in northern Iraq, seems to have been designed to try to provoke Turkey to threaten an incursion in the hopes that the international community would intervene and argue that a permanent solution to PKK violence could only come through the opening of negotiations… .

The mounting Turkish military presence on the border and prospects of a ground incursion is breeding apprehension within Northern Iraq’s Kurdish population, many of whom, though sympathetic to the nationalistic aims of the PKK, fear its tactics threaten regional stability:

“I think it is wrong”, one man said. “The PKK should go back into Turkey and struggle. There is a new government in this area. We are in the beginning.

“If they want to go to Turkey they should go there to fight for their rights”.

But despite the looming threat of escalating conflict, some Kurds in Northern Iraq remain defiant:

“Relations (between Kurds and Turks) have broken down. The only way for Kurds now is to create their own state,” said Mahmut Ciq, 43, a worker in the regional capital Diyarbakir.

“If necessary, I will grab my weapons, go out into the street and fight (the Turkish troops).”

[Update: AP reports that continued Turkish air strikes on Northern Iraq are bolstering defiant resolve among Kurds in the region:

According to a report in one Kurdish newspaper, residents living near one of the largest Turkish bases in Iraq threatened to attack it if the Turkish military continues to hit civilian areas with artillery.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish regional government has dispatched units of its Peshmerga Defense Forces from the southern Kurdistan to the north. More than 100 of the fighters arrived yesterday morning in Dohuk, the capital of the region, in white buses.

Smaller units of Peshmerga were seen mustering in mosques and schools near the border, which they usually avoid because of the risk of clashes with the Turks. Several convoys of what were evidently high-ranking Peshmerga commanders, in their distinctive white sport-utility vehicles, were spotted in the area.

Muhammed Mohsin, an official with northern Iraq’s dominant Kurdish Democratic Party in the Amadiya border area, said more than 50 villages in his area have been bombarded by Turkish artillery shells in recent days.

Mohsin, one of the most influential political figures in Amadiya, said residents and the Peshmerga have already laid plans for fighting the Turkish military, if it mounts a large-scale invasion.

“Our tactic is partisan fighting, a partisan conflict,” Mohsin said. “If they attack, we are going to launch a partisan war against them.”]

There are fears that recent (admittedly minimal) government concessions to Turkey’s Kurdish population (following decades of violent state repression backed by US military aid dollars) may be jeopardized by increasingly nationalistic public sentiment in response to the latest attacks by the PKK. But opinion among the Kurdish minority is not monolithic:

“It’s starting to look like the ’90s again, and it could get a lot worse,” said one of the [Yukoskova village guards, Kurds who are armed and paid by Turkey to patrol villages or rural territory], who did not want to be identified because they are not allowed to speak to the media. “Many, many people could die. And it’s not so easy. The PKK is not just in northern Iraq. They’re here, they’re in Istanbul, in Europe….” Back in Yuksekova, a number of Kurds said they were worried that the escalating crisis would erode recent gains in social and political fields. Under pressure from a European Union that Turkey hopes to join, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has allowed limited television broadcasts in the Kurdish language and some teaching in Kurdish, and dozens of Kurds now sit in parliament.

“Where there is war there is no development, no progress,” said Mehmet Yardimci, 47, a member of the mayor’s political party. “It does not benefit anybody.”

“Back in Yuksekova, a number of Kurds said they were worried that the escalating crisis would erode recent gains in social and political fields. Under pressure from a European Union that Turkey hopes to join, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has allowed limited television broadcasts in the Kurdish language and some teaching in Kurdish, and dozens of Kurds now sit in parliament.

“Where there is war there is no development, no progress,” said Mehmet Yardimci, 47, a member of the mayor’s political party. “It does not benefit anybody.”

[…]

Abdulmenaf Duzenci, who like many Kurds in southeastern Turkey makes his living by trading consumer goods for fuel from Iraqi Kurdistan, said he did not believe Turkey would turn back the clock completely on Turkish Kurds.

“It’s not really possible to go back to those old days,” said Duzenci, 44. “People have changed the way they think. Even the simplest person nowadays knows more about what is happening.”

But a colleague disagreed.

“The reason why Turkey is escalating this conflict is not because they want to go into Iraq, but because they want to blackmail the rest of the world so that they can suppress any Kurdish activity here,” said the man, who did not give his name. “They do not really want to give us our rights.””

The US is feeling the pressure of being caught between two important strategic partners, as General David Petraeus outlined in an interview with BBC News:

“First of all, the Turkish forces are our long-time allies,” he said.

“We are in direct communication. We have very close liaison. We talk to counterparts there. I did talk in recent days with a very senior Turkish officer. This is an exceedingly difficult position for us.

“We have a Nato ally on one side and on the other side, of course, another ally with whom we are engaged in fighting difficult insurgent enemies.”

Gen Petraeus spoke of his hope that those with ties to Kurdish PKK rebels would convey to them the seriousness of the situation; to get them, as he put it: “To step back off the ledge and not to make the situation worse than it is.”

He also left open the possibility that “some may have an objective of trying to provoke the Turkish forces into carrying out an action and, of course, that is a concern”.

Though the US (along with NATO and the EU) has publicly designated the PKK a terrorist organization and has been putting pressure on the KRG to reign in guerrilla activity directed against Turkey, the strategic picture becomes decidedly murky when one looks at the other liberation front on the Kurdish nationalist agenda: Iran.

The New York Times:

The guerrillas from the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, or P.J.A.K., have been waging a deadly insurgency in Iran and they are an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the P.K.K., the Kurdish guerrillas who fight Turkey.

Like the P.K.K., the Iranian Kurds control much of the craggy, boulder-strewn frontier and routinely ambush patrols on the other side. But while the Americans call the P.K.K. terrorists, guerrilla commanders say P.J.A.K. has had “direct or indirect discussions” with American officials. They would not divulge any details of the discussions or the level of the officials involved, but they noted that the group’s leader, Rahman Haj-Ahmadi, visited Washington last summer.

Biryar Gabar, one of 11 members of the group’s leadership, said there had been “normal dialogue” with American officials, declining specifics. One of his bodyguards said officials of the group met with Americans in Kirkuk last year.

[…]

Guerrilla leaders said the Americans classify the P.K.K. as a terrorist group because it is fighting Turkey, an important American ally, while the P.J.A.K. is not labeled as such because it is fighting Iran.

In fact, the two groups appear to a large extent to be one and the same, and share the same goal: fighting campaigns to win new autonomy and rights for Kurds in Iran and Turkey. They share leadership, logistics and allegiance to Abdullah Ocalan, the P.K.K. leader imprisoned in Turkey.

While most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, the guerrillas reject Islamic fundamentalism. Instead, they trace their roots to a Marxist past. They still espouse what they call “scientific socialism” and promote women’s rights.

Deborah Haynes has more on the women fighting for Kurdish liberation:

Women play a crucial role in the PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades in a campaign that has cost more than 30,000 lives.

[…]

Treated as equals by their male counterparts on the battlefield as well as in the political arena, women fighters are trained to use Kalashnikovs, grenades and other weapons before being dispatched in mixed and single-sex units.

The best women fighters are also able to climb up the ranks to positions of command, with the “self-defence” armed wing of the PKK operating an obligatory 40 per cent female quota.

“If a Turkish soldier comes and wants to kill me, then I shoot him back,” said a woman called Surbuz, who joined the PKK in 1993.

“That is the mechanism of war. It becomes a part of everyday life,” the 32-year-old said, dressed in baggy, dull-green trousers and a shirt with a woollen jumper over the top.

[…]

At first the Turkish Army did not take the women rebels, who have been part of the PKK’s armed struggle since it was begun in 1984, seriously.

“Then they realised that the women are as tough if not tougher than the men,” said Surbuz, an attractive woman with short, bobbed, brown hair.

“After this the soldiers stopped distinguishing between the male and the female fighters. I think they are now more afraid of the women because the women are more disciplined and they will never surrender.”

“We will either kill or be killed,” she added. “For me it is freedom, success or death. It is simple.

With US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice scheduled to visit Turkey next week ” in a new diplomatic push to reduce tensions between Turkey and Iraq over Kurdish rebels,” at this point the one regional actor poised to gain from the situation appears to be Iran:

Iran’s radical Islamic government, eager to expand its regional influence and resist U.S. efforts to isolate it, is wooing the Turks by showcasing its bombardment of the camps of Kurdish fighters along its border, according to experts on the region.

The Iranians draw a pointed contrast between their willingness to act and what Turks see as a failure by the U.S. and its Iraqi partners to move against other Kurdish camps in northern Iraq.

“Iranians are realizing the lack of U.S. action is creating a massive amount of anger against the U.S. in Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, who heads the Turkish studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s an incredible opportunity for Iran, which the Iranians have used so smartly, driving a wedge between Turkey and the United States.”

[…]

While the impact of the crisis on Iranian-Turkish relations has received relatively little attention in the U.S., it represents a serious challenge to Bush’s policy of reining in Iran, experts say.

“The Iranians seem to be very good at incremental additions to their influence,” said Henri Barkey, a former State Department planner.

[…]

The Iranians are bombing Kurdish camps for their own reasons: The fighters based there — members of a PKK offshoot called the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK — often attack Iranian forces.

Still, the Iranians don’t hesitate to play up their actions with the Turks, said Barkey, who now heads the international relations department at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “You see the Iranian ambassador giving interviews to Turkish journalists, saying that they go after the PKK and the Americans, who control Iraq, do not,” he said.

[…]

Iran’s foreign ministry said Oct. 21 that “security cooperation” was essential to confronting the threat of cross- border Kurdish terrorism, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.

“Freedom, success or death.” If only it were so simple.

Related: Kyle with background on Turkey, the PKK and the “shadow state conflict”; more from Sy Hersh and the WSWS on how the US is using the PJAK in a clandestine proxy war against Iran. Also see Cihan Tugal on ‘Nato’s Islamists.’

Update 2: William Arkin:

For all of Maliki’s pledges, the U.S. military is coming to the realization that Iraq isn’t really going to do much about the PKK. The Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, said Sunday that the Kurdish regional government would not hand over any Kurd to Turkey — not “even a Kurdish cat.” Meanwhile, The Chicago Tribune is reporting that the U.S. is considering air strikes against the PKK to stave off a Turkish invasion. The spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Washington, Qubad Talabany, told the Tribune that “If the U.S. starts bombing PKK camps in the north, Turkey will be ablaze tomorrow.”

This is hyperbole. But it does looks like the United States is going to support yet another “war” against terrorism to help the Turkish military eliminate the PKK.

Update 3: Patrick Cockburn:

Despite threats of action by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, the PKK leaders give no sense of feeling that their enemies were closing in.

For a guerrilla movement awaiting assault, the PKK’s leaders are surprisingly easy to find. We drove east from Arbil for two-and-a-half hours and hired a four-wheel drive car in the village of Sangassar. Iraqi police wearing camouflage uniform were at work building a new outpost out of cement blocks beside the road leading into the mountains but only took our names.

In fact the four-wheel drive was hardly necessary because there is a military road constructed by Saddam Hussein’s army in the 1980s which zig-zags along the side of a steep valley until it reaches the first PKK checkpoint. The PKK soldiers with Kalashnikovs and two grenades pinned to the front of their uniform were relaxed and efficient. In case anybody should have any doubt about who was in control there was an enormous picture of the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan picked out in yellow, black, white and red painted stones on a hill half a mile away and visible over a wide area.

There were no sign that threats from Mr Maliki in Baghdad or from the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, were having an effect. […]

So far the PKK is benefiting substantially from the crisis which started this summer when it began to make more attacks within Turkey. Instead of being politically marginalised in its hidden valleys, it is suddenly at the centre of international attention. This will help it try to rebuild its battered political base within Turkey where it suffered defeat in the 1990s and where its leader Abdullah Ocalan has been imprisoned since 1999.

3 Responses to “On The Ledge”

  1. Macswain says:

    Matty,

    Great coverage of the issue. Better than anything I’ve read in the MSM. Indeed, in the MSM you’re lucky if you hear of Barzani or Ocalan and forget about a discussion of the goofball distinction being drawn between PKK and PJAK.

  2. matttbastard says:

    Thanks, Mac.

    I have no idea what’s going to happen, but it was only a matter of time before hypocritical US support of PJAK was going to cause serious geopolitical blowback–especially with increasingly vocal nationalist sentiment within Turkey and an ever-more assertive Kurdish state at its borders.

    It’s one thing to act as if the public (and media) is stupid, or that strategic competitors like Iran (teh evul enemy du jour!) are, like, totally crazy and thus could neva eva diplomatically outmaneuver the US; but it scares the fuck out of me to be constantly reminded that there’s still an influential block within the US gov’t that actually appears to believe its own bullshit with regards to foreign policy.

    Talk about living the gimmick.

    All that said, biji Kurdistan. Fuck the fascist ultranationalists in Ankara; there’s still enough Trot in me to naturally feel solidarity with a legitimate liberation/resistance movement.

    Still, despite broad Kurdish support for the AKP, I doubt that everyone’s favourite neoliberal Islamist government will be able to resist burgeoning Turkish nationalism if it wishes to survive its mandate–especially with the Gray Wolves howling again. Even nominal liberals are breaking out the red and white en masse.

  3. matttbastard says:

    Re: burgeoning Turkish nationalism

    The Independent:

    In central Istanbul on Monday, gangs of nationalist youths threw stones at windows in the mainly Kurdish district of Tarlabasi. In the southern town of Osmaniye on Tuesday, a couple armed with a shotgun blocked motorway traffic and told drivers to shout “down with the PKK”. They did so, and applauded the couple when police came to arrest them.

    But the incident that perhaps best summed up the atmosphere of patriotic fervour was the treatment meted out to Galatasaray football club’s German manager Karl Heinz Feldkamp, after he dodged a journalist’s question on his reaction to Sunday’s attacks.

    “Of course they won’t answer,” said Erhan Toroglu, a Turkish football commentator. “Because they are the ones selling weapons and giving financial support [to the PKK].*

    […]

    A columnist for the Milliyet newspaper, Ece Temelkuran, said that in a country like Turkey, officials are not doing enough to calm nerves. “Anger and hatred are as deep and vigorous today as they have perhaps ever been in Turkey’s history,” she wrote. “The end of this road could be Bosnia.”

    *see Europe’s Terror Problem: PKK Fronts Inside the EU.

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