Counter-Terrorism: Turkey And The Fraying Kurdish Ceasefire

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July 31, 2014: Turkey is trying desperately to hold on to a March 2013 ceasefire with the PKK (Kurdish separatist rebels), at least until the presidential election on August 10th. The current president (Tayyip Erdogan) believes he needs the ceasefire to hold so he can get desperately needed Kurdish votes for his reelection. This effort has not been going well. There have been a growing number of violent incidents involving PKK fighters since last March.

The first year of the ceasefire passed without incident. But in the last four months there have been more and more violent incidents. PKK leaders point out that the ceasefire does not mean peace. That is interpreted by intelligence analysts as a reminded that the PKK (and their Syrian counterparts of the PYD) are caught up in the Syrian civil war. Most of the violent incidents in the last four months have occurred as PKK or PYD men crossed the border to or from Turkey and Syria. The PKK is aiding the beleaguered Kurds of northeast Syria who are under heavy attack by Islamic terrorist Syrian rebel groups.

The 2013 ceasefire deal involved PKK moving all its armed members to northern Iraq (an area Iraqi Kurds have controlled since the early 1990s) and Turkey passing laws to give the 15 million Turkism Kurds (most of them in southeast Turkey) more autonomy and freedom from laws restricting the open use of the Kurdish language and customs.  The PKK believes the Turks are reluctant to the pass the laws.

The recent violence is believed to be the result of factionalism within PKK. This has long been a problem with the Kurds and, despite constant efforts to impose discipline, in PKK as well. Many PKK members want to continue fighting until southeastern Turkey is an independent state. This is something most Turks refuse to consider and even getting most Turks to agree to more Kurdish autonomy is a major achievement. Even more PKK men want to fight in Syria and it is easier to get there via Turkey. The Turks are sympathetic with the plight of the Syrian Kurds but are reluctant to openly aid the PKK there. Moreover some Turkish intel analysts believe that many of these border incidents are mainly about smuggling for cash, not for protecting Syrian Kurds.

There is also a lot of friction between the Iraqi Kurds and the PKK. Part of that was revealed earlier in 2014 when the leader of the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq admitted that in 2006 he resisted pressure from the United States and Iraq to join in an attack on PKK bases in northern Iraq and refused to cooperate. The Iraqi Kurds now see this gesture as unappreciated by the PKK.  Armed Kurdish resistance has been going on, and off, for centuries. When the Turks first entered what is now eastern Turkey some of the first people they encountered and fought were Kurds. The unrest among Turkish Kurds turns comes from genuine Kurdish nationalism and an ancient Kurdish dreams of an independent Kurdistan. This Kurdish state was supposed to be established after World War I but got aborted by a Greek invasion of western Turkey and a massive Turkish military response to that, and any other separatist movements. During the Cold War (1947-91) Russia supported and encouraged Kurdish radicals as a way to destabilize Turkey, an important member of NATO. That led to Kurdish separatist activity in Iran, Iraq, and Syria as well. During the Cold War Turkey gave refuge to Kurdish refugees fleeing Iraqi oppression. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-89) both sides made use of Kurdish nationalists to weaken the other side. That was followed by a brutal Iraqi offensive against their own Kurds in 1988, including dousing Kurdish villages with poison gas. This led to even more Kurdish refugees inside Turkey.

The PKK got organized in the 1970s and declared war on Turkey in 1984. Since then over 40,000 people have died (73 percent PKK members, 14 percent security forces and 13 percent civilians, most of them Kurds). Not only are most Kurds eager to see an end to the violence, but also to the PKK custom of kidnapping teenage boys and taking them to remote camps where they are persuaded to become full time PKK fighters. Most of the kidnapped kids decide to stay and fight and a quarter or more of them get killed or die from something else while with the PKK. Many teenage Kurds will join PKK voluntarily, so the kidnapping program causes a lot of anger among the Kurds of southeast Turkey and they want more action by Turkey to stop the practice and find their lost children.  For the PKK, such kidnappings are the only way to maintain their combat strength, which is currently about 5,000 full time fighters and over 10,000 part timers.

Kurds everywhere are encouraged by Turkish tolerance, and trade relations with, the autonomous Kurds in northern Iraq. Yet the Turks have made it known that there are limits to this tolerance. Moreover, Kurds remember that Kurdish northern Iraq was once part of the Turkish homeland, not a conquered province like the rest of Iraq. The victorious Allies took northern Iraq away from Turkey in 1918 to deprive Turkey of the oil known to exist in that area. The Allies feared the Turks would use the oil wealth to rebuild their armed forces. The Turks rebuilt their armed forces without the oil and after World War II because a staunch member of the NATO alliance (meant to defend Europe from Soviet aggression). Kurds are aware that many Turks would like their lost province back. The Kurds also appreciate that the Turks are shrewd and know how to play a long game and many Kurds see the Turks maneuvering to get their lost province back eventually, no matter how long it takes.

 

 


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