Military action against PKK a huge gamble for Turkey

Military action against PKK a huge gamble for Turkey
Analysis: Turkey’s offensive against the PKK is unlikely to land a fatal blow on the organisation, but has probably undermined future peace talks.
5 min read
21 August, 2015
Turkish soldiers have frequently been killed in attacks blamed on the PKK [Getty]

Turkey's almost month-long campaign of air raids in the Turkish southeast and the north of Iraq has killed 771 militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the state news agency Anatolia said on Friday.

The agency, whose figures could not be confirmed independently, said among those killed were 430 rebels who died in air raids on PKK camps in Iraq.

Another 260 were killed in ground operations in southeastern Turkey, Anatolia said, quoting what it said were sources in military intelligence.

However, analysts said Turkey could not destroy the armed group, only weaken it.

With some 50 Turkish soldiers killed in attacks blamed on the PKK over the past month, the campaign also risks creating an uncontrolled escalation that could wreck the chances of agreeing a final settlement to end the PKK's 30-year insurgency.

The pro-Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also hoping for a political windfall as it prepares for a re-run of recent elections in which the ruling party lost its overall majority for the first time since 2002.

The aim is to weaken the PKK so it comes back to the negotiation table from a position of weakness.
 - Soner Cagaptay

The new election will take place on 1 November.

The aim is "not to kill the PKK, not to decapitate it, not to provoke it into a full-scale war - but to weaken it so it comes back to the negotiation table from a position of weakness", Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, told AFP.

"But this is not a lab environment. There are various dynamics that could get out of control," he added.

Eight Turkish soldiers were killed on Wednesday in a remote-controlled roadside bomb thought to have been set by the PKK in the southeastern Siirt province, in the single deadliest attack during this phase of the conflict.

Unable to land a crippling blow

The offensive was launched after Turkey was hit by one of its deadliest attacks in recent years, when 33 pro-Kurdish activists were killed in a on July 20 suicide bombing on the Syrian border blamed on Islamic State group fighters.

The attack prompted a furious reaction from Kurdish militants, who shot dead two police in their sleep.

Ankara on July 24 launched its first air raids against IS in Syria and then also began attacking PKK targets in northern Iraq, in a dual-fronted "war on terror".

But, so far, the campaign against IS is very much on ice - for coordination purposes, according to US and Turkish officials - while the strikes against the PKK have been relentless.

US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said on Thursday that Turkey should play a full part in the US-led air campaign against the IS group.

Pentagon chief Ashton Carter said Turkey had agreed in principle to join the anti-IS coalition but should now add its own warplanes to the "air tasking order" (ATO) - the military structure coordinating bombing raids.

"They need to join the ATO and they need to work more on controlling their border. And we've made that clear," Carter told reporters.

"Their leadership has indicated that this needs to be done. It's overdue, because it's a year into the campaign, but they're indicating some considerable effort now."

A 'fatal blow'

Analysts have cast doubt on the numbers of PKK militants the state-run news agency said had been killed in the campaign, saying dealing a fatal blow to the PKK would be impossible without a full-scale ground campaign.

"The PKK probably lost a few dozen people early on as they were not expecting such a sudden or ferocious series of air strikes," said David Romano, professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University.

The PKK has lots of experience dispersing and hiding from the Turkish military.
- David Romano

"However, the PKK has lots of experience dispersing and hiding from the Turkish military."

According to Anatolia, the PKK's military leadership has split into three, with some heading to northern Syria, others staying in Iraq and a third group fleeing to northwestern Iran. The PKK's de-facto leader, Murat Karayilan, is understood to be among the third group, but there is no hard evidence to back this up.

"In the absence of a parallel cross-border operation that would involve ground troops, air strikes are effective only to an extent. They are more symbolic than crippling," said Cagaptay.

Torpedoing the chance for peace

Analysts say Erdogan may also see a chance of using the situation to squeeze the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) in a re-run of the polls by whipping up concerns over its alleged links to the PKK and hoping voters instead opt for his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

For Erdogan "this is a chance to reshape the composition of the current parliament as Turkey heads into early elections", said Cagaptay.

The Marxist-Leninist inspired PKK first formally took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984, launching an insurgency that has since claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Initially it demanded full-scale independence for Turkey's Kurds in the southeast, although now the focus is on regional autonomy and greater rights.

Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, held on a Turkish island since his extraordinary arrest by Turkish special forces in Kenya 1999, declared a ceasefire in 2013, which has been left in tatters by the current violence.

"The peace process is in great difficulty," said a Turkish government official.

"As long as the PKK refrains from giving a concrete timetable for disarmament, the operations will continue," the official added.

Quite how peace negotiations can restart is unclear, with Ocalan deprived of visits and cut off from the process.
"Negotiations will be harder, not easier. After this, trust is gone," said Romano.

Pinar Elman, Turkey analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), said the past had shown that military means were not enough to defeat the PKK and reforms were needed.

"The PKK benefits from the Kurdish problem in Turkey and of the sociological base created by this problem," she said.

"Turkey should question how the PKK has been able to recruit among young people despite the peace process."