Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Is the PKK in Turkey on the Ropes?

Is the PKK in Turkey on the Ropes?

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has apparently been set adrift. Ever since last February, when Turkey captured the terrorist organization’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the group has struggled— and largely failed— to maintain any sense of its former military or political cohesion. In this respect the movement’s fate mirrors that of Peru’s Shining Path, whose rapid and steady decline was linked closely to the capture of its founder and supreme leader, Abimael Guzman. The reason is simple: real and aspiring dictators seldom surround themselves with others of similar talents and charisma.

If the Kurdish group’s latest declarations are to be believed, it has transformed itself so much as to be unrecognizable. Ocalan, now sentenced to death, has discovered a vocation as (of all things) a peacemaker. He renounced violence and stated that the PKK’s new goal is a culturally autonomous Turkish Kurdistan rather than a communist state of Kurdistan taken from parts of Iran, Iraq, southeastern Turkey, and Syria. And Ocalan, from his prison cell, even ordered PKK terrorists out of Turkish territory beginning September 1st.

All of this, naturally, seems quite encouraging, suggesting at last an end to bloodshed that has killed at least 30,000 people— and coming just when weary Turkey is dealing with the trauma of the August earthquake.

There are two problems with that view. One is that Ocalan, forcing his softened voice through the cracks in the prison walls, cannot wield the same control over the organization he once did and so is not necessarily a reliable spokesperson. The other problem is that the PKK’s shift is in all likelihood merely a rhetorical mask for other goals. Specifically, the PKK is trying to do the following:

1) SAVE OCALAN’s SKIN. His fate is now in the hands of the nationalist-dominated Turkish Parliament, which must confirm his death sentence. Ocalan knows that his anti-violence message, delivered from prison, will ensure massive West European political pressure for a commutation of his sentence. Considering Turkey’s need for substantial foreign aid after the devastating earthquake, this may well work.

2) SNATCH POLITICAL VICTORY FROM THE JAWS OF MILITARY DEFEAT. The PKK has suffered severe setbacks of late. By the end of this summer, it was reduced to merely 1,500 guerrillas inside Turkey— one tenth of its strength seven years ago — and lacks high-ranking commanders, all of whom stayed safely outside the country. A trip to the region by this author also suggested that the concentration of Kurds in fewer, but larger, population centers has denied the PKK access to supplies and recruits. Simply put, the PKK inside Turkey is withering on the vine. Claiming a “voluntary” withdrawal under orders from Ocalan simply hides imminent military defeat.

3) MOVE ITS AREA OF OPERATIONS. Borrowing a page from strategists elsewhere, the PKK has realized that it must go “out of area or out of business.” Long sustained by support from Turkey’s enemies in the region— Syria, Iran, and Iraq— the PKK is now finding itself snubbed. Under military threat from Ankara, last October Syria expelled most of the PKK cadres (including Ocalan) who had established bases there. Iran, under similar pressure and already wary of the PKK’s pan-Kurdish claims, is now reluctant to provide the kind of support that it did as recently as a year ago. And Saddam Hussein is unable to do much about northern Iraq, since he does not control the area. The PKK’s other supporters— Greece, Armenia, and Russia — are too busy dealing with their own internal problems to be of much help, and in any event could not make up for the loss of important rear bases in Syria, Iran, and Iraq. And Athens’ long- standing aid for a terrorist group in a fellow NATO country has rightfully turned into a public relations disaster.

Whither the PKK? The most logical retreat would be into northern Iraq— except that most of the border in that area is under the control of an alliance of pro-Turkish Kurds and the Turkish military, while the rest, in the Hakkari and Van provinces, depends on Iran and its Kurdish protegees in Iraq. Retreat into Armenia, on the other hand, would entail the risk of crossing hundreds of miles of Turkish-controlled territory without even the certainty of admittance once the Kurds reached the border. Armenia is a small country that cannot afford the significant threat from Turkey which it would certainly face if it allowed the PKK to enter. The remaining option is for the PKK to remain hidden and inactive in Turkey— forced to choose between starvation and surrender.

Any Turkish triumphalism at this point, however, would be premature, because the PKK’s political fortunes have not exactly mirrored its military troubles. For one thing, the Maoist Kurds can still count on a measure of sympathy in wealthy Western Europe, particularly in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Some leftists have remained enamored with the PKK’s unabashed Marxism, while certain misguided human rights groups are more preoccupied with abuses (real or imagined) by the Turkish police and military than the PKK’s own brutal violence. Moreover, Western sentimentalism for the “underdog” (no matter how unsavory) ensures a degree of success on the battlefield of public opinion.

Nor does the PKK face bankruptcy. It remains a very wealthy organization, largely due to heroin trafficking in Western Europe and racketeering among the huge Kurdish diaspora in Germany.

That the PKK’s cadres in Europe should be enjoying a degree of success while the militants inside Turkey face such dire straits is just one sign of the fundamental struggle currently going on within the organization. Consider that the PKK is now preparing for its 7th Congress— the second this year alone and the third since 1995; there were only four such meetings between 1978 and 1995. The ongoing struggle for the succession to Ocalan has obviously left the group in a state of severe disarray. The West European branch, which controls the funds and propaganda apparatus, is competing with the militaristic faction in the Middle East, led by the most important remaining founding member of the PKK, Cemil Bayik. Bayik has expressed his doubts about Ocalan’s strategy of paying lip service to nonviolence, while another commander, Osman Ocalan (Abdullah’s brother), has unsurprisingly toed the line. How far this division will go remains to be seen, but the PKK’s future is cloudy at best.

Again, the experience of the Shining Path may be instructive here. After Guzman’s capture, that movement split between ideologues on the one side and cocaine-trafficking revolutionaries on the other. Ultimately, the schism proved fatal to both of them.

That precedent unfortunately does not mean that an endgame against the PKK can be played out easily or cheaply in the event of a “militarist/Europeanist” split. The former, on the brink of terminal defeat, may well engage in urban terrorism (bombings, assassinations, and the like) throughout the major urban centers in Turkey, perhaps in alliance with another Maoist terrorist group, the People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (DHKC). At the same time, the savvy European branch of the PKK would no doubt decry the loss of life, while excusing it under the pretext that it was provoked by Turkish “repression,” and trying to profit from it by presenting itself as the self-appointed “representative” of the Turkish Kurds, ready for a “political solution.” This author’s recent experience in Turkey suggests that such political attacks are the most difficult for Ankara to parry effectively.

But Washington — and indeed the European Union — could play a constructive role in several ways. First, they should declare its unambiguous support for Turkey, a vital and loyal ally in a strategically dicey neighborhood. Second, pronouncements by the likes of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh— demanding that Turkey tolerate PKK fronts under the guise of human rights— should be halted, for they can only help to revive the PKK’s fortunes and make possible a return to terrorism. Third, “Kurdish” groups in America and Europe that provide logistical and financial support for terrorists should be monitored more closely.

There is no doubt that the PKK is on the ropes. But a decisive split in the organization’s already fractious leadership will mean only that a military victory by Turkey does not suffice to slay the multi-headed serpent.