Kurdish-Turkish War Escalates

by Robert Olson

On March 15, Duran Kalkan, one of the main leaders of the PKK, stated that March would be a Kurdish Spring, at least for the Kurds in Turkey. Kalkan announced that the PKK would extend its war against Ankara to all of western Turkey, including the major cities of Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Terrorist attacks would also likely take place along the tourist-favored Mediterranean coast.

This announcement came two days after an attack in the central square of Ankara that killed 37 people and wounded at least 125. It was perpetrated by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a Turkish guerrilla group purported to be connected to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and hence to the Democratic Union Party (YPD) and its army, the People’s Protective Units (YPG), operating in Syria.

Four days before the attack, the PKK news outlet Yeni Ozgur Politika, published an interview with Cemil Bayik, the co-president of the Union of Kurdistan Cities (KCK), in his Kandil Mountain headquarters in northern Iraq. In the interview, Bayik expanded on the PKK’s strategy in the coming months.

Bayik excoriated the policies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan toward the Kurds. Bayik was enraged by the destruction of the cities and towns of southeast Turkey, the cost of which reliable sources in Diyarbakir place at billions of dollars. He said that such enmity against Kurds did not exist in Syria or even in Iraq where Kurds claim they experienced genocide. Despite the brutality of Turkey’s army and security forces and despite the West’s claims to champion democracy and human values, he said that the West “does not object to the Turkish state’s policies toward Kurds. The Turkish state has gone mad and does not even allow parents to mourn the deaths of their children. Until not long before, the war with the Turkish army was only in the mountains, then it spread to towns and provinces.” He implied that any order given to those who carried out terrorist attacks would be legitimate.

Turkish authorities responded in kind even before the March 13 attack, Interior Minister Efkan Ala said that operations would continue until all forces connected to the PKK/KCK were eliminated. By March 11, a spokesmen for the General Staff claimed that over 1,000 PKK had been killed. Just in Diyarbakir’s historical center of Sur, 206 barricades had been removed and 365 improvised explosives had been deactivated. Various reports in Kurdish media place the number of Kurds and Turks killed much higher.

As a result of the March 13 attack, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu ordered even tighter security measures in all of the major cities of Turkey.

On March 16, the PYD declared that it would proclaim autonomy in the northern part of Syria that borders Turkey by advocating a federal system in the three cantons that it controls. Only two of the cantons—Jazira and Kobanê—have been connected. The YPG has been attempting for several months to connect the third canton of Afrin in northwest Syria near the border with Turkey. It has been unable to do so because of savage battles taking place between anti-Assad forces and various jihadist groups, the latter supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

Turkey has stated time again that it would not allow the three largely Kurdish cantons to be connected under any circumstances. Ankara prefers a zone to be established on Syria’s side of the border in which some of the estimated 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey could be repatriated.

If the current war between Turkey and the PKK/KCK escalates further in the coming months—and particularly if the PKK proceeds to perpetrate terrorist attacks in Turkey’s large western cities—Turkey may well send forces into Rojava, the Kurdish name for Western Kurdistan, and attack YPG forces in Syria. Then all hopes for federalism in Rojava, or in any part of Syria, would be jeopardized and the southeast of Turkey would probably come under martial law.

Turkey’s close relationship with NATO, the EU, and the U.S. suggests that Ankara is unlikely to move into Syria in any substantial way that would further complicate the peace talks in Brussels. At the same time, the PYD will not likely be able to connect Afrin to the two cantons of Kobanê and Jazira.

The hostile relations between Ankara and Moscow make it incumbent on Turkey to seek alternative sources of energy. Turkey receives 55 percent of its natural gas and 16 percent of its oil from Russia. Ankara is currently building an oil pipeline from the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Since that pipeline passes through Rojava into the Turkish province of Shirnak, where fighting is occurring between government forces and the PKK, Ankara is deeply implicated in the nexus of energy and conflict in the Middle East.

Photo: PKK guerrillas by Kurdishstruggle via Flickr


Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.