War Intensifies Between Turkey and the Kurds

by Robert Olson

The leadership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) promised that its response to the devastating war waged since July against it—and its political arm, the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK)—would be attacks in western Turkey, including Ankara and Istanbul. The latest such attack occurred in the middle of Ankara on March 13, killing an estimated 37 people and injured 125. It took place right in the middle of Ankara in the city’s most popular entertainment and tourist center, close to a large bus station servicing all of Turkey. It seemed to be intended to kill as many civilians as possible.

The government has been attacking cities and towns throughout the 15 provinces of Turkey’s southeast where 9.5 million Kurds live. In response to its narrow victory in the June 7 parliamentary election, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) embarked on a campaign to attract ultra-nationalists and strong religious conservatives as well as Kurdish voters who did not vote for the AKP in June. The strategy worked. In the snap election on November 7, the AKP again become the dominant party, winning 317 seats in parliament.

The AKP’s November victory enabled the state and the AKP to continue its onslaught in the southeast. Since the commencement of the latest round of hostilities, an estimated one thousand PKK have been killed along with nearly 300 security forces. Scores of civilians have been injured. Large swaths of predominantly Kurdish cities and towns—including Diyarbakir, the largely Kurdish city considered the capitol of Kurdish Turkey—sustained great damage.

The latest attack in Ankara is not surprising. Less than one month ago, on February 17, another big attack in the center of Ankara targeted the headquarters of the Turkish Armed Forces and other government buildings, killing 30 people, including 12 soldiers, and injuring 60. The government declared that members of the People’s Protective Units (YPG), the army of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that Turkey is battling in Syria, had carried out the attack. It was subsequently determined that the culprit was a member of the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a militant leftist Kurdish nationalist organization that the government insists is still affiliated with the PKK.

The PKK’s Miscalculation

Duran Kalkan, one of three main leaders of the PKK, stated on February 25 that the PKK’s war against the state and the AKP would continue unabated. He admitted that the PKK leadership had underestimated the ferocity with which the state would wage war and inflict damage on cities, including the historical center of Diyarbakir. The PKK did not realize that it would be a “war to the end,” as President Recip Tayyib Erdogan put it, aimed at the destruction of the PKK/KCK and the largely Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP).

What grieved Kalkan the most was that the PKK leadership had let down the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), which had fought and still are fighting the army and police. The YDG-H have fought tenaciously, building barricades throughout the cities of the southeast and fighting street by street in house-to-house combat in spite of being outnumbered by tens of thousands soldiers, special operations teams, and national, provincial, and city police. The PKK’s leadership is obviously appealing to the youthful nationalists who are fed up with Turkey’s policies toward Kurds not just in Turkey but in Kurdistan-Iraq (KRG) and in Kurdistan-Syria (Rojava in Kurdish) as well.

Kalkan also declared the PKK’s unhappiness with the KRG, especially with Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which the PKK thinks is completely aligned with Turkey and the U.S.—which it seems to be. Kalkan wondered why the KRG remained silent in the face of Turkey’s “slaughter” (katliam) of Kurds in North Kurdistan (Bakur). “What is the difference,” he asked, “between Turkey’s slaughter of Kurds in Bakur and the genocide of Kurds in Halapja…by Saddam Hussein?”

The reason for the silence is, simply, money. KRG is now essentially a client state of the Turkey and the U.S. Trade between Turkey and the KRG is now well in excess of $12 billion a year. Turkey almost entirely dominates the wholesale, retail, and construction industries, among others, with a large share in the oil and gas industries. The KRG is completely dependent on Turkey to transfer its oil and gas to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. This seems unlikely to change.

On March 12, just one day before the PKK attack in Ankara, Turkey gave the KRG $200 million as an emergency fund to cover a shortfall due to a PKK attack on the pipeline carrying KRG oil to Ceyhan. A spokesman for the government stated on March 10 that the government’s recent defeat of Kurdish forces in the southeast in the town of Idil in Shirnak enabled it to repair the pipeline. One reason for the government’s war against the PKK is to clear the way for Turkey to receive more oil from the KRG. Turkey needs to diversify energy imports now that its relations with Russia have become more hostile as a result of the war in Syria .Turkey receives 55 percent of its natural gas and 16 percent of its oil from Russia.

Kurdish Spring?

“The month of March will see a big increase in our resistance,” Kalkan pledged in his speech in February. “The time of victory and success is closer than ever. 2016’s spring will the ‘Kurdish Spring.’” Kalkan and the PKK leadership think that the attacks in Ankara on February 17 and the March 13 will continue throughout 2016.

There are indeed more challenges ahead for the leadership of the PKK/KCK. March 21 is when Kurds celebrate Nowruz, the astronomical vernal equinox or northern equinox, which marks the first day of spring. Celebrated for some 3,000 years by hundreds of diverse peoples, Nowruz is an especially important day in Iran.

It is also very important for Kurds. But unlike Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, the Kurds in Turkey have had a hard time celebrating Nowruz, especially since the PKK launched its civil war against the Turkish state in 1984. It was completely banned in 2005 but it has been celebrated publicly of late as a result of the growing strength of Kurdish mayors and municipal officials in southeast and east Turkey. It is now a public holiday in Turkey as the AKP government is attempting to appeal to those Kurds who are disaffected by actions of the PKK/KCK. Nowruz, however, has become a symbol of expression of Kurdish identity.

The PKK/KCK faces other challenges. On March 3, the U.S. approved contracts to sell Turkey $700 million of bunker-busting bombs and components with deliveries to be completed in 2020. A Turkish military official stated, “The deal was timely as we are engaged in asymmetrical warfare and need smart bombs.” Such bombs will be particularly useful in bombing PKK fighters ensconced in the Kandil Mountains and for “crowd control” in the southeast.

Photo: Celebrating Newroz in Diyarbakir


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.


One Comment

  1. The KRG is ruled by the Barzani family. The mandate of Massoud Barzani has ended and was not renewed. He is kept in power artificially by Turkey who dreads that another Kurdish leadership close to Iran and central Iraq could hamper the economical honeymoon that Turkey has been enjoying.
    Yet the KRG could crumble anytime as the economy has receded and the accusations of corruption are growing.
    That would be a terrible blow to Turkey as it has lost all its ‘clients’ in the region.
    It could well happen soon..

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