‘Of­fen­sive can weaken but won’t de­stroy PKK’


Tur­key’s al­most month- long cam­paign of airstrikes against the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party (PKK) in the Turk­ish south­east and north­ern Iraq will weaken but can­not de­stroy the Kur­dish mil­i­tant group, an­a­lysts say.

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

The Is­lamic- rooted gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan is also hop­ing for a po­lit­i­cal wind­fall as it pre­pares for a re-run of elec­tions where the rul­ing party lost its over­all ma­jor­ity for the first time since 2002, pos­si­bly as early as Novem­ber 1.

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 set up by the PKK in the south­east­ern Si­irt province, in the sin­gle dead­li­est at­tack dur­ing this phase of the con­flict.

‘More sym­bolic than crip­pling’

The of­fen­sive was launched af­ter Tur­key on July 20 was hit by one of its dead­li­est at­tacks in re­cent years when 33 proKur­dish ac­tivists were killed in a sui­cide bomb­ing on the Syr­ian bor­der blamed on Is­lamic State (IS) ji­hadists.

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

Ankara on July 24 launched its first airstrikes against IS in Syria and then also be­gan at­tack­ing tar­gets of the PKK in north­ern Iraq, in a dual “war on terror.”

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

Ac­cord­ing to the latest fig­ures pub­lished by the state-run Ana­to­lia news agency 440 PKK mil­i­tants have been killed in the cam­paign, in­clud­ing 390 in the airstrikes on south­east Tur­key and north­ern Iraq.

But an­a­lysts cast doubt on the fig­ures, 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 airstrikes,” said David Ro­mano, Pro­fes­sor of Mid­dle East Pol­i­tics at Mis­souri State Univer­sity and au­thor of “The Kur­dish Na­tion­al­ist Move­ment.”

“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 in­clud­ing its de-facto leader Murat Karay­i­lan. But there is no ev­i­dence to back this up.

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

‘Trust is gone’

An­a­lysts say Er­do­gan may also be sniff­ing 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 links to the PKK and hop­ing elec­tors 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 au­ton­omy and greater rights.

Its iconic leader Ab­dul­lah Ocalan, held on a Turk­ish is­land since his ex­tra­or­di­nary ar­rest by Turk­ish spe­cial forces in Kenya 1999, in 2013 de­clared a ceasefire 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 are not enough to de­feat the PKK and re­forms are 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.”

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