How the strength of the PKK changed Turkey’s strategy towards the Kurds



After four decades of fighting, nearly 40,000 casualties and billions of dollars, Turkey has failed to contain the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey used a new strategy: to conduct military operations that create anti-PKK narratives which in turn lead to military victory. An insurgency feeds on popularity. Its strength and success depend on it. Turkey’s new strategy is designed to reduce the popularity of the PKK.

The PKK is now present in much of the Middle East. He has projects not only in the Middle East but in Europe and beyond. According to German intelligence, the PKK collects 25 million euros in Europe each year. The group and its offshoots control most of the internal territory south of the Turkish border. It is also one of the main sources of contention in US-Turkish relations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy of focusing on the Middle East is thwarted by the south because of the PKK. Breaking this obstacle requires the consent of the inhabitants of the region and the consent of regional and major powers.

Turkey has designated the PKK as a terrorist organization. The objective is to remove it from its popular base. A senior Kurdish leader recently called on the Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan to label the PKK as a terrorist organization. Nevertheless, the PKK is considered the guardian of the Kurds in almost all areas inhabited by the Kurds.

As the strength of the group lies in its popularity, attacking the cause of the group will be a cheaper and more effective strategy. More importantly, the central difference between a terrorist organization and an insurgent organization is popular support. Convincing the Kurds that the PKK is made up of a bunch of terrorists can deprive the group of its base. While military means are exhausted, Ankara has embarked on a three-phase strategy. The first phase of the strategy is to use military operations that are conducive to the creation of a compelling narrative.

In the past, Ankara kept its military operations secret, but recent ones have been promoted. Many are praised by the Turkish president. The strikes are no longer limited to uninhabited mountains but include an area that attracts the most media attention and brings PKK fighters closer to the Peshmerga of the Kurdistan region of Iraq (KRI). Sometimes operations are carried out deep within Iraqi territory.

Turkey recently targeted a refugee camp in Makhmour, near Erbil, the KRI capital. Erdogan called the camp a threat, as serious as Qandil, where the PKK headquarters are located. It is not known how the camp could threaten Turkey 180 kilometers south of the Turkish border. The strike on Makhmour may have been designed to keep Turkey away from a major strike that took place on the same day.

During this strike, five Peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan were killed in a military vehicle near Erbil. The incident brought the Kurdish authorities and the PKK to the brink of civil war. The Peshmerga were recently positioned near Qandil to limit the Turkish-PKK war to the mountains. Even though it was a surgical strike, it promoted a broad anti-PKK discourse.

KRI Prime Minister Masrour Barzani held the PKK responsible for the murder of Peshmerga members. The statement was followed by a similar statement from Iraqi President Barham Salih, a Kurd, who questioned the legality of the group’s presence in the region.

However, military experts claimed that the Peshmerga were not hit by a rocket launcher but by an airstrike because, in particular, the PKK lacks planes. The vehicle’s tires were intact while its roof exploded, the explanation continues. The PKK denied its involvement and demanded an investigation into the incident. Nonetheless, this strike fueled anti-PKK stories.

THE PKK does not want to upset the KRI. The region is of paramount importance to the organization. Its guerrillas and its assets are there. The region serves as a land bridge between the PKK headquarters in Qandil and its forces in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. Iran is the mainstay of the PKK and its usual exit to the outside world. However, most observers fail to analyze the region’s geopolitical complexities and instead consume their daily news from social media, where the battle of stories is fought, paving the way for an anti-PKK narrative.

The strikes fueled anti-PKK stories, giving the impression that airstrikes were dependent on the presence of the group. The response on social media has been mixed, although it has prompted questions about the PKK’s goals and activities.

In an interview, a senior Peshmerga commander and incumbent KRI vice president undermined the group’s efforts to defeat ISIS and called their efforts propaganda. Such accounts would force the PKK to limit its activities in the KRI to satisfy its people and government. History has placed limits on the activity of the PKK, as expected in the third phase of the cycle.

The KRI mobilized its peshmerga as close as possible to the PKK bases. The rebels had no choice but to come to terms, as clashing with their Kurdish brethren would mean civil war and help promote Turkey’s stories. In order for the PKK to avoid a civil war, it must limit its activities. Currently, the KRI does not tolerate an active PKK on its northern borders, thus putting an end to the third phase. This translated into a military victory for Turkey thanks to its new strategy. Moreover, only the impression of civil war could contain the PKK, not a real one.

Currently, forces loyal to the PKK are encircling the KRI. The Kurdistan Patriotic Union (PUK), which controls KRI Peshmerga, has declared its neutrality, leaving the PDK alone, which is also unlikely to fight the group. If a war breaks out, Turkish forces will be invited to Iraqi Kurdistan, which will increase the popularity of the PKK. He will be presented as the guardian of the KRI, a narrative that Turkey would like to prevent.

In addition, in 1995, a Turkish force of 35,000 troops invaded Iraqi Kurdistan. Still, he failed to expel the PKK from the area despite the group being limited to a number of mountains. Moreover, in the 1990s Turkey supported the PUK and KDP to fight the PKK, although in the 1980s the PUK and KDP had veteran guerrillas who had operated in Qandil, but they did not succeeded in expelling the PKK from Qandil. Today, the Peshmerga forces in Iraqi Kurdistan are untrained and lack counterinsurgency skills.

Above all, each Kurd denounces intra-Kurdish fratricide.

The civil war of the 1990s did not promote an anti-PKK story because Ankara believed it could defeat the group militarily.

Moreover, the PKK was not belligerent and the Kurds were fighting at Turkey’s request. The Kurds did not have any means of communication but today the territories populated by Kurds are among the most connected in the world. The confrontation of the Peshmerga with the rebels is to limit them, not to fight them. Thus, the strategy uses military means to create stories, not immediate military gains.

Currently, the PKK and its sponsored groups dot the map of the Middle East. As NATO’s second most powerful army, Turkey had failed to contain the group. That is why he resorted to a systematic narrative war against the PKK. However, it remains to be seen how Turkey’s three-phase strategy plays out in the future.

The writer is a researcher and journalist covering the Middle East. His work has been published in The Jerusalem Post, The National Interest and various Kurdish magazines. He was the former editor of the Birst newspaper.



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