Terrorism Monitor (Jamestown Foundation) – The PKK Strategy to Disrupt Political Negotiations on the Kurdish Issue

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The original version of this analysis can be found on Terrorism Monitor, Volume X, Issue 13

Over the last few years, senior officers of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT – Milli Istihbarat Teskilati) have held several meetings with cadres of the separatist terrorist organization Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) in order to find points of agreement for the group’s potential surrender. However, this process was abruptly halted in July 2011, when an ambush carried out by PKK members killed 13 Turkish soldiers. The attack was interpreted as a clear sign that part of the PKK did not consider negotiations with the Turkish state an option (Today’s Zaman, July 17, 2011). One year on, Turkey seems to be facing a similar situation, as it tries to separate the politics of the Kurdish issue from the security and military aspects of the PKK insurgency. High-level representatives from the country’s two main parties, the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP – Justice and Development Party), and the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP – Republican’s People Party), have met in the last weeks to discuss the strategies they have developed to address the Kurdish issue (Hurriyet, June 5; Today’s Zaman, June 6). In a break with last years’ strategy, dialogue with the PKK is no longer being pursued.

The main reason seems to be that Turkey is now working on a purely political solution for the Kurdish issue. Should these efforts prove successful, such a move would potentially bypass the PKK as an actor in the process. Accordingly, the PKK and its hard-line offshoot, the Teyrebazen Azadiya Kurdistan (TAK – Kurdistan Freedom Falcons), are likely to try and sabotage the process through attacks against soldiers and civilians. In fact, PKK operations against Turkish troops continue incessantly, with at least 28 soldiers killed in the last two months in ambushes carried out by the group. Earlier this month, a large-scale attack hit a military outpost in the Hakkari District’s outskirts, killing eight soldiers and wounding 16, while four more soldiers were killed in a June 27 clash with the PKK in the southeastern province of Siirt (Today’s Zaman, June 19; Hurriyet, June 19; June 27). As the summer season facilitates movements in the mountainous areas of southeastern Turkey, the PKK has also revived its kidnapping campaign, which in the past has targeted both soldiers and civilians. In the last month, around 30 people (mainly civilians) were abducted while travelling in the region, usually after their vehicles were stopped at improvised checkpoints manned by PKK militants (Hurriyet Daily News, June 7; Today’s Zaman, May 29).

The renewed reliance on hostage-taking is worth closer examination. It goes without saying that kidnappings represent a blow to the image of Turkish authorities and security forces, while boosting the PKK’s image of being in de facto control of the region – especially given the presence among the hostages of local political figures and soldiers (Hurriyet, May 15; Today’s Zaman, July 13, 2011). Members of the organization never openly engaged Turkish authorities in negotiating the liberation of the hostages (some of whom have been in captivity for almost a year), so the PKK does not seem to want to use them as a bargaining chip. What is more important, however, is that hostages also seem to bring a military advantage for PKK. Turkish authorities have often made use of military units for operations aimed at locating the hostages’ whereabouts and attempting to rescue them. Not only have these operations been unsuccessful so far, but Turkish rescue units tend to be a frequent target of PKK attacks; in fact the clash that ended MIT-PKK negotiations in July 2011 erupted during a hostage search and rescue operation in Silvan, a district of the Diyarbakir province. The PKK might then be using hostage-taking as a tactic to generate clashes with Turkish troops. The terrorist group also seems careful to avoid attracting unwanted international attention. Some of the recent kidnapping operations happened to involve foreigners, namely two Azeri and one British citizen. While the latter was kidnapped and released the following day, the Azeris were left untouched while the Turks travelling with them were abducted (Today’s Zaman, June 4; Hurriyet, May 30).

Different considerations prevail with regards to the more radical TAK. The group is known for targeting tourist areas during the summer period, as occurred between 2005 and 2006, when TAK bombings killed about 10 people (including foreign tourists) and injured more than 70. As their attacks have shown, TAK operatives use improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as their weapon of choice. After a period of apparent inactivity, the TAK claimed responsibility for a series of bombings carried out between the summer of 2010 and September 2011, in which some ten people were killed. In March 2012, the TAK published a statement on its website, criticizing Turkey’s attacks “against the Kurdish people.” [1] The communiqué continues by denouncing the Turkish Air Force’s December, 2011 airstrike in Uludere, where 34 civilians were killed, and claims that the TAK is planning to avenge every attack carried out by the Turkish state by hitting tourism. [2] Turkish police recently arrested a man who was carrying two kilograms of C4, a type of plastic explosive, in the outskirts of Izmir. After being arrested, the man cooperated with security forces, who managed to locate 22 more kilograms of C4 he buried in different locations. The suspect appears to have links with Fehman Huseyin (a.k.a. Bahoz Erdal), considered one of the senior operational commanders of TAK, while the presence of a large quantity of explosives in a city like Izmir seems to be a sign that the TAK is planning major attacks against tourist areas (Today’s Zaman, June 20).

As Turkey’s main parties try to address the Kurdish issue from a political perspective, the PKK and TAK are committed to hijacking the process and dragging it back to a purely security-centric dimension. PKK cadres know that any step forward on the Kurdish issue that does not include them as a main actor is a blow to the organization’s image and political power; they are similarly aware that every attack carried out by PKK operatives is a blow to the political dialogue that the AKP and CHP are trying to kick start. By keeping the tension high while trying to disrupt the current attempt at multi-party dialogue, the PKK aims to reclaim its status as an indispensable player in any effort to resolve the Kurdish issue.

Notes:

1. http://teyrenkurdistan.com/2012%20aciklamalar.html (in Turkish).

2. Ibid

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Terrorism Monitor (Jamestown Foundation) – Losing the Initiative: The PKK’s Crumbling Strategy

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The original version of this analysis can be found on Terrorism Monitor, Volume X, Issue 6

The winter of 2011/2012 witnessed an intensified campaign by the Turkish government against the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) and the network of organizations and individuals that supports it. The armed group, identified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union, Canada and the United States, has been attacked by Turkey’s counterinsurgency campaign at different levels. Persistent cross-border air strikes continue to hit PKK bases in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, as the Turkish military try to create havoc in PKK’s “safe havens.” Given the difficulty of moving in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan and southeastern Turkey during the winter, the PKK has traditionally staged a “tactical retreat” to their bases in winter, transferring operations to their urban branches and returning to the field as soon as possible in the spring.

However, this year the PKK commanders decided to break this cyclical pattern and engage Turkish security forces in a winter campaign. The decision proved short-sighted, as PKK casualties reached into the hundreds, with at least ten fighters dying from exposure in the rough winter conditions (Today’s Zaman, December 27, 2011; Firat News Agency, March 12). The campaign also led to a peak in surrenders, as security forces captured dozens of PKK fighters. Some of those who were interrogated have been cooperative and provided substantial information leading to the discovery of several PKK hideouts located in rural areas of southeastern Turkey containing considerable amounts of explosives, weapons and food (Today’s Zaman, December 27, 2011; Hurriyet Daily News, March 16).

In an attempt to seize the initiative, Turkey’s ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP – Justice and Development Party) has also been working on a new strategy aimed at exploiting and widening internal divisions within the PKK. The idea, suggested and planned by the Interior Ministry, is to implement a system of bounties for the capture of PKK mid- and high-level cadres. Should it be accepted, the new system is supposed to work within the existing framework of Law No. 221 of the Turkish Penal Code, which grants amnesty to members of terrorist organizations who defect without having participated in any prior criminal action. Accordingly, the strategy aims at attracting those who only recently joined the PKK and tries to exploit recent waves of defections. Even though it is unlikely to lead to substantive captures, it is expected to create tensions and increase distrust within PKK (Today’s Zaman, February 29; March 9).

The Turkish government has also tackled the PKK’s political infrastructure. Since November, 2011 Turkish authorities have launched an ongoing crackdown on the Koma Civaken Kurdistan (KCK), an illegal political organization that gathers several Kurdish organizations together under one umbrella. The KCK is accused of operating as an urban and political wing of the PKK and of running “a state within a state” in southeastern Turkey through a parallel government that carries out tax collection and administers justice (Hurriyet Daily News, November 22, 2011; Today’s Zaman, December 28, 2011). By arresting several key members, the operation increased communications difficulties between the KCK and the Qandil-based Kongra-Gel (the KCK’s executive assembly), chaired by PKK commander Murat Karayilan. Communications with Abdullah Ocalan have been interrupted as well.  For years, the PKK’s imprisoned founder kept leading the terrorist group via confidential communications with his lawyers, the only visitors he was allowed to have while serving his life sentence in isolation at the Imrali Island prison. However, visits were suspended several months ago, and many of his lawyers were arrested for their alleged ties with KCK, leaving the PKK without Ocalan’s strategic guidance (Today’s Zaman, November 22).

The crackdown on the KCK triggered strong protests by the Baris ve Demokrasi Partisi (BDP – Peace and Democracy Party), Turkey’s main Kurdish political party. The party was founded in 2008, just before its predecessor, the Demokratik Toplum Partisi (DTP – Democratic Society Party), was disbanded for its ties with PKK. The BDP has been accused of being the electoral offshoot of the PKK and several of its members and mayors (the BDP runs almost 100 municipalities in Turkey) have recently been arrested for their alleged affiliation with the KCK. Despite its high electoral appeal to Turkey’s Kurdish community, BDP leaders have so far lacked political incisiveness, and seem now stuck on the pursuit of long term objectives, while they have not yet managed to engage the government in short term-oriented negotiations.

TheBDP’s recent proposal for the creation of a governmental delegation to start negotiations with the PKK will hardly lead anywhere, given the fact that the party insists on a general amnesty for all PKK fighters (including Abdullah Ocalan), a clear no-go for the Turkish government (Today’s Zaman, February 6). The BDP’s political feebleness becomes apparent when considering that, behind the scenes; Turkish authorities have already started informal negotiations with the PKK itself. Representatives of the Turkish government have been meeting Abdullah Ocalan on a regular basis and top level officials from the Milli Istihbarat Teskilati (MIT – National Intelligence Organization) met high-ranking PKK members in order to discuss and assess potential proposals. In fact, discussions with Ocalan were close to bringing about some elements of agreement in the summer of 2011, but PKK hardliners expressed their opposition to the talks by staging a major attack on Turkish troops, killing 13 soldiers (Today’s Zaman, July 27, 2011; February 6, 2012).

The PKK’s troubled situation suggests some cautious optimism for Turkey’s counterterrorism efforts; in recent months the organization has been hit both at the military and political level. However, it seems the PKK hardliners ultimately have the upper hand, as ambushes against Turkish troops and terrorist attacks in urban areas continue regardless of any top-level negotiation. Paradoxically, the PKK’s strategic failure might in fact hinder future negotiations: as the movement becomes more and more fragmented without a proper national platform for political discussion. As long as the PKK hawks keeps refusing any form of dialogue, meetings between Turkey’s representatives and PKK leaders are doomed to bring only fleeting results, if any.

WPR Briefing – Turkey’s F-35 Decision Driven by Technology Transfer Concerns

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The full version of this briefing can be found on the WPR website and on Amazon.com

On Jan. 5, Turkey’s Defense Industry Executive Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, authorized the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries to open negotiations with Lockheed Martin for the purchase of two F-35 multi-role combat fighters. The announcement represents yet another reversal for the troubled program, considering Turkey’s original intention in 2002 to acquire 100 F-35s. It was followed by Britain’s declaration in February that it will postpone making any formal commitment to the F-35 until 2015. Australia, too, is currently reconsidering plans to buy 12 F-35s, and the F-35’s structural problems, which emerged during recent flight tests, led the U.S. Department of Defense to issue a technical report in December 2011 that recommended slowing down U.S. acquisitions as well.

But Ankara’s decision to drastically scale back its F-35 purchase is not just driven by the project’s technical problems. It also has to do with the United States’ uneasiness in sharing technology with Turkey, a problem dating back to the 1980s, when Turkey purchased its first F-16s. Turkey’s main interest is in acquiring software source codes for weapon systems, which the U.S. Congress has so far refused to share. In particular, Turkey wants control over the aircraft’s identification friend or foe (IFF) system in order to offer more flexibility with regard to how its fleet identifies foreign air force jets. The default setting of the original U.S. software for Turkey’s F-16 fleet, for instance, identified Israeli air force jets as exclusively friendly. To overcome the problem, ASELSAN, one of Turkey’s leading defense companies, developed a new IFF system, which was finalized in September 2011 and is now operational on Turkey’s F-16 fleet. The new system allows Turkish fighters to bypass the original software restrictions, allowing Turkish pilots to determine whether to recognize Israeli fighters as either friendly or hostile. (…)