Turkey’s claims of PKK demise exaggerated

Late last month, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported that a Turkish airstrike had seriously wounded veteran Kurdish fighter Rıza Altun.

Altun is a member of the executive council of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organisation that includes the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting an armed insurgency for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984 and is labelled a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. 

The KCK neither confirmed nor denied the report. Meanwhile, the PKK has been relatively quiet for more than a year now in its fight against Turkey. Has the armed movement really been weakened and reported strike on Altun the icing on the cake of the Turkish army’s victory? 

In December, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said 700 PKK fighters remained in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, where the group is based, down from 10,000 in mid-2015, before the end of the ceasefire. Soylu’s figures were not confirmed by any other source. 

For years now, the Turkish state has argued that very few Kurdish youths join the PKK. If that is the case, how did the PKK have some 10,000 fighters in 2015? And if today only a few hundred fighters remain, why hasn’t the Turkish army taken control of the group’s mountain bases? 

Besides Altun, the Turkish military said three other senior militants were targeted in the air strike. News footage shows an explosion, but it is unclear whether the car shown driving on the mountain road was the one struck in the attack.  

The news broke four days before Turkey’s March 31 local elections. Other pre-election news failed the smell test, particularly Ankara’s claim of a joint operation with Iran against the PKK. State-run Anadolu news agency reported it, and Iranian authorities soon denied it. The Iranian denial makes sense: it is not in Iran’s interest to carry out an operation against the PKK on Iraqi territory. 

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has since 2001 counted the death toll in the PKK conflict. The ICG says 2,453 militants have been killed since mid-2015, along with some 1,140 members of the state security forces. The numbers were especially high in late 2015 and early 2016, as violence in Turkey’s southeast peaked. 

It is understandable for Turkey’s ruling party, days before a crucial election, to spread the news that the PKK is close to a collapse. But if the conflict were really going well, one would think the army and government might have been able to provide a few verifiable successes. 

For now, Ankara again says the PKK is close to collapse, a claim the state has been making since the 1980s. The reality is that eventually the conflict will have to be solved at the negotiating table. 

“The drivers of the conflict remain in place, meaning that the cycles of recruitment are likely to continue, allowing for the group to retain its broad appeal for those disenfranchised,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Nevertheless, the dynamics in the war have changed and the PKK has been relatively quiet over the past year. One thing that hampers the group’s ability to strike within Turkey is the Turkish military’s increased use of armed drones. 

In the mountains, where civilians also live, drones are less of a problem. But along Turkey’s border, where PKK fighters want to cross into Turkey to carry out operations, these drones are an excellent deterrent. Any movement detected there must be a PKK fighter and is instantly targeted, according to local sources familiar with the border area.

In the past, Turkish fighter jets had to come from an airbase in the regional capital Diyarbakır and took some 15 minutes to reach their target. Drone strikes, meanwhile, reach their target in a matter of seconds, an efficiency that leaves the PKK fighter no opportunity to run and hide. 

The Turkish army has also increased its presence in northern Iraq, with at least 20 bases now. It seems likely that the PKK is using more of its manpower to defend the mountains.

Turkey’s aggression appears to have forced the PKK to focus on defence instead of attack, yet it has not reached the group’s mountain bases.  

“They have not progressed into Qandil at all,” PKK spokesman Tufan Jehat said via WhatsApp. “The army could not even progress one metre since the spring of 2018. They have been hit with great blows and footage of our actions have been published.”

He said he could not reveal the current number of PKK militants. “But I can say that we have enough power to fight the colonialist Turkish state and all the forces behind it,” said Jehat. 

The Turkish army aims to annihilate the guerrillas with done strikes and warplanes, said Jehat, but he said the PKK had managed to strike in Turkey anyway. “In this environment, we have managed to carry out 556 actions against the Turkish army in 2018, killing 2,103 soldiers.

The ICG counted 124 members of the security forces killed in 2018. The PKK says that Turkey does not announce all its losses and pays the families of special forces to silence them. But it seems unrealistic that the state would be able to keep the deaths of hundreds of men quiet every year. 

For many observers, nailing down the strength or weakness of the PKK is mostly guesswork. “The group is opaque so it’s very hard to judge with any real accuracy, but it does seem like they are under considerable pressure inside Turkey,” said Stein. 

* The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.