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Turkey’s Kurds – Back to Square One? By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Between 1984 and the arrest of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in Kenya in 1999, the Marxist-Leninist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) was engaged in a major insurgency in southeastern Turkey, leaving some 30,000 dead. Following Ocalan’s capture, the party declared a cease-fire and pulled most of its some 5,000 militants into northern Iraq, leaving only some 200 behind in Turkey, where they remained relatively quiet, until a few days ago. The PKK leadership in Iraq has now declared an end to the cease-fire and the resumption of attacks against Turkish targets, beginning September 1.

Despite its change of name – in 2002 it renamed itself the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress  (KADEK) – the PKK remains what it has always been: a totalitarian terror organization seeking a Marxist state in all areas with a Kurdish population (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria). In the late 1980s it became one of the first terrorist groups to use suicide bombers, engaged in massacres of Kurdish villages opposed to it, and murdered civilians, all with the support of Syria, in whose Lebanon protectorate it had its training and indoctrination camps. This all started to unravel in 1998, when Turkish threats of war forced Syria to close down PKK’s camps and expel Ocalan.

Even more important than the Syrian support was PKK’s acceptance in Western Europe. Through blackmail, threats, and violence, it continues to collect funds from the hundreds of thousands of Kurds in Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, and it receives massive amounts of money from its drug and illegal migrant trafficking there. The PKK operations in Western Europe were led by relatively well-educated people with extensive international support from governments (Greece having been the most prominent) and groups in Western countries (Germany, Benelux, and Scandinavian states). Some local government, such as the Basques’ in Spain, openly supported the PKK, its terrorist methods notwithstanding. Prominent leftist government parties and individuals in Italy, Russia, and Greece publicly helped Ocalan during his failed attempts to find political asylum, and most of the remnants of Germany’s Marxist terrorists supported and occasionally participated in PKK combat operations. At least two German women terrorists and PKK members were involved in these Andrea Wolf, a former Baader-Meinhof terrorist who was killed in combat, and Eva Juhnke, who was captured in 1998. 

It was European pressure that forced Turkey to commute Ocalan’s death sentence to life in prison, and it took 9/11 and strong U.S. demands for the EU to finally declare the PKK a terrorist organization. It is this European romantic sympathy for the Turkish Kurds and its willingness to associate their interests with the PKK’s that has allowed the group’s remnants to survive in the mountains of northern Iraq.

This makes a complication in the present situation, for both Washington and Ankara. As the major occupying power in Iraq, the United States is technically responsible for developments on that country’s territory and thus in theory should be responsible for solving the PKK problem there.

However, for both practical and political reasons, the United States cannot and indeed should not be directly involved. American forces in northern Iraq are already overextended and highly dependent on Iraqi Kurdish cooperation – especially since of all the Iraqi groups, the Kurds are the most cooperative, effective, and sympathetic to the U.S. presence.

Iraqi Kurds have had a long and complicated relationship with the PKK, one that has to be considered by both Washington and Ankara. On the one hand, they have cooperated on and off with Turkey in keeping the PKK out; on the other hand, they are torn by Kurdish ethnic solidarity, deeply rooted antipathy for the Turks, and, more importantly, their economic interests. PKK is a wealthy organization, able to pay well for supplies of weapons to the local Kurds. Furthermore,  PKK numbers and effectiveness, at least until recently, were such that Iraqi Kurds have preferred to avoid any head on confrontations, and should not be expected to do so in the future

That said, it is clearly not in the United States’ interest, or the interest of Iraqi stability, to continue allowing the presence of a large, armed, and fanatical alien element in the country, especially one threatening a key NATO ally – Turkey. But the Turks have not helped their own cause. For Ankara, the Kurdish issue is vital, occasionally reaching the level of national obsession. Kurdish separatism is perceived as a threat to the nation’s unity, and PKK’s Marxism, no matter how well hidden lately, only adds to that perception. Although the Turkish forces badly damaged its morale by capturing Ocalan and have basically broken the back of PKK’s infrastructure inside Turkey, only the wholesale destruction of the PKK’s Iraqi remnants could truly transform a Kurdish Marxist/separatist terrorist threat into a strictly domestic political matter. In fact, Ankara has made significant efforts toward that goal, by allowing Kurdish language media, offering amnesty to PKK members, and (mistakenly as it turned out) allowing Ocalan to communicate with his followers.

However, Ankara has also badly mishandled and misunderstood the new situation in Iraq. First, the new ruling party’s poor management of a vote to allow U.S. forces to pass through Turkey to northern Iraq led to the parliament’s inability to approve the deployment, making life harder for U.S. troops, increasing the importance of Iraqi Kurdish cooperation and influence, and concomitantly reducing Turkey’s influence on events in Iraq or Washington’s policy there.

Second, Turkey made no serious effort to establish the political and military grounds for dealing with the PKK. Although there are some 5,000 Turkish troops in northern Iraq, and have been for a long time, they are not enough to control a long and difficult border or to permanently disable the PKK. Unpopular as Turkish military action might be, the United States could probably convince the Iraqi Kurdish parties to at least stay neutral in the event of a major and decisive Turkish operation against PKK camps in Iraq. But for that to happen Turkey must provide guarantees to both the Iraqi Kurds and the U.S. that the incursion would only target the PKK and would be temporary.

Finally, Ankara should realize that it cannot have it both ways, refusing to contribute troops to Iraq unless it has the United Nations’ blessings (a position suspiciously similar to that of U.S. adversaries within the United States) but claim a right to deal with the PKK in Iraq without mention of the UN.

It is clearly in the interest of the United States, a free Iraq and, most obviously, of Turkey for the PKK to be dispatched to the trashcan of history, where it belongs. Its most recent threat is a sign of desperation and blackmail but is a real threat nonetheless. Because Turkey’s recent policies have made an already complicated situation even more complex, it is Ankara’s turn to help simplify it. Militarily, only Turkey can finish off the PKK. Let us hope Ankara soon comes to some clarity about this.

Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

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