Tactical and Strategic Factors in Turkey’s Offensive against the PKK

Andrew McGregor

October 5 2007

A Turkish military offensive in the ethnic-Kurdish provinces of southeastern Turkey began in mid-September. Turkey’s autumn campaigns against the militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) usually do not begin until October, but the current campaign is designed to reinforce Turkey’s position in negotiations with Iraq over the elimination of PKK bases in northern Iraq. The offensive also delivers a message to Turkey’s U.S. ally, which has been reluctant to move against PKK bases in Iraq. According to Turkish Land Forces Commander General Ilker Basbug, “the U.S. should understand and see that it is not time for words, but for action” (Today’s Zaman, September 25). Turkey’s armed forces, the Turk Silahli Kuvvetleri (TSK), have until the end of October (when winter weather sets in on the mountainous border region) to destroy or capture the 1,500-1,900 PKK militants believed to be in Turkey.

Turkish GendarmerieTurkish Gendarmerie

Large-scale TSK operations are underway in Sirnak, Siirt and Hakkari provinces, where “interim security zones” were established in early June. Up to 40,000 men are deployed, mostly from the Turkish paramilitary Gendarmerie, working under Gendarmerie regional commands. Turkish troops are also conducting “search-and-destroy” operations with the support of helicopter-gunships in the southeastern provinces of Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Bingol and Tunceli. The Gendarmerie is destroying hidden supply depots that would otherwise sustain the roughly 1,000 PKK fighters that might remain in Turkey during the winter rather than take refuge in the PKK bases in northern Iraq.

Cross-border shelling into northern Iraq’s Erbil and Dahuk regions may be intended to cut off PKK escape routes. Thousands of Iraqi Kurds are reported to have been displaced by the shelling (Today’s Zaman, September 27). Iran’s Republican Guard has also been shelling Kurdish targets in Iraq’s Sulaimaniya province for several weeks now. If the PKK fighters can be eliminated or driven from Turkey’s eastern provinces before the winter starts, they may not pose much of a threat by spring if Turkey’s simultaneous diplomatic offensive is successful.

The PKK has responded to the offensive with landmines, car bombs, suicide bombings and attacks against security posts using small arms and rocket launchers. According to General Basbug, typical PKK operational units are 7-8 members in size, smaller than the groups of 20-30 militants common in the mid-1990s. Kurdish websites describe 13 straight days of fighting in Sirnak, Hakkari and Siirt provinces in September (ROJ TV, September 26). Nearly 30 PKK militants have been killed since the operation began, while the PKK claims almost the same number of TSK killed.

The Turkish Gendarmerie operates under the control of the army, while its law enforcement role is under the minister of the interior. The Gendarmerie is responsible for border patrols and internal security (especially in rural areas not served by other police forces). Special operations units of the Gendarmerie have been deployed to Diyarkabyr and other Kurdish centers, with more units in training. Together with selected TSK units and agents of the National Intelligence Agency (MIT), the Gendarmerie will try to negate the PKK’s territorial advantage by flooding the region with federal security forces, flushing PKK operatives from their hideouts to force them into open confrontation with superior Turkish forces (Today’s Zaman, June 14). Unfortunately, the Gendarmerie’s offensive coincides with the release of a new book by a retired Gendarmerie colonel who describes faking fire-fights to intimidate local Kurds, and the deployment of bearded units of fake PKK members in Hakkari province during the 1990s (Bya News Centre, September 26). The revelations would seem to confirm allegations of “false-flag” operations by Turkish security forces in the region during that period.

Turkey is phasing out the use of conscripts in counter-terrorism operations in favor of a professional force of volunteers. The move is in part a reaction to a popular perception in Turkey that TSK casualties are largely the result of insufficient training for conscripts. Under the new plan, six commando brigades will be drawn from highly trained professional soldiers to operate in southeast Turkey and along the Iraqi border. The TSK’s two existing Special Forces mountain commando brigades (Bolu and Kayseri) are an important element in most counter-terrorist operations in southeastern Turkey. Human rights organizations have accused the mountain commandos of numerous human rights abuses during the large-scale operations of the mid-1990s.

The TSK is also attempting to reform the controversial “Village Guards,” a local militia force accused of many human rights abuses, including the deployment of “death squads” to terrorize civilian Kurds in the 1990s (New Anatolian, September 22). The Village Guards and their intelligence agency, JITEM, have been called up to assist the Gendarmerie in the current campaign with their knowledge of local conditions. Often acting as guides for the TSK, they are sometimes exposed to retributive attacks as a result. Last week, 12 people, including seven Village Guards and their relatives, were killed in Sirnak province when PKK fighters ambushed their minibus (Reuters, September 29). A few days earlier, the same Village Guards had been involved in tracking down and killing Nazan Bayram (aka Nuda Karker), a female militant and senior PKK commander.

On the political front, the interior ministers of Turkey and Iraq concluded a new security arrangement in Ankara on September 28. Following up on last August’s Memorandum of Understanding between Turkey and Iraq, the security agreement is intended to deal with the problem of cross-border movement by Kurdish militants. Provisions for cross-border “hot pursuits” of PKK suspects were dropped from the final agreement after strong opposition from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) threatened to stalemate negotiations. Such provisions would have deprived the PKK of sanctuaries close to the Iraqi-Turkish border, a prerequisite for effective Turkish anti-guerrilla operations.

Before the ministerial meeting, northern Iraq’s KRG issued a statement declaring the PKK and its Iranian-Kurd offshoot Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) illegal organizations. The KRG “doesn’t consider these two organizations to be a part of political life in Kurdistan” (Peyamner News Agency, September 24). The KRG opposed the security agreement, however, forcing a change to the terms and the exclusion of the “hot pursuit” clause. Nevertheless, the agreement forms the basis for future cooperation while defining Iraq’s responsibility for suppressing terrorism. The deal also contains provisions for the arrest and extradition to Turkey of PKK members. To assist Iraqi authorities, Turkey has provided the names of 150 PKK members wanted for terrorist offenses from the 3,600-4,000 PKK militants Ankara claims are based in northern Iraq (Hurriyet, September 25).

In conclusion, Baghdad and Washington continue to urge Ankara to deal directly with the autonomous KRG, something the Turkish government refuses to do. The KRG statement declaring the PKK and PJAK illegal is clearly intended to invite bilateral discussions with Turkey on security issues. In the meantime, the ongoing offensive satisfies calls from the Turkish public and the armed forces for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to take action against terrorist threats. The arrival of winter, which usually enforces a pause in PKK operations, may give the Ankara, Baghdad and Washington governments time to arrive at a diplomatic solution to the PKK problem.

This article first appeared in the October 5, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Turkey at the Intersection of Islam and Kemalism

Andrew McGregor

August 15, 2007

Tuesday’s announcement of the re-nomination of Turkey’s Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul for the post of president of Turkey puts the nation’s fiercely secularist military only one step away from reporting to an Islamist politician. Yet the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) must still see its nominee through several rounds of voting in parliament (VOA, August 14). To allay opposition fears, the foreign minister, a well-known Islamist, has vowed to uphold and strengthen the secular principles of Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk,” military founder of the modern and Westernized Republic of Turkey.

Kemal 1Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk”

Defining themselves as the “absolute defenders of secularism,” Turkey’s general staff has expressed its displeasure with the direction of the government by means of a military coup four times since 1960. July’s re-election of the AKP Islamists with a parliamentary majority despite vocal opposition from the military no doubt sent a signal to the Turkish generals that a coup d’état is not the political option it once was. It is a situation that cannot sit easily with the self-appointed guardians of Kemalism, the almost sacred combination of secularism, modernism, and nationalism that saved the Turkish nation after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Kemalism is under strain in today’s Turkey, but its legacy cannot be easily abandoned.

Until now, the Turkish presidency has been viewed as the embodiment of secularist Kemalism. Under the current constitution, the president must approve all decisions of the Higher Military Council. Since these decisions include regular purges of “Islamist officers” (the latest was in July), the general staff fears that an Islamist president will interfere with this process. The problem may be short-lived, however, with reports that a new constitution will transfer most of the president’s powers to the prime minister and his cabinet, making the post largely ceremonial (Turkish Daily News, August 1). The move may be viewed as a major concession to the military’s nearly implacable opposition to an Islamist president.

Work is already underway to create a new constitution to replace the 1982 version, drafted under the supervision of the general staff after the military coup of 1980. The present document is something of a paean to Mustafa Kemal, starting with a description of Ataturk as “the immortal leader and unrivalled hero.” National principles are identified as the “six arrows” of Kemalism: nationalism, secularism, statism, republicanism, populism, and revolutionism. These principles were incorporated into the constitution in 1937 and have appeared in every version since. For many Turks, Kemalism is tied so tightly to the structure of Turkish society that the Kemalist Thought Association (ADD) recently declared “Opposing Kemalism is to oppose science… it is to go up against the scientific structuring of social rules” (Turkish Daily News, August 2).

Kemal 2AKP MP Zafer Uskul

Law professor and constitutional expert Zafer Uskul, a newly elected member of the AKP, has incited a fierce debate over the future of Kemalism by suggesting that Turkey needs a “colorless constitution… one that does not impose any ideology on the country” (Sabah, July 27). Even for many of his AKP colleagues, Uskul’s call to drop all references to “Ataturk nationalism” and “Kemalist principles” from the constitution went too far.

Turkey’s former chief prosecutor, Sabih Kanadoglu, claimed Uskul’s comments were “just a repetition of the European Union spokespersons’ expectations from Turkey” (Turkish Daily News, August 4). The Islamist politicians by no means reject the Ataturk legacy. Kemalism does not oppose the practice of Islam, but makes it a private matter with no standing in the state. The Islamists have begun mining the early history of the republic for proof that rigid secularism was not the intention of the nation’s founders. They are fond of citing Mustafa Kemal’s cooperation with Islamic leaders in the chaotic years following the Ottoman collapse, while overlooking Ataturk’s often scathing views on Islam following his consolidation of power in 1927. The Islamic Virtue Party actually campaigned in 1999 under an Ataturk slogan: “The Republic is Virtue.”

Turkey is in the middle of a social transformation in which the economic success of the Anatolian heartland is beginning to challenge the “old economy” of the dominant military-corporate class of the coastal cities. The AKP is more than a one-note religious-based party; it is also the party of economic liberalization, supported by a new class of Anatolian businessmen with traditional social values. AKP reforms intended to secure membership in the European Union have gradually reduced the military’s role as “guardian of the nation,” and the party’s triumph at the polls despite strong military opposition seems to be an endorsement of this process. For now the military is still interpreting the meaning of the AKP victory in regard to their own political role, but sooner or later the military must reevaluate its role in the republic. The nation has matured politically since Mustafa Kemal’s time, and the democratic process leaves little room for “guardians of the state.”

Nonetheless, the AKP must move slowly to achieve its aims. With so many self-appointed guardians of the Kemalist legacy, there is always the real danger of ultra-nationalist violence. It is worth noting that while ten officers were dismissed from the military in July for religious activities, a further ten were dismissed for their involvement with right-wing extremists (New Anatolian, August 11). The constitutional debate is still in its early stages and is certain to get much more heated before Islam and Kemalism are able to accommodate each other.

This article was first published in the August 15, 2007 issue of the Eurasia Daily Monitor

PKK Arms Scandal Fuels Turkish Suspicions

Andrew McGregor

August 14, 2007

U.S. policy in Kurdish northern Iraq seems to be in flux, reflecting differences within the U.S. administration and the growing bitterness in U.S.-Turkish relations since Turkey prohibited the movement of U.S. troops through its territory during the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Claims last spring by deserters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that U.S. trucks were delivering arms to PKK bases in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq have resulted in a series of denials and investigations by Washington (Milliyet, July 2).

pkk 4Since then, Turkey claims to have seized quantities of U.S.-supplied arms from the Kurdish militants of the PKK. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul noted that some of the weapons seized from the PKK (including U.S.-made M-16 rifles) came from U.S. shipments to the Iraqi army, but added that if direct arms shipments were discovered, “our relations [with the United States] would really break apart” (Kanal A TV, July 15). In response, a U.S. spokesman declared, “such reports would have no basis in fact” (New Anatolian, July 17).

To deal with this crisis in relations, William J. Haynes, general counsel of the U.S. Department of Defense, led a seven-member team of U.S. officials in closed talks with representatives of the Turkish General Staff (including the deputy chief-of-staff, General Ergin Saygun), the Foreign Ministry, the Security Directorate and the National Intelligence Organization (Today’s Zaman, July 27). The meeting discussed an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Defense into reports that U.S. arms were being sold by U.S. troops in Iraq. The session was no doubt prompted by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s complaints that U.S. explanations were unconvincing as to why “a serious amount” of weapons confiscated from the PKK were U.S.-made (NTV, July 16). Shortly after the meeting, an FBI delegation headed by FBI International Operations Chief Thomas Fuentes arrived in Ankara to further discuss the problem with Turkish officials.

The Department of Defense delegation suggested that the U.S.-origin arms seized from PKK fighters were diverted from U.S. supplies to government troops by elements in the Iraqi security apparatus, but the FBI’s involvement suggests a criminal case involving unauthorized arms transfers by U.S. personnel. According to Foreign Minister Gul, the results of an internal investigation indicate that corrupt U.S. troops were involved in selling arms to the PKK (NTV, July 19). The other (and most dangerous) possibility is that covert U.S. arms supplies to the anti-Iranian Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) were shared with Kurdish comrades in the PKK. PJAK leader Rahman Haj-Ahmadi was in Washington recently seeking financial and military aid for his movement, despite PJAK and the PKK being designated terrorist organizations (Today’s Zaman, August 6). PJAK is effectively an offshoot of the PKK and shares many of the same facilities and resources in the Qandil Mountains (Terrorism Monitor, June 15, 2006). Iran claims that PJAK is already receiving arms and other assistance from the United States.

According to the Report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction in 2006, of 370,000 light weapons shipped by the United States to Iraq since 2003, only three percent had their serial numbers recorded by the U.S. Defense Department before distribution, making it very difficult to trace captured weaponry. Much of the equipment supplied by the United States is not of American type, such as AK-47 assault rifles and Austrian-made Glock pistols. The U.S. government cannot account for the ultimate destination of 190,000 weapons issued in Iraq during the 2004-2005 train-and-equip program, according to a report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The GAO notes that record-keeping has improved, but arms are still being delivered without proper documentation (GAO-07-711, July 31). Iraqi President Jalal al-Talabani has protested the practice of American commanders arming various Iraqi factions without consulting the Baghdad government. At the same time, the Iraqi government is complaining of Washington’s slow response to Baghdad’s offer to buy $1.5 billion worth of American arms, including helicopters and M-16 rifles. China has stepped in as an alternate supply, and Iran has also offered to supply the Iraqi government with weapons and training (Agence France-Presse, July 26).

In late July, the U.S. Department of Defense provided a secret briefing to select members of Congress on a new plan to have U.S. Special Forces members assist Turkish forces in eliminating the PKK leadership in northern Iraq. The most likely targets would have been PKK leaders Murat Karayilan and Cemil Bayik, two men named in a similar scenario discussed at Washington’s Hudson Institute last June in the presence of Jalal al-Talabani’s son and two Turkish generals (ROI TV, June 23; Anatolia News Agency, June 19).

Meanwhile, problems continue to loom on the horizon for U.S.-Turkish relations. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to pass a bill next month recognizing Ottoman massacres of Armenians in World War I as “genocide.” It is an unusual move by legislators who otherwise spend little time analyzing historical questions, and one that will be regarded as a slap on the face by many in the Turkish government and military. If the recently signed Turkey-Iran natural gas deal goes forward, Turkey may become subject to U.S. sanctions, creating a major NATO rift with a range of implications, few of them favorable to the United States. Reports are also surfacing in the Turkish media that the United States has started to look for alternatives to its Turkish military bases in the Balkans, Azerbaijan and even northern Iraq. If true, this suggests that planning is already underway for the eventuality of a break in Turkish-American relations (Turkish Daily News, July 26). The downward slide in relations is reflected by a July poll by the U.S.-based Pew organization showing that only nine percent of Turks had a “positive view” of the United States. More alarmingly, 75% of Turks were concerned that their NATO ally could pose a military threat to Turkey (Sunday Telegraph, July 29). In winning the “hearts and minds” of Iraq’s Kurdish minority, the United States appears to be losing those of a vital ally.


This article first appeared in the August 14 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

Turkey’s Dark War: Counter-Terrorism Strategies for the 21st Century

Andrew McGregor

July 23, 2007

Turkey has experienced a long and painful history of terrorism. During nearly two decades of terrorist attacks and brutal fighting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), some 35,000 lives were lost. At present, secular Turkey’s moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) government faces a resurgence of PKK terrorism as well as new threats from al-Qaeda. In their battle with PKK militants in southeastern Turkey, Turkish troops have suffered casualties almost daily from mines and roadside bombs. At the forefront of the counter-terrorist struggle is Turkey’s General Staff, which sees itself as the protector of Turkey as a secular state. Recently, the General Staff has emphasized the need for Turkey to confront the rising threats from asymmetrical groups, a challenge it refers to as the “Dark War.”

Turkey DarkTurkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit (Hurriyet)

The role that Turkey’s generals play in the country’s political life is unfamiliar to most Western states. The generals give speeches suggesting directions for public policy, call for politicians to be prosecuted, robustly defend the nation’s international reputation and persecute any perceived deviation from official Kemalism—the secular political and social movement created in the 1920s by General Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as a nationalist response to the implosion of the Ottoman Empire. Opinion polls consistently reveal that the Turkish military remains the most trusted element in Turkish public life, despite a history of coups and political interventions. Experiencing 45 different governments since 1946, many Turks view the military as a powerful force for national stability.

The General Staff’s Criticism of Western Views on Terrorism

In a May 31 address at the Istanbul War Academy, Turkey’s chief of staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, referred to the paradigms of the Cold War as having been replaced in the 21st century with those of a “Dark War,” in which security forces address asymmetrical threats not just through military efforts but in cooperation with “legal, economic, political, sociological and psychological elements.”

Buyukanit’s view is that the war on terrorism of Turkey’s NATO defense partners has become dangerously focused on “religious terrorism,” to the exclusion of all other sources of terrorism. Especially alarming in Turkey’s eyes is “ethnic-nationalist” terrorism of the sort generated by the PKK. The Turkish government has called for greater coordination and cooperation, including a policy of “try or extradite” for fugitive or self-exiled terrorist suspects being harbored by Turkey’s European allies. According to Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, “Freedom of speech of terrorists or shadow organizations must not be used against the right to live of innocents” (Anatolia News Agency, June 14).

The Turkish General Staff fears that Washington harbors intentions of splitting the predominantly Kurdish southeast from the rest of Turkey, a fundamental violation of the Kemalist doctrine of territorial integrity. General Buyukanit is fond of warning that the Turkish armed forces are ready to fight “anyone” intending to divide Turkey. Allegations of U.S. arms shipments to the PKK and the violation of Turkish air space by American F-16 warplanes have sparked suspicions regarding Washington’s aims in northern Iraq. Within the officer corps, there is some sympathy for Russian authoritarianism, and, as trust in Washington declines, a number of Vladimir Putin’s most virulent anti-American remarks have found their way to official Turkish military websites. The growing discomfort of the General Staff with the Western military alliance reflects public opinion in the wake of uncertainty over the real goals of the U.S. “Middle East Project” and French and German obstruction of Turkey’s European Union candidacy.

There is a tendency in Turkish political thought to equate opposition to the Kemalist state with “terrorism,” whether of a material or psychological kind. The sensitivity of the General Staff to this inclination was demonstrated when a NATO military college displayed a U.S.-produced map of the “New Middle East” last year, showing a diminished Turkey side-by-side a newly independent “Kurdistan.” General Buyukanit discussed the matter personally with then-U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace and received an official apology (Today’s Zaman, September 29, 2006).

General Buyukanit is not averse to addressing the Islamist government through the media, reminding the Turkish public that the armed forces are ready to eradicate terrorism when or if the order is issued by the National Assembly. In the past, the Turkish armed forces have been accused of taking extraordinary measures to repress Kurdish nationalism, including torture, civilian massacres, mass displacements and “false-flag” operations designed to discredit the PKK. The General Staff has used its own website to urge a popular mobilization of the people against terrorism, most likely in an attempt to put pressure on the AKP government and the United States (Milliyet, June 9). Since then, the funerals of “martyred” servicemen killed in eastern Turkey have become scenes of political protest, with demonstrators chanting anti-PKK slogans while abusing government ministers who dared to attend (Anatolia News Agency, June 11).

Turkey’s political leaders are in agreement with Buyukanit over the “misleading” religious approach to terrorism. Responding to a May 23 bombing in Istanbul that killed six and wounded more than 100, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan affirmed, “Terror has no religion, ethnicity, homeland or nation” (Anatolia News Agency, May 23). Parliamentary Speaker Bulent Arinc has denounced the “Clash of Civilizations” approach to terrorism that dominates the debate in North America. He says, “We believe terrorism does not have a nation, language or religion and does not have values to which it can be faithful. That is why we are against using religious, ethnic or regional adjectives in definitions of terrorist organizations or terrorism. We are thinking differently from many countries on this issue” (Anatolia News Agency, June 14). The government has received support from Turkey’s religious establishment; according to Ali Bardakoglu, the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate-General, “No religion can approve violence and terrorism” (Anatolia News Agency, June 14).

Turkey Dark 2General Ergin Saygun (Milliyet)

Deputy chief of the General Staff, General Ergin Saygun, also rejects the concept of “Islamic terror,” explaining that “the West sees almost two billion Muslims as potential terrorists, and this emerges as the biggest obstacle before cooperation…Terrorism is fed by separatist and ethnic movements. And, terrorism which is fed by these sources is threatening global security as much as other types of terrorism.” General Saygun also issued a warning directed at Turkey’s NATO partners, saying, “Those who tolerate terrorism will definitely be harmed by it one day” (Anatolia News Agency, June 1). Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul notes that while democracy should not become a victim of the war on terrorism, “democracy and democratization are not enough to obliterate terrorism” (Anatolia News Agency, June 14). According to Buyukanit, international cooperation on terrorism issues is hindered by an inability to agree on just what constitutes a terrorist act (Anatolia News Agency, July 3).

In addition to the threat from PKK militants, there are signs that al-Qaeda militants are preparing new strikes in Turkey. Eleven al-Qaeda suspects were arrested in Istanbul on May 30, while a further 23 suspects were arrested in the northwestern city of Bursa on June 20 (Anatolia News Agency, May 30, June 20). Interestingly, this is a threat shared by Iraqi Kurdistan, which is increasingly under attack from al-Qaeda terrorists being forced out of central Iraq by the current U.S. offensive. The field commander of al-Qaeda forces in the Hamrin Mountains near Kirkuk is said to be a Kurd named Aso Kirkuki (Aso [Baghdad], June 4). Gunmen of the Kurdish Ansar al-Islam movement have also been reported in the mountains, while others are allegedly assisting al-Qaeda in Mosul and Kirkuk (Chawder [Sulaymaniyya], May 28; Awene [Sulaymaniyya], May 15). Terrorist bombings occurred in May in Erbil, Makhmur and elsewhere, all apparently targeting offices belonging to Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 15). Five al-Qaeda members are awaiting execution in Erbil for attacks carried out in 2005 (Awene [Sulaymaniyya], May 22).

Security Challenges Complicated by Upcoming Elections

Internally, Turkey’s approach to the “Kurdish problem” is immeasurably complicated by the presidential and parliamentary elections coming later this year. There are indications that the Kurdish question is being used as part of a power struggle between the secular Kemalist generals and Erdogan’s AKP.

Prime Minister Erdogan has challenged the United States to match its anti-terrorist rhetoric with action. He asserted, “Turkey from now on expects action instead of empty words. Turkey has always met the requirements of strategic partnership. However, they [the United States] have not assumed their responsibilities yet” (Anatolia News Agency, June 7). The prime minister has suggested a joint Turkish-American-Iraqi operation against the PKK as an alternative to a unilateral Turkish offensive. Lately, Erdogan appears to be backing off from a Turkish attack on northern Iraq in favor of dealing with PKK terrorists within Turkey first. The turnabout suggests that the government’s tough rhetoric on Iraq was at least partly designed to provoke a U.S.-Iraqi intervention against the PKK. Erdogan continues to face strong public pressure to take action against Kurdish insurgents and terrorists. Protests that he cannot act without receiving an official request from the General Staff do not enhance the prime minister’s reputation for decisiveness (Hurriyet, May 26).

If Turkey cannot find satisfaction in its dealings with the United States, a new Turkey-Syria-Russia-Iran axis might emerge to challenge U.S.-Israeli power in the region. With Iran’s Revolutionary Guards engaged in fierce fighting with Kurdish militants on the Iranian/north Iraqi border, the Kurdish insurgency is resulting in shared ground for Turkish and Iranian security interests. For the United States, it is important to retain access to Turkey’s Incirlik airbase for operations in Iraq as well as any projected attack on nuclear facilities in Iran. As General Buyukanit’s “Dark War” diverges from U.S. interests in the Middle East, security relations between these two powerful NATO partners will continue to deteriorate. A U.S.-Turkish confrontation over northern Iraq would have immediate consequences for the entire balance of power in the region.

This article first appeared in the July 23, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Massoud Barzani Conducting Dangerous Games in Northern Iraq

Andrew McGregor

July 17, 2007

With the Turkish army massing on the border of northern Iraq, the hard-won gains of Iraq’s Kurdish nationalists now face a serious threat. Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the president of Kurdistan since 2005, has adopted a provocative stance as an ally and supporter of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish guerrilla/terrorist movement that infiltrates southeast Turkey from bases in northern Iraq. Barzani, who once cooperated with Turkish forces in cross-border operations designed to eliminate PKK fighters in Iraq, now appears to have reversed his position, allegedly supplying the PKK with weapons, explosives and logistical support.

BarzaniMassoud Barzani

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Barzani’s KDP and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by current Iraqi President Jalal al-Talabani, have moved toward unification of their parallel administrations in Iraqi Kurdistan. In the past, the PUK also aided Turkish incursions against the PKK, recognizing that cross-border ties with Turkey were essential for the economic success of an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Ethnic solidarity with the radical leftist militants of the PKK had little to offer in comparison.

Much of the tension between the Turks and Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) arises from the disputed status of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oil fields. The city has a sizable Arab population (largely settled there by Saddam Hussein) and is a traditional center for Iraq’s Turkoman population (ethnically related to the Turks, who act as their patrons). A recent influx of Kurds has created favorable conditions for a proposed referendum to attach Kirkuk to Kurdistan, virtually guaranteeing the success of an independent and newly oil-rich Kurdistan. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is accused by both Sunni and Shiite Iraqis of conniving to transfer Kirkuk to a Kurdish administration in return for Kurdish support for his failing government (New Anatolian, June 16). Such a development is viewed as undesirable in Ankara, where it is feared that such a state would only encourage further Kurdish separatist and terrorist activities in Turkey. Turkey has its own economic interests in Kirkuk; Turkey’s state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) reached an agreement in April with the Anglo-Dutch Shell corporation to develop a pipeline running from Kirkuk to the Turkish port of Ceyhan (The Times, April 13). At the same time, Barzani stated bluntly that “Turkey is not allowed to intervene in the Kirkuk issue and if it does, we will interfere in Diyarbakır’s issues and other cities in Turkey” (Today’s Zaman, June 19).

Kurds Map(Joe Burgess/NYT)

Barzani’s bold threats of intervention in Turkey resulted in Turkey’s chief of staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, designating Barzani as an additional target of any Turkish operation against PKK bases in northern Iraq (Hurriyet, June 6). In a July 3 television interview, Barzani declared his preference for dialogue with the Turkish government, but warned that “a Turkish operation in Iraq will result in a catastrophe for the whole region, for Turkey, Iraq and everybody else involved. It will ignite a devastating war in the region” (EuroNews, July 3). Ankara is convinced that Barzani’s aggressive attitude is the result of U.S. indulgence.

Accusations have been made asserting that both Barzani and the U.S. military are currently supplying arms to the PKK. Three PKK deserters claimed last month that U.S. armored vehicles were supplying the PKK base at Mount Qandil with M-16 rifles and munitions (Milliyet, July 2). Last week, Turkish Ambassador to the United States Nabi Sensoy suggested that Barzani had supplied U.S.-made arms and explosives to the PKK, adding that Turkey held the United States responsible for the PKK presence in northern Iraq (Today’s Zaman, July 12).

Barzani has fallen afoul of Turkey’s powerful Kemalists, the dominant political and military elite devoted to the idea of a secular, centrally-ruled Turkish nation as developed in the early 20th century by Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Turkish prosecutors have opened an investigation of Barzani based on a complaint made by the Kemalist Thought Association (ADD), charging Barzani with colluding with the PKK in Iraq (Anatolia News Agency, June 18). There are also allegations that Barzani cooperated with U.S. forces in the 2003 Sulaimaniya incident in which U.S. troops detained 11 Turkish Special Forces soldiers and placed bags over their heads (ROJ TV, June 24). The ADD is asking for a freeze on all Turkish assets held by Barzani or his family because Barzani is believed to have considerable business interests in Turkey (Today’s Zaman, June 19).

As the Turkish elections approach later this month, the Kemalist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has taken a firm stance on eliminating the PKK. Speaking recently at the Socialist International meeting in Geneva, CHP leader Deniz Baykal impelled delegates Barzani and al-Talabani to walk out when he declared, “No state tolerates terror on its territory. Iraq is an exception to this” (Hurriyet, July 11). Other Turkish politicians have urged the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to take economic measures against Barzani’s KRG, including a blockade on Turkish electricity exports to the region and the closure of the vital Habur border gate, the conduit for vital coalition petroleum supplies and a growing cross-border trade (Today’s Zaman, June 27).

Officially, the PUK and Barzani’s KDP are growing closer to a unified command, but tensions between the two parties still exist. Barzani appears to be taking the opportunity to represent himself as the protector of all Kurds, while the position of his Kurdish rival, al-Talabani, prohibits him from making irresponsible, if popular, declarations of support for the PKK. Yet, support for the PKK endangers the success of Iraqi Kurdistan as well as Barzani’s own economic ties with Turkish business interests.

It is unlikely that the pragmatic Barzani has become a pan-Kurdish nationalist. He once abandoned Iranian-Kurdish militants in return for support from Tehran against Saddam, and historically he has had even less concern for the radical PKK. Indeed, Barzani’s approach has been described as “no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.” Barzani is likely to use the PKK to achieve several objectives:

  1. The unification of rival Kurdish groups under external pressure.
  2. The use of the PKK as a potential trading piece in exchange for Turkish recognition of an independent Kurdistan.
  3. The use of an external threat from Iran (which is waging its own struggle against Kurdish militants) and Turkey to convince the United States to build a military base in northern Iraq, thus ensuring the security and independence of Kurdistan against its more powerful neighbors. President al-Talabani is also promoting the idea of a U.S. base in Kurdish Iraq, reminding the United States that “they not only have political interests with the Kurds, but also economic and military interests” (al-Sharqiya TV, June 22).

Barzani’s support for the PKK is unlikely to survive the accomplishment of these goals. Without the cooperation of Turkey and Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan is not economically viable or sustainable. The high stakes play for permanent Kurdish sovereignty threatens to plunge the region into a new war. As long as Washington is unable to defuse the growing tension between its NATO partner Turkey and its Kurdish allies in Iraq, the initiative remains with Barzani. Time is running out, however. Turkey’s general staff is eager to attack PKK bases and a new government in Turkey may not exhibit the same reluctance to invade northern Iraq as the current AKP administration.

Turkey’s Evolving Anti-Terrorism Measures on the Iraqi Border

Andrew McGregor

July 3, 2007

Along the Turkish-Iraqi border, the struggle between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants is escalating. The Turkish press has released testimonies from captured Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants who claim to have witnessed U.S. armored vehicles supplying weapons to a PKK base on Mount Qandil (The New Anatolian, July 2). Regardless of its ultimate veracity, this news is being widely reported in the Turkish press and is inflaming the already slowly deteriorating relations between Turkey and the United States. There has been talk for months regarding an expected Turkish incursion into northern Iraq, but preparations along the border indicate that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) are also intent on developing a permanent security zone in the Iraqi border region.

PKK 3PKK Patrol

Despite the concentration of government forces in southeastern Turkey, PKK attacks have increased by 65% over previous years. Half of the attacks were enacted through the use of landmines or Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) (Terrorism Focus, June 26). This year, 64 soldiers, many of whom were conscripts fulfilling national service, have been killed. The Turkish military alleges that “terrorists” and munitions have been crossing into the Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. In response, 20,000 troops have been relocated to the 300 kilometer-long border, establishing mobile military response teams and temporary observation posts (Milliyet, June 13).

In recent years, a Turkish military force of 1,000 to 2,000 men was stationed at or near border control points inside northern Iraq (mainly in the Sulaymaniyah area) to collect intelligence and monitor insurgent movements; these were withdrawn in June, however, due to the declining security situation and confrontations with Kurdish troops (Milliyet, June 13). At the same time, border guards belonging to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) were also pulled back five kilometers from the border. Kurdish troops are now being deployed at six new Iraqi government outposts in the Zakho District, bordering Syria and Turkey. Turkey’s military concentration along the border is undoubtedly behind the efforts of Kurdish leaders in Iraq to make a regular army from the 100,000 peshmerga guerrillas of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

In early June, three “interim security zones” were established in the Sirnak, Siirt and Hakkari provinces of southeastern Turkey. Kurdish militants are active in all three regions, where restrictions on non-military activities will be in place until September 9. A ban on air traffic in the area was partially directed at the United States, which had been sending F-16 aircraft, helicopters and surveillance drones into the zone of operations. The F-16s are alleged to have violated Turkish airspace (Hurriyet, June 8). There is speculation that Turkey intends to create a permanent “buffer zone” 15 kilometers deep and 120 kilometers long, with reports that the Turkish government is prepared to offer compensation to the thousands of Kurdish civilians who would be forced to abandon their homes under the scheme (Milliyet, June 14). Shells continue to fall in and near Kurdish Iraqi border towns in an apparent effort to drive out their population before creating an uninhabited buffer zone. Turkish shelling near the Iraqi towns of Dohuk and Erbil was protested by the Baghdad government and elicited a warning from Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who declared that the Kurds were part of the Iraqi people and promised that “we will not be silent in the face of this threat” (Daily Star [Beirut], June 13).

The TSK also intends to increase the number of thermal cameras capable of detecting the nighttime movement of insurgents across the border. Numerous tanks positioned on the border already carry infra-red devices. Until recently, Turkey was the recipient of U.S. satellite surveillance of the Iraqi border region, but it is presently taking steps to increase its own surveillance capabilities. The TSK has one unmanned surveillance drone active in the border region and is renting another from Israel until it can take delivery of 10 Israeli-made drones next year (Cihan News Agency, June 27). On June 22, Turkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit briefed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the PKK’s acquisition of anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles (al-Sabah, June 22). Two days later, Kurdish militants reported attacking a Turkish Sikorsky helicopter (ROJ TV, June 24).

In anticipation of a Turkish attack, PKK militants are pulling back as far as 15 kilometers from the border. Cemil Bayik, one of the PKK’s two top commanders in northern Iraq, threatens that a Turkish incursion will soon become a “political and military disaster,” adding that Turkish operations would allow Iran to “interfere in Iraq.” Bayik has his own views on the Turkish chief of staff’s motivations in calling for cross-border operations. He stated, “General Buyukanit wants everyone to be a happy Turk. And those who don’t agree he brands as a traitor. He wants first to smash the Kurdish regional government in Iraq. He wants second to ruin any chances of a referendum being held on Kirkuk, and the PKK issue is really only third on his list of priorities.” Bayik insists that the PKK are freedom fighters rather than terrorists and that the movement has abandoned separatism and the aim of establishing a Marxist-Leninist Kurdish state in favor of demands for linguistic, cultural and individual freedoms within a Turkish state (ROJ TV, June 24).

This article first appeared in the July 3, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


Turkey Turns up the Heat in Northern Iraq

Andrew McGregor

April 17, 2007

Although a final decision has not yet been made in the Turkish capital of Ankara, preparations by the Turkish armed forces continue for a series of strikes against the northern Iraqi bases that hold an estimated 3,800 guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally designated terrorist group. Anti-American public opinion is on the rise in Turkey at the same time that the country heads toward a presidential election in May and parliamentary elections in November. The intentions of Turkey’s military have become clearer in the past few days. The general staff is recommending direct airborne strikes on PKK bases, avoiding a politically problematic occupation of the region as well as depriving militant Iraqi Kurds of land-based military targets. The operation is scheduled to last three months, with Turkish troops being airlifted back to Turkish bases every evening. There would be no attempt to hold territory except for a buffer zone along the border designed to prevent Kurdish infiltration into Turkey (Tempo, April 13). Turkey’s National Security Council has also approved a set of military, economic and diplomatic sanctions against Iraq in an effort to persuade Baghdad to expel the PKK fighters (Middle East News Line, April 15).

buyukanitGeneral Yasar Buyukanit

In a television interview earlier this month, Kurdistan Regional Government leader Massoud Barzani insisted that Iraqi Kurds would interfere in the Kurdish regions of Turkey if Ankara continued with plans to intervene in northern Iraq. In a furious response, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Iraqi Kurds were making “a very serious mistake” and that Barzani would be “crushed with his own words” (Asia Times, April 14).

In an unusual development, the chief of the Turkish General Staff, Yasar Buyukanit, held a press conference on April 12 to suggest that the Turkish Armed Forces mount attacks on PKK bases in northern Iraq. With fighting already underway between the army and Kurds in southeast Turkey, the general accused the Iraqi Kurds of providing logistical support to terrorists, making military operations a necessity. General Buyukanit finished by noting that an offensive into Iraq ultimately remained a political decision. The surprise presentation was clearly intended to test the political will of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, as well as to put the United States on notice of the gravity of a situation that Turkey’s generals feel Washington is ignoring.

The general’s remarks had an immediate impact in Iraq. Iraqi parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani offered his support for Massoud Barzani, adding that “the hand that will be extended to interfere in our internal affairs will be cut, if not today then tomorrow” (Today’s Zaman, April 14). The speaker of the regional Kurdish parliament termed the general’s comments “a dangerous escalation” (Daily Star [Beirut], April 14).

On April 13, Turkey asked the United States to cooperate in preventing the relocation to Kirkuk of 10,000 Kurdish refugees from northern Iraq’s Makhmour refugee camp. Turkish authorities insist that the camp is used as a PKK training camp and must be closed down. They are equally concerned about the growing number of Kurds moving into the oil-rich Kirkuk region in advance of a referendum to decide whether Kirkuk should belong to the semi-autonomous Kurdish province of Iraq. Ankara has made it clear that U.S. help in closing Makhmour should be regarded as the beginning, rather than the sum, of U.S. efforts to eliminate the PKK in northern Iraq (Today’s Zaman, April 13).

After Barzani’s outburst, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was forced to immediately reassure Prime Minister Erdogan that Iraq’s foreign policy was still in the hands of the Baghdad government. Turkey’s diplomats deal exclusively with the central government in Baghdad, carefully avoiding any recognition of Kurdish autonomy. Despite Barzani’s provocative remarks, many Iraqi Kurds are determined to resolve the dispute with Turkey through dialogue. The success of northern Iraq’s “Kurdish project” depends on a sustainable economic relationship with their Turkish neighbors. The prime minister of northern Iraq’s regional assembly, Nechirvan Barzani, made this clear: “Turkey is our gate to Europe…We’ve never gotten involved in Turkey’s internal affairs, and we have no intention of getting involved in the future” (Today’s Zaman, April 14). Turkey is still awaiting a response from the Iraqi parliament to a diplomatic note demanding that the Iraqi forces fulfill their international anti-terrorist obligations by arresting PKK members in Iraq and extraditing them for trial in Turkey (New Anatolian, April 13).

Adding another complication to the issue, there are reports that various members of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Ansar al-Islam and other Sunni militant groups are moving north from their usual zone of operations to avoid the U.S. surge in central Iraq. Anywhere from 50 to 300 militants are reported to be employing Kurdish guides to enter northern Iraq with the intention of forming “the Kurdistan Brigade of al-Qaeda” (Awene [Sulaymaniyah], April 10; Terrorism Focus, April 3).

There are economic, as well as security considerations, at risk in the dispute between Washington and Ankara over the correct course of action in northern Iraq. Royal Dutch Shell is ready to reenter the Iraqi energy market in cooperation with Turkey’s state petroleum company, TPAO. The joint project would build a pipeline from the oil fields of Kirkuk to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, but it awaits ratification in Baghdad (The Times, April 13). Continued Turkish support is also vital for U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. Approximately 74% of coalition air cargo passes through Turkey’s Incirlik airbase, while nearly a quarter of coalition fuel supplies come from Turkey. Much of the fuel and electricity used in northern Iraq also comes across the Turkish border.

Ankara has already been warned by its friends in Europe that any offensive into northern Iraq will have an immediate negative impact on Turkish efforts to join the European Union. General Buyukanit’s address has raised eyebrows in Brussels, where European Union rules demand civilian control of the military in member states. European Union accession talks, however, are basically going nowhere at the moment, fueling a growing nationalist movement in Turkey that is no longer willing to submit the country to the “humiliation” of an ever-shifting set of EU accession criteria. Disappointment with the level of U.S. activity against the “PKK terrorists” may soon lead to Turkey taking independent action to secure its borders in a region of increasing economic importance.


This article first appeared in the April 17, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

Turkey’s Coming Offensive Against the Iraqi-based PKK

Andrew McGregor

April 30, 2007

The creation of a largely autonomous and peaceful “Kurdistan” in northern Iraq is often trumpeted as a major success in post-Baathist Iraq. Any progress made, however, toward an independent nation for the stateless Kurds creates great uneasiness in Turkey, Syria and Iran, all of which host significant and sometimes militant Kurdish minorities. Turkey’s struggle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey has cost 35,000 lives since 1984.

PKK 1PKK Fighter in Northern Iraq

The Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is determined to pre-empt a spring offensive by the PKK. If the Iraqi government and U.S.-led forces are unwilling to cooperate with each other to counter the PKK, a designated terrorist organization, Turkey has signaled that it is willing to operate unilaterally. Last August, following a number of clashes with PKK guerrillas, Turkey massed tanks, artillery and troops along the Iraqi border. The PKK consistently denies that operations are launched from the Mount Qandil area in northern Iraq, claiming that it maintains only a “political presence” there. Last weekend, however, the Turkish army took its first steps in mounting a full-scale offensive against the Iraqi bases of the PKK. Mine-clearing operations are underway along the border, while Turkish Special Forces have reportedly penetrated 20 to 40 kilometers inside northern Iraq to prepare the advance and seal off PKK escape routes. As many as 200,000 Turkish soldiers are being brought up to the border this week.

With Turkish presidential and general elections approaching, Turkish security forces have carried out mass arrests of alleged PKK terrorists in Istanbul and have detained 19 members of the Kurdish Democratic Society Party in Izmir and Manisa (The New Anatolian, March 21). Turkey has been busy resupplying army divisions along the Iraq border and has cancelled all leave for these formations for the next three months (Zaman, March 20).

The PKK’s Iraqi Harbor

The PKK arrived in northern Iraq after Syria ended its sponsorship of the movement in 1998. The movement’s long-time leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was arrested in Kenya shortly afterward and brought to trial in Turkey. The PKK still contains a large number of Syrian Kurds, some of whom are now agitating for attacks on Syria. In Iraq, the PKK established bases around Mount Qandil, close to the Iranian border but about 100 kilometers from the border with Turkey. The PKK has bases on the west side of the mountain while its Iranian equivalent, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), has a base on the southern slopes close to the Iranian border. While the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Massoud Barzani has provided some support to the PKK, both Barzani and Iraqi President Jalal al-Talabani (leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) have little use for the imprisoned PKK leader. During past Turkish incursions against PKK elements in Iraq, fighters from both the Barzani and al-Talabani factions have been known to operate in support of Turkish troops.

Turkish intelligence estimates that there are 3,800 Kurdish fighters in the Qandil region ready to carry out attacks on Turkish military and civilian targets. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is believed to still be trying to run the movement through messages passed through his lawyers from his cell on the prison island of Imrali. Recent medical tests failed to find any trace of toxins after rumors spread that Ocalan was being poisoned in captivity (Anatolia News Agency, March 12). Ocalan’s attempts to control the movement from a distance have stifled the emergence of a new political leadership. Without strong central leadership, the PKK is subject to fragmentation due to the disparate origins and motivations of its fighters.

Despite their apparent weakness, the PKK has threatened to expand the conflict to neighboring countries if they continue to interfere with the movement’s struggle against Turkey. KRG leader Massoud Barzani has also threatened to deploy Kurdish troops against Turkish forces should they cross into Iraq. Kurdish intentions to absorb the Iraqi city of Kirkuk with its immense oil reserves and large Turkmen population into a northern Iraqi “Kurdistan” is another growing irritant in Turkey’s relations with the Iraqi Kurds. There are fears that Kirkuk’s petroleum industry could provide the economic heart of a viable and independent Kurdistan that would inspire Kurdish separatism in neighboring states.

 NATO Allies at Odds

Turkish dissatisfaction with U.S. efforts to root out the PKK comes at a difficult time. The current U.S. Congress debate on the WWI-era “genocide” of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire is quickly poisoning U.S.-Turkish relations, particularly in the politically powerful Turkish armed forces. To mollify Turkish opinion, the United States has appointed a special envoy to deal with the PKK issue, retired Air Force General Joseph Ralston. General Ralston has stated that “the PKK is a terrorist organization and needs to be put out of business” (Zaman, March 16). Besides Turkey’s status as a vital cornerstone of the NATO alliance, southern Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base is also a crucial staging ground for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States is unwilling to open a new front in northern Iraq, nor can it afford to lose its support from Iraq’s Kurdish population. Kurds provide the most reliable units in the reformed Iraqi national army and have taken part in recent counter-terrorism operations in Baghdad and other parts of the country dominated by Sunni or Shiite political factions.

Turkish Cooperation with Iran?

In late February, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards pursued PJAK elements through the Iranian province of West Azerbaijan to the Turkish border, killing 17 guerrillas (IRNA, February 24). It was only the latest in a series of intense clashes between the Revolutionary Guards and PJAK in the northwestern region of Iran. Iranian artillery frequently fires on the PJAK base at Mount Qandil. PJAK is generally regarded as the Iranian wing of the PKK, with which it cooperates. There are seven million Kurds in Iran, who are actively seeking greater economic and commercial ties with Turkey.



Turkey and Iran have quietly worked out a reciprocal security arrangement, whereby Iran’s military will engage Kurdish separatists whenever encountered, in exchange for Turkey’s cooperation against the Iranian Mujahideen-e-Khalq movement (MEK), a well-armed and cult-like opposition group that previously found refuge in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Both Iranian officials and Turkey’s prime minister have alluded to “mechanisms” (likely to involve intelligence-sharing) already in place to deal with security issues of mutual interest. Neither Turkey nor Iran has any desire to see an independent Kurdish state established in northern Iraq. For the moment, Turkey’s cooperation with Iran is achieving better results than its frustrating inability to persuade the United States to help eliminate a designated terrorist group in northern Iraq. The Erdogan government continues to forge a distinctly Turkish foreign policy, conducted in alliance with, but not in submission to, the United States. In a recent interview, Erdogan vowed that Turkey would not allow attacks on its neighbors from its territory, adding, in an obvious allusion to Iran, that all countries had a right to pursue the development of a peaceful nuclear energy program (Milliyet, March 12).

Iran complains that the British and U.S. intelligence agencies are now supporting and inciting “anti-revolutionary” militant groups, some of which are ethnic-based movements active in sensitive border regions. Nearly all of these groups use terrorist methods, such as car bombs, one of which recently killed 17 Revolutionary Guards members traveling in a bus near the Iranian border with Pakistan’s turbulent Balochistan province.

In January, Turkish diplomats played down reports that Israel and the U.S. Department of Defense were providing clandestine support to Kurdish PJAK “terrorists,” operating in the northwestern Iranian border region, questioning the usefulness of such a policy in countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions or destabilizing the country in advance of a military strike (Journal of Turkish Weekly, January 4). The reports, originating in a Seymour Hersh article in the January 4 New Yorker, were vigorously denied by White House and Israeli spokespersons. Since then, there have been further allegations that the CIA is using its classified budget to support terrorist operations by disaffected members of Iran’s ethnic minorities, including Azeris, Baloch, Kurds and Arabs (Sunday Telegraph, February 25).

Potential Outcomes

Turkey supports the territorial integrity of Iraq, but is unwilling to sacrifice its own perceived security interests (especially as regards separatist groups or other threats to national unity). In this, the government has the support of Turkey’s generals and most of the opposition parties. The Turkish military is well aware that the elimination of cross-border refugees and support systems is an essential factor in any counter-insurgency strategy. Whether this will be accomplished peacefully or by force will depend largely on the success of the upcoming meeting of U.S. and regional foreign ministers in Istanbul. Among those elements necessary to a political settlement are Turkey’s readiness to make at least limited concessions to its own Kurdish community, a demonstration from the United States that it is not prepared to risk its alliance with a major NATO partner during the growing confrontation with Iran and a willingness by Iraqi Kurds to sacrifice the PKK and dreams of an independent “Greater Kurdistan” in return for regional autonomy in northern Iraq.

Iran may be expected to continue aggressive military operations against Kurdish militants to keep its border region secure in a politically volatile period, while continuing to demonstrate to Turkey its usefulness as a security partner in contrast to U.S. reluctance to undertake anti-Kurdish military activities. U.S. intervention in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region could create a new wave of destabilization in Iraq, as well as diverting U.S. resources from a confrontation with Iran (a result no doubt desired by Tehran).

A Turkish incursion will likely have limited scope and objectives, although it will likely include at least two divisions (20,000 men each) with support units. The last major cross-border operation 10 years ago involved 40,000 Turkish troops. With the greater distance to PKK bases at Mount Qandil from the Turkish border, a first wave of helicopter-borne assault troops might follow strikes by the Turkish Air Force. An assault on Mount Qandil will prove difficult even without opposition from Iraqi Kurdish forces. More ambitious plans are likely to have been drawn up by Turkish staff planners for a major multi-division offensive as far south as Kirkuk if such an operation is deemed necessary. A Turkish newspaper has reported that General Ralston has already negotiated a deal with the KRG to permit a Turkish attack on Mount Qandil in April (Zaman, March 25).


While tensions peak on the border, the time has in many ways never been better for a resolution to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. From captivity, Abdullah Ocalan appears ready to concede Turkey’s territorial unity in exchange for stronger local governments. He recently stated, “The problems of Turkey’s Kurds can only be solved under a unitary structure. This is why Turkey’s Kurds should look to Ankara and nowhere else for a solution” (Zaman, March 26). Turkish investment in northern Iraq is far preferable to having Turkish tanks and artillery massed menacingly along the border. If the KRG was intending to keep the PKK as a card to use in coercing Turkish support for Kurdish autonomy, it may be time to play it. PKK morale is low and prolonged inactivity under the aging leadership will ultimately send many fighters back to their villages. The movement is hardly in a position to mount an effective offensive, however. Without state sponsorship, the PKK is poorly armed and supplied. The KRG’s limited hospitality is hardly a replacement for Syrian patronage. Massoud Barzani has urged face-to-face talks on the PKK problem with Turkish leaders, who have also recently indicated openness to discussion (NTV, February 26). Turkey’s continuing conflict with the Kurds jeopardizes its candidacy for European Union membership. With the possibility of full-scale Turkish military operations beginning in northern Iraq in the coming weeks, both U.S. and Turkish strategists must realize that any clash between the Turkish military and U.S.-supported Iraqi Kurds backing their PKK brethren is a political disaster in waiting.


This article first appeared in the April 30, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

President Obama’s Outreach to the Muslim World (II) – Jihadi Analyst Dissects U.S. President’s Praise of Turkish Secularism

Andrew McGregor

June 12, 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama’s continuing outreach to the global Islamic community has brought a harsh response from Jihadi-Salafist ideologues. Typical of this reaction is an article entitled “ObamaTurk: The Secular Phenomenon” by a jihadi analyst using the name “al-Janubi.” The article, based on President Obama’s visit to Turkey and his April 6 address to the Turkish parliament, appeared in issue two of the magazine Jihad Recollections, published in May by al-Fursan Media Productions.

Obama Egypt 1

(Washington Times)

Al-Janubi claims Obama’s speech “championed a version of Islam that advocated secularism, nationalism and democracy in place of the Islam revealed 1400 years ago.” Particularly offensive was his praise of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, “who single-handedly dismantled the greatest nation Allah ever let exist on the face of the earth” (i.e. the Ottoman Empire). Ataturk’s creation of a secular nationalist democracy in place of the Istanbul-centered Caliphate (dismantled by Ataturk in 1924) may be his legacy, but this does not make it a good legacy; “Obama forgot that Islam has no room for secularism.”

Al-Janubi cites a Quranic verse, Surah Baqarah, verse 120: “Never will the Jews or the Christians be satisfied with you unless you follow their way.” Secularism, says al-Janubi, is the way of the Jews and Christians, though if the Muslims were to follow them in this way they would be respected even less than they are now. Addressing Obama’s statement of U.S. support for Turkish accession to the European Union (EU), al-Janubi points to the futility of Turkey’s attempts to join the EU as proof of the truth of this Surah.

While Obama praised Turkey’s choice of a new path (the creation of a secular democracy) rather than allowing partition by the Great Powers or attempting to restore the Ottoman Empire, al-Janubi maintains Turkish nationalism was nothing less than another form of “European hegemony,” as proved by Ataturk’s preference for the Latin, European alphabet and European dress rather than “neutral, non-European” modes. President Obama “lied when he said that the Turkish republic commanded the respect of the United States and the world. By imitating those who will not accept them except as alternative to the ‘radical Muslims,’ they are begging for the respect of the U.S. and the world, not demanding it.”

The author calls Obama a hypocrite for stating “There is no excuse for terror against any nation,” after having already pledged his support for Israel during the electoral campaign. “He has already promised to aid one nation, Israel, which has no right to exist, in its terrorizing of a neighboring nation of which Israel should be a jizyah-paying dependency [jizyah is a tax on non-Muslims]. He means one thing and says another, and according to a Muslim or a non-Muslim, that is the definition of a hypocrite!”

Finally, al-Janubi responds to President Obama’s assertion that “The United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.” According to al-Janubi, “To not be at war with Islam, he would have to withdraw troops from all Muslim lands, allow the Shari’a to be implemented by whom everyone else calls the ‘radicals’ and the ‘extremists,’ stop supporting any anti-Shari’a movements in the Muslim lands, and then withdraw all support from Israel so they may be easily overrun and absorbed by the Islamic caliphate to pay jizyah or be driven into the ocean.” Had Obama been sincere in his stated intention to deal fairly with the Islamic community, according to al-Janubi, he would have withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan and admitted that America had started the current conflict with the support of the one nuclear power in the Middle East, “the real terrorist, Israel.” He would also have cut off aid and support for dictators in Muslim lands, such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King ‘Abdullah of Jordan. Al-Janubi concludes by asking whether Muslims will withdraw their support of Obama or support an enemy of Islam “and thereby become our own enemies in the process.”

This article first appeared in the June 12, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor