Turkey’s Operation Gunes Attempts to Eliminate the PKK Threat

Andrew McGregor

February 27, 2008

As Turkish troops and armor cross the border as part of Operation Gunes (Sun), the embattled nation of Iraq is once more host to a major military offensive, this time in its remote and sparsely populated northeastern region. Surprising many who expected Turkey to wait until spring before launching its expected drive to destroy bases of the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) appear to have taken the initiative in the decades-old struggle with a risky winter campaign. Despite the deep snow still covering this mountainous battleground, the TSK has taken advantage of optimal political conditions to preempt the PKK’s traditional spring offensive.

Operation GunesIraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari described the raid as a “limited military incursion,” but one with the potential to “destabilize the region, because really one mistake could lead to further escalation” (BBC, February 23). The Turkish General Staff states TSK troops “will return home in the shortest time possible after its goals have been achieved” (Turkish Daily News, February 23). Those goals remain loosely defined as neutralizing “members of the terrorist organization PKK/ KONGRA-GEL stationed in the north of Iraq and to destroy organizational infrastructure in the region” (Hurriyet, February 23), but may also include an attack on the main PKK/Kongra Gel base in the Qandil Mountains, nearly 60 miles from the Turkish border. The Turkish press has been warned away from the area of operations.

Minimal international reaction to a series of small raids and regular cross-border bombardments over the last year confirmed for Turkey’s leadership that opposition to a major strike on PKK targets in northern Iraq would only be minor—if civilian casualties could be held to a minimum. As a result, a major cross-border operation that was unthinkable a year ago has become reality today.

A Carefully Planned Attack

The incursion began on the night of February 21-22 after an intensive cross-border bombardment by long-range artillery and aircraft. Operation Gunes is led by the 2nd Army Command in Malatya and overseen by the 7th Army Corps in Diyarbakir (Milliyet, February 22). Turkish infantry and Special Forces are receiving close aerial support from Turkey’s small fleet of Cobra attack helicopters. Transport helicopters are also being used to move elite Gendarmerie and Special Forces teams past difficult snow-bound areas. Thousands of men have been moved up to the border to prevent a PKK flight into Turkey’s southeastern provinces and to stand ready should Turkish forces in Iraq require reinforcements. Small bases with helicopter pads, thermal cameras and artillery have been set up near PKK infiltration routes in the Cudi, Gabar, Kupeli, Tanin and Kato mountains (Today’s Zaman, February 19). Turkish Special Forces are also using Sikorsky transport helicopters to assault PKK positions within Turkey near Sirnak (Milliyet, February 22).

There are signs that PKK formations have broken into smaller groups in an effort to evade Turkish forces, some moving southward, deeper into Iraq. There are reports of confusion in the PKK ranks after some of their positions were bypassed by Turkish troops, leaving the fighters wondering what the TSK’s real intention was (Khaleej Times, February 24). Preparatory aerial and artillery attacks have disrupted PKK communications and sparked dissension within the movement’s ranks. Turkish warplanes continue to run dozens of sorties each day, with the PKK leadership apparently ranking as prime targets. The TSK also claims to have destroyed large concentrations of PKK military equipment, including explosives, anti-aircraft weapons and stores of land mines (Hurriyet, February 25).

Operation GunesTurkish Forces Fire Rockets on PKK Targets during Operation Gunes

The PKK reported clashes almost immediately in the Zagros Mountains region near the intersection of the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran (Journal of the Turkish Weekly, February 22). Operations were also carried out in the Hakurk region, south of the Turkish border city of Cukurca, which is a main base for helicopter gunships operating across the border (Turkish Daily News, February 23; Hurriyet, February 25). The PKK claims to have shot down one helicopter near the border on Saturday, killing eight Turkish soldiers (Hurriyet, February 25). The TSK has acknowledged the loss of the helicopter, but mentions only “unspecified reasons” as the cause of the crash (Today’s Zaman, February 25). Warplanes and helicopters also work out of the military base at Diyarbakir, the scene of local Kurdish protests against the military operation.

The actual size of the Turkish forces taking part in the raid is subject to some dispute—figures range from U.S. military estimates of a few hundred men to Turkish press reports of 15,000 soldiers (Hurriyet, February 23; Milliyet, February 22). One report claimed the participation of 3,000 members of Turkey’s Special Forces (CNN Turk, February 23). The Special Forces have been carrying out specialized training for months now at bases in southeastern Turkey in preparation for the attack.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed that the United States is still supplying the TSK with real-time intelligence on PKK activities in Iraq. A White House spokesman also confirmed that Turkey had provided the United States with advance notice about its intentions (New Anatolian, February 23). The PKK note that Turkish warplanes inevitably follow U.S. surveillance flights (Firat News Agency, February 24). Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) operated by private teams of Israeli personnel are also being used for surveillance and intelligence-gathering.

After weeks of heavy aerial bombardment, PKK bases at Zap and Avasin are reported to have been overrun by Turkish troops carried in at night by Sikorsky helicopters with night-vision equipment. Special Forces teams in Zap were reported to be hunting Yucel Halis—also known as Aliser—a PKK commander who oversaw an October 2007 bombing in Semdinli that killed 13 soldiers. The Zap base was heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns and explosives placed around the perimeter (Cumhuriyet, February 26). Survivors were observed fleeing toward the PKK main base in the Qandil mountains after leaving behind booby traps and land mines to slow the Turkish advance. Some fighters attempted to escape in rubber boats down a small brook (Yeni Safak, February 26).

The PKK Threatens to Expand the Battle

PKK spokesman Ahmed Danis warned: “If Ankara continues its attacks we will carry out guerrilla operations in Turkish cities, trying to avoid the civilian population.” Unless Turkey ceased its raids into northern Iraq, the PKK “will move the theatre of combat to the heart of Turkish cities” (Gulf Daily News [Bahrain], February 24). Dr. Bahoz Erdal, the commander of the Hezen Parastina Gel (People’s Defense Force—the PKK’s military wing), has called on Kurdish youth in Turkey’s urban centers to unite and burn cars or do whatever else they can to make life in the cities unbearable. “In the big cities, Kurdish youth must give their reply to the military operations. Kurdistan’s guerrillas are not just 7,000 or 10,000, they number hundreds of thousands. They are everywhere …” (Firat News Agency, February 24).

The offensive has solid support from most of the Turkish opposition parties, but the Kurdish-based Democratic Society Party (DTP) has questioned whether the PKK is the sole target, while also refuting the possibility of a military solution to the decades-old conflict: “The solution is possible solely within the borders of Turkey. The [ruling] Justice and Development party (AKP) has prepared its own end with the operation” (Turkish Daily News, February 23).

Reaction from the Kurdistan Regional Government

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is seeking a withdrawal of Turkish forces and the implementation of three-way talks between Arbil (the KRG regional capital), Washington and Ankara. Though a statement from the office of KRG President Massoud Barzani warned of “massive resistance” in the event of civilian casualties, the Iraqi Red Crescent reports only minor civilian displacement and no civilian casualties in the opening days of the offensive (Reuters, February 23). Many people who use mountain pastures in the summer spend the winter in the plains or sheltered valleys, leaving the mountains largely empty of residents until spring. The KRG peshmerga militias do not usually patrol the region.

Only a day before the raid, Barzani warned of Turkish designs on Kurdish northern Iraq and the danger arising from repeated violations of Iraqi sovereignty. “There is a limit to our patience. If Turkish raids continue against Kurdistan and continue to affect people’s lives, we will not keep silent much longer” (al-Arabiya TV, February 25; Kurdish Globe, February 25). The peshmerga have been put on alert, but Barzani has urged the 80,000-strong Kurdish militia to show restraint in dealing with the incursion. On their part, the TSK has said in reference to the peshmerga that “local elements that do not resort to hostile acts against the Turkish Armed Forces” will not be harmed (Today’s Zaman, February 22).

The KRG reported a confrontation between the peshmerga and a detachment of Turkish troops, stationed on the Iraqi side of the border under a 1996 agreement with Baghdad that allows for Turkish monitoring of PKK activities in northern Iraq. A spokesman claimed that Turkish troops and armor tried to leave their camps near Duhok in defiance of the conditions of the agreement, but were forced back by units of the peshmerga (Today’s Zaman, February 22). Local sources reported that the peshmerga surrounded the Turkish troops and threatened to open fire, but both peshmerga authorities and the Turkish General Staff have denied the incident ever occurred (Hurriyet, February 24). More peshmerga units are being moved into the Duhok area, close to Turkish operations in the Hakurk region (New Anatolian, February 22). Other peshmerga have been moved to the Zakho, Amadiya, Sersing and Kanimasi regions along the Turkish-Iraqi border (Anatolia, February 24). As Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security advisor, warns, the longer Turkish soldiers stay inside Iraqi territory, the more likely a confrontation between Kurdish peshmerga and Turkish troops becomes (Hurriyet, February 26).

Reports continue that Turkish garrisons inside Iraq are taking unspecified “measures” to prevent fleeing PKK fighters from melting into the local Kurdish population (Today’s Zaman, February 25). The TSK has also made it clear that it expects “local Iraqi groups” (i.e., the peshmerga) to “prevent the PKK terrorist group members from entering their region and finding safe haven there.” Iran, whose Revolutionary Guards have also been engaged in fighting against Qandil-based Kurdish separatists, has moved troops up to its northern border with Iraq to prevent Kurdish fighters from seeking refuge across the frontier (Today’s Zaman, February 25).


After more than a year of intensive political and military preparation, Ankara is determined to make an end of the PKK. Despite politically necessary threats of “massive resistance,” the KRG has too much at stake to risk all in support of radical Marxists from across the Turkish border. The carefully engineered political conditions are so right for the timing of this offensive that it is taking place at a minimal diplomatic cost. The question is whether this is yet another in a series of limited Turkish attacks on the PKK that will fail to bring the struggle to a conclusion. There are abundant indications that Turkish forces will now go so far as to march into the main PKK base at Mount Qandil to eliminate the PKK threat. Operation Gunes is clearly having a devastating effect on the PKK leadership and infrastructure, but an intensive diplomatic and political campaign will be required to sustain and preserve the TSK’s success in delivering a decisive blow to the threat of PKK militancy.

This article first appeared in the February 28, 2008 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

The Shaykh Said Revolt and Ankara’s Return to the Past in its Struggle with the Kurds

By Andrew McGregor

February 7, 2008

After the recent admission by some of Turkey’s leading former military commanders that the military option was not the best or only way of resolving Turkey’s Kurdish problem, it is now becoming clear that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is taking a new direction—looking for a solution in Islam. Ottoman nostalgia is an important element in the AKP’s approach, which hearkens back to a time when Turks and Kurds were united under Islam and the caliphate. In turning to Islam, the AKP is entering into a three-way struggle to mobilize Kurdish Islam for political ends following years of insurgency and terrorism led by the radical secular nationalists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Revising their approach, the PKK is now beginning to vie for the support of southeastern Turkey’s conservative Kurdish community. This support is also sought for other purposes by more shadowy groups like the Turkish Hezbollah and even Turkey’s far-right “deep state” extremists.

Elections Approach

With the entry of the Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) into mainstream Turkish politics, there was initially some speculation that this would mark the beginning of a political solution to the Kurdish problem. In practice, the AKP has decided not so much to pull the Kurdish DTP into Turkish politics as to eliminate it through legal and political means. The AKP envisions becoming the representative party of a new Islamic Kurdistan, creating social ties through charitable Islamic NGOs that will eventually lead to the development of a new political power-base for the AKP in southeastern Turkey. With regional elections approaching next year, the AKP is determined to increase the surprising strength the party showed in the region during the last elections.

AKP rule has benefited the Kurdish middle class through investment initiatives while the Gülen movement and other NGOs have stepped in to provide assistance to the lower classes of Kurdish society. The DTP accuses the AKP and other Islamic organizations of using charity to wean Kurdish voters from the DTP (Today’s Zaman, December 31, 2007). With the DTP still tightly tied to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s continuing series of terrorist bombings is alienating Kurdish voters who might otherwise support the DTP.

In a recent interview with two aides of PKK military leader Murat Karayılan, the PKK officials admit that the AKP’s popular stand on removing the ban on Islamic headscarves for women poses a serious threat to Kurdish support for the PKK and DTP. PKK enthusiasm for an armed solution to the conflict appears to be waning (Sabah, February 5). A boost in social welfare in southeastern Turkey is directed at the poorer classes of Kurds who have traditionally supplied the manpower for local insurgencies.

  1. Shaykh SaidShaykh Said

The Shaykh Said Revolt of 1925

In the early post-war days of the Turkish Republic, Kurdish nationalists quickly realized they did not have the necessary support to mobilize the masses as part of their aim of achieving independence for Kurdistan. A number of present and former military officers formed the secret Azadi (Freedom) group with the intent of providing military support for a revolt to be led by religious figures capable of rousing such mass support, but the organization was broken up by Turkish security forces in 1924.

The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres had promised the creation of a new Kurdish state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, but Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s rejection of the treaty brought the nationalist project to an abrupt halt. The conservative and largely rural Kurds opposed Mustafa Kemal’s secular reforms and the abolition of the sultanate and caliphate in the early 1920s. The caliphate was the strongest bond between the Turkish and Kurdish communities in Turkey and its elimination was deeply opposed by the Kurds, who had turned out in great numbers in response to the Sultan/Caliph’s call for jihad during the First World War. As traditional religious schools were replaced by modern Western-style academies, Kurdish anger grew and both nationalists and religious leaders saw an opportunity.

The eventual rebellion, led by the Kurdish Sufi, Shaykh Said Piran, lasted only a brief two months in 1925, but marked a turning point in Kurdish-Turkish relations. This peasants’ revolt was centered in the mountains north of Diyarbakır. Only Sunni Kurds participated—the Alevi Kurds, who practice a mix of Shi’ism and Bektashi Sufism, initially favored the secular reforms as a means of freeing themselves from periodic repression by the Sunni majority. Said was sympathetic to the aims of the nationalists, but these views were not shared by his fellow shaykhs. Naqshabandi Sufi shaykhs provided the core leadership of the revolt. Though many of these had military experience during WWI, the military skills of the imprisoned Azadi veterans were still sorely missed. A Qadiri Sufi, Shaykh Mahmud, had already tried and failed to lead a rebellion only a short time earlier and a revolt by the Alevi Kurds—the Koçkiri Rebellion—had been suppressed in 1920.

Shaykh Said roused the rural population by maintaining that Islam was under attack, urging the restoration of the caliphate while using the language of martyrdom and jihad. Columns of peasants marched into towns carrying green flags and Qurans, meeting little opposition from the mostly Kurdish gendarmerie. Small detachments of regular infantry and cavalry were swept aside, with a number of artillery pieces falling into Kurdish hands. The rebellion reached its crest when 10,000 rebels besieged the walled city of Diyarbakır. Unable to take the city from its resolute commander, Mursel Pasha, the rebels began to realize the intervention of their revered shaykhs was not going to be enough to topple the Turkish state.

The inevitable government counter-offensive began in late March, with attacking planes of the Turkish Air Force driving panicked Kurds into the mountains, where they were destroyed by Turkish infantry. Shaykh Said and 47 others were executed in September 1925.

Shaykh Said KurdsKurdish Warriors

Following the rebellion, all Sufi orders in Turkey were abolished by order of Atatürk, with many of the Kurdish Naqshabandi shaykhs crossing into the Kurdish region of Syria, where their descendants remain active today. The dervish orders were abolished because of their ability to organize clandestine political networks. The authority of the shaykhs allowed them to cross tribal lines in their organizing efforts. Sufi meeting halls which had once been a refuge from police surveillance were permanently shut down after the revolt.

New powers were assumed by the state in the wake of the rebellion, setting back Turkey’s democratic development. Existing restrictions on the expression of Kurdish culture and language were invigorated and expanded. Kurdish identity was denied in favor of ethno/cultural assimilation. Rebellions continued under this regime, including one led by Shaykh Said’s brother, Shaykh Abdurrahman, in 1927.

Gülen Movement

At the heart of the AKP’s Islamic offensive in southeastern Turkey is the enigmatic figure of Fethullah Gülen, whose self-named Islamic movement is generally regarded as an offshoot of Naqshabandi Sufism. Despite being charged with conspiring against the Turkish republic in 1999—and eventually acquitted in 2006—Gülen has used the generous donations of his followers to build an international network of Islamic schools and NGOs. Though he has been a resident of the United States since 1999, Gülen is believed to have close ties to the highest echelons of the ruling AKP, many of whom also have connections to the Naqshabandi Sufis.

Gülen is a follower of the teachings of Kurdish philosopher and religious scholar Said al-Nursi (1876-1960), formerly known as Said al-Kurdi. As a Naqshabandi Sufi in the 1920s he declined to participate in Shaykh Said’s rebellion on the grounds that the Turkish nation had been at the service of Islam for 1,000 years. Although al-Nursi preached Islamic unity regardless of national borders, there have been efforts recently from Kurdish opponents of Gülen to emphasize al-Nursi’s Kurdish identity over Gülen’s alleged “pan-Turkism” (KurdishMedia.com, January 20).

Today Gülenists, some of whom fly in from Istanbul, distribute food to the poor, manage schools and provide much-needed medical services in southeastern Turkey. Since 1994 the Gülen movement has even opened eight schools in Kurdish northern Iraq where their opponents have accused them of spreading “Turkish racist ideology.” The schools are nevertheless very popular with the families of Kurdish bureaucrats and politicians (Turkish Daily News, December 26, 2007). Other Islamic NGOs are active in southeastern Turkey, including Mustazaf-Dar, believed to have ties to the Turkish Hezbollah (Today’s Zaman, December 31, 2007).

Kurdish Islam and the “Deep State”

There also appears to have been interest in Kurdish Islam from a more nefarious source, the Turkish “deep state” apparatus known as Ergenekon, members of which were recently rounded up by Turkish security forces (see Terrorism Monitor, February 7). Ergenekon grew out of NATO’s Operation Gladio, a secret Cold War formation of military and security personnel designed to offer prolonged resistance in the event of being overrun by Soviet forces. In Turkey the Gladio operation survived the Cold War by establishing deep roots in various political, military, security and criminal organizations. At the same time, the group began to assume guardianship of an ideal and rigidly Kemalist Turkish nation.

Following the arrests in late January there were reports that Ergenekon had held talks with the PKK and Dev-Sol (the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front) in Germany and had even started organizing a Kurdish Islamist terrorist group as part of their plan to spread chaos in Turkey prior to a military coup scheduled for 2009 (Yeni Safak, February 2; Istanbul Star, January 28). Another report claimed that the gang had recruited members of the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons—a PKK offshoot—to blow up a bridge near the headquarters of the Turkish air force and navy (Hürriyet, January 29). The fourth stage of Ergenekon’s plan to create conditions designed to enable a military coup is also said to have called for the creation of sham terrorist groups whose activities would spark conflict between Turks and Kurds (Zaman, January 28).

The Turkish Hezbollah

A January 25 report in the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet claimed that some of the Ergenekon agents were formerly active members of Turkish Hezbollah. For some years now rumors have circulated in Turkey charging that Turkish Hezbollah was the creation of the Gendarmerie Intelligence Group Command (JITEM), a secret and officially denied agency formerly led by prime Ergenekon suspect, retired Brigadier General Veli Küçük.

The Hezbollah were recently described as “predominantly and passionately Kurdish and can be seen as virtually the linear descendants of the participants in the failed Shaykh Said revolt of 1925…” [1]. While ostensibly seeking the establishment of an Islamic state, the Turkish Hezbollah has actually had more in common with Turkey’s right-wing extremists than with other Islamist movements. Its membership is largely Kurdish but in general the organization has few ties to the community. The movement was engaged for years in a brutal and bloody struggle with the PKK with little interference from authorities. Hezbollah denounces the PKK as anti-Muslim Marxist-Leninists who collaborate with anti-Turkish Armenians.

In January 2000, Turkish police rounded up 2,000 Hezbollah members and killed its leader, Hüseyin Velioglu. After evidence emerged of the movement’s predilection for brutal murders and torture, the group became popularly known as Hizbul Vaset (The Party of Slaughter). Though much diminished in strength, Hezbollah operatives still pose a serious threat to security, particularly through ties to organizations like Ergenekon.


The failure of religious-led revolts—of which the Shaykh Said rebellion was but the largest—caused the later Kurdish nationalists to look for new revolutionary models, eventually finding one in secular Marxism. The PKK turned its back on the example of these early “reactionary” tribal and religious leaders in favor of pursuing an independent socialist state free of the tribalism that constantly foiled all attempts to unify the Kurdish people in a single nation. The PKK has nevertheless had to adjust to the Islamic renewal in their home region, moderating their once-strident Marxism through the founding of the Kurdish Prayer Leaders’ Association. The PKK now professes respect for all Kurdish religious practices, including Shi’ism, Yezidism and Zoroastrianism (Today’s Zaman, December 31, 2007).

The Naqshabandi movement is active once more in southeastern Turkey, with a lodge in the city of Adıyaman and frequent visits from the shaykhs of the Naqshabandi lodges in Kurdish Syria. The Sufi movements still display remarkable organizational skill; in Iraq this has been applied to a military anti-occupation campaign (see Terrorism Focus, January 8; Terrorism Monitor, January 24).

Instead of driving the Kurds away with secularism as they did in the 1920s, the new approach of the AKP now tries to entice the Kurds away from secularism with Islam. If language and ethnicity are insurmountable barriers, then Islam will be the bridge between communities. In combination with a robust military campaign by the Turkish armed forces against PKK bases in northern Iraq, Turkey’s Islamic initiatives in its Kurdish regions are sapping strength from a radical form of secular Kurdish nationalism that appears to be on the defensive and without allies. The problem is whether the military phase of Ankara’s campaign will ultimately prove counterproductive if Turkish Kurds begin to rally around the PKK simply because they are fellow Kurds (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 28). Turkey’s strong secular establishment is also certain to express their opposition to the growing “Islamification” of southeastern Turkey.


1. Emrullah Uslu: “From Local Hizbollah to Global Terror: Militant Islam in Turkey,” Middle East Policy 14(1), Spring 2007

Tactical and Strategic Problems of a Turkish Winter Campaign in Northern Iraq

Andrew McGregor

October 30, 2007

As Turkish troops mass along the border with Kurdish northern Iraq, chief of the Turkish General Staff General Yasar Buyukanit has promised to make the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) “grieve with an intensity they cannot imagine” (AP, October 27). While an attack on northern Iraq seems imminent, important questions are being raised in Ankara about the effectiveness of a cross-border operation. What meaningful objectives are obtainable? Can the PKK be crushed through unilateral military action? Should the campaign wait until spring? There is political pressure on the Turkish government to do something now, a sentiment reflected in the urgency of Turkish demands for Iraq and the United States to take action against the PKK.

Turkish Winter 1Turkish Cobra Attack Helicopter during Winter Exercises

Large-scale PKK attacks, such as the October 21 ambush in Hakkari province (about four kilometers from the border) that killed 12 Turkish soldiers and involved over 200 Kurdish fighters, clearly seem designed to provoke a Turkish border crossing. The aim may be to cause a rift between Turkey and its allies while involving the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) in a difficult and dangerous winter campaign in Iraq’s northern mountains. The PKK has also threatened to cut the oil pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan and even strike oil tankers heading for Turkey (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 21). Following the deadly attack on the 21st, 11 Turkish battalions were moved up to the border to prevent the movement of PKK fighters across it (Today’s Zaman, October 26).

The electoral success last summer of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in former PKK strongholds in southeast Turkey has put pressure on the PKK to try and draw Turkey into a major struggle in northern Iraq with international implications for Ankara. Iraq’s Kurdish Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, claims that the PKK has been infiltrated by Turkish intelligence, and suggests that Ankara is seeking a provocation that will allow it to intervene in northern Iraq to “disrupt the Kurdish regional administration, (and) to cripple the infrastructure” (Newsweek, October 23).

Public demands for immediate military action against the PKK have dominated raucous protests in several Turkish cities. Many of the demonstrations now condemn the United States as well as the PKK. Senior Turkish politicians have also been abused at massive public funerals for “martyred” troops. In response to the attacks, TSK troops and Cobra helicopter gunships have already begun making “hot pursuits” of PKK fighters across the border. Turkish tanks and artillery shell targets in northern Iraq almost daily.

The difficulty for Ankara is that a quick raid on PKK installations in Iraq is likely to have little long-term effect. Turkey has already launched dozens of major raids on northern Iraq without doing anything to end the PKK presence along the border. PKK guerrillas possess little more than what they can carry on their back, and are thus ready to pull out to safer, pre-planned positions at a moment’s notice. Only an extended occupation stands any chance of success, and this will be difficult, if not impossible, without cooperation from Baghdad, Washington and northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Ankara is receiving mixed messages from the United States. Last week the U.S. military commander in northern Iraq, General Benjamin Mixon, declared that U.S. forces were not involved in tracking PKK movements and intended to do “absolutely nothing” to end Kurdish cross-border attacks on Turkey (AP, October 27). On the same day, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that the United States “will do what is necessary” against the PKK while warning Ankara to abandon plans for a major cross-border incursion (Hurriyet, October 27). There are also signals from the Pentagon that the U.S. military may be ready to use Predator reconnaissance aircraft to supply the TSK with the intelligence necessary to make pinpoint Special Forces strikes against PKK targets while avoiding a larger invasion (CBS, October 26).

Turkish air capability is limited. There are few attack helicopters available, and Turkish F-4 and F-16 jet-fighters flying from the Diyarbakir air base are largely ineffective against PKK mountain positions without the specialized munitions used by the United States or the fuel-air explosives Russia used against Chechen hideouts in the Caucasus Mountains. For now though, the Turkish warplanes continue to mount strikes on Kurdish villages and PKK positions inside Iraq while providing air support for search-and-destroy missions within southeast Turkey.

Turkey’s nine U.S.-built Cobra attack helicopters have undergone extensive refits to enable them to carry out night missions against the PKK. In September Turkey signed a deal with an Italian aerospace firm to provide 51 new attack helicopters to add to Turkey’s force of 90 U.S.-made Sikorsky Black Hawk assault helicopters (Today’s Zaman, October 22).

On October 21, the chairman of Turkey’s Grand Unity Party, Muhsin Yaziciolgu, called on the TSK to develop new strategies, such as the formation of “mobile units composed of high-level officers having extraordinary powers and responsible in taking initiatives” (Today’s Zaman, October 22). A brigade of professional commandos is undergoing training at the Isparta commando school in Egirdir, but these are not expected to take the field until 2009. Six existing commando brigades are replacing conscripts with volunteer professionals in a process that is expected to be completed by next spring.

Last week, 3,000 members of the police Special Forces joined Turkish regulars, mountain commandos, Gendarmerie forces and village guards in the fighting against PKK guerrillas (Hurriyet, October 25). Thousands of imams trained in “national unity issues” are also on their way to southeast Turkey to explain the unacceptability of terrorism in Islam.

Snow is already falling in the higher mountain passes. There is a danger that a Turkish winter offensive could get bogged down in difficult and roadless country without the benefit of the Iraqi Kurdish guides that used to accompany Turkish missions against the PKK. As the earth turns to mud under heavy rains and snow, the TSK’s armor will find the going difficult. Winter storms could also mean troops on the ground might lose the benefit of air cover and medical-evacuation services.

There are several options available. The TSK could cooperate with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in a strike against the PKK and Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) strongholds in the Qandil Mountain region 100 kilometers south of the border, probably the most effective option militarily, but the most dangerous politically, and potentially the most embarrassing for the United States. Such a strike would have substantial risks for the TSK, which has never penetrated so far into Iraq. The onset of winter usually marks the end of the PKK’s campaigning season until spring, as the fighters retire to bases well inside the border while only a small number remains behind in southeast Turkey. The TSK will have to penetrate 20 to 30 kilometers deep into Iraq to get to PKK’s winter camps. The alternative would be to create a buffer zone on the Iraqi side of the border and wait until spring for a major offensive (barring the success of diplomatic efforts in the meantime).

Even if Turkey could obtain Baghdad’s cooperation against the PKK, there is little chance the beleaguered Iraqi national army could carry out a successful campaign in the Kurdish mountains. The Kurdish President of Iraq, Jalal al-Talabani, claims that even the Kurdish peshmerga militias could not expel the PKK (Kurdish Aspect, October 21). The effect of a military offensive on the future status of the disputed oil-centre of Kirkuk must also play into the calculations of Turkish planners.

Turkish Winter 2Bottleneck at the Habur Border Gate (Hurriyet)

Economic sanctions and border closures present an alternative to military action until spring. Sanctions could include closing the Habur border gate through which $3 billion in trade now passes annually. A large quantity of American military supplies also pass through the Habur gate, but Ankara is now exploring the possibility of diverting Turkish trade with Iraq through a number of Syrian border crossings, avoiding Kurdish Iraq all together. Other options include a halt in vital Turkish investment, cutting supplies of electricity to northern Iraq, and the evacuation of Turkish contractors responsible for most of the rebuilding and infrastructure creation in northern Iraq. Over 600 Turkish construction firms are currently at work in northern Iraq (Today’s Zaman, October 26). In the presently charged atmosphere, the Turkish business community has expressed wide support for economic measures if necessary. In the event of economic sanctions by Turkey, Iraq’s government may save the PKK the trouble of cutting the pipelines to Ceyhan. Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Mahmud al-Mashhadani warned on October 25 that the Iraqi government would cut the flow of oil to Ceyhan should Ankara apply sanctions.

There is little chance of a large cross-border military operation starting before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Washington on November 5. As the TSK awaits orders, every day that passes increases the difficulty of mounting a successful operation in northern Iraq.

This article first appeared in the October 30 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus.

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

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

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