Commentary Magazine


Will Turkey Lose its Fight to the PKK?

A few days ago, I speculated in my occasional Kurdistan Tribune column that Turkey might be losing its fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its acronym, the PKK. Considered by the United States, European Union, and Turkey to be a terrorist group, the PKK has waged a bloody insurgency since 1984, which has claimed the lives of 45,000.

I have been a vocal critic of the PKK in the past, and was held up at gunpoint by the group once in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK—like many Kurdish political parties—trends toward the personality cult and is intolerant of dissent. Make no mistake: I still find the group to be noxious and, so long as the U.S. government considers the PKK to be a terrorist group, I will as well. But, as an analyst rather than an advocate, it is important to consider what events bode. Frankly, it seems as if Turkey could now lose its fight against the PKK:

  • The Turkish government has legitimized the PKK both by negotiating with it and also by embracing Hamas, a group which likewise justifies terrorism in rhetoric of resistance and national liberation.
  • While the PKK could never defeat Turkey in a head-on fight and so the Turkish Army will never formally lose, the PKK seeks only a stalemate. Insurgencies prioritize asymmetric warfare.
  • The Turkish military is a shell of its former self. Largely for political reasons, Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made the military his public enemy number one. One-in-five generals now sit in prison, even though no court has found them guilty. Because the Turkish conscripts do most of the dying in the fight against the PKK, their morale is also low.
  • Even with Predators, Turkish intelligence is poor. It has failed to head-off recent profile attacks against Turkish border posts, and often fails to differentiate between PKK fighters and ordinary villagers.
  • In recent weeks, the PKK has grown so bold as to establish shadow governors not only in isolated mountain districts, but also for Van, a major city in eastern Turkey.
  • Whereas the fight between the PKK and the Turkish Army was isolated to southeastern Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish destruction of villages during this period led to a massive flight of Kurds into major cities in central and Western Turkey: Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Today, the PKK strikes with impunity in the West as well.
  • De facto autonomy in largely Kurdish eastern Syria also gives the Kurds momentum and space to organize. According to private conversations with Kurdish journalists, Iraqi Kurdish residents, and European NGO workers, up to 90 percent of Syrian Kurds support the PKK’s local front group.
  • With their oil gains, Iraqi Kurds have greater resources than ever before, and don’t hesitate to fund Kurdish movements in neighboring states, even as they reach out to Turkey.

American policy is famously reactive. A de facto Kurdistan, however, is unfolding before us. Washington will never abandon Ankara. Still, there is no reason why the United States should fight Turkey’s PKK battle if the Turks themselves legitimize the group, and seem unwilling to apply the same definition of terrorism abroad which they seek to at home. Perhaps a starting point would be to work with Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey to encourage greater transparency and commitment to democracy. Kurdish nationalism and good governance should not be mutually exclusive.