How to destroy the PKK

The Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, has just extended a ceasefire it declared in August. The Turkish government seems in a conciliatory mood, at least toward the PKK (though not toward Israel). We could be at a peaceful crossroads. But there are signs that might not be so.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has usually adopted a tough stance toward the PKK, perhaps most starkly in 2008 with his willingness to break international law and intervene in Iraqi Kurdistan to avenge the deaths of Turkish soldiers. He has been courting Syria, presumably with a view to isolating the PKK diplomatically. (The PKK received ideological support, training and arms from Syria during the Cold War.) The ceasefire might not hold, and might not be worth the breath that produced it: clashes between the PKK and the Turkish military have not ended. Commentator Ali Bulaç considers all this activity a sign that Erdoğan is trying to vanquish the PKK, whether militarily, diplomatically or legally, but that doing so is impossible without addressing “the major sources of the Kurdish issue”.

It is likely the PKK is no longer fighting to secede from Turkey. There is already a nearly-independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Furthermore, the PKK seem to be holding out for amnesty, rather than independence. In fact, if one is to believe Erdoğan and Syria’s President Bashar al-Asad, amnesty is on the table. But, beholden to an angry Turkish public weighing its options for the next election (scheduled for July 2011), Turkey’s ruling AKP may still have no appetite for measures of rapprochement. Moreover, the AKP recently achieved constitutional amendments limiting the power of the military in Turkish politics. The military is not averse to seizing power again, however (it was only earlier this year 20 senior officers were charged with plotting a coup), and in all likelihood the generals will want Erdoğan to stay truculent. If it is unwilling to compromise, the Turkish state might instead push to continue the war.

The war option

One lesson that could be drawn from last year’s utter defeat of the Tamil Tigers is that separatist-terrorist groups can be defeated if they are corralled and crushed militarily. But the Sri Lankan army cornered the Tigers by pushing them onto a beach at the north of the island. The PKK, by contrast, live somewhere in the formidable mountains in southeast Turkey and northwest Iraq. Without, say, extensive helicopter warfare, locating and beating the PKK is next to impossible.

Before the unilateral ceasefire, the PKK successfully committed raids in Turkish territory, killing more than 80 Turkish soldiers this year and blowing up the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Iraq’s largest crude oil export lines. Can they be trusted never to attack again? And barely a month before the ceasefire, Erdoğan had declared “they will drown in their own blood.” Is there any reason to think he has softened since then?

Turkey wants to be accepted by Western Europe, and it wants to destroy the PKK. Though the politics of the recognition of the PKK mean that many EU states and possibly the EU institutions themselves would not look kindly on destroying the group, that could change. Politics tends to have a short memory: destroy the PKK now, turn the attention of the state’s security policy to other things and within a few years, the only criticism will continue to get will be from powerless European Kurds who cling to faith in an independent Kurdistan. Considering that it customarily gets criticised for taking action against the PKK, the Turkish state might do well to end the conflict now, by fair means or foul, and restart reconciliation with estranged Turkish Kurds.

Ahmet Türk, a politician of Kurdish origin, warns against continuing the war. “If the army operations continue and the ceasefire is ignored,” he says, “it will not only cause grave harm to Kurds but to the whole Turkish public.” We have seen how angry the conflict makes Turkish nationalists and how Kurds have suffered from the PKK. This ceasefire, if that is what it is, is an opportunity to stop the pointless killing.