Turkey hits back after deadly PKK attack

By Khadija Patel 20 October 2011

Hours after Kurdish rebels killed 24 Turkish soldiers and wounded 18 in attacks along the Turkish-Iraqi border, Turkey launched a military operation against the militants in northern Iraq. By KHADIJA PATEL.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, popularly known as PKK, has waged a campaign for Kurdish rights and autonomy in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast since 1984. To date the conflict has killed more than 40,000 people. Branded a terrorist organisation by the US, the European Union and Turkey, the PKK continues to use violence in its drive for Kurdish autonomy. The last three months has seen a dramatic rise in PKK-sponsored attacks in southeast Turkey. More than 50 Turkish security forces have been killed since July this year. Last month the Turkish government warned that they would match any further intensification of the violence by a ground operation into Iraq to drive back the PKK forces.

Through the history of the conflict, Turkey has launched several cross-border air and ground operations into northern Iraq. The last major ground operation occurred in 2008, when Turkey sent 10,000 troops, backed by air power, into northern Iraq for eight days. Turkey claimed that more than 300 PKK rebels were killed in the 2008 raid, but the PKK accuses Turkey of targeting civilians.

Turkish authorities now claim that rebels opened fire on military outposts in Cukurca and Yuksekova in Turkey’s Hakkari province on Wednesday killing 24 Turkish soldiers and 20 rebels. The PKK claimed responsibility for the attack and Turkish President Abdullah Gul promised vengeance. Turkey’s globetrotting Prime Minister Recep Tayep Erdogan and foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu cancelled trips to Kazakhstan and Serbia respectively as Erdogan prepared what he termed a “hot pursuit” within limits of international law.

Unlike 2008, the latest Turkish incursion into Iraq may prove a formidable challenge to the Turkish government. Reuters reports that imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan threatened to unleash “a big war” against the Turkish state six months ago unless the government began serious negotiations with him to end the insurgency. After more than ten years behind bars, Ocalan continues to enjoy considerable influence over the PKK as the escalation of violence by the PKK in recent months demonstrates. Ocalan may, however, have overplayed his hand.

Turkish officials are reported to have recently held informal talks with Ocalan, breaking a long-held taboo against negotiations with a “terrorist kingpin”. Ocalan wants Turkey to recognise him as a legitimate representative of the Kurdish people and begin formal negotiations with him. Such a move would legitimise not just Ocalan, but also the PKK. Erdogan has been keen to seek an end to the conflict, but the surge in violence will leave him ill-disposed to compromise.

Under Erdogan, the Turkish government has taken steps to address the demands of Kurds as well as other minorities for greater rights. Erdogan is pushing to amend the country’s constitution, which was written in 1982 when Turkey was under military rule. Constitutional change is integral to addressing the demands for greater rights for the Kurdish people. Kurdish leaders are determined that an amended constitution should recognise the Kurds as a distinct element of the nation and grant them autonomy. But the political bargaining has once more been scuppered by violence. The overtures Erdogan has made towards the embattled Kurdish people may now be drowned out in the clamour of retaliation.

Reacting to the PKK attack on Wednesday, US President Barack Obama condemned what he described as an “outrageous terrorist attack”, saying the US will continue its strong cooperation with the Turkish government as it works to defeat the PKK.

The Turkish incursion into Iraq comes at an especially sensitive time for both the US and Iraq. The US is meant to withdraw entirely from Iraq at the end of this year and, save for Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, Iraqi leaders have not invited the Americans to stay on. Iraqi-Kurds condemned the PKK attack last week, and Turkey had called on Iraq to stop the Kurdish rebels from attacking Turkey from Iraqi soil, saying its “patience is running out”. Turkey is determined to stem the PKK attacks from Iraq. The ground incursion into Iraq proves the lengths to which Turkey is prepared to go to defend itself from the PKK. But in the vacuum of security that may arise from the American withdrawal, Iraq may inadvertently find itself at war with a neighbour. DM

Read more:

  • Turkey mounts counterattack in Iraq, in the Washington Post
  • Turkey’s Kurds long for “Kurdish Spring”, on Reuters 

Photo: Soldiers carry a coffin containing the body of one of the 24 Turkish soldiers killed in an attack by PKK Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey on Wednesday. Reuters.


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