Is Turkey Losing to the PKK?

By Michael Rubin:

On the evening of August 4, Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] fighters attacked three military outposts in southeastern Turkey, killing six soldiers. The attack culminates a series of successful PKK operations. The Turkish military, its morale low after years of having its officers targeted by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his allies and its conscripts targeted by Kurdish insurgents, has been unable to prevent attacks. Turkish claims that the PKK attacks are simply the storm before the calm and that the PKK is on the verge of disbanding itself are risible.

The United States, European Union, and Turkey also consider the PKK to be a terrorist group. Erdoğan’s embrace of Hamas, however, raises questions about whether the PKK designation should stand. After all, Hamas is a far more violent terrorist group, as likely to target civilians as soldiers. The PKK, especially in recent years, has limited its operations toward fighting the Turkish military. Turkish officials say Hamas won an election, but then again, PKK front groups do as well, although Erdoğan’s security forces often arrest the victorious candidates before they can take their seats in parliament. Regardless, the PKK is far more popular in southeastern Turkey than is the Turkish government. Any desire to give credence to Turkish Foreign Ministry explanations that Hamas is legitimate but the PKK is not must be cast aside given that Erdoğan has had his officials enter into secret talks with the PKK. The moment he did so, he legitimized the group, so why should the Danish government, the Belgian government, France, Great Britain, or even the United States refrain from talking to the same PKK representatives?

The geopolitical situation does not help Turkey. Turkish officials have expanded economic ties with Iraqi Kurdistan because they know that Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani often subordinates Kurdish nationalism to his own bank account. Still, with much of northeastern Syria now under de facto Kurdish control, a greater Kurdistan is forming under the nose of the Turks. Even Barzani will not be able to restrain Kurdish nationalist sentiment for long. At any rate, most Syrian Kurds—perhaps 90 percent—are more loyal to the PKK and its local affiliates than they are to Barzani.

The PKK has expanded its reach so far inside Turkey that the group is even appointing shadow governors and parallel administrations. According to the mainstream Turkish daily Milliyet, as translated by the Open Source Center:

Van province has fallen under the control of Zagros Field Commander and Syrian national Fehman Hussein along with the Zagros and Hakurk provinces. Can Gurhan aka Resit Dostum is in charge of the Zagros province while another PKK member with the codename Zeki Sangali is in charge of the Hakurk province. It has been determined that the organization has 100-125 armed militants in Van and its environs.

In 1983, southern Sudanese rebels reignited their fight against a government and a state to which they did not pay allegiance. Last year, they finally won their independence. The PKK insurgency erupted in earnest in 1984. While diplomats in both Washington and Ankara refuse to speculate about the Kurdish future and the status of the PKK amidst the desire to keep close relations, facts on the ground, Turkish military failures, and events outside Turkey’s border raise the question about whether Turkey will lose its battle for unity and whether its future will resemble far more Sudan’s than the European states to which it says it aspires.

Copyright © 2012

26 Responses to Is Turkey Losing to the PKK?
  1. Kurd
    August 6, 2012 | 14:32

    Michael Rubin,
    you are at your hypocrite act again. Now PKK is not a terrorist group, when your Bush administration was all over them labeling them as terrorists? Michael Rubin, you have lost credibility with your biased inconsistent views. Again and again, please find a better job to do as your writings are becoming more and more biased. I wish you had come out 4 years ago to say PKK was NOT a terrorist group. What changed now?

    • P
      August 7, 2012 | 06:45

      Nothing has changed, thats why kurds dont take biased foreigner analyst seriously.

      What is certain is the oppression against kurds by Iran, Syria and Turkey, but these analyst only forward their narrow interest and brand every kurdish freedom figther group as terrorist. I dont see human rights activist in those analyst, but rather biased political interest.

  2. Mahabad
    August 6, 2012 | 14:36

    fact someone is questioning whether or not a Kurdish group is terrorist is very demeaning and insulting. not even going read ur whole article.

    • halmet
      August 7, 2012 | 10:39

      Someone said, “Last night when I went to sleep, Arafat was a terrorist man. This morning when I woke up, he was a statesman.”

      4 years ago, Michael might have different perception about PKK. Please understand that Political alliances and interests change daily. 4 years ago is way too long.
      If Michael had different point of view about PKK and/or Kurds four years ago doesn’t make him an enemy of the Kurds. That was just his opinion.
      My fellow Kurdish brothers and sisters, if anyone, I mean anyone sides with the Kurds right now and in the future, please embrace him and send him your gratitude. Those PKK sympathizers should be happy that Michael is shifting his point of view. What do you want him to say? Tell the world that “PKK is a terrorist organization?” Does it make you happy to say that? Obsoletely No.
      Besides, I consider Michael is one of us. He has spent years in Southern Kurdistan teaching at the universities. He has also involved and interested in Kurdish politics for years. he defends and supports Kurdish journalists. he has been one of the most advocate of Kurdish human rights. therefore, he is a Kurd and he has the right to blame or praise any group as he likes and writes anything he likes.

      • rsty
        August 9, 2012 | 19:31

        Good reply halmet. I’m not a Kurd, so I won’t try to say I understand the anger towards Mr. Rubin.

        What I do see is a man sympathetic to the Kurdish cause, who is saying that the PKK is more honourable than other real terrorist organizations (Hamas), and someone who seems optimistic about Kurdish statehood – something I think the Kurds deserve.

        Here’s a similar article of his at commentary, an American Jewish magazine/blog.

  3. Observer
    August 6, 2012 | 14:38

    Dr. Rubin,
    why don’t you hold your tongue on judging people. You used to think PKK was terrorist group, now not. Suggestion: whether Hamas, PKK, KDP, PUK, Guran, or whoever, maybe keep your thoughts to yourself and let time prove who terrorist and who not. Sick and tired of your stupid rhetoric.

    • halmet
      August 7, 2012 | 10:44

      Michael is analyzing the situation very carefully and I do agree with him Mr. “Observer”
      You don’t like him because he praises PKK to some degrees

  4. Suleiman
    August 6, 2012 | 14:52

    Interesting piece. Thanks Mr Rubin. I think the Middle East people now have skepticism about the accuracy of the west in evaluating events, groups, and conflicts in the middle east. It has been proven that a PhD in political science or foreign relations, or being ex advisor to a president doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to assess accurately. So much comes as a package with foreign observers that skews their view.

    Let’s see: foreign advisors to George Bush gave traumatically wrong assessments on the different groups in Iraq and it lead to many wrong decisions, which cost thousands of innocent lives. After ten years they are coming out admitting they made big mistakes, when they used to be so arrogantly deflecting any advise or opinion contrary to theirs.

    Mr Rubin, do you not think that the Kurdish situation could be handled in a m

  5. Suleiman
    August 6, 2012 | 14:57

    Handled in a more transparent way, that’s to say basically make a stand towards the Kurdish rights regardless which government is involved? What is concerning is that PKK was viewed a terrorist group before, now you suggest they are not. What guarantees you will stick to your views? I guess we can say that PKK is safe in your eyes as long as they don’t deal with Islamists? Is that an accurate assessment? Again the dynamics of the Middle East are too complex and I am not sure Mr Michael Rubin actually understands them. Knowing about Iran and Hamas is not enough.

  6. Hamma Mirwaisi
    August 6, 2012 | 17:14

    Massoud Barzani thinks PKK is his survival Card

    Barzani hopes that the US and Israel are going to attack Iran soon. In the meantime he is allied with Turkey against PKK and his strategically partner Jalal Talabani (he is ally of Iran and Shi’a). Barzani is not counting for Gorran and Islamic parties at all, as powers to deal with.

    Barzani hopes that his unjust practice will be acceptable by the US, EU and Israel and regional powers forever after defeating PKK with the help from Turkey. He is hoping that Turkey, the US and Israel will defeat Syria and Iran for him too.

    Barzani does not want to remember Shah of Iran and Egypt President destination.
    Even after PKK, Syria and Iran, the Kurdish people do not wants his family rule forever. All they have to do are defenestration like Iranian and Egyptian people did. The US and Israeli will take people side and family rules will be over.

    PKK are in control of commerce gateway not Massoud Barzani now. As soon as known that Turkey are not capable to safeguard the Oil and Gas pipeline, Then the US, EU and Israel do not have any other choices but to accept PKK realities.

    These equations are deriving Massoud Barzani to be crazy and out of balance. He is trying to re-start Kurdish internal war one more time.

    Is Kurds in Iraq and Syria smart enough to not fight one another for Barzani interest or not? Time will tell.

    Massoud Barzani failed in every scheme recently. His adventure with Turkey could be the end of Barzani and Talabani family rules or the civil war between Kurds based on the wishes of Barzani and talabani families unjust practice in Kurdistan.

    • ahmed zangna
      August 12, 2012 | 21:18

      the only reason that turkey and capitalism system consider pkk as a terrorist group because pkk and leader ocalan demand Kurdish political, cultural,historical,,,,, e.t.c.

  7. Pete Shield
    August 6, 2012 | 18:22

    It’s a nice picture but you have painted with very broad strokes.

    The Sudanese example is particularly selective, and I hope far from what we will see in Kurdistan- a hugely murderous civil war, over 200,000 women and children taken as slaves, mass starvation across the South, and even now an uneven and tense peace with the key issue of oil still unresolved and potentially the spark that will set off another war.

    Frankly I won’t wish that solution on my worse enemy.

    The situation is, I agree, very fluid at the moment. But I do think you have to see it as two related but fundamentally different fronts. The first being the PKK in Turkey. While the PKK have carried out a couple of tactical changes they have also unleashed a huge response from the Turkish army. It is one thing to attack small military targets and another altogether to claim this is a serious assault on the Turkish military machine. Moral in the Turkish army may be at an all time low, but that does not they have lost their will or ability to strike hard and fast against the small force that kills there colleagues. Even with low moral is still represents a huge and powerful beast.

    The second ‘front’ is the situation in Syria. The withdrawal by the majority of the Assad military from Western Kurdistan has created a unique opening for Syrian Kurds. The future however is far from clear. The SNC have been making more kurd friendly sounds over the last 24 hours but their agenda of a single united Syria would take some unbending to make a federal Syria with a KRG level of autonomy, particularly as a large amount of the country’s oil wealth would lie in the Kurdish area. Kurkirk ring a bell, 20 years later and the Iraqi regime and the KRG Govt are still on a knife edge. Why would Syria, particularly one where the FSA holds 99%, particularly if it gets its hands on the regime’s arsenals, be any different?

    Next is the ‘strategy’ of the PYD judged by their actions. They seem to want single control of the Kurdish areas, they previously have signed the Hewler agreement and then ignored them by forcing out other kurdish organisations. Secondly the PYD have liberated precisely nothing, it was the Regime that seceded their control not the PYD that seized control. There keeping the FSA out of the kurdish areas and not take part in the fight against the regime can be read two ways, they want a Kurdish solution for Western Kurdistan and believe that they can keep what they claim whatever the outcome, or a more cynical reading that they are playing both sides and keeping their powder dry for whatever fight emerges afterwards. The Assad regime may give way if they survive as a thanks you, an FSA regime is likely to me much less forgiving for such passive supporters.

    It seems to me that if the Kurds do not give practical and wholehearted support to the rebellion then the future of Western Kurdistan is even more problematic. Unlike the Iraqi Kurds they do not have a powerful patron like the US, they need to win friends not alienate potential allies.

    Turkey is not going to stand by and watch the PKK’s sister party take over a large block of their frontier, for that reason if none other it would be better for the PYD to be part of a much broader Syrian solution for Syria- ideally a democratic federal country. If the future holds closer links between Erbil and the regional government in Western Kurdistan than between the central Syrian Govt and the federal govt in Western Kurdistan then so be it, but first lets get peaceful democracy and see how things work out, rather than a weak PYD imposed solution which will be surrounded by enemies ever eager to see a blood bath.

    Lastly I would dispute your claims that the PYD commands the loyalty of 90% of Syrian Kurds, do you have any empirical evidence of this almost North Korean level of support?

  8. Aziz
    August 6, 2012 | 21:02

    Michael Rubin is generalizing things to fit his own dreams. What are you backing your claims of the Syrian support of PYD with? Fail journalism again. Stick to the Iran propaganda it is better for you.

  9. karim
    August 7, 2012 | 11:49

    I liked the article! It shows that the reality on the ground has changed and the sands under turkey’s feet are shifting.

  10. Sabah
    August 7, 2012 | 13:38

    Analysis coming from someone who was once an advisor to George Bush and then a friend of Barzani and Talabani at one time, I wouldnt trust his analysis.

  11. Dilawar
    August 8, 2012 | 13:08

    Seem like Dr. Rubin’s popularity not too dandy nowadays. People caught up with his double face? AND NO I don’t belonging PUK or KDP.

  12. Moderator
    August 8, 2012 | 23:38

    Dear friends,

    Thank you very much for all your comments, we feel privileged to be able to provide you this platform for discussions and exchanging ideas. Your participation is appreciated.

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  13. Pete Shield
    August 9, 2012 | 11:12

    Dear Moderator,
    You’re not suggesting that people are posting as multiple persons to try and make their opinion seem popular are you? What horror!
    PS what is my latitude and longitude?- I’ve always wanted to know

    • Moderator
      August 9, 2012 | 11:21

      Latitude: 46
      Longitude: 2

      • Pete Shield
        August 17, 2012 | 17:30

        Pretty close – impressive

  14. […] 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 […]

  15. attila The Hun
    August 9, 2012 | 15:24

    I will make one prediction. Turkey will celebrate its 100 anniversary in one piece.

  16. […] 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 […]

  17. […] few days ago, I speculated in my occasional Kurdistan Tribune column that Turkey might be losing its fightagainst the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known […]

  18. Mariwan Pauls
    August 10, 2012 | 10:43

    Dear Mr Rubin

    There are flaws in your article here and in One fact is that the Kurds in Turkey are treated appallingly as individuals and as a Nation in Nationalist/Islamist Turkey. So appalling, in fact it is not even acceptable in a third world country let alone for a country aspire European Union membership. I am not going into details of abuse here, I am sure you have the all the facts and figure to prove that. As you would expect, the Kurds (whether through PKK or some other organisation) will defend themselves and their legitimate national and democratic rights firstly through democratic means through Local and National election. But if that doesn’t work, as Turkey doesn’t accept results of democratic election and disqualifies, dismisses and imprisons Kurdish local counsellor and MP (Leyla Zana is ONE example, there are hundreds if not thousands of such practices) what other options Mr Rubin do you recommend?? What did the West, including the US, do against such an onslaught on Kurdish democratic rights?? Did it kick Turkey out of Nato for such non democratic behaviour against 20 Million Kurds? Did it stop its annual finincial support? Not at all. It sided with Turkey against the Kurds under the pretext of PKK being a terrorist group.

    In your article today 10/08/2012 in, you seem to change your views slightly re PKK. Not sure why the sudden change given that Turkey has supported Hamas for years and it wasn’t yesterday!! The only thing that has changed might be to do with PKK’s success in recent weeks against the Turkish military. Not sure how such success, or otherwise, would lessen or increase the democratic legitimate rights of the Kurds in Turkey?

    It is about time the West realises the nature of Turkish regime and recognises the Kurdish rights in Turkey and act accordingly. It will awaken the Nationalists Turks within Turkey to think how the modern world is and how it works (as oppose to being in Kemalist coma for the last century) and readdresses partially the historical injustices the Kurds has suffered in the past century.

    Best Regards

  19. Musa Can
    August 11, 2012 | 19:06

    Mr. Rubin you speak with a forked tongue. When Turkey is on good terms with Israel the PKK are vile creatures that should be destroyed. Once Turkish relations go bad with Israel now you’re slowly giving credit to the PKK.

    So audacious you are in your intellectual dishonesty that you openly use the Hamas angle. If Turkey sides with Hamas or not, does it actually change what the PKK is?

    According to you it does, so neither side in this equation should take this gentleman(I use the word lightly) seriously.

    You are no friend of the Turk or the Kurd, you just wish to forment trouble for your own strategic benefit.

    By the way, Hamas will eventually defeat you.

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