Turkey Claims It Will Wipe Out the PKK — Here’s a Million Reasons Why It Can’t
The Kurdish militants are expert mountain fighters and have fought off worse
The Turkish government talks tough. “You cannot discourage us from our war on terror,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said earlier this month. “Those mountains will be cleared of these terrorists. Whatever it takes, they will be cleared.”
Davutoglu was referring to the bombing campaign against the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, in the Qandil Mountains. Turkish air force F-4 and F-16 fighter-bombers are hitting suspected PKK targets in the Qandil Mountains, and dozens of soldiers on both sides have died since the fighting erupted in July.
But it’s hard to imagine Turkey expelling the PKK. The Qandil Mountains are an ideal sanctuary, stretching westward from the Iraq-Iran border about 30 kilometers into Turkish territory. The Turkish military is certainly not unfamiliar with them.
In 1997, Ankara sent 30,000 combat troops into the mountains, and coordinated operations with Kurdish peshmerga fighters loyal to Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party.
In 2008, Turkey launched a short-lived but sizable operation against PKK forces, and in 2011 launched another series of air strikes and artillery barrages.
Today, Turkey is bombing the mountains once again. The most recent air strikes clearly did some damage. But the scale is an attempt to demonstrate Turkey’s ability to keep up the pressure until the PKK surrenders or accepts a ceasefire with terms favorable to Ankara.
Analysts believe Turkey is seeking the latter — to weaken the PKK and then reopen negotiations from a position of greater strength. If the former is the case, however, history indicates that it’s extremely doubtful Turkey will be able to “clear” the PKK from the highlands.
Let’s put it another way. Dropping stupendous amounts of munitions on those mountains may weaken the PKK in the short-term, but the paucity of clear targets is already disadvantaging Ankara. The PKK has expert mountain fighters who know the terrain and can survive.
Worse, the Turkish air force has killed innocent civilians, and according to Amnesty International, even hit a village where the PKK had no presence.
Attempts to target the PKK’s headquarters will prove futile since its headquarters are not in the mountains, the headquarters are the mountains. A fundamentally important distinction. As was the case with the American bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s, the sooner the Turkish government learns that there is no PKK equivalent of a “Bamboo Pentagon” that it can locate and take out, the better.
Further, the longer the air force keeps up the bombing, the more likely it is to kill even more civilians.
Even when Saddam Hussein tried to break Kurdish resistance to his rule throughout the dark years of the 1980s with a callous and criminal disregard for civilians, he couldn’t force Kurdish fighters from those mountains. And remember he used chemical weapons to try and do so.
In recent weeks more Iraqi Kurds have begun volunteering their services to the PKK. They are not discouraged by the frequent Turkish bombings and are ready to call Qandil home until the threat from Islamic State, or anyone else, is eliminated.
Incidentally, whether Ankara intends it or not, by focusing its efforts on weakening the PKK, the Turkish military is degrading an active and formidable adversary of Islamic State. While Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional government has called upon the PKK to vacate the mountains, it is doubtful that Erbil’s peshmerga will confront the militants with force. The peshmerga are already stretched thin dealing with the threat posed by Islamic State and managing their own affairs.
Additionally, many Iraqi Kurds have been annoyed with Ankara since it hasn’t, until very recently, volunteered its services in the fight against Islamic State.
So we are seeing the unfolding of a situation whereby the Turkish military is once again bombarding those highlands in much the same way it has done on previous occasions over the past 18 years, and believing this time around it can successfully defeat the rebels.
Which aptly fits the criteria outlined in the famous aphorism, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”