Case Study of the PKK in Turkey

By Ismail Soysal
Foundation for Middle East and Balkan Studies

Separatist Terror: Menace of the Post Cold War Period

Asia Minor, or Anatolia, as it is also called, has throughout history, served as one of the world’s major land bridges linking Europe, Asia and Africa. Thousands of years of successive civilizations culminating with the 600 year long Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) and its successor state, the present-day Republic of Turkey, have left their imprints on contemporary Turkish society, creating a culturally and ethnically diverse nation. Indeed, Turkey, not unlike the United States of America, is a veritable melting pot of cultures, on in which nationalism, has always been based less on race and ethnicity than upon a shared geographic, historic and cultural identity.

As a secular democracy, Turkey has always rightfully prided itself upon the full and equal participation of all of its citizens, regardless of ethnic background, in the richly colorful and vibrant mosaic of its parliamentary democracy.

Ethnic diversity is evident among Turkey’s 60,000,000 citizens. While traditionally living in the southeast of Turkey, today’s Turkish citizens of Kurdish ethnic origin live scattered throughout the country. It is estimated that more than half of them live in the larger cities of western Turkey. They participate in all areas of social, economic and political life, Citizens of Kurdish descent have become parliamentarians, government ministers, prime ministers and presidents. Indeed, there is no ethnic discrimination in Turkey.

Culturally, Turkish Kurds are free to speak the various dialects of their own language, not only in private, but also in all public gatherings. Likewise, publication of Kurdish books, magazines and newspapers in widespread. In short, Turkish Kurds are fully integrated into the mainstream of Turkish society, while being encouraged to preserve their own unique cultural heritage.

Turkey’s southeastern region, due to a variety of geographic and historical factors, is far less developed than the western part of the country. The southeast is very mountainous and arid with hot and cold temperature extremes. Much of the region’s economy is based on animal husbandry and its distance from the main population centers in the west, has made it relatively less attractive for industrial development.

It is in this milieu that the terrorist organization known as the Kurdish Workers Party, or the PKK; seeks via the ruthless application of terror to establish a separate Kurdish state. Advancing the spurious argument that Kurds cannot fully express themselves in democratic Turkey, these separatist terrorists seek to divide Turkey along ethnic lines.

Terrorist organizations preaching separatism, hatred and ethnic cleansing are increasingly replacing militant communism as the principal threat to world peace in the post-Cold War ear. The PKK, with its Marxist/Leninist theory, its ethnic exceptionalism and its use of terror and violence as a means of achieving its ultimate goal, the destruction of the territorial integrity of Turkey, is recognized and classified as an international terrorist organization by most western countries.

Although today the PKK uses terrorism as a means of achieving its goal of establishing a separate, Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey, its original aim, was quite different. Establish in 1978, the PKK initially sought to foment communist revolution in Turkey, a goal it shared with other Turkish leftist organizations such as the Dev-Yol (Revolutionary Path) and the Dev-Sol (Revolutionary Left). The use of terrorist tactics by there organizations as a means of bringing about a nationwide revolution was, throughout the seventies, a commonly observed phenomenon of militant communism on every continent.

In September 1980, the PKK leadership moved into the Syrian controlled Bekaa valley in Lebanon. Between 1980 and 1984, current PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan consolidated his position through a campaign of torture and execution directed against his closest associates in a successful bid to assume absolute control of the movement. This caused inevitable splits within the PKK, and those who managed to escape from Lebanon established Kurdish organizations of various political shades throughout Europe.

During this period, the emphasis of the PKK began to change. Increasingly, its rhetoric became devoted to the propaganda of ethnic exceptionalism. But at least one element remained constant: the ever-increasing reliance on terrorism to achieve PKK ends.

Since 1984, hit and run activities on Turkish territory have steadily escalated, resulting in over 8,500 deaths, (almost half of which are civilian) and the majority of which are Kurds. Turkey’s democratic institutions, as in the case of all Western countries, were unable to produce instant strategies to deal effectively with the growing incidence of PKK outrages. By 1992, however, it became obvious that a mix of complicated initiatives would be necessary to deal with the multi-faceted threat the PKK posed to Turkey. Most recently, this realization has led to the formation of special teams trained specifically to fight against guerrilla units. These steps were necessitated by a qualitative and quantitative escalation of PKK activity during the past year.

This recent escalation has its roots in a number of factors which bear close analysis. These involve nationalism and ethnic identity, economic factors, and changes in the region precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, rising Islamic fundamentalism and the still unresolved post-Gulf War crisis.

Nationalism and Ethnic Identity

Nineteenth century nationalism, while a major factor in the dissolution of the Ottoman polity, was slow in reaching the Muslim population of Anatolia. Identity in the Ottoman Empire was based not on ethnicity or race, but rather on religion. Thus, following World War I, when the Greek armies invaded Anatolia, it was the Muslim population (Turks, Kurds and others) which successfully blocked their occupation of the Anatolian regions. Consequently, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne (subsequently signed by other parties in 1924), viewed the Muslims in the newly formed Turkish Republic as a whole, and reserved the status of “minority” in the technical legal sense only for the country’s Greek and Armenian Christians and Jews. This minority status was designed specifically to protect the religious rights of these groups. Regardless of their ethnic background, no such special protection was spelled out for Muslims. Accordingly, the term “minority” in the Turkish Republic has always had a particular treaty-defined meanings. The concept of any section of Turkey’s Muslim citizenry being viewed as a “minority” is quite simply alien.

This does not mean however, that the Muslim peoples do not preserve their own languages, cultural identity, and folk customs. Successive Turkish governments have always encouraged and supported various groups in this regard. There is no more support in Turkey for viewing any Muslim group as a separate “ethnic minority” with rights of self-determination, than there would be in the United States should a group of Hispanic-Americans in that country’s southwest start a separatist movement.

In the current proliferation of publications in Turkish and Kurdish on Kurdish history, language and experience, there is virtually no expression in support of ethnic separatism. Rather, these publications mainly focus on issues such as the need for economic development and the need to curtail the power of tribal leaders in the region.

Paradoxically, even PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who represents only a minority of the most extreme Kurdish nationalists, for a long time did not demand a separate state in recognition of the economic dependency of the southeast upon the rest of the country.

However, in recent months, Öcalan’s rhetoric has shifted and he now calls for the establishment of a independent Kurdish state comprising southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq-Undoubtedly, his shift in this regard has been influenced by the power vacuum in Iraq.

It must be stressed, however, that the majority of Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin live outside southeastern Anatolia. The number of Kurds moving to western Turkey continues to grow as they flee the instability created by the PKK in the southeast. Consequently, the Kurdish element in southeastern Turkey’s population continues to decline because they prefer to resettle in the more highly developed western regions of their own country.

The Economy and Terrorism

Beginning in the early 1960s, two decades prior to the advent of PKK terrorism, the government of Turkey, in recognition of the region’s economic needs, began the Southeastern Anatolia Development Project (GAP), a massive investment project designed to harness the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers for the region’s economic development.

In 1994, water from the Atatürk Dam (one of the 23 dams comprising GAP) will irrigate 370,000 acres of land. The other 22 dams and 17 hydroelectric plants now in various stages of completion will cost over $32 billion. When completed, this project and its accompanying infrastructure, including six-lane highways linking the cities of Adana, Gaziantep, ?anlyurfa and Diyarbakyr, will provide employment opportunities for the local people, some 50.000 of whom are still nomadic.

Although Turkey is one of the world’s seven agriculturally self-sufficient countries, investments in the southeast designed to increase agricultural production are based on a commitment to bridge the gap between the development levels of the country’s western and eastern regions. Economists agree that the massive commitment of Turkey’s limited investment resources to the GAP project has not been without cost. For example, these expenditures have contributed directly to the high rate of inflation which Turkey has experienced throughout the past decade. Despite these financial burdens, the government is fully committed to completing this project.

Similarly, Turkey’s development activities in the southeast have led to strains in its foreign policy in that the GAP project, designed as it is to divert a quantity of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, has become a source of continuing contention with neighboring Syria. While Turkey has repeatedly expressed its desire to resolve this issue through negotiations, media reports suggest that Syria has opted to support the PKK to increase its leverage in the matter. It may be more than coincidental that the PKK’s recent escalation of violence coincides with the completion of the Birecik Dam on the Euphrates.

PKK violence has effected public investment and diminished private investments in the region with negative consequences on the local economy. Delays in industrial plant construction result from the understandable reluctance of the business sectors to have anything to do with the PKK:

In order to finance the purchase of weapons, the PKK extorts money from businessmen, shopkeepers and professionals of Kurdish origin residing abroad. The bulk of the PKK’s annual budget also includes income stemming from drug smuggling and trafficking.

The British National Service of Criminal Intelligence (NSIC) recently reported that in the past year the PKK extorted 2.5 million pounds sterling from immigrants and businesses in England alone. According to this source, the PKK also received 56 million DM from their 1993 drug-running operations in Europe. In fact, in December of 1993, German authorities arrested seven men accused of using gangland techniques to extort money from Kurds in Germany for the purpose of financing the PKK.

To counter PKK activities in the southeast region of the country the government has adopted a two-pronged approach: First, the elimination of PKK terrorists by security operations in strict compliance with the rule of law. Second, active measures to further improve the living standards of the local people who suffer from impaired public services and a slow-down in economic development.

Further, the region’s rural population is subject to terrorist violence. Increasingly the local Kurdish people, who support their elected government and serve as village guards to protect their communities, are branded as “collaborators” by the PKK and in tactics reminiscent of those employed in an earlier era by the Khmer Rouge, are subject (together with all members of their families, including infant children) to assassination.

Another terrorist target is the region’s educational infrastructure. By violence and intimidation, including the burning of schools and the execution of village school teachers, the PKK has sought to deprive a generation of local school children of their right to basic education.

PKK efforts in these areas may fall far short of their objectives, but they can be profoundly disruptive and wreak cruel hardships on local citizens.

Foreign Policy and Kurdish Terrorism

The aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War served to focus attention on the Kurds in the Middle East. Iran has supported Kurdish elements in neighboring countries, most particularly in support of its own military operations against Iraq.

This policy has frequently led to friction with Turkey, due to the fact that at the same time Iran was arming Iraqi Kurds as part of its struggle with Saddam Hussein. The PKK has likewise been using northern Iraq as a base from which to launch attacks on Turkish soil.

In the wake of the Gulf War, the setting up of a Kurdish zone in Northern Iraq served to create a foreign policy dilemma for Turkey. While Turkey hosts the forces of “Operation Provide Comfort”, the mandate of which is to shield the Iraqi Kurds from retaliation by Saddam Hussein, it likewise supports Iraq’s territorial integrity. Turkey does not wish to see the Kurdish zone emerge as an independent entity, the product of a divided or partitioned Iraq. Such an independent Kurdish state would disrupt tie regional balance of power and be counter, not only to Turkey’s national interests, but to those of other countries in the region as well.

Armenia presents another case study on how regional states manipulate the Kurdish issue to suit their own interests. In recent months there has been an increase in PKK attacks along the northeastern Turkish border adjacent to Armenia, Clearly, the PKK is being provided with a safe haven in that neighboring country. What is less clear is the degree of complicity on the part of the Armenian government as opposed to that of Armenian nationalist militias controlling these regions. Likewise, recent visits to Armenia by high-ranking members of the PKK leadership raise suspicions that Armenian-PKK collaboration is intensifying.

Syria is another neighboring state which has frequently supported PKK separatists in an effort to promote its own interests. General Syrian support for a wide number of international terrorist groups, including the PKK, is well known. Though deplorable, this was at least explainable as long as Syria was serving as a Soviet surrogate in the region. Less understandable has been this nation’s continuing support for the PKK following the collapse of the USSR. To comprehend why, one has to recall earlier comment on Syrian unease over Turkey’s GAP project and its effects on the downstream flow of the Euphrates River.

Although Syria has repeatedly provided Turkey with assurances that it does not support the PKK, evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. One needs only to recall that Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK, has for the past several years lived freely in Syria and that the major training camps of the PKK were located until very recently, in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.

Recently, a series of developments in Europe indicates that Western nations have finally come to fully recognize the danger presented by the PKK and its representatives. In the wake of a series of PKK and its representatives. In the wake of a series of PKK operations in their towns and cities, Germany and France have closed all PKK organizations functioning under a social or cultural disguise. These groups, which were clearly operations, while at the same time extorting funds from Kurdish and Turkish workers, were, until these crackdowns, tolerated by some European institutions as semi-official representatives of the Kurds working in those countries. In late November of 1993, the German government took the long overdue step of banning thirty-five PKK “front” organizations which had until then operated freely in that country. Similar steps were taken by the French government which, in banning the PKK, reiterated its commitment not to allow its territory to serve as a base for international terrorists.

As this brief overview indicates, the Turkish government is faced with the dual task of addressing the problem of, both at home and abroad. The necessity for this was recently stressed by Prime Minister Tansu Çiller who, while reaffirming the nation’s commitment to fight PKK terrorism at home, also announced her government’s intention to carry out an aggressive diplomatic campaign designed to cut off the PKK’s financial, logistical and public relations support abroad. The success of this approach is indicated by the current crackdowns in Europe.

The government’s efforts against the PKK at home enjoy the support of the overwhelming majority of the population of Turkey, irrespective of ethnic affinity. When it comes to the preservation of innocent lives and the sanctity of the nation’s borders, the PKK terrorists stand alone with their creed of violence and separatism.

As the world emerges from the era of the Cold War, issues of economic development, open trade and international cooperation have become paramount. Ultranationalist groups preaching violence and ethnic exceptionalism only serve to stall progress on these all-important issues. That is why the PKK and similar groups present the most serious threat to international peace and cooperation in the new world order. Only an unswerving commitment to fight this scourge (regardless of cost) will ensure that the much-touted “New World Order” does not dissolve into a “New World Disorder” market by spiraling ethnic clashes and chaos. Turkey, for its part, is firmly committed to ensuring the peace and security of all its citizens by eradicating the PKK terrorist from its midst.