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According to statements issued by the Turkish government in early 2019, more than 10,000 Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters have been ‘neutralized’ since the end of the so-called ceasefire between the two sides in the summer of 2015, and only 700 fighters remain in the mountains in northern Iraq. It is hard to give this number credence: if it were accurate, Turkey would surely have wiped out the PKK by now. Then again, there have not been many recent PKK attacks in south-east Turkey, where the majority of Kurds live, and the armed movement seems at least weakened in its capability to strike. Fanack sorts out the facts.
The reported 10,000 dead PKK fighters is mentioned in the database of fatalities caused by the conflict maintained by the International Crisis Group (ICG). The group has kept a tally since 2011, based on open sources. However, the ICG points out that a more realistic number is the 2,453 fighters who have been ‘neutralized’ since the summer of 2015, which means they either surrendered or were killed or wounded. In the same period, at least 1,140 members of the security forces (soldiers, police officers and village guards) died. These numbers need some nuance though: in late 2015 and early 2016, the war was mainly waged in cities and towns in south-east Turkey, resulting in a relatively high loss of life. Since these urban wars ended, the number of casualties has decreased.
The number of casualties on both sides is always lower during the winter because the weather makes the mountainous Kurdish territory hard to access. The PKK uses these months mainly for training and education. Higher in the mountains, guerrilla fighters spend three or four months in caves equipped for longer stays, covered with a thick pack of snow.
It remains to be seen whether the spring marks another rise in casualties, and if so, where these casualties will fall. The Turkish army has gradually increased its presence in northern Iraq, on territory controlled by the Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the political party led by the Barzani clan. From more than 20 bases in northern Iraq, the Turkish army is trying to put the boots on the ground that will finally drive the PKK out of the mountains, a result that air strikes alone have been unable to achieve. Ankara’s rhetoric is fierce, but the reality is that the PKK has had bases in the mountains alongside the Turkish and Iranian border since soon after the 1980 military coup in Turkey, and no attempt to stamp out the PKK has ever been even remotely successful.
If the number of PKK attacks is low in the coming months, this may well mean that the organization has been put on the defensive and is concentrating on defending the mountains instead of making offensive strikes in the Kurdish regions in Turkey.
When asked about the remaining 700 fighters, Erdal, a spokesperson for the HPG, the PKK’s military wing, told Fanack, “Because of our security and privacy rules, it would not be correct to reveal the current number of guerrillas. But I can say that we have enough power to fight the colonialist Turkish state and all the forces behind it.”
He added that the Turkish army is carrying out a war based on technique, trying to annihilate the guerrillas with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and warplanes. The PKK managed to strike in Turkey anyway, he said, carrying out “556 actions against the Turkish army in 2018, killing 2,103 soldiers. In the current situation, soldiers are stuck in outposts in many areas and only move around in their outposts.”
According to the ICG tally, in 2018, 124 members of the security forces were killed. The disparity is staggering, and the real number will likely remain unclear. The PKK claims that Turkey does not announce all its losses and pays families off to silence them. It is true that members of the special forces agree to a clause in their contract that their possible deaths may not be shared with the public. However, it seems unrealistic that the state would be able to cover up hundreds of deaths every year.
The UAVs do pose a problem for the PKK, however, since they can strike as soon as they detect a camp or group of fighters. Before the use of UAVs, fighters could go into hiding because it would take some time before an F16 could make it to the mountains from the airbase in Diyarbakir. On the other hand, in November 2018, the PKK carried out its first drone strike. According to the PKK, the attack on an army post in Semdinli, Hakkari province, killed seven soldiers. In other words, the Turkish army is not the only one able to modernize its weaponry. If the PKK manages to obtain more drones and arms, this could be problematic for Ankara.
Yet the almost 35-year-old fact remains that the PKK cannot compete with the army’s weaponry and its NATO allies whereas the army cannot beat the PKK when it comes to guerrilla techniques. Throughout this period, Ankara has never delivered on the countless promises that the end of the PKK was near. Eventually, the conflict will have to be solved at the negotiating table. The PKK has said numerous times it is ready to talk, and the Kurdish movement does everything it can to break the isolation of the organization’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan who should be involved in the talks, but the state shows no interest.
The urban wars, mentioned above, have shed an interesting light on the relationship between the PKK and the Kurdish people. Several neighbourhoods have been razed to the ground by the Turkish army, and several human rights and international organizations, including the UN, have accused Turkey of using disproportionate violence against young PKK-affiliated city guerrillas. At least some of the Kurds who are supportive of the PKK question the organization’s strategies in that specific conflict as well. Shouldn’t they have expected, based on past experience, that the state would react excessively? However, this does not mean that support for the PKK among Kurds is weakening. The bond, which was forged upon the organization’s founding in the 1970s, is too strong.
But what about the army’s efforts to enter the mountains in northern Iraq that are controlled by the PKK, in combination with increased use of UAVs? And what about joint operations with Iran against the PKK in Iraq, of which Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu spoke recently? The latter is not true, according to Iran, and it is not in Iran’s interest to fight the PKK inside Iraq anyway.
However, the PKK does have its hands full defending the mountains. The UAVs pose a problem, since they strike the moment they see their target, which doesn’t offer the target any possibility to run and hide. But Erdal, after giving the Turkish army’s coordinates, said: “They [the army] have not progressed into Qandil [the mountain range on the Turkish-Iranian border] at all. The army has not even be able progress one metre since the spring of 2018. They have been hit with great blows, and footage of our actions has been published.”
Hinting at what could happen in the spring, he continued: “The level of war will rise even more.”
Even for an expert like Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, it is hard to determine how strong the PKK currently is. “The group is opaque so it’s very hard to judge with any real accuracy, but it does seem like they are under considerable pressure inside Turkey,” he said. But is it on the brink of collapse? “The drivers of the conflict remain in place, meaning that the cycles of recruitment are likely to continue, allowing for the group to retain its broad appeal for those disenfranchised.”