Defeat in Peace, Victory in War What Does the PKK Want?

It is not just anger that is growing in Turkey but also bewilderment: What does the PKK actually want to achieve with its offensive? One thing is certain: the Kurdish guerrillas will do everything they can to prevent a swift political solution.

By Jürgen Gottschlich in Istanbul

PKK fighters on patrol in the mountains of northern Iraq.

PKK fighters on patrol in the mountains of northern Iraq.

They want to divide Turkey. They want war. They want to drag Turkey into the Iraqi mire.

These are the kinds of headlines many Turkish papers are running these days when it comes to explaining the latest PKK offensive on the border with Iraq. There is not the slightest doubt what the Kurdish guerrillas are up to: They want to damage Turkey as much as possible.

But it's not quite that simple. Those familiar with the Kurdish situation are perplexed about what goals the PKK have been pursuing since launching their offensive against Turkey at the beginning of the year. "If I only knew," says Saruhan Oluc, a journalist who has been trying for some time to achieve a Turkish-Kurdish agreement. "The atmosphere between the Turks and Kurds is deteriorating at the moment," he says.

With every dead soldier, almost always a young conscript, Turkish anger at the PKK grows -- and at Kurds in general. On Tuesday more than 10,000 people took to the streets in Bursa to protest against the PKK during one soldier's funeral. "That could quickly turn into acts of violence against the Kurds," Oluc says. "The situation is very dangerous."

The PKK seems to be indifferent to this explosion of anger, or else they are trying to provoke it. Many observers are assuming that there is a very simple strategy behind the offensive: The PKK loses when there is peace, and wins when there is war.

There is a lot to indicate that the PKK fears it could be the big loser if the situation becomes normalized in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey. After PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was arrested in the spring of 1999, the group announced a ceasefire and withdrew to neighboring northern Iraq.

The Turkish government, largely under pressure from the EU, began to grant the minority long-withheld rights. The Kurdish language was gradually accepted, while Kurdish newspapers and music were permitted. Kurdish politicians could fill key posts in the Kurdish dominated cities -- even if still under difficult conditions. States of emergency that had lasted for decades were lifted. Life was becoming normal.

Although Turkey had yet to come up with a lasting solution to the problem, 21 Kurds did win seats in parliament in the elections in July. It seemed it was finally time to stop just talking about the Kurds and start talking with them.

But the PKK offensive has put a stop to all that. And it's quite possible that the chance of a parliamentary solution will be ruined if there is any further escalation.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded that representatives of the Kurdish DTP party finally distance themselves clearly from terrorism. But party leaders Ahmet Türk and Ayse Tuglu have remained silent. It is possible that there could soon be moves to ban them for supporting a terrorist organization -- then they could end up in jail instead of parliament.

If it goes that far, then the PKK will have achieved one thing: re-establishing itself as the sole representative of the Kurds. Since the rebels started their struggle against the army, police and other representatives of the Turkish state in 1984, they have used massive brutality to try to become, and then remain, the sole voice of Kurds in Turkey. The DTP is thus regarded as a rival, one that is legal and has gained legitimacy through elections. They could marginalize the PKK and in the end make it superfluous.

The PKK offensive has stalled this process. The DTP representatives now have their backs up against the wall, and have no influence over developments -- and the PKK has turned itself into the central force, even if the government categorically refuses to speak to it.

The PKK obviously believes that the international situation is also advantageous for a military offensive. The guerrillas have been able to gather strength in northern Iraq in recent years. They know that in the long term there is no place for them in Kurdish northern Iraq, which is now becoming a largely autonomous province within the new state.

Internationalizing the Conflict

Up to now the PKK has been tolerated, if not supported, by the two northern Iraq leaders, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani. That won't last for long. Talabani is also the president of Iraq, and is under increasing pressure, particularly from the US, to take action against the PKK -- as is the provincial president Barzani. Barznai wants a Kurdish northern Iraq that is as independent and respected as possible. And that can't happen with the presence of foreign guerrillas in the country, particularly ones who have their own, very different, goals.

The PKK has always dreamed of achieving the same thing in Turkey that the Kurds have in Iraq. Now they want to get as much as they can by riding on Barzani's coattails. A real border war would get the United States involved -- it doesn’t want to see the last peaceful area in Iraq turn into a battlefield between the Turks and the Kurds. From the PKK's point of view, that would serve to internationalize the conflict. And in the end it could lead to a US-led peace conference, in which Turkey would have to accept the PKK, at least indirectly, as a negotiating partner.

Even now, the Turkish government and the military leadership find themselves in a situation that they wanted to avoid at all costs. The only way to disarm the PKK by diplomatic means would involve making far-reaching concessions to the Iraqi Kurds -- because only Barzani's own 100,000 strong militia is capable of rendering the PKK militarily harmless.

For now, the Turkish government is trying to increase the pressure at every level. It's not only US troops who are dependent on Turkey for their supplies -- the entire Kurdish economy is dependent on the country. Without gas and electricity from Turkish power plants, without the constant flow of goods from Turkey to Dohuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniyah, the economic boom in Barzani's Kurdish northern Iraq would quickly grind to a halt. While that might prove painful for the Turkish business community, for northern Iraq it would be a huge catastrophe.

The PKK knows that its struggle is entering the endgame. And that is why they want to do everything they can to prevent a swift diplomatic solution.


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