Will Turkey Lose its Fight to the PKK?
By Michael Rubin
August 10, 2012
A 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 its acronym, the PKK. Considered by
the United States, European Union, and Turkey to be
a terrorist group, the PKK has waged a bloody
insurgency since 1984, which has claimed the lives
I have been a vocal critic of the PKK in the past,
and was held up at gunpoint by the group once in
Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK—like many Kurdish political
parties—trends toward the personality cult and is
intolerant of dissent. Make no mistake: I still find
the group to be noxious and, so long as the U.S.
government considers the PKK to be a terrorist
group, I will as well. But, as an analyst rather
than an advocate, it is important to consider what
events bode. Frankly, it seems as if Turkey could
now lose its fight against the PKK:
• The Turkish government has legitimized the PKK
both by negotiating with it and also by embracing
Hamas, a group which likewise justifies terrorism in
rhetoric of resistance and national liberation.
• While the PKK could never defeat Turkey in a
head-on fight and so the Turkish Army will never
formally lose, the PKK seeks only a stalemate.
Insurgencies prioritize asymmetric warfare.
• The Turkish military is a shell of its former
self. Largely for political reasons, Islamist Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made the military
his public enemy number one. One-in-five generals
now sit in prison, even though no court has found
them guilty. Because the Turkish conscripts do most
of the dying in the fight against the PKK, their
morale is also low.
• Even with Predators, Turkish intelligence is poor.
It has failed to head-off recent profile attacks
against Turkish border posts, and often fails to
differentiate between PKK fighters and ordinary
• In recent weeks, the PKK has grown so bold as to
establish shadow governors not only in isolated
mountain districts, but also for Van, a major city
in eastern Turkey.
• Whereas the fight between the PKK and the Turkish
Army was isolated to southeastern Turkey in the
1980s and 1990s, the Turkish destruction of villages
during this period led to a massive flight of Kurds
into major cities in central and Western Turkey:
Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Today, the PKK strikes
with impunity in the West as well.
• De facto autonomy in largely Kurdish eastern Syria
also gives the Kurds momentum and space to organize.
According to private conversations with Kurdish
Iraqi Kurdish residents, and European NGO workers,
up to 90 percent of Syrian Kurds support the PKK’s
local front group.
• With their oil gains, Iraqi Kurds have greater
resources than ever before, and don’t hesitate to
fund Kurdish movements in neighboring states, even
as they reach out to Turkey.
American policy is famously reactive. A de facto
Kurdistan, however, is unfolding before us.
Washington will never abandon Ankara. Still, there
is no reason why the United States should fight
Turkey’s PKK battle if the Turks themselves
legitimize the group, and seem unwilling to apply
the same definition of terrorism abroad which they
seek to at home. Perhaps a starting point would be
to work with Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria, and
Turkey to encourage greater transparency and
commitment to democracy. Kurdish nationalism and
good governance should not be mutually exclusive.
is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise
Institute AEI. His major research area is the Middle
East, with special focus on Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and
Kurdish society. He also writes frequently on
transformative diplomacy and governance issues. At
AEI, Mr. Rubin chaired the "Dissent and Reform in
the Arab World" conference series. He was the lead
drafter of the Bipartisan Policy Center's 2008
report on Iran. In addition to his work at AEI,
several times each month, Mr. Rubin travels to
military bases across the United States and Europe
to instruct senior U.S. Army and Marine officers
deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan on issues relating
to regional state history and politics, Shiism, the
theological basis of extremism, and strategy. Tweet
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