As Turkey prepares to deal a final blow to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it has largely decimated in recent years, the outlawed militant group is in a tight spot, not only militarily but also internationally. The meltdown of its public support among Kurds coupled with the rise of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria have raised questions about whether the PKK is at the end of the road.
The group has been seeking to strengthen its positions around Sinjar in northern Iraq, where it deployed following attacks by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), while Turkey is looking to lay the groundwork for an operation. Turkey is determined not to allow the PKK to become entrenched in Sinjar, a strategic transit location between Iraq and Syria. The region brings both opportunities for the group, which seeks to mobilize as a regional power spanning the two countries, and vulnerabilities since its mainly flat topography facilitates potential operations by the Turkish army.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler visited Iraq last month to secure the approval of the central Iraqi government. Within 36 hours they had nine meetings, including with President Barham Salih and high-level officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The visit was reportedly aimed at testing the water for an operation in Sinjar.
In an interview with Deutsche Welle Turkish, James Jeffrey, the former US special envoy to Syria, said he does not believe the SDF poses a threat to Turkey since the region in which they’re located is not mountainous but flat. Jeffrey said a de facto PKK territory, like that around the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, would not be in the interest of the US or Russia. However, Turkey insists that the SDF is a terrorist organization and the Syrian branch of the PKK.
Academic Vahap Coşkun, in a column published on the Serbestiyet platform, underlined that the PKK’s presence in Sinjar bothers not only Turkey but also the Iraqi central government and the KRG. According to Coşkun, while the Iraqi government and the KRG have some reservations with regards to a possible Turkish military incursion, there will be no strong reactions, including from the US, if Turkey proceeds with its plans. The Diyarbakır-based scholar, who closely follows Kurdish-related matters, believes that while the SDF has garnered international legitimacy, bleak days await the PKK.
“The situation is getting increasingly difficult for the PKK as both international and regional balances of power work to their disadvantage. In the current outlook, the PKK has no role. It must either seek to change the state of affairs, or face harder days,” he said.
New technologies decimated the PKK
The PKK carried out its last important attacks in Turkey in 2015. After deadly bombings in large cities that claimed the lives of many civilians, the conflict focused on Kurdish-majority towns such as Diyarbakır, Hakkari, Batman and Cizre. The government’s military response led to clashes that wiped some urban areas off the map. Since their defeat during those clashes, the PKK has been able to attack only a few times.
The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) enjoys an almost limitless budget in its technological investments against the PKK. Turkey’s homemade drones have replaced those leased from Israel and the US, while its increasingly mine-resistant vehicles have protected it against attacks by the PKK. Another advantage of the TSK was the deployment of some PKK militants to Syria to combat ISIL.
Not as popular among Kurds as it used to be
The PKK’s strategy to carry the conflict to cities led to anger among the Kurds, who blamed the PKK as much as they blamed the state for the destruction of their hometowns. The PKK’s recruitment efforts have plummeted compared to the past.
Two figures are particularly popular these days among young Kurds: SDF General Mazloum Abdi, known for his victories against ISIL in Syria, and Selahattin Demirtaş, a politician currently imprisoned in Turkey.
Demirtaş’s popularity has surpassed that of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK who has been behind bars in Turkey for more than 20 years. Demirtaş, who at the helm of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) garnered an extraordinary 13 percent of the vote, also drew attention with his ability to attract Turkish voters as well. Once perceived as a potential rival to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Demirtaş has been in jail for four years.
Demirtaş’s criticism of the PKK’s city warfare in 2015, which was an unprecedented development in Kurdish politics, opened a new avenue for Kurdish politics and established him as a strong political figure. At a court hearing in April 2018, Demirtaş said his remarks criticizing the PKK were censored on pro-Kurdish media.
International circumstances unfavorable to the PKK
While the PKK has been declining in power and support within Turkey, its situation in the international arena is no different. The US administration under the new President Joe Biden promises no brilliant future for the group, as Jeffrey expressed sympathy for Turkey’s fight against the PKK while taking a different position with regard to the SDF.
According to Coşkun, the US will not object to Turkey’s operations targeting the PKK.
“Almost all foreign affairs people in the administration, particularly President Biden himself, are well informed on the Kurdish issue. Their advocacy in favor of closer cooperation with Kurds in the Middle East is a common denominator. However, their attention is focused on Syrian Kurds and the SDF, which they want to build into an internationally acceptable posture. Indeed, Mazloum Abdi’s recent media declarations announced that they too are working with the new administration to that end. Yet the US will not oppose or react harshly to a Turkish operation in Iraq against the PKK. What the US is interested in in Iraq is the KRG, which it aims to bolster. So they will not object to an operation that could directly or indirectly strengthen the KRG’s position. They could even support it.”