ISTANBUL — Turkish tanks are deployed on hilltops overlooking Syria and additional combat aircraft have been moved to bases close to that war-torn country in an escalation that began Oct. 3, when a Syrian artillery round landed in the border town of Akcakale, killing five Turkish civilians.
But while the developments have all the appearance of two countries heading for a major clash, the Turkish government’s moves may relate not so much to the civil war now raging across Syria, but to what is for Turkey a far deadlier conflict: The long-running war against militant Kurdish separatists, whom the Turkish government sees as a threat to the existence of the state itself.
Since July, when the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK by its Kurdish initials, launched its latest offensive, at least 112 Turks have died, 99 of them from the army and other security forces and 13 civilians, according to a McClatchy compilation of Turkish news accounts. Government forces claim to have killed 325 separatists, and casualties mount.
One of the most serious assaults occurred early last month, when some 70 PKK guerrillas stormed the center of Beytussebap in southeastern Sirnak province, blew up the town’s only bridge and opened rifle and rocket fire from four different directions on the governor’s office, a military barracks and police offices. They killed 10 security personnel. The army deployed a special commando unit and claims to have killed 50 of the attackers. Continuing incidents have rattled the country.
Turkey also sees a growing PKK threat immediately across the border.
In apparent retaliation for Turkey’s backing of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad, Syria has transferred control of many Kurdish towns in northern Syria to the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, causing alarm in Ankara. Moreover, the PKK is said to have deployed a sizable number of fighters – possibly 2,000 or more – into Kurdish Syria to bolster its local affiliate there, the Democratic Union Party.
Turkey, the United States and the European Union all view the PKK as a terror organization whose aim is to break up the Turkish state. Turkish leaders say they will not permit a PKK-led entity to be set up on its border.
In the view of many diplomatic observers here, if Turkey does use force in or around Syria, it will not be seeking the overthrow of Assad, which is not a core security concern for Turkey, but the demise of the PKK, whose hope to set up an independent Kurdish state would impinge on the sovereignty of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
The war against the PKK, which began in 1984 and has claimed as many as 40,000 lives, became a good deal more complex as a result of the Arab Spring. Assad not only has refused to curb PKK activities within his borders, but there are signs he has actively encouraged the PKK’s latest offensive.
A defector, who broke with the PKK in late June, told Turkish officials that “large amounts of money” flowed from Syria into PKK coffers in the first half of 2012, according to documents that McClatchy was allowed to read.
Additionally, Turkish officials now believe the commander of the current PKK assaults in Turkey is Fehman Huseyn, who’s also known as Bahoz Erdal, a Syrian Kurd who is based in northern Iraq.
Meanwhile, Syria’s close ally, Iran, has done nothing to discourage the use of its territory by PKK guerrillas.
Compared with Turkey, which has the second biggest army in NATO – more than 500,000 active forces – the PKK is tiny, with an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 armed insurgents inside Turkey, and 5,000 to 6,000 in the neighboring countries, Iraq, Iran and Syria. They are augmented by a significant number of unarmed local militants, ethnic Kurdish sympathizers who provide logistics, support and recruits. Despite its small numbers, the PKK has managed to deny the government control over hundreds of square miles of territory in southeast Turkey.
For the past two months, Turkish aircraft have been pounding PKK bases in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, at times sending bombers up almost every night, according to diplomatic sources. Last week, it moved a squadron of U.S.-supplied F16s to Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey, and while this was widely seen as a precautionary move after the exchange of shells with Syria, the base in question is the primary launching pad for attacks against PKK bases in Iraq.
PKK forces dive into their bunkers when the flights take off, thanks to a primitive but effective warning system. According to defectors, the PKK rank-and-file all stay tuned to a Kurdish radio station called Radio Mezopotamya, and when flights take off, listeners phone in coded song requests.
The Turkish military also has deployed specially trained forces as in Beytussebap and high tech equipment such as drones, while the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party has pursued a strategy of economic development with political concessions responsive to Kurdish demands to restore their cultural identity. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has even hinted recently that he might start talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who spent the past 14 months in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison. Ocalan’s brother was allowed to visit him and quoted him as condemning the PKK’s offensive as “irresponsible.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, now in a growing public dispute with Turkey over a variety of issues, has demanded that Turkey stop all intervention in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region, a demand that Turkey has ignored.
On Oct. 4, when the Turkish Parliament gave the government a green light for retaliation against Syria following the killing of the five Turkish civilians, it explicitly approved the use of force abroad, without specifying against which countries.
Three days later, the Turkish military’s general staff announced that it had established 15 zones of operation in Kurdish areas, covering some 611 square miles, where all entry is forbidden until Jan. 7, 2013. At least two of those exclusion zones extend into neighboring countries – Syria and Iraq, according to the coordinates posted on the military’s website.
All are miles from the areas where Syrian shells have been falling inside Turkey.
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