When a senior Iranian official recently claimed that Tehran had captured a top Kurdish guerrilla leader, observers in Turkey feared the Kurdish insurgency had just taken an ugly turn. The move would exacerbate the recent upswing in violence in the country’s troubled southeast, they feared, by removing a relatively moderate guerrilla leader just as Turkey’s civilian government pushes a new anti-insurgency strategy.
Though Iran eventually denied having apprehended Murat Karayılan, the top active military commander of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the August 13-14 episode appears to be a message from Tehran to Ankara: Back off Damascus. The bloody suppression of anti-regime protests in Syria, an Iranian ally, has prompted harsh criticism from Ankara. Turkish observers say Tehran will do whatever it takes to keep in power one of its only friends.
“Iran is trying to send a message to Turkey: ‘Do not mess with my interests in the region. I have a Kurdish card that I can play,’” said Emrullah Uslu, a terrorism expert at Yeditepe University in Istanbul.
That message comes at a delicate point in Ankara’s 27-year fight against the PKK, which is recognized internationally as a terrorist organization.
Attacks are again on the rise inside Turkey, as Kurdish politicians accuse the government of backtracking on promises of reform. On August 17, a PKK attack killed at least eight Turkish soldiers near the Iraqi border. In response, Turkish jets bombed 60 PKK bases in northern Iraq, the army command said. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has warned a “new struggle” could begin after Ramadan.
Emboldened by a June election victory, Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – at odds with the secular military establishment since coming to power in 2002 – is empowering special police teams under civilian control. The plan is to use unmanned aerial drones to spot PKK militants moving inside Turkey and then send police in to attack, say analysts familiar with the shift in tactics.
The use of paramilitary-style special police units to combat the rebels is not new. During the 1990s -- the conflict’s bloodiest years -- such units were widely deployed. Yet, these forces were known for committing even worse human rights abuses than the Turkish military, says Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based military analyst.
The special police were disbanded following a 1997 military coup. Their return, says Jenkins, could raise tensions with Kurds who remember past atrocities.
“Politically this is a very bad move, because it gives the impression that [the government] is going back to the past. All [military and police units] committed human rights abuses, but the special police forces were the worst,” Jenkins told EurasiaNet.org. “The government is so opposed to the military it wants to take as much power and prestige away as possible. This is a guerrilla war. … Five to ten thousand special police is not going to win the war.”
Erdoğan’s focus on the police looks at the symptoms, instead of the underlining issues, of the violence, adds Raci Bilici, secretary of The Human Rights Association (İHD) Diyarbakır Branch, which tracks human rights abuses in southeastern Turkey. To Kurdish villagers, the military and police equally “represent violence.”
"The issue will not be solved with security measures. Bringing the special police forces back will only deepen the issue,” Bilici said.
Compromise looks increasingly remote. In July, following the election that solidified the AKP’s hold on power, Kurdish politicians declared “democratic autonomy,” or local government, in the southeast. Along with an ongoing refusal by elected Kurdish leaders to take their seats in government, the pronouncement is pushing Turkey “close to the point of no return,” said Jenkins.
Yet this could be exactly what the more militant PKK strategists want. Though some experts suggest there is a degree of coordination, different PKK factions disagree over tactics, explains Uslu. A faction headed by Karayılan wants to take a slower approach and negotiate with Ankara. The other faction, headed by a commander named Cemil Bayık, seems to seek an escalation of the conflict. Thus, Tehran, by capturing Karayılan, would have silenced a more moderate PKK voice and made negations for Ankara much more difficult.
Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.