Rumors of the demise of Cemil Bayik, the putative head of the PKK’s military wing, ricocheted around Turkish and Kurdish media last week. As of writing, the death, reportedly in a Turkish drone strike in the mountains of northern Iraq, remains unconfirmed. Rival rumors that it was another high ranking figure along with some Iraqi officers whom he was meeting loom. But either possibility raises some intriguing questions. This is not the first senior PKK commander to be reported killed. The Turkish military appears to be becoming more adept at tracking and striking the PKK’s military leadership on the PKK’s own turf. What does that say about the fight against the PKK and the possibilities that lie ahead?
Adnan R. Khan: Why is this a significant development?
Ilter Turan: If either one of the rumors is confirmed, it would not be surprising. In recent months, the Turkish military has been able to hit several people who are part of the top leadership. Irrespective of whether this specific news turns out to be true or false, the PKK appears to be under tremendous pressure. The Turkish military and intelligence agencies are now able to obtain this kind of information from inside the PKK’s military wing. That must be extremely destabilizing for the leadership.
It’s widely known that within the PKK there are occasional – or sometimes rather pronounced – differences between its military and political wings. The military, not surprisingly, tends to emphasize the role of armed struggle against Turkey. If, in fact, a military figure of high stature has been killed, then this will truly shake up the leadership of the PKK and, maybe in the process, give an upper hand to those who have been arguing for political options rather than a military solution.
Adnan R. Khan: What factors have contributed to such an improved military position for Turkey?
Ilter Turan: I think the critical developments have come on two fronts. First, the Turkish military has acquired the capability to operate in all seasons. This has made it difficult for the PKK to use the winter off-season to improve its capabilities, to replenish its stocks, train people, etc. Second, Turkey’s intelligence capability has improved significantly. It now operates unmanned aerial vehicles. They perform a very important intelligence function, providing the Turkish military with extremely valuable information that helps it trace the movements of the PKK. In addition, it seems that Turkey’s own ground intelligence capabilities have been improving steadily, as demonstrated by the recent ability to hit the PKK leadership based on information collected by on the ground intelligence since such strikes require information about the planned movements of leaders.
Adnan R, Khan: Most of these operations are being conducted on Iraqi territory. How has the Iraqi government reacted?
Ilter Turan: On occasion, one hears hear complaints but these usually remain at the symbolic level. Currently, the Iraqi regime has its hands full with so many other problems that it really can’t do very much against Turkey. Iraqi authorities are not in a position to control unauthorized movements of terrorists across its extensive border with Turkey. Second, the Iraqi government does not want the PKK to establish an autonomous area in northern Iraq. So, Turkey’s operations, because Turkey doesn’t have any territorial claims, also fulfill a strategic interest for the Iraqi government. Nevertheless, there is one reason for concern. Iraqi authorities, in their search for ensuring that they receive enough water from the Tigris and the Euphrates have occasionally considered supporting PKK against Turkey as a bargaining chip although, to me, that appears like a self defeating strategy.
Finally, there is the Kurdistan Regional Government. The KRG is not on good terms with the PKK. It is reliant, on the one hand, on cooperation with Turkey for its own prosperity, particularly at a time when oil income is not guaranteed. On the other hand, the PKK and the KRG represent two different types of political elites that are competing to run their society. The KRG is run by what we would call a traditional tribal leadership while the PKK represents a more massbased, non-tribal and ideologically-driven movement which the KRG perceives as a threat to its own rule.
Adnan R. Khan: Is there a potential opening here to finally resolve this decades-old issue?
Ilter Turan: A number of factors have converged to reduce the challenge Turkey faces when it stages operations in northern Iraq. Indeed, the convergence of Turkey’s improving military capabilities and the growing unpopularity of the PKK’s military wing offers possibilities for a resolution, but we must temper our hopes with the realities of Turkey’s current political landscape. I’m not persuaded that the current composition of the Turkish government would allow it to pursue any negotiated solution because its major partner – the MHP – rejects the very idea that there is a Kurdish problem. Any assertion that there is one is treated as treasonous statement. Most actors in the opposition however, think that there is room for political accommodation. If the PKK’s military wing falls into total disarray, then it might become easier to talk about political solutions.