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June 21, 2012, Thursday

‘Shabihaification’ of the PKK

The latest attack in Turkey’s Southeast is different from the previous ones. Let us leave aside why so many armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants were not detected by the joint Turkish-American surveillance, although this will remain an issue in the efficiency of the system. Military estimates make it some 300 men, in a coordinated attack. This is not possible without preparation; impossible to improvise.

The fact that only a small portion of the insurgents were killed while others perished raises many questions about warfare and counter-insurgency, but for the politics of it all, it is more important to focus on the question of who stands for the bloody action: The “real” PKK -- as we know it -- or a “ghost” PKK?

Everything has been indicating that Ankara is again preparing a new move to tackle the issue of talks on the disarmament of the outlawed organization. It was not only perceptible in announcements and hints by senior government figures, but also in some signs coming from within circles close to Massoud Barzani’s regional administration and Jalal Talabani’s office.

Other signs were also important: a visit to Kandil by a colleague, Avni Özgürel; his publishing of a lengthy interview with the “commander” of the PKK, Murat Karayılan; another unexpected move by Leyla Zana, a symbolic figure of the Kurdish Political Movement, who in an interview with the nationalist daily at the Kemalist center of the media, Hürriyet, was full of praise for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the only man able to solve the issue. It left us with little doubt that something is going on behind the scenes (in terms of talks or dialogue in some format), and Karayılan himself mumbled some phrases that could be taken as confirmation and hope.

A lot of reflections of the mystery of the Dağlıca attack are actually to be found in the Karayılan interview. There appears a man who does not really sound as if he is in full charge of the armed rebels; at times his words could be read as if he is an observer, at other times a potential partner in negotiation.

Nevertheless, the most noteworthy part of the interview is Karayılan’s statement that he was following the Oslo process very closely, and that he wanted it to continue. His emphasis was rather conciliatory and tone unthreatening.

Something does not make sense in all this. If Karayılan had agreed to meet a Turkish journalist and if he had realized that the interview was being published in Turkey, with intense focus once more on his words to the Turkish public, it would be an utterly foolish tactic to blend these statements with a bloody attack. Even if he intended to coordinate such an attack, he would have waited a while before doing so.

Thus, no logic in how it was followed up. I stand ready to be convinced that Karayılan had no idea that behind his back such a fait accompli was being cooked up. The aim was to invalidate his authority once more.

I know other pundits would dispute this. There is a school claiming that the PKK is not at all split, that it has been keen on tactical moves to delay a solution and play for time. But let us not forget that the Oslo process, according to various sources, was finalized with an agreement of up to 90 percent. Without any regard to this fact, no fully logical conclusion can be arrived at: the PKK -- in Iraq, Turkey and Europe -- is showing strong signs of internal division on how to proceed. It has reached a critical stage, no matter how recurrent the violence is.

But the very violence is the issue, the sole instrument that can change the course of the arms struggle. The units that continue to perpetrate violence are the ones that take the advantage of Abdullah Öcalan, completely isolated, and now Karayılan, openly sidelined.

The PKK’s role and methodology since the Arab unrest has changed, and it would be incomplete to analyze this outside the Syrian/Assad context. A recent encounter of mine with a Syrian source made it clear to me that Assad has now lost control of 60 percent of Syrian territory. His regular army is no longer trustworthy, and the only efficient instrument he has left is the Shabiha, the gangs of thugs that use terror against civilians.

The PKK, split and sharing a joint fate with the Ba’ath regime, with a fractured command structure, is now using the same methods to cripple Turkey in its relations with Iraqi Kurds, and acts as an “external Shabiha,” serving the interests of Assad.

If the Dağlıca attack is showing a new element; it is this.

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