[MONDAY TALK]Jenkins: Turkish ultranationalists a major gift to the PKK

Gareth Jenkins

October 13, 2008, Monday/ 18:21:00
Gareth Jenkins, an analyst with the US-based Jamestown Foundation, has said that Turkey faces the danger of civil war even though most Turks and Kurds in the country do not desire it. He says this danger exists because some people from both groups want to provoke it.

“Violent Turkish ultranationalists are a major gift to the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK. The security forces should remain on alert for any danger. This is a psychological war of propaganda,” he said.

Parliament overwhelmingly voted last Wednesday to extend by one year its authorization of military operations against the PKK in northern Iraq, keeping the door open to future strikes in the region.

The approval came amid a flurry of attacks in the country’s predominantly Kurdish Southeast. The deadliest attack in a year on the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), the attack on the Aktütün outpost near the border with Iraq on Oct. 3 claimed the lives of 17 soldiers, and Turkey responded with several days of air strikes in Iraqi territory.

A fresh attack on Wednesday killed five police officers and wounded 19 others in southeastern Diyarbakır province. For Monday Talk, Jenkins speaks about his impressions of the Southeast upon his return from Diyarbakır to İstanbul.

Have you heard anything different this time during your visit to Diyarbakır?

Yes. One of the problems is the people's attitude toward terrorism. There is a culture of denial on the part of a lot of PKK supporters when the PKK causes civilian casualties. They tend to say it is [the job of] Ergenekon [an alleged deep state-related ultranationalist group] and they try to shift responsibility. Before the Aktütün attack -- which was a huge propaganda victory for the PKK, unfortunately -- they argued that violence does not work and something else, like dialogue, must be tried. Compared to when I was there at the end of August, Diyarbakır residents think that Aktütün proves this policy of confrontation is not going anywhere. The PKK cannot be destroyed, so the government should open up to negotiations. This argument was a lot stronger now compared to at the end of August.

Is the PKK giving the message that they would continue with such attacks if the government does not enter into negotiations with them?

That is the impression I was getting. You also have to look at the timing of the attack. It came within a week of this motion going through Parliament. One of the arguments Turkey used was that they can destroy the PKK if they hit their bases in northern Iraq. The PKK is trying to show after one year of this mandate that Turkey has not succeeded and that this is what they are capable of doing.

Did the PKK expect Parliament not to pass the motion to hit PKK bases in northern Iraq?

I don't think so. It is a difficult situation for Turkey. There is public pressure to not engage in negotiations. If you talk to Turks on the street, they seek revenge. That's what you see when there are a lot of people being killed. That's the big difference compared to 1984, when the first PKK insurgency started. The coverage then was small, buried inside pages of newspapers. Now we have these traumatizing pictures of families and little children holding onto coffins of soldiers killed by the PKK. It would take an incredibly brave government to negotiate with the PKK.

What does this say about the PKK's real goal?

In theory, they have a number of demands: general amnesty, negotiations and political rights. A lot of them genuinely believe that [imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah] Öcalan can be released. If he were released, of course, he would be dead in two days because someone would assassinate him. It is not a realistic demand but it does not mean that they do not believe in it. And for cultural and political rights, considering the political culture in Turkey, it is difficult for the government because that's what the PKK is demanding. Opponents would say the government is making concessions to terrorism. Another problem in Turkey is that the whole political spectrum has been moved to a more nationalist one. I am not a fan of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), but it is very difficult for the AK Party because a lot of its voters are nationalistic, too.

Was the attack in Diyarbakır another show of force by the PKK?

Diyarbakır is one of the most heavily policed cities in Turkey. The attack took place in the center of the city, in broad daylight. One of the problems with governments in the world -- of course, the worst one is the Bush administration -- is that they do not understand that a fight against terrorism is as much a war of propaganda and psychology as military. By doing this in Diyarbakır, the PKK demonstrates that the state is not succeeding.

Have the cross-border operations not weakened the PKK?

There is no question that those operations weakened the PKK. Their fighters are younger and not as well trained as before. But they still recruit people easily. If you look at what happened at Aktütün, they must have been preparing for a long time. Normally, they operate in small units of eight to 10 people. This time they had several hundred working together. They also have heavy weaponry and move it to the top of the mountains. It was deliberately chosen to make a statement.

Were they based in Turkey?

Some were based in Turkey, but most came from northern Iraq. The cross-border raids weakened them and reduced their abilities. They honestly thought America would never let the Turks come across, but the Americans did let Turkey go on cross-border raids. Psychologically, that was a big blow.

The General Staff has said around 700 PKK members were killed in the cross-border raids. What would you say about this figure?

It is impossible to be precise. You're dropping a bomb from an F-16. If there is a building there, you can see whether it was destroyed or not. How do you tell how many people are hiding in a cave? The military has the ability to pick up on PKK communication but it is impossible to be precise. The number is an exaggeration. The military also knows that they are engaged in psychological warfare and are therefore trying to say something to both the PKK and the Turkish public.

The Turkish public has increasingly been questioning the military's abilities and intentions -- especially after revelations of neglect prior to the PKK ambush in Dağlıca last year. What do you think of all this?

One of the problems in Turkey is that it is very difficult to ask questions and criticize. When there is a problem in the military, it becomes hard to distinguish if it was a mistake or not. I don't ever remember the military accepting a mistake even though they make mistakes. There is a lot of intelligence coming in about planned PKK attacks, but a lot of them do not happen. When one of those reports comes in, they do not act on it. Then when it takes place, of course, everybody jumps in and complains. I do not believe conspiracies theories that suggest the military deliberately allows its members to be killed.

How do you interpret the vulnerability of the Aktütün military post to attacks?

It is a combination of incompetence and arrogance. The military might have thought that there is no problem, that it can defend it. There probably is reluctance to admit that they could not defend it.

Do you think the military has realized this is not a problem that can be solved only by military means?

There has always been an awareness of this. One of the problems is that if you talk to most Turks in western Turkey, you will find that most of them have never been east of Ankara. It includes people in the government and some deputies. The military has had an institutional presence in the area for about 20 years. They know the problems in the area better than any other institution in the country. In the 1990s, the military would say that something else has to be done but it is the government's responsibility. So they would pass the ball between the two. But even with this government, we haven't seen any comprehensive approach to the problem.

What do you think of the government's recent announcement to complete the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) to bring socio-economic relief to the area?

There have been positive changes in the GAP region compared to 15 or 20 years ago. But many of the poorest areas in the region are outside the GAP region, including Iğdır, Ağrı and Hakkari. One of the problems is implementation. You are going to get results in 20 years. There is often reluctance to invest in anything that does not bring results before the next election. It is not just the current government; this is true of all the parties in the last 20 years.

The current government received more support in the Southeast during last year's elections than the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). How do you put this into context?

The DTP is very close to the PKK. When you look at the DTP's leadership, they are quite secular and this is because the PKK was originally a Marxist organization. Most of the people in the Southeast are religious. A combination of Kurdishness and a feeling of piety motivate most of the people there. A lot of the religious people won't vote for the DTP anyway because they don't see them as proper Muslims. At the grassroots level, a lot of the DTP supporters are religious. But the AK Party has the advantage of having a religious identity that appeals to voters in the Southeast. When it comes to the DTP, it is seen as having ties to the Marxist -- and therefore atheist -- PKK, although the PKK has been trying to reposition itself. Many also voted for the AK Party for economic reasons. Macroeconomic performance improved under its rule.

What has the PKK been doing to reposition itself from its Marxist past?

For example, they called for a cease-fire during Eid al-Fitr [the first three days following Ramadan, a month of fasting].

They are trying to show that they are good Muslims. Some of the people in the PKK ranks are quite observant Muslims even though the leadership is not.

What do you expect will happen in the Southeast during the local elections to be held in March of next year?

When you go to the Southeast, it is difficult to find someone without an immediate or distant relative who has been up in the mountains and joined the PKK. At the same time, they don't necessarily support the PKK. The PKK has done some appalling things to the civilians in the southeast. People want some kind of negotiated solution. What the PKK has done over the years is allow the Kurdish public to now be able to ask why they cannot speak their own language. The AK Party is now in power and there are incentives to support it, but they are going to be judged in the elections on how things are going in the economy. Today's Southeast is different than the one of 20 years ago. There are some rich people there and there are upscale shopping centers, but many southeasterners are poor. Some of the people there were evacuated from their villages either by the PKK or by the state and they are very poor. When it comes to the election, the DTP is quite strong -- especially in Diyarbakır.

What would be the government's best move against the PKK?

When the Ergenekon investigation started, there was a wonderful opportunity for the state to show that if someone does something wrong, we go after them and punish them. The state could look into at least some of the unsolved murders in the Southeast that took place in the 1990s. And the message to the people by the state would be that we are looking after you. That would have been a huge blow to the PKK. But it was a lost opportunity.

Why?

The Ergenekon investigation has become too politicized. Ergenekon members should be punished for what they did and what they planned to do. No less and no more. Ergenekon is a byproduct of the deep state, not the deep state itself. The people in the Southeast ask why the government cares so much about one gang which targeted the AK Party and so little about the many gangs that killed Kurds in the 1990s. One Turkish nationalist slogan about Turkey says "Love it or leave it." The people of the Southeast feel that they were abandoned years ago. But they are also part of this country.

What gestures by the government would be helpful?

If [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan goes to the Southeast and delivers a speech -- which he has successfully done in the past in Diyarbakır -- and repeats again that Kurds and Turks should live in brotherhood, that would be a move the PKK would not desire. One of the achievements of the Turkish society is that there haven't been many ethnic clashes. Also, to be fair to the government, we had some attacks on Kurds in some Turkish towns following the Dağlıca attack last year and the government reacted very quickly. But recent events in Altınova showed there is potential for a serious conflict with young men, particularly poor young men, who are angry at Kurds. But as long as people understand the danger, there is hope.

What is the danger, exactly?

The danger is one of civil war. Most people in Turkey desire no such thing, but those that do indirectly aid the PKK. The security forces should be aware of the danger. This is a war of propaganda. Erdoğan says that "the blood will not stay on the ground." OK, but if he combines that with a visit to the Southeast and convinces the Kurds that they are equal citizens, this could make a difference. Turks also need to start traveling to the east, go there on vacation, learn about the situation and help the economy there. It is not solely a military struggle.

Gareth Jenkins

Gareth Jenkins is a journalist, analyst, writer and editor based in İstanbul, specializing in the military, political Islam and terrorism. Currently an analyst with the US-based Jamestown Foundation, he regularly writes for the Eurasia Daily Monitor and prepares an annual report on the Turkish financial sector for the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). He is also a correspondent for The Sunday Times of the UK and the Al Ahram weekly, writing news articles, features and commentaries on Turkish and regional politics.

His latest book, "Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East?" was published in the US in May and came out in Europe last month. He also wrote books including"Context and Circumstance: The Turkish Military and Politics" (2001), "Turkish Stocks and Bonds" (1995).


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