Turkey Is Targeting the PKK’s Popularity in Iraq
Turkey has failed to contain the PKK despite having the second most powerful military in NATO. This, in turn, has had Ankara adopt a three-phased strategy of building a narrative that can facilitate Turkish objectives through nonmilitary means.
After four decades of fighting, almost 40,000 casualties, and billions of dollars spent, Turkey has failed to contain Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Despite many cross-border operations, the group seems as resilient as ever. Now, Turkey is employing a new strategy: seeking to achieve military victory by conducting military operations that create anti-PKK narratives. Iraqi Kurds are now on the brink of a civil war with the PKK due to a nebulous incident, which stands to only damage the PKK’s struggle for Kurdish freedom. As an insurgency, the group breeds via its popularity; its strength and success depend on it. Consequently, Turkey’s new strategy is designed to contain the PKK by attacking its popularity, striking at the group’s main source of strength. As Kurdish history is fraught with fratricide, Ankara believes this can be easily sold.
The PKK and its affiliated organizations control strategic territories in Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser extent Iran and Turkey. The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and many Western states. That a senior Kurdish leader recently stated that Turkey has asked Iraqi Kurdish parties to label the PKK a terrorist organization shows how Ankara wants to use this designation to undermine the PKK’s legitimacy. Nonetheless, an increasing number of people still subscribe to PPK’s narratives.
As the group's strength lies in its popularity, assaulting its cause will be a cheaper and more effective strategy. The PKK is considered the guardian of the Kurds in almost all Kurdish inhabited regions and has, therefore, evolved into a regional player. In fact, it’s more popular than many Kurdish parties in the Middle East. It is also one of the main sources of contention in American-Turkish relations. More importantly, the central difference between a terrorist and an insurgent organization is popular support. Convincing the Kurds of the Middle East that the PKK is composed of a bunch of terrorists can deprive the group of its base; undermining its popularity and resources as its backers could be accused of sponsoring terrorism.
Given Turkey’s military history with the PKK, Ankara is convinced that military means cannot eliminate the insurgency. Thus, Turkey has begun crafting a narrative to weaken the group’s support among the Kurds and the broader world. The first phase of the strategy is a military operation that is conducive to creating a new narrative.
In the past, Turkey kept its military operations secret, but its recent ones have been promoted, even by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Moreover, the strikes are no longer limited to uninhabited mountains but populated areas that gather media attention and bring PKK fighters closer to the Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).
For instance, Turkey recently targeted a refugee camp near Erbil, the KRI’s capital city. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield vehemently condemned the strike. Erdogan called the camp a threat, as grave as Qandil, where the PKK’s headquarters are located. The camp harbors PKK members, however, it is unclear how the camp could threaten Turkey when it lies 180 kilometers south of the Turkish border. The strike on Makhmour was possibly to distance Turkey from a major strike that happened on the same day.
In a strike, five Peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan were killed in a military vehicle near Erbil. The incident brought Kurdish authorities and the PKK to the brink of a civil war. The Peshmerga have lately positioned themselves near Qandil to limit the Turkish-PKK war to the mountains. Even though it was a surgical strike, it promoted a wide anti-PKK narrative. The KRI’s Prime Minister Masrour Barzani held the PKK responsible for the killing of Peshmerga members. The statement was followed by a similar one from Iraqi President Barham Salih, a Kurd, which questioned the legality of the group’s presence in the region.
The PKK’s involvement was soon questioned. Military experts from the ministry of Peshmerga claimed that the Peshmerga were not hit by a rocket launcher but an airstrike—notably, the PKK lack aircraft. The vehicle's tires were intact while its roof was blown up, the explanation continued, and the PKK denied their involvement and demanded an investigation into the incident. Nonetheless, this strike created the impression that, without the PKK, the Peshmerga would not have been killed.
Moreover, the rebels don’t want to antagonize the KRI. The Kurdistan region is of paramount importance to the PKK. Besides already sharing fragile relations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which holds key positions within the regional government and has a tight grip on security services of Erbil and Duhok, the PKK’s guerillas and assets are located there. The region serves as a land bridge between the PKK’s headquarters in Qandil and its loyal forces in Syria, a strategic province that links the PKK to Turkey and Iran. While Turkey is the organization's original province, Iran is the PKK’s main supporter and usual exit to the outer world. However, most observers do not analyze the region’s geopolitical complexities and consume their daily information from social media, where the battle of stories is fought. This has been conducive to the second phase of Turkey’s strategy, crafting an anti-PKK narrative.
The strikes fueled anti-PKK stories in the region by creating an impression that the PKK’s presence was responsible for the airstrikes. The Kurds who formerly thought of the group as their guardian are now openly questioning the necessity of the PKK’s presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan achieved its autonomy after years of bloodshed, and now the PKK is threatening its citizens’ security. The response on social media has been stark: Iraqi Kurds believe the PKK should fight the Turkish military in Turkey, not on their lands.
In an interview, a top Peshmerga commander and the incumbent deputy president of the KRI attacked the PKK’s efforts to defeat ISIS, calling the group’s efforts propaganda. As similar stories take hold, the organization’s reputation will be tarnished in the eyes of the Kurds. Narratives like this will eventually oblige the PKK to limit its activities in the KRI to satisfy its people and the authorities.
By creating the impression that the PKK is belligerent in the prospect of a civil war, Kurds would be encouraged to subscribe to a story where the PKK works to bring turmoil to an already burdened region. The story has imposed limits on the PKK’s activity, which is the third phase of the cycle.
After the Peshmerga incident, the KRI has mobilized its Peshmerga closer to PKK bases. The rebels had no option but to accommodate them, as further clashes with their Kurdish brethren are a recipe for civil war and helps to promote Turkey’s narrative. The PKK vehemently opposes civil war because the war will be fought in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the KRI is seen as protecting its territory from the PKK, which will be framed as a colonizing visitor. For the PKK to avoid a civil war, it has to limit its activities.
Turkey has already achieved a military victory by limiting the group’s movements to smaller areas and attaining the KRI’s voluntary military support. Thus, the third step in the cycle is complete. Though the military gains are dependent on maintaining this anti-PKK narrative, Turkey needs to spin an even more impressive story to further contain the group. Moreover, only the impression of civil war, not an actual conflict, will contain the PKK because, as an insurgency, the PKK will not be defeated in a civil war.
Presently, forces loyal to the PKK are surrounding the KRI. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls the KRI Peshmerga, has declared its neutrality, leaving the KDP alone. If a war breaks out, Turkish forces could be invited to Iraqi Kurdistan which will strengthen the PKK’s popularity. The PKK will then be heralded as the guardian of KRI, a narrative that Turkey will want to prevent.
Additionally, in 1995, a Turkish force of 35,000 troops invaded Iraqi Kurdistan, assisted by tanks and F-16 fighter jets. Yet it failed to expel PKK from the region. Despite the fact that the group's field of operations was limited to the Qandil mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan, PKK claimed it had defeated the Turkish army and took credit for saving Iraqi Kurdistan.
What’s more, in the 1990s Turkey initiated a civil war in the KRI by backing the PUK and the KDP to fight the PKK. Even though in the 1980s the PUK and KDP had possessed veteran guerillas that had operated in Qandil, they failed to expel the PKK from the area. Now Peshmerga forces within Iraqi Kurdistan are untrained and lack counterinsurgency skills. Morale among the Peshmerga is also at an all-time low, with their salaries arriving months late. Crucially, every single Kurd denounces intra-Kurdish fratricide.
The civil war in the 1990s didn’t promote an anti-PKK story because Turkey believed it could defeat the group militarily. Furthermore, the PKK was not belligerent and the Kurds were fighting on Turkey’s behest. Presently, more than 50 percent of Kurds were born after the aforementioned calamities. The technology of the 1990s couldn't facilitate promoting narratives among the broader public; Kurds didn't then possess the necessary means of communication, but now the Kurdish populated territories are some of the most connected in the world. Therefore, the Peshmerga's confrontation with the rebels is to limit them, not to fight them. Thus, the strategy employs military means for creating stories, not for achieving immediate military gains.