The Turkey-Kurdish Conflict: An Intelligence Analysis
Updated: Nov 14, 2021
Turkey is a NATO partner, so it is surprising that they have active insurgencies in their territory. The largest of these insurgencies is the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), whose operations have resulted in Turkey actively moving forces across the border into Syria. However, the PKK represents a different type of insurgency than what NATO and ISAF forces faced in Afghanistan and Iraq; namely, the PKK is a progressive organization run by a charismatic populist known as Abdullah Öcalan. As such, the Turkish military must take different approaches towards their counter-insurgency operations. Intelligence requirements are then focused on Counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, meaning human intelligence needs to be prioritized. The questions the Turkish military needs to answer include where the support for the PKK originates, how earnest are PKK calls for peace, and what sociopolitical factors exist in Kurdish populations that lead to a long-standing insurgency.
This analysis is organized in three sections. First, a background is provided that outlines the Kurdish-Turkish relationship and the “Problem of the Kurds” that has plagued Ankara for decades. Second, a short explanation of the major actors’ relationship provides context for the strategic and tactical problem the Turkish government faces in dealing with the Kurdish population. The final section is a discussion on how the Turkish government must use their intelligence assets to finally defeat the PKK threat.
The Kurdish people are a predominately Muslim ethnic group that extends from southeastern Turkey to northern Iran. They are the largest ethnic group without a nation-state, with their isolation in large part due to the mountains that surround them. In addition to the mountains, modern Kurdistan also has fertile plans and the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, making it valuable for farming. Additionally, there are rich mineral deposits in Kurdistan, and the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa meet in Kurdistan.¹ In general, this makes Kurdistan a valuable territory for the nation of Turkey, meaning that successfully integrating Kurds into Turkish culture, stopping the insurgency and solidifying control, is a top priority.
Traditionally, Kurds and Turks have coexisted peacefully. Starting in the 1920s, the Turkish state explicitly stated its goal was to deny the Kurdish people politically sovereignty. To do this, the Turks enacted a series of policies designed to assimilate the Kurdish culture into the greater Turkish identity.² These methods consisted of a mixture of social, political, and cultural policies. For example, the Turkish government started referring to the Kurds as “mountain Turks,” claiming that they descended from the same race but that separation in the mountains had changed the Kurdish language away from Turkish. Resultingly, Turkey banned Kurdish, despite few Kurds knowing Turkish. In fact, the word “Kurd” was not even permitted to be written in Turkish press until somewhat recently.
The Turkish government framed these policies in terms of preventing discrimination. Started by Ataturk and the Turkish parliament, deliberate policies of assimilation were designed with the “thought that only a single language could create a strong society with no ethnic discrimination.”³ It was not until the 1970s, however, that political instability in southeastern Turkey led to an outbreak of violence between Kurds and Turks. The root of most of the violence was precipitated by the creation of the PKK, a violent communist political party, in 1978. However, the violence was not one sided. In one specific example, the Maraş Massacre, Sunni hardliners and potentially members of the intelligence services killed between 105 and 185 leftists. Ideological violence was commonplace throughout Turkey, with more than 5,000 people dying between 1976 and 1980 because of political violence.
The PKK strongly advocated for an independent Kurdistan, claiming that Kurdistan was a “classic colonial country colonized separately by Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria,” with no mention of the Kurdish territory in the Soviet Union, naturally. While the PKK focused more generally on Kurdistan, they claimed that Turkey was at the forefront of the “colonization” of Kurdistan.⁴ To solve this issue, the PKK had two goals, independence and “democratization.” Independence is a clear goal, but the PKK’s goal democratization called for the establishment of a sectarian Socialist state in the short-term and the establishment of a classless society in the long-term. Adopting a Leninist idea of the vanguard of the proletariat, the PKK decided their first action would be to assassinate a local pro-government chieftain. This attempt failed and marked the beginning of a long-lasting feud between the PKK and government forces.
This feud culminated in 1980 when the military, spurned by larger unrest and terrorism throughout Turkey, enacted a coup. Quickly, the military dictatorship arrested almost 20,000 people suspected of anti-government activities, including around 15,000 who had membership in far-left organizations like the PKK. However, only 3,177 were charged with separatism, and of those around 2,000 were PKK members, by far the largest percentage.⁵ However, the top leadership of the PKK escaped to Syria, and by 1982 the PKK hosted a second congress, where they decided a new strategy upon which to liberate Kurdistan.
Taking notes from Mao’s book on guerrilla warfare, the PKK formulated a three-part strategy. First, the PKK would carry out a “strategic defense” consisting of propaganda, attacks against state collaborators, and preparation for the larger movement. The second stage called for establishing “liberated zones” from which a large guerrilla army could be recruited and trained. The final stage would be a large-scale conventional war against the Turkish government.⁶ This plan would take place over the course of 20 years.
In preparation for the first stage of their plan, the PKK stage a series of propaganda attacks, including one in May 1983 that resulted in the death of four Turkish soldiers. The Turkish government had been embroiled in the aftermath of a coup and fears of an Islamist revolution after the Shah had been overthrown. Resultantly the Turkish army generally left the PKK alone. However, the propaganda attacks, including the aforementioned 1983 assassination, drew the ire of the Turkish government who started to deliberately contest PKK forces in Kurdistan. The attacks ended up being a strategic success for the PKK, since they gave the PKK credence to form alliances with other far-left organizations, including the 10,000-member strong Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
The 1980s and 1990s saw the peak of fighting between the Turkish authorities and the PKK. The biggest uptick of PKK attacks was in the late 1980s, with 20 in 1988, 84 in 1989, 122 in 1990, and more than 360 in 1992. Here was when the PKK became classified as a terrorist organization. Several attacks on civilians in Kurdistan were attributed to the PKK, although the PKK denies the attacks as false flag operations.⁷ There were several attempts at peace throughout this period, although the ceasefires quickly would break down. In 1999, the founder of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, was arrested in Rome. He quickly called for a ceasefire, but his pleas were rejected and the ferocity of attacks increased. A tit-for-tat insurgency characterized the 2000s, with the Turkish military attacking PKK strongholds in response to terrorist attacks.⁸
However, despite the bloodshed, the Turkish government began to allow some freedoms to Kurds, opening the first Kurdish language TV station in 2009 and renaming Kurdish villages from Turkish names to Kurdish.⁹ During this time, the PKK shifted from a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary organization to one championing “democratic confederalism”, an ideology that accepted ostensible Turkish control if the Kurdish state remained semi-sovereign. Perhaps most interesting is that feminism took front stage in the PKK’s ideological basis, which is an ideological movement seldom seen in this region. In the early 2010s, the PKK adopted a policy of ceasefire with the Turkish state, going so far as to begin withdrawal of forces into Syria.
In 2013, the Arab Spring took hold in Turkey, eventually leading to the outbreak in hostilities against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The PKK, now no longer as focused on battling the Turkish military, started shifting fighters to combat ISIL. Concurrently, a new Kurdish-majority organization formed: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Syrian conflict has dozens of actors, with the Kurdish forces being no exception. The SDF’s formation was highly encouraged by the United States, and it primarily operated as a defense force in northern Syria, and during the height of the civil war was directly supported by US air and special operations assets. After the SDF’s creation in 2015, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a quasi-national guard, joined under it as its military wing. The YPG itself was founded in 2011 as the armed offshoot of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Some Syrian Kurds claim no connection to the PKK, saying that Öcalan’s teaching are completely different from the PKK’s interpretation.¹⁰ Crucially, the PYD’s founding leadership came directly from the PKK, with reports of substantial overlap in membership. At the very least, the lineage of the PYD, with the goal of establishing a genderless and leaderless society, can be traced directly to Öcalan.¹¹
The US explicitly supported the SDF in northeastern Syria, usually through airpower but occasionally through special operations. The US did have active troops on the Turkish-Syrian border, especially in the SDF-controlled areas. Additionally, the US continued to give Turkey intelligence about the PKK while supporting PKK-affiliated groups in Syria.¹² Throughout, the SDF continued to make gains in Syria. SDF ideology pushed almost total gender equality, with women constituting almost 40 percent of fighters at one point. This force, called the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), was instrumental in several operations against ISIL. Like the YPG, the YPJ is explicitly pro-Öcalan, even going as far as wearing badges of his face in his honor.¹² The YPG/YPJ and the PKK have been shown to explicitly conduct operations together, such as the 2014 Sinjar Mountain operation against ISIL.¹³
Throughout the Syrian Civil War, the Turkish government constantly complained of PKK activity on the Kurdish/Turkish border. In particular, Turkish complaints revolved around supposed PKK terrorist attacks on the Turkish border, but starting in 2019, greater unrest in Turkey pressured the ruling political party, AKP, into some type of intervention in the southeast. This primarily took the form of air attacks, with the summer of 2019 seeing more than 75 cross-border airstrikes in Syria alone.¹⁵ These airstrikes resulted in several thousand casualties for the PKK, while peacekeeping operations in southeastern Turkey saw several thousand more, at the cost of a few hundred Turkish police officers and paramilitary troops.
Throughout 2019, US forces operated with near impunity along the border, but as tensions between the Kurdish and Turkish forces rose, the US continued efforts with the SDF was untenable to the Turkish regime. Seeing an imminent outbreak of hostilities, the US helped broker an agreement between Turkey and Kurdish forces south of the border. This agreement called for the creation of a buffer zone stretching 115 kilometers and ten kilometers deep.¹⁶ In July 2019, Turkish forces began to prepare for an attack on the buffer zone, ostensibly to tighten security. This preceded an abrupt withdrawal of American forces in Syria, and in October, Turkey began official ground operations along the buffer zone. By the end of October, Turkish forces had officially captured much of the buffer zone, and the two sides agreed on a ceasefire pending further negotiation.
Relationship between the organizations
In order to understand the conflict between the Turkish military and the PKK, and so to better where the intelligence requirements can be targeted, the relationships between the main actors must be examined. More specifically, there are broad four groups that need to be examined: the Turkish military, the PKK, the SDF, and the Kurdish people. The main points of friction are, obviously, between the Turkish military and the PKK. However, since the PKK ostensibly fights for Kurdistan, the relationship between the PKK and the Kurdish people also needs to be examined. Additionally, the PKK’s relationship with the SDF is important, since while the US is not a subject in this discussion, the SDF’s alliance with the US makes Turkish aggression, as a member of NATO, all the more interesting.
The Turkish military has long struggled against the PKK. They have claimed repeatedly that the PKK is a terrorist organization. In their peacekeeping efforts since 1978, Turkish causalities have reached almost 8,000 killed and 21,000 wounded, while the PKK has lost almost 43,000. Since 2015, almost 1,300 state security forces have been killed while 3,200 PKK militants have died.¹⁷ Most of the Turkish causalities have been police and paramilitary forces. The PKK’s alleged terrorist operations include suicide bombings, recruitment of child soldiers, and attacks against non-combatants, although the PKK claims to be operating under the rules of the Geneva Conventions.¹⁸ Additionally, some NATO nations, such as Belgium, have stated that the PKK is not a terrorist organization but rather a participant in an internal conflict.
The Turkish military superficially does not have issues with the SDF. However, that has not stopped the Turkish Air Force from engaging in bombing campaigns along the buffer zone. Of particular note is the aforementioned attack into Syria and Operation Olive Branch, an ironically named 2018 operation against the SDF. This offensive’s goal was the establishment of a pro-Turkish zone in northeastern Syria and resulted directly in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds. Naturally, Operation Olive Branch and the following 2019 offensive upset the SDF and other pro-Kurdish groups in the area. The SDF, for its part, has denied any operations in Turkey, claiming to be internal to Syria. Turkey hotly contests this, and the SDF does share leadership and training opportunities with the PKK.
The PKK and the Kurdish people have had at times a somewhat strained relationship and at others fairly close. Unlike other left-wing organizations, the PKK has encouraged Kurdish political party participation in the national legislature, including during time periods of heightened tensions.¹⁹ However, that is not meant to imply the Kurdish politically parties wholeheartedly support the PKK. For example, a popular left-wing Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), publicly denounced PKK bombings in 2015. More generally, some Kurdish forces, particularly in Iraq, distrusted the PKK. In fact, the commander of the main peshmerga group in Iraq, Major General Sirwan Barzani, publicly stated that the Iraqi government should take direct, kinetic action against the PKK. Outside of the Peshmerga, in late 2019, public opinion began shifting away from the PKK.²⁰ There seems to be a feeling of mutual struggle against ISIL, but as the threat from the Islamic State began to die down, the tactics used by the PKK made other Kurdish forces and civilians upset.
Strategic Problem in Kurdistan
For the Turkish government, the main strategic problem in the Kurdish conflict is the semi-sovereign, separatist region in the southeast. While Kurdistan remains separate, the ruling AKP party and Erdogan are at a strategic disadvantage. This problem is heightened by unrest to the south. Since Turkey cannot fully control its southern border, it is unable to properly police against terrorist infiltration or masses of refugees. Additionally, the PKK specifically represents the worst of the unrest. Without the PKK, the Kurdish population would generally acquiesce to the government in Ankara. With the PKK, the Kurdish population either is indifferent or tacitly supports PKK attacks in greater Turkey.
Erdogan is a proto-dictator in Turkey. While outside of Izmir, he is fairly popular in Turkey, Erdogan has continued to gather political power through a mixture of power politics and misinformation. The PKK especially has been a thorn in Ankara’s side, and Erdogan’s initial attempts at peace in the mid 2010s and later drastic peacekeeping operations in southeast Turkey directly correspond to attempts at gaining political support, especially in the rural areas. Interestingly, Erdogan originally was popular in Kurdish areas, winning a vast majority of seats, in large part due to his outspoken support of the Kurdish people, including increasing cultural and political rights for Kurds in Turkey. But his shift from peace offerings to outright warfare has made the Kurdish HDP far more popular in the region, despite his recent initiatives to ban the HDP.²¹ The continued existence of PKK activity directly contradicts his law-and-order party’s platform. A final defeat of the PKK, either through peace negotiations or force, would be a political boon to Erdogan as he attempts to fully consolidate power.
The Syrian Civil War drastically degraded the Turkish government’s ability to police its border. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria for Turkey. Ankara has expressed worry about the unstable border, and securing that border was the stated goal of the Turkish offensive into SDF-held land in Syria. The continued existence of the PKK destabilizes border protection missions in the southeast, since the PKK is skilled at cross-border movements. Additionally, as long as the PKK remains viable, Turkish paramilitary and gendarmerie forces are required to divert resources towards counterterrorism operations. Strategically, the porous border represents to worst of the security threats for Turkey, since the Turkish government is directly tied to the instability in the region.
While Kurds in Turkey have generally been stable, Kurds did participate in the 1970s’ political violence between leftists and nationalists. There have existed separatist movements in Kurdistan since the 1970s. In large part, the PKK is the main catalyst for the separatist groups. In fact, the PKK operated for decades as a quasi-mafia in Kurdistan, with the infamous examples of them patrolling streets in Kurdistan to “create order.” However, for most of the 1980s and 1990s, PKK militants operated primarily in rural areas. Recently, attacks within cities have been increasing, which makes the operating environment much more difficult for Turkish counter-insurgency. Especially because in counter-insurgency, civilian casualties tend to garner support for the insurgents.²² As such, continued operations in urban areas poses a tactical problem for Turkish COIN efforts.
Protagonist and Antagonist Objectives
The objectives of the Turkish government, who are classified as the protagonists by this research perspective, are generally as follows. First, they need to fully quell the PKK insurgency in southeastern Turkey. Second, they need solidify political control over the regions of Kurdistan. In order to accomplish the first goal, special attention must be paid to counter-insurgency operations. The second goal should be completed by examining the root causes of the insurgency, namely that the insurgency is precipitated by ethnic division and a lack of political identity of the Kurdish people. Finally, care must be taken to prevent an alliance between SDF and PKK forces, as the resources organic to the SDF, including TOW missiles from the US and USSOF-led training, would prove challenging for Turkish security forces to easily combat, especially since the insurgency would move from the incipient to the open conflict stage.
In contrast, the antagonistic PKK’s objectives seem to correspond closely with the objectives of other insurgencies, namely a delegitimization of the Turkish government, especially in Kurdish regions of Turkey, increasing international support, and finally to force the Turkish government to negotiations. The PKK is in a stable position as an insurgency, which is shown in their longevity. As such, they are a very difficult insurgency to defeat. The PKK’s specific ideology calls for the establishment of a democratic confederalist state, a libertarian socialist government with direct democracy and small communes. Because this ideology purports to be based in democratic ideals including a radical form of feminism called “Jineology”, the PKK has managed to gather widespread support from both male and females. Additionally, the PKK’s founder, Öcalan, is beloved by many Kurdish people even outside the PKK, with several organizations directly tying themselves to him. In addition to matching the political ideologies popular in Kurdistan, they are increasingly finding widespread international support, especially among more liberal countries, for their progressive ideas on democracy, feminism, and economic goals. While the PKK remains somewhat unpopular due to their terrorist attacks, they need international credibility in order to force Ankara to the negotiating table, and their recent successful propaganda campaigns are beginning to bear fruit.
Recommended intelligence capabilities
The National Intelligence Organization (MIT) is Turkey’s primary intelligence agency and is capable of operating both domestically and internationally. However, the secondary intelligence agency that operates most closely against the PKK is the Gendarmerie Intelligence Organization (JIT). MIT is not a military organization. In fact, military-affiliated employees in MIT have fallen from 70 percent in the 1980s to less than 4.5 percent today. However, one of MIT’s codified responsibilities is to provide intelligence to the military and paramilitary organizations. Additionally, the National Intelligence Coordination Board is the organization that determines the intelligence requirements for the MIT. Turkish intelligence collection systems are primarily focused on Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) and Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), with a focus on using satellites. Most notably, the Göktürk and RASAT families of satellites are highly capable intelligence collectors. In fact, the Göktürk-1 satellite was specifically tasked with targeting PKK insurgents.²³ More generally, MIT has been using HUMINT in PKK areas for decades.
Successful counter-insurgency operations rely heavily on Human Intelligence (HUMINT) to start building the intelligence funnels needed to eventually find insurgents. MIT is engaged heavily in HUMINT, although their collection techniques are often fairly brutal. I recommend the following collection methods, all of which are within the capabilities of the Turkish government: HUMINT, Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), SIGINT, and full motion video. The objective is to create funnels of intelligence in the above mentioned order. MIT should use HUMINT and OSINT collection to find PKK targets operating in Kurdistan, thereby acting as queuing assets for the following intelligence disciplines. There are thousands of hours of video footage posted by the PKK, and the PKK maintains a fairly high social media presence as part of their legitimacy campaign. That gives MIT an advantage in intelligence collection, especially as it shows that smartphones are prevalent among PKK fighters. Once PKK insurgents are targeted, use of either the Turkish satellites or the sizable Turkish drone fleet can start recording full motion video of insurgent operations. This is a fairly standard counter-insurgency intelligence funnel.
In addition to using the standard INTs, MIT should employ biometric intelligence, forensic intelligence, and site exploitation to find targets. As the PKK operates closer to population centers, the need for more exact targeting and the difficulty in finding insurgents increases. Biometric intelligence is extremely useful in screening populations. As the intelligence collection efforts grow, automated biometric collection can produce results from passive collection. Forensic intelligence is useful since the PKK conducts standard terrorist-related crimes, including kidnapping, robbery, and drug production. Finding links between arrested criminals and the PKK will reveal the PKK’s networks. Finally, site exploitation is a standard counter-insurgency collection effort which gives intelligence officers access to repositories of potential intelligence. Successful and deliberate site exploitation of computers, cell phones, or other data storage devices unlocks a suite of intelligence material that can be utilized by SIGINT officers.
All these collection efforts are geared towards answering these three fundamental questions: who is a member of the PKK? How does the PKK continue recruitment despite some tensions between them and the local population? Can the Turkish government halt their growing legitimacy in the eyes of the international community? The first question is obvious, as targeting PKK insurgents is crucial for continuing counter-insurgency operations. However, the PKK’s movement towards urban centers make intelligence collection more difficult. As such, the biometric and HUMINT collection become much more crucial. The second question is needed as the PKK has now operated for 40 years with an estimated 43,000 killed but has no appearance of slowing operations. The PKK is a well-oiled recruitment machine and targeting that machine specifically will assist in finishing off the insurgency. The final question is the most important as there has been a growing push in NATO countries to recognize the PKK as a legitimate combatant in a civil conflict. If that happens, the Turkish government will have basically lost the conflict, as a legitimize PKK will have bargaining power, be able to force the Turkish government to follow the laws of war, and possible gain outsized support from the international community. The Turkish government must then use intelligence collection efforts to discover how the PKK uses direct lobbying, propaganda, and social media to influence the international community. Knowledge of the PKK’s efforts in this will allow the Turkish government to target them directly.
The Turkish government desperately wants to solidify control of Kurds in the southeast. They have used a mixture of techniques to assimilate Kurds into the greater Turkish ethnicity, which in the 1970s caused the creation of the PKK. Ever since, the Turkish government and the PKK have been locked in an ebbing and flowing insurgency. It appears the PKK wants a sovereign or semi-sovereign Kurdistan, something untenable to Ankara. Recently, as Erdogan has attempted to consolidate power through increasingly drastic means, the conflict has renewed with new fervor, including Turkish incursions into Syria and Iraq. Because of this, the PKK has moved more towards urban areas. However, just bombing Kurdish communities will not defeat the PKK. Instead, the Turkish intelligence agencies must direct specific efforts at finding and neutralizing the insurgents with little collateral damage. But in addition, the Turkish government must address the root causes of the insurgency, thereby stamping the legitimacy of the insurgency in the eyes of the Kurdish population and stopping the PKK’s recruitment efforts.