Jenkins: Turkish ultranationalists a major gift to the PKK

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Oct 13 18:53:36 UTC 2008

Jenkins: Turkish ultranationalists a major gift to the PKK
Gareth Jenkins, an analyst with the US-based Jamestown Foundation, hassaid that Turkey faces the danger of civil war even though most Turksand Kurds in the country do not desire it. He says this danger existsbecause some people from both groups want to provoke it.  "ViolentTurkish ultranationalists are a major gift to the [outlawed KurdistanWorkers' Party] PKK. The security forces should remain on alert forany danger. This is a psychological war of propaganda," he said.Parliament overwhelmingly voted last Wednesday to extend by one yearits authorization of military operations against the PKK in northernIraq, keeping the door open to future strikes in the region.
The approval came amid a flurry of attacks in the country'spredominantly Kurdish Southeast. The deadliest attack in a year on theTurkish Armed Forces (TSK), the attack on the Aktütün outpost near theborder with Iraq on Oct. 3 claimed the lives of 17 soldiers, andTurkey responded with several days of air strikes in Iraqi territory.A fresh attack on Wednesday killed five police officers and wounded 19others in southeastern Diyarbakır province. For Monday Talk, Jenkinsspeaks about his impressions of the Southeast upon his return fromDiyarbakır 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 supporterswhen the PKK causes civilian casualties. They tend to say it is [thejob of] Ergenekon [an alleged deep state-related ultranationalistgroup] 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, likedialogue, must be tried. Compared to when I was there at the end ofAugust, Diyarbakır residents think that Aktütün proves this policy ofconfrontation is not going anywhere. The PKK cannot be destroyed, sothe government should open up to negotiations. This argument was a lotstronger now compared to at the end of August.
Is the PKK giving the message that they would continue with suchattacks if the government does not enter into negotiations with them?
That is the impression I was getting. You also have to look at thetiming of the attack. It came within a week of this motion goingthrough Parliament. One of the arguments Turkey used was that they candestroy the PKK if they hit their bases in northern Iraq. The PKK istrying to show after one year of this mandate that Turkey has notsucceeded and that this is what they are capable of doing.
Did the PKK expect Parliament not to pass the motion to hit PKK basesin northern Iraq?
I don't think so. It is a difficult situation for Turkey. There ispublic pressure to not engage in negotiations. If you talk to Turks onthe street, they seek revenge. That's what you see when there are alot of people being killed. That's the big difference compared to1984, when the first PKK insurgency started. The coverage then wassmall, buried inside pages of newspapers. Now we have thesetraumatizing pictures of families and little children holding ontocoffins of soldiers killed by the PKK. It would take an incrediblybrave 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 believethat [imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah] Öcalan can be released. If hewere released, of course, he would be dead in two days because someonewould assassinate him. It is not a realistic demand but it does notmean that they do not believe in it. And for cultural and politicalrights, considering the political culture in Turkey, it is difficultfor the government because that's what the PKK is demanding. Opponentswould say the government is making concessions to terrorism. Anotherproblem in Turkey is that the whole political spectrum has been movedto a more nationalist one. I am not a fan of the Justice andDevelopment Party (AK Party), but it is very difficult for the AKParty 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. Theattack took place in the center of the city, in broad daylight. One ofthe problems with governments in the world -- of course, the worst oneis the Bush administration -- is that they do not understand that afight against terrorism is as much a war of propaganda and psychologyas military. By doing this in Diyarbakır, the PKK demonstrates thatthe state is not succeeding.
Have the cross-border operations not weakened the PKK?
There is no question that those operations weakened the PKK. Theirfighters are younger and not as well trained as before. But they stillrecruit people easily. If you look at what happened at Aktütün, theymust have been preparing for a long time. Normally, they operate insmall units of eight to 10 people. This time they had several hundredworking together. They also have heavy weaponry and move it to the topof 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. Thecross-border raids weakened them and reduced their abilities. Theyhonestly thought America would never let the Turks come across, butthe 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 thecross-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 ornot. How do you tell how many people are hiding in a cave? Themilitary has the ability to pick up on PKK communication but it isimpossible to be precise. The number is an exaggeration. The militaryalso knows that they are engaged in psychological warfare and aretherefore trying to say something to both the PKK and the Turkishpublic.
The Turkish public has increasingly been questioning the military'sabilities and intentions -- especially after revelations
of neglect prior to the PKK ambush in Dağlıca last year. What do youthink of all this?
One of the problems in Turkey is that it is very difficult to askquestions and criticize. When there is a problem in the military, itbecomes hard to distinguish if it was a mistake or not. I don't everremember the military accepting a mistake even though they makemistakes. There is a lot of intelligence coming in about planned PKKattacks, but a lot of them do not happen. When one of those reportscomes in, they do not act on it. Then when it takes place, of course,everybody jumps in and complains. I do not believe conspiraciestheories that suggest the military deliberately allows its members tobe killed.
How do you interpret the vulnerability of the Aktütün military post to attacks?
It is a combination of incompetence and arrogance. The military mighthave thought that there is no problem, that it can defend it. Thereprobably is reluctance to admit that they could not defend it.
Do you think the military has realized this is not a problem that canbe solved only by military means?
There has always been an awareness of this. One of the problems isthat if you talk to most Turks in western Turkey, you will find thatmost of them have never been east of Ankara. It includes people in thegovernment and some deputies. The military has had an institutionalpresence in the area for about 20 years. They know the problems in thearea better than any other institution in the country. In the 1990s,the military would say that something else has to be done but it isthe government's responsibility. So they would pass the ball betweenthe two. But even with this government, we haven't seen anycomprehensive approach to the problem.
What do you think of the government's recent announcement to completethe Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) to bring socio-economic reliefto the area?
There have been positive changes in the GAP region compared to 15 or20 years ago. But many of the poorest areas in the region are outsidethe GAP region, including Iğdır, Ağrı and Hakkari. One of the problemsis implementation. You are going to get results in 20 years. There isoften reluctance to invest in anything that does not bring resultsbefore the next election. It is not just the current government; thisis true of all the parties in the last 20 years.
The current government received more support in the Southeast duringlast 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'sleadership, they are quite secular and this is because the PKK wasoriginally a Marxist organization. Most of the people in the Southeastare religious. A combination of Kurdishness and a feeling of pietymotivate most of the people there. A lot of the religious people won'tvote 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 thatappeals to voters in the Southeast. When it comes to the DTP, it isseen as having ties to the Marxist -- and therefore atheist -- PKK,although the PKK has been trying to reposition itself. Many also votedfor the AK Party for economic reasons. Macroeconomic performanceimproved 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 [thefirst three days following Ramadan, a month of fasting].
They are trying to show that they are good Muslims. Some of the peoplein the PKK ranks are quite observant Muslims even though theleadership is not.
What do you expect will happen in the Southeast during the localelections to be held in March of next year?
When you go to the Southeast, it is difficult to find someone withoutan immediate or distant relative who has been up in the mountains andjoined the PKK. At the same time, they don't necessarily support thePKK. The PKK has done some appalling things to the civilians in thesoutheast. People want some kind of negotiated solution. What the PKKhas done over the years is allow the Kurdish public to now be able toask why they cannot speak their own language. The AK Party is now inpower and there are incentives to support it, but they are going to bejudged in the elections on how things are going in the economy.Today's Southeast is different than the one of 20 years ago. There aresome rich people there and there are upscale shopping centers, butmany southeasterners are poor. Some of the people there were evacuatedfrom their villages either by the PKK or by the state and they arevery 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 wonderfulopportunity for the state to show that if someone does somethingwrong, we go after them and punish them. The state could look into atleast some of the unsolved murders in the Southeast that took place inthe 1990s. And the message to the people by the state would be that weare looking after you. That would have been a huge blow to the PKK.But it was a lost opportunity.
The Ergenekon investigation has become too politicized. Ergenekonmembers should be punished for what they did and what they planned todo. 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 thegovernment cares so much about one gang which targeted the AK Partyand so little about the many gangs that killed Kurds in the 1990s. OneTurkish 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 anddelivers a speech -- which he has successfully done in the past inDiyarbakır -- and repeats again that Kurds and Turks should live inbrotherhood, that would be a move the PKK would not desire. One of theachievements of the Turkish society is that there haven't been manyethnic clashes. Also, to be fair to the government, we had someattacks on Kurds in some Turkish towns following the Dağlıca attacklast year and the government reacted very quickly. But recent eventsin Altınova showed there is potential for a serious conflict withyoung men, particularly poor young men, who are angry at Kurds. But aslong 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 suchthing, but those that do indirectly aid the PKK. The security forcesshould be aware of the danger. This is a war of propaganda. Erdoğansays that "the blood will not stay on the ground." OK, but if hecombines that with a visit to the Southeast and convinces the Kurdsthat they are equal citizens, this could make a difference. Turks alsoneed to start traveling to the east, go there on vacation, learn aboutthe situation and help the economy there. It is not solely a militarystruggle.
Gareth JenkinsGareth Jenkins is a journalist, analyst, writer and editor based inİstanbul, specializing in the military, political Islam and terrorism.Currently an analyst with the US-based Jamestown Foundation, heregularly writes for the Eurasia Daily Monitor and prepares an annualreport on the Turkish financial sector for the Economist IntelligenceUnit (EIU). He is also a correspondent for The Sunday Times of the UKand the Al Ahram weekly, writing news articles, features andcommentaries on Turkish and regional politics.
His latest book, "Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, HeadingEast?" was published in the US in May and came out in Europe lastmonth. He also wrote books including"Context and Circumstance: TheTurkish Military and Politics" (2001), "Turkish Stocks and Bonds"(1995).

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------y.dogan at todayszaman.com13.10.2008
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