For the past few weeks, Turkish authorities have expressed their concern at the increasing frequency of cross-border raids by Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) forces operating out of northern Iraq. Why was the U.S. allowing this to happen? When would the U.S. and Kurdish troops take action against the PKK, an organization designated as terrorist by the U.S. State Department and responsible for attacks against the parties in the Kurdish governing coalition, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)?
While they were waiting for a response, the PKK launched one of its deadliest raids in years on Sunday, killing 17 Turkish soldiers. The PKK announced that it took several hostages, something the Turkish government denies. The U.S. and Iraq are encouraging Turkey to refrain from military engagements inside Iraq but Ankara is under increasing popular pressure to respond with force. Demonstrations in Ankara and Istanbul denounced the PKK and Turkey’s parliament authorized cross-border operations today and The New York Times reports that Turkish warplanes have hit Kurdish targets near the Iraqi border and The Telegraph claims that Turkish troops have crossed the border.
I used to follow PKK activities back in the 1990s. After their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured in 1999, it was assumed by many that it was only a short time until the PKK was ultimately defeated. However, with the United States occupation of Iraq and the development of an autonomous Kurdish region, or safe-haven, in the north, the PKK was able to regroup and establish a base of operations. They also apparently made a truce with their political rivals, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Press reports have noted the anger of Turkish officials upon discovering that the PKK is using U.S. small arms and other weapons. Whether they received these directly from the U.S., from allied Kurdish groups, or by purchase on the black market is unknown. Less attention has been paid to the fact that the PKK has had numerous bases in Iran since the 1990s.
Michael Rubin asks,
Why would the Iranian government and security forces bother supporting the PKK?…[T]he PKK serves not only as a tool for leverage against Jalal Talebani, but also more importantly against Turkey. If the Islamic Republic can keep the PKK alive and provide them with a safe haven in the mountains of northern Iraq, then they can always threaten Turkey with renewal of a separatist campaign that has already cost more than 37,000 lives and several billion dollars.
Here is the political program of the PKK in three parts: