Turkey’s Kurdish Guerrillas Are Ready for War

With peace negotiations in tatters, the insurgency's leaders are preparing for a long and bloody conflict against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.


KANDIL MOUNTAINS, IraqThe road to the main base of the Kurdish rebel force fighting Turkey winds through the mountains of northern Iraq. In this part of Iraq, not far from the border with Iran, Iraqi Kurdish control gives way to checkpoints manned by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. Two fighters in grey-green fatigues toting AK-47s stop cars and peer in at passengers. A PKK flag flies above a curve in the road, near a white and black stone mosaic of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan embedded in the hillside.

Cemil Bayik, the de facto chief of the Kurdish rebel force, hasn’t taken refuge in Iran, like the Turkish media has claimed. Despite pounding Turkish air assaults aimed at dislodging the rebels from their bases in the mountains of northern Iraq, he plans to stay where he is.

“As you can see, I’m right here,” said Bayik, sitting on a white plastic chair set up in a wooded area for the interview in northern Iraq’s Kandil Mountains, where the PKK has its headquarters. In late July, an Iraqi Kurdish village off the narrow road that winds through Kandil was partly destroyed in a raid that Turkey says was aimed at a PKK base. Eight civilians were killed, according to a report published by Amnesty International.

“If you’re talking about war, that’s war — so are the attacks inside Turkey and the arrests of hundreds of people,” Bayik, a longtime Ocalan loyalist who helped found the PKK in 1978, said. “The PKK has the right to defend itself.”

Over the past six weeks, southeast Turkey, where the PKK wants to set up self-rule, has been wracked by violence unseen since the early 1990s, when clashes shut down cities after dark and thousands of villages were forcibly evacuated by the military. Turkey says it’s killed more than 900 suspected rebels in northern Iraq and inside Turkey since late July. The rebels, who dispute that number, in turn say they’ve killed hundreds of Turkish soldiers (Turkey put the number at closer to 65). What’s clear is that neither side is holding back.

The fighting has marked a brutal end to the two-year cease-fire between the PKK and the Turkish state. The cease-fire, which Ocalan agreed to in early 2013 after secret talks with Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, was expected to lead to formal negotiations to end the 30-year insurgency. The PKK wants legal and constitutional changes to liberalize Turkey and give Kurds ethnic-based political and cultural rights, including regional autonomy and ultimately freedom for Ocalan, while the Turkish government wants the disarmament of the guerrilla group.

But no formal negotiations were held and no change occurred. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew increasingly autocratic, punishing journalists who criticized his rule and demanding constitutional changes to further strengthen his presidency. Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted party, which has governed alone since 2002, was denied a parliamentary majority in the June 7 elections. With no party able to govern alone or form a coalition after the elections, Erdogan has called for new polls on Nov. 1.

The revitalized battle between the PKK and the Turkish military could boost nationalist support for Erdogan’s party, or it might cause a backlash that favors the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, known as the HDP. In either case, the fighting is certain to dominate preelection campaigning. PKK forces are on the offensive, using ground assaults and improvised explosive devices, and warning that the rebels could soon move down from the mountains and take up positions inside the cities. Turkey’s military is also on the offensive, using air and ground forces against the guerrilla group. Hundreds of Kurdish activists, among them local mayors, have been detained, curfews are being imposed, and villages are again off-limits in areas near the borders with Iran and Iraq, where rebels often cross.

“There’s no security; people are stocking up on supplies like flour and oil,” Kurdish writer Hamdiye Ciftci, from Hakkari city near Turkey’s borders with Iran and Iraq, said in an email. “People were always ready for war, but everyone wanted peace more.”

The cease-fire collapsed after PKK forces killed two policemen on July 22 in a town near the Syrian border, and Turkey responded with air strikes on PKK camps in northern Iraq. The rebel group said the killing wasn’t authorized by the central command, but that it was retaliation by local PKK members for a suicide attack two days earlier that killed 33 mainly young Kurdish activists going to help Kurds in the border town of Kobani. The suicide killing was blamed on the Islamic State, which many Kurds see as being aided by Turkey.

Turkey was looking for an excuse to start fighting, Bayik said. Turkey never acted on repeated PKK proposals for monitoring commissions and road maps to lay out how negotiations would be organized and progress to a political solution. In February, Kurdish politicians held a joint press conference with Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan to announce a new plan for the rebel group to renounce its armed struggle while the government made democratic reforms. Erdogan quickly disavowed any deal.

“The cease-fire didn’t end in July; Turkey ended it long before,” Bayik said. “We are in favor of negotiations, but until that happens, we will continue the war if that’s what Turkey wants.”

Bayik’s reputation wasn’t built in combat — in the past, he was primarily responsible for running the group’s training academy in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and then its rearguard bases in northern Iraq — but he has a reputation for having a keen grasp of what it takes to maintain the group’s unity and focus on its twin goals of freedom for Ocalan and self-rule for the Kurds. As his armed guards patrolled just out of sight, he laid out PKK demands for resuming the cease-fire.

“A cease-fire needs to be agreed on by both sides, and we need a public statement from Turkey that they are ready for dialogue,” added Bayik.

In other words, there won’t be any more unilateral cease-fires — even with de facto government agreement, as was the case in 2013. The PKK also wants a monitoring committee to ensure both sides are doing what they need to under any new cease-fire plan, and the group wants to be able to meet with Ocalan, who is held on Imrali island prison, in the Sea of Marmara, with access tightly controlled by the state.

Bayik, who wore a small pin with Ocalan’s image on his shirt, insisted that the PKK leader’s imprisonment shouldn’t be a barrier to direct talks with senior PKK officials. “These are technical issues,” Bayik said, “let them first accept that Ocalan can meet with the PKK’s leadership and then we can work out how.”

Bayik has reason to be confident. The PKK spent the past two years preparing for war, even as it was working for peace. The group’s planned withdrawal from Turkey, which was promised by Ocalan as part of the 2013 cease-fire, was halted when rebels saw that Turkish soldiers were taking over the abandoned positions and building new, heavily fortified mountain outposts. The PKK sent its forces and weapons back in, and worked to expand its political dominance over the region through local, pro-PKK institutions. A quasi-civilian youth militia was organized and armed.

The PKK’s situation has also improved internationally, despite being labeled by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization. Its Syrian affiliate, known as the YPG, is working closely with the U.S. military in the battle against the so-called Islamic State in northern Syria. In northern Iraq, Kurdistan government officials say they want the PKK to leave their mountain camps, but rebels were key in helping Iraqi Kurds push back the jihadi assaults last year in Makhmour and around Mount Sinjar. In some areas, like Kirkuk, PKK rebels are still stationed in case of attacks by the Islamic State.

All this complicates a potential future peace deal. Demanding the PKK disarm, for example, isn’t as simple as it was when the group’s guns were only pointed at Turkish soldiers.

“Is it logical to ask us to give up our weapons after what happened in Shingal?” Bayik asked, referring to the PKK’s fight last year in northern Iraq that helped save thousands of Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar from massacre by Islamic State jihadis. “The international coalition that is now fighting against ISIS — while Turkey has probably been supporting ISIS — has to make a decision,” Bayik said. “Will the international community support Turkey or will it support the group that’s fighting against ISIS and has made sacrifices?”

Erdogan never pushed ahead with negotiations after the cease-fire was announced two years ago, perhaps because he grew to believe that the absence of fighting meant he had won Kurds over to his side. In the run-up to June’s national elections in Turkey, Erdogan claimed that Kurds had no problems with the state. “We never had a Kurdish problem in this country,” he said in March. “There is no such thing; there is no Kurdish question.”

The vote proved him wrong. The HDP, the pro-Kurdish party, won 13 percent of the national vote, breaking through the minimum 10 percent threshold to enter parliament. New support came from conservative Kurds who used to vote for Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted party. HDP’s victory seemed to open up more political space for peaceful resolution of the PKK’s insurgency — but the PKK has made clear that the HDP won’t play the primary role when it comes to deciding what the PKK should or shouldn’t do to strike a deal.

The Kurdish political party should work in parliament on legal and constitutional changes to democratize Turkey and grant Kurds the rights they want, Bayik said. “It’s not the HDP’s role to decide if it’s time for us to disarm,” said Bayik. “They can request it, as they have, but we have made clear that it won’t happen until our conditions are met.”

By then, the interview was drawing to a close. It was getting dark, and Turkish aerial strikes in the area made it unsafe to delay departure much longer. Bayik stood up and his armed guards moved in closer as they prepared to depart.

“We can continue this war if necessary for a long time,” he said. And then he was gone.

Photo credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Aliza Marcus is the author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.