PYD’s Syrian gains heighten risk of PKK targeting KRG energy infrastructure in Turkey / IHS Jane’s Intelligence Weekly
24 November 2013 – Key Points: Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leader Massoud Barzani are deepening their co-operation as Syrian Kurdish group PYD declares autonomy.
The Turkish government is likely to exert pressure on the KRG to impede prospects of a de-facto PYD-governed Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria. If Barzani complies, the PKK is likely to target KRG-Turkish energy infrastructure in Turkey in retaliation. KRG peshmerga forces are unlikely to counter this, preferring to tacitly permit cross-border raids by the Turkish Armed forces, since their primary focus is on the jihadist threat to the south and west of the KRG.
Isolated low-level ambushes on Turkish military units and construction sites are likely until April 2014. Following a breakdown in the peace talks IHS expects the PKK to fully resume the insurgency in April 2014, following better weather conditions. Civil unrest orchestrated by pro-Kurdish politicians over the next six months in major urban centres is very likely.
Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government are deepening bilateral relations due to developing energy co-operation and shared interest in reducing the influence of the PKK-affiliated PYD in Syria.
On 15 November 2013, militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan :PKK) and a unit from the Turkish Gendarmerie engaged in a brief fire fight in the Turkish province of Mardin on the Turkish-Syrian border. There were no casualties. This was the first incident for which the PKK has claimed responsibility since it announced a unilateral ceasefire on 22 March 2013 and came amid growing indicators that the organisation is preparing to resume its insurgency. On 18 November, Turkish daily Hürriyet reported that suspected PKK militants had attacked a company building a road in south-eastern Turkey, destroying 10 vehicles. Hürriyet reported that the company was attacked because the road that would only be used for military purposes. No casualties were reported.
Faltering peace talks
In November 2012, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) initiated a dialogue with PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan, who has been incarcerated on the prison island of Imrali since 1999. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the dialogue would seek to resolve the Kurdish issue through peaceful means and put an end to the PKK’s insurgency, which was first launched in 1984. On 21 March 2013, Öcalan issued a statement calling on the PKK to announce a ceasefire and to withdraw its militants from Turkey to northern Iraq, where the organisation has its rear bases. The PKK duly complied.
However, by mid-2013, Kurdish nationalists were becoming increasingly sceptical of the AKP’s good faith. They complained that the Turkish government had yet to put forward any concrete proposals to resolve the Kurdish issue and appeared unwilling to engage in meaningful negotiations. Suspicions began to grow that the dialogue with Öcalan was merely a ruse to encourage the PKK to suspend its insurgency and that Erdogan never had any intention of addressing key Kurdish demands, such as full cultural and political rights and autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
The PKK has also been outspoken in its support of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria. The PKK and the PYD are organisationally distinct but ideologically closely affiliated. Although there are other Syrian Kurdish organisations, the PYD is the only one with an effective militia, which has allowed it to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal in mid-2012 of Syrian government forces from the predominantly Kurdish north of the country. On 12 November 2013, the PYD announced plans to establish what it described as an “interim administration”, dividing Kurdish areas of Syria into three cantons and holding local and general elections.
There have always been tensions between Barzani and the PKK, not least because both aspire to regional leadership of the Kurds. In August 2013, the two parties appeared to be moving towards a rapprochement and Barzani announced plans to hold a pan-Kurdish congress in the KRG in order to create a mechanism for co-operation between different Kurdish communities. However, the congress has since been postponed four times; most recently to an unspecified date in the future. Barzani has also been very critical of the PYD, particularly over its exclusion of other Kurdish groups – including some close to Barzani – from power in the areas it controls.
While Turkey’s political and economic relations with the KRG are burgeoning, underpinned by mutually beneficial energy policies, Ankara is using its leverage over the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to mitigate the influence of the PYD and the formation of a strong autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Syria by supporting Kurdish National Council and encouraging divisions. The PYD’s unilateral declaration of autonomy is politically damaging for the Turkish government at a time of on-going peace talks with the PKK and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party (Baris ve Demokrasi Partisi: BDP) and increases the pressure on the Turkish government to address its own long-running Kurdish issue.
Since 2012, the PYD has come under repeated attack from jihadist groups active in Syria. Initially, the jihadists received assistance from Ankara, including logistical support and the use of Turkish territory as a platform for mounting attacks. However, since early 2013, under pressure from the US and amid concerns about the repercussions for its own security, the Turkish government has begun to clamp down on the activities of the jihadist groups inside Turkey, as well as restricting the movement across the Turkish-Syrian border into PYD-held areas of both humanitarian aid and Kurdish volunteers from inside Turkey crossing to fight for the PYD.
Attacks by the PKK while a ceasefire has been declared are not uncommon. The lack of casualties in the recent incidents, and municipal and presidential elections scheduled for March and August 2014 respectively, give reason to the Turkish government not to abrogate the ceasefire agreement. Until April 2014 – the month in which we expect the PKK to fully resume the insurgency following improved weather conditions and the breakdown of talks – isolated sporadic PKK attacks are likely in southeastern Turkey. However, if staged attacks by the PKK do result in the deaths of Turkish soldiers, it will place enormous political pressure on the government to respond, potentially leading to a resumption in counter-insurgency operations.
While the most frequent targets of PKK attacks are Turkish military units and facilities, energy infrastructure transporting oil from the KRG to Ceyhan and the newly constructed pipeline due to become operational in December 2013 are considered a legitimate target by the PKK and has been regularly attacked using improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Further Turkish efforts to dampen the prospects of a PYD-controlled autonomous region in Syria would only serve to increase the incentive for the PKK to attack KRG interests. This in turn would increase the likelihood of renewed Turkish airstrikes on PKK positions in the Qandil Mountains, Northern Iraq. On 10 October the Turkish parliament renewed the mandate allowing the Turkish Armed Forces (Türk Silahli Kuvvetleri: TSK) to conduct cross-border operations in the KRG to attack PKK positions.
Hydroelectric dams being constructed and existing ones in southeastern Turkey are known PKK targets; its modus operandi usually involves IED attacks, ambushes and roadblocks. Road-bound exports of oil from the KRG are at risk of PKK attack, and construction workers of Turkish origin are most at risk of kidnap by the PKK.
Attempts by Erdogan to present Barzani as an alternative Kurdish figurehead to Öcalan, with the aim of dividing the Kurds, is likely to backfire and harden the resolve of the PKK. It will also limit the prospects of finding a political solution to the conflict.
While the PKK supports the PYD both politically and operationally, and will divert resources in the event that jihadist groups take the initiative, its primary focus is Turkey. Furthermore, the formation of the KRG and a nascent PYD-controlled autonomous region in Northern Syria increase PKK aspirations to press for the achievement of its goals of autonomy and equal rights for Kurds in Turkey.
In recent weeks, there has been an increase in violent clashes between Turkish and Kurdish students at universities across Turkey, suggesting that the already dangerously high ethnic tensions in Turkish society are increasing. The PKK is likely to orchestrate demonstrations to maintain the pressure on the Turkish government which could lead to violent civil unrest in Istanbul, Ankara, Diyarbakir and Gaziantep.