Analysts: Turkey's Risky Offensive Can Weaken but Won't Destroy PKK


Turkey's almost month-long campaign of air strikes against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the Turkish southeast and northern Iraq will weaken but cannot destroy the Kurdish militant group, analysts say.

With some 50 Turkish soldiers killed in attacks blamed on the PKK over the last month, the campaign also risks creating an uncontrolled escalation that could wreck the chances of agreeing a final settlement to end the PKK's over 30-year insurgency. 

The Islamic-rooted government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also hoping for a political windfall as it prepares for a re-run of elections where the ruling party lost its overall majority for the first time since 2002, possibly as early as November 1. 

The aim is "not to kill the PKK, not to decapitate it, not to provoke it into a full-scale war but to weaken it so it comes back to the negotiation table from a position of weakness," Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, told AFP.

"But this is not a lab environment. There are various dynamics that could get out of control," he added. 

Eight Turkish soldiers were killed on Wednesday in a remote-controlled roadside bomb set up by the PKK in the southeastern Siirt province, in the single deadliest attack during this phase of the conflict.


- 'More symbolic than crippling' - 

The offensive was launched after Turkey on July 20 was hit by one of its deadliest attacks in recent years when 33 pro-Kurdish activists were killed in a suicide bombing on the Syrian border blamed on Islamic State (IS) jihadists. 

The attack prompted a furious reaction from Kurdish militants, who shot dead two police in their sleep. 

Ankara on July 24 launched its first air strikes against IS in Syria and then also began attacking targets of the PKK in northern Iraq, in a dual "war on terror". 

But so far the campaign against IS is very much on ice -- for coordination purposes, according to U.S. and Turkish officials -- while the strikes against the PKK have been relentless. 

According to the latest figures published by the state-run Anatolia news agency 440 PKK militants have been killed in the campaign, including 390 in the air strikes on southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. 

But analysts cast doubt on the figures, saying dealing a fatal blow to the PKK would be impossible without a full-scale ground campaign. 

"The PKK probably lost a few dozen people early on as they were not expecting such a sudden or ferocious series of air strikes," said David Romano, Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of "The Kurdish Nationalist Movement". 

"However, the PKK has lots of experience dispersing and hiding from the Turkish military." 

According to Anatolia, the PKK's military leadership has split into three with some heading to northern Syria, others staying in Iraq and a third group fleeing to northwestern Iran including its de-facto leader Murat Karayilan. But there is no evidence to back this up. 

"In the absence of a parallel cross border operation that would involve ground troops, air strikes are effective only to an extent. They are more symbolic than crippling," said Cagaptay. 


- 'Trust is gone' - 

Analysts say Erdogan may also be sniffing a chance of using the situation to squeeze the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) in a re-run of the polls by whipping up concerns over its links to the PKK and hoping electors instead opt for his Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

For Erdogan "this is a chance to reshape the composition of the current parliament as Turkey heads into early elections," said Cagaptay. 

The Marxist-Leninist inspired PKK first formally took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984, launching an insurgency that has since claimed tens of thousands of lives. 

Initially it demanded full scale independence for Turkey's Kurds in the southeast, although now the focus is on autonomy and greater rights. 

Its iconic leader Abdullah Ocalan, held on a Turkish island since his extraordinary arrest by Turkish special forces in Kenya 1999, in 2013 declared a ceasefire which has been left in tatters by the current violence. 

"The peace process is in great difficulty," said a Turkish government official.

"As long as the PKK refrains from giving a concrete timetable for disarmament, the operations will continue," the official added. 

Quite how peace negotiations can restart is unclear, with Ocalan deprived of visits and cut off from the process. 

"Negotiations will be harder, not easier. After this, trust is gone," said Romano.

Pinar Elman, Turkey analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) said the past had shown that military means are not enough to defeat the PKK and reforms are needed.

"The PKK benefits from the Kurdish problem in Turkey and of the sociological base created by this problem," she said. 

"Turkey should question how the PKK has been able to recruit among young people despite the peace process."

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