Small Wars Journal

Assessment of the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict, 1984-1999

Tue, 06/18/2024 - 9:37pm

Assessment of the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict, 1984-1999

By J. Connor Williams

            The ancient struggle between insurgents and counterinsurgents has grown in significance and frequency since the end of the Second World War, leading to increased attention and study of the subject. Guerrilla warfare has become the most prevalent form of warfare in the world.[1] Insurgents have fought to remove imperialist powers to gain independence, while revolutionaries sought to implement Marxist societal change and the redistribution of resources in alignment with their ideological preferences. The United States has fought protracted insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan to support fledging governments, typically prevailing on the battlefield but frustrated by the political challenges. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of historical examples to evaluate when attempting to understand and appraise this type of warfare.

            This article will analyze case of the conflict between the Republic of Turkey and the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK) from 1984 to 1999. While the Turkish-Kurdish conflict continued past 1999, this 15-year period represents the height of the PKK insurgency. It is a singular case and cannot be taken as predictive or proscriptive in the development of counterinsurgency strategies or policy. However, it is worthy of study as a counterinsurgency victory through forceful compellence.[2] One RAND study found that the 1984-1999 Turkey-PKK case was one of only two counterinsurgent successes that used “escalating repression and collective punishment during the decisive phase of the conflict.”[3] Another analyst argues that the military defeat of the PKK failed to end the root causes and political organization of the group, allowing for its later resurgence.[4] The conflict is illustrative of common themes in low-intensity conflicts – excessive violence, significant external influences, and the challenge of defeating an ideology. Taken together, the debates and literature on the Turkish-Kurdish struggle offer important perspectives for students and practitioners of counterinsurgency to examine.

             This article will refer to several guiding theories in its analysis of the Turkish-PKK conflict. Mao Zedong’s three-phases of guerrilla warfare and Anthony Joes’ principles of counterinsurgency form the framework for most of the assessment. These concepts will be applied to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the combatants and the impact of external factors on the course of the conflict.

Insurgency is broadly defined as “political-military activity directed toward” the control of resources and “designed to weaken government control” in a given territory.[5] Insurgencies often utilize guerilla warfare and terrorist tactics, coupled with ideological, ethnic, and nationalistic impetuses to achieve their ends. Insurgencies, as opposed to terrorist organizations, strive to replace a government and institute broad political change in a region. Regarding the case discussed here, the PKK established an ethno-nationalist insurgency aimed at weakening the legitimacy of the Turkish government through violence to achieve an independent Kurdish state, with a significant reliance on cross-border sanctuary and support.

            Before assessing the belligerents in the Turkish-PKK case, the article reviews the origins, characteristics of the actors, and timeline of the conflict. The subsequent sections evaluate the performance of the insurgents and counterinsurgents. Finally, the paper concludes with a short analysis of the broader lessons, ramifications, and implications of the conflict.

A map of turkey with black sea and white text

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Figure 1: Map of Turkey.[6]

Origins and Characteristics of the PKK

Kurdish national aspirations emerged from the partition of a defeated Ottoman Empire after the First World War. While the 1920 Treaty of Sevres briefly made provisions for a Kurdish state, that agreement disappeared in 1923 when the Treaty of Lausanne set the boundaries for the modern Turkish state. The Turkish War of Independence (1919-23) was itself a successful insurgency in which Mustafa Kemal (“Atatürk”) and the Turkish nationalist established an independent Turkish Republic with its capitol in Ankara. Atatürk formed his republic based on modern, secular principles with a strong Turkish national identity at its center.[7] Kurds, with their own language and cultural identity, found themselves “stateless” ethnic minorities in portions of modern Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran – with a plurality of those Kurds within Turkey’s boarder. The Turkish government suppressed the Kurdish language and euphemistically label them as “Mountain Turks” – a part of the broader Turkish nation and indivisible from it.[8] The PKK’s late 20th century insurgency was just the latest of multiple uprisings in the country’s history, prominently the Sheikh Said revolt (1925) and Mount Ararat revolt (1930).[9] The long-standing desire for a Kurdish state and the ethnic group’s dispersion across borders was a central element of the insurgency.

The PKK was established in 1978 in the village of Fis under the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan, a former student at the University of Ankara.[10] At its founding, the PKK was a Marxist organization that sought the creation of an independent Kurdistan in southeast Turkey. It aspired to conduct a “people’s war” in the likeness of Mao Zedong’s vision, following the example of Cuban revolutionaries in 1950s.[11] Mao theorized that there are three stages of insurgent warfare: Phase I involves organizing and gaining support; Phase II involves increasing violence and expanded operations; and Phase III is the culminating decision point resulting in victory or defeat through conventional means.[12] The PKK exploited the poor economic conditions and high unemployment in the region to bolster its position and recruit adherents to its cause.[13] It sought to organize itself politically and, in due course, use violence to destabilize and weaken Ankara’s control of the Kurdish regions of Turkey, bring the government to the negotiating table, and eventually achieve authority over Kurdistan. In 1982, the Turkish constitution would reject non-Turkish ethnic expressions and impose restrictions on Kurdish language and culture, further aggravating the Kurds.

The PKK originated as a secular, ethnic, and ideologically Marxist organization conducting a rural insurgency. It was also pragmatic. Over time, its ideology would evolve, as its survival depended in part on its ability to change. For example, to gain and maintain appeal with the conservative Muslim Kurdish populace, the PKK embraced broader incorporation of religious and tribal perspectives into its nationalist philosophy.[14] Adaptability and realism contributed to the PKK’s longevity and ability to garner support, even beyond 1999.

In line with Mao’s vision of revolutionary warfare, the PKK primarily operated in rugged and rural areas. Southeast Turkey, the core region of the conflict, was arid and mountainous, with an economy based on animal husbandry and little industrialization.[15] Starting in 1984, the PKK applied guerrilla warfare tactics like ambushes, as well as terrorist activities such as suicide bombings, car bombs, and kidnapping, among other approaches to advance their movement.[16] While there are several large cities in the region, such as Diyarbakir, the PKK never developed into a true urban insurgency despite some instances of attacks in urban areas. The combination of irregular warfare tactics and terrorist activities in remote areas with difficult terrain has been a hallmark of insurgencies throughout history.

Characteristics of the Turks

                  The counterinsurgents consisted of the government, military, and police forces of the Republic of Turkey. Political upheaval in Ankara in the early 1980s corresponded with martial law and later a state of emergency in eleven provinces of southeastern Turkey, including the sizeable provinces of Diyarbakir, Van, and Mardin.[17] Between 1984 and 1999 there were several changes in Turkey’s political leadership and the counterinsurgency approaches used by the security forces. Regardless of the political backdrop, the PKK were always viewed as a major threat to Turkish national security. That belief drove the government’s severe response and uncompromising strategy to achieve victory.

Ostensibly a democratic state, Turkey’s military has historically played an influential role in the country’s politics. Ankara inherited the Ottoman derin devlet (“deep state”), with its distinctive relations between military commanders, political elites, and organized criminal elements.[18] The Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) have generally been independent of civilian authorities and historically made efforts to maintain that division.[19] The army viewed itself as the “guardian of the Kemalist state,” and some have observed that it would not tolerate either civilian officials or the anti-Kemalist idea of “Kurdishness” to threaten Ataturk’s vision for the Republic.[20] This attitude among Turkish elites contributed to the unrelenting way the government conducted its counterinsurgency campaign.

            The Turkish security forces were derived from a mixture of military, police, and irregular formations. These primarily consisted of the TAF, the Turkish National Police (TNP), the Gendarmerie (Jandarma), and the “village guards,” among other paramilitary organizations. The TAF consisted of both conventional military units and special forces, whereas the TNP formed the urban police and the Jandarma the rural security force. The village guards were a semi-formal local militia, comprised predominantly of Turkish Kurds in southeast Turkey, established in 1985 to resist the PKK in villages that other troops could not safeguard.[21] Throughout the course of the insurgency, special paramilitary formations and commando units gained notoriety for their ability to search for and destroy PKK insurgents and disrupt their support networks.[22]The emphasis and role of these various organizations shifted depending on the perceived needs of the conflict and the operational approach pursued.

A Condensed Timeline of the Conflict

            To better assess the performance of the belligerents, it is valuable to briefly examine the timeline of the conflict. After the founding of the PKK in 1978, Turkey confronted a coup in 1980, followed by martial law, and the creation of a new constitution in 1982. This constitution exacerbated Kurdish grievances over cultural suppression and laid the foundation for the rise of the PKK as a true insurgency.

Following its formation, the PKK needed to prepare, organize, and consolidate to challenge the Turkish government. Between 1978 and 1984 the PKK established bases and facilities in Syria and northern Iraq with explicit or implicit support of those states.[23] Using the arms and training acquired in these external sanctuaries, the PKK gained the strength to launch their full-blown uprising against Ankara in a bid for an independent Kurdistan. In August 1984, the PKK started its insurgency against Ankara, with attacks on Jandarma stations in the southeastern towns of Eruh in Siirt Province and Semdinli in Hakkari Province.[24] These actions signaled the PKK’s shift from Mao’s Phase I to Phase II.

Following the initial attacks, the PKK engaged in further violence against the government and civilians. Turkish politicians considered the PKK a “handful of bandits” and the government’s initial response was inadequate as it committed insufficient forces and intelligence resources to pacify the conflict area.[25] At this time, the PKK lacked popular support from Kurdish civilians, causing the guerrillas to increasingly target village guards, who were seen as a symbol of support for Ankara, and others “collaborators” in an attempt to use violence to degrade the government’s legitimacy and gain popular support.[26]

Failing to quell the nascent insurgency, the Turkish government enacted new emergency laws in 1987 to combat the PKK in the southeast. Part of the emergency policy included the forced evacuation of villages that could not be adequately secured.[27] Additionally, the new policy approach led to a somewhat counterproductive effort, since the army formations engaged in the region at the time were replaced with Jandarma who faced a steep learning curve in counter-guerrilla warfare. The Jandarma assumed more defensive postures by limiting night operations and leaving some villages defenseless while staying in the refuge of their bases.[28] In combination, the change in the security forces’ operational efficacy and the relocation efforts provided a propaganda advantage for the PKK.

By the early 1990s, the PKK was buoyed by the heavy-handed Turkish campaign and nearing a mature Phase III insurgency. The government’s increasingly violent response to the PKK’s growth fueled more popular support for the insurgents. The ranks of the PKK were supplemented with Syrian Kurds and the insurgents captured resources in northern Iraq in the wake of 1991 Gulf War.[29] The PKK started to expand its political apparatus and authority in several areas in the southeast as it successfully eroded the government's legitimacy in the region. In response, the security forces took a more aggressive approach, bringing in additional firepower, becoming more mobile in the mountainous terrain, and initiating cross-border strikes into Iraq to disrupt the PKK’s lines of communication.[30] Starting to maintain a more permanent presence in the mountains and cutting off the PKK from its external sanctuary would prove to be critical elements in the conflict’s outcome.

By 1993, a newly empowered and combative Turkish government was fully committed to defeating the insurgency using military force. The security establishment opposed any relaxation of population control measures and increased actions against Kurdish activists through arrest and assassination.[31] Although the security forces were better prepared to operate in the mountains and go after insurgent bases, they continued to use indiscriminate firepower supplemented by compulsory relocation methods to erode the PKK’s operational capability and capacity. As a former guerrilla commander Sait “Dr. Sulyeman” Curukkaya stated, “the situation that created support for the PKK didn’t change…but the state managed to change the physical situation. They emptied all the areas between the cities and mountains.”[32] Based on the conduct of this violent campaign, the Turkish government was not interested in winning “hearts and minds” to achieve victory.

The TAF mounted increasingly effective cross-border actions to destroy PKK infrastructure, physically separating the insurgents from their support and logistical hubs. In 1998, the Turkish government successfully coerced Syria into ending its sanctuary for the PKK, which forced Ocalan and other leadership to flee.[33] In 1999, Ocalan was captured in Kenya and returned to Turkey to face trial. With its spiritual and authoritarian leader captured, combined with the lack of resources and sanctuary, the insurgency was essentially ended. The Turkish-PKK conflict was a brutal and bloody struggle, with an estimated thirty thousand deaths connected to the war, mostly in the east and southeast.[34] The Turkish government managed to attain a military victory, but at significant cost. Despite the battlefield successes, the PKK continued to operate past 1999, but it devolved into a terrorist organization rather than a true insurgency.

Strengths and Advantages of the Insurgents

            The PKK had some successes and areas that it performed well in throughout the course of the 1984-1999 conflict. It effectively used geography, exercised political adaptability, and conducted information operations to exploit the government’s heavy-handiness. While the insurgency was ultimately unsuccessful, there are elements that can be examined to assess what the PKK performed well.

            The most important and prominent strength of the PKK throughout the course of the insurgency was external support. This support came primarily through the sanctuary, material, and political support from foreign entities. Foreign assistance came in the forms of weapons acquisition and financial support, including PKK support from Kurds in neighboring countries, sympathizers in Europe, and the wider Kurdish diaspora.

            PKK insurgents had safe havens outside of Turkey, primarily in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. When the PKK was still in its organizing stage (Mao’s Phase I), it created facilities and infrastructure in Syria and Lebanon, following the leadership’s movement to Syria in the wake of the 1980 coup.[35] The insurgents established and utilized training bases in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley with assistance and support from the Syrian government.[36] Ocalan leveraged relationships with Iraqi Kurds and their leader, Masoud Barzani, to establish sanctuary in northern Iraq beginning in 1982, an alliance that would be crucial it the insurgency’s ability to conduct operations into Turkey.[37] Even to this day, the PKK maintains a significance presence in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq.

            In addition to offering sanctuary across borders, the mountainous terrain of the combat area presented the PKK advantages as a guerrilla force. The Turkish security forces were inexperienced in mountain warfare and night operations, and ineffective against the mobile and agile insurgents, unable to leverage their technological and military advantages in the austere environment.[38] The PKK operated with relative freedom early in the conflict and used the porous borders, knowledge of the geography, and lack of resistance to intimidate the population to its benefit.

The PKK managed to garner political support from abroad, in addition to the sanctuary and infrastructure maintained across borders. The insurgents used the Kurdish diaspora, cultural associations, and propaganda to gain significant support in Europe, developing a pipeline of financial support.[39] At various times throughout the insurgency, the guerrillas received support from the Soviet Union, Iran, Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, Libya, and Cuba.[40] Military assistance and training from the Soviets continued until its collapse in 1991.[41] European sympathy for the PKK peaked in 1980s and put political pressure on the Turkish government to limit violence against the Kurds.[42] However, support from European states and non-state actors faded as the PKK conducted increased terrorist activities.

            The insurgent organization displayed significant political adaptability to attempt to gain broader support amongst the Kurdish populace. As mentioned in a previous section, the PKK was started in the form of a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary group, but that affiliation was downplayed over time, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Evidence of a pragmatic, rather than ideological drive, can be derived from the removal of the hammer and sickle from the PKK flag in 1995 and the formation of the Kurdistan Islamic Movement.[43] These developments demonstrated the insurgent’s ability recognize its limitations and change over time to address them in its pursuit of popular support amongst Kurds.

The PKK was also effective in its information operations. The insurgents timed their attacks to try to maximize propaganda value, gain notoriety, and assist in recruiting efforts.[44] Information operations extended to Europe, where the PKK had a network of supporters and even a propaganda office in Athens.[45] The insurgents successfully leveraged the government’s aggressive and violent response to garner a level of popular support from Turkish Kurds, who initially were reticent to support the PKK, and to try to get European states to pressure Ankara to end the conflict.[46] The PKK tried to use its Kurdish nationalist credentials to make itself out as freedom fighters and was successful in obtaining sympathizers through the execution of information operations.

Weaknesses and Shortcomings of the Insurgents

            While the PKK were able to leverage nationalist attitudes amongst Kurds, external support, and the government’s brutal tactics to its advantage through propaganda, it also had its shortcomings and failures. The most prominent of these was the overuse of terrorism that stymied their popularity. Additionally, PKK could not truly gain widespread support and was unable to sustain its fight without sanctuary and its central leader. Most Kurds wanted to maintain their cultural and linguistic identities and resented the Turkish government’s repression, but the PKK never became a popular force amongst Kurds and was viewed as exasperating the Kurdish plight. Ultimately, the PKK was ineffective in addressing the grievances of Kurdish civilians, instead it brought death and destruction, and failed to win an independent or autonomous Kurdistan.

Overuse of terrorist tactics is a common theme in many insurgencies that have lost or failed to gain civilian support. In addition to targeting the Turkish government and security forces, the PKK directed violence at Kurdish civilians who they deemed as collaborators or unwilling to support the movement. The number of terrorist attacks in Turkey increased from 521 in 1984 to a height of 6,956 in 1993, to include killings of government officials, fire bombings, and suicide attacks.[47] The PKK’s application of terrorism was not confined to southeast Turkey, as they were responsible for attacks in Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, and other western Turkish cities.[48] The terrorist attacks, and particularly the targeting of other Kurds, constrained popular support for the PKK even as the Turkish security forces conducted their own brutal counterinsurgency campaign.

Beyond the Turkish borders, the PKK coordinated violent attacks in Europe. Although the Kurdish insurgents had built support among sympathetic Europeans through their propaganda efforts, those relationships deteriorated over time due to terrorist activity.[49] Attacks in France, Switzerland, and Germany led to the banning of the PKK in parts of Europe in 1993.[50] The erosion of international sympathy put less international pressure on Turkey to peacefully conclude the conflict and negotiate with the PKK, although some of that sentiment remained as the Turkish government pursued ascension to the European Union.

Without international support, the PKK did not have the ability to sustain itself at the level needed to challenge the government. The sustained campaign by the TAF to cut off the PKK’s safe haven and logistics meant that the insurgents were unable to reconstitute and recover. While the PKK remained in northern Iraq, it lost the support of Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), making it more difficult to operate in the area.[51] The end of sanctuary and support from Syria led to the eventual capture of Ocalan and the 1999 counterinsurgent victory. Furthermore, the external state supporters of the PKK had no interest in the establishment of an independent Kurdistan – if they had been, they could have designated an autonomous Kurdish territory outside of Turkey. Instead, those countries supported the PKK as a destabilizing force that could degrade Turkey’s legitimacy and regional influence.

In the end, the PKK failed to gain adequate support from the civilian population to achieve control of Kurdistan. Kurds tended to be culturally conservative and religious, which made the PKK’s Marxist ideology naturally unattractive. Intra-Kurdish strife between organizations like the PKK and KDP weakened Kurdish unity and nationalistic sentiments. While the PKK was able to reduce the legitimacy and support for the Turkish government, it failed to make itself an attractive alternative to achieve Kurdish independence or autonomy.

Strengths and Advantages of the Counterinsurgents

            During the 1984-1999 insurgency, the Turkish government took several actions and approaches that align with theoretically successful counterinsurgency strategies. The ultimate goal of the counterinsurgent is to overcome the insurgency to establish peace and security in the conflict area. In particular, the counterinsurgents eventually dedicated sufficient resources to the campaign, adapted their operational approach, separated the PKK from its base of support, and used local troops in its campaign. In time, this strategy led to a victorious, if costly and bloody, outcome for the government.

Throughout the course of the conflict, the Turkish government steadily increased the number of troops and resources dedicated to the counterinsurgency fight. While Anthony Joes’ proposition that “the more troops, the fewer casualties” may not apply to the Turkish case, it is true that the security forces’ ability to physically control territory with more manpower played a critical role in the counterinsurgent victory.[52] Throughout the duration of the conflict, changes in the political support for military operations changed and the civil and military camps became more closely aligned, leading to a more unified front and ability to prosecute coordinated operations.[53] The commitment of adequate forces to match the political strategy led to the eventual “triumph of the big stick.”[54]

            Along with the increased troop levels in the conflict area, the security forces learned and evolved over time, albeit with a hawkish tilt. They adopted new tactics for persistent operations in the mountainous southeast, consistent with the counterinsurgency principle of maintaining pressure on insurgent forces.[55] Early in the war, security forces would conduct quick daylight raids into PKK areas, but later began to hold terrain for weeks or more at a time. In doing so, the TAF and other formations were able to use their presence to cut the PKK off from the supplies and supporting villages that they relied upon for logistics.[56] Additionally, the Turkish government expanded the use of special forces and paramilitary organizations, restructuring the security forces for greater autonomy and effective counter-guerrilla operations.[57] This change in tactics proved essential to achieving the military victory over the PKK.

Another counterinsurgency concept applied effectively by the government was the separation of the insurgents from their support structures. Isolating the insurgency from the populace is a key aspect of counterinsurgency success and it may be “more effective in the long run to separate an insurgency from the population and its resources” than to just kill or capture guerrillas.[58] The Turkish government instituted an aggressive resettlement program in the southeast region in order to deny the PKK sources of supplies, intelligence, and safe haven, and it had its desired effect. The overall policy accounted for up to one million Kurds being resettled, some with force, and at its peak in 1994, around 1,000 villages were evacuated.[59] In addition to the resettlement program, the Turks instituted “curfews, rationing, checkpoints, and identity cards” to limit the population.[60] The government was able to effectively control segments of the civilian populace and separate them from the insurgents.

Beyond dividing Turkish Kurds from the PKK to deny haven within its borders, Ankara was able to degrade the insurgents’ external sanctuary. As the government increased its commitment and determination to eradicate the PKK it effectively isolated the conflict area, using military and diplomatic means to “cut guerrillas off from supplies coming across international borders.”[61] This approach notably included cross-border actions into northern Iraq, comprising operations in 1992, 1995, and 1997.[62] After demonstrating their willingness to conduct military actions in Iraq, Ankara threatened to invade Syria, which led to Damascus’ dissolution of support for the PKK and the signing of the 1998 Adana Agreement.[63] In addition to cutting off sanctuary and supply lines, Syria’s dismissal of the PKK led directly to the 1999 arrest of Ocalan and the effective decapitation of the PKK.

A further model of successful counterinsurgency is the use of local security forces vice foreign troops. In this case, the Turks fought the entirety of the conflict with their own organic organizations and forces, with material support from external allies such as the United States. Furthermore, the TAF and police did not have the capacity to secure every village and hamlet in southeastern Turkey to offset the PKK’s rural bases and camps. Acknowledging that shortfall, the Turkish government created the “village guards” militia, also known as the GKK.[64] This paramilitary organization provided security at the most local level and leveraged tribal and familial relationships with Kurdish elites to counter the PKK’s presence.[65] The GKK became a prominent target of the PKK, in part due to proximity and frequent contact, but also because the village guards were labeled as collaborators against the Kurdish nationalist cause.

From the civil governance standpoint, the government attempted some means to quell the violence, markedly by offering amnesty. Between 1984 and 1999, Ankara issued six repentance laws targeted at PKK member and sympathizers that offered amnesty or reduced punishment to non-violent or low-level insurgents.[66] Those ordinances aligned with Joes’ principle to offer amnesty “to almost everyone, except real criminals and longtime insurgent leaders,” by barring senior PKK members from inclusion in the program.[67] The amnesty laws allowed the government to show that it was offering a path other than destruction and provided security forces with new intelligence sources in the form of defectors. However, given the shortfalls discussed in the next section, it is unclear how valuable the amnesty program was in winning the conflict.

Weaknesses and Shortcomings of the Counterinsurgents

Despite the strong measures and the other successful applications of counterinsurgency theories described above, the government had its flaws and difficulties in the execution of its counterguerrilla campaign. The counterinsurgents did not effectively secure the population, used counterproductive tactics and methods, and did not address the root causes of the insurgency. These deficiencies provided the insurgents with propaganda fodder, reduced its own popular support, and damaged its legitimacy.

In counterinsurgency campaigns the primary objectives are defeating the insurgency and population security. That security is foundational “for all other efforts and a prerequisite for lasting stability” and enables the eventual restoration of peace.[68] The pacification campaign untaken by Turkish security forces was at times indiscriminate and undiscerning, targeting guerrillas and civilians alike. In one prominent incident following the death of a Jandarma commander in the town of Lice, government forces cordoned off the town and opened fire, killing thirty civilians, wounding 100 more, and devastating buildings.[69] The TAF and other security forces used heavy-handed tactics, to include using heavy weapons and artillery on Kurdish towns and cities to drive the PKK out.[70] Events like Lice were not isolated or singular incidences, but ostensibly regular occurrences that did not help to either secure the population or gain more support for the government among the Kurdish masses.

The excessive use of firepower was not the only way that the counterinsurgents undercut their efforts to bring about peace. Throughout the conflict, the TAF, TNP, Jandarma, and GKK were mired in human rights abuses which were counterproductive to the government’s objectives. At the height of the violence in the early 1990s, the government was accused of systemic torture, political imprisonment, and politically motivated assassinations.[71] Those allegations corresponded with a spike in paramilitary-connected “death squad” activities and “disappearances” of suspected PKK supporters.[72] These brutal actions fueled the PKK’s information operations, made Europeans and other external actors more sympathetic to the Kurdish plight, and impeded the government’s ability to display rectitude while fueling the Kurdish diaspora upon which the PKK depended for external support.

Finally, the counterinsurgents failed to address the root causes and grievances of the Kurds. Discovering and mitigating the main causes for the conflict through civil and military action is an essential counterinsurgency principle.[73] In the case of the Turkish-PKK conflict, the government did not improve the Kurdish economic situation and high unemployment problems in the region, instead it insisted on blaming the PKK for limitations on investment due to the poor security situation.[74] Some Turkish politicians resisted addressing those grievances and argued that increasing economic prosperity in Kurdish areas would only strengthen the PKK.[75] The removal of unskilled Kurdish villagers from the southeast to cities like Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul exacerbated the problem with employment.[76] Government failure to institute reforms perpetuated economic grievances and undermined their campaign to gain legitimacy.

Furthermore, the central grievance that led to the PKK uprising was rooted in Kurdish nationalism and cultural identity. The government did make some efforts at addressing these, such as rescinding the law forbidding the writing and speaking of the Kurdish language and allowing Kurdish names, but still banned the language in broadcasts and education.[77] At the same time, the government instituted policies forbidding protests against the “Turkish” nature of the state that were perceived as separatist acts.[78] The government squandered opportunities and “goodwill” to further recognize Kurdish cultural rights when there were favorable political conditions to do so in the early 1990s.[79] In the end, the counterinsurgents managed to decapitate the insurgency and drive it from the battlefield, but they failed to dismantle the political appeal and network of the PKK because the underlying issues remained.

Conclusion and Final Analysis

The counterinsurgents managed to militarily defeat the PKK insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s but failed to address the root causes of the insurgency and counter the political influence of the PKK. The Turkish government may have been better served by pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy that addressed the grievances, rather than a campaign of compellence that tried to beat the Kurds into submission. While the PKK was violent in its own right and aspired to do more than be a thorn in the side of Ankara, they never gained the requisite popular support needed to do so. Both the Turkish pacification approach and the PKK’s terrorist tactics alienated the civilian population and contributed to distrust of both belligerents. Given the extensive allegations of human rights abuses and indiscriminate application of force by insurgents and counterinsurgents alike, the Turkish-PKK campaign can be “considered a notably brutal case rather than a model” to be emulated.[80] The outcome of the conflict was a military victory for the counterinsurgents, but the political cause and institution of the PKK continued and evolved after 1999, begetting more violence in the following years.

The Turkish-Kurdish Conflict illustrates significant application of violence to break the enemy’s will. In contrast to the French experience in Algeria, the Turks managed to maintain territorial control despite the continued existence and resurgence of the PKK post-1999. The Turks maintained the political will to continue the conflict despite escalating violence and resource consumption because they were not vying for foreign territory. Despite the resentment harbored by Kurds over cultural repression, there was never a strong enough nationalist sentiment or appeal to prefer life under the PKK rule to that of Ankara. Neither belligerent endeared themselves the populace, but the PKK’s use of terrorism and the government’s operational approach tilted the scales in favor of the government. Despite the PKK’s continued existence after 1999, it fragmented rather than remaining a substantial ethno-nationalist insurgency contending for an independent Kurdistan.

Furthermore, the PKK and Kurdish militia movements have caused foreign policy headaches for the United States and its allies. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 complicated the situation, as American forces allied with Kurdish militias with connections to the PKK to stabilize Iraq. Ties between the PKK and American-backed Kurdish militants have made the counter-Islamic State campaign a more delicate issue in American relations with Turkey.Recently, European sympathies for the Kurdish nationalist movement, due in part to the PKK’s successful information operations, the Kurds’ legitimate grievances, and Turkey’s heavy-handed approach, led to Ankara’s initial opposition to the ascension of Finland and Sweden to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A different, more civil-political approach, rather than a campaign of pacification, to the Kurdish question in Turkey could resolve the resultant tensions both domestically and internationally. Otherwise, Turkish-Kurdish violence and the accompanying challenges may continue in perpetuity.





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[1] Thomas Hammes, “Why Study Small Wars?,” Small Wars Journal Magazine, April 2005,

[2] Jacqueline L. Hazelton, Bullets Not Ballots: Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare (Cornell University Press, 2021),, 134.

[3] “Keys to Successful Counterinsurgency Campaigns Explored,” News Release, RAND Corporation, July 19, 2010,

[4] Özlem Kayhan Pusane, “Turkey’s Military Victory Over the PKK and Its Failure to End the PKK Insurgency,” Middle Eastern Studies 51, no. 5 (2015): 727–41, 728.

[5] Central Intelligence Agency, “Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency,” accessed April 26, 2024,, 2.

[6] Central Intelligence Agency, “Map of Turkey,” World Fact Book, accessed April 26, 2024,

[7] Henri J. Barkey and Graham E. Fuller, Turkey’s Kurdish Question, Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict Series (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publ, 1998), ler_public/c5/3f/c53f7ed9-172e-45b0-95a2-88a3d4f19351/ccny_book_1998_turkey.pdf, 9-10.

[8] Sezai Ozcelik, “Theories, Practices, and Research in Conflict Resolution and Low-Intensity Conflicts: The Kurdish Conflict in Turkey,” The Journal of Conflict Studies 26, no. 2 (November 11, 2006): 133–53, 136.

[9] Mustafa Coşar Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey : Policy Choices and Policy Effects Toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) (Oxford: Taylor & Francis Group, 2011),, 5.; Mustafa Coşar Ünal, “Counterinsurgency and Military Strategy: An Analysis of the Turkish Army’s COIN Strategies/Doctrines,” Military Operations Research 21, no. 1 (2016): 55–88, 55.

[10] Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, 8.

[11] Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, 11.

[12] Zedong Mao, On Guerrilla Warfare, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2017), 21-22.

[13] Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “A Report on the PKK and Terrorism,” Intelligence Resource Program, Federation of American Scientists, accessed April 20, 2024,

[14] Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, 9-10.

[15] Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Foundation for Middle East and Balkan Studies, “A Case Study of the PKK in Turkey,” Intelligence Resource Program, Federation of American Scientists, accessed April 20, 2024,

[16] Alexander Palmer and Mackenzie Holtz, “Examining Extremism: Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK),” Examining Extremism, Center for Strategic & International Studies, July 13, 2023,

[17] Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, 56

[18] Mehtap Sooyler, The Turkish Deep State: State Consolidation, Civil-Military Relations and Democracy (London: Routledge, 2015),, 7-8.

[19] Umit Ozdag and Ersel Aydinli, “Winning a Low Intensity Conflict: Drawing Lessons from the Turkish Case,” in Democracies and Small Wars, ed. Efraim Inbar, 1st ed. (London: Routledge, 2003), 88–102, https://rep, 90.

[20] Hazelton, Bullets Not Ballots, 132.

[21] Ayhan Işık, “Pro-State Paramilitary Violence in Turkey Since the 1990s,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 21, no. 2 (March 31, 2021): 231–49, 232.

[22] Işık, “Pro-State Paramilitary Violence,” 233-234.; European Asylum Support Office, “Country of Origin Information Report: Turkey Country Focus,” November 2016, iles/COI%20Turkey_15nov%202016.pdf, 37-44.; Hazelton, Bullets Not Ballots, 140.

[23] Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, 9.

[24] Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, 8.

[25] Ozdag and Aydinli, “Winning a Low Intensity Conflict,” 92-93.

[26] Ozdag and Aydinli, “Winning a Low Intensity Conflict,” 93.; Christopher Paul, Colin P. Clarke, and Beth Grill, “Victory Has a Thousand Fathers: Detailed Counterinsurgency Case Studies” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, June 18, 2010),, 88.

[27] Paul, Clarke, and Grill, “Victory Has a Thousand Fathers,” 88-89.

[28] Ozdag and Aydinli, “Winning a Low Intensity Conflict,” 94.

[29] Ozdag and Aydinli, “Winning a Low Intensity Conflict,” 95.

[30] Ozdag and Aydinli, “Winning a Low Intensity Conflict,” 95.

[31] Henri J. Barkey and Graham E. Fuller, “Turkey’s Kurdish Question: Critical Turning Points and Missed Opportunities,” The Middle East Journal 51, no. 1 (1997): 59–79, 69; Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York: New York University Press, 2007),, 225.

[32] Marcus, Blood and Belief, 223.

[33] Marcus, Blood and Belief, 269.

[34] Department of Peace and Conflict Research, “Turkey,” Uppsala Conflict Data Program, accessed April 26, 2024,

[35] Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, 8.

[36] Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “International Sources of Support,” Intelligence Resource Program, Federation of American Scientists, accessed April 26, 2024,

[37] Marcus, Blood and Belief, 70.

[38] Marcus, Blood and Belief, 168.

[39] Pusane, “Turkey’s Military Victory Over the PKK,” 732.

[40] Pusane, “Turkey’s Military Victory Over the PKK,” 732.; Hazelton, Bullets Not Ballots, 132.

[41] Soner Cagaptay, “Syria and Turkey: The PKK Dimension,” PolicyWatch 1919, The Washington Institute, April 5, 2012,

[42] Ozdag and Aydinli, “Winning a Low Intensity Conflict,” 91.

[43] Marcus, Blood and Belief, 244.

[44] Marcus, Blood and Belief, 82.

[45] Marcus, Blood and Belief, 150,156.

[46] Paul, Clarke, and Grill, “Victory Has a Thousand Fathers,” 87-90.

[47] Hazelton, Bullets Not Ballots, 135.

[48] Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, 14.

[49] Ozdag and Aydinli, “Winning a Low Intensity Conflict,” 91.

[50] Marcus, Blood and Belief, 233.

[51] Marcus, Blood and Belief, 104-105.

[52] Anthony James Joes, Resisting Rebellion: The History and Politics of Counterinsurgency (Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 234-235.

[53] Ozdag and Aydinli, “Winning a Low Intensity Conflict,” 94.

[54] Paul, Clarke, and Grill, “Victory Has a Thousand Fathers,” 87.

[55] Joes, Resisting Rebellion, 244.

[56] Marcus, Blood and Belief, 223.

[57] Işık, “Pro-State Paramilitary Violence,” 238.

[58] Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Joint Publication 3-24: Counterinsurgency” (U.S. Department of Defense, April 25, 2018),, III-13.

[59] Marcus, Blood and Belief, 222.

[60] Hazelton, Bullets Not Ballots, 140.

[61] Joes, Resisting Rebellion, 236.

[62] Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, 97.

[63] İsmail Cem, “Statement On The Special Security Meeting Held Between Turkey And Syria,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Türkiye, October 20, 1998,

[64] Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, 51.

[65] Hazelton, Bullets Not Ballots, 136.

[66] Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, 85.

[67] Joes, Resisting Rebellion, 241.

[68] Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Joint Publication 3-24,” III-11.

[69] Marcus, Blood and Belief, 221.

[70] Hazelton, Bullets Not Ballots, 139.

[71] “Amnesty International Annual Report 1994,” Amnesty International, January 1, 1994,, 294-298; Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, 58.

[72] Işık, “Pro-State Paramilitary Violence,” 241.

[73] Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Joint Publication 3-24,” III-1.

[74] Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “A Case Study of the PKK in Turkey.”

[75] Pusane, “Turkey’s Military Victory Over the PKK,” 734.

[76] Barkey and Fuller, Turkey’s Kurdish Question.

[77] Marcus, Blood and Belief, 309.

[78] Ünal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, 78.

[79] Barkey and Fuller, “Turkey’s Kurdish Question: Critical Turning Points and Missed Opportunities,” 67-68.

[80] Hazelton, Bullets Not Ballots, 27-28.

About the Author(s)

J. Connor Williams is a graduate student at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government in the International Security program. He currently works as a consultant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and previously served a Marine Corps Officer.