Kurdistan Workers’ Party intensifies attacks in Turkey

Kurdistan Workers’ Party intensifies attacks in Turkey

August saw a surge of PKK attacks in south-eastern Turkey. The ongoing Kurdish separatist insurgency and the Turkish operation in Syria increase the risk of additional PKK-linked attacks throughout the country.

On 24 August, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched Operation Euphrates Shield, a military incursion in Syria’s Jarablus region. The offensive is aimed at pushing Turkey’s southern border from Islamic State (IS) strongholds and pushing Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and People’s Protection Units (PYG) to withdraw their forces from the Manbij area and relocate east of the Euphrates.

Turkey’s military action in Syria and the specific targeting of Kurdish militias along its southern border comes against the backdrop of an increase of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attacks within the national territory. Throughout the month of August, PKK insurgents have conducted dozens of assaults in south-eastern Turkey highlighting the separatist group will and capability to step-up the tempo of its operations.

The volume of the Kurdish group’s attacks is an additional cause for concern due to their goal of expanding operations outside of the Kurdish majority insurgency area. Since July 2015, the majority of PKK-linked attacks have been occurring in the Diyarbakir, Mardin, Siirt, Sirnak, Hakkari and Van provinces. However, there are growing signs that the Kurdish separatist movement may try to conduct operations in western and northern provinces.

Elevated number of PKK attacks in the Southeast

The PKK has demonstrated in August its capacity to conduct multiple high-profile attacks throughout south-eastern Turkey.  On 26 August, two days after the beginning of Operation Euphrates Shield, the Kurdish separatist group detonated a car-bomb in the immediate vicinity of the police headquarters in Cizre killing at least 11 officers and injuring 78 others. On 18 August, PKK militants conducted three coordinated attacks that left at least 14 dead and 220 injured. Two car bombs and an improvised explosive device targeted police stations and a military convoy respectively in Elazig and Bitlis provinces.  Additional operations occurred throughout the month in south-eastern Turkey.

The ongoing PKK attacks mainly target police, military and administrative personnel and buildings. However, they also pose a substantial threat to civilian operations and travel. Roadside bombs detonated by PKK militants periodically lead to the death of truck drivers and motorists along highways and roads in south-eastern Turkey. Kurdish separatists also use roadblocks to disrupt movement in their insurgency areas. Travel in the vicinity of Turkey’s border with Iran is also at risk as exemplified by the bombing that hit police personnel in the border province of Van on 17 August.

The TSK have launched several large-scale counter-insurgency operations in south-eastern provinces hitting Kurdish Worker’s Party targets since July 2015. However, the ongoing Kurdish separatist insurgency is unlikely to abate in the medium-term as the PKK has time and again shown its ability to remain resilient in face of Turkish operations. In addition, Kurdish separatists have been trying to expand their campaign indicating their lack of interest in a negotiated solution.

Increased activity in western provinces

Along with August surge of PKK activity in south-eastern Turkey, the militant group has also been trying to expand its operations in western provinces. On 16 August, 22 PKK-linked operatives were detained in Izmir. This came as a stern reminder of the group’s activity in the region. On 23 June, PKK militants conducted an attack in Izmir by firing rockets toward a police station in the centre of Izmir. Throughout the first semester of 2016, several Turkish police operation targeted Kurdish separatist cells in Izmir and security forces arrested dozens of PKK-linked militants. Multiple weapons’ caches have also been unearthed in Izmir.

There is a realistic possibility that PKK militants may try to expand their operations in Izmir and western provinces in an attempt to push Turkish security forces to overstretch. Kurdish separatist may deploy cells outside of the main insurgency area and activate support groups in a bid to oblige Turkey police and military to redirect some of its units away from south-eastern provinces.

The potential expansion of PKK activities also raises concerns over renewed Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) attacks. The TAK is an armed Kurdistan separatist group loosely linked to the PKK. While TAK militants broke off from the PKK in 2005, it is likely that TAK maintains an indirect and unofficial communication channel with the insurgency group. Since July 2015, TAK conducted several high-profile bombings in Istanbul and Ankara proving to be a major urban terrorist organisation. TAK operations have deliberately targeted civilians. Additional TAK attacks in western or northern Turkey would result in an at least partial deterioration of the country’s security outlook.

Concerns over operations in northern provinces

Along with a potential expansion of PKK operations in western Turkey there are also growing concerns over Kurdish separatists’ will to conduct additional attacks in the northern Black Sea provinces. In March 2016, a PKK-linked umbrella group, the United People’s Revolutionary Movement (HBDH) was created in northern Turkey. While the organisation remains small, it is likely to be used by the PKK as a support platform to conduct attacks in areas outside south-eastern provinces. On 19 July, the HBDH claimed responsibility for an attack in Trabzon in which at least three police officers were killed.

On 25 August, PKK militants conducted two separate and failed assassination attempts targeting Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). These assaults took place in Artvin and were noteworthy as they were the first PKK assassination attempts to target senior CHP politicians. These attacks further highlighted the group’s will to hit security and administrative personnel in northern Turkey. In April, the HBDH issued a statement claiming that the organisation would conduct additional attacks.

The end result is that — as a show of strength — the risk is now legitimate that the PKK may use the HBDH to conduct high-profile operations such as ones targeting senior politicians in northern provinces. It has been a challenging year for Turkey already, but additional insurgency-linked attacks throughout the country are to be expected.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.