A small number of a second group of Turkish-Kurdish militants are reported to have pulled back from Turkey on May 15 — into their camps in northern Iraq as part of the beginning of a peace move initiated by the Turkish government to find a political settlement to its three-decade-long Kurdish uprising that has taken the lives of about 50,000 people including civilians, security forces as well as Kurdish rebels.
A cease-fire declared by Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) upon a call made by its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan on March 21 is followed by the withdrawal process of the PKK militants as of May 8, from Turkish soil to their bases in northern Iraq.
There are an estimated 2,000 PKK militants based on Turkish territory, mainly in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern parts of the country. The remaining 3,000 to 4,000 militants are mainly based in the remote Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq, in addition to bases the organization calls "Media Defense Areas," close to the Turkish border region.
On May 15, the Turkish media reported entry of around a further 15 PKK militants following the arrival of a second group the previous day into northern Iraq.
They carried umbrellas with military camouflage patterns in addition to their weapons. Militants explained to Turkish journalists that they had opened the umbrellas during their walk from their bases in Turkey to northern Iraq to prevent the Israeli-made Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from spotting them, reported Hur riyet daily on May 15.
Talking to the Turkish media on behalf of the first group of PKK militants who arrived at their bases in Metina on May 14, Cigerxwin Fırat, one of the PKK militants with the same PKK militant group, said it had taken them seven days to reach their bases due to bad weather conditions as well as the Turkish military’s reconnaissance flights.
The militants have accused the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) of endangering the pullout with drones and troop movements — which they warned may trigger clashes.
In the meantime, a Turkish General Staff (TGS) statement released on May 13 contradicted the media reports of the pullback of the PKK militants. The TGS statement posted on its website said it has no information or records showing the withdrawal of the PKK militants from Turkish soil.
“UAVs continue to conduct reconnaissance flights as usual and there has been no information so far showing any activity by PKK terrorists based in Turkey,” it said. The TGS statement raises question marks over whether there is a real PKK withdrawal declared by the organization to continue until September, as well as whether TSK approves the peace initiative as a whole.
But to begin with, TSK should not have released a statement saying that they have not seen any terrorists leaving Turkish soil. Instead, TSK should have reported its observation privately to the government.
“In a way, the TGS statement undermines the Turkish government’s efforts to find a non-military solution to the terrorism problem. TSK demonstrates that it is not happy with the peace plan. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who declared earlier that PKK militants were withdrawing, should not have been happy with the military statement that came a week after his declaration,” an Ankara-based Western military source told Al-Monitor.
As a matter of fact, Turkish F-16s bombarded the base in the Kandil Mountains on Feb. 28, the day that a group of deputies from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) were on their way to this PKK base to deliver a peace message to the organization’s armed wing from Abdullah Ocalan. The bombing of the base in the Kandil Mountains by Turkish fighter jets came across as bizarre. The military's timing of the bombing gave the impression that it was pretending to be unaware of the peace process.
With both the bombing and the latest statement that the TSK has no information or records showing the withdrawal of PKK members from Turkish soil, is the military sending a message to the government and to the other actors involved in the peace process that they should not press their luck?
Turkey's military has not only been responsible for conducting the fight against the PKK with untrained conscripts instead of professionals, but also for making political decisions over this fight due to the elected government's' inefficiency.
This fact has played a significant role in the prolongation of what its military planners call low-intensity warfare against the PKK, mainly in the country's southeastern regions bordering the Middle East.
The military's role as a decision-maker in the fight against the PKK, however, was curbed as a result of half-finished reforms to reduce the TSK's political power.
It would, on the other hand, be naive to think that many officers as senior as generals are assumed to have been happy with the peace process.
One reason for their displeasure could stem from their experiences over decades in the fight against the PKK — which would prevent them from having the perspective that talks could be conducted with a terrorist organization. The other may be the fact that they do not necessarily believe in the supremacy of the democratic governance of the armed forces and, as such, decisions made by elected governments.
“When you are doing the counterinsurgency, that is, internal policing for a long period of time, it is hard to change,” says the Western military source.
“If PKK terrorists return to Turkey, they will not find any security forces fighting against them,” said an officer angrily to this columnist, reflecting his reaction to the peace process.
In the absence of further military reforms to subordinate the TSK to the Ministry of Defense, currently stuffed by uniformed men except the minister himself, the TSK appears to have been repeating its previous tactic of a temporary withdrawal from politics, keeping quiet and waiting until a peace move with the PKK falls apart. Then, it will come back to the scene pretending that it still has the responsibility to perform in politics!
Lale Kemal (Sariibrahimoglu) is a columnist for daily Today's Zaman, published in English. She has also been the Turkey correspondent for UK-based Jane's Defence Weekly since 1991.