Is the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) trying to undermine nascent efforts to solve the decades-old Kurdish issue? Is the militant organization itself split between a moderate leadership and a more hardline wing that's trying to undermine these reconciliation moves? These two questions are being asked in the wake of Tuesday's brazen and well-coordinated attack by a large group of PKK militants on a military outpost in eastern Turkey, which resulted in the death of eight Turkish soldiers and has led to retaliatory strikes against PKK strongholds in northern Iraq.
The timing of the attack struck many as curious, coming right on the heels of recent conciliatory messages given by Kurdish political leaders in Turkey and by one of the PKK's top leaders in northern Iraq. In an interview published on June 14 in Hurriyet, veteran Kurdish politician Leyla Zana -- who was recently sentenced to ten years in jail on charges of "propagandizing" on behalf of the PKK -- told the paper she does not believe an armed struggle can solve the Kurdish issue and that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should be supported in his efforts to solve the conflict. Meanwhile, in a recent interview with veteran Turkish journalist Avni Ozgurel, PKK leader Murat Karayilan gave what many interpreted as positive messages, expressing his support for a now suspended process that brought together representatives of the PKK and the Turkish government for secret talks in Oslo, Norway.
Tuesday's PKK attack against the outpost, known as Daglica, seems to have erased much of the good will created by the Zana and Karayilan remarks, leading many Turkish analysts to wonder if the PKK is split by competing factions. Writes Today's Zaman columnist Yavuz Baydar:
Something does not make sense in all this. If Karayılan had agreed to meet a Turkish journalist and if he had realized that the interview was being published in Turkey, with intense focus once more on his words to the Turkish public, it would be an utterly foolish tactic to blend these statements with a bloody attack. Even if he intended to coordinate such an attack, he would have waited a while before doing so.
Thus, no logic in how it was followed up. I stand ready to be convinced that Karayılan had no idea that behind his back such a fait accompli was being cooked up. The aim was to invalidate his authority once more.
The attack on the Daglica outpost was not the first time that the PKK has been accused of trying to sabotage efforts to resolve the Kurdish issue. A year ago, a PKK attack in southeastern Turkey left 13 soldiers dead and was seen as a major blow to the government's already struggling "Kurdish opening," a reform effort announced in 2009. In his interview with Ozgurel, Karayilan blamed that attack on "marginal groups" within his organization. But human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz, who also writes for Today's Zaman, asks whether attacks like these invalidate the PKK as a negotiating partner for solving the Kurdish issue:
Was this attack also carried out by “marginal” groups in the PKK? Three hundred PKK militants joined this PKK attack; apparently, they had been preparing for this for a long time. Once again while different actors are giving “peace” messages, the PKK is attacking.
Are they doing this for the language rights of the Kurds? For more cultural rights? To protect Kurds from repression? For what reason did they kill so many people? Can anyone engage in negotiations with such an organization whose leaders say some things and its militant do the complete opposite?
It is quite clear that a very strong current in the PKK wants to escalate violence and does not want to achieve peace under any circumstances. I have criticized this government for not being brave enough to take bolder steps in solving Kurdish questions. But with this PKK at hand, is it really possible to talk about peace?
Still, regardless of the PKK's internal politics, the Daglica attack is a stark reminder for the Turkish government that despite its ongoing efforts to weaken the organization through air strikes, limited ground incursions into northern Iraq and the aggressive prosecution of the Kurdish political movement inside Turkey, the PKK still has the operational capability and the manpower to mount major attacks. For Ankara, the PKK remains a confounding puzzle, one that cannot be solved militarily, but must be solved nonetheless.