Civil War: Turkey (1984-1999 and 2004-Present)

Peter Finn. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


Turkey’s Kurdish insurrection and its primary agent, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), arose from a confluence of three principal forces, one historical, one political, and one circumstantial. The historical force was Turkey’s ancient Kurdish population, whose nationalist ambitions predate the Turkish state itself. Described in Western literature as early as 401 BC by Xenophon, the Kurdish peoples have inhabited the Anatolian steppes since time out of memory. Although the Kurds have never organized as a modern nation-state, nationalist ambitions grew steadily in popularity and fervency throughout the twentieth century. The political force was a burgeoning socialist movement, replete with radical revolutionary elements. Although socialism arose purposefully during Turkey’s political liberalization of the 1950s, its early form and character were relatively benign. By 1970s (a time of great political and economic upheaval in Turkey), socialist organizations were diverse and widespread; and although their popular appeal was still slim, they had organized cultivated revolutionary cells and promulgated militant agendas. The PKK would be born from the union of Kurdish nationalism and radical socialism. The circumstantial force was Turkey’s military, who in September 1980 instigated a bloodless coup and declared martial law throughout much of the country. The PKK might have been content to pursue redress through Turkey’s legitimate political institutions, or to remain only a minor security threat, had it not been for the actions of the Turkish Armed Forces. To regain order from a state of near anarchy, sweeping arrests of dissidents ensued; and the PKK, feeling itself persecuted and seeing no further hope of accommodation through the (suspended) political process, resorted to armed insurrection.

The following war persisted virtually unabated to the present. Although two unilateral cease-fires were called by the PKK (1993-1994 and 1999-2004), neither was respected by either party and served only to lower the conflict’s intensity. The insurrection also experienced increasing frustration on both sides, which served to steadily escalate the war’s brutality. For its part, the Turkish government was widely accused of detaining civilians without charges, torturing suspects, carrying out extrajudicial executions, displacing populations, and making no serious efforts to address the “Kurdish question.” The PKK, on the other hand, eventually resorted to terrorist tactics against Turkish interests at home and abroad, carrying out ferocious bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations against Turkish nationals, foreign tourists, military personnel, and numerous Kurdish civilians whom it considered government collaborators—at times attacking entire villages for “collaboration.” Concerns over Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds have complicated Turkey’s admission to the European Union as well as its foreign relations and arms purchases. The PKK has earned Kurdish separatists an ignoble image, making it difficult for legitimate and peaceful Kurdish interest groups to gain sympathy. Not surprisingly, the PKK’s tactics have caused it to be classified as a terrorist organization on both United States and European lists.

By 1999, more than 300,000 casualties had accumulated on both sides; deplorably, most were innocent civilians, and a significant number of whom (which will never be known) were neutral Kurds who discovered that neutrality and collaboration with one side or the other amounted to the same thing. More than 8,000 civilians were killed in PKK terrorist actions alone between 1984 and 1999. An unknown number were victims of mystery killings and disappearances attributed to Turkish police, intelligence, gendarmerie, and village guards acting on their own initiative. By 1999, the war’s total cost exceeded an estimated US $200 billion. The war’s tremendous human cost was also evident in the more than 300,000 Kurds made refugees by a conflict that frequently saw entire villages destroyed.

By spring 2004, normalcy had finally returned; shady MIT (National Intelligence Organization) agents no longer eavesdropped in local venues; police checkpoints and random personal searches were all but forgotten; PKK guerrillas no longer extorted “taxes” from Kurdish families or impressed their sons and daughters into service; Kurdish shepherds tended their flocks in pastures long cleared of land mines. But in May of that same year, the PKK ended their five-year cease-fire; civil war was declared anew. The repercussions of this for Turkey, the Kurds, and the PKK itself remain to be seen.

Country Background

The 1970s was a period of widespread political, social, and economic upheaval, which would see the decade end with parliamentary breakdown, conditions of near anarchy, and a military coup to restore order. The country’s already stagnating economy was severely hurt by oil shortages after 1973; by 1977, inflation exceeded 50 percent by some estimates, and unemployment had reached a staggering 30 percent (Glazer 1996). Turkey’s industrial development slowed as oversea markets closed with increasing energy costs—Turkey’s balance of trade reaching US $4 billion. The government’s recovery efforts, which included energy conservation, import reductions, and two major devaluations of the Turkish lira, only reduced production further— and foreign investment was scant because of perceived government incompetence.

Amid this climate of rampant economic crises, radical political camps emerged on both ends of the spectrum, many of the more extreme parties forming strong-arm gangs. Politicized Islam led to sectarian violence (more than 100 Sunni and Alevi died in one day’s violence in the town of Kahramanmaras in 1978, many of the Alevi having been burned alive). By the late 1970s, political strife had become increasing violent and by mid-1980 was claiming more than twenty lives a day (Glazer 1996).

In September 1980, following its inability to elect a new president, Turkey’s parliamentary government was overthrown by the armed forces in a bloodless coup. The subsequent military government extended martial law, already in force in Istanbul and the Kurdish provinces, throughout the country. Following the coup, agitators, party leaders, student activists, and suspected militants of all political persuasions were arrested. Trade unions and political parties were abolished. By some estimates, as many as 30,000 people were arrested in the weeks following the coup—10,000 were still being held two years later (Glazer 1996).

Year Major terrorist attacks Civilians killed in major attacks Civilians wounded in major attack Civilians killed in other actions Turkish security forces killed† Terrorists and insurgents killed‡ Public and private facilities destroyed Public and private facilities damaged
Sources: Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2003; Facts on International Relations and Security Trends 2005; Institute for Counter-Terrorism Data 2005.
Notes: * Precise data for these years is unavailable.
† Includes military, police, and village guards.
‡ Includes terrorists killed in suicide bombings.
1984 20 24 11 0 0
1985 82 67 100 1 3
1986 74 43 64 7 3
1987 4 37 3 237 62 107 13 13
1988 2 38 0 81 50 103 13 22
1989 1 24 0 136 153 165 44 44
1990 0 0 0 178 169 350 12 17
1991 1 11 18 170 264 356 26 46
1992 3 70 59 761 755 1055 185 160
1993 6 176 37 1218 671 1699 255 263
1994 1 5 13 1082 1093 4114 134 239
1995 4 48 9 1085 584 2292 36 25
1996 4 35 23 *iooo 419 3501 14 65
1997 2 11 19 *800 *300 n/a 60 92
1998 4 16 123 *600 *200 n/a 8 25
Total 32 471 304 7524 4854 13917 808 1017
Table 1: Casualties Resulting from PKK Terrorism and Insurgency 1984-1998

In this climate of crackdown, Abdullah Öcalan and his followers fled the country and made contact with Palestinian militants in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, where they formally established the PKK and its first permanent training camps—convinced that the military coup left them no political avenue to their goals, their only choice being armed revolution.

PKK insurgents first penetrated Turkish borders in 1984, just as civilian control was being restored. Although the ensuing conflict was financially very costly, it did not significantly affect Turkey’s economic progress. Turkey’s 1985 GDP was US $2.34 billion and had rocketed to US $154 billion by the first PKK-declared ceasefire in 1993.

Conflict Background

Although Turkey itself has not fought an interstate war since its war of independence (1919-1920), it is a frequent (and enthusiastic) participant in UN and NATO operations and has nearly gone to war with Greece on several occasions. Turkey maintains a high readiness for war, and its 514,000 men and women under arms represent the second-largest force contribution to NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) after the United States. The country’s foreign policy, however, tends to be pragmatic and peace oriented. Turkey has consistently sought diplomatic solutions to achieving stability in its region of the world; a notable exception, however, is the Cyprus crisis.

In 1964, massacres of ethnic Turkish Cypriots by Greek Cypriots in favor of Cyprus’s annexation by Greece were reported. Turkey threatened to intervene on behalf of the ethnic Turks in Cyprus but was warned in a letter from U.S. President Lyndon Johnson that should the Soviets oppose Turkey’s intervention and enter the conflict against them, the United States would probably not come to their assistance. The so-called Johnson Letter provoked widespread resentment of the United States in Turkish public opinion, which persisted throughout the 1960s.

Turkey finally did intervene in Cyprus in 1974 (following a Greek-sponsored coup attempt on the island), deploying more than 40,000 troops and 200 tanks to the island and securing ethnic Turkish settlements in the north within a week. The United States countered with a trade embargo that lasted until 1978, which further strained U.S.-Turkish relations and exacerbated Turkey’s struggling economy. As relations with the United States deteriorated, changes in Soviet policy gave Turkey the opportunity and incentive to improve relations with the Soviet Union.

In the end, the Cyprus intervention had little to do with the PKK’s formation that same year; politically, it represents an event that distanced Turkey from the West and brought it closer to the Eastern bloc (until the 1980 coup); however, this did little to enhance leftist sympathies in Turkey. The intervention had broad popular support, low casualties, and came to a quick, satisfying conclusion—consistent with Ankara’s military objectives. The war’s most significant repercussions were the economic constraints imposed by U.S. sanctions—a significant trade partner, and (more importantly) a source of foreign aid. However, considering the economic impact of the 1973 energy crisis and the political impact of a hamstrung parliament and widespread urban violence, the Cyprus incident’s economic effects must be viewed in context.

The Insurgents

Kurdish separatism is an intractable issue between Turks and Kurds and an issue shared by many of Turkey’s neighbors. The Kurds are distributed among a number states: Turkey (14 million), Iran (6 million), Iraq (4-5 million), and Syria (fewer than 1 million), with smaller concentrations inhabiting Armenia and Azerbaijan. Although the Kurds are a linguistically and culturally distinct people inhabiting a largely contiguous area of land, their political aspirations are complex. The rural Kurds—who comprise the population’s majority—are organized around hierarchical clans who control their lands in a characteristically feudal arrangement. Disputes between these clans are common and frequently take on the character of bloody feuds. So, although the Kurds are ethnically homogeneous (the source of their nationalism), they are socially heterogeneous, with clan loyalty often overriding loyalty to any greater Kurdish nation (Cornell 2001). This has led others to accurately characterize Kurdish nationalism as akin to Arab nationalism in the early twentieth century; that is, however appealing the idea of a common national identity, the social reality makes its practical realization impossible. To further complicate matters, the PKK, the militant-political voice of Kurdish nationalism, espouses a Marxist-Leninist ideology that understandably disdains both Turkish hegemony in “Kurdistan” and the Kurd’s own feudalistic social arrangement. Naturally, many Kurdish tribal leaders oppose the PKK’s political ideology and are thus reluctant to support it.

The PKK itself is the militant incarnation of the political ideals of one man: Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s charismatic founder and chief official. Öcalan was born in the Kurdish province of Sanlrurfa in 1949. After failing the entrance exam for Turkey’s revered national military academy, he was accepted into Ankara University and studied political science. Öcalan was attracted to leftist political ideologies early in his university studies and became involved in the Marxist-Leninist and Maoist debate club the Revolutionary Youth Federation (Dev-Genc). These university debate clubs spawned many formal revolutionary organizations; one of these was the TPLA (Turkish People’s Liberation Army), which intended to stage an armed socialist revolution in Turkey’s impoverished Kurdish territories and which Öcalan later joined. The TPLA, however, did not see Kurdish liberation as separate from the country as a whole (viewing the southeastern territories as merely a logical starting point because of perceived social and economic repression in that region and favorable geography for armed insurrection). Öcalan, himself a Kurd and concerned more with Kurdish separatism itself, left the TPLA with a group of disciples, who called themselves the Apocu (Followers of “Apo,” Abdullah Öcalan), and a preliminary plan for their own socialist-Kurdish revolution.

Sources: CIA 2005; CSIS 2003.
War: PKK vs. government
Dates: August 1984-September 1999 and May 2004-present
Casualties: 316,000
Regime type prior to war: 7 (ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: 7 (2003 data; ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: US $61.5 billion
GDP per capita 5 years after war: Not applicable
Insurgents: PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party)
Issue: National liberation for ethnic Kurdish peoples in southeastern Anatolia
Rebel funding: Organized crime, private sponsorship, occasional foreign aid.
Role of geography: Mountainous Anatolian Plateau used for escape, headquarters, and training camps.
Role of resources: Turkey’s Kurdish territories have significant freshwater resources, including hydrological developments by the Turkish government.
Immediate outcome: Turkish security forces quickly gained control, putting the PKK on the defensive.
Outcome after 5 years: PKK expands its terrorist activities, begins soliciting aid from socialist states.
Role of UN: None
Role of regional organization: EU pressure on Turkey mitigated human rights abuses by security forces.
Refugees: 353,000; 26 percent repatriated since 1999 cease-fire.
Prospects for peace: Unclear
Table 2: Civil War in Turkey

In 1974, Abdullah Öcalan, along with his brother Kesire Yildirim Öcalan and supporters Haki Karaer, Cemil Bayik, and Kemal Pir, founded the Kurdistan Workers Party as a Marxist-Leninist political party committed to establishing a socialist Kurdish state from the Kurdish portions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Öcalan considered Turkey’s Kurdish lands in the southeast to be Kurdistan’s largest province and decided to focus his group’s initial efforts there. Although they built up the membership, arms, and funding needed for a full-scale revolution, the PKK chose three Kurdish cities for its first wave of agitation: Diyarbakir, §anliurfa, and Gaziantep (see map).

Diyarbakir had historical significance as the center of Kurdish revolts going back centuries. §anliurfa had an entrenched feudal social structure, and its impoverished population had frequent conflicts with the government. Gaziantep was heavily industrialized and had a poor working class who, the PKK believed, would readily rally to their socialist cause (the PKK also established its first underground headquarters there at this time). In May 1977, the group came into conflict with another Kurdish socialist group, Sterka Sor (Red Star), which culminated in Karaer’s assassination. This event marked a change in the PKK’s composition and tactics. Following the attack, Abdullah Öcalan’s brother, Kesire Yildirim, left the organization, and Öcalan organized counter-assassinations of the Sterka Sor’s members—effectively destroying the organization. Although the PKK strove to expand its membership and suppress its rivals, it also began trafficking illicit narcotics as a source of funding; Turkey itself, and the Kurdish territories in particular, formed the principal clandestine drug route between Iran, Afghanistan, and European markets.

In November 1978, the Kurdistan Workers Party was officially formed. The PKK was organized around a president (Abdullah Öcalan) advised by a council of the presidency. A central committee forms the main decision-making body at the party level; individual provincial committees inform local committees, who organize individual cells. (The PKK’s original structure remains relatively unchanged to this day, although since Öcalan’s capture in 1999, there is no longer an office of the presidency; instead, the party is led by the council of the presidency.)

Because of their increasingly violent Communist agitation and criminal activities, several PKK members were arrested, and in 1979 Öcalan fled to Syria and thence to Lebanon. In Lebanon, Öcalan contacted Palestinian guerrillas and arranged for PKK militants to use their training facilities in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. Following the PKK’s Second Party Congress, held in August of 1982, it was agreed that Palestinian-trained PKK guerrillas would begin infiltrating Turkey by late 1984 to initiate an armed uprising among Kurdish peasants.


Geography both helped and hindered PKK operations. The close proximity of ambivalent states allowed the PKK to withdraw to safety when pursued. Semipermanent mustering and supply bases were established in northern Iraq; and training camps, sometimes far abroad, allowed PKK militants to train in relative security—and in a socially isolated environment that facilitated ideological indoctrination. The disinterest of Turkey’s southern neighbors and the simple remoteness of their Turkish borders meant that PKK rebels there were seldom confronted. The northern no-fly zone in Iraq (established at Turkey’s behest to minimize Kurdish refugees during Operation Desert Storm in 1991) ensured that Iraq’s government could not prosecute the PKK even if they had wanted to. Although Turkey’s military has from time to time crossed the Iraqi border to attack PKK bases or pursue militants, this tends to evoke chastisement from the international community. (Turkey’s perennial ambitions for European Union admittance have tended to moderate its tactics in accord with what EU member states will tolerate.)

Most of the region called Northern Kurdistan is straddled by the craggy Taurus mountains, abutted by the Anatolian Plateau’s semiarid steppes. The Tauruses dip into Northern Iraq and provide a natural border between the two countries. Vegetation is sparse and shrubby and provides little cover (although the PKK use what foliage exists to maximum effect when setting ambushes). The region experiences harsh winters, which, combined with absent vegetation, tend to reduce (but not arrest) the PKK’s countryside guerrilla activity during the colder months. The Taurus mountains’ high peaks and narrow passes help conceal PKK movements, and its guerrillas have constructed a complex system of independent caves for concealing themselves and caching supplies.

The same mountainous lands that give refuge to PKK guerrillas tend to hinder the very idea of Kurdish nationalism itself. The Taurus mountains have isolated the Kurds not unlike the Alps isolate the varied peoples of Switzerland. Rural Kurdish communities are remote from one another; their limited interaction over the centuries has fostered cultural idiosyncrasies and linguistic dialects among individual Kurdish enclaves. Many rural Kurds are still organized in feudalistic clans in which family loyalty is to the clan in general and the clan chieftain in particular, and to whom the idea of a Kurdish nation is remote to the point of meaninglessness. Some of these groups share centuries-old animosities that blind them to any idealistic notion of fraternity.


PKK tactics, and those used by Turkey to confront them, have understandably evolved over the conflict’s twenty-year history. Tactical changes and responses followed a typical pattern of measure and countermeasure. As the war’s tactical evolution is best understood in the context of its various political and strategic developments, these too are discussed.

On the basis of tactical adaptation alone, the war can be divided into four phases according to the tactics employed and the strategic situation. The first phase (1984-1989) was characterized by relatively low-intensity fighting. The PKK was still a small organization with few militants and little support. The Turkish government did not take their threat seriously and opted for a defensive strategy that protected rural villages but failed to steal the PKK’s initiative. The second phase (1989-1991) was characterized by a mature PKK—its membership enlarged, its arsenal cached, its training and tactics improved. Frequency and success of PKK attacks increased dramatically, and in response the government hurriedly developed an offense-oriented counterinsurgency program. Much of the countryside was under PKK influence (if not control), and attacks on major cities began. The third phase (1991-1996) was characterized by a maturing counterinsurgency program. Casualties during this phase were highest as the entrenched PKK was driven from its strongholds and the government slowly retook control. The PKK was forced to abandon its semipermanent bases in Turkey early on but operated effectively from foreign bases and roamed freely and fiercely at night. The Turkish military’s first cross-border attacks took place, as did the first use of suicide bombings by the PKK. The fourth and final phase (1996-1999) was characterized by containment, with government control restored. Most of the heaviest fighting occured in northern Iraq, where the PKK still operated and trained recruits at remote bases. Finally, a ceasefire was called in 1999, with Abdullah Öcalan’s arrest.

The first phase began in August 1984, when two groups of PKK guerrillas, under the command of Mazlum (Mahsun) Korkmaz, infiltrated Turkish territory from Syria. Their mission was threefold: first, to reconnoiter the Anatolian Plateau and Turkish security forces, attacking the latter as opportunity afforded; second, to form revolutionary committees and establish cells among the population; and third, to disseminate PKK propaganda. This initial PKK thrust would fail to achieve any of its objectives and would be forced to retreat to northern Iraq—pursued by Turkish border security.

In analyzing their failure, the PKK concluded that, as most of the guerrillas were university students, they did not understand local peoples, customs, or dialects; they were insufficiently trained and equipped to live in the rough Anatolian countryside; they had little information about the land or climate; they were insufficiently armed to fight the Turkish army; and they had inadequate logistics.

Following its defeats, the PKK held its third-party conference in August 1984 to reevaluate its strategy, tactics, and organization. It was decided that PKK military and political activities would be handled by two separate and specialized groups. PKK’s armed component was designated the ARGK (Arteshen Rizgariya Gelli Kurdistan—the Kurdistan National Liberation Army). The ARGK adopted a formal military structure and chain of command: Its basic element, the group, consisted of seven to eleven soldiers; three groups formed a unit, and three units formed a platoon; three platoons formed a battalion, three battalions a brigade, and three brigades a regiment. By this time, the PKK had at least one complete regiment under arms (comprising between 1,700 and 2,800 militants), and thousands more sympathizers. The PKK’s political component was designated ERNK (Eniya Rizgariya Netewa Kurdistan—Kurdistan People’s Liberty Front). ERNK was tasked with some of the ARGK’s support, such as recruitment and logistics, but focused on garnering finances and arousing public support for the organization, thus providing ARGK with intelligence, supplies, and refuge when in country. Once a support base was established in the countryside, ERNK would move into the cities to organize more robust regional supply chains.

The PKK’s third Congress also addressed funding issues, and a “tax law” was drafted that allowed militants to extort money from Kurds to support their campaign—the taxes levied as “protection” money from wealthy Kurds. This would remain a source of funding throughout the organization’s history, although it tended to hinge on PKK control of the cities and access to their inhabitants. Extortion efforts were later expanded to Kurdish businesspeople in Europe, many of whose murders abroad are believed to be the result of PKK extortion efforts. In addition to narcotics and extortion, the PKK also ran legitimate business and ostensible charities (particularly in Europe) devoted to Kurdish humanitarian relief.

Meanwhile, Turkish tactics were also evolving to deal with the embryonic revolution. Following initial PKK attacks in 1984, the Turkish prime minister, Turgut Özal, and his Motherland Party formed an institution of temporary “village guards.” Select Kurds in particularly violent territories were trained as paramilitaries to protect the lives and property of their fellow villagers. The village guard system was a turning point in the government’s fight against the PKK—although it also occasioned the first in a bloody series of conflict escalations. The village guards were intended to fight the PKK while building up government support among the Kurds, and there was even an expectation that the village guards would moderate the PKK’s ambitions, as they would be faced with fighting fellow Kurds and, seeing that the government had Kurdish support, more willing to renounce violence. The PKK, however, showed no compunction in attacking the village guards themselves—and, as a retributive measure, retaliated against the guardsmen’s families as well. (Through the PKK’s deterrent policy of deliberately attacking civilian collaborators, its reputation as a terrorist organization began to grow.) By 1987, PKK forces were attacking entire villages for “collaborating” with the enemy.

Source: CIA 2005.
Country Kurdish Population
Germany 500,000-600,000
France 100,000-120,000
Israeli 100,000-120,000
Lebanon 80,000-85,000
The Netherlands 70,000-80,000
Switzerland 60,000-70,000
Belgium 50,000-60,000
Austria 50,000-60,000
Sweden 25,000-30,000
United Kingdom 20,000-25,000
Greece 20,000-25,000
United States 15,000-20,000
Denmark 8,000-10,000
Canada 6,000-7,000
Norway 4,000-5,000
Italy 3,000-4,000
Finland 2,000-3,000

The village guard strategy was defensive in nature, however. It sought only to protect lives and property, and to inhibit PKK recruitment activities in the villages themselves. That the Turkish government did not take any concerted military action against the PKK throughout the 1980s emphasizes the Özal administration’s belief that the PKK were little more than brigands and were not a threat to the Turkish state. Indeed, unrest in the Kurdish provinces was attributed to economic and social underdevelopment. Moreover the Turkish Land Forces (TLF) themselves were trained, organized, positioned, and equipped to fight a conventional war (which was expected to be defensive in nature), anchoring NATO’s right flank. The anticipated battlefield was not the Anatolian plateau but Turkey’s northern borders with (Soviet) Armenia and Azerbaijan or its western border with Greece; force distribution and organization reflected this.

In response to escalating PKK violence, the government adopted a second defense-oriented policy. Echoing strategies used by the United States in Vietnam to drain the Viet Cong’s support base, entire Kurdish villages were forcibly relocated. These “evacuations” were intended to move endangered populations to better-controlled areas of the country. Initially, evacuated rural villages were moved to the major cities, but this radical change in environment often left pastoral Kurds bewildered and resentful. The first forced refugees tended to be poorly supported, and many became vagrants. International outcry and governmental attempts to minimize Kurdish malcontent resulted in compensation funds for deported people, state-managed refugee camps, and, later, state-built temporary housing. In all, more than 850 Kurdish hamlets and villages were forcibly evacuated and subsequently burned to deny their property to the PKK. However, the Turkish government stands accused in some cases of burning villages as a punitive measure in areas of PKK sympathy.

Although the village guard strategy did succeed at frustrating PKK operations in villages, it put little pressure on the organization itself. The PKK used this period to accumulate arms, train recruits, and gather foreign support and funding. Developing a specialization in ambush tactics, their preferred targets became soldiers on border patrol and TLF convoys on Turkey’s southern highways. Border patrol garrisons themselves also made attractive targets because their small complement and remote locations made them easy to overwhelm.

By the early 1990s (beginning the war’s second phase), the TLF was developing a respectable capability in counterinsurgency warfare. Having studied American tactics in Vietnam, the military concluded that U.S. failures resulted from the faulty strategy of killing insurgents faster than they could be replaced, rather than controlling territory. Instead of emulating Vietnam-style search-and-destroy missions, Turkey opted to station large numbers of soldiers in the countryside and develop a visible presence in Kurdish villages. One American tactic in which Turkey took particular interest was the use of helicopters as air cavalry. Improved battlefield mobility being emphasized, fleets of helicopters rapidly transported soldiers to any area where PKK contact was made. Thus, the Turkish army could concentrate its forces in overwhelming numbers where and when needed, choosing the optimum times for their attacks. Like the United States, Turkey appreciated the value of helicopter gunships to support these operations. During this phase of the conflict, Turkey struggled to expanded and modernized its attack helicopter force of American-supplied AH-1 Cobra and AH-64 Apache gunships, though acquisition efforts were frustrated by effective pro-Kurdish lobbying in the U.S. Congress.

By 1996, operations against the PKK had moved out of the villages and into the surrounding hills and mountains. Direct military operations against PKK guerrillas became more common. The military’s maturing night-fighting capability prevented PKK guerrillas and cadres from infiltrating villages; therefore, police forces and village guards became less involved in anti-PKK operations, and reports of civilian mistreatment decreased. By some assessments, village life returned to normal. Because large-scale military operations were now conducted away from populated areas, civilian casualties were minimized.

Turkish tactics during this fourth period emphasized open-country warfare and tended to favor combined arms operations, including commandos and infantry transported by helicopter (usually the UH-1 Iroquois or the UH-60 Black Hawk) or by armored personnel carriers (APCs) supported by attack helicopters. The multirole F-16s of the Turkish air force provided aerial bombardment and close air support. As Turkish air attacks increased, the PKK also began using FIM-92 Stinger missiles of German origin. The Stingers’ battlefield effect was negligible, however, as they were seldom seen in fighting or captured in caches and were probably in very short supply.

This same year saw a dramatic change in PKK tactics that many interpreted as a sign of desperation: suicide bombings. Between 1996 and 1999, PKK terrorists carried out sixteen successful suicide attacks, killing twenty people. Targets varied from tourists to police headquarters to government and military facilities. Female suicide bombers were used for the first attacks— with explosives strapped to their bellies as if pregnant.

Meanwhile, by the mid-1990s Turkey had more than 70,000 village guards under arms, who served in a high-risk capacity but were paid an attractive salary (Ismet 1995). They were typically lightly armed with Russian or Turkish-made automatic rifles. Participation in the village guards was ostensibly voluntary, although recruiters often considered refusal to join as a sign of PKK sympathy or collaboration. Widespread allegations of corrupt village guards also began emerging. Some village guards being found guilty of consorting with the PKK, participating in their extortion and tax collecting activities, and even fighting alongside them. Other village guards being accused of extrajudicial violence against Kurdish villagers they believed to be PKK conspirators, which included unsupervised searches, interrogations, and occasional extrajudicial executions. It must be appreciated that, among widespread reports of civilian deaths and disappearances, it was often unclear which side was responsible.

In response to growing complaints of mistreatment, by 1994 the Turkish military issued its “Guide to Principles of Behaviors.” Distributed specifically to soldiers in Turkey’s southeast, the guide encouraged soldiers and officers to familiarize themselves with and respect local peoples and customs; among other things, the guide laid down strict guidelines for searches and interrogations, specifically prohibiting village guards from performing such activities unsupervised. Acknowledging that abuses were inevitable in a conflict of this kind, the Turkish government also established a fund to compensate civilians for any damage to property resulting from searches or collateral damage, later extended to compensate civilians whose property had been damaged or destroyed by the PKK. Critics argue, however, that these guidelines were not consistently applied or enforced and compensation funds insufficient. Although breaching the 1994 principles was considered a violation of military discipline and law—risking dishonorable discharge, up to five years of hard labor, and forfeiture of future public office—the conviction rate equaled only about 3 percent of cases filed (U.S. Department of State 1997).

In 1996, the Turkish military and police began special training in human rights for new recruits and officers and enlisted personnel in the field. The Turkish military also adopted a policy of “appropriate force,” whereby greater attention was paid to the size and composition of an enemy body and the proportional force of arms required to destroy it. As a result, collateral damage reportedly declined. To improve its army’s image among Kurds, Turkey also began tasking its soldiers with “goodwill” missions, using the military construction corps to make visible infrastructural improvements in the Kurdish territories. In this way, Ankara intended to confront much of the region’s underdevelopment (which many still believed was behind the rebellion) while putting a government face on these improvements to win the Kurdish people’s hearts and minds.

Casualties on both sides of the fighting peaked in 1996 but declined as the PKK’s popular support diminished and government forces took control of the countryside; at this point, the conflict entered its fourth phase. The PKK suffered a severe blow when Syria finally bowed to Turkish pressure and agreed to evict the PKK from its territory. Northern Iraq was considered too dangerous for the PKK leadership, so Abdullah Öcalan and his council went into hiding. Öcalan applied for political asylum across Europe but was consistently denied. His eventual capture by a joint Turkish, American, and Israeli effort forced the war’s second cease-fire in 1999. Öcalan’s highly central role in the PKK prevented the organization from functioning without him for some time.

Causes of the War

Turkey’s Kurdish insurrection had no single cause, although historical circumstances played a key role. First was the ideological notion of Kurdish nationalism: that Kurds, being a linguistically and culturally distinct people, ought to be afforded self-government. These ideas were not new and followed the wave of nationalist movements that swept across Europe in the late nineteenth century, breaking upon Levantine shores by the World War I to inspire the Arab revolt. The Turkish state itself was originally conceived and fought for under nationalism’s banner, with the Kurds embraced under the label “Mountain Turks.” Among Kurds, nationalist sentiment was most pronounced among educated Kurds living in cities. Rural Kurds (who represent the population’s majority) in their close-knit feudalistic clans found nationalism’s claim of a monolithic Kurdish identity much less convincing, and clan leaders found such ideas threatening to their positions. So, although the Kurds are ethnically homogeneous (the source of their nationalism), they are socially heterogeneous, with clan loyalty often overriding loyalty to any greater Kurdish nation (Cornell 2001). Nevertheless, Kurdish nationalism’s advocates have persisted throughout Turkey’s history. Turkish politics has always had an undercurrent of Kurdish nationalism, though the nationalists themselves are divided over whether autonomy (greater self-government within the Turkish state) or separatism (seceding from the Turkish state altogether) is the appropriate solution.

The second ideological issue was the influence of leftist political ideology. Turkey’s first military coup d’état (in 1960) was primarily a reaction to what the military perceived to be growing authoritarianism in the government. (When Turkey’s democratically elected government tried to extend its influence to the military itself by interfering with promotions and appointments, the military’s reaction was, in a sense, one of self-defense). Following the coup, the military junta drafted a new liberal constitution (Turkey’s Second Republic) that allowed organizations on the extreme left (previously excluded) to form legal political parties. Although the Second Republic constitution did help expand the influence of radical ideologies, it should be remarked that leftist organizations have always been an extremely marginal element of Turkish politics. For example, in the 1980 elections, just prior to the September coup, only four of Turkey’s seven Marxist-oriented parties managed to gather 1 percent of the national vote (Tartter 1996).

Turkey’s economic problems throughout the 1970s made leftist economic theories and political ideologies more attractive to many Turks, particularly university students. Several student movements with Marxist, Leninist, or Maoist ideologies took part in revolutionary activities to bring about a socialist Turkish state. Among these organizations, one in particular, the Turkish People’s Liberation Army (TPLA), was intent on starting a revolution in Turkey’s southeast— the most underdeveloped part of the country— convinced that, if they were successful, other socialist states, particularly the Soviet Union, would come to their aid. Abdullah Öcalan was originally a member of the TPLA, but because they did not see Kurdish separatism as a distinct objective, Öcalan and many followers splintered from the groupand formed their ownorganization combining Marxist-Leninist ideology with Kurdish nationalism.

This is where historical circumstances intervene. Öcalan might have been more willing to pursue his goals politically in the Turkish parliament had the entire country not had such little faith in it, or if the military had not intervened when it did and abolished political parties. Anatolia’s southeast was attractive from a Marxist perspective because of its underdeveloped feudal countryside and industrializing cities with large burgeoning (and perceivably exploited) working class. Leninist ideology made Kurdish separatism all the more convincing and imperative, for it saw the Kurds as an exploited nation, imperially subjugated by the Turkish state. What was generally perceived as an ineffective government when Öcalan’s following was formed came to be perceived as an oppressive, authoritarian, military, government by the time the PKK began guerrilla operations in earnest in 1984.


Following Abdullah Öcalan’s capture and the subsequent 1999 PKK cease-fire, many observers believed the conflict was over, at least in terms of its previous scale and intensity, but Turkey’s bloody conflict with the PKK is still going on. Violence diminished during two unilateral cease-fires called by the PKK. The first (1993-1994) was intended to boost dwindling PKK moral in late 1992 following the increasing success of village guards and Turkey’s military. The second PKK cease-fire was called by Öcalan after his capture by Turkish security forces in Kenya. During that cease-fire, the longest and most successful yet, the PKK changed its name to KADEK (Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress) at its 2002 party conference and proclaimed a commitment to nonviolence in support of Kurdish rights—particularly to pursue its goals legitimately through Turkey’s parliament. However, the KADEK surrendered neither their arms nor any of their members to Turkish justice; they retained their foreign bases and the ability to resume formal hostilities at any time. Although the KADEK claimed these conditions were necessary for purposes of self-defense, many saw this as an indication that the group was not fully committed to a peaceful, democratic solution. Moreover, during the cease-fire’s intervening years, terrorist attacks continued sporadically in Turkish cities. Although KADEK never formally acknowledged complicity in any of them, their organization was linked to several (according to Turkish security). The KADEK changed its name to Kongra-Gel (KGK) in 2003 in an attempt to disassociate itself with alleged violence committed under the KADEK label, although Kongra-Gel has been linked to at least one terrorist attack since then.

Conflict Status

Charging that Ankara’s concessions were symbolic and that meaningful change was not happening swiftly enough, in 2004 Kongra-Gel changed its name back to PKK and resumed guerrilla operations against Turkish security forces from its bases and training camps in northern Iraq, which had never been dismantled. Turkey’s military implored the United States and the Iraqi government to put pressure on the PKK’s Iraqi operations, but although the United States in particular concurred that the PKK needed to be dealt with, it did nothing, as its forces were occupied with suppressing Iraq’s own insurgency. Finally, with tacit approval from the United States, Turkey quietly resumed its cross-border attacks against PKK bases in March 2005. The PKK presently has an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 militants, of which 500 are believed to be in Turkey, 500 in Iran and 4,000 in northern Iraq (U.S. Department of State 2005). The organization was expelled from Syria under a joint Turkish-Syrian agreement in October 1998 and still has thousands of sympathizers in Turkey and Europe.

Duration Tactics

Why has Turkey’s Kurdish insurrection persisted (at various levels of intensity) for nineteen years? The first reason is the war’s evolutionary nature; the conflict did not erupt spontaneously but escalated very gradually. This was partly because of the PKK’s own beleaguered development. Although its goals and purposes seemed clear at the outset, putting these ideas into action was another matter. The PKK’s Kurdish worker’s revolution was confronted with a couple of false starts and constantly reevaluated and adjusted its tactics. The Turkish government was slow to react to the PKK threat and, by underestimating the PKK’s early popularity and tenacity, was complacent in mounting a concerted opposition, thus giving the PKK’s forces time to perfect its tactics while expanding its organization and sphere of influence.

Even after the Turkish government seized the initiative, its prosecution of the PKK was impeded by the ease with which Kurdish fighters could melt away across Turkey’s borders. Thus, the war degenerated into a stalemate in which, although the military tended to have control of the villages and much of the countryside, insurgents were still free to launch attacks from positions of relative safety and increase their reliance on terrorist tactics.

Throughout this, the PKK endeavored to improve its funding situation, finding a lucrative source in the smuggling of illicit narcotics (particularly opiates and hashish) into Europe. The PKK was organizationally well-suited to this task. Its operations were clandestine to begin with, and it was organized into isolated cells that could conceivably carry out any mission while benefiting from compartmentalized security. PKK militants roamed over a territory where drug smuggling was already pervasive, said territory being a major corridor for opium smuggled from Iran and Iraq to Europe. The PKK’s logistical network, once established, could move narcotics as speedily and surreptitiously as it did arms and supplies. Clandestine cells in the cities often were devoted to drug processing, and their refined product was transported to Istanbul or other port cities and thence to Cyprus, a narcotics nexus for drugs entering Europe. No precise data exist on any of the PKK’s illegal fund-raising activities, though the drug trade is believed to be its primary and most lucrative source of funding— one from which it continues to profit.

External Military Intervention

Although no foreign arms have intervened on the PKK’s behalf (the cause of Kurdish separatism being no more popular in Syria, Iraq, and Iran than it is in Turkey), all three countries have disputes with Turkey on issues ranging from territorial claims to water rights to oil exploration. These three states have tended to pressure the Turkish government by contributing funds or arms to the PKK and by ignoring PKK bases in their respective territories.

Turkey’s hydrological projects in southeast Anatolia are a particular bone of contention. Dams along the Euphrates River restrict Syria’s and Iraq’s freshwater supply, thus frustrating their own efforts to expand agriculture along the Euphrates. Syria in particular has a history of enthusiastically supporting anti-Turkish forces from Armenian terrorists to Kurdish guerrillas; and this support seems to be linked to progress or regress in Syria’s ongoing water negotiations with Turkey.

Iran and Turkey share a pronounced ideological animosity. Turkey is a progressive, Western-oriented, secular Islamic republic; Iran is an Eastern-oriented Islamic theocracy—and each country strongly associates its politics with its national character. Although Iran ignored the PKK throughout much of the 1980s (finding their atheistic Marxist-Leninist orientation understandably unsavory), by the early 1990s the PKK was reforming its image. By that time, the PKK had begun to realize that far too many Kurds also found the PKK’s atheistic ideology untenable, and thus the organization began to downplay the atheistic teachings of Marx and to pepper their propaganda with Islamist rhetoric. Their new goal of an Islamic Kurdish state was greeted by Tehran, and training facilities were constructed just across the Iranian border.

Overall, the tacit support the PKK received from Turkey’s neighbors certainly extended the war. Although Turkey’s military typically managed to secure the Turkish countryside, the guerrillas were always able to withdraw across borders into accommodating states. By the early 1990s, the PKK had no permanent or even semipermanent bases in Turkey itself; nearly all guerrilla operations were organized and staged from abroad. The complacency and complicity of Turkey’s neighbors certainly extended the war by a decade—one that witnessed the war’s bloodiest actions on both sides, as well as its greatest humanitarian cost to so many neutral Kurds, to whom the war had brought nothing but persecution, misery, and death.

Conflict Managment Efforts

Conflict management efforts on the part of other governments, NGOs, or the UN have been minimal. Turkey has insisted throughout the conflict that the PKK is an internal security concern; unwilling to lend legitimacy to the PKK’s activities, Turkey has repeatedly downplayed the conflict’s guerrilla aspects, has emphasized the PKK as a terrorist organization, and has stated emphatically that government was winning the fight. Turkey has never participated in any ceasefire with the PKK or any form of negotiation and would regard any third party’s intervention as legitimizing what the Turkish foreign ministry continues to call “the world’s most notorious terrorist organization” (Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2003).

For its part, the PKK rejects the terrorist label, insisting that it does not attack civilians and that it conducts its war in strict accordance with the four Geneva Conventions (Öcalan 1995)—although the PKK’s definition of civilian tends to be narrower than the Geneva Conventions permit, as it excludes elected and appointed (unarmed) representatives of the state in Kurdish provinces, and its attacks are consistently carried out with reckless disregard for civilian casualties.

However, foreign states (particularly the United States, Turkey’s principal arms provider) and the EU have certainly influenced the conflict. Kurdish and human rights lobbies in the United States consistently seek to block sales and transfers to Turkey of arms that might be used in the Kurdish conflict. The EU has voiced particular concern over allegations of human rights abuses by Turkish security forces, and at Turkey’s incursions into northern Iraq, which are considered violations of international law and the 1991 imposed northern no-fly zone. These objections certainly have positively affected the war’s humanitarian aspects, for international pressure has resulted in better human rights training and an overall reduction in abuses. This likely served to improve the government’s image in Kurdish eyes and frustrated PKK recruitment and propaganda efforts. However, the international condemnation evoked by Turkey’s cross-border attacks has tended to restrain their frequency, duration, and intensity— which has likely served only to aid the PKK and prolong the war.


To consider the future of Turkey’s violent struggle with the PKK is to consider two separate outcomes: the military consequences of the war itself and the future of Turkey’s Kurdish peoples. The Middle East’s Kurds are among its most ancient populations (described by Herodotus and Xenophon in the fifth century BC), but they have never in recorded history had a country of their own. For more than 2,500 years, they have lived as citizens of one mighty empire or another: the Persian, the Seleucid, the Persian (again), and finally the Ottoman.

After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson listed among his Fourteen Points the self-determination of all nations (including the Kurds), but British and French interests in territory and oil left the Kurds divided between the European postwar mandates. The Kurds fought alongside and supported Atatürk in Turkey’s war of independence (1919-1920), not wishing their lands to come under Armenian or Russian control. However, they quickly fell victim to Turkey’s assimilationist programs, which sought a singular and cohesive Westernized culture. For brief periods, speaking Kurdish and wearing Kurdish dress were imprisonable offenses in Turkey. Kurdish nationalists were active in Turkish politics from the republic’s founding but divided when it came to appropriate goals. When leftist theories of armed revolution overlapped the plight of Turkey’s impoverished Kurds, all it took was a visionary, charismatic, and ruthless leader to cement them with Kurdish nationalist aspirations.

Turkey’s constitution lists the state’s territorial integrity as one of three “irrevocable” constitutional articles, and thus the government will make no concessions with respect to an independent Kurdish state, which convinced the PKK that armed insurrection was its only hope. After nearly a decade of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, however, the PKK was no closer to its goal. If any solution exists to the Kurdish question, it will likely come about only with a more cohesive Kurdish political unity.

Although the PKK recently resumed its insurgency, its guerrilla war shows little hope of succeeding if the newly formed Iraqi government or the resident United States military force works to drive the PKK from northern Iraq. Deprived of these bases, the militants have no other refuge from which to stage their attacks. How long it will take for the PKK to be removed from Iraq, however, depends on how quickly Iraq’s own insurgency is suppressed. In the five years since the 1999 cease-fire, Turkey has striven to secure its southeastern provinces, making future attempts at infiltration unlikely. Unfortunately, it is likely that, even if the PKK’s guerrilla forces are decisively defeated, its terrorist elements may long endure. The organization still has many cells throughout Turkish cities and maintains its involvement in organized crime.

As for the Kurds themselves, Turkey’s fight with the PKK has given Kurdish separatism a bad name and has probably hindered what might otherwise have been a constructive dialogue between Turks and Kurds. One positive outcome, however, is that the conflict has induced the Turkish government to treat the Kurds and Kurdish culture with greater respect—if for no other reason than to retain their loyalty. The government’s Southeast Anatolian Project (GAP), which is finally coming to fruition, should create more jobs and improve the region’s standard of living, thus eliminating one of the war’s key contributing factors.

What is most encouraging for the Kurdish people is that, over the years, the Turkish state has come to see itself differently—no longer as the political expression of the Turkish nation but as a modern civil consociation capable of embracing diverse peoples under a common rule of law. This transformation parallels nationalism’s general decline the world over. As ethnopolitics loses its coherence for the Turks, perhaps in time it will for the Kurds as well.