In the badlands between the borders of Iraq, Turkey and Iran, a small band of Kurdish separatists continue to wage their war.
Our PKK contact and driver arrived at the appointed time outside the hotel in Erbil. We had been told he would identify himself using an agreed term. We hadn’t quite been ready for the fact that this single word would be the sole communication possible between us. The diminutive, scrawny youth who turned up at six that morning knew neither English nor Arabic.
Only Kurdish. That was how we began our journey from the Iraqi Kurdish capital toward the Qandil mountains, in the remote border area between Iraq, Turkey and Iran.
It is in these mountains that the guerrillas of the Parti Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) live and wage their 26-year-old war against Turkey.
They offer ideal terrain for guerrilla fighters. Accessible only through a network of narrow, near impenetrable passes, the mountains serve as a launching ground for the PKK and the allied Iranian Kurdish PEJAK into their respective areas of operation.
The writ of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government has little purchase in the Qandil area. The PKK is the de facto ruling authority.
Our contact from the Kurdish regional government in Erbil cheerfully wished us luck on the eve of our departure – and told us not to bother calling him if we got into trouble. There was, he said with a broad smile, “absolutely nothing he could do” in such a situation.
The PKK is waging a struggle in these mountains for autonomy and recognition for the Turkish Kurds. The Qandil area has become a little known but crucial window into the complex strategic arrangements that dominate today’s Middle East.
FOUNDED IN 1978, the PKK began its armed campaign against the Turkish authorities in 1984. The Turkish military responded with ferocity. In the 1984-99 period, around 30,000 people lost their lives in the conflict. The Turks destroyed more than 3,000 Kurdish villages. The capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 led to a sharp downturn in the movement’s fortunes.
Turkish governments failed to address Kurdish grievances following the capture of Ocalan. So from its base in Qandil, the PKK slowly rebuilt itself.
The movement, which ended a 12-month cease-fire in June, subsequently carried out a number of successful operations before renewing its cease-fire in August. The most daring of these was a mine blast along the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline on July 21. The blast claimed two lives, temporarily halted the flow of oil along the strategic pipeline and served notice of the PKK’s undimmed abilities to strike at its Turkish enemy.
As a result of the renewed campaign, Turkish aerial attacks on the mountains took place. Iranian mortar fire is also a common occurrence. The fighters of the PKK live in temporary structures, constantly alert and seeking to avoid the regular attentions of Turkish drone aircraft.
Finding our way to the PKK in the mountains had not been easy. It involved a long series of communications with supporters of the movement in Europe. Finally, the word had come and we had made our way to Erbil.
But relations between the Erbil-based Kurdish regional government and the PKK are complex. Hence the semi-clandestine arrangements for our trip to the mountains.
The KRG has created the most stable and peaceful part of Iraq. The Kurdish regional capital has the feel of a boom town, with new malls, hotels and office blocks springing up all over the city.
The cautious, pragmatic Iraqi Kurdish leadership has little in common with the ideologues of the PKK. At the same time, the Erbil leadership is unwilling to undertake the kind of drastic measures that would be necessary to remove the movement from its mountain fastness in Qandil.
As a result, the government uneasily tolerates both the presence of the PKK, and the Turkish and Iranian bombings which this presence brings about.
Checkpoints manned by the Peshmerga forces of the KRG dotted the highway leading into the mountains. The Peshmerga is one of the most professional and efficient military forces in Iraq. But the soldiers clearly had little interest in blocking the way to foreign journalists very obviously on the way to meet with the guerrillas of the PKK. Our passports were perfunctorily glanced at, and we were waved on.
The mountains, as they loomed suddenly before us, were majestic, harsh and beautiful.
The way to the heights where the PKK is to be found involves the traversing of near impassable gorges on the narrowest of dirt roads. In places, the paths simply disappear,washed away by mountain streams, and the vehicle must cross directly through the rushing water. The precise points at which Iraq, Turkey and Iran intersect are also not exactly clear. The second intelligible word our driver spoke to us was not reassuring. “Iran,” he suddenly said at one stage in the ascent, pointing toward a narrow fence to our immediate left.
The leader We avoided Iran, and managed to stay on the tracks. Finally, we arrived at a house of a PKK sympathizer, where we met our movement contacts for the first time in the flesh. From there, we were driven to a remote house, passing a roadblock manned by PKK fighters, and to a small building, where again we were told to wait. Minutes passed.
Finally, Murat Karayalan, acting leader of the PKK, entered, accompanied by an entourage of armed fighters.
Karayilan, 67, gray-haired and mustached, is the acknowledged senior figure in the PKK. The pleasantries completed, he quickly turned the conversation to the issue of the AKP government in Turkey. The PKK leader wanted to talk about what he called the “strategic alliance” between the Islamist AKP and Iran. Karayilan first noted a recent visit by Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi to Turkey, in which in a statement with Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, he announced the launching of a joint strategy to develop economic relations.
Such a strategy, Karayilan suggested, would serve to help Iran bypass the economic embargo against it. It would also serve as a basis for joint action against the twin Kurdish guerrilla organizations present in the Qandil mountains – the PKK and PEJAK, its counterpart among the Iranian Kurds.
“The AKP is currently trying to draw the surrounding countries into hostilities against us,” Karayilan said, “and through the ideology of Islam they want to control and dominate the whole Islamic world, in an attempt to use this power against peaceful coexistence between nations – this is Erdogan’s game.”
He also accused Erdogan of “double dealing” in his regional and international alliances. “Turkey has relations with the USA, and also with Iran,” he said, “and both are used against the Kurds. In Qandil, US-made drones fly over the zone. They collect intelligence and bring it back to Turkey. Turkey then comes and bombs the area. But Turkey also passes the information on to Iran, which also bombards us.”
The AKP, Karayilan maintained, has a plan to crush the PKK “in Sri Lankan style,” and was in the process of attempting to firm up regional and international alliances – most importantly with Iran and Syria – to put this plan into effect.
Karayilan’s manner was calm and friendly throughout the interview, more in the manner of a politician in late middle age than a paramilitary leader, despite his military uniform. (The PKK remains on both the US and the EU list of terror organizations.) He became more animated, however, when he alleged the deaths and jailing of Kurdish children under the Erdogan government.
He accused the Turkish prime minister of “lying” in his supposed support for the Palestinians and empathy with their suffering.
“On the one hand,” said Karayilan, “he says this shouldn’t happen. On the other, he is doing it himself.”
He also related to the issue of Israel. He stressed the empathy felt by Kurds for the Jews, given their joint experience, as he put it, of “tragedies and genocides.” He expressed his “respect” for the people of Israel, while also criticizing the government for its defense relationship with Turkey.
Karayilan reiterated the recent allegations that the Turks have used chemical weapons against the movement’s fighters. He mentioned an incident he had dealt with personally in the Sirnak province in southeast Turkey. He said that 20 PKK fighters died as a result of Turkish use of chemical weapons.
He said that he had personally sent materials found at the site to a laboratory in Germany for testing, where it was confirmed that chemical weapons had been used.
But Karayilan also stressed what he called the “defensive” nature of the PKK’s strategy and its desire for dialogue with Turkey. The impression given was not that of a militant leader hungry for conflict. Rather, the PKK is aware of its isolation, and appears to want to walk a careful line between militancy and political action to advance the cause of the Kurds in Turkey.
The fighters The morning after the interview, we were taken to observe a demonstration of tactics by young PKK fighters at a secluded spot high in the mountains. The fighters, a mixed group of young men and women, demonstrated a tactical response to an ambush. They were all very young, none of them much over 20. Nearly all of them from the villages of southeast Turkey.
They had signed up with the PKK for the duration, no longer able to reenter Turkey, living all year round in the mountains, constantly in motion to avoid the probing Turkish drones. No way to leave, our interpreter, who had lived for 14 years in Australia, told us, once you have signed up.
“They give their lives for the cause.”
The PKK fighters looked young and fresh-faced, but there is every reason to believe that they would put up a fierce and capable resistance to any Turkish attempt to move in force against them. They are familiar with the terrain, well skilled in guerrilla tactics, and fiercely devoted to the organization and its overall leader, the jailed Abdullah Ocalan. Karayilan also indicated that should such an attack take place, the organization would undertake to spread the area of combat by initiating attacks in western Turkey, outside of the main area of Kurdish population.
Still, there are reasons to believe that such an outcome may not be immediately imminent.
The PKK elected to unilaterally continue its cease-fire for a further month after September 20. The organization may well be hoping to benefit from the widespread disillusionment felt by the Kurds of Turkey with Erdogan’s perceived failure to deliver on early promises. Such a path requires patience and political organization, not militancy alone.
The road ahead The PKK has abandoned its dreams of a large Kurdish state and today says it seeks only autonomy and language rights for Kurds in Turkey. It has no interest in provoking the Turkish government to a point where a large scale incursion into the Qandil mountains would become inevitable.
From the Turkish point of view, too, such an incursion would ultimately solve little.
The military could certainly kill a large number of PKK fighters, but the “Sri Lankan” style solution that Karayilan claimed Erdogan seeks may be precluded by political considerations both domestic and international.
And for as long as the basic issue of the Turkish Kurds and their status remains unresolved, the PKK would be likely to organize and rise again.
So for the moment, at least, the stark Qandil mountains are likely to continue to play host to the isolated but formidable insurgent movement that currently dominates them. The PKK’s cease-fires may continue to come and go. The growing Turkish-Iranian alliance will do its best to make life as unpleasant as possible for the movement’s militants in their mobile bases on the peaks. The Kurdish regional government will go on developing further south, and looking nervously at its uninvited Kurdish compatriots in the mountains.
There was mortar fire in the distance as we drove down from the mountains, heading back to Erbil. Maybe it was the Iranian gunners, who fire regularly up at the Qandil area, in the general direction of the PJAK militants waging their own war against the Revolutionary Guards. Maybe it was a PKK training exercise.
One thing seemed certain as our driver negotiated the narrow descents and we made it to the highway back to Erbil – that there was no end in sight. The beautiful, blighted border zone of Qandil will be ringing to the sound of gunfire, the shouts of insurgents and the periodic thunder of Turkish aircraft and Iranian cannons, largely out of earshot of a largely indifferent world, for a long time to come.