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.
Relations between the Erbil-based Kurdish regional government and the PKK are complex.
The KRG has created the most stable and peaceful part of Iraq. The Kurdish regional capital has the feel of a boomtown, 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 any 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.
The fighters are 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.
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.
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. 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 seems to be 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.
Revised version of article by Jonathan Spyer, Senior fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, October 22, 2010.