Turkey’s military endeavours are being kept alive by the country’s NATO partners, and Ankara is employing mercenaries to hide the heavy losses it is sustaining at the hands of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), said Murat Karayılan, one of the group’s top commanders.
Karayılan’s speech on Monday marked the anniversary of the PKK’s armed struggle for Kurdish self-rule, launched on 15 August 1984. The 38-year struggle has entered a crucial phase as Turkish forces race to “liquidate” the Kurdish fighters before the 2023 centenary of the Turkish Republic, the PKK commander said.
Karayılan, who leads the PKK’s armed forces, was referring to the series of Turkish military operations in Turkey, North and East Syria and northern Iraq launched against the PKK and its allies since peace talks broke down in 2015. The assaults have seen Turkish forces occupy predominantly Kurdish territories and launch frequent aerial and shelling attacks on populated areas.
Yet the PKK’s fighters have made history by holding out against NATO’s second-largest army, and the Turkish side has had to rely on strong support from its allies, said Karayılan.
“We don’t need to blow our own trumpet, but there are very few examples in history of the things that are happening today,” said Karayılan. “Before all else, new pages are being written both in the art of war and in the history of war. How can it be possible to stand against an expert, professional force, a massive army using calculated tactics and methods, despite its use of prohibited weapons?”
The Kurdish commander said his forces had been so effective at holding its positions that the Turkish military has had to employ mercenary forces to hide its losses.
“They created a mercenary army so that no matter how many you kill, the public doesn’t hear of it, because they’re made to sign a non-disclosure agreement,” Karayılan said, adding that fallen mercenaries’ families are guaranteed large amounts of compensation under the terms of their contracts.
After decades of repression in Turkey, the Kurdish political movement made unprecedented gains in the early years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, starting in 2002. In 2013, the AKP and PKK launched a peace process that was preceded by secret talks between PKK leaders and Turkish intelligence officers in Oslo.
But the “Turkish state rejected these protocols,” Karayılan said, “because the state and the government have no intention of reaching a solution. They used that ceasefire period for their special war tactics.”
And, when the Turkish military broke the two-year ceasefire with the PKK in 2015, they had to rely on heavy support from their NATO allies to avoid humiliating defeats at the hands of Kurdish guerillas, said the PKK commander.
“NATO did not want its second biggest army, the Turkish army, to be defeated by the Kurdistan Freedom Guerrilla, either politically or militarily,” Karayılan said. “They observed that it could not fight well enough, so they gave it the latest technology.”
This technology includes the famous Bayraktar military drones, which have been used to great effect by the Turkish military and sold to countries including Ukraine. The drones’ impact in the Azeri-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020 and the Ukrainian defence against Russia this year has been so great that the sale of the drones has become a significant part of Turkey’s soft power efforts.
But “it was all a lie, they were just assembling them in Turkey,” said Karayılan, adding that the real credit for building the drones lies not with Turkey’s Baykar Defense company but with the NATO partners who supply them parts. “They get them to make up these weapons and hand them over to them so that the Turkish army will gain the upper hand.”
This was one part of a policy that also saw the NATO countries lend their political support to Turkey, he said.
Before Turkey launched its 2019 military offensive against PKK-allied autonomous administrations in North and East Syria, US forces had been stationed in the predominantly Kurdish areas, where they had fought alongside local fighters in the operation against the Islamic State.
Fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces played a key role in defeating the Islamic State, losing thousands in the conflict. But former US President Donald Trump agreed to pull his troops away from the Syrian-Turkish border, leaving them exposed to the 2019 Turkish offensive. The move drew cries of outrage from politicians in the United States and other NATO countries, but very few concrete measures were taken to oppose Turkey’s assault.
In the years since, Turkish forces have continued their operations against the PKK and its allies, including the frequent use of killer drones to attack targets, often in residential areas. Kurdish activists from the region say Turkey’s allies have turned a blind eye to civilian deaths and other violations of international law, including the resettlement of Syrian refugees in occupied areas.
At the same time, Turkey has engaged in a diplomacy blitz in an attempt to gain approval from Russia and Iran for a new incursion in northern Syria, Karayılan said.
“They are using their geo-strategic position, they have struck bargains, NATO has seen what benefits they can draw in for themselves, they are travelling everywhere to bargain with Russia, going back and forth to Tehran,” he said.
Despite the lack of international support and the withdrawal of erstwhile partners, the PKK’s fighters have withstood the Turkish advance while improving their tactics, said Karayılan.
“The war is currently at its peak. In what sense is it at its peak? It is at its peak for us, our tactics are at their most refined,” he said.