2019 has been a decisive year for dealing with the PKK structures in Iraq and Syria, as well as, in Turkey. The military operations have been successful in putting an end to the PKK activities and adjusting preventive measures. The Ministry of Interior’s Kıran Operations along with Pençe 1-3 Operations (the Operation Claw) followed by the Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria have been to a large extent successful in guaranteeing domestic safety measures against the terrorist organization. The operations have been carried out effectively to stop the activities and manoeuvrability of the PKK.
Ankara has adopted an ‘Nonstop Operation Strategy’ when pummelling the terrorist organization’s actions within this side of the border, while ensuring a presence targeting ammunition depots in addition to minimizing their financial resources. In this respect, Turkey has been active in managing to prevent the actions of the terrorist organization. Throughout 2019 Turkish security forces has rightly targeted the PKK’s leadership cadre reducing their decision-making abilities and capacities. By the end, it was certain that the PKK had received a severe blow to its leadership cadre. This has incapacitated the organization in immeasurable ways.
Threats and Challenges Resulting from the PKK Attacks
The focus of the 2019 strategy was conducting nonstop operations with intense tempo stressing on the terrorist organization’s attack capabilities and reducing their active territorial control. Turkey was obliged to deal with the PKK/YPG existence in Syria through conducting the Operation Euphrates Shield (OES) in 2016, the Operation Olive Branch (OOB) in 2018 and in 2019 the Operation Decisiveness in Iraq simultaneously. Especially, the Operation Peace Spring (OPS) along with the Operation Decisiveness in north of Iraq in 2019 which took place together with the Operation Claw and the Operation Kıran, supported the government’s counter-terrorism measures on both sides of the border. In this sense, there have been 694 operations within Turkey and 396 operations outside the border. The purpose of the most of the operations was decapitating the high-ranking terrorists and preventing the cross-border mobilization of the terrorist organization. The first of these operations was the Operation Claw launched on the 27 May 2019. As a result of the Claw Operations in northern Iraq,158 terrorists have become eliminated.
Simultaneously with these cross-border operations, counter-terrorism operations in Turkish territory have successfully been carried out. On August 18, 2019 the first of the Kıran Operations took place in Hakkari, Şırnak and Van provinces by participation of the gendarmeries, police forces and village guards. Kıran-1 Operation included 129 teams, in all three provinces, controlling pastures and country roads, as well as, destroying the number of caves and rural shelters. The operation took place in seven phases in which 121 terrorists have been eliminated, along with 229 caves and rural shelters have been destroyed until November. On 23 November the seventh stage of Kiran Operations began in Tunceli. In 2019, it has seen an increase in the number of operations countering the PKK threat. With the help of UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) units, 363 terrorists were caught in 2019, while a total of 1249 terrorist have been eliminated.
It can be said, since 2019, the PKK’s terror attacks have changed in character and nature. This is so much so that, Turkey’s campaign against the deadly organization along with the internal struggle within the PKK cadres have reduced its territorial control and to a large extent failed its contention to survive. The members of the terrorist organization, who have used the ‘hit and run’ tactics such as the UAV attacks, forest fires and factory arsons, sought to maximise the damage by their attacks while minimizing their casualties. Overall, 2019 has been a year in which the Turkish authorities have carried out ‘nonstop’ operations, preventing the PKK from carrying out any major attacks.
Graphic 1: Operations Conducted by Turkey vs the PKK Attacks by Month (January-December 2019)
The PKK elements, whose locations were determined as a result of the Operation Decisiveness and the operations Claw-1, Claw-2 and Claw-3, which were carried out in the north of Iraq in the last months of 2019, were eliminated and the life materials belonging to the organization were destroyed. As a result of the operations, the organization has made an effort to reconsider the initiative of terrorist attacks in order to "survive". All terrorist organizations suffer great losses while under intense operational "pressure" and their capability to carry out new attacks is weakened. As of January 2019, TAF (Turkish Armed Forces) have carried out 1090 counter terrorism operations, while the PKK has only carried out 90 attacks both in cross-border and Turkey. As a result of the May reduction in its attack capabilities, the organization has been mobilizing on ‘hit and run’ tactics.
Geographic Heat Map: The PKK’s Attacks (January-December 2019)
The terrorist organization began to mobilize over the hit-and-run tactic in order to regain the attack initiative that it had lost in May. As can be seen from the heat map, the attacks were intensely carried out in the provinces of Trabzon and Rize, and the natural resources in these provinces were targeted by the PKK with an effort to cause great damage with a small number of terrorists.
Graphic 2: The PKK’s Attacks on Turkey by Attack Type (January-December 2019)
In 2018, the PKK attacks on Turkish border were reduced from 387 to 154; in 2019 on the other hand, the number dropped to 87. The terror attacks in 2018 and 2019 seem to be the same in number, however, differentiated by type of attack. In 2019, the PKK have used a mini UAV 3 times, Improvised Explosive Device (IED) 12 times, and harassing fires 8 times as ‘hit and run’ tactics. Although they still have not reached their forest fires/arsons numbers, which remain their most effective weapon. On the other hand, the terrorist organization’s UAV attacks have gone through an innovation change. Such that, while rotary-wing drones called quadcopter / multicopter were used in terrorist attacks that started in 2016, it has been observed that fixed-wing platforms are used recently.
Graphic 3: The PKK’s Attack Types by Percentage (January-December 2019)
In 2018, three of the most often used attack type was 26.4% by IEDs, in 2019 this number fell to 14.4%; ambush numbers also fell from 13.5% to 2.2%, while harassing fires dropped from 11% to 8.9%. In accordance with the graphs, 56.7% of the attacks by the terrorist organization were by committing arson. It is easy then to interpret these results as the indicator of the largely passive position of the organization in carrying out armed attacks compared to previous years.
Graphic 4: The PKK’s Attacks by Target Type (January-December 2019)
The terrorist organization targeted tactical and operational elements 26 times, civilians 9 times and government buildings 3 times until December. However, as of July and August, when the "revenge slogans" increased, natural resources were the target of terrorist attacks throughout the year. It has been observed that the aforementioned “hit-and-run” tactic has emerged in every period the organization has historically weakened and faced the pressure of counter-terrorism operations.
Cluster Map: The PKK’s Arson Attacks on Natural Resources (January – December 2019)
The PKK has used different methods to recruit militants, including radicalizing those with a sympathy to the organization, directing efforts toward children and leftist organizations using these groups to man its attacks. By using names like the ‘Children of the Fire Initiative’, the PKK has taken “revenge” for the counter terrorism operations by committing 48 arson attacks.
Graphic 5: The Percentage of the Children Recruited by the PKK by Age*
In 2019, the “revenge attacks” were conducted in forest rich areas and factories. A group calling itself the ‘Cilo Revenge Team’ carried out arson attacks against a cosmetics factory in Kocaeli. Just as the PKK’s latest attacks, this attack was launched for revenge purposes. It was so much so that the youth and children were included as part of the mountain cadres of the organization. The PKK’s urban and mountain cadres’ losses and the reduction in the recruitment into the organization have been the greatest in recent years. This pushed the PKK to try to win new supporters and members. In this sense, it would not be wrong to say, those in the city groups were trying to increase their attack capabilities by recruiting for revenge purposes. As it is well-known, in November 2018 the leadership of the terrorist organization had announced it would be withdrawing from the city and villages where it suffered from intelligence failures. As a result, the latest challenges in the conflict capabilities within the terror group were made less obvious via its persuasion mechanism.
Graphic 6: The Results of the PKK Attacks Targeting Security Forces (January-December 2019)
The year 2019 has resulted with 19 soldiers be martyred and 25 security forces be injured by the PKK attacks. Comparing these results with the numbers in 2018 which were a lot less, it can be said that Turkey’s increased its ability to fight the terrorist group. As effective military presence of Turkey, the civilian casualty was minimized that has resulted in 21 civilians dead and 56 civilians injured.
The PKK has conducted its attacks adopting ‘hit and run’ tactic aiming to reduce its losses. Especially, Turkey’s counter terrorism operations and the decapitation of the terrorist organization’s high-ranking members have back-tracked the organization’s territorial control into a challenge to survive. By using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and ‘hit and run’ tactics like forest and factory arsons, the organization has tried to inflict the most damage with the minimum of losses. Through these attacks, the groups who have a sympathy for the PKK have been radicalized by their capabilities to carry out terror attacks. At the same time, by its ability to recruit, the political extensions of the PKK have forced the children to take part in actions in various ‘known’ regions. They did this by kidnapping them and taking them to their training camps. These groups, which the PKK radicalized and added to their capabilities for conducting attacks, are expected to take part in destructive terror attacks. In the end, the PKK’s offensive and defensive reflexes have removed the territorial control of the organization, forcing them to rely on a backtracked ‘strategic defence’ phase, instead.