Old Dogs, New Tricks: Urban Warfare in Turkey’s War with the PKK
Since the beginning of its armed struggle for Kurdish self-determination in 1984, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has predominantly relied on rural guerrilla warfare tactics. Many observers were therefore taken aback when unprecedented violence engulfed cities and towns in the majority-Kurdish southeast after the ceasefire between the Turkish government and PKK collapsed in July 2015. Although a marked departure from its traditional rural-style insurgency, PKK’s move to the cities reflects a broader trend in modern conflicts: the resurgence of urban warfare.
Within the last five years, cities like Mosul in Iraq and Kobane in Syria were largely destroyed in the war against ISIL, while the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has described the fight for the Syrian city of Aleppo as “one the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times.” In eastern Ukraine, even though much of the fighting takes place in the rural areas, state forces continue to periodically battle Russian-backed separatists in the city of Donetsk. And in the rapidly urbanizing countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, urban warfare has swept across the capital cities of the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, and Cote d’Ivoire.
This growing trend of urban warfare calls for a better understanding of its causes, conduct, and consequences. In this context, the recent conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK presents the perfect laboratory for examining of these issues.
The PKK was founded in the late-1970s as a Marxist-Leninist organization with the goal of establishing an autonomous Kurdish territory in Turkey. In the Maoist strategy of the “People’s War,” the group focused on leftist political indoctrination and employed rural guerilla tactics primarily against Turkish security forces in the countryside. During the height of the violence in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of civilians either fled or were forcibly evacuated by the government, as nearly 3,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed. The PKK carried out several terrorist attacks in cities across western Turkey during this time, but the core of the insurgency remained rural and the PKK never directly contested urban areas. Since 1984, more than 40,000 people have died in this conflict.
In 2013, with the war at a stalemate, the two sides embarked on an unprecedented negotiations process. The PKK agreed to a ceasefire and the government formally recognized Kurdish cultural and language rights, and expanded political participation. However, relations began to sour in fall of 2014 when Turkey refused to help the embattled People’s Protection Units (YPG), an organization closely associated with PKK, break the ISIL siege on the Kurdish city of Kobane in Syria. The breaking point came in July of 2015, when ISIL suicide terrorists killed more than 30 people at a peaceful rally in support of YPG’s fight. The PKK responded by assassinating two police officers, blaming the government for failing to protect Kurdish citizens. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), in turn, accused the PKK for derailing the peace process and responded harshly.
By the end of month, Turkey and PKK were again at war. But the character of the conflict appeared to be changing: for the first time since 1984, the battle is in the cities. This new development leads to three key questions: First, why did the PKK choose to contest cities from 2015 onward? Second, what strategies and tactics did each side pursue throughout this urban phase of the conflict? Third, what are the long-term consequences of these destructive urban battles?
The rationale behind PKK’s decision to take the fight to the cities seems to be twofold: first, to undermine Ankara’s claims to “sovereignty” and effective authority in urban centers, and second, to amass public support from the Kurdish populations by exposing the violent nature of the Turkish state. Ultimately, the PKK sought to instigate a mass uprising among Turkey’s Kurdish populations and force concessions over regional autonomy. During the negotiations process, Ankara deescalated anti-terrorism operations, which allowed the PKK to expand its political influence and armed presence in the urban areas. Indeed, PKK’s urban youth militia, the YDG-H (Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement), was formed in 2013 — in some ways, as a hedge to the peace process. What pushed the group to contest cities in July of 2015, however, was a confluence of domestic and regional factors that both empowered the PKK and fueled its optimism about the prospects of a mass rebellion.
On the domestic front, the PKK felt empowered by the rise of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s left-leaning and pro-Kurdish opposition party. In October of 2014, HDP played a major role in mobilizing Turkey’s Kurds in protest against AKP’s indifference to the struggle of the Syrian Kurds in Kobane. Then, in June of 2015, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) scored a major victory in the parliamentary elections, denying AKP the governing majority it had enjoyed since 2002. The PKK viewed this shift in the political balance of power as a sign of a political awakening amongst Turkey’s Kurds, which amplified its optimism about the potential of a mass uprising.
On a regional level, the PKK drew strength from the rise of YPG and its stunning victory in the “Battle of Kobane.” Note that numerous PKK members have fought alongside with YPG in Syria and some YPG commanders are drawn from PKK cadres. This “organic” relationship between the two groups have allowed the PKK to capitalize on the military and political support YPG received from the United States. Moreover, Kobane became a focal point for Kurdish nationalism in the region. In this sense, it provided PKK with the opportunity to reframe its “out of vogue” Marxist-Leninist ideology in more nationalist terms, which could have greater appeal among Turkey’s Kurds.
The same domestic and regional developments that enhanced PKK’s military capabilities and bolstered its political appeal, in turn, amplified Ankara’s fear of a potential Kurdish uprising. In particular, the Turkish government has been concerned about the spread of the so-called “Rojava [Western Kurdistan] revolution” — which, according to YPG, is a social transformation based on radical democracy, women’s liberation, and ecology — to Turkey. The ISIL attack on the pro-YPG demonstrations on July 20, 2015 was the final straw for both sides, triggering a new era of urban violence between these old rivals.
Strategies and Tactics of Urban Warfare
As negotiations collapsed in July of 2015, several regional mayors in the majority Kurdish districts declared their autonomy from the Turkish state. The PKK, with its broader objective of instigating a mass rebellion, then sought to implement what security studies scholars refer to as a strategy of “denial.” But with most of its seasoned fighters battling ISIL in Syria, the operational initiative was delegated to the PKK’s youth militia called the YDG-H (Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement). Local, young, poorly trained but determined, the YDG-H then erected barricades, dug tranches, and prepared to secure and hold city neighborhoods against government incursion into these so called autonomous areas.
In early December, more PKK fighters began infiltrating the cities to reinforce the local youth militias, and YDG-H was reorganized into what is known as YPS (Civil Defense Units). This change prompted an increase in Turkish security forces fatalities from snipers and especially roadside bomb attacks, a tactic that according to some observers PKK may have learned from al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The Turkish government, though, maintained that these urban militants were either YPG or YPG-trained. It is difficult to establish a direct link between the YPG and YPS. But considering the linkages between the PKK and YPG and the fact that these restive cities and towns in Turkey’s southeast are across the border from Syria’s Kurdish region, it is possible that some members of YPS were trained by YPG fighters, especially in how to prepare ambushes and IEDs. Moreover, some PKK and YPS militants may have learned urban warfare tactics from fighting in Kobane, where they would have also been exposed to ISIL’s urban combat methods.
Regardless of how this diffusion of knowledge occurred, the similarities between PKK and YPS urban warfare tactics and those used in Kobane are hard to deny. These include digging trenches and ditches to prevent heavy weapons from advancing into their areas of control, using roadside bombs to hamper armored convoy movements, booby trapping buildings, hanging sheets and drapes against snipers and aerial reconnaissance, as well as blasting holes in house walls to allow for safe passage between buildings.
The government initially responded with “anti-terrorism operations.” Between July and November of 2015, it primarily relied on “hybrid fighting squads” made up of police special operations units, Gendarmerie special operation units, commando, and other special operations teams, as well as armored Army units. While in some areas clashes remained minimal, cities like Cizre, Silopi, Idil, and Sur saw some heavy fighting as commandos backed by snipers and police went from house to house in search of Kurdish militants.
When these measures failed to restore order, the government’s strategy shifted to mirror the traditional military doctrine in urban warfare: besiege and isolate a city before the assault in order to cut logistical support to the enemy inside, undercutting their capabilities and will to continue fighting. Additional troops were deployed, including infantry, artillery and armored army divisions, as well as the Turkish Air Force. Curfews were imposed in about 30 urban districts and some rural locations throughout the south east, closing entire residential neighborhoods for weeks and months on end.
Military operations in cities are often very destructive, and this conflict was no exception. For example, some of the worst fighting happened in Cizre, near Turkey’s border with Syria and Iraq, where the narrow streets and YPS barricades made it difficult for the Turkish forces to gain access without coming under fire from snipers and IED attacks. The Army then used heavy armor and artillery to pummel buildings, with seemingly little regard for civilians still trapped inside. In one particularly gruesome incident, up to 189 local residents were killed when Turkish forces stormed three residential basements where hundreds were sheltering from the fighting. In June of 2016, the Kurdish forces retreated from their last urban stronghold in the Nusaybin district, and the locus of the conflict shifted back to the rural areas.
Consequences of Urban Warfare
After nearly a year of fighting, the Turkish forces eventually succeeded in dislodging the PKK from the cities. But this so-called victory came at a great price.
It is true that Erdogan’s heavy-handed approach in the urban battlefield helped him consolidate ultra-nationalist support. However, it also led to great destruction in cities, mass displacement, growing resentment among the Kurdish population, and international condemnation. The International Crisis Group estimates that since July 2015, at least 3,302 people have been killed in the clashes between Turkey and the PKK, including at least 421 civilians. Over 100,000 people have lost their homes, and up to 400,000 people have been displaced. The special forces employed to identify, target and kill PKK and YPS militants proved largely effective, but their brutal methods alienated the local Kurdish population. The AKP also lost the “battle of narratives.” The urban battles, especially in the Western media, were not seen as a legitimate anti-terrorism campaign against PKK, but rather as a unilateral attempt by Turkey (or Erdogan) to punish and pacify the Kurds with brute force.
The urban phase of the conflict was also not a success story for the PKK. After spending nearly three years fortifying its armed presence in the urban centers, the PKK was still unable to withstand the government’s assault and control the area in a meaningful way. The group suffered many casualties, especially among its youth militia, which was at the frontlines of the fighting. The urban campaign also failed to accomplish its broader strategic goal of inspiring a large-scale Kurdish rebellion. In fact, the civilian death toll and the widespread damage to homes and critical infrastructure have cost the PKK significant local support.
In the long term, however, the PKK’s garner a longer term advantage from its turn to urban warfare. Fighting in cities attracts much more attention than atrocities in the countryside, and the images of death and destruction in cities like Cizre strengthen PKK’s strategic narrative of a conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish people.
Urban Warfare Beyond Turkey
The recent urban phase in the conflict between Ankara and the PKK suggests that we will witness more urban battles in Turkey. This is, in fact, what Ankara expects. Most notably, in September, the Turkish Armed Forces announced their plan to establish an Urban Warfare School with the goal of improving the military’s training and preparedness for combat in urban and residential areas. Another indication that the government understands that the PKK may have strong incentives to take the fight back to the cities is the security-oriented approach it has taken to rebuilding destroyed cities. Reconstruction authorities decided, for example, not to not replicate the traditional setup of narrow streets and irregular buildings that allowed PKK and YPS militants to move easily and target security forces. As one state official explained, “large roads in the town and security posts,” are one way to “make sure the security problem of terrorists coming in and establishing themselves does not occur again.”
As of now, the prospects of peace between Turkey and PKK look extremely bleak. The international community and interested parties such as the United States and perhaps even Russia should therefore put pressure on both sides to bring them to the negotiation table. This is a gargantuan task. But the alternative is worse.
For one, if the war takes an urban turn again, it can trigger intercommunal violence between Turks and Kurds. Note that the Turkey-PKK conflict, in its 34 year-long history, has remained limited to southeastern Turkey. Kurds living the Western parts of Turkey were, by and large, not mobilized in response to the urban conflict taking place in the southeast. But repetition of fighting in the cities could make a full scale ethnic civil war more likely.
From a regional standpoint, timing is critical. As ISIL retreats from Syria, the PKK’s more experienced fighters and possibly some YPG members may choose to concentrate on Turkey, bringing years of experience in urban warfare and far deadlier weapons than the YPS had during this recent round. A resurgence of conflict in cities can also further destabilize the region, especially if the Turkish government decides to directly target the YPG in Syria, which it already considers a serious threat. Steadfast international involvement in providing a path to a negotiated solution or at the very least a ceasefire can help avert these dangerous scenarios from materializing.
This case offers three key insights about the nature, as well as the future, of war in cities. The first concerns the processes through which armed groups learn, adapt, and innovate in an ever-changing security environment. Throughout the 20th century, urban based insurgencies have been relatively rare and largely unsuccessful. Yet, PKK’s experience demonstrates that even traditionally rural groups are learning to exploit local discontent and weak governance to establish armed presence in urban areas. Indeed, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, armed groups such as Hamas have repeatedly proved they can pose a serious challenge to government forces by blending into the civilian population and utilizing the city’s complex physical terrain to their advantage. There is also some evidence that this hard-earned knowledge of urban warfare is increasingly being shared between, or emulated by, other armed groups, as was the case with PKK and YPS using urban warfare tactics similar to those employed both by their Kurdish ally, the YPG, and their rival, ISIL in Kobane. Furthermore, as recent reports of ISIL-linked militants in the Philippines using urban combat tactics seen in the Middle East suggest, this “diffusion” of knowledge is happening not only regionally but also globally.
Second, with the increase in urban warfare experience and the diffusion of this knowledge, as more armed groups around the world develop such capabilities, conflicts in cities will likely become more common and more violent. Consider the 2014 war in Gaza, where casualties from 50 days of fighting nearly doubled the number of those killed during the six years of the First Intifada. Fighting against a well prepared and determined enemy also means that urban campaigns — already known to be slow-moving — will last even longer. The recent battle for Marawi in the Philippines, for instance, lasted nearly five months, which is more than four times longer than the World War II Battle of Manila. Overall, while urban insurgencies have traditionally been the easiest kind to defeat in the past, these recent examples suggest this may no longer be the case. Western governments engaged in similar conflicts should therefore place a higher premium on training and equipment geared specifically for urban warfare, with explicit attention to procedures designed to minimize civilian casualties and destruction of urban infrastructure.
Finally, when it comes to fighting in cities, the importance of winning the “battle of narratives” cannot be overstated. As the Americans learned nearly 40 years ago during the Battle of Hue, media attention and subsequent public scrutiny are far more pervasive in cities. Today, however, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are making it more difficult for states to control the information environment during military operations, and in turn, to shape public perceptions in their favor. Turkey, for example, scored a military victory in the cities. But the PKK arguably won the battle of narratives, especially in the West. Note that the PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union. Especially with its Syrian affiliate’s rising popularity and the increasing anti-Erdogan sentiments, the PKK might one day successfully whitewash itself in Western eyes, especially as Turkey and the West drift further apart. This dynamic suggests armed groups might choose to target cities even when their chances of military success are slim, that is, if they believe that they can frame the urban battle in ways that will help them achieve their long-term strategic objectives.
As more of the world’s most violent conflicts are being fought in cities like Cizre, Aleppo, Mosul, Gaza, Donetsk, and Saana, it is certainly about time, as David Kilcullen urges, that we “drag ourselves — body and mind — out of the mountains.” War is coming [back] to the cities.
Margarita Konaev is post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies in The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Previously, she was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, and a pre-doctoral fellow at the Notre Dame International Security Center.
Burak Kadercan is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College and Inaugural Resident Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Image: Nedim Yılmaz, CC