Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) made one of its more frequent announcements on August 4. Bayram Yılmaz, aka Agit Gever, the PKK’s “Courier General”, who oversaw communication between the PKK units in Iraq, Syria, and Türkiye, was killed in his vehicle near Sinjar in northwest Iraq by a Turkish Air Force armed UAV. When MİT agents informed Ankara that the PKK (outlawed Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê -Kurdistan Workers Party) was preparing to smuggle large amounts of weapons and ammunition from Iraq to Türkiye, an operation was launched targeting him, and the arms to be smuggled were destroyed. According to information shared with the media by MİT, Bayram was among the founders of the PKK’s militia organization YPS (Yekîneyên Parastina Sîvîl – Civil Defense Units).
On July 22, MİT announced that Özgür Alparslan, the head of the YPS network in Türkiye, which coordinates the PKK’s urban actions – including the setting of forest fires – had been “neutralized” in the Gara region (near the Turkish border) of Iraq, a term usually used by the Turkish security forces to mean “killed”.
Just before that, on July 13, it was announced that Edip Temiz, the Qandil head of the special forces of the PKK had been killed in the Qandil Mountains (where the PKK headquarters are), again in a joint operation of MİT and the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK).
Tactical target: mid-echelons
A week before that, on July 5, Calal Kaya, who was allegedly the PKK’s intelligence chief in Iraq, was identified by MİT agents in Sulaymaniyah, near the Iraq-Iran border, and killed by a Turkish armed UAV.
According to security sources, Kaya was identified as the mastermind of the July 17, 2019 assassination of Osman Köse, a Turkish diplomat, and allegedly the MİT station chief in Erbil the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.
Examples can be multiplied. The common characteristic of these names is that they have been trained in the PKK for at least 10 years, some for 20 years or more, and that they were acting like links between the headquarters in the Qandil Mountains and the militants who carry out terrorist acts. It is difficult to replace them immediately with militants trained at the same level. Security sources also assess that the attacks, usually carried out in the form of air strikes on vehicles in open terrain outside the cities, make it risky even for the link militants to travel and cause them to feel under pressure.
MİT’s targeting of the PKK’s middle echelons is aimed at destroying the pillars between the organization’s top and bottom.
Turning points in the struggle
The assassination of Köse was in fact one of the turning points in Ankara’s fight against the PKK.
The turning points in recent years of a 40-year-strong struggle against the PKK which has been waging an armed campaign which claimed tens and thousands of lives so far can be summarized as follows:
1- On April 26, 2014, MİT was authorized to conduct operations abroad. This step was prompted by the scandal known as “MİT TIRs” on the Syrian border on January 1, 2014, in which those involved were tried and convicted for their links to Fethullah Gülen; the US-based Islamist preacher indicted to mastermind the 15 July 2016 coup attempt in Türkiye.
2- Five weeks after the 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish Armed Forces launched its first campaign in Syria against both the PKK and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS. The era of “proactive”, or in Turkish, “preventive” actions had begun, instead of responding to PKK actions.
3- On August 25, 2017, the National Intelligence Coordination Board was removed from the Prime Minister and connected to the President. On July 9, 2018, the Undersecretariat of National Intelligence Service was renamed as the Directorate of National Intelligence Service (MİT) and directly subordinated to the President of the Republic; the intelligence structure was unified.
4- The assassination of Köse on 17 July 2019 pushed the “preventive action” phase a step further to the “search-find-destroy” phase.
5- Meanwhile, after Türkiye started to develop its UAV and UCAV capabilities, MİT-TSK cooperation became more effective. In short, the MİT was identifying, tracking, and marking targets, while the Air Force was hitting them with its UCAVs.
US operations in Syria
It can also be said that this process has developed in parallel with the US’s decision since September 2014, with the Kobani incidents in Syria, to designate not NATO ally Türkiye as a partner in the fight against ISIS, but the PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK and its armed wing YPG, which the US considers a terrorist organization.
After the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported the YPG-PKK connection in its reports (*) the Pentagon had the PYD (the Syria branch of the PKK) establish a front organization called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2015 through CENTCOM. Because the PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US government and a clean name was needed.
This partnership led to military training, weapons, and financial support by the US military to the militants of the PKK and its affiliated organizations. At the same time, PKK militants from Türkiye and Iran (and partly from Iraq) began to flock to Syria under US support.
We need a counterpoint here. The Syrian civil war has not only led to the recruitment of radical Islamist militants from all over the world to Syria but has also enabled their mass extermination there. A similar situation seems to have occurred in Türkiye, where the PKK has become an open and collective target for Turkish security forces; probably unintended by CENTCOM.
PKK’s losses are growing
Statements by the MİT on the “neutralization” of the PKK’s middle and upper-middle link elements are becoming more frequent. Likewise, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of National Defense.
The Ministry of National Defense announced that more than 800 terrorists were killed “including in Syria and Iraq” in the first half of 2023 alone. According to the Ministry of National Defense, the number of PKK members (and ISIS members) killed since 2015 had exceeded 38,000. This shows a rapid depletion of the PKK’s vast human resources.
The US is not going to stay in Syria forever and provide protection to PKK-linked forces there. What happened in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan will happen in Syria sooner or later. Therefore, the PKK’s losses are not that important for the US; what is important is that the fight against ISIS, which “works” in the US elections, appears to be continuing.
On the one hand, it should be considered a natural consequence that the Turkish condition for Sweden’s joining NATO – not only Sweden, but the whole of Europe – has reduced their tolerance for the PKK and its affiliated organizations. On the other hand, the actions of the Turkish security forces targeting the PKK’s middle echelon have seemingly unsettled the PKK leadership.
- The founding leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan was arrested on 15 February 1999 in a joint MİT-CIA operation after he left the Embassy of Greece in Mogadishu, Kenya, brought to Türkiye, sentenced for life and still serving in the island-prison of İmralı, southwest of İstanbul.