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Turkey: Kurdish Separatists
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Internal Security Concerns > Kurdish Separatists


The Kurdish national movement dates back at least to 1925, when Atatürk ruthlessly suppressed a revolt against the new Turkish republic motivated by the regime's renunciation of Muslim religious practices. Uprisings in the 1930s and 1940s prompted by opposition to the modernizing and centralizing reforms of the Turkish government in Ankara also were put down by the Turkish army. Kurdish opposition to the government's emphasis on linguistic homogeneity was spurred in the 1960s and 1970s by agitation in neighboring Iran and Iraq on behalf of an autonomous Kurdistan, to include Kurds from Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The majority of Kurds, however, continued to participate in Turkish political parties and to assimilate into Turkish society.

The best known and most radical of the Kurdish movements, the PKK, which does not represent the majority of Kurds, seeks to establish an independent Marxist state in southeastern Turkey where the Kurdish population predominates. Beginning in 1984, a resurgence of Kurdish attacks attributed to the PKK necessitated the deployment of Turkish army units and elite police forces. Fighting in the mountain terrain favored the insurgents, who could intimidate local Kurdish families and ambush regular troops. The violence has mounted since 1991, with PKK guerrillas from camps in Syria, Iran, and Iraq, as well as from inside Turkey itself, attacking Turkish military and police outposts and targeting civilian community leaders and teachers. In 1993 PKK gunmen sought military targets outside the southeastern region; they also conducted coordinated attacks in many West European cities, particularly in Germany where more than 1 million Kurds live, against Turkish diplomatic installations and Turkish businesses, often operated by Kurds. Such attacks on commercial firms can be seen as efforts at intimidation to gain contributions to PKK fundraising.

Increased numbers of security forces were mobilized in 1994 against the Kurds in a government campaign of mounting intensity. One government strategy has been the forced evacuation and in a number of instances burning some 850 Kurdish villages to prevent them from harboring PKK insurgents. Although militarily successful, the evacuations have caused great hardship to the villagers.

The government has been accused of harassment, destruction of villages, and the slaying of Kurds believed to be sympathetic to the PKK. Its tactics have resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties and turned thousands into refugees, who have crowded into major Turkish cities. The insurgents, in turn, have targeted villages known to be sympathetic to the government, murdering state officials, teachers, government collaborators, and paramilitary village guards. In an especially cruel incident in May 1993 that ended a two-month cease-fire announced by the PKK, a PKK unit executed thirty unarmed military recruits after ambushing several buses.

As of early 1994, about 160,000 Turkish troops and gendarmerie had been mobilized for operations against the PKK. Some 40,000 civilians formed a village guard of progovernment Kurds. A new mobile security force of about 10,000 troops was undergoing special training in antiguerrilla operations. The United States Department of State estimated that there were 10,000 to 15,000 full-time PKK guerrillas, 5,000 to 6,000 of whom were in Turkey and the others in Iran, Iraq, and Syria. There were thought to be an additional 60,000 to 75,000 part-time guerrillas.

The number of deaths since the war's outbreak in 1984 had risen beyond 12,000 by 1994. According to official figures, more than 1,500 PKK guerrillas were killed and 7,600 captured during the first eleven months of 1993. During the same period, the number of government security personnel killed came to 676. Civilian deaths totaled 1,249, more than double the 1992 total.

The PKK cause was not helped by the Kurds of Iraq, who depended on Turkey to keep their enclave protected from the forces of Iraqi president Saddam Husayn. In October 1992, Iraqi Kurds and the Turkish army carried out a joint offensive against PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, forcing the surrender of more than 1,000 PKK fighters. Turkey also enlisted Syria's cooperation in closing the PKK base in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. The government's flexibility in seeking a negotiated solution to the conflict was limited by the growing anger of the Turkish public over PKK terrorism and the killing of troops in the southeast and by the military's uncompromising anti-Kurdish stance.

Last Updated: January 1995

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Turkey was first published in 1995. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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