The PKK’s military capacity and the withdrawal process
Öcalan declared the first step of the negotiations a ceasefire to be followed by the withdrawal of armed militants from Turkey. Karayılan announced that the organization will follow Öcalan’s instructions and the ceasefire took effect. The public debate regarding the withdrawal process continues.
The withdrawal process is multifaceted. It has military, legal, diplomatic, political and public diplomacy dimensions. Here I will focus on the military dimension.
According to open sources, the number of PKK militants in Turkey is around 2,700-3,200. The number seasonally changes – a rise in summer, a decline in winter – but it is both in line with the PKK’s current strategy and historically verifiable in light of past military experience. Considering the vast geography where the PKK is active, this is the required size for conducting guerrilla warfare, socially controlling the population and manipulating the government. Therefore, the PKK tries to keep this number steady.
The deployment of armed groups in Turkey varies with regional geopolitics, the terrain’s strategic importance, geographic conditions, popular support, logistics and climate. For instance, when there are 10-12 militants in Kahramanmaraş, the number rises to 250-300 in the northern part of Diyarbakır, covering about a 300 by 120 km area. The number is even higher in the regions close to the Iraqi border.
PKK militants and military logistics enter Turkey from three different routes, namely, Iraq, Iran and, recently gaining more importance, Syria. After their entry, the militants follow a track through the mountains generally during the night that takes 3 to 4 months, or use the highway as a shortcut to secretly reach the furthest temporary bases fully armed.
In the case of an organization that follows a political-military strategy like the PKK, a military process like withdrawal should be synchronized with political improvements, which the PKK will be expecting from the government. Therefore, the PKK will not completely withdraw its militants and abandon its camps without negotiating and ensuring some political outcomes. In the strategically important regions, it will keep watch on its logistic storehouses and certain units with field experience will keep in touch with militias and local supporters. If the process fails, it will not be a problem for the PKK militants to make contact and return to their original posts with minimum cost. Understandably, this process is very complex and fragile, hence the need to carefully consider each and every dimension.