Volunteers who join the Kurdish insurgency against Turkey must abandon Islamic religious practice and must forego “emotional ties” to anyone outside the group, as well as swear words and sex, or face trial and prison, according to a Syrian-born Kurd who defected from the group to Turkey over the summer.
The 21-year-old defector, who surrendered in June, brought with him not only a tale of life inside the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish initials as the PKK, but also detailed information about a planned attack inside Turkey that helped Turkish authorities beat back the PKK offensive.
McClatchy obtained a copy of a 19-page Turkish-language account of his debriefing, which was dated July 4 and was not marked classified. The debriefing contained his name, but McClatchy is identifying him only by his initials, R.S., to protect family members who might still be in territory held by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate.
The PKK has been waging a war against Turkey for three decades, demanding the creation of a Kurdish state in southern Turkey. Thousands of Turks have been killed by PKK actions, and the United States and the European Union have branded it a terrorist organization.
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The defector’s disclosures helped avert the PKK capture of Semdinli, a mainly Kurdish town of 19,000 in southeast Turkey, officials there said in August. The PKK was routed instead, losing more than 100 fighters. But the PKK offensive continues, with at least 112 Turks and 325 separatists killed between July and mid-October, and casualties mounting daily on both sides.
The defector revealed that 250 to 300 insurgents were being mustered to attack Semdinli, the weapons they carried, where landmines would be planted and even the tactics for evading surveillance by Israeli-manufactured Heron drones.
He also disclosed a fact of strategic significance: Part of the staging for the Semdinli operation took place at Sehidan, a PKK base inside Iran, where he had also been stationed, a sign of a tacit, though possibly passive, role by Iran in the PKK’s assault against Turkey.
“Because Turkish planes and artillery cannot strike Iranian soil, the (PKK) organization moves freely on Iranian soil,” R.S. told Turkish authorities. “We do not interfere in Iran, and they do not attempt to provide enforcement against us.”
Kurds also inhabit portions of Iraq, where they’ve established an autonomous regional government in three provinces that operates largely independently of the central government in Baghdad; and portions of Syria, where a PKK affiliate now controls much of northeast Syria with the apparent acquiescence of the besieged government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
R.S. portrayed the PKK as anti-Islamic. Performing daily prayers, fasting and reading the Quran are among the offenses that could land a recruit in prison, he told Turkish authorities. Instead, fighters were told that the religion of Kurds is Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s most ancient religions, and they should worship fire. There are said to be fewer than 200,000 Zoroastrians today, mostly in Iran and India.
Other offenses that could land a recruit in jail were forging an emotional relationship outside the organization, sexual relations, carrying an electronic device or disobeying orders. PKK members held for spying or sexual relations “are tortured in prison,” and those who sold weapons or have spied “are sentenced to death . . . by firing squad.” Civilians who disobey PKK orders are kidnapped and detained in prison, then either executed or released after payment of a fine, he said.
The defector also provided Turkish authorities the noms de guerre, hometowns and deployments of more than 100 PKK recruits and officers he’d trained with. They included 74 Kurds from Turkey, 13 from Syria, five from Iran, two from Iraq and a scattering from as far afield as Kyrgyzstan.
PKK recruitment of Syrian Kurds had risen dramatically by late 2011 as that country’s civil war intensified, and they were the largest source of new blood in the PKK, outnumbering Turkish Kurds more than 2-to-1, R.S. said.
R.S. indicated he was unhappy with the apparent cooperation between the PKK, its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Council of Syrian Kurdistan, and the Assad government in Damascus. “The oppression Kurds experienced in Syria for years is clear to see,” he said. “However, the PKK is not carrying out any attacks against the Syrian government in the face of this oppression.” If Syria’s Kurds “stand up to the Bashar Assad regime instead of submitting, the Assad regime cannot survive,” he told his interrogators.
He contrasted the PKK’s view of Assad with its assault on Turkey. In comments that could be seen as self-serving for a newly arrived defector, he said the PKK “ignores the rights accorded to the Kurdish people by the Turkish state and carried out all its attacks against Turkey.”
One of the PKK’s biggest worries, R.S. said, is the unmanned Heron drones that Turkey deploys to spot insurgents, using cameras by day and thermal monitors by night, he said.
On the eve of the offensive, the organization banned the use of radios, to prevent the drones from tracking their movements, and all communications were to be written on notepaper and encoded. Standard issue for fighters included lined umbrellas that enable insurgents “to move freely without being detected by drones and military positions.” The PKK also distributed raincoats, he said.
“Raincoats stop thermal cameras from detecting body heat so long as they are kept dry . . . and at least two inches from the body,” R.S. said. At the first sound of a drone, “we run to shelters. Those who are outside hide motionless under a rock or tree.”
There were other revelations: the PKK since 2006 has maintained an “Immortals Battalion” of about 200 within its special forces whose mission is to carry out “sensational attacks in city centers during critical periods” to create fear and “diminish the citizens’ trust in the state.” Its members are “unwell,” are trained “constantly” in ideology and explosives, and are told they should sacrifice themselves for Kurdistan. “I know they say that when the time comes, they would blow themselves up,” R.S. said.
Like many recruits, R.S. joined the PKK in part to get away from family problems – some analysts say this is the primary reason young men, and women, take to the hills. He signed up in Damascus in the summer of 2010, and after a week of indoctrination, returned to his hometown in northeastern Syria for one night. Along with two couriers, he boarded a raft on the Tigris River and traveled to Iraq.
The first major formation he encountered was a female brigade consisting of 40 to 45 women, but then he was taken to a new recruit training center in the Gare district of Iraqi Kurdistan. After training in three locations for about a year, he was stationed in Sehidan in northern Iran.
R.S. did not say exactly what led him to defect, but it may have been partly personal. During training, he had befriended a young Turkish Kurd, who also had joined in mid-2010, but commanders would not allow them to be deployed together. The two young men had been deployed to Sehidan in May and were on guard duty when they decided to leave.
Fully aware that a major attack was being prepared on the town of Semdinli, they walked for three days and arrived on the outskirts of the town. There, they expected police or soldiers to capture them, “however we encountered no police or soldiers at this time.” So they walked to the headquarters of the military police and surrendered.
Under Turkey’s “law of effective remorse,” defectors who have not committed acts of violence will not be charged with membership in a terrorist organization. If they committed violent acts, the sentence can be reduced by as much as three-quarters. Just what happened to R.S. is not known.