Friday, February 26, 2010

An Exercise in Disinformation: Linking PKK to Nagorno Karabakh

This piece is from summer 2008. It first appeared in the August 2 issue of the Armenian Reporter.

Co-authored by Yelena Osipova and Emil Sanamyan 

Turkish and Azeri officials have frequently sought to link Armenians to the Kurdish resistance in Turkey, typically referred to as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But they have provided little to no evidence to substantiate such linkages.

These allegations made a comeback between last October and earlier this year at a fairly high level and with all the hallmarks of an organized disinformation campaign.

This analysis seeks to deconstruct the chronology of this effort aimed against Armenia.

Background

Allegations linking Armenia to Kurdish political activism in Turkey are not new. Azerbaijan’s motivation for this is to win and maintain Turkey’s support and to position itself as fighting a “common enemy” in Karabakh.

Turkish nationalists, in turn, seek to portray the PKK as a non-Muslim and even anti-Muslim entity, appealing to religious and ethnic biases in the fight for the hearts and minds of Turkey’s Kurdish population.

In the early 1990s, frequent Turkish claims that Armenia provides support to PKK also helped build up an excuse for Turkey’s potential intervention in the Karabakh war on the side of the losing forces of Azerbaijan.

At one point in 1992, that campaign was inadvertently facilitated by Armenia’s own propaganda, which suggested, falsely, that the mostly ethnically Kurdish population
of areas between Karabakh and Armenia proper welcomed Armenian forces as liberators. (Yezidi Kurds from Armenia proper were even reported to have been bused to Lachin for that purpose.)

In fact, by the 20th century, most of Azerbaijan’s ethnically Kurdish population was thoroughly Turkified and they now mostly self- identify as Azeris.

Azerbaijan’s ethnic Kurds reportedly include such well-known characters as Azerbaijan’s late national leader Heydar Aliyev, as well as wartime chief of national police and local Grey Wolves franchise Iskender Hamidov, who famously promised to wipe out Yerevan and Stepanakert with two nuclear strikes.

First salvos

In August 2007, Yusuf Halacoğlu, head of the Turkish Historical Society, ultranationalist and Armenian Genocide denier, announced that his studies on the origins of Anatolian tribes showed many Kurds, particularly Kurdish Alevis, were originally Armenian.

As events unfolded, Mr. Halacoğlu’s comment appeared to have been motivated primarily by politics.

In an interview with Uluslararası Haber Dergisi in October 2007, Mr. Halacoğlu said many “people” who think they are Kurds may be mistaken, and the case is the same with “the terrorist groups who tried to be identified as Kurdish Alevis or Kurds.”

(Incidentally, after 15 years at the helm of Turkish official historiography, Mr. Halacoğlu was replaced by the Turkish government this week.)

Somewhat unexpectedly, this line of reasoning was reflected in the remarks made by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey during an official visit to the United States in early November 2007.

After being questioned by an Armenian Embassy staff member on Turkey’s Armenia policy in a public meeting hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Mr. Erdoğan demurred on the need to distinguish the terrorists from the Kurdish population at large, saying, “In the terrorist organization [PKK], there are Kurds, Armenians, others.” (He said this even though no ethnic Armenian member of the PKK was ever identified dead or alive, at least in the last decade.)

More importantly, during his visit, Mr. Erdoğan and Turkey’s friends in the U.S. government, succeeded in having President George W. Bush declare the PKK to be America’s enemy.

“They are an enemy of Turkey, they are an enemy of Iraq, and they are an enemy of the United States,” Mr. Bush declared that November, while also authorizing U.S. forces in Iraq to assist Turkey in their attacks against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Azerbaijan jumps in

On November 30 Zaman, a newspaper close to the Turkish government, quoted the heretofore unknown Federation of Turkish-Azeri Associations’ Secretary General Mehmet Azeriturk as claiming, “Armenia is making an effort to bring PKK militants into the cities of Şuşa [Shushi], Lacin [Berdzor] and Fuzuli, to be able to keep these cities it has occupied.”

No reference was made as to where Mr. Azeriturk acquired that information. The Zaman article also said that Armenian officials have denied any such contacts with the PKK.

But just days later, Azerbaijan’s deputy foreign minister Araz Azimov, apparently citing the “Zaman report,” declared that Azerbaijan is ready to perform “counter-terrorist” operations against PKK military units “positioned” in Karabakh.

Azerbaijan’s Zerkalo reported Mr. Azimov saying that the PKK’s presence in the occupied territories “shows the international community that we were right in our earlier statements [making the link between the PKK and Karabakh].”

Armenians had always had a penchant for terrorists, he added.

The international echo

On December 11 the Azeri allegations were promoted by the Russian journalist Aleksei Baliev. Writing for RPMonitor.ru, an online political journal, he compared “the Lachin corridor” linking Armenia and Karabakh to “Iraqi Kurdistan” as a safe haven for the PKK.

An Armenian Yezidi community leader Aziz Tamoyan had, earlier in December, endorsed the presidential candidacy of then-Prime Minister Serge Sargsian. Mr. Baliev linked this endorsement to Kurdish hopes for Armenia’s support for establishing “a Kurdish autonomy” in areas between Karabakh and Armenia proper.

(Although Mr. Tamoyan’s endorsement came in a joint press community leader, Rimma Varzhapetian, who also backed Mr. Sargsian, Mr. Baliyev did not suggest that the Jews of Armenia were also hoping to establish themselves in Lachin.)

The nonsensical nature of the argument did not stop Paul Goble, a former U.S. official now employed as research director for the Azerbaijan's Academy of Diplomacy, from indirectly endorsing the claim in his personal blog the next day, suggesting that “the Kurdish initiative in Armenia provides those opposed to any settlement [over Karabakh] with yet another means to block it.”

By December 20, the Azerbaijani government allegations were presented as fact by Anar Valiev, a fellow at the Masaryk University in the Czech Republic and apparently a native of Azerbaijan.

The PKK’s (supposed) decision to move to Karabakh, Mr. Valiev stated in the December 20 issue of Global Terrorism Analysis, published by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, is “rational, well thought-out and could benefit both sides.”

Mr. Valiev went on to suggest that Turkey would never “chase” the PKK in Nagorno-Karabakh out of fear that any such action would come to involve several other states, upsetting the fragile balance in the region.

For Armenians, on the other hand, harboring the PKK would help to bolster the region’s population and provide “hundreds – if not thousands – of experienced guerilla fighters.”

Mr. Valiev cited Mr. Baliev’s commentary as one of his sources.

Israeli and American spillover...

In January 2008, an unofficial and frequently inaccurate Israeli source, DEBKAfile, alleged that PKK leaders had started “acting on a decision they had reached in November to move their bases from the Qandil Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan to the predominantly ethnic Armenian South Caucasian region of Nagorno- Karabakh.”

The online publication said it got the information from its “sources [that] have picked up rumors,” which were also supported by “PKK defectors who turned themselves in to Turkish forces.”

DEBKAfile added that no transfer of the Kurdish bases had been confirmed as of January 28. However, it also said that a group of PKK chiefs were reported to have visited Kurdish villages in Karabakh looking for support. (No such villages in fact exist in Karabakh.)

A sort of a culmination of the campaign occurred in February 2008, when Mr. Azimov met with visiting U.S. State Department coordinator on terrorism Frank Urbanic (whom Azerbaijani media renamed “Urbanchik”).

Mr. Azimov told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) after the meeting that the PKK was the main focus of their talks. He expressed concern over the “PKK building ‘close relations’ with ‘terrorist groups and organizations’ that are enemies of both Turkey and Azerbaijan – a remark seen in Baku as a reference to Armenia or ethnic-Armenian forces,” RFE/RL reported.

A public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baku was quoted as saying that the United States is “increasingly concerned about what appears to be growing ties between the PKK and other groups in the Caucasus” and the “threat the PKK poses to energy infrastructure in the [region].”

But the annual State Department report on terrorism issued on April 30 did not contain references to Azeri allegations.

These remarks were followed by several articles on the subject in the Turkish media. The Journal of Turkish Weekly, an online publication of the Turkish lobby in the United States, wrote, “It is reported that the Karabakh authorities provide a safe haven for international terrorism.”

The Journal, citing suspect sources, claimed that 56 PKK members had settled in Karabakh and that “terror camps” were established in the region. The Journal went on to claim that the Israeli intelligence organization Mossad “had warned Turkey and Azerbaijan about the PKK movements.”

…and denials

Contacted by the Armenian Reporter this week, Ehud Gol, Israel’s ambassador to Armenia, dismissed these reports as “a baseless story.”

He said he had no knowledge of the matter and viewed it as a bad piece of journalism with no credible sources.

Mr. Gol added that because of this, Israel had not issued any formal denial, adding, “We do not have any reason to believe [these reports are] true.”

While the United States did not formally endorse the Azeri or Turkish allegations, signs of interest on the part of at least some U.S. officials can be seen in the State Department’s award of a fellowship grant to Dr. Mark Yoffe to study the Yezidi Kurdish community in Armenia in September 2007.

“The U.S. Embassy in Armenia was interested in all aspects of Yezidi Kurdish life,” Dr. Yoffe told the Reporter in July. Asked about whether the Armenian state plays any role in Kurdish political activism, Dr. Yoffe said, “There are issues that might or might not involve Yezidi Kurds. However, my research does not show that Armenians are involved in them in any way.”

Dr. Yoffe, a specialist in Slavic languages at the George Washington University, held a presentation of his findings last February, noting that rather than serving as a potential connection to the PKK, Yezidi Kurds in Armenia “spoke badly” about Turkish Kurd emissaries who occasionally visited their villages, because “for Yezidis, Kurds are synonymous with Muslims and this is often given as a reason for antipathy.”

Dr. Yoffe was told that despite the emissaries’ attempts “to recruit Yezidis into their armed struggle or raise funds for their causes,” the Yezidis asked them to leave the villages, after which they stopped coming.

What it all means

“Pursuit of ‘terrorists’ or the presence of terrorists in a given territory has been used as pretext by states around the world for military operations,” Hratch Tchilingirian of the University of Cambridge told the Armenian Reporter via e-mail.

Indeed, while constantly threatening a new war in Karabakh, Azerbaijan is increasingly at a loss when it comes to providing contemporary reasons for its acrimony, with wartime grievances steadily shifting into the historical realm.

In the absence of aggressive behavior by the Armenian side, Azerbaijan has sought to invent it, coming up with baseless allegations – on subjects ranging from the environment to crime to security – that are designed to win international sympathy.

At the same time, Azerbaijan has worked to keep international access to Karabakh as restricted as it possibly can – a difficult task in an increasingly transparent and interconnected world.

Nevertheless, with the Caucasus as remote as it is, Azerbaijan frequently succeeds in having its disinformation published by reputable media and even in foreign government publications such as the many annual reports that the State Department is mandated to release.

In a drawn-out public relations war such small bureaucratic coups too can serve as small victories.

Writing on May 27 in the Soros Foundation–funded Eurasianet.org, Stephen Blank, a commentator on regional affairs who teaches at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, suggested, “The mere fact that Turkish and Azerbaijani media outlets are complaining about a Kurdish militant presence in Karabakh should spur the international community to action [on Karabakh],” he said, calling for “redoubled efforts” on the resolution of the Karabakh issue, in order to “eliminate, or at least greatly diminish the chances” of any aggressive developments.

While stressing that the allegation linking the PKK to Karabakh is unsubstantiated, Dr. Tchilingirian agreed that “for Azerbaijan it could serve as a pretext to test military operations in the Karabakh region in the name of ‘rooting out terrorists’ that pose a threat to Turkey.”

In this case, Azerbaijan attempted to piggy-back on America’s support for Turkey’s fight against the PKK, but it once again failed to win outright Turkish government support for the effort.

When contacted this week, the Azerbaijan's Embassy in Washington refused to comment on the matter.

The “Kurdish” campaign appeared to have come to an abrupt end, or at least an extended intermission in late February-early March.

It is unclear if that had something to do with Armenia’s presidential elections and subsequent domestic developments in both Armenia and Turkey; or, more modestly, with completion of pre-publication research for the State Department’s terrorism report.



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