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What Happened To the PKK?

Who are the PKK?

The Kurdistan Worker’s Party, better known as PKK are a militant political organization based in Turkish and Iraqi ‘Kurdistan’. But they did not start this way. They were founded in 1978 by a number of Kurdish and Turkish students, led by Abdullah Öcalan. Their ideology has its roots in revolutionary socialism and Marxism fused with Kurdish nationalism. This student-led organization with students of various Anatolian heritage; Kurdish, Turkish, Armenian and Assyrian, was a reaction to the Turkish state’s persecution of Kurds in south-eastern Anatolia who expressed their identity.

There was increasingly growing discontent among the Anatolian Kurdish population whose identity had been repressed since the beginning of the republic in the state efforts to create a homogenous ‘Turkey’, and the PKK was established to challenge this. However, this challenge became militant in 1984 when the PKK announced a Kurdish uprising and their aims to establish an autonomous Kurdistan with its borders in Anatolia. The PKK since 1984 have branched out in the region and are connected to affiliate organizations such as the People’s Protection Units, also known as YPG. Although they may not be internationally recognised as connected, the YPG is considered one of the underground parties in Syria established under PKK directive[1] and this is important in considering the future of the PKK.

Status of the PKK in Turkey:

Turkey declared the PKK to be a terrorist organisation and has been at war with a Kurdish guerrilla army led by the PKK for 46 years. Ankara’s biggest concern is that such an organization can become influential enough to incite the whole Kurdish population within Turkey to express their solidarity with the Iraqi Kurds, and “realize their long-lived dream of statehood”[2]. There is a fear that the PKK are capable enough to revitalize the buried identity of Kurdishness that was hidden through countless assimilation policies, which would inevitably lead to a battle for separation from the Turkish state. It was a direct threat to Turkish national sovereignty and regional security. And considering Kurds make up twenty percent of Turkey’s population, this was and still is a big concern for the Turkish state. Hence why the interaction between Turkey and the PKK has been an exhausting case of countless attacks, claiming the lives of more than 40,000 people thus far.

Aims of the PKK:

The quest for a Kurdish homeland can be traced back to the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which was drawn up by France and Britain as a way to divide the Middle East into spheres of British and French influence. This agreement recognised the existence of Kurds and the lands they inhabited (Kurdistan). However, within years, the population and terrain surrounding the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, were separated and subjects to the new nations of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Since then, the Kurdish population has undoubtedly suffered horrendous humanitarian abuse at the hands of these states. However, unlike the other states, Turkey refused to recognise the Kurdish identity and erased Kurdish history from the land. This erasure sparked the organization known as the PKK to pursue an effort to create a homeland for the Kurds in Turkey, where they would be free from oppression. As a result, there was countless military attacks on the Turkish state, including terror tactics on the civilian population, to reach this goal. This struggle resulted in the suffering of countless innocent civilians in the region. For example, the PKK bombed countless civilian centres in Turkey, while the Turkish state burned entire villages to root out PKK militants. The aim of the PKK has changed overtime as seen in 1995 when they claimed their fight to be for the establishment of equal rights and Kurdish autonomy in the Turkish state rather than independence. As seen with Öcalan himself claiming “We are not insisting on a separate state under any condition. What we are calling for very openly is a state model where a people’s basic economic, cultural, social, and political rights are guaranteed”. After countless failed ceasefires, the PKK in 2013 began to slowly withdraw its fighters to Iraqi Kurdistan in hopes of developing peace talks with Turkey, but to no avail.

So, what happened to the PKK?

The presence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria added further complications to the peace process between the PKK and Turkey. There is a widespread belief among Kurds in the region that ISIS entered Syria through Turkish borders and Turkey tolerated these fighters who attacked both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. ISIS had its ground forces in Mosul and increasingly pushed northwards into more Kurdish territories and this resulted in the direct battle between PKK and its ‘Jezen Parastina Gel’ fighters against ISIS. Due to PKK’s focus on its northern front, they have retreated majority of their forces from Turkey but this does not necessarily mean that the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK had ended. In fact, the relationship between them can be seen to have taken a turn for the worst especially after Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria.

Operation Peace Spring was an important turning point between the Turkish state and the PKK as it changed the dynamics of the region. The USA had been allies to the PKK and other Kurdish forces in order to fight ISIS in the region. However, the US withdrew their troops from north-eastern Syria in 6th October 2019 which gave Turkey the opportunity to carry out a military intervention in the area. This region is heavily populated by Kurds and according to President Erdogan, it was necessary to carry out in order to expel the SDF who supposedly have ties to the PKK and therefore threatened Turkey’s borders. This narrative was not accepted by the Kurds and ‘Operation Peace Spring’ was seen as an attempt at ethnic-cleansing as it aimed to change the ethnic structure of Syria; the Kurds from the north were being pushed further south. As a result, 300,000 Kurds were displaced and around 100 civilians killed. The tensions were further exacerbated by the announcement of the Turkish state to send back ISIS prisoners back to their home countries as it was the PKK and Kurdish forces that captured them in the first place. According to Kristen Cuveliar, a staff member of the Brussels based Kurdish Institute. “Turkey’s operations haven’t really ended, they have just moved to lower intensity warfare through proxies”.

What does this mean for the future interactions between Turkey and the PKK?

Considering the core aim of the PKK, which is to secure equal rights for Kurdish people and to prevent the suppression of the identity has not been met, it follows that the Turkish state and the PKK will have more interactions in the future. Whether this is fundamentally peaceful or violent, one cannot say for sure but considering the ongoing tension in the area, it would not be far-fetched to predict that the bloodshed will carry on. Just recently on 15th June 2020, the Turkish and Iranian state launched Operation Claw-Eagle against the PKK as part of the ongoing conflict against Kurdish militant group.  Given the PKK’s current position in Iraq, Operation Claw-Eagle saw the use of airstrikes in Iraqi territory which was viewed as a violation of iraqi airspace. The Arab league condemned such an action as it violated Iraq’s sovereignty, however Turkey claimed that the threat of the PKK on Iraqi sovereignty was greater. Turkey has been accused of specifically targeting Kurdish civilian villages[3] which further foments the violence undertaken by the PKK and ignites more support for their cause. Furthermore, considering the intensity of the operation, it suggests that interactions between the two party’s will most likely proceed on a basis of violence. For example, Selami Haktan, a Turkish Journalist who specialises in military affairs claimed “Last night’s operation was the largest ever (in Iraq)”[4] as he refers to the operation’s airstrikes which hit 81 targets by 25 F-16 fighter jets and a number of drones. This gives an idea into the violent nature of the conflict and presents a very bleak future between Turkey and the PKK.

Moreover, the war can be understood through a Political narrative. The People’s Democracy Party (HDP) is a pro-peace, bottom-up and pro-Kurdish party that did well in the 2019 election in south-east of Turkey. However, the Turkish state removed 52 of the 64 municipalities won by the HDP based on the accusation that the Party has links with the PKK. Turkey accuses the HDP as being the political wing of the PKK which the HDP denies. Many supporters view the HDP as a bridge between the Turkish government and the PKK in the peace process. However, given President Erdogan’s undemocratic imprisonment of hundreds of members of the HDP, it presents his refusal in accepting rights of Kurds and other minority groups. This stagnant position of the Turkish state in refusing to alleviate Kurdish oppression suggests that the conflict between Turkey and the PKK will continue.

Bibliography:

Daragahi, Borzou. 2020. “Turkey Launches ‘Largest Ever’ Air Raids against Kurdish Fighters in Iraq.” The Independent. June 15, 2020. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/turkey-iraq-kurdish-fighters-pkk-sinjar-syria-assad-a9566716.html.

Frantzman, Seth. 2019. “Turkey Bombs Sinjar Villages in Iraq Where Genocide Survivors Live.” The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com. November 6, 2019. https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Turkey-bombs-Sinjar-villages-in-Iraq-where-genocide-survivors-live-606992.

Grigoriadas, Ioannis. 2007. Turk or Turkiyeli? TheReform of Turkey’s Minority Legislation and the Rediscovery of Ottomanism. Routledge.

Ozcan, Ali Kemal. 2010. A Theoretical Analysis of the PKK and Abdullah Ocalan. Routledge.

Tezcur, Gunes Murat. 2009. “Kurdish Nationalism and Identity in Turkey: A Conceptual Reinterpretation.” European Journal of Turkish Studies 10.

Yegen, Mesut. 2006. “Turkish Nationalism and the Kurdish Question.” In Ethnic and Racial Studies, 119–51. Routledge.


[1] For more information, read:  https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/the-us-denies-ties-between-the-ypg-and-pkk-this-is-how-they-re-linked-21593

[2] Ozcan, 2010

[3] https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Turkey-bombs-Sinjar-villages-in-Iraq-where-genocide-survivors-live-606992

[4] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/turkey-iraq-kurdish-fighters-pkk-sinjar-syria-assad-a9566716.html

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