Understanding the Conflict between PKK and Turkey

In the late 1970s, a group of Kurdish students in southeastern Turkey (in the northern part of what is considered cultural and historical Kurdistan) formed a nationalist movement known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The movement was originally based on both socialism and Kurdish nationalism, with the aim of creating a Kurdish communist state, while also incorporating democratic political norms. They sought to recover the political and cultural rights of Kurds from Turkey, which had subjected more than 20 million Kurds to policies of marginalization, tyranny and forced demographic change.

The PKK was able to formulate its own policy in fighting against the Turkish regime, more than other Kurdish organizations that had arisen previously. They likely succeeded where others had failed, because of their socialist, anti-capitalist ideology. Unlike previous parties, which related religion to politics, the PKK came with the concept of secularity. As a result, they gained a lot of followers, including from the four parts of Kurdistan, and particularly among the secular and non-religious class and those who were originally members of the communist party. 

Led by Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party practiced its political activities and cultivated its ideology within the souls of the Kurds, especially young men and women who were motivated by a desire for freedom from the restrictions and oppression of the Turkish Ottoman regime. They saw the only solution as an armed struggle to remove the borders that have fragmented the geography of Kurdistan, and to topple the Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided Kurdistan between Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish state are fighting the activities of the PKK, first and foremost, because of its socialist nationalist mission to fight against injustice and tyranny — which includes restoring the Kurdish national, cultural and political identity, and granting the Kurdish people autonomy in their areas. This policy of autonomy is a threat to the Turkish system, because it would give Kurds control over themselves in Turkey, rather than Turkey imposing Turkish laws and nationality by force on the Kurds. It is a threat to the Turkish system because if Kurds control themselves, Turkey has concerns that they will rebel against its system and extend their control over the rest of Turkey. The imposition of Turkish nationality was rejected by the PKK for fear of repeating the fate of the Yazidis and Armenians, who were victims of genocide at the hands of the Turks during the Islamic Ottoman era, with brutal treatment of religious minorities. 

In 1915, after the elimination of religious minorities by an extremist religious ideology, Turkey changed its policy towards religious nationalism. When the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Turkey, the policy became a “national political Islam” approach to eliminating Kurdish movements. The Brotherhood fought the PKK with an iron fist — not only inside Turkey, but around the world, including in Iraq, Syria and Iran. It also threatened countries that contributed to the PKK by promoting their activities. In 1999, after Turkish intelligence arrested Abdullah Öcalan, the party’s leader in Kenya, the PKK resorted to different organizing mechanisms against Turkish troops. That situation pushed thousands of young men and women to join their ranks in the Qandil mountains.

Due to the pressure and extreme brutality that Turkey had practiced against the Kurds, the PKK reacted with violent methods of their own, fighting the Turkish regime without adherence to international laws and standards. However, after PKK became more aware of the world system, they changed their methods and engaged in world politics through means of a nationalist democratic party. Still, the party was subjected to revenge and injustice by Turkish authorities, and their members are regularly the victims of forced disappearance and jail, despite the absence of legal evidence for such treatment. 

Despite its military strength and international position, Turkey was not able to eliminate the PKK.  A number of reasons explain that failure:

  • The  PKK successfully planted an ideology within the hearts of its followers.
  • There developed in the Kurdish people a harmony between principle, ideas, land and identity.
  • The party benefited from the experiences of previous Kurdish movements that were religious in nature, such as the movement of Sheikh Saeedi Piran and others.
  • The mountainous geographical areas taken by the party helped in the integration and training of young people on socialist Kurdish thought, contrary to Turkish Islamic thought.
  • The slogan of the party spoke to the rights of 45 million Kurds, without using the term “Kurds of Turkey.” That left a mark in the hearts of Kurds throughout the world who believe in that dream.

Why does Turkey calls the PKK “terrorists”?

Every dictatorship has its own policies and system for dominating its opponents, or those who criticize its dictatorial policies. Turkey’s system developed in response to a number of concerns:

  • The Kurdish armed struggle against the brutal policies of Turkey
  • Turkey’s fear of dividing its country and fragmenting it on a national basis
  • The desire of Turkish Kurds to join with Armenian Kurds and open the Armenian genocide file

Amar, a young Rojava Kurd from Qamishlo with whom I spoke, pointed to other reasons as well:

  • Erdogan wants to eliminate the Kurds on Turkey’s border (for all the reasons mentioned above).
  • Erdogan wants to build a Sunni-Muslim state on the border — replacing the Kurds on the border with Syrian refugees. He specifically wants Qamishli’s land in order to reach his goal.
  • For other countries, in particular America, why do they call the PKK a terrorist organization? It is because America is capitalist and seeks first its own interest with Turkey. That is why, when Trump withdrew his forces from Rojava, he said, “I got the oil, and this is the most important thing” — demonstrating that he does not care for people’s lives, but only his interests.

The international community, especially Turkey’s neighboring countries, expressed solidarity with Turkey’s policy of preventing the supply of any Kurdish movement that threatens their countries. They fought the PKK’s agenda along with Turkey, and they banned the PKK presence on their territory.

Furthermore, many European countries and the United States have put the PKK on the terrorist list, because of the PKK’s militant position against the Turkish government. The Turkish government has held the PKK responsible for many attacks, bombings and hostile activities inside Turkish cities.

The reaction of these countries toward the PKK can be seen as due primarily to their trade and military relations with Ankara — especially those countries participating in NATO, the international military alliance that includes many European countries, Turkey and America. The NATO system mandates that threats to the security and safety of any member state threaten the security and safety of all NATO member states. This was one of the main reasons why European and NATO countries defended the ban on PKK activities and placed them on the terrorism list.

We concluded here that banning this group and placing it on the terrorist list is not primarily because of its armed activities and struggle, but because of Turkish pressure on those countries that had a commercial, economic and military relationship with Turkey.

As for the neighboring countries of Turkey — Syria, Iraq and Iran — they all agreed with Turkey and banned the PKK’s activities for a number of additional reasons: 

  1. First, because of its political activity, which opposed the politicians of those countries that believed in Arab or Islamic nationalism. In all of those countries, there were Kurdish movements struggling for the rights of the Kurdish people, and also protecting the rights of other religious minorities. 
  2. Second, because of the common border Turkey held with these countries, which might go to the Kurds if they become independent. 
  3. And third, those countries feared the establishment of a Kurdish state that would strengthen its relationship with the State of Israel.

The PKK was able to build its autonomy under the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan. However, they were labeled as terrorists because of their violent reaction to Turkey’s brutal oppression of the Kurdish people. Europe and America followed in condemning the violent methods of the PKK — but not the violence of Turkey against the Kurds. 

If we look at the recent situation for Rojava’s Kurds, we can see that the history of the Kurdish tragedy is repeating itself — similar to the “Arab Belt” project in 1965, which aimed to make demographic changes in the Kurdish area of Rojava. The project aimed to empty the Al-Jazeera (Heseka) from the original Kurds, and to settle Arab families in their place. This is the case with Turkey now, as they want to empty Qamishli and settle Arabs in their place. And because Kurds know that if they leave their houses in Qamishli, they will no longer be able to come back, they have fought and resisted the Turkish attacks — refusing to leave their land despite the extreme brutality of Turkish attacks.

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