By: Kevin Truitte, Columnist
Photo by: Safin Hamed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has seen a resurgence across the Middle East in recent years. Buoyed by a renewed Kurdish national identity and capitalizing on regional instability, the U.S.-designated terrorist organization and its affiliates in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran have expanded their activities and entrenched within local populations. The PKK has leveraged the ambiguity of its regional branches’ ties to the central organization to win support from Western governments, including the Syria affiliate’s pivotal role in the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. Concurrently, the PKK has indoctrinated local populations under its control in its ideology of democratic confederalism — a political theory of independent, self-governing communities based on the teachings of the PKK’s leader, Abdullah “Apo” Öcalan. Despite the growing prominence of the PKK’s regional affiliates, the group’s central leadership in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains continues to oversee the entire umbrella organization. The PKK’s expansion across the Middle East poses a challenge to the long-term stability of countries with ethnically Kurdish populations, potentially provoking ethnic conflict and insurgency in Turkey and beyond.
Founded as a Marxist-Leninist organization seeking to carve out an independent Kurdish state in Turkey’s southeast, the PKK has waged a decades long insurgency against the Turkish government.[i] After the 1999 arrest of the group’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK attempted to rebrand. The group declared that it no longer aimed for a politically independent Kurdish state, but instead sought greater political and social rights for the Kurds in Turkey.[ii] The organization “disbanded,” then reconstituted under a series of alternative labels in an effort to avoid U.S. and European terrorist designations. From 2003-2005, PKK authorities established the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella group for new PKK affiliates in countries with Kurdish populations — the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) in Iran, and the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PÇDK) in Iraq.[iii] Despite their ostensible autonomy, these downstream proxies’ leadership was composed primarily of core PKK members.[iv] Another more hardline group, the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK), publicly broke with the PKK over a 2004 ceasefire with the Turkish government, but is believed to still act as an agent of the PKK.[v]
The Syrian civil war and the Islamic State’s takeover of large swaths of Iraq and Syria provided the PKK and its proxy organizations opportunities to seize territory, recruit from the region’s Kurdish populations, and engage with new allies. The PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), captured substantial stretches of the Syrian-Turkish border abandoned by the Assad regime. The YPG’s dramatic defense of the Syrian town of Kobane in 2014, after being besieged on all sides by the Islamic State, not only won the group Western support, but also reinvigorated regional Kurdish nationalism under the PKK’s banner.[vi] In Iraq, PKK fighters came to the aid of the Yazidi community in Sinjar after Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew, embedding and training with a Yazidi militia, Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), and politically supporting the Sinjar Council in their fight against ISIS.[vii] In Turkey, the PKK capitalized first on peace talks with the Turkish government, and then the collapse of a ceasefire with the government in 2015, to build support within the Kurdish population and form urban Civil Protection Units (YPS) that for a time controlled entire neighborhoods in southeastern cities.[viii]
Though each PKK proxy can appear autonomous, the strategic direction of these groups is mostly managed by the PKK’s central leadership in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq. Moreover, all PKK affiliates continue to recognize Abdullah Öcalan as their leader.[ix] In Turkey, the radical TAK, which has conducted mass casualty terror attacks within Turkish cities, is believed to take direction from PKK leadership, receiving logistical, personnel, and financial support from Qandil.[x] TAK provides the Kurdistan Workers Party plausible deniability, insulating the PKK from blame for the attacks. Similarly, the YPS officially denies ties to the PKK, while still receiving training and support from the terrorist group. The PKK has smuggled weapons and supplies to the YPS in Nusaybin, provided military training for YPS youth, and embedded its fighters with the group.[xi] In Syria, the PYD and YPG leadership are dominated by PKK-trained cadres, which have established control over governance and security forces in the PYD-administered northeast Syria and remain beholden to Qandil.[xii] Furthermore, the PYD ensures that new recruits, be they Kurdish or Arab, are indoctrinated in the PKK’s ideology during their training, and has moved to eliminate any potential political challengers with death threats and arrests.[xiii] In Iraq, despite the PKK’s recent withdrawal of several hundred fighters from the Sinjar region, a recent assassination of a PKK leader by Turkish security forces indicates that Iraq also has PKK forces deeply embedded in Yazidi areas.[xiv] There, too, the PKK has sought to indoctrinate the local Yazidi population in their ideology.[xv]
The PKK’s proxy model disguises overt ties with central leadership — although the links clearly exist — to enable local affiliates to recruit new fighters, control territory, and secure allies. As the most powerful affiliate, the PYD has played an integral role in the US-led fight against the Islamic State in Syria, dominating the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia coalition.[xvi] This role has not only garnered a PKK affiliate international legitimacy, but also security assistance and a buffer against the PKK’s number one adversary, Turkey. The United States has had to walk a fine line between Turkey and the Democratic Union Party over Syria, attempting to maintain its strategic alliance with Ankara (a NATO ally) while relying on the PYD to fight the Islamic State and provide security to liberated territory. Both the PYD and the PKK have largely benefited from these tensions.
The PKK remains a powerful insurgent group across the Middle East. The PKK has skillfully exploited regional instability to expand its affiliates and bolster its political and military capabilities. These proxies maintain a public denial of ties to the terrorist group that has enabled them to maximize benefits gained during this time of turmoil. The PKK and its growing affiliates will continue to pose yet another significant challenge to a region ravaged by instability.
[ii] David L. Phillips, The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2015), 61, 133.
[iii] Ibid., 133.
[v] Brandon, James, “The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons Emerges as a Rival to the PKK,” Terrorism Focus Volume 3, Issue 40 (October 17, 2006), http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=936#.V0dg8ZMrK8V.
[vi] “Turkey Kurds: Kobane protests leave 19 dead,” BBC, October 8, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29530640; Alexander Christie-Miller, “As ISIS Take Kobane, NATO’s Second Largest Army Sits on the Sidelines,” Newsweek, October 7, 2014, https://www.newsweek.com/isis-take-kobane-natos-second-largest-army-sits-sidelines-275798.
[vii] Baxtiyar Goran, “PKK affiliated group meets Iranian-backed Hezbollah Brigade,” Kurdistan 24, March 7, 2017, http://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/7073241a-1401-4ede-9efe-b31ccb5fe33d/PKK-affiliated-group-meets-Iranian-backed-Hezbollah-Brigade.
[viii] Aaron Stein and Michelle Foley, “The YPG-PKK Connection,” Atlantic Council, January 26, 2016, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/the-ypg-pkk-connection.
[ix] Blaise Misztal et al., Deep State of Crisis: Re-Assessing Risks to the Turkish State (Washington, DC: Bipartisan Policy Center, 2017), 12.
[x] Metin Gurcan, “The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons: A Profile of the Arm’s-Length Proxy of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party,” CTC Sentinel Volume 9, Issue 7 (July 2016), https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-kurdistan-freedom-falcons-a-profile-of-the-arms-length-proxy-of-the-kurdistan-workers-party.
[xi] Katrin Kuntz, “Children of the PKK: The Growing Intensity of Turkey’s Civil War,” Der Spiegel, February 12, 2016, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/escalating-turkish-civil-war-sees-young-fighters-on-front-a-1076663.html; Aaron Stein, “Kurdish Militants And Turkey’s New Urban Insurgency,” War on the Rocks, March 23, 2016, http://warontherocks.com/2016/03/kurdish-militants-and-turkeys-new-urban-insurgency/.
[xii] “The PKK’s Fateful Choice in Northern Syria,” International Crisis Group, May 4, 2017, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/syria/176-pkk-s-fateful-choice-northern-syria.
[xiii] Liz Sly, “U.S. military aid is fueling big ambitions for Syria’s leftist Kurdish militia,” The Washington Post, January 7, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/us-military-aid-is-fueling-big-ambitions-for-syrias-leftist-kurdish-militia/2017/01/07/6e457866-c79f-11e6-acda-59924caa2450_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fac21b93cb33; Ghadi Sary, “Kurdish Self-governance in Syria: Survival and Ambition,” Chatham House, September 15, 2016, https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/kurdish-self-governance-syria-survival-and-ambition.
[xiv] Ece Toksabay and Raya Jalabi, “Kurdish guerrillas “withdrawing” in North Iraq after Turkish threat,” Reuters, March 23, 2018, https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-turkey-iraq/kurdish-guerrillas-withdrawing-in-north-iraq-after-turkish-threat-idUKKBN1GZ220; Kosar Nawzad, “Group confirms death of PKK Commander in Turkish airstrikes on Shingal,” Kurdistan 24, August 16, 2018, http://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/9f1335f3-e1d6-4aef-acf6-9639aadf9e8e.
[xv] Mamoon Alabbasi, “Iraq reassures Turkey on PKK threat but challenges remain,” The Arab Weekly, April 1, 2018, https://thearabweekly.com/iraq-reassures-turkey-pkk-threat-challenges-remain.
[xvi] Tom Perry and Orhan Coskun, “U.S.-led coalition helps to build new Syrian force, angering Turkey,” Reuters, January 14, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-sdf/u-s-led-coalition-helps-to-build-new-syrian-force-angering-turkey-idUSKBN1F30OA.