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Is It Time to Reconsider the PKK?

The United States has long designated the Kurdistan Workers Party (better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK) a terrorist group. The PKK certainly has a long and bloody history, one in which it targeted not only the Turkish army but also many local Kurds who refused to submit to its leaders’ will.

The PKK has always enjoyed popularity in Syria. While the Turks were fighting the PKK in the 1990s, the Syrian government hosted the group’s headquarters. Almost 15 years ago, the Middle East Quarterly actually interviewed PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan inside Syria. While Öcalan has since been captured and imprisoned, the legacy of his long residence in Syria reverberates with Syrian Kurds who overwhelmingly favor the PKK (and its local political offshoot, the Democratic Union Party, PYD) over Masud Barzani’s autocratic Kurdistan Democratic Party in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan.

While the United States considers the PKK a terrorist group, the PYD now controls significant territory in eastern Syria including the city of Qamishli. There, early indications suggest its new administration has been both professional and benign. Alas, the PKK designation still gets in the way of U.S. interaction, if not directly than out of a diplomatic desire to avoid offending Turkey.

Herein lies the irony: The Turkish government talks to the PKK, even as it insists others should not. And, under the current prime minister, the Turkish government has suggested that national liberation movements are legitimate partners. Turkey embraces Hamas, Hezbollah, and the prime minister has even defended donating money to Al Qaeda financiers. If Turkey refuses to accept American sensitivities about terrorism, then the United States should have no responsibility to carry water for the Turks, especially if doing so may go against American interests.

The State Department has now de-listed the Mujahedin al-Khalq (MKO), a terrorist group which has killed Americans and, to this day, refuses to apologize. Designation or not, the MKO is a terrorist group and remains undeserving of any U.S. support. Perhaps it is time, however, for the United States to reconsider its PKK designation. This need not mean reversing the designation, but it should spell out what it finds objectionable about the PKK. Has the PKK targeted U.S. citizens? If so, when? Is the PKK simply waging an insurgency against Turkish soldiers, or is it continuing to target Turkish civilians? What actions, if any, should the PKK take to achieve a new status under American law? Hopefully, it won’t go the distasteful MKO route of simply bribing officials with inflated speaking fees, but will really and sincerely reform. Even if the State Department determines that the PKK in Turkey still deserves its terrorism designation, it might ask whether this should preclude better and more productive relations with the PYD, a strengthening secular movement now controlling territory in Eastern Syria. Certainly, they are better than the Al Qaeda alternative now rearing its ugly head among the Syrian opposition.