Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kurdistan Workers Party

Why Does the U.S. Call Kurds Terrorists?

Given how the Turkish government has both used its security services and judiciary to target the prime minister’s political enemies rather than those who contravene the law, and how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently developed close business relations with a designated Al Qaeda financier, the idea that anyone in the United States government should take the Turkish government at its word with regard to terrorism is risible.

And yet, successive administrations still do (and, admittedly, I once did as well) when it comes to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its offshoots, one of which now governs much of northeastern Syria, which under Kurdish leadership has become a remarkably placid and functioning region in sharp contrast to just about everywhere else in Syria.

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Given how the Turkish government has both used its security services and judiciary to target the prime minister’s political enemies rather than those who contravene the law, and how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently developed close business relations with a designated Al Qaeda financier, the idea that anyone in the United States government should take the Turkish government at its word with regard to terrorism is risible.

And yet, successive administrations still do (and, admittedly, I once did as well) when it comes to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its offshoots, one of which now governs much of northeastern Syria, which under Kurdish leadership has become a remarkably placid and functioning region in sharp contrast to just about everywhere else in Syria.

That said there is reason why the United States might once have designated the PKK to be terrorists. The PKK certainly engaged in violence, and killed a number of civilians for their ideological transgressions.

Recently, the continued designation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as “Tier III” terrorist organizations under the Immigration and Naturalization Act has raised the issue again, although KDP leader Masud Barzani is not being truthful when he says he cancelled a recent visit to Washington because of the issue. (Rather, Barzani was upset that he did not get a meeting with President Obama and that his second son, Mansour Barzani, had trouble getting a visa; regardless, eldest son Masrour traveled to Washington against the backdrop of the supposed boycott on Washington so that his wife could deliver their baby at Sibley Hospital).

Regardless, the Tier III designation is wrong. The PUK and KDP—both U.S. allies—fought an insurgency and killed many civilians. But at its root, they were engaged in insurgency rather than terrorism. Lest anyone forget how violent the KDP insurgency could be, here’s a blast from the past: A young and svelte-looking Hoshyar Zebari—now Iraq’s Foreign Minister—narrating a propaganda video showing a KDP attack on what appears to be a civilian truck. Zebari seems to suggest that their goal is to disrupt Iraqi oil flow. In addition, both the KDP and PUK murdered several thousand civilians and captured opponents during the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war.

Most American policymakers understand the Tier III designation of the KDP and PUK to be a mistake, the result of a poorly worded law. But as the United States considers its terror designation of our Iraqi Kurdish allies, perhaps it is also time to reconsider whether the PKK’s activities differ considerably from those of the PUK and KDP, other than in the length and breadth of their insurgency that, at any rate, is now suspended as peace talks continue.

The PKK is certainly not non-violent, and its roots in hard left doctrine certainly were dangerous in the context of the Cold War. But the PKK—like much of its leftist brethren—has evolved with the recognition that communism was a failed ideology. The information at the root of the PKK designation certainly should also be re-examined to ensure that information contributed by Turkey is reliable and that the KDP’s corroboration of that information is based on subjective evidence rather than a desire to drag the United States into an intra-Kurdish tribal struggle.

Perhaps now is the time to reflect on a broader Kurdish strategy and policy, one that reflects the 21st century reality of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, and recognizes that the United States and regional Kurds have many mutual interests and can benefit from partnership.

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Should Abdullah Öcalan Be Freed?

On February 15, 1999, a Turkish commando operation captured Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan in Nairobi, Kenya. Öcalan had been on the run since international pressure on Syria had forced Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad to demand Öcalan no longer call Syria his home. Michael M. Gunter, a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and a prolific author regarding the Kurdish issue, interviewed Öcalan at his Damascus residence shortly before the PKK leader departed Syria.

Öcalan was Turkey’s arch-nemesis. He had launched and personally directed an insurrection inside Turkey that ultimately claimed upwards of 30,000 lives, the majority Kurdish. Öcalan was not the only Kurdish leader in Turkey and, in the early years of his operations, brokered no dissent; he reportedly targeted rival Kurdish groups. Washington-based Turkey scholar Soner Çağaptay outlined the Turkish case against Öcalan and, by extension, the PKK, here.

That said, while Öcalan led the PKK, he was not always opposed to peace. Turkish President Turgut Özal and the PKK set the stage for some real progress on efforts to resolve the conflict, before a heart attack cut Özal’s life short just over two decades ago.

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On February 15, 1999, a Turkish commando operation captured Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan in Nairobi, Kenya. Öcalan had been on the run since international pressure on Syria had forced Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad to demand Öcalan no longer call Syria his home. Michael M. Gunter, a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and a prolific author regarding the Kurdish issue, interviewed Öcalan at his Damascus residence shortly before the PKK leader departed Syria.

Öcalan was Turkey’s arch-nemesis. He had launched and personally directed an insurrection inside Turkey that ultimately claimed upwards of 30,000 lives, the majority Kurdish. Öcalan was not the only Kurdish leader in Turkey and, in the early years of his operations, brokered no dissent; he reportedly targeted rival Kurdish groups. Washington-based Turkey scholar Soner Çağaptay outlined the Turkish case against Öcalan and, by extension, the PKK, here.

That said, while Öcalan led the PKK, he was not always opposed to peace. Turkish President Turgut Özal and the PKK set the stage for some real progress on efforts to resolve the conflict, before a heart attack cut Özal’s life short just over two decades ago.

A decade ago, I considered the PKK to be an unrepentant terrorist group. Turkey was a strong and consistent U.S. ally and considered them to be, and generally speaking, I believe it is important for the United States to stand by its allies. Turkey, however, changed my mind. Western police and security agencies, as well as the United Nations, now use more than 250 definitions of terrorism. Consistency matters, however. In 2006, the Turkish government not only reached out to Hamas, but that bus-bombing, rocket-launching, kidnapping group’s most militant, Damascus-based faction. In subsequent years, Turkish diplomats—like Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States—argued that Hamas was legitimate and should be engaged. It is hard to suggest that Hamas is legitimate but the PKK is not. After all, the PKK has greater popular support among Kurds, not only in Turkey but also in Syria and perhaps Iran as well than Hamas has among Palestinians. And while both groups have engaged in violence, Hamas continues to target civilians while the PKK has long since constrained itself to a more traditional insurgency.

All this is moot, of course, since the Turkish government itself has opened peace talks not only with the PKK but more specifically with Abdullah Öcalan himself, who now resides in prison on İmralı island, in the Sea of Marmara. Whatever one thinks of Öcalan, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan transformed him into the indispensable man and confirmed him as the most important Kurdish politician when he chose him as his partner in the Kurdish peace process rather than any other Kurdish politician. And, with regard to the U.S. terror designation, it is unclear why the PKK should be considered a terrorist group when the State Department has de-listed the Mujahedin al-Khalq, a group which—unlike the PKK—actually targeted and murdered Americans.

There is much about the PKK which should concern the United States, and certainly the personality cult which surrounds Öcalan stands in sharp contrast to some of the PKK’s reformist rhetoric. At the same time, the Öcalan personality cult is little different from the Masud Barzani personality cult that permeates portions of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Barzani is a U.S. ally.

Erdoğan’s peace process has largely held, but the PKK’s ceasefire is not the end all and be all of the process. Ultimately, the Kurds seek more than just token television programming or some recognition of Kurdish culture, especially since Öcalan now pushes not for a Kurdish state but rather for confederation, the shape of which he has fleshed out in his recent writings.

Öcalan is in prison because of alleged terrorism. But if the Turkish government now treats him as a peace partner, then it is unclear how that peace process can continue with Öcalan in prison. The decision is similar to what once confronted South Africa. Nelson Mandela, now remembered as a peaceful hero, had embraced hardcore Communism and his African National Congress had engaged in terrorism. Mandela, however, evolved with time.

It seems that Erdoğan now has a choice: If he is serious about the peace process, then he has little choice but to free Öcalan, no matter how distasteful it might be to many Turks to see the world embrace a figure they consider to be a terrorist as some sort of Mandela reincarnate. At the same time, to keep Öcalan effectively ends, if not reverses, the peace process. The ball is in Turkey’s court, and is a decision point solely of Turkey’s making.

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Blame Turkey for PKK Truce Breakdown

Back in April, amidst a great deal of public optimism regarding the peace process between Turkish authorities and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents, I suggested that the Turkish government was more cynical than sincere, and was using the peace process for two reasons: First, to win Kurdish support for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proposed constitution—one that would consolidate his power for more than a decade to come—and second, to win Istanbul the 2020 Olympic Games. (I explain in more detail, here.) I predicted that after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made its choice, Turkey would no longer need to play nice, and so the peace process would collapse in September.

Well, September is here. Erdoğan’s ambitions for the constitution have been sidelined by his own behavior against the backdrop of the Gezi protests earlier this summer, and the IOC decided three days ago to bypass Istanbul’s ill-conceived bid and choose Tokyo. Now, like clockwork, the peace process is collapsing.

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Back in April, amidst a great deal of public optimism regarding the peace process between Turkish authorities and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents, I suggested that the Turkish government was more cynical than sincere, and was using the peace process for two reasons: First, to win Kurdish support for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proposed constitution—one that would consolidate his power for more than a decade to come—and second, to win Istanbul the 2020 Olympic Games. (I explain in more detail, here.) I predicted that after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made its choice, Turkey would no longer need to play nice, and so the peace process would collapse in September.

Well, September is here. Erdoğan’s ambitions for the constitution have been sidelined by his own behavior against the backdrop of the Gezi protests earlier this summer, and the IOC decided three days ago to bypass Istanbul’s ill-conceived bid and choose Tokyo. Now, like clockwork, the peace process is collapsing.

The Kurdistan Democratic Committee’s Union, a PKK front group, released a statement yesterday on the breakdown of the negotiations, a portion of which I excerpt here:

While a one-hundred-years-old problem is being dealt with, imposing solitary confinement on a main factor on the one side of the problem and not making room for him to work on the solution issues is a clear proof that the government is not sincere in settling the problem. While the Prime Minister and his government are free to hold many sessions and share opinions with many circles every day, Leader APO is only permitted to have a two-hour-long meeting in a month; this fact clearly shows that the process is not developing… Constructing new military posts, building new dams and HES’es [sic] are enough to show the ill-willing approach of the government. The government is preparing itself for war, not for peace. During the 9-month-long non-conflict environment, compared to those of the years of conflict, the government has escalated its military preparation more and more. It has taken no steps with regard to the democratization of Turkey. It has not released the KCK detainees – which would have cleared the way for democratic politics – as it has not abolished the Anti-Terror Law.

Erdoğan has called an emergency meeting with his military and national-security staff to discuss the situation.

Erdoğan will castigate the PKK, but he has no one but himself to blame. While the Turkish media and their Western counterparts expressed optimism about Erdoğan’s truce achievement, few considered what the Kurds hoped to achieve.

After the ceasefire agreement, I traveled both to Brussels and to Qandil—an area of Iraqi Kurdistan controlled by the PKK—to discuss the issue with Kurdish intellectuals and senior PKK leaders. While there is still much about which they and I disagree and much of the conversation was off-the-record, it was clear that the PKK expected far more than Erdoğan was willing to offer. Indeed, aside from some radio programming and language freedom, Erdoğan offered little if anything.

Most Turks cannot conceive of what equality and reintegration inside Turkey would mean. Rather than talk about a few Kurdish language courses, they should understand that true reconciliation will mean former PKK soldiers become integrated into the Turkish army, and former PKK scouts join the MIT, Turkey’s intelligence service. Istanbul—which is the city with the largest Kurdish population in the world—should have bilingual street signs. Turkey would, in such circumstances, become a bi-national state. Under any circumstance, the PKK would want its leader Abdullah Öcalan released from prison.

There is no excuse for Turkey not to release Öcalan if Turkey is serious about peace. After all, by opening negotiations with Öcalan, Turkey made him the indispensable man. After years of declaring him irrelevant, Erdoğan transformed him into the only figure who can represent Turkey’s Kurds in negotiations. When Öcalan is released from prison, I doubt he will settle for being mayor of Diyarbakir, which would be the cap if anyone accepted Erdoğan’s plan.

Turkey and the United States consider Öcalan a terrorist, but it is well past time the United States reconsider the designation: Both sides have bloody hands in the conflict and the PKK has long acted more as an organized insurgent group rather than a terrorist group. The United States delisted the Mujahidin al-Khalq, an abhorrent cult that does conduct terrorism, has targeted Americans in the past, and has little if any support in Iran. In contrast, the PKK has never targeted Americans, has not bribed Americans as the Mujahedin does, and has widespread support not only in Turkey, but also in Iran and Syria.

Öcalan, from isolation in a prison cell, has run circles around Erdoğan and regardless of what happens next, will come out the victor. If the ceasefire collapses, he still has the relevancy Erdoğan bestowed upon him. If Erdoğan offers more concessions, he affirms the PKK’s strategy.

As problematic as some PKK behavior can be, it is time for American policymakers to reconsider its leader and the group, and end America’s blind support for Erdoğan who has used Kurds like a political football and has yet to outline his own road map or vision for the resolution of the conflict. That certainly does not mean swapping blind support for one authoritarian with another, but rather determining what is in the long-term interests of regional stability, democracy, and U.S. national interests.

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Turkey-PKK Peace Will Fail

On March 21, 2013, the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan released a letter to his supporters in the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) calling on them to lay down their arms, and for PKK fighters to withdraw to Iraq. The first group of PKK fighters has now heeded his call, and other groups are on the way. At President Obama’s joint press conference last week with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Obama praised the Turkish-Kurdish peace process:

And I want to take this opportunity to commend you and the Turkish people for your courage in seeking an historic and peaceful resolution of the PKK violence that has plagued Turkey for so long. And just as the United States has stood with you in your long search for security, we will support efforts in Turkey to uphold the rule of law and good governance and human rights for all.

Obama may be optimistic, but if the Turks believe that PKK withdrawal was the end-all and be-all of any peace process, they are sorely mistaken.

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On March 21, 2013, the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan released a letter to his supporters in the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) calling on them to lay down their arms, and for PKK fighters to withdraw to Iraq. The first group of PKK fighters has now heeded his call, and other groups are on the way. At President Obama’s joint press conference last week with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Obama praised the Turkish-Kurdish peace process:

And I want to take this opportunity to commend you and the Turkish people for your courage in seeking an historic and peaceful resolution of the PKK violence that has plagued Turkey for so long. And just as the United States has stood with you in your long search for security, we will support efforts in Turkey to uphold the rule of law and good governance and human rights for all.

Obama may be optimistic, but if the Turks believe that PKK withdrawal was the end-all and be-all of any peace process, they are sorely mistaken.

Over the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to speak to a number of officials close to the PKK in both Brussels and some from the region who are visiting Washington, D.C. For many years, I had avoided contact with the PKK but, because the Turks now talk openly to the group and have thus legitimized them as the indispensable partner, it seems silly that American officials would also not engage with them, even if I have reservations about their internal organization and past activities. At any rate, all my interlocutors emphasize that Öcalan seeks not territorial readjustments or outright Kurdish secession from Turkey, but rather they expect to be equal partners inside a reformed Turkish state.

What would this mean in practice? Over the nearly 30 years of conflict, two Turkish institutions in particular have targeted the PKK and their sympathizers: The Turkish General Staff and the Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT), Turkey’s intelligence service. The questions Kurds and Turks must ask is whether the Turkish government is willing to enable PKK supporters to serve in decision-making capacities in both the Turkish military and MIT. If the answer to that is no, then the Turkish government is effectively asking the PKK to lay down its arms in exchange for no substantive reforms. After all, the Kurdish fight has not been simply to listen to Kurdish music on the radio or learn Kurdish in schools, but has been a battle for functional autonomy. And for those Turks who would say that the PKK are criminals—and do not represent Turkey’s Kurds—that may once have been plausible, but since Erdoğan has put the imprisoned Öcalan on a pedestal, he has made the PKK leader the pivotal man.

Whether the talks succeed or, more likely, fail, Öcalan is now the undisputed leader of Turkey’s Kurds. The reaction of his followers to the fact that Erdoğan is unwilling to implement all but the most superficial reconciliation will probably neither be non-violent nor limited to the traditional Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir, Van, or Urfa. Erdoğan may soon discover that the price of insincere talks is quite high indeed.

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Don’t Be Fooled by Kurdish Peace Process

Speaking in Istanbul on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry praised the peace process between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Standing beside Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, he told a news conference, “We welcome the PKK’s commitment to lay down its arms. We discussed our work to combat terrorism in all its forms … including the violence that has plagued Turkey for three long decades,” he said, adding, “No peace process is easy. It always takes courage and determination.”

Kerry would be foolish, however, to believe that Turkey’s current outreach to the PKK is about peace, or permanent reconciliation with Turkey’s Kurds. Rather, two other factors are at play, both of which suggest that political cynicism and greed rather than sincerity are at the root of Turkey’s rush to negotiation with the Kurdish group.

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Speaking in Istanbul on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry praised the peace process between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Standing beside Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, he told a news conference, “We welcome the PKK’s commitment to lay down its arms. We discussed our work to combat terrorism in all its forms … including the violence that has plagued Turkey for three long decades,” he said, adding, “No peace process is easy. It always takes courage and determination.”

Kerry would be foolish, however, to believe that Turkey’s current outreach to the PKK is about peace, or permanent reconciliation with Turkey’s Kurds. Rather, two other factors are at play, both of which suggest that political cynicism and greed rather than sincerity are at the root of Turkey’s rush to negotiation with the Kurdish group.

The first factor that influences Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s behavior is the 2020 Summer Olympics. The announcement on Nowruz, the traditional Persian and Kurdish New Year’s celebration, came just days before a team from the International Olympic Committee came to survey Istanbul, one of three finalists for the 2020 games. Erdoğan seeks the games not only to propel Turkey—and himself—further onto the world stage but also because the Summer Olympics could provide him with a financial bonanza. Sponsoring the Olympic Games might be a money loser to many countries, but the prime minister has not been shy about directing major development contracts to a firm run by his son-in-law. Erdoğan has gone from being a humble politician with a humble salary to a millionaire, many times over. Explaining away his wealth as the product of gifts presented at his son’s wedding is not convincing. The International Olympic Committee will make its decision in September. Whatever they decide—and Istanbul is likely the frontrunner—as soon as the decision is made, Erdoğan no longer needs to pretend to pursue peace.

The second factor is Erdoğan’s own political future. Erdoğan is currently overseeing efforts to rewrite the constitution and convert Turkey to a presidential system in which the president, rather than the prime minister, will hold sway. This would give Erdoğan perhaps two more terms of perhaps five to seven years each. Erdoğan figures he needs Kurdish support to support a new constitution with a strong presidential system. As soon as the new constitution is approved, however, Turkey’s Kurds again become expendable.

Too often, American officials imagine that peace partners are sincere. Erdoğan has been quite vague about what concessions he will be willing to make to the Kurds, and whether any of the Kurds’ basic aspirations will be met. PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, for example, seeks federation. That is not likely something Erdoğan could deliver, even if he were so willing. 

Let us hope that Secretary of State John Kerry recognizes that with insincere interlocutors, talk is more about the process than the peace, and often more about the money and personal power than achieving a final settlement. That was certainly the case with Yasir Arafat and it also appears to be the major factor at play with Turkey’s prime minister.

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Assassinations in Paris: Was it Turkey or Iran?

Sometime in the afternoon or evening of January 9, three Kurdish activists were assassinated in their office in Paris, France. To enter the office required being buzzed in and the office was not marked by signs. This was no random mugging or robbery: Whoever entered and shot dead Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); Fidan Doğan, a representative of the Brussels-based Kurdistan National Congress; and Leyla Söylemez was deliberate. French Interior Minister Manuel Valls visited the site of the murders and called the slaughter “intolerable.”

There are two main suspects: Turkey and Iran. Many Kurds are pointing the finger at Ankara. After all, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan feigns moderation toward the Kurds only when it suits him, but embraces a hardline approach when he wants to whip up Turkish nationalists. In recent years, the PKK has been winning its insurgency: The Turkish army has effectively lost control of much territory which the PKK now administers in far southeastern Anatolia.

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Sometime in the afternoon or evening of January 9, three Kurdish activists were assassinated in their office in Paris, France. To enter the office required being buzzed in and the office was not marked by signs. This was no random mugging or robbery: Whoever entered and shot dead Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); Fidan Doğan, a representative of the Brussels-based Kurdistan National Congress; and Leyla Söylemez was deliberate. French Interior Minister Manuel Valls visited the site of the murders and called the slaughter “intolerable.”

There are two main suspects: Turkey and Iran. Many Kurds are pointing the finger at Ankara. After all, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan feigns moderation toward the Kurds only when it suits him, but embraces a hardline approach when he wants to whip up Turkish nationalists. In recent years, the PKK has been winning its insurgency: The Turkish army has effectively lost control of much territory which the PKK now administers in far southeastern Anatolia.

A more likely suspect is Iran. Not only is there precedent—the Iranian regime assassinated Kurdish leaders in Vienna on July 13, 1989, just a month after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. European diplomats dismissed that attack as a rogue event. It wasn’t: As I discuss in this article, one of the hit men was a Qods Force colonel who returned to Iran and received his first star as brigadier general. In 1992, German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel proposed a critical dialogue with Iran. The Qods Force responded by ordering a hit on Kurdish dissidents at a Berlin café. There is a clear pattern: When anyone reaches out their hand and asks the Iranian government to unclench their fist, the Iranian leadership sees not conciliation but a sign of weakness to exploit.

Why would the Iranians, however, go after Turkish Kurds? According to this report from the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, Tehran’s fear of Kurdish separatism has increased tremendously since the fraudulent 2009 election. There is no doubt that Kurdish nationalists, including those based in Turkey, have strong links with their Iranian brethren. One of the reasons why the Iranian government supported militias in Iraq was not only to target American soldiers, but also Iraqi Kurdish federalists in Kirkuk and other disputed areas: The logic, as the Iraqi Kurds explained to me, went something like this: If Iraqi Kurdistan wins strong federalism with oil-rich Kirkuk included, then the potential blowback among Iranian Kurds could be great. If Shi’ite militias could disrupt that Iraqi Kurdish federalism, so much the better.

There is also precedent when it comes to Paris: French authorities already blame Iranian hit men for 11 assassinations of dissidents since Iran’s revolution. What’s one more?

There should be a cautionary lesson for the Obama administration, Senator Kerry, and perhaps Senator Hagel and John Brennan: Reaching out to Iran often sparks the worst aspects of Iranian regime behavior. It may sound counterintuitive, but the historical pattern is clear.

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The Obstacle to Syria Regime Change?

I had the opportunity to have dinner with some Kurdish journalists last week in London, where events in Syria were very much on peoples’ minds. Kurds make up perhaps 10 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million people; much of northeastern Syria is almost entirely Kurdish. I asked my friends how the allegiance was breaking down among these Kurds. Their answer: 50 percent of Syrian Kurds support Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and 50 percent support the Kurdistan Workers Party, best known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK.  Others Kurds I have since talked to—diehard opponents of both the Syrian regime and the PKK—say that perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds favor the PKK. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan long called Syria home, and so it is natural that many Syrian Kurds would pay their loyalty to him.

The United States government defines the PKK as a terrorist group. The group engaged in a long insurgency inside Turkey, during the course of which it targeted not only Turkish troops, but also Turkish and Kurdish civilians. The Turkish government—a brief interlude of secret negotiations aside—takes a zero tolerance approach to the PKK. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embraces Hamas and imbues it with political legitimacy, his criteria is not subjective; he is unwilling to ascribe any legitimacy to the PKK even though its popularity in Kurdish areas of Turkey is far greater than Hamas’ popularity in the Gaza Strip.

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I had the opportunity to have dinner with some Kurdish journalists last week in London, where events in Syria were very much on peoples’ minds. Kurds make up perhaps 10 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million people; much of northeastern Syria is almost entirely Kurdish. I asked my friends how the allegiance was breaking down among these Kurds. Their answer: 50 percent of Syrian Kurds support Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and 50 percent support the Kurdistan Workers Party, best known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK.  Others Kurds I have since talked to—diehard opponents of both the Syrian regime and the PKK—say that perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds favor the PKK. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan long called Syria home, and so it is natural that many Syrian Kurds would pay their loyalty to him.

The United States government defines the PKK as a terrorist group. The group engaged in a long insurgency inside Turkey, during the course of which it targeted not only Turkish troops, but also Turkish and Kurdish civilians. The Turkish government—a brief interlude of secret negotiations aside—takes a zero tolerance approach to the PKK. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embraces Hamas and imbues it with political legitimacy, his criteria is not subjective; he is unwilling to ascribe any legitimacy to the PKK even though its popularity in Kurdish areas of Turkey is far greater than Hamas’ popularity in the Gaza Strip.

After years of singing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s praises, Erdoğan has shifted his tune and called for Assad to step down. Like President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, however, Erdoğan has been unwilling to move such calls beyond rhetoric into reality. By seeking to lead from behind and work through Turkey, however, Obama and Clinton may simply be enabling Turkey to sacrifice any serious Syrian political developments on the altar of its fear of empowered Kurds in a post-Assad Syria.

Perhaps the time has come for the Obama administration to have a serious discussion about the PKK and whether Turkey’s antipathy toward the group should trump freedom for 22.5 million Syrians.

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