Turkey is going through a crisis, not only political in nature but moral as well. Once on a trajectory toward democracy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s consolidation of control over the last decade has reversed what gains Turks had already made in terms of press freedom and separation of power. Erdoğan has become Turkey’s Vladimir Putin.
Even as Erdoğan has rolled back Turks’ freedoms, Kurds have become more assertive. While Erdoğan condemns the Kurdistan Workers Party (better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK) as a terrorist group, the group does not meet the terrorist criteria based on Erdoğan’s own embrace of Hamas. Certainly, some PKK off-shoots still conduct terrorism, but the PKK itself is more an insurgency. It fights the Turkish army, not civilians, and increasingly holds and controls territory.
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.
A few days ago, I speculated in my occasional Kurdistan Tribune column that Turkey might be losing its fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its acronym, the PKK. Considered by the United States, European Union, and Turkey to be a terrorist group, the PKK has waged a bloody insurgency since 1984, which has claimed the lives of 45,000.
I have been a vocal critic of the PKK in the past, and was held up at gunpoint by the group once in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK—like many Kurdish political parties—trends toward the personality cult and is intolerant of dissent. Make no mistake: I still find the group to be noxious and, so long as the U.S. government considers the PKK to be a terrorist group, I will as well. But, as an analyst rather than an advocate, it is important to consider what events bode. Frankly, it seems as if Turkey could now lose its fight against the PKK:
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.
There’s an unfortunate correlation between high-level engagement with Middle East potentates and their human rights abuses. When Nancy Pelosi went to Syria, Syrian dissidents ran for cover. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak knew he was off-the-hook when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Egypt and failed to mention democracy. Bush-era Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called Iran a democracy and signaled regime hardliners that their path to repression was clear. President Barack Obama called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan one of his favorite leaders; once an emerging democracy, Turkey now ranks below Russia and Venezuela in terms of press freedom and Erdogan rounds up political opponents in the dead of night.
Earlier this month, Kurdish strongman Masud Barzani joined the club. During his trip to Washington, he met not only with his usual interlocutor Vice President Joseph Biden, but also Obama. He gloated at his reception and calculated that the embrace meant that he would face no more pressure to curtail rampant corruption or respect basic human rights.