Commentary Magazine


Topic: PKK

Will Non-Violence Change Turkey’s Kurdish Struggle?

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.

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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.

Without doubt, the PKK remains more popular than the Turkish government in Diyarbakir, much of southeastern Turkey, and among the Kurdish population in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara. While the PKK’s past terrorism was a mistake—and delegitimized the group in the West and convinced not only the United States but also the European Union to designate it—the Kurds’ shift to non-violent political protest is both welcome and effective.

A massive hunger strike among Kurdish prisoners in more than 60 Turkish prisons is now at day 54. Even the Turkish press acknowledges the pressure the Kurdish prisoners have exerted on the Erdoğan regime. The Turkish government has banned public rallies in Diyarbakir and other cities in sympathy with the hunger strikers. While Erdoğan has dismissed the starving prisoners “as just a show,” the deaths that will likely occur in the next few weeks will undermine the legitimacy of Erdoğan’s strategy. The growing unrest and discord should also raise questions about the wisdom of choosing Turkey as the host of the Summer Olympics.

As for the United States, regardless of the election outcome, it may be time to re-evaluate why the United States categorizes the PKK as a terrorist group rather than an insurgency. Perhaps the United States will choose to maintain its terror designation but, if this is the case, it should explain why. Regardless, the Kurdish hunger strike and the Kurds’ recent turn toward non-violent resistance should lead Washington to reconsider its policy and outreach to Turkey’s Kurds.

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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.

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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.

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Erdoğan: Immunity for Me but not for Thee

When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey almost a decade ago, it promoted itself as a clean alternative after years of governance by corrupt parties and politicians. Many Turkish politicians made no secret of their desire to hold seats in parliament in order to shield themselves behind parliamentary immunity. The most prominent case was Cem Uzan, who created a party and almost bought his way into parliament after, as courts subsequently confirmed, he defrauded Motorola of more than a billion dollars.

AKP leader and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his allies, however, have been just as corrupt. As mayor of Istanbul and subsequently prime minister, Erdoğan accumulated tens of millions of dollars; as of 2008, before he completed his take-over of the judiciary, he faced 13 separate corruption cases. He retains immunity so long as he remains in parliament, but as soon as he leaves office, he is fair game for any independent prosecutor who remains. So too are his cabinet ministers who together face almost three dozen separate corruption probes. One Wikileaks cable reported AKP informants accusing several trusted Erdoğan aides—most notably current Minister for European Affairs Egemin Bağış—of corruption. Regarding Erdoğan, it said, “We have heard from two contacts that Erdogan has eight accounts in Swiss banks; his explanations that his wealth comes from the wedding presents guests gave his son and that a Turkish businessman is paying the educational expenses of all four Erdogan children in the U.S. purely altruistically are lame.”

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When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey almost a decade ago, it promoted itself as a clean alternative after years of governance by corrupt parties and politicians. Many Turkish politicians made no secret of their desire to hold seats in parliament in order to shield themselves behind parliamentary immunity. The most prominent case was Cem Uzan, who created a party and almost bought his way into parliament after, as courts subsequently confirmed, he defrauded Motorola of more than a billion dollars.

AKP leader and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his allies, however, have been just as corrupt. As mayor of Istanbul and subsequently prime minister, Erdoğan accumulated tens of millions of dollars; as of 2008, before he completed his take-over of the judiciary, he faced 13 separate corruption cases. He retains immunity so long as he remains in parliament, but as soon as he leaves office, he is fair game for any independent prosecutor who remains. So too are his cabinet ministers who together face almost three dozen separate corruption probes. One Wikileaks cable reported AKP informants accusing several trusted Erdoğan aides—most notably current Minister for European Affairs Egemin Bağış—of corruption. Regarding Erdoğan, it said, “We have heard from two contacts that Erdogan has eight accounts in Swiss banks; his explanations that his wealth comes from the wedding presents guests gave his son and that a Turkish businessman is paying the educational expenses of all four Erdogan children in the U.S. purely altruistically are lame.”

In subsequent years, Erdoğan has directed millions in bank loans and contracts to Çalik Holdings, run by a friend and managed by Erdoğan’s son-in-law.

Now Erdoğan has decreed—in a manner more befitting a dictator than a democrat—that he will strip parliamentary immunity exclusively from members of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), a group which often advocates for Kurdish rights but which Erdoğan accuses of sympathy for the Kurdish insurgents (PKK). Erdoğan accuses BDP deputies of meeting with the PKK, though Erdoğan himself welcomed Hamas into the Turkish parliament, defended donations to an Al Qaeda financier, and had his intelligence chief conduct secret talks with the PKK. The problem with the BDP appears less its advocacy for Kurdish rights in Turkey, but rather its failure to follow blindly the Turkish strongman.

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Will Turkey Lose its Fight to the PKK?

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:

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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:

  • The Turkish government has legitimized the PKK both by negotiating with it and also by embracing Hamas, a group which likewise justifies terrorism in rhetoric of resistance and national liberation.
  • While the PKK could never defeat Turkey in a head-on fight and so the Turkish Army will never formally lose, the PKK seeks only a stalemate. Insurgencies prioritize asymmetric warfare.
  • The Turkish military is a shell of its former self. Largely for political reasons, Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made the military his public enemy number one. One-in-five generals now sit in prison, even though no court has found them guilty. Because the Turkish conscripts do most of the dying in the fight against the PKK, their morale is also low.
  • Even with Predators, Turkish intelligence is poor. It has failed to head-off recent profile attacks against Turkish border posts, and often fails to differentiate between PKK fighters and ordinary villagers.
  • In recent weeks, the PKK has grown so bold as to establish shadow governors not only in isolated mountain districts, but also for Van, a major city in eastern Turkey.
  • Whereas the fight between the PKK and the Turkish Army was isolated to southeastern Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish destruction of villages during this period led to a massive flight of Kurds into major cities in central and Western Turkey: Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Today, the PKK strikes with impunity in the West as well.
  • De facto autonomy in largely Kurdish eastern Syria also gives the Kurds momentum and space to organize. According to private conversations with Kurdish journalists, Iraqi Kurdish residents, and European NGO workers, up to 90 percent of Syrian Kurds support the PKK’s local front group.
  • With their oil gains, Iraqi Kurds have greater resources than ever before, and don’t hesitate to fund Kurdish movements in neighboring states, even as they reach out to Turkey.

American policy is famously reactive. A de facto Kurdistan, however, is unfolding before us. Washington will never abandon Ankara. Still, there is no reason why the United States should fight Turkey’s PKK battle if the Turks themselves legitimize the group, and seem unwilling to apply the same definition of terrorism abroad which they seek to at home. Perhaps a starting point would be to work with Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey to encourage greater transparency and commitment to democracy. Kurdish nationalism and good governance should not be mutually exclusive.

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What is Terrorism, Anyway?

Rich Richman and Jonathan Tobin are both correct to lambaste the Obama administration’s exclusion of Israel, first from the global counter terror forum in Turkey, and most recently from the most recent counter-terror forum in Spain. That Obama and Clinton would allow the exclusion of any democracy and victim of terrorism does a great deal to legitimize the very terrorism that the White House says it is against.

Still, any counter terrorism conference is a sham until diplomats and policymakers actually come to an agreement on what terrorism is. This past April, I gave an address to the Counter Terror Expo in London in which I tried to address the problem:

Terrorism is a tactic of choice for state sponsors and rogue groups when its ability to achieve political aims outweighs the costs. The lack of consensus over the definition of terrorism complicates the fight against terrorism. A 1988 study found 100 different definitions of terrorism used by professionals. More than two decades later, Alex P. Schmid, editor of Perspectives on Terrorism, compiled 250 definitions. In many ways, terrorism’s definition parallels U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1973 quip about pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define [obscenity]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”

The chance that diplomats will ever agree at a round table on a definition of terrorism is between zero and nil.

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Rich Richman and Jonathan Tobin are both correct to lambaste the Obama administration’s exclusion of Israel, first from the global counter terror forum in Turkey, and most recently from the most recent counter-terror forum in Spain. That Obama and Clinton would allow the exclusion of any democracy and victim of terrorism does a great deal to legitimize the very terrorism that the White House says it is against.

Still, any counter terrorism conference is a sham until diplomats and policymakers actually come to an agreement on what terrorism is. This past April, I gave an address to the Counter Terror Expo in London in which I tried to address the problem:

Terrorism is a tactic of choice for state sponsors and rogue groups when its ability to achieve political aims outweighs the costs. The lack of consensus over the definition of terrorism complicates the fight against terrorism. A 1988 study found 100 different definitions of terrorism used by professionals. More than two decades later, Alex P. Schmid, editor of Perspectives on Terrorism, compiled 250 definitions. In many ways, terrorism’s definition parallels U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1973 quip about pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define [obscenity]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”

The chance that diplomats will ever agree at a round table on a definition of terrorism is between zero and nil.

Too many countries continue an a la carte approach, in which they condemn all terrorism except when conducted in pursuit of causes for which they agree. But, then again, there is no reason beyond the State Department’s peculiar culture that the goal of the United States should be to convene other parties and hash out a definition through discussion.

Many countries still seek U.S. counter-terrorism assistance. Take Turkey: It seeks U.S. help against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it calls a terrorist group, yet it bends over backwards to legitimize and assist Hamas simply because Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agrees with Hamas’ platform and goals. Before the United States gives an iota of assistance to Turkey, it should force Turkey to enshrine in Turkish law a standard definition of terrorism, for example, that “terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians for political gain.” If Turkey acquiesces to such a definition, then it would have to stop treating Hamas as anything other than a terrorist group; if it does not, then perhaps Turkey is more a terror sponsor than a terror victim and so should be un-deserving of U.S. assistance.

The same holds true for any number of other states. If Pakistan wants anti-terror assistance, then first it should have to agree to a no-nonsense definition that gives no flexibility to the myriad terrorist groups that it now supports. Iran wants assistance against Jundullah and Baluch terrorists? Well, then, it must forever dispense with its “legitimate resistance” nonsense that it uses to justify the most violent terrorist campaigns.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have tried to transform America into a global follower. It is time to once again become a global leader. If we do that one state at a time, then we can have far greater affect in the diplomatic fight against terrorism than any fleeting photo opportunity at an international conference will bring.

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