Commentary Magazine


Topic: Abdullah Öcalan

PKK Must Reform if it Wants Support

I’ve written several times recently to argue that the United States should review the terrorism designation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and consider removing the group from American terrorist lists. After all, the PKK—or its various proxy groups and affiliates—have never targeted Americans. Indeed, while the United States labeled them a terrorist group largely out of deference to Turkey at a time when Turkey was still an ally in both name and deed, the listing may have been unfair: the PKK arguably engaged more in insurgency than terrorism over the past quarter century. Regardless, the situation has changed significantly in recent years, both in terms of Turkish actions and PKK deeds. Turkey is now much more of a terror sponsor than the PKK ever was, turning a blind eye to if not directly supporting the Islamic State (ISIS) by enabling transit, providing medical care, and apparently offering resupply. Turkey also supports Hamas; Hamas operatives inside Turkey have planned several recent attempted Hamas terrorist strikes in Israel. The Turkish ambassador to Chad even went so far as to endorse on twitter Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the wake of that group’s rampage in northern Mali.

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I’ve written several times recently to argue that the United States should review the terrorism designation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and consider removing the group from American terrorist lists. After all, the PKK—or its various proxy groups and affiliates—have never targeted Americans. Indeed, while the United States labeled them a terrorist group largely out of deference to Turkey at a time when Turkey was still an ally in both name and deed, the listing may have been unfair: the PKK arguably engaged more in insurgency than terrorism over the past quarter century. Regardless, the situation has changed significantly in recent years, both in terms of Turkish actions and PKK deeds. Turkey is now much more of a terror sponsor than the PKK ever was, turning a blind eye to if not directly supporting the Islamic State (ISIS) by enabling transit, providing medical care, and apparently offering resupply. Turkey also supports Hamas; Hamas operatives inside Turkey have planned several recent attempted Hamas terrorist strikes in Israel. The Turkish ambassador to Chad even went so far as to endorse on twitter Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the wake of that group’s rampage in northern Mali.

The PKK, meanwhile, has promoted and accepted a ceasefire with Turkey and is actively engaged in peace talks. Indeed, in these talks, it has been Turkey and not the PKK that has failed to deliver on its promise. The PKK did the lion’s share to liberate Sinjar from the Islamic State (ISIS) and it also has the best track record on the ground both against the Syrian regime and against ISIS. PKK affiliates control more ground inside Syria than the Free Syrian Army, and are far more moderate: When I visited “Rojava,” as the Kurdish-controlled zone in Syria is called, municipal services functioned, girls walked to school alone, and Christians, Muslims, and Yezidis; Kurds and Arabs lived and worshipped side by side with equal rights under the law.

Both PKK activists and many more Kurds at large believe that there should be no question about the United States coming around and embracing the PKK. But, re-evaluation should not be a one-way street. The PKK began as a Marxist organization, motivated as much by the fight against capitalism as it was by Kurdish nationalism. When, a year ago, I attended as an observer a PKK rally in Paris at the invitation of some Kurdish leaders, many marched under Kurdish flags, but other embraced the hammer and sickle, or visages of Che Guevara. Those embracing Guevara flags might think of him as a force of resistance against oppressive powers, but much of the world knows Guevara as a psychopathic mass murder. To embrace Che Guevara, or march under symbols of a movement responsible for the slaughter of tens of millions of people in the twentieth century, is not the way to win hearts and minds of mainstream American or European society. To their credit, Kurdish leaders listened to my concerns and responded—rightly—that such flags were in the minority and that they can hardly control who brings what banners and placards to a rally. But, still, if the fight is about Kurdish rights and cultural freedoms, then its association with radical leftism is only going to detract from an otherwise worthy agenda.

Many Kurds also look at imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan as a new Nelson Mandela. There are parallels: Both engaged in armed struggle and terrorism only to preach peace in their later career. Kurds expect that Öcalan will eventually be released from prison and can take up a mantle of leadership much like Mandela did. But where the two diverge is with regard to the cult of personality that surrounds them. South Africans embraced Mandela, but Mandela placed democracy and rule-of-law above his person. Indeed, his wife Winnie Mandela discovered that being the family of the president did not mean being above the law. It is unfair to judge Öcalan before his release from prison, but he appears to continue to encourage a personality cult which suggests disinterest in making good on rhetoric of democracy and individual freedom. Iraqi Kurds did not win freedom after Saddam’s fall; they simply replaced the Iraqi dictator’s portrait with one of their own. The Turkish and Syrian Kurds need not repeat that experience, and should realize that dictators’ portraits can be removed rather than replaced.

The PKK is still in crisis mode, and rightly so. It or its affiliates are under siege in Syria, Turkey, and Iran, and its leader in prison. But, not since the immediate aftermath of World War I have the stars aligned for a favorable resolution to the Kurdish cause as they do now. It is always easy to use crises as excuses not to reform, but if the PKK is serious about democracy, it must demand freedom and liberty not only for Kurds broadly, but it must also preach and practice democracy for Kurds within its hierarchy.

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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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