Inside the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)

Inside the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)

Advocating for greater Kurdish autonomy through violent resistance, the Kurdistan Workers Party remains a vibrant militant presence on the border of northern Iraq and southern Turkey.

October 19, 2007 3:08 pm (EST)

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Tensions on the border between Turkey and Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq have reached a fever pitch. Turkey’s parliament voted in October 2007 to authorize military force inside Iraq, capping months of frustration over escalating violence and Iraq’s inability to reign in the Kurdistan Workers Party. Known as the PKK after its Kurdish name, Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, the group is labeled a terrorist organization by Washington, and continues to conduct strikes inside Turkey. Recent attacks on Turkish soldiers, and new vows to target politicians and police, have further infuriated Ankara. Yet the group, which formed decades ago to win an independent Kurdish state, has been greatly diminished in more than thirty years of resistance. Originally a well-oiled guerrilla force of some fifty thousand men and women, analysts today estimate the force is between three thousand and five thousand fighters. Nonetheless, with cross-border rhetoric increasing, some analysts say the PKK has reached a sort of equilibrium, thanks in part to its mountainous redoubts in northern Iraq, and the Bush administration’s unwillingness to put pressure on Iraq to curb the group’s attacks.  

Why They Fight

The PKK was formed with Marxist-Leninist roots in 1974 and, until recently, sought to create an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey and parts of neighboring countries inhabited by Kurds. Today the aim is more in line with winning some level of autonomy. Often described as the world’s largest stateless population, there are roughly thirty million Kurds linked by ethnicity and language who hail from Kurdistan, a region spanning eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, western Iran, and parts of Syria and Armenia. James Brandon, a senior research fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion in London, writes that the PKK has refocused its message in recent years with the hopes of winning “civil rights and some level of autonomy.” The aim, Brandon notes, is for Kurds to live under a system where they would “rule themselves within a Turkish state.”

How They Fight

Nearly a decade after its founding, the group turned to terrorist tactics in the mid-1980s, relying on guerrilla warfare that included kidnappings of foreign tourists in Turkey, suicide bombings, and attacks on Turkish diplomatic offices in Europe. The PKK has also repeatedly attacked civilians who refuse to assist it. As fighting reached a peak in the mid-1990s, thousands of villages were destroyed in southeast and eastern Turkey. The PKK launched most of its attacks on Turkish security forces, but also attacked other Turkish sites at home and abroad, as well as Kurdish civilians who would not cooperate with the group. An estimated thirty-seven thousand people have been killed in the fighting.

Turkish experts on terrorism have linked suicide bombs targeting local governors and police installations to the PKK. The PKK has also raided villages and small towns. In 1993, the PKK launched coordinated attacks involving firebombs and vandalism on Turkish diplomatic and commercial offices in six West European countries. PKK operatives have used bombs and grenades at tourist sites in Istanbul and at Turkish seaside resorts. They have also kidnapped Western tourists (who were subsequently released) to attract publicity. During fighting in southeast Turkey, PKK terrorists also killed civilians and village guards loyal to the Turkish government.

A crushing Turkish military crackdown and the February 1999 capture of the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, led the group’s remaining fighters to withdraw to northern Iraq and its leadership to renounce armed struggle and reconstitute itself as a political party. The Turkish government, however, continues to regard the PKK as a terrorist group. The United States—one of Turkey’s NATO allies—lists the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization. The group observed a five-year cease-fire, during which it sought to rebrand itself as a peaceful organization. But in 2004, largely due to failed efforts to reinvent, the group called off its cease-fire and returned to guerilla tactics; fighting have been rising steadily in Turkey’s southeast region ever since. A spike in violence in 2007, including the killing of thirty Turkish soldiers and civilians in October, has prompted (CSMonitor) Turkey’s call for revenge.  

Leadership and Reach

Ocalan, a Turkish Kurd who discovered Marxism as a university student in Ankara in the 1970s, has led the PKK from its founding. Known to his supporters as “Apo,” Ocalan lived mainly in Syria and Lebanon until October 1998, when the Syrians, feeling international pressure and fearing Turkish military action, forced the Kurdish rebels to leave. Ocalan then unsuccessfully sought asylum in several European and African countries. In February 1999, after taking refuge in the Greek embassy in Kenya, he was captured and taken by Turkish forces. A Turkish court convicted Ocalan of treason and sentenced him to death. The sentence has not been carried out, nor has it been commuted; Ocalan appealed the decision to the European Court of Human Rights. Ocalan remains imprisoned on the island of Imrali, in the Sea of Marmara near Istanbul.

Yet despite Ocalan’s continued imprisonment, the PKK continues to maintain a popular following, in Turkey and throughout Europe. During the Kurdish spring festival, Kurds “regularly take to the streets proclaiming their support” (BBC) for Ocalan. In recent years, sister organizations have also sprung up, including the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK, which launches similar strikes inside Iran. Both groups are believed to be based together in valleys surrounding Mount Qandil on the Iranian border in Iraq.

Turkish Views on Kurdish Separatism

Like other Middle Eastern countries with Kurdish minorities, Turkey sees Kurdish nationalism as a threat to its national security and to the modern borders drawn up after World War I. This fear is particularly acute in Turkey, where about one-fifth of the population—some 12 million people—is Kurdish. The Treaty of Sevres (1920) provided for an autonomous Kurdistan but was never implemented. Turkey has long considered Kurds to be merely “Mountain Turks.” A ban on speaking Kurdish in Turkey has been lifted and Kurdish broadcasts there are now legal, but other expressions of Kurdish culture are restricted.

Prospects for Peace

Analysts are divided on how likely a cross-border incursion by the Turks into Iraq is, or whether it would be successful. The Wall Street Journal notes that PKK fighters are “nimble and familiar with the terrain” and stand a chance “of holding off Turkish troops” should they attack. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said a military strike is not imminent; the Turkish parliament has approved military strikes into Iraq anytime during the next year. Others say the PKK has shifted tactics yet again, and is ready to return to the bargaining table. “In the last few years the PKK has begun to change its conduct and it now may be ready for a peaceful approach within Turkey,” Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s foreign relations department, tells “Our understanding is that the PKK may be prepared to join the political process in Turkey, and it is left to the Turkish government to seize this opportunity for a potential political solution to this problem.”

Either way, some observers blame the United States for emboldening the separatists. “The de facto autonomy enjoyed by Iraqi Kurds [following the fall of Saddam Hussein] has encouraged the PKK,” notes the Economist. “The Turks have held back from retaliation, largely because they hoped that America would deal with the PKK itself.” So far, that hasn’t happened.   

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