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This morning, Turkey issued arrest warrants for forty-eight members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a forty-year war against the Turkish state. The PKK is listed as terrorist by Ankara, Britain, the European Union, NATO, and the United States. Among those being sought is Saleh Muslim Muhammad, the leader of the Syrian branch of the PKK, known as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose armed wing—the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—happens to be the favoured Western instrument in combatting the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The West has long denied or obfuscated the fact it is working with an organization that a NATO partner considers its nemesis and a long-standing threat to its national security. The Turks, it seems, are not content to let this ambiguity stand, and there are good reasons of Western self-interest why the alliance with the PKK deserves another look.
The Structure of the PKK
The PKK’s transnational structure is deliberately designed to be confusing. This is partly to avoid Western terrorism designations. It is also partly as a political strategy with its own Kurdish constituency. In some countries—Iran and Syria most notably—there is some suspicion about the PKK because the organization has long had ties to the governments in those countries, despite those governments having histories of vicious repression against their Kurdish minorities.
The PKK originates in Turkey but is also operates in Syria, Iran, and Iraq, though the latter is more a base than a theatre of operations. The PKK has a political and military branch in each of the theatres—e.g. in Syria it’s the PYD and the YPG, respectively. The political organizations are under the central command of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), and just to make things even more awkward the KCK has a separate parliamentary body called the Kongra-Gel (KGK).
Among those for whom warrants have been issued are Murat Karayilan (Cemal), Cemil Bayik (Cuma), and Fehman Husayn (Bahoz Erdal), who form the executive triumvirate that runs the PKK de facto since its de jure leader, Abdullah Ocalan, often known as Apo, was imprisoned in 1999. Karayilan and Bayik are believed to be in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq. Husayn is probably in Syria.
Zubayir Aydar, the president of the KGK and therefore the effective political leader of the PKK, and Remzi Kartal, a member of the KGK, are also wanted by the Turks. Aydar and Kartal are based in Germany with most of the KGK.
The Ankara Bombing
Though regarded as terrorists in general by Turkey, these arrest warrants have been issued in relation to a specific incident, the 17 February 2016 suicide car bombing in Ankara that massacred twenty-nine people, both officers and civilian employees of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), plus a journalist.
The attack was publicly claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK). Though TAK claims to have split from the PKK, the PKK does not allow rivals for Kurdish allegiance to operate in its areas of influence, and murders its own dissidents, even when they flee abroad. TAK is clearly not independent of the PKK, and is quite possibly directly controlled by Husayn.
Before TAK’s claim of responsibility, the Turkish government named the perpetrator—very quickly—as Salih Necar, identifying him as a Syrian-born Kurd and a member of the PYD/YPG. The advantage to Ankara of such an outcome is plain: it would conclusively make nonsense of the distinction the U.S. government and others try to enforce between the YPG and PKK. Security officials in Turkey also said the suicide bomber had contact with the intelligence services of Bashar al-Assad, an allegation that is not as far-fetched as it might seem given the PKK’s history and the ongoing conduct of its branch in Syria.
TAK claimed that the suicide-killer was Abdulbaki Sonmez (Zinar Reperin), a Turkish citizen from Van. The problem with this claim was that the picture TAK gave of Sonmez was found to be photoshopped. One possible explanation is that, while TAK had released a false picture, the killer really was Sonmez and he had smuggled himself back into Turkey by claiming to be a Syrian refugee. This is plausible since the personnel the PKK uses in its branches—the PYD/YPG in Syria, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) in Iran—are all the same people just operating under different banners.
The Turkish courts are working through the case, but, as was seen in the days of their Gulenist domination and with the purges since the attempted coup in July, the independence of the judiciary is somewhat aspirational in Turkey.
“It’s not clear why the courts did it now,” Ragip Soylu, the Washington correspondent for The Daily Sabah, told me. Part of it is “a natural process as the court investigates the terrorist attack in Ankara in which the bomber came from Syria,” but the government does also appear to be “trying to bring up the fact that PKK leaders are freely living in Europe. Also it seems like there is an attempt to criminalise YPG, so they are building up a legal background.”
Aaron Stein, a senior resident senior fellow at The Atlantic Council, agrees that “the decision is, for the most part, political.” Stein also pointed to internal Turkish politics as a driver: “It comes amid a very sharp and heated debate [in Turkey] about purported ‘E.U. support’ for the PKK. Ankara is blending anti-Westernism with hyper nationalism, and this is a by-product.” Stein is less sure that this represents a move toward criminalization of the YPG/PYD, however. “Saleh used to be welcome in Ankara and, contrary to the entire Turkish narrative, the Turkish government maintains back channels to the PYD,” Stein said.
That the decision is political seems hard to dispute. There is little chance that European governments will arrest PKK operatives, and Turkey knows this. This very day, Saleh is in Britain, and this is not a new phenomenon.
Aliza Marcus in her 2007 book, Blood and Belief, an anatomization of the PKK, noted:
Turkish officials frequently complained about European governments’ willingness to tolerate the PKK, whose intertwined mix of political, cultural, and financial activities was not a secret. … But it was not easy—nor was there any real interest—in shutting down the group as a whole. One reason was that that in Europe, the PKK operated as a political front, making it hard to ban. Many Europeans generally were sympathetic to the plight of the Kurds in Turkey.
That the PKK was not the sole expression of Kurdish opinion—something even more true in Syria than Turkey—was as absent in popular perception then as it is now. This political difficulty, among other reasons, has meant Western governments generally only take an interest when the PKK’s activities cross, as they frequently do, into criminality. Most serious in this category are the violent crimes of the PKK, significantly the assassinations, usually of other Kurds, on European territory. Not unrelated is the PKK’s fundraising, amounting to an estimated $50-100 million per year, primarily from Britain, Germany, France, and Switzerland, but including many other countries, too. Here the PKK’s extensive connections with organized crime come in useful.
The PKK’s involvement in the heroin trade is legendary. As Marcus notes, this was sometimes deniable: supporters of the party would donate profits from the drug trade and the PKK would ask no questions. It has also been more direct. A British security source told The Spectator in 1998 that the PKK was responsible for forty percent of all heroin sold in the European Union. The attention of U.S. authorities has repeatedly been drawn on the narcotics matter, with sanctions imposed against senior PKK officials implicated, including Aydar.
The PKK is deeply involved in human trafficking. Protection rackets provide income to the PKK, and less direct forms of extortion in the “taxation” of Kurds in the diaspora, particularly in Germany, where social coercion and worse are applied to gain the party’s funding from the reluctant. Weapons smuggling is another major PKK criminal activity on European soil, necessary to keep alive their insurgency. This has strayed into something more like subversion when the PKK were found buying weapons from organized crime networks tied to Russian intelligence, with which the PKK has an extensive history having been partly founded as a Cold War mechanism to destabilize a frontline NATO state: Turkey.
Despite all of this, the Europeans never moved to shut down the PKK in toto, and that is not going to change any time soon. The point of the Turks’ actions, then, as Michael Stephens, a research fellow focused on Kurdistan at RUSI, put it, is to “delegitimise the political aspirations” of the PYD by “undermining the U.S.’s political engagement track with the PYD” and keeping relations limited to solely “military coordination against ISIS”.
The PKK and World Order
The Turks might overstate their case in demanding that the West sever all relations with the PYD because it is no different than al-Qaeda or IS, not least because Turkey itself retains channels to the PYD and not all that long ago Saleh met with both political and intelligence leaders in Turkey as part of the peace process. The crackdown against the Kurdish political party—the most moderate ever seen in Turkey—earlier this month also weakens the Turkish position. But the security concerns the Turks have about the PKK are not invented and any government—of any ideological character—would share them. It is also to the West’s own self-interest that the degree of support given to the PYD/PKK in Syria be reconsidered.
Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria in August was provoked by the need to clear IS from its border and as a last resort to contain PYD maximalism that was extending a statelet all along its border, enabled by the U.S., despite repeated diplomatic efforts by Ankara to have the U.S. restrain the PYD. The PYD was able to second Russian airstrikes to attack American assets among the Syrian rebels without any loss of U.S. support, or even rhetorical condemnation.
Turkey’s intervention has backed moderate rebels to clear IS from a large swathe of northern Syria, helping to drive a wedge between al-Qaeda and the insurgency in the process, something that could be exploited further if there was any will to do so. Ankara has also offered to work with the West and the Syrian opposition groups, who are viewed as legitimate by locals, to sweep IS from its Syrian capital, Raqqa. Instead, the West appears to be supporting the PKK (under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces)—who are fiercely rejected by local inhabitants—as its means of pushing IS out of Raqqa City. The PKK has every reason not to want to move into Raqqa City; only a political calculation about long-term Western support for its statelet in Syria compels such action. And here is the largest problem with the strategy as currently constituted.
Put aside the authoritarian rule of the PKK and its terrorist designation. The PKK cannot bring sustainable stability: it does not have the power or political base to impose itself very far beyond Kurdish-majority areas in Syria, and its intentions are revisionist with regard to the borders of the region.
U.S. foreign policy has a very strong Westphalian bias—that is, for maintaining the state system as constituted. When opposing JASTA the administration specifically made its stand by criticising the statute as one that would destabilize the system of state-to-state relations. This worldview also means a strong opposition to partition. The declared mission in Iraq is to keep the state whole, for example. Yet in Syria the U.S. has backed an actor that, for all its claims of Democratic Confederalism, a utopian vision devoid of separatism or a state at all, is in practice not only separatist within Syria but harbours transnational designs. And the PYD’s revisionism is something opposed by everyone else. About the only thing the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition agree on is that the territorial integrity of Syria should be maintained. This is a recipe for unending war.
The rebels and the PYD, who could have been brought into an alliance, even loosely, have now been brought to a state of political, and in some areas physical, warfare. The U.S. support for the PYD and simultaneous refusal to build up the opposition in a serious way, or even to impose penalties on the PYD when it attacked the rebels, has created resentments and a power imbalance that makes the potential for further conflict that would outlast the war with the pro-regime coalition very real. The U.S. failure to enforce the deal it made with Turkey to get the PYD back east of the Euphrates after IS was out of Minbij, and leave the town to local rule, will provide another future flashpoint: after Turkey-backed rebels go through IS-held al-Bab, they will turn to Minbij, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Though the PYD and the pro-Assad coalition have largely worked in tandem so far, the latter has no intention of conceding to the demands of the former. The alliance is tactical, keeping the Kurds out of the anti-Assad column. Once the rebellion has passed, the regime reasons, the Assadists will re-assert control of the Kurdish areas. Regime MPs have stated bluntly that the PYD will, “Obey or be barrel bombed“. In February, Bashar Jaafari, the regime’s ambassador to the United Nations, said that actors considering autonomy in Syria need to take Panadol (pain medication). Thus even a regime “victory”—something that actually isn’t possible in terms of stabilizing the country by force—would only be the beginning of another round of fighting.
Supporting the PYD to keep IS out of Kurdish areas is now unavoidable, all Kurdish opposition having been supressed. The Coalition’s uncritical backing of the PYD and helping it extend into Arab-majority areas, however, allowed a short-term sense of progress, as the areas of IS’s overt control shrink, while setting up secondary conflicts that will protract the killing well beyond the original war, perhaps drawing in even more of Syria’s neighbours, and not-incidentally providing IS space to revive.