Will The Threat Posed By ISIS Change Views Of The PKK From Terrorist To Friend?

Submitted by Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

flag-pkkThe bloody horror that befell Northwestern Iraq and in Syria at the hands of ISIS is likely to force a geopolitical reassessment as to alliances and policies. There have been many calling for us to change our role in the Syrian civil war as well as demanding changes in the leadership of Iraq itself. One fact is certain the threat posed by ISIS is real, growing and it seems ironic that even other jihadi groups can no longer accept the actions of this terrorist organization. European governments worry of the distinct possibility a terrorist, failed state will emerge having shores on the Mediterranean.

Such a change might be beginning now and will ultimately find common causes between the West and the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party. While the German Government has historically used legal and diplomatic maneuvers to suppress the PKK, it now is poised to arm the Kurds in Northern Iraq in response to ISIS and very well could be ultimately supporting the PKK, at least unofficially.

The PKK’s historic goal was the establishment of an independent Kurdish homeland that encompassed portions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Initially it aligned itself with Marxist-Leninist ideology and from the mid 1970’s and waged an active insurgency in the East of Turkey. The group evolved into a more western style model, especially in the late 1990’s but kept its armed separatist movement against the Government of Turkey.

Turkey fought a decades long insurrection by the PKK, which represented ethnic Kurds who have long been a repressed minority in both Turkish society and through official actions. The conflict claimed the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers, PKK fighters, and civilians. The PKK carried out terrorist attacks in Istanbul and other areas outside the Kurdish homeland such as the seizure by the PKK of the Turkish consulate in Munich and a dozen other attacks against Turkish interests within Germany in 1993.

Abdullah Öcalan
Abdullah Öcalan

Imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has recently renounced violent attacks against the Turkish Government and helped broker a cease fire that was announced in 2013. Just prior to the cease fire, fighting was at a decade high with the government and attacks occasionally were outside the border of Turkey.

Perceptions of the PKK in Europe are still unfavorable. The United States, Germany, and the European Union banned the PKK as a Terrorist Organization. Germany, having a large Turkish segment within its population, has experienced the actions of the PKK on her soil as have other EU nations previously.

Now changes in the Middle East could foster a reverse of policy of the German government with regard to the Kurds and perhaps eventually by extension the PKK, which is aligned with the ethnic Kurds in Northern Iraq. The change has been so rapid that only two weeks ago Angela Merkel inferred there would be no German military support in the Iraq conflict via the PKK, but now there appears to be the beginning of change in that Germany is supporting Iraqi Kurds.

After consulting with Chancellor Merkel, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced that the Bundeswehr would supply the Kurds in Northern Iraq with fifty million euros in support. This includes a supply of 16,000 assault rifles, 240 RPGs, 30 anti-tank missiles, 10,000 hand grenades, ammunition and other supplies.

Deutsche Welle reports Öcalan’s and the PKK’s goal of an independent state no longer seems to be an issue. Now it is about increased autonomy and rights for Kurds in their settlement areas. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced as he took office, that the peace process with the Kurdish minorities would be taken up again.

This coming Monday, September 1, the Turkish government and the PKK leadership will begin such discussions.

The PKK’s rage, which in the past was directed against Turkey, has turned now against a common enemy: the terrorist militia, “Islamic State,” (ISIS). PKK fighters have already delivered several military defeats against ISIS. It is also said that PKK allies helped to free Iraqi Yazidi refugees who had fled from ISIS into the mountains. The battle-hardened PKK seems to be even more successful than the armed forces of the autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, known as the Peshmerga.

It is thought that Peshmerga fighters and supporters of the PKK have already fought side-by-side against ISIS terrorists. As it seems – unfortunately for Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has made it clear she wants German arms to be delivered to the Peshmerga only and not to the PKK – there isn’t really any big difference between the two Kurdish organizations.

kurdistan-regional-government-coat-of-armsBut if we see the blending between the Peshmerga and the PKK in their operations against ISIS, providing assistance to only one will effectively be on paper only. If the Turkish government and the PKK fully resolve their differences, it is highly unlikely the PKK will take terrorist actions against Western interests, especially when the Kurdish population in Turkey believes they have the autonomy and representation they have fought decades to achieve.

The PKK has received support and funding for a cadre of differing nations, including the Soviet Union, Syria, Iran, Turkish diaspora, and others. Its fight against ISIS, regarded nearly universally in the world as an enemy, is likely to upset the balance of these alignments, especially when coupled with a concrete peace between the organization and Turkey.

This could in the short to medium term show in some European government and organizations a divergence between de facto and de jure prohibition of the PKK. Officially these governments will still list the PKK as a proscribed organization but might through the Peshmerga or other anti-ISIS groups funnel aid and support.

The West could debate on whether or not to consider if such an arrangement could backfire as it did with the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, but this scenario is less likely.

The Europeans will find it uneasy to back officially any armed group having previously been labeled as terrorist, but if the PKK can show itself becoming more of a political organization that is formed in a coalition with allies fighting a common enemy, the PKK might become formed into a role similar to that of Sinn Fein in Ireland.

By Darren Smith


Der Spiegel (German)
Deutsche Welle
Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan Official Website (photo Credit)

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28 thoughts on “Will The Threat Posed By ISIS Change Views Of The PKK From Terrorist To Friend?”

  1. Thanks for finally writing about >Will The Threat Posed By ISIS Change Views Of The PKK From Terrorist To Friend?

    | JONATHAN TURLEY <Loved it!

  2. Add: After our post-Wilson pull-out from Europe, we were compelled by post-WW1 events to return to Europe in a big, heavy, long-term manner, over the protests of pacifists like the American Friends Service Committee and isolationists like the America First Committee. Is that what we’re now watching develop with our course in the ME? Too early to say for sure but the weathervane is moving that way.

  3. Justice Holmes,

    By tradition, Americans are businessmen. Remarkably idealistic businessmen, true, but pragmatic economic consideration comes first.

    The question is, do we have a vital national interest in the Middle East so that the compatibility and stability of the ME matters to us in real bottom-line terms? By the same token, does the international community have similar interest in the compatibility and stability of the Middle East?

    President Carter determined decisively, yes, and established the Carter Doctrine that fixed our national interest in the ME. President Reagan is usually held responsible for US involvement in the anti-Soviet fight in Afghanistan, but in fact, Reagan carried forward Carter’s Afghanistan policy per the Carter Doctrine.

    That’s the burden of being intertwined with a global political economy and, therein, leader of the free world.

    There’s precedent. We’ve had vital national interests in Europe, too. We ‘meddled’ in Europe in WW1, then pulled out post-Wilson; however, our national interests in Europe retained. (A very thin analogy can be drawn to Obama pulling back from the ME post-Bush, but our national interest in the ME retaining. Obama, of course, didn’t pull out of the ME. We continued to ‘meddle’ in the ME under Obama, just in very irresponsible ways.) However, since we pulled out of Europe post-Wilson, we’ve become a permanent fixture in European affairs since it became apparent from the failure of the Great War to ‘end all end wars’ that Europeans are unable to stabilize Europe on their own. (WW1 and WW2 weren’t aberrations but rather consistent with centuries – millennia – of European competition regularly escalating to war.)

    As leader of the free world since WW2, we’ve tried the gamut to stabilize the ME short of a NATO-esque military presence. But as Bush observed in 2004, “For decades, free nations tolerated oppression in the Middle East for the sake of stability. In practice, this approach brought little stability, and much oppression.”

    In fact, our most promising approach to stabilizing the ME was a NATO-esque military presence based in Iraq anchoring the Bush Freedom Agenda. But despite the clear promise of the Bush approach by the end-2000s, start-2010s, we pulled back for near-sighted partisan reasons and have gone a different way under Obama, to disastrous effect.

    Who knows – maybe President Carter was wrong and the Soviets would have done a better job of it, after all.

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