This is part two of an article by Michael M. Gunter which surveys some of the more important events that took place for the Kurds during 2022 and thus implicitly looks forward to what the new year, 2023, will bring. You can read part 1 here.
Michael M. Gunter
Delisting the PKK
Delisting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization would be a bold, imaginative move by Turkey, the European Union (EU), and the United States (U.S.), among others, that might contribute to the peace process and benefit all concerned parties. After all, one does not normally negotiate with terrorists or even attempt to do so by calling them such names. Delisting the PKK would challenge both it and Turkey to take a serious attitude toward restarting the peace process and encouraging meaningful compromise. And if this strategy of delisting the PKK did not work, it could always be relisted. The old year of 2022 saw this problem continuing without any strong sign of a solution.
Too often the term “terrorist” can be ambiguous, controversial, and used mainly for political reasons to brand one’s opponent as illegitimate, as a strategy to score points in an on-going political struggle and, also in this case, for the EU and United States to show support for their NATO ally, Turkey. Thus, originally, listing the PKK as a terrorist organization was mainly a political decision to satisfy Turkey, not ratification of a legal fact. Branding the PKK as terrorist did not ipso facto make it a legal fact, although, of course, it did create legal as well as political problems for the PKK and, as argued here, for the successful pursuit of peace.
When the author of this commentary visited Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, at his then-safe house in Syria in March 1998, Ocalan admitted that his organization had mistakenly committed some terrorist acts in the past, but that if one looked at the broader picture, clearly Turkey had been the real terrorist given its long-time campaign to forcibly destroy Kurdish nationalism and assimilate the Kurds. The situation continues today. While the PKK has historically brought its insurgency occasionally to the cities and killed its opponents in the countryside, the Turkish state has depopulated and destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages and extra-judicially executed its opponents. More recently, Turkey has used sweeping anti-terrorist laws and charges of support for the PKK to remove at least 59 of 65 democratically elected, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) mayors from office, imprison numerous HDP members of parliament (MPs), and incarcerate more journalists than any other state on earth. Ironically, moreover, Kurdish nationalism in Turkey largely arose as a reaction to these well-known Turkish state actions.
Further illustrating the failed political usage of the term terrorist against one’s perceived enemy is how for many years, the United States so branded Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC), largely to appease the apartheid regime in South Africa. Indeed, Mandela’s name remained on the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008—14 years after he had been elected president of post-apartheid South Africa in 1994 and 9 years after he had retired in 1999 — due to a so-called “bureaucratic snafu.” Although the United States lists the PKK as a terrorist organization today, it still illogically supported and still does the PKK affiliate Democratic Union Party/Peoples’ Defense Units (PYD/YPG) against the real terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria and even worked indirectly with the PKK in the Sinjar (Shengal) region of Iraq against ISIS to save the Yezidis in the summer of 2014.
Despite re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba and delisting it as a State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST) in 2015, the US relisted it in 2021. In 2021, the US also officially declared that China was committing genocide by its wide-spread repression of the Muslim Uighurs in its northwestern province of Xinjiang. To many, this official stigmatizing of China might sound even more damning than the branding of mere terrorism and thus appears as a gross exaggeration. Furthermore, the US State Department at one time even listed its long-time Kurdish allies the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq’s (KRG) Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as “Tier III” terrorist organizations for technical bureaucratic reasons. Again, the sometimes narrow political and even happenstance nature of the U.S. usage of the term terrorist is obvious.
Although they ultimately proved unsuccessful, the Oslo Talks between Turkey and the PKK from 2008 until May 2011, along with the on-again, off-again Kurdish Opening between 2009 and 2013, and the cease-fire from 2013 until July 2015 demonstrate that it is possible to bring the two sides together. Indeed, during the Turkish-PKK cease-fire, the mainline US weekly magazine Time named the previously obscure PKK leader Ocalan as one of “the 100 most influential people in the world” and called him a “voice for peace.” Previously, such praise would have been inconceivable.
More recently, Turkey has unsuccessfully attempted to use the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to upload the names of some 60,000 Gulenists onto Interpol’s database so that they could be extradited to Turkey as terrorists. Although some Gulenists did participate in a failed coup against the Turkish government in July 2016, most of those sought by Turkey were only guilty by association. Even the United States, Turkey’s staunch ally in these matters of politically-inspired “terrorism designation,” has refused to extradite Gulenists, including Fethullah Gulen himself, who has sheltered in the US for many years.
Delisting the PKK today might also encourage Turkey not to view the Kurds in northeastern Syria (Rojava) and their PKK-associated Democratic Union Party/Peoples’ Defense Units (PYD/YPG) with such hostility because once Turkish-PKK peace negotiations begin again, Turkey would also be prone to deal more amicably with the PKK-associated, PYD/YPG. This would also help lessen the U.S.-Turkish quarrel over the U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish PYD/YPG. Even more, for the Kurds, this would pay further dividends because once ISIS is completely defeated, the United States is likely to drop its remaining support for Rojava and the PYD/YPG. Thus, in the long run, Rojava and the PYD need an understanding with Turkey because the United States is not always going to be there to help. US president Joseph Biden has shown little desire to continue what he sees as “endless wars,” Afghanistan in August 2021 being one existential example. The analogy with how the United States opposed the KRG in its failed advisory referendum on independence in September 2017 also should be obvious.
Therefore, to further the prospects for mutually beneficial peace, the EU and United States should delist the PKK as a terrorist group and encourage Turkey to do so too. After all, as already argued, the EU and United States largely list the PKK as a terrorist organization to please Turkey. Historically, the PKK has used little violence against third parties or systematically targeted civilians, both hallmarks of genuine terrorists. As already noted, the United States even cooperated with the PKK against ISIS in 2014 by using its air power to support the PKK secure corridors of escape for the embattled Yezidis being attacked and suffering genocide at the hands of ISIS. One report sardonically concluded “that reality echoes awkwardly.” Even more, as also already noted, the US has been aiding the PKK offshoot Syrian Kurdish PYD/YPG for many years.
Turkey Bombs Syrian Kurds
The Turkish November 19, 2022 attack on Rojava dubbed Operation Claw-Sword was reputedly launched in retaliation for the earlier November 13 bomb attack on Istanbul’s sleek shopping district known as Istiklal Caddesi that killed six people and wounded at least 80 more. Although it made no sense for the Kurds to attack Istanbul and thus invite new Turkish wrath, Turkey quickly blamed the PKK and its kin Syrian Democratic Forces/Democratic Union Party/Peoples’ Defense Units (SDF/PYD/YPG) in Rojava for the atrocity despite their quick denial.
On November 22, Turkey escalated these air strikes by hitting an SDF/PYD/YPG military base adjacent to the main US military base in northeastern Syria housing some of the approximately 900 remaining few but strategically important troops the United States still maintains in Syria. No U.S. casualties were reported. However, a Pentagon spokesman declared that the Turkish airstrike had “directly threatened” U.S. troops stationed in the area. Thus, there is the danger of disastrous miscalculations that could lead to Turkish clashes with the United States.
Although there is no credible evidence about who perpetrated the original bombing in Istanbul, one might speculate that some rogue Turkish intelligence element carried out a false flag operation to win support for Erdogan’s upcoming re-election scheduled for June 18, 2023. The PKK and SDF/PYD/YPG have accused Turkey of having used such attacks as a pretext for invasions in the past. General Mazloum Abdi (aka Mazlum Kobane), the SDF commander, claimed the reputed bomber, Ahlam Al-Bashir, was related to ISIS jihadists via her brothers and past husbands, some of whom were killed in battles against Kurdish forces. A classified U.S. source, which unfortunately cannot be further identified, indicates that British intelligence claims that there is a 65 percent likelihood that the Istanbul bombing was perpetrated by some such Turkish group to further Erdogan’s political prospects.
Further possible examples that might have had elements of Turkish false flag operations include Gladio during the Cold War, JITEM in the 1990s and earlier, Susurluk in 1996, Ergenekon in 2008, Sledgehammer in 2010, the twin attacks against Kurdish cultural centers in Paris in January 2013 and December 2022, and even the all-too-convenient attempted Gulen coup in July 2016, which Erdogan admitted was a “gift from God.” All this speculation about possible Turkish false flag operations is worthy of a separate analysis in helping to understand the continuing Kurdish predicament in 2023.
Also possible as the Istanbul bomber on November 13 is a rogue PKK element such as the so-called Kurdistan Falcons/Hawks blamed in the past for similar violent atrocities perpetrated counter to official PKK policies. A jihadist group might also be responsible. They have played a bloody role in the past despite murky Turkish cooperation with them.
The year of 2022, of course, saw a number of other issues important for the Kurds including the apparent Turkish use of internationally prohibited chemical warfare against the PKK, the Turkish incursion into Basur (Northern Iraq) that not only led to deadly fighting against the PKK but numerous civilian deaths, Ocalan’s continuing isolation on Imrali, the Turkish incarceration of HDP and other Kurdish activists, heavy Turkish media restrictions, an increasingly compromised Turkish judicial system, and Iran’s bombings of exiled Iranian Kurds in Northern Iraq, among others. As 2022 drew to a close, new, more sophisticated Turkish air attacks, including the usage of advanced drones, have proved particularly lethal. More than 6,000 have probably been killed since the Turkish-PKK cease-fire broke down in July 2015. Clearly, the new year of 2023 is marked for more troubled times.
Michael M. Gunter is a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and the Secretary-General of the European Union Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC). Over the years, he has published 17 scholarly books and more than 150 peer-reviewed, scholarly articles and book chapters on various aspects of the Kurdish issue.