PKK withdrawal: What does it mean for Middle East?

PKK withdrawal: What does it mean for Middle East?

Marking a new era in its fight against the Turkish state, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) announced a date for its much-speculated withdrawal from Turkey, obviously under an agreement between its leader Abdullah Öcalan and the Turkish government set days before. With the PKK withdrawal announcement, the fledgling peace process in Turkey has taken a more solid turn, with eyes now fixed on whether the Turkish government will fulfill its promises made on the negotiation table. 

There are thousands of questions that need to be addressed in Turkey’s peace bid, but what makes the plot thicker was also hidden in the words of the PKK’s No. 2, Murat Karayılan, who announced the pullout schedule to a large group of journalist at their Kandil base in northern Iraq.

Emphasizing that no change will be made to the PKK’s stance on “Middle East balances and conflict,” PKK leader Karayılan also said the group would pursue what he called “third line” policy, which requires the militants not taking part in any current conflicts in the region. 

At first, the PKK’s self-proclaimed “third line” policy had so far failed to see the light, as the group was indeed an influential no-state actor in Middle East conflicts. Over the course of three decades it sometimes allied with other regional actors, mainly of course against Turkey or against the other actors of the region. When late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein pulled out from northern Iraq in the mid-1990s, the PKK also took its part in the Kurdish Civil War. 

With its “not so bright” performance in its self-declared “third line” policy so far, the picture for the PKK in northern Iraq is also gloomy considering its tense relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and its leader Massoud Barzani. Acknowledging the KRG’s dominance in northern Iraq during the pullout date announcement, Karayılan also called on Iraqi Kurdish rulers to “show the necessary understanding to the official presence of the PKK in areas ruled by the KRG” after the militants’ relocation there. This was a caution-in-advance to the KRG leaders, but his following remarks obviously irked many in Arbil given the long-standing power struggle between Arbil and Baghdad in Iraq.

Reminding that the PKK is against the notion of the “nation state,” the PKK No. 2 said they would not support an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. 

Complicating things more are the current sectarian tensions in Iraq, which are at high risk of turning into a devastating Civil War in the already devastated country, as well as the ongoing Civil War in Syria. Amid the heightened campaign of the Shiite Iraqi prime minister against the former ruling Sunnis, Arbil-Baghdad tensions are about to be added to the violent sectarian battles. Although Iraqi Kurds appear to be avoiding their would-be role in the Sunni-Shiite struggle, they cannot resist for long. 
On the other side of the border, Syrian Kurds “own a revolution that brings a de facto freedom,” according to the PKK’s Karayılan. Unlike in Iraq, the PKK is more influential but also isolated in northern Syria through its alleged offshoot there, and is in conflict with other Kurdish groups supported by Iraqi Kurdish leaders and Syrian rebel groups. The PKK-linked group there is hoping for a rapprochement with Turkish-backed rebels, as the PKK is now burying the hatchet with Ankara, which until now had shown a cold shoulder.

Amid the ongoing war in Syria and the sectarian conflicts in Iraq, the PKK’s “third line” policy seems futile given its past and future ties and tensions with other regional actors. Therefore, the “third line” policy gives strong signals that the group has not only given up its core demands for Kurds in Turkey under the peace process, but also its goal of uniting all Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran under its umbrella. That leaves the group on a one-way road leading to its surrender to other Kurdish dominances in the region and an eventually diminished role on the regional stage.