The PKK’s strategic miscalculation
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was established in 1978 in a village near Diyarbakır, southeast Turkey, as an underground party by a group of radical Kurdish leftists led by Abdullah Öcalan. The PKK’s party program, which is still valid today, envisages the establishment of a Kurdish state carved out of the territories of four countries - Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria - guided by Marxist-Leninist ideology.
Following Turkey’s 1980 military coup, Öcalan and his comrades moved their headquarters to Damascus. They were welcomed by Hafez al-Assad, the father of current President Bashar al-Assad, as one of a dozen armed groups already based in the Syrian capital using terrorism for their own purposes. The PKK launched its armed campaign through acts of terror in summer 1984, attacking the Turkish military with militants who infiltrated into Turkey across Iraqi border. The campaign has claimed the lives of nearly 50,000 people so far.
With its political leadership based in Syria, the PKK established its military headquarters in the Kandil Mountains of Iraq, in the Kurdish-majority region on the Iranian and Turkish borders. This area is still today used as the PKK’s headquarters.
Despite the fact that the PKK’s strategy demanded “independence from four states,” the Syrian and Iraqi authorities welcomed the group as it was directed against their historic foe: Turkey. In return for this accommodation, the PKK never carried out any attack on Syrian and Iraqi targets.
Iran is a different story. There have been times when the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have allowed PKK militants to use the common border for attacks in Turkey at times when religious leaders in Qom wanted to put pressure on both Tehran and Ankara. But most of the time relations between the PKK and Tehran have not been easy.
Through a difficult diplomatic struggle, Turkey managed to convince NATO, the U.S. and the EU to designate the PKK as a terrorist organization in the second half of the 1990s. As the PKK increased its terror attacks in Turkey - (some of which followed infiltration from the mountainous and forested areas of the neighboring Afrin region) - then President Süleyman Demirel threatened the Syrian government by sending troops to Hatay, on the border with Syria, in the autumn of 1998. Within a week, thanks to the diplomatic efforts of the U.S., Egypt and Iran, Hafez al-Assad had to send Öcalan away.
Öcalan was ultimately arrested by a Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) team thanks to cooperation with the CIA in February 1999 at Nairobi Airport, after he was forced to leave the Greek Embassy in Kenya where he had been given shelter. Sentenced to life in jail, Öcalan is now still held in the Imralı island-prison south of Istanbul.
The PKK accused Israel and the U.S. of assisting Turkey in the capture of Öcalan, despite denials by Israeli authorities. The group likely took this line because it thought it would help the “anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist and anti-Turkish colonialist” image it has long sought to cultivate. That image was key to the PKK sustaining support from certain Arab countries, but it is doubtful whether the PKK will still have much sympathy from Arab countries due to the role it has been playing in the Syrian civil war.
Following the breaking out of the Syrian war in 2011, the Turkish government, led by Erdoğan in 2012, instructed the MİT to contact Öcalan in prison to pursue ending terrorism through a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue.
By that time, the PKK had already established its Syria branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which played a positive role in the early stages of the MİT-PKK contacts, with the support of the Kurdish-issue focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the Turkish Parliament. This was before the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2013, which caught many countries - including Turkey - unprepared, with its unprecedented level of radicalism and violence.
In autumn 2014, ISIL attacked the Syrian border town of Ayn al-Arab - or Kobane as it is referred to by the Kurds – which was held by the PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). At this point the PKK started to see a different opportunity. The Turkish government’s uncertainty regarding the situation also played a role, but the PKK was not alone in seeing a new opportunity in the Kobane situation.
The U.S. administration also saw a chance to enter the Syrian theater without putting boots on the ground. That is how the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) picked the YPG/PKK militants as its ground force, asking them to exchange their terrorism-related name for a more PR-friendly one: The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Now the SDF, or the YPG, or the PKK, is seen as a major tool of U.S. interests in the Middle East by many peoples of the region including Turks, Arabs and Iranians. Following U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent speech at Stanford University, they are also now seen as the protectors of the interests of Israel, which is understandably disturbed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards approaching its borders and the continued expansion of Hezbollah in Syria.
So if the U.S. is able to convince the Syrians, the Russians and the Iraqis to establish a Kurdish state and change Arab borders contrary to Turkey’s wishes, then the PKK will inevitably become seen even more as the stooge of the U.S. and the helper of Israel. Such a PKK state would likely have a lot of difficulty explaining itself to the Arab peoples and governments of the region.