Turkey, the U.S., the PKK and ISIL

Turkey, the U.S., the PKK and ISIL

A day after U.S. Ambassador to Ankara John Bass told reporters on April 7 that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) should lay down arms, he was responded to by a major PKK figure, who said the U.S. should instead put pressure on Turkey. Zübeyr Aydar, a Brussels-based chief of PKK front organization the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), said what the U.S. should do was force the Turkish government to sit around a table with the PKK to talk the conflict out. 

Being on the black list of the U.S. government, which acknowledges the PKK as a terrorist organization, Aydar (also a former member of the Turkish parliament) is an influential name on the PKK diplomatic team in Europe.

The same day, a full page interview was published in daily Özgür Gündem with Murat Karayılan, an executive committee member of the PKK and seemingly the most influential figure nowadays next to the organization’s founding leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who has been in jail since 1999. Based at the PKK headquarters in the Kandil Mountains in Iraq, near the Turkish and Iranian borders, he said “some international powers” had been asking the PKK to lay down arms and resume the dialogue but first the “attack” of the state security forces on them should stop and Öcalan - who is serving a life sentence - should be free to carry out negotiations with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government.

A three year-dialogue between AK Parti governments (under then-prime minister now-President Tayyip Erdoğan) had come to an end after the PKK declared on July 11, 2015, that the dialogue was over and resumed its acts of terror again on July 22, 2015. Following a massive retaliation campaign by jets on the its Kandil headquarters, the PKK launched what it called a “self-rule” campaign, an organized uprising in certain municipalities held by the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) or similar PKK-affiliated legal parties. Erdoğan recently regretted that they had overlooked the amount of weapons and ammunition the PKK had piled up in town centers during the dialogue period, but the campaign which Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said last autumn could be over in a month or two has been going on for the last seven months, with an incredible loss of lives and high destruction in those towns. The PKK recently started to send suicide bombers to big cities like Ankara and Istanbul - resembling a deadly competition with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and killing people indiscriminately. The U.S. government has evacuated the families of its personnel in key military sites in Turkey.

Karayılan threatened that Erdoğan would not be able to win this fight, but Karayılan also said in the same interview that this campaign could be the “last train” for the PKK.

When such a statement comes from the higher echelons of an organization like the PKK, which has been waging a campaign that has claimed more than 40,000 lives since 1984, and when a staunch anti-imperialist like Aydar asks for the Americans’ help to stop the Turkish security campaign, one could expect that Turkey’s number one military ally, the U.S., would do whatever possible to counter the threat on its NATO partner.

Bass urging the PKK to lay down arms is a move in that direction, but it is also seen as short of fulfilling Ankara’s expectations. 

The Turkish government sees the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria as an extension of the PKK. A recent statement by PYD leader Salih Muslim, who said that Öcalan was his leader, could be seen as the most recent justification of that argument. Ankara also argues that standing against the PKK, which is after self-rule along the Syria, Iraq and Iran borders, but supporting the PYD, which is after a similar self-rule in Syria along the Turkish border, is a contradiction on the U.S. side in its war against terror.

The PYD seems to be the soft belly of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, like a number of European Union governments. Neither the U.S. nor the EU countries want to send ground troops to Syria, perhaps drawing the correct lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq. They are more or less left with the PYD-led forces as the most effective ground troops in their air campaign against ISIL in both Syria and Iraq.

The PYD problem between Turkey and the U.S. could turn into a major issue, as the two countries prepare for a major operation against ISIL in Syria and Iraq.