The meaning of the Syrian civil war for the PKK

The meaning of the Syrian civil war for the PKK

Strong links were formed between Syria’s intelligence service and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the 1970s. Father [Hafez] al-Assad was one of the prominent sponsors of the PKK. He had to give up his policy of sponsoring the PKK in October 1998 when he was “clearly threatened.” Although al-Assad deported PKK leader [Abdullah] Öcalan from Syria, he was careful not to confront the PKK directly. He continued his relationship with the PKK behind closed doors.

These days, the al-Assad regime has been losing control in some parts of Syria where Kurds live. In the region, it seems that the PKK’s front organization the Democratic Unionist Party (PYD) has taken control. These developments will have a military, political and psychological impact on Turkey. This article aims to explain how the PKK could benefit militarily from this progress. Geography, personnel and logistics are vital for the PKK in implementing its “revolutionary people” war strategy. The situation in Syria will create advantages for the PKK in all three areas.

The Syria-Turkey border is 900 kilometers long. Kurds live on both sides of the border along at least 300 or 400 kilometers of its length. They have strong religious, political, criminal, social, cultural and economic ties on both sides of the border. And now there will be no central authority to control the Syrian side of the border.

There is also a border control problem on the Turkish side. It is very difficult for the Turkish army to prevent guerilla leaks and control the border, because law, intelligence and organization are regulated according to simple boundary issues such as smuggling. In the end, Syria will become a secondary “safe haven” for the PKK after a short period, increasing the capability of PKK militants to leak into Turkey. A militant who leaks into Turkey from western Syria can reach Tunceli easily. Furthermore, the climate in the region will allow the PKK to be active in all four seasons of the year.

The new political environment in Syria would provide the PKK with a new recruitment pool. As shown by our published research, 20 percent of PKK militants join from Syria. While the PKK’s control over Syrian Kurds is increasing, the PKK can enjoy recruitment, logistics, intelligence and a safe haven. There is no authority to prevent this expansion anymore. 

Another important issue is that the environment that resulted in the civil war creates the opportunity for the PKK to obtain as much in the way of arms, ammunitions and explosives as they want. However, the PKK has never had logistic problems, including in obtaining arms. For example, throughout the Iran-Iraq War, the first Gulf War, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, new techniques were learned and enough arms and IEDs were stocked from Saddam’s army. The worst news for Turkey would be if the PKK were to obtain surface-to-air missile and chemical weapons. While the PKK is taking control of the region, it will develop itself politically and psychologically. Its legitimacy among Kurds will expand.

In conclusion, the recent developments could provide the PKK with significant military opportunities. If the government doesn’t take any precautions and wastes this most precious time, Turkey will face serious security problems. The PKK wants to harvest the political opportunities these military advantages would provide, will rise up and be more aggressive about reaching its aims.