North Africa, West Asia

Can the Kurdistan workers’ party (PKK) overcome its international image of a terrorist organisation?

In December 2014, two leading parties of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq have been removed from the United States’ terrorist organisations list. Would this be possible for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)?

Serhun Al
24 February 2015
PKK rally

PKK supporters holding up images of Ocalan. flickr/Newroz. Some rights reserved

In December 2014, two leading parties of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq have been removed from the United States’ terrorist organisations list. Would this be possible for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)?

Conventional armies — including the well-equipped Iraqi army — proved powerless as ISIS swept across the Middle East. Yet various Kurdish groups in northern Iraq and northern Syria, supported by heavy American airstrike support, have been able to show a stronghold resistance against ISIS.

That has made Kurdish peshmerga under the rule of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, de facto allies of the US-led international coalition on the ground — and propelled these fighters to international celebrity figures against ISIS. Even Marie Claire, an international fashion magazine, has gotten in on the celebration — bolstering this heroic image by publishing the pictures of Kurdish women fighters in Syria. 

And yet there is a grave duality: the PKK in particular is, after all, still listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union. Its status as such has been seriously debated with its new transnational image as a secular and pro-western organisation. But can they be removed from the terrorist organisation lists in major western states and perhaps become an inspiration for transnational advocacy networks like the Zapatistas of Mexico? Can the PKK become the Zapatistas of Middle East? 

Alas, it might be too late. There are three reasons for this:

The first one is the duration of using and holding weapons. The low-intensity conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state caused more than 40,000 deaths since the 1980s. Despite recent attempts of mutual peace talks, the PKK is still hesitant to lay down its arms and transform itself into a completely political and civic movement in Turkey. Although pro-Kurdish political parties have long been in the legal arena of Turkish politics, the PKK has continued to see arms as life insurance for the Kurds. Thus, the international community may welcome the fight against ISIS, but they are less likely to sympathise with PKK’s ‘weapons as insurance’ approach, especially in Turkey.

The second reason is related to the leadership and the organisational structure of the PKK. Since the 1980s, the PKK has come into being as the most powerful Kurdish group in Turkey — not only by fighting against the Turkish state but through eliminating alternative Kurdish voices by force as well. Thus, its highly centralized and top-down decision-making mechanism, along with the personality cult of Abdullah Ocalan as the supreme leader, is less likely to convince the international community to view the organisation as an actor committed in democracy, human rights and social justice. However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Zapatistas in Mexico have become a global celebrity of social justice by adopting themselves to the global context where democracy and civil society has been the legitimate source of social change. 

The third reason is the organisation’s discourse and the timing of a discursive shift. The PKK began its insurgency with the claims of establishing an independent and socialist Kurdish state in the context of the cold war. Yet, the organisation has been a latecomer in changing its discourses and practices in the post-cold war international context of democracy and civil society. Abdullah Ocalan also highlights this dimension in his writings by stating that the continuation of a secessionist discourse after the cold war was a mistake. Although the PKK abandoned its secessionist discourse and adopted an agenda of democratic autonomy by respecting the territorial integrity of Turkey, this latecomer aspect has already diminished its leverage within the international community.

However, the PYD in Syria has the potential to do what the PKK could not. Yet, human rights allegations against PYD such as arbitrary arrests need to be seriously taken into consideration by the party.

Although PYD and PKK are often affiliated, Washington has made a sharp distinction between the two organisations despite opposition from Ankara. PKK and PYD might have similar worldviews — especially in their allegiance to Abdullah Ocalan’s democratic autonomy thesis as a new political model for the Kurds in the Middle East — but the PYD as a Syrian political party does not need to shoulder the history of the PKK.

 As the Zapatistas did in the late 1990s, the PYD has potential and leverage to build a transnational image of its cause as an actor of “globalisation from below” where advocacy of social justice, human rights, and democracy can largely appeal to many international NGOs, transnational activist groups, academics, and policy makers. This is more likely in the context of fading hopes of democracy after the euphoria of the Arab spring and the turmoil caused by ISIS. 

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