The subject of my digital research project was the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, also known by their Kurdish initialism, the PKK. I focused both upon its history and current activities as a member of the anti-Islamic State coalition, as well as its relationship with Turkey, its status as a terrorist organization, and its practices of gender equality. This project has deepened my understanding of the complex historical factors that influence the current conflict with the Islamic State.
It took me a few weeks to choose the subject of my project. I knew I wanted to do something related to the conflict with the Islamic State, so I started by learning about how Islamic State and Iraqi Kurdish forces were fighting to control the Mosul Dam, a place of great strategic importance, as it supplies water to over 1.8 million people. I also posted an interactive map created by the New York Times showing the in Iraq and Syria under IS control, as well as locations where the US has engaged in air strikes. After learning how American airstrikes allowed Iraqi Kurdish fighters to retake the Mosul Dam, I decided I wanted to learn more about the Kurdish people and the history of Kurdistan. The Kurdish people are the world’s largest ethnic group that do not have a country of their own, and are found in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The Kurdish people have a history of being marginalized, and wish to form their own country. Currently Kurdish forces in Iraq are fighting against IS with hopes of gaining their own state.
Finally, I arrived at my topic. The PKK was founded by Abdullah Ocalan in 1978 with the goals of uniting the Kurdish people under Marxist-Leninist ideals and creating an independent Kurdish state. They used terrorist tactics in order to try to accomplish these goals, and in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the PKK engaged in a series of suicide bombings and raids on Turkish government buildings and private offices. In 1999, Turkey captured the group’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and since then, the PKK has attempted to rebrand itself as a political party. The PKK’s armed struggle against the Turkish government continued until 2013, when a ceasefire was called by the imprisoned Ocalan. Currently, members of the PKK have engaged IS forces in Northern Iraq and in the Syrian Town of Kobane.
A major topic in my project was the relationship between Turkey’s government and the PKK. Turkey sees Kurdish nationalism as a threat to Turkish national security. Approximately one-fifth of the Turkish population is Kurdish, and Turkey has historically restricted and banned aspects of Kurdish culture. Until very recently, speaking Kurdish in Turkey was illegal, and Kurdish-language classes were not allowed in schools. Because they advocate for Kurdish Nationalism, Turkey’s ruling AKP government views the PKK as a terrorist organization. Turkey’s allies, including the United States and other European countries, classify the PKK as terrorists as well.
The history of conflict between Turkey and the PKK continues to influence regional politics. According to Cegniz Aktar, Senior Scholar at the Istanbul Policy Center, Turkish politicians,”fearing the birth of a Kurdish nation-state more than anything but eager on the other hand to assert their regional supremacy, are ending up by alienating all three Kurdish communities” in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. During the siege of Kobane, the Turkish government ceded the area to Kurdish control, but the PKK claimed that by not assisting kurdish fighters in the battle against IS, the Turkish government was supporting the Islamic State. Turkey’s reluctance to assist Kurdish fighters in the coalition against the Islamic State has let to an increase in tensions between Turkey and the PKK. In the last few weeks, Turkey’s President Ergodan has made speeches comparing the Syrian Kurdish fighters to the PKK, calling them both terrorist organizations . Ergodan has also publicly stated that the Islamic State and the PKK are equivalent groups, and that the PKK is using the current conflict with the Islamic State to manipulate public opinion and promote Kurdish Nationalism (LINK- Danger closer, extreme measures taken).
At first, Turkey refused to let any Kurdish people cross their border into Syria to fight IS, in fear that PKK members would unite in Kobane and gain access to weapons. However, due to mounting political pressure, Turkey eventually allowed Iraqi Kurds across their borders to fight in Kobane, but still does not allow Turkish Kurds to do the same. The Turkish government is reluctant to let Turkish Kurds fight in the conflict against the Islamic State, because they are concerned that doing so would allow the Kurdish people to gain greater autonomy. If Syrian Kurds, Turkish Kurds, and Iraqi Kurds unite as a people, and gain access to weapons and military support in the conflict with IS, then it would be feasible for them to create a Kurdish nation-state. Turkey’s President Ergodan is a political realist: he believes in a strong state, and in protecting Turkey’s national security. He believes that the PKK, and the Kurdish people as a whole, pose a threat to that security.
In the last few months, and as outlined in the 2013 ceasefire, PKK leaders and members of Turkey’s AKP government have been attempting to create some sort of peaceful resolution between the two groups. However, events in Syria has reignited ever-present tensions between the two groups, and a fruitful compromise between them is seeming less likely. Both Turkish government and PKK commanders have spoken to the BBC in separate interviews, and expressed their viewpoints that the peace talks are falling apart. Cemil Bayik, a PKK commander in the Qandil mountains, warned that “if necessary, the Kurds will fight against the Islamic State and the Turkish Army”. Currently, the Turkish government’s fear of a sovereign Kurdish state is leading to extremely poor diplomatic outcomes.
Many of my Diigo posts disagreed as to whether the PKK is still a terrorist organization. Turkey still believes it is, and its western allies still classify it as such, but because of its role in Islamic State conflict, there has been growing support for the PKK in the West, particularly among groups that would be described as political liberals. Political liberals take a multilateral approach to solving conflict, and value PKK as part of the anti-IS coalition. On November 14, ten members of the German Parliament unfurled the PKK’s flag at a government building, declaring the support for the organization, and voicing their opinion that Germany should no longer classify the PKK as terrorists. According to Dr. Medya, a German physician who has also spent over 25 years as a member of the PKK, and served as a combat medic and as a family doctor in Kurdish villages, many westerners have joined the PKK in the last few months because they want to fight the Islamic state . Famous french intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy has expressed his support for the PKK, and arguing that they are no longer terrorists, but rather freedom-fighters in the conflict against the Islamic State. As western support of the PKK continues to grow, it is unclear whether they will remain classified as a terrorist group for long.
Another point of contention in my Diigo posts was whether or not the PKK practices gender equality. Their Marxist-Leninist foundations have caused the PKK to always have high female recruitment and involvement, and currently, they have the largest female militia in the world. This summer, pictures of female PKK fighters were shared on social media, in particular, a picture of a woman named Rahenna. She quickly became the poster child for female Kurdish soldiers, and many were outraged when pro-Islamic State sites claimed she had been captured and beheaded . A drawing depicting a Kurdish female soldier putting her hair up in a ponytail, as if in preparation for a battle, and with hair in the shape of a gun was widely shared on Twitter this October. The creator of the image is a Kurdish woman, who has been using social media to communicate with a network of PKK supporters across the world, a technique embraced by cosmopolitans. The popularity of images like Rahenna and the Kurdish female soldier is evidence of the growing positive perception of the PKK, particularly as an advocate for gender equality. Other sources claim that the PKK is not an advocate for women because during the period when they used suicide bombers, some of those suicide bombers were women. Others, like Turkey’s President Ergodan, claim that the gender equality practiced by the PKK is against nature, as Islam has defined a role for women in society, and that that role is motherhood Personally, I believe that the use of suicide bombers constitutes an abuse against humans in general, rather than just women, and I believe allowing women to participate in the military is a sign of gender equality.
Before this project, I knew hardly anything about the Kurdish people, and I did not understand how the decades-long conflict between the PKK and Turkey was affecting the conflict with the Islamic State. This project has underlined the critical factors involved in the PKK’s relationship with Turkey, and will shed light upon the conflict with the Islamic State as events unfold.