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Can Turkey Stop PKK Expansion? What Barzani Can Do for Ankara?

After three decades of arms struggle and bloodshed, the Turkish Government should realize that the only way to deal with PKK is to make peace with it. Otherwise, the PKK continue to grow not only in Turkey, but it may become one of the decisive partners in Iraqi Kurdistan as well. It does not matter if PKK decides to evacuate Sinjar or Makhmour because the influence the PKK made on young Yazidis in Sinjar and elsewhere is not going go away.

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By Sarkawt Shamsulddin

Washington- On 28 November 1978, a group of students led by Abdullah Ocalan (aka Apo) founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The foundation of the PKK was a response to Turkey’s aggression and the ongoing cultural discrimination against the Kurdish population. The PKK emerged in a village, but now it spreads into four countries and has a growing support among diaspora Kurds in Europe.

In 1984, the year I was born, the PKK launched its arm struggle against Turkish State. The PKK’s only target was the military and local security forces because these institutions were used to systematically destroy Kurdish identity in Turkey. Back then, the majority of Kurds in Turkey didn’t know about the PKK and its supreme leader Ocalan. Now, Ocalan is a well-known figure in entire Turkey and worldwide. Unlike other Kurdish struggles in Iran and Iraq, Ocalan’s arrest in 1999 did not lead to PKK’s demise, but PKK changed its strategy and continue to embrace Ocalan’s thoughts. Many Turks call Ocalan”big terrorist,” but for the majority of Kurds in Turkey, Ocalan is everything. He inspired many young Kurds to be proud of their Kurdish identity. His ideology and thoughts on women and democratic autonomy attracted many Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.


The Syrian Kurdish political system of Rojava is based on Ocalan’s philosophy. In Iraqi Kurdistan, love and affection for Apoism are growing, and many civil society activists joined PKK movement under different names such as Tavgari Azadi. PKK’s military wing in Iran, PJAK, is one of most effective opposition force against Iran. Among young Iranian Kurds, the support for PKK is on the rise as other Kurdish forces remain passive in the camps in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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In Turkey, awareness among Kurds about Kurdish cause reached the highest level when the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) passed the 10 percent threshold during June 2015 elections, changing the narratives that Kurds in Turkey are less than 10 percent or the pro-PKK political parties are not popular among Kurds in Turkey.

In Syria, the forces affiliated with the PKK are controlling over 60 percent of Syrian border with Turkey; making Ankara worried more than ever before. The PKK ideology interpreted into laws and constitution to rule people’s daily lives in northern Syria. Moreover, Rojava’s both military and governance model is about to be transferred to some Arab-populated cities which are liberated from ISIL. The YPG fighters are now training and educating Arabs and other minorities in the area to defend themselves against self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) threats.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, PKK military activities extended from Mount Qandil to Kirkuk, Makhmour, Sinjar, and Rabia. The PKK made it impossible for Turkey to confront them now because PKK rebranded itself militarily. In Syria, it established the YPG who are considered the United States most effective partners in Syria against ISIL. In Iraq, despite attracting many Iraqi Kurds to join PKK units in Qandil, it formed a new force for the Yazidis called YBS.

In response, Turkey spent billions of dollars to counter the PKK influence across Kurdish regions in Iraq, Syria, and at home, too. Turkish military spending skyrocketed in 2016 by 20 percent as the fight aginst PKK resumed. The Ankara’s best bet is to get KDP not only helping Turkish army by sharing intelligence but to confront the PKK militarily like the KDP did in the 1990s. However, the KDP’s domestic politics and the PKK unwilling to get into an armed conflict with the KDP because the PKK does not want to give the Turkish military a justification to increase its military bases in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In Syria, Turkey spent millions of dollars by funding the Pro-Barzani Kurdish National Council (ENKS). Turkey trained and equipped over 5000 Pro-Barzani Syrian Kurds and prepared them to be sent back to Rojava. Turkey tried very hard to gain leverage in Rojava by empowering other Syrian Kurds as it has in Iraqi Kurdistan through its relation with the KDP, but the plan failed. In Turkey, Turkey has been recruiting the so-called village guards to turn Kurdish villagers against PKK, but what the village guards can do if the NATO member military with the most modern arms cannot do it?

More than 37 years after the foundation of the PKK, the group has expanded from Turkey to all parts of Kurdistan. The Kurdish cause in Turkey has got international attention more ever before. The rise of the HDP was an indication of PKK’s success to restore Kurdish identity and even become an umbrella for other oppressed groups. The narrative of “good Kurds and bad Kurds” is no more. The United States hailed Kurdish rise in Turkey’s recent elections, and the HDP’s co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş was invited to the White House. In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is a decisive force in the fight against self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). It is the ruling Party in northern Syria and moving beyond Kurdish populated borders to Manbij and now toward Raqqa. The PYD, which shares Ocalan’s ideology like PKK, has opened diplomatic offices in Moscow and many European countries. The PYD’s military wing is in direct contact with Washington now. Even the State Department said that the PYD should be included in the Syrian peace talks.

The PKK is not just a rebellion group, but an ideology and a school called Apoism. Therefore, neither Turkish Army nor the KDP Peshmerga can defeat the PKK, but they can make peace with it. Adding KDP to anti-PKK list and involving Peshmerga in another war make the region even messier and more destabilized.


About Sarkawt Shamulddin (61 Articles)
Sarkawt Shamsulddin is a political analyst on Middle East Affairs and co-founder of the Kurdish Policy Foundation

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. ¿Puede Turquía detener la expansión del PKK? ¿Qué puede hacer Barzani por Ankara? – Rojava Azadî
  2. El 28 de noviembre de 1978, un grupo de estudiantes | ONG AFRICANDO SOLIDARIDAD CON AFRICA

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