Turkey has been facing a PKK led uprising since the early 80s. The first guerrilla training camp was established in Lebanon in November 1978 under the watchful eye of Hafez al-Assad. Ocalan moved to Syria in May 1978 and the PKK gained its first battle experience fighting alongside Palestinian armed groups against the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon[i]. This experience was brought back to Turkey two years later with attacks on government installations.
Its creation has a lot to do with the failings of the Turkish and with Kurdish nationalism. In the early 1970s, Abdullah Ocalan was part of the Ankara Higher Education Union, which was following the traditions of the Popular Liberation Party Front of Turkey (THKP-C)[ii] However, Ocalan, along with other Kurdish intellectuals, were not satisfied with the political orientation of the group, as they ignored the Kurds explicit needs, so they began to develop a separate political ideological grouping.[iii] Strange as it might sound, Ocalan does not find the nationalism of the new Turkish Republic racist. He states that “Ataturk’s moto, ‘Happy he who calls himself a Turk”, was not meant as a racist slogan, but a way to build the self-esteem and national pride of the Turkish people”[iv] ( by Turkish people he means all the people of Anatolia). However, he also states that, in time ,it became racist as it duplicated the guidelines of the Ottoman CUP[v] ( Committee for Unity and Progress ).
The first step of establishing the PKK as a party was implemented after the “ideological framework” was completed, in 25 November 1978 in a gathering by Ocalan and his partisans in a village of Diyarbakir/Fis.[vi] Before this time, it was mainly concerned with ideological struggle and finding recruits. According to Ocalan, during the formation of the PKK, the world was characterized by the conflict between the capitalist and socialist camps and the PKK was greatly influenced by the de-colonization movements going on all over the world.[vii] This also set the stage for the group to abandon any peaceful means of accomplishing their objectives and become a fulltime revolutionary outfit espousing Marxist-Leninist ideology with a mix of Kurdish nationalism.
The party declared a founding statement that the time for revolution had started, calling for the Kurdish proletariat to rise and create an independent Kurdistan in south-eastern Anatolia by way of an armed insurrection.
When their armed uprising began in 1984, the PKK was not the only radical Kurdish group operating in Turkey, but they were the best organized and most violent.[viii] As the violence heightened, the Turkish state responded with force. Martial law was declared and many PKK guerrillas were killed and many more imprisoned. By all intent and purposes, the situation in the 90s was approaching a stalemate. Turkey could not destroy and end the PKK, nor was the PKK able to achieve its goal of self-determination. The overwhelming military force of the Turkish army was ineffective in the harsh mountainous terrain of the region and the PKK’s tactics of guerrilla warfare was futile in stopping the Turkish military. This period also saw the peak of the PKK’s struggle against the state.
During this time, the Syrian regime used the PKK against Turkey as a high ranking YPG spokesman acknowledges;
“As many as 5,000 Syrian Kurds have died fighting alongside the PKK since the mid-1980s (Inside Turkey), and nearly all of YPG’s top leaders and battle-hardened fighters are veterans of the decades long struggle against Turkey.”[ix]
It was the PKK presence in Syria and the regime’s willingness to let the PKK to attack Turkey from its territory that propelled the latter to act. By the late 90s, Turkey started to increase its pressure on Syria to stop giving PKK fighters a base to coordinate their attack on Turkey. It even went so far to declare that it was in an implicit war with Syria.[x] It would not be too far-fetched to believe that, at this point, the thinking in Ankara was that Syria was the main reason why Turkey was stuck in a never ending circle of violence. Also, that if it was not for Syria’s support the PKK problem in Ankara, it would not have grown to such proportions, as they would be deprived of a strategic base to freely operate from.
Moreover, the time was ripe for Turkey to ratchet up pressure as it fittingly thought it had the upper hand if a full blown conflict was to arise with Syria. Turkey’s alliance with Israel was at an all-time high as both trade and military contracts indicated. Turkey was also very eager to end the decades long struggle with the PKK as it had cost nearly 90 billion dollars by 1998.[xi] However, the most important factor was that Syria’s main ally in the region was embroiled with a conflict of its own with the Taliban and in no position to come to Syria’s defense which left Syria in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis Turkey. A few months before Turkey started to amass 50,000 troops on the Syrian border, the biggest build up to that date in its modern history, Iran was concentrating some 200,000 troops on its border with Afghanistan as tensions were rising due to the Taliban’s killing of nine Iranian diplomats and their refusal to deliver their bodies.[xii] Simply put, Iran was in no position to come to Syria’s aid and Syria was faced with a very determined Turkey. That is why Syria was forced to bargain for a peace agreement and Ocalan was expelled from the country, only to be captured next year in Kenya.
Nonetheless, Ocalan’s stay in Syria from the late 70s to the late 90s did bear fruit for the PKK. It was there that he was able to expand his organization to the whole of the region where Kurds live. If not for the PKK’s strength in northern Syria, it would not have been able to establish the PYD in Aleppo in 2003[xiii]. So, the way for PKK members to enter the framework of Syria was opened as they made up the bulk of the newly formed PYD. That is why it should come as no surprise that when the PYD formed its armed wing the YPG in 2012, Cemil Bayik who was serving as the top field commander of the PKK, also became the top field commander of its Syrian incarnation.
The best way to describe the PKK now is as a network that stretches across all areas where there are significant Kurdish populations. The head of the organization (or the body of authority) is the KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union) which sees the activities in all parts of areas where there are affiliated parties and it runs the organization set out by an agreement between them, which it defines as the constitution of Kurdistan[xiv]. In Turkey, there is the PKK; in Syria there is the PYD; in Iraq, there is the PCDK; and in Iran, there is PJAK. Under the affiliate parties, there are also several civil society organizations. Abdullah Ocalan is the honorable president of the KCK[xv] but it’s executive council is run by Cemil Bayik and Bese Hozat.
From 1999 to the Arab Spring, Turkish-Syrian relations were at an all-time high and both countries cooperated to undermine the PKK. It could even be presumed that Turkey had forgotten Syria’s role in helping spawn the PKK. That all changed in 2011 when Turkey started to voice its concern on the brutal way Bashar al-Assad was handling the protests erupting in Syria. By late 2011, Turkey was housing the Free Syrian Army and supporting it against the Syrian regime along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The honeymoon period was over and once again the two countries were hostile to one another.
Even though the PKK started to question its armed activities against Turkey during its unilateral ceasefire in 1993, the concept of separatism was only abandoned after 1999 with the capture of Ocalan. Until that point, the PKK’s goal was the creation of a Kurdish nation-state. While in prison, Ocalan learned about Murray Bookchin and his ideas of democratic confederalism and radical municipalism. As he became captivated by Bookchin’s philosophy he started to distance his movement away from Marxist-Lenininism.[xvi] This was a monumental move on his end, as on paper it would have meant that the PKK would no longer be a rebel organization pursuing the goal of Kurdish national liberation but one pursuing ‘democratic’ confederalism. He rejected the notion of the nation-state and affirmed that the nation-state was not concerned with the fate of its citizens but a tool of the worldwide capitalist system. Also, that it was never on the side of the people, but rather it was their enemy.[xvii] Moreover, Ocalan rejected the concept of what we know of as public administration in modern states. He declared that “States only administrate while democracies govern. States are founded on power; democracies are based on collective consensus.”[xviii] Simply put, he rejected leadership apparatuses in favor of simple, local ‘democratic’ structures which would allow for local communities control over their own decision making. They would be linked to other communities by webs of confederal councils and decisions concerning everyone would be held through consciously formed system of coordination. The economy on the other hand would be free from state interference but under the directive of local confederal councils. It would neither be collectivised nor would it be privatised.[xix] Meaning, the renunciation of the concept of modern capitalism, and instead of a profit oriented system, devises one where that is abolished and replaced by one that only concerns it intrinsically with human needs. However, like Bookchin, Ocalan does not disregard Marxism altogether. He acknowledges the importance of dialectic philosophy ( if he did not he would never have been able/willing to transform the PKK’s ideology ) and also Marx’s view on technology ( the means of production ).
In the Syrian turmoil, the PKK was able to strategically pivot itself when Syrian forces left the region to focus on other parts of the country. The PKK Syrian affiliate quickly started taking control of roads and towns that were abandoned by the regime and this process spread. When ISIS appeared out of Iraq in 2014 and a global coalition was formed, the PKK, using its Syrian affiliate, was quick to position itself in the coalition to fight the Islamic State. This was not the first time in history when capitalistic powers allied themselves with a group that rejected it, to fight fascism (this time wrapped in Islamic garbs). This was a masterful move on the PKK’s part as it not only brought the organization worldwide fame but also much sought after attention to their cause. By 2019, ISIS had only pockets of areas remaining in its control and territorially was all but defeated.
The PKK entity now controlled about one quarter of Syria. The lands it occupied used to be Syria’s breadbasket and also possessed the bulk of its oil fields. However, it was landlocked, as most of its territory was east of the Euphrates, and there was an economic embargo placed on it by all its neighbors (Turkey, Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq and Syria ).[xx] Furthermore, beyond military support from Western countries, they are politically isolated. No Western government recognizes them as a political entity and this should come as no surprise. As a direct radical municipalism that rejected modern capitalism, it is not a model that the capitalistic system could tolerate to succeed. If it worked, that would be a challenge to the system that governed the world unchallenged since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The PKK statelet is a tremendous opportunity for Turkey to end the PKK problem once and for all. And at the same time keep Syria weak, as it would mean losing its breadbasket and most of its oil, and a united Syria who is bitter of Turkey for its role in the Syrian civil war might at some point try to return the favor. A landlocked and poor PKK statelet in Syria will be a model for no one. How will it prosper, when it rejects the very mechanisms needed for it to be part of the world economy? There are many problems with modern capitalism, as we witnessed in 2008 when the world was on the brink of another great depression. But for all its flaws, it has also raised millions out of poverty in the last few decades. The economic model that Bookchin inspires is one that produces goods to meet the basic needs of the people and nothing more.[xxi] That model will not enrich the PKK statelet in Syria, as it will fail to incorporate it into the global economy and if it fails economically that will do far more damage to Ocalan’s dream turning it into a nightmare. Notions like human rights, gender equality and environmentalism are great, but what good are they when your neighbors are prospering and you are not? Lack of economic progress will only be elevated not just by the rejection of capitalism, but also due to the economic embargo it faces. Smuggling food stuff and medicine is one thing, but getting in much needed heavy machinery will be next to impossible. And without heavy machinery you have no industry.
Additionally, Turkey’s military surveillance technology would be enough to monitor its border with the PKK entity. If any attacks were planned and perpetrated from that territory Turkey would have targets to strike back at and would not have to worry about doing so in a third party’s territory like if it were still part of Syria.
Communists wanted to build a socialist state that would one day overwhelm capitalism and the world would be governed by the proletariat. However, the reverse happened. Capitalism vanquished communism. The USSR and its eastern European satellites fell. China abandoned the socialist model and adapted a market economy and whatever remained of the socialist camp like North Korea and Venezuela are in economic ruin. Communism thus ceased to be a model. That would have not been the case, if the experiment was somehow obstructed. Communism had to fail for people to abandon it as an ideal. The same thing will apply to the PKK entity that has formed in Syria along the Turkish border. Turkey cannot defeat the PKK militarily, because no matter how much it improves its military prowess, you cannot kill an idea. And that is what the PKK is. That is why the experiment that is going on today must be allowed to run its course. If it fails, and all things indicate that it will, the PKK problem in Turkey will finally be solved. But if Turkey attacks it, a military victory will only mean the hydra’s head would be chopped off, but many more heads will grow in its place. Then, Turkey will be no closer to ending Ocalan’s dream.
Tuna Tangör grew up in three continents. He holds a BA degree in Public Administration from Eskisehir University and a MA in Politics from the University of Kent (UK).
He has worked as a been an international aid worker in one of the most dangerous countries for humanitarian relief at Afghan Aid, held an internship in ASAM ( Eurasian Center for Strategic Studies ) Turkey's first non-governmental think tank. He currently works in Bodrum, Turkey at one of the world’s biggest mega yacht agency BWA Yachting as a yacht agent.
Tuna Tangör plans on embarking on a PhD in IR and is looking forward for the challenge.
[i] Schmidinger, T. (2018). Rojava: Revolution, War and the Future of Syria’s Kurds. London: Pluto Press, pp.69.
[ii] White, P. (2015). The PKK: Coming Down from the Mountains. London: Zed Books, pp.16.
[iv] Ocalan, A. (2007). Prison Writings – The PKK and the Kurdish Question in the 21st Century. London: Pluto Press, LOC 1700.
[vi] Basbug, I. (2019). Ergenekon’dan Çikis. Istanbul: Kirmizi Kedi Yayinevi, pp.18
[vii] Ocalan, A. (2014). Democratic Confederalism. Cologne: Transmedia Publishing, pp.7
[viii] White, P. (2015). The PKK: Coming Down from the Mountains. London: Zed Books, pp.30
[ix]Dagher, S. (2014). Kurds Fight Islamic State to Claim a Piece of Syria. The Wall Street Journal. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/kurds-fight-islamic-state-to-claim-a-piece-of-syria-1415843557 [Accessed 12 Nov. 2014].
[x] Olsen, R. (2001) Turkey’s Relations with Iran, Syria, Israel and Russia, 1991-2000. New York: Mazda Publisher, pp. 115
[xi] Olsen, R. (2001) Turkey’s Relations with Iran, Syria, Israel and Russia, 1991-2000. New York: Mazda Publisher, pp. 121-122
[xiii] Knapp, M., Flach, A. and Ayboga, E. (2016). Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Woman’s Liberation in the Syrian Kurdistan. London: Pluto Press, pp. 96
[xiv] White, P. (2015). The PKK: Coming Down from the Mountains. London: Zed Books, pp. 130
[xvi]White, P. (2015). The PKK: Coming Down from the Mountains. London: Zed Books, pp. 150
[xvii] Ocalan, A. (2014). Democratic Confederalism.Cologne: Transmedia Publishing, pp. 13
[xviii] Ocalan, A. (2014). Democratic Confederalism.Cologne: Transmedia Publishing, pp. 19
[xix]White, P. (2015). The PKK: Coming Down from the Mountains. London: Zed Books, pp. 128
[xx] Knapp, M., Flach, A. and Ayboga, E. (2016). Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Woman’s Liberation in the Syrian Kurdistan. London: Pluto Press, pp. 110
[xxi] Biehl, J. (2015). Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin. New York: Oxford University Press, pp.70