The PKK – coming down from the mountains (part of the series: Rebels)
by Paul White
Pubs. Zed Books
The Kurds are one of the largest national groups in the world without a country of their own – around 35-40 million people. Their language, culture and history, goes back centuries and is distinct from those of the middle-eastern states in which the Kurdish people are based, but their existence as a separate national group has been continually denied. They straddle Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, but the greatest number of Kurds live in south-eastern Turkey and have been demeaningly described by successive Turkish administrations as ‘Mountain Turks’.
Paul White describes the rise of the progressive nationalist liberation movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) within a historical context. He describes the transformation of small, often local movements of peasants and ‘social rebels’ into a modern Kurdish liberation organization, the PKK. It emerged as a modern revolutionary nationalist force with a burgeoning diplomatic presence.
The ongoing struggle between Kurdish nationalists and the Turkish administration has been bloody and cost thousands of lives, but both sides appeared to recognise that force alone would not solve their problems. As a peaceful gesture, most of the PKK’s forces were recently withdrawn from Turkey to the Qandil mountain region of Iraq.
Despite waging that long and bloody armed struggle, the PKK recently began contemplating an end to the armed struggle on Turkish soil and has been actively seeking a political solution. Originally the PKK advocated nothing less than full independence for a united greater Kurdish state, but now appears prepared to accept some form of autonomy and has linked this with the wider democratic struggle in Turkey as a whole. However the capture of its leader Abdullah Öcalan put that process on hold. He was kidnapped and handed over to Turkish forces as a result of a conspiracy between Greek security services, Mossad, the CIA and the Turkish government.
The consequences of the Iraq war had a significant impact on Kurdish aspirations. The conflict and US occupation left the Iraqi Kurdish region virtually autonomous and has allowed its people to develop its own forms of governance. This, in turn, has impacted on Kurdish aspirations and given the Kurds a new sense of identity and hope for a truly united nation.
The notorious underdevelopment of Turkey’s Kurdish region – it is the poorest region of the country and has enjoyed little to no investment. Its population has been under military occupation for decades and these factors have certainly not helped in bringing about a solution to the Kurdish question. While many Kurds remain sceptical and suspicious of Turkey’s long-term strategy, there is no doubt that the ideology of the PKK has had a deep impact on Turkey’s politics itself.
The Turkish state itself, was forced into a compromise on the Kurdish question, and only a year ago appeared ready to negotiate with Öcalan, granting belated but limited recognition of the Kurdish language and even allowed a pro-Kurdish party – the socialist and anti-capitalist, People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – to take part in the most recent national elections. This party was able to attract many liberal and left voters to overcome the minimum threshold for representation and win 13% of the vote. The party linked the issue of the Kurdish people in Turkey with that of democracy in the country as a whole. It was supported indirectly by the PKK. Its success prevented Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) winning a majority for the first time since 2002. It also stymied Erdogan’s aim of shifting power from parliament to the president.
He was, though, was determined to counter that electoral result, so began a strategy of renewed military attacks on PKK bases in Qandil in the hope of uniting nationalist forces around his flag. He has granted the US use of the Erlginci military base in exchange for a blank cheque to attack the PKK.
The United States signed a new military agreement with Turkey at the expense of the Kurds: In return for use of Incirlik Air Base on the Syrian border, it has betrayed the Syrian Kurds who have so far been its most effective ally against Islamic State. In return for the deal, the US gained military cooperation from Turkey, but it soon became clear that Ankara’s real target was the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Action against Isis was an afterthought, and was hit by only three Turkish airstrikes, compared to around 300 against PKK bases. By strongly playing the Turkish nationalist and anti-Kurdish card, he hopes to win back that majority in a second election on 1 November.
White’s book is very useful for anyone who wishes to understand more about Kurdish nationalist aspiration and the role of the PKK.