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Turkey’s War Against the Kurds & the PKK

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The question on whether or not the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) can be associated as a terrorist organization draws upon many debates, critics, unanswered questions, and political motive. The Kurdish People, an ethnic group consisting of roughly 30 million continue to be oppressed, marginalized, and ignored by their respective state governments. While many tend to classify the Kurds and the PKK as one group with similar mindsets and interests, such statements are representative of the various forms of state media particularly present in Turkey. In fact, Turkey has been unforgivingly authoritarian on its Kurdish citizens for many years – including bans on their language and culture.

Ever since the PKK’s formation and its concurrent clashes with the Turkish government, over 40,000 people (mainly Kurdish) have died. In July 2015, Turkey violated a 2-year old ceasefire with the PKK that came into effect in March 2013 by carrying out airstrikes in the Qandil Mountains stretching westwards from the Iran-Iraq border and 30 km into Turkey. These airstrike attempts failed to bring about the surrender of the PKK or to weaken them. In fact, the PKK and its Kurdish affiliates in Syria and Iraq have only grown stronger.

Turkey has seen an enormous increase in terrorist activity that has resulted in immense civilian and officer casualties. Take for example the terrorist attack in Ankara on March 13th that left about 34 people killed and dozens injured, the March 19th suicide bombing in Istanbul’s shopping centre (Istiklal Caddesi) that killed three Israelis and one Iranian, as well as the June 7th bombing near a historic centre of Istanbul that left seven police officers and 4 civilians dead. Both the PKK and ISIL have been blamed for such attacks.

All of these incidents combined with the recent bombings at Turkey’s Ataturk Airport that resulted in over 42 civilian casualties are the spillover effects from Turkey’s military policies on supporting Syrian opposition groups to create regime change in Syria, combatting Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, and its ongoing air campaign against the PKK in the mountainous areas of northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey.

The shifting of powers in Syria has left Turkey and the US using Kurdish nationalist, military, and political organizations as allies and scapegoats to achieve their goals. With ISIL creating chaos and taking control of various swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, the PYD (Democratic Union Party in Syria) and YPG (Peoples’ Protection Unit – a military wing of the PYD) have been extremely effective in fighting off the barbaric terrorist organization near the Turkey-Syria border. Both the PYD and YPG are seen by Turkey as an extended branch of the PKK, and therefore are viewed as terrorist organizations. Despite this, the United States has not yet openly declared the PYD or the YPG as terrorist organizations.

Despite differing views on the PYD and YPG, both Turkey and the US have common proxy groups which they have been supporting since the start of the Syrian civil war with the goal of removing the Assad regime. Rebel and opposition groups who have been accused of heinous crimes since the start of the Syrian war and supported by both Turkey and the US include Al Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and distinct groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

In July 2015, Turkey granted permission to the US to use its Incirlik Air Base within a certain framework with the aim of attacking ISIL positions in northern Syria. Under the pretext of combatting terrorism, Turkey is actually playing its ace card by letting NATO forces use its air bases while at the same time pounding Kurdish targets inside Syria and Iraq. When we compare the amount of airstrikes Turkey has conducted against ISIL and the PKK in Syria, we can see great differences. Turkey had only conducted three airstrikes against ISIL positions from August – October 2015 in contrast to dropping 300 smart bombs on YPG, PKK, and other Kurdish targets in July 2015 alone. Turkey has in fact violated international law by coordinating military strikes in Iraq and Syria in predominantly Kurdish areas without the permission of each respective state’s approval.

It is not a surprise to hear that Turkey does not see ISIL as its main threat, but rather sees the PKK as its main security concern. To combat the PKK’s branches in Syria and Iraq, Turkey is currently supporting Syrian opposition groups through providing extensive amounts of weapons, cash, training sites, and political cover in order to fight off the YPG.

On the other hand, the YPG has given intelligence and coordinates of possible airstrike targets to the American airforce operations centre working to combat ISIL in Syria and Iraq. In October 2015, US fighter jets had airdropped significant amounts of arms to the YPG and other Syrian rebel groups to battle ISIL in the Syrian city of Raqqa. This has allowed the YPG to make fast territorial gains in northern Syria against ISIL. However, Turkey does not seem to be at ease with this and would rather see other Syrian opposition groups and its proxies controlling northern Syria along its 560-mile border.

The mainstream media tends to show Washington’s support for Kurdish fighters in Syria and Turkey’s opposition to it as a clash between US and Turkish foreign policies. In reality, the US and Turkey both have similar aims in Syria to get rid of the Assad regime. To further elaborate, the US has told the YPG to stop doing anything that would increase tensions with Turkey on Syria’s northern border and has also asked the YPG not to seize territory from any group that Turkey supports.

What Turkey wants to do here is to weaken the PYD and its military branch – the YPG, and then put moderate forces in charge of the towns near the Syrian-Turkish border with Kurds who don’t support the YPG or PYD. Essentially, they will do this with the help of the Americans through the slogans of democracy and secularism in a land currently free of such concepts.

The Kurds are now turning to the US to help them achieve their autonomy, rights, and freedoms. The Kurdish political and military organizations in Syria and Iraq must be extremely careful in working with the US who has yet to condemn Turkey’s brutal actions against its very own Kurdish citizens. Moreover, the Kurds should see the US’s collaboration with Turkey as a stab in its back. False promises by the US to provide for the Kurds their very own independent state once ISIL is defeated in northern Syria is something Turkey would not allow along its border.

Turkey’s history of violence and strained relations with the PKK and the broader Kurdish community, its support of terror groups in Syria and Iraq, and its ongoing collaboration with the US should be a wake-up call to all Kurds to be very vigilant in choosing who to work with in Syria and Iraq. The Kurds are an ethnic group that ate likely to be scrapped by the US once its goals have been achieved in Syria due to its long positive relations with its NATO ally – Turkey.

Taalib Shivraj
Taalib Shivraj has completed his Bachelor’s degree in International Business Management from the Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology. His areas of interest include foreign and economic policy, and the role of multilateral organizations in facilitating peaceful dialogue and free trade. He has completed research reports on trade agreements between countries to analyze the beneficiaries and payers of such deals. Taalib has traveled throughout the Middle East and East Africa.

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