It's time to call the PKK by its name

It's time to call the PKK by its name
Comment: The recent spillover of the PKK's operations into Europe suggests it's time to reassess the organisation's actions, writes Kyle Orton.
7 min read
15 Mar, 2018
Protesters wave flags of the PKK and jailed PKK leader Ocalan, Paris, November 2016 [AFP]
A wave of politically motivated violence has swept over Europe in the last few days, carried out by an extremist group and its sympathisers, accompanied by public statements threatening further attacks. 

These attacks are intended to change western policy to one more suitable to the attackers.

The conventional term for this is "terrorism".

These assailants are not Islamist, however; they are from the Kurdish PKK, and this seems to have both reduced the amount of attention this campaign has received, and to have dulled the reaction from some who suggest that perhaps the attackers have a point.

Empowering the PKK 

The American-led international coalition partnered with a Kurdish ground force, the People's Protection Units (YPG), when it intervened in Syria against the Islamic State group (IS) in late 2014.

A year later, at America's urging, the YPG joined with some dependent Arab units and rebranded itself the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  

In Ankara's eyes, the YPG is - despite its denials - the name used by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) when it operates on Syrian territory. While global powers have different designations for the PKK, the US State Department and the European Union consider it a "terrorist organisation", though the UN does not.   

For Turkey, the PKK's terrorist designation related to its atrocious conduct of a war it began in 1984 against the Turkish state, which intended to separate the Kurdish-majority areas of southeast. Human rights groups documented the PKK committing crimes against humanity, targeted against other Kurds in many cases.  

Human rights groups documented the PKK committing crimes against humanity

The anti-IS coalition's alliance with the YPG/PKK has, therefore, alarmed Turkey from the outset, and as the war in Syria went on - with the YPG capturing ever-more territory as the so-called caliphate retreated, most of it along Turkey's border - this alarm only grew.  

In the summer of 2016, Turkey intervened in Syria, establishing a presence in north-east Aleppo to block the YPG from establishing a contiguous presence along the border, and in January of this year, Turkey launched a second operation in north-west Aleppo against the YPG-held Afrin canton. 

The latest round of trouble 

It is in relation to the second of Turkey's operations, and the lack of western support for the YPG in its fight with a NATO member, that mayhem has been unleashed in Europe.

This month, the PKK has claimed responsibility for attacks on two mosques in Germany. The first was firebombed on 8 March, and the video of the event disseminated by PKK-linked media channels. The second, in Berlin, was attacked with Molotov cocktails last Sunday. The PKK's supporters have previously claimed responsibility for such attacks at moments when the organisation is under military pressure, including in Britain.

Attacks on official Turkish property already form the bulk of the operations claimed by the PKK in Europe each year

A PKK-linked organisation in Europe put out a statement on 10 March saying it was "time to… bring the war to Europe's streets" by attacking all Turkish diplomatic facilities and any property owned by ethnic Turks, plus elected politicians who disagreed them.

Early the next day, an American foreign fighter with the YPG had tweeted that "the time for peaceful protests are [sic] over", encouraging supporters to find Turkish embassies and consulates and "burn them all down".

Attacks on official Turkish property already form the bulk of the operations claimed by the PKK in Europe each year. With this incitement it is hardly surprising that the protests across Europe on 11 March involved violence, vandalism and hooliganism.  

Read more: The narrowing distinctions between the PKK and its offshoots

There were clashes around the PKK's protests in Germany, notably near the Dusseldorf Airport, which led to several injuries. In Britain, there was a peaceful pro-PKK protest in Liverpool, but elsewhere a demonstration turned ugly and activists stormed Manchester Piccadilly railway station, and brought north-south travel to a standstill for many hours.

In Hamburg in July 2017, two days of protest against the G20 caused millions of pounds worth of damage, injuring scores, and ending with 100 people arrested. A PKK propaganda outlet claims that the organisation "spearhead[ed]" those protests; they surely exaggerate, but the widespread presence of their banners attests to their involvement on some level. 

The PKK in Europe 

The PKK's European networks date back to the early 1980s. Before they began their war in Turkey, the organisation used to gather money and recruits for the insurgency.

Britain was a central theatre in the development of these structures. The PKK operates as a criminal syndicate, not unlike Lebanon's Hizballah, which the US also designates a "terrorist organisation".   

A "revolutionary tax" is extorted from the Kurdish diaspora - and protection rackets operate among other communities. PKK leaders have been sanctioned by the US Treasury for their involvement in the narcotics trade; people smuggling, including of refugees, is a significant source of revenue for the PKK.  

Part of the reason for this imbalance is that many rebels were avowedly Muslim, while the PKK presented itself wrapped in western themes

Additional features of the PKK revenue stream are money laundering, counterfeiting, weapons trading - with the Russian intelligence services in some cases - and smuggling legal items such as tobacco

Alongside this is a semi-legal web of at least 400 front organisations in Europe that operate cultural centres and a vast propaganda apparatus, from bookshops to television channels, under deniable PKK control. In December, the UK effectively closed an alleged PKK magazine because the funds were alleged to be supporting terrorism. 

The first head of the European division of the PKK was Cetin Gungor (Semir), whom the PKK assassinated in Sweden in November 1985. Gungor had encountered liberal ideas and began advocating for internal democracy; this was too much of a threat to the PKK, a thoroughly authoritarian organisation.

The PKK's extremist ideology and western recruits

The PKK's ideology at its foundation mixed together Kurdish nationalism, Marxism and a cult of personality around its leader, Abdullah Ocalan. This doctrine was subsequently shaped and sharpened in ways that made it even more anti-western and repressive.

Driven from Turkey by the coup d'etat in 1980, the PKK trained in camps run by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Syrian-occupied areas of Lebanon.

The PKK served the Assad regime's foreign and domestic policy. The organisation already believed that Israel - like Turkey - was an illegitimate imprint of western colonialism in the region that had to be removed, and the PLO helped solidify this view. 

PLO factions served as the main bridge to the Soviet Union, which supported the PKK for ideological reasons - the works of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were the "main, if not the only" sources for the PKK's indoctrination curriculum - and as a useful instrument to destabilise a frontline NATO state.

The PKK's fierce anti-westernism remains a core part of the ideological instruction for western volunteers to the YPG, and over time the composition of the YPG foreign fighter contingent has been altered to reflect this reality.

Early in the conflict, when the YPG was struggling, many non-ideological military veterans and others motivated by a desire to fight IS were accepted into the YPG/PKK. By now, the majority of non-Kurdish foreign fighters with the YPG/PKK are far-left ideologues.  

The training of political extremists in explosives and firearms might seem like a cause for concern, and if there was a hint of Islamist militancy around this we can be reasonably sure it would be taken seriously, at popular and governmental levels, in the West. 

For many years, long before the jihadists made their appearance in Syria and tried to co-opt the rebellion, rebel forces and the White Helmets were accused of being al-Qaeda, and legal penalties were imposed on those who joined rebel groups.

Part of the reason for this imbalance is that many rebels were avowedly Muslim, while the PKK presented itself wrapped in western themes.

So far it has been considered fanciful - or worse - to worry that those westerners who had joined the YPG, even if not wholly committed to the PKK's ideology, might get drawn into the PKK's criminal and terrorist activity in Europe.

The spillover of the PKK's operations in Syria into Europe this last week, and the support publicly offered by YPG foreign fighters, suggests this deserves a reassessment.

Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst. 

Follow him on Twitter: @KyleWOrton

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.