YPG is not PKK but Ocalan is leader of both

Continuing to criminalize the Kurdish freedom movement in Turkey and strengthening Turkish authoritarianism serves no one but President Erdogan and his neo-Ottoman, Islamist-nationalist agenda.

Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) members walk at a checkpoint near the Syrian Kurdish town of Efrin in 2014. A picture of Abdullah Ocalan, jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), is seen in the background (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) members walk at a checkpoint near the Syrian Kurdish town of Efrin in 2014. A picture of Abdullah Ocalan, jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), is seen in the background
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On November 6, the United States unexpectedly announced a total of $12 million in reward payments for information on three senior members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – Murad Karayilan, Cemil Bayik and Duran Kalkan. These three have led the PKK’s decades-long rebel war against Turkey. For Ankara and Washington, the PKK is a terrorist group.
But it’s not that simple. The PKK is fighting for Kurdish rights and freedoms in Turkey, which Turkey has long violently repressed its Kurdish minority. A sister party of the PKK also is a partner in the US-led war against the self-proclaimed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and Iraq. The PKK, which has long-sought a negotiated settlement with Turkey, has never targeted US or European citizens, nor ever sought to undermine their interests. Yet the US and EU consider the PKK a terrorist organization, although increasingly, there are signs this may be changing. On November 15, the European Court of Justice said that the decision issued about the PKK between 2014 and 2017, which included the party in the “terror list” was not based on “sufficient evidence.”
Since being founded in 1978, the PKK’s ideology, strategy and goals have shifted. The group has gone from being a dogmatic, separatist Marxist-Leninist organization to striving to create a pro-democracy organization that promotes, ecology, women rights, and ethnic and religious coexistence and cooperation. At the same time, the PKK has abandoned the goal of an independent state and now calls for a self-rule system based on a local democracy. The PKK also is no longer solely focused on Kurdish rights in Turkey: it now is championing a multicultural and multiethnic solution for Turkey where all people will have the same liberal, democratic rights and protections.
Some may question whether this is really the case. But there are two developing examples that the PKK is leading: the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey and the Rojava revolution in Syria. Both are not perfect, but they are the best examples of groups supporting liberal human rights, women’s rights and protection for civil freedoms in Turkey and in Syria.
In Turkey, the PKK has proposed a reasonable and acceptable solution to the current problems in Turkey. Instead of central rule, it has proposed a model of local democracy which recognizes the rights of all ethnic and religious communities without changing the borders of Turkey. Peace talks between the PKK and Turkey broke down in 2015 – not because of the PKK, but because of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He apparently decided he didn’t really want a peaceful settlement. In Rojava, the PKK was key in sending its male and female fighters to defend Kobane from ISIS attack, helping start the slow defeat of ISIS.
And it’s been a powerful force for protecting minorities in the region. Consider this: When ISIS attacked Sinjar in 2014 and began to slaughter or enslave thousands of Yazidis, it was the PKK which sent in fighters to protect the Yazidis and open a corridor allowing them to flee. When Erbil was threatened by ISIS, the PKK sent its fighters in to help the Iraqi Kurdish forces. They maintained a base in Kirkuk to help the Iraqi Kurds defend the city. Despite the PKK’s ongoing differences with Masoud Barzani and his KDP, the PKK has always made clear it will defend the right of the Kurdish region to exist.
The US now seeks to arrest three senior Kurdish leaders for “crimes” they have never committed. This is nothing more than an attempt to appease Turkey. And for what? Turkey under President Erdogan is cracking down on all liberal dissent, limiting human rights, arresting tens of thousands of people for saying things Erdogan doesn’t like. Kurdish democratically elected political leaders are in prison, foreign journalists, scholars are being deported and arrested, free media is targeted, hundreds of thousands of people have been fired from their jobs, Turkey has become the biggest prison for journalists worldwide. Why are we rewarding Turkey?
Let’s be very clear if it was not for the PKK, then the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is supported by the US in fighting ISIS in Syria, would never have been as successful as they are. It was the PKK that led the defense of Kobane, sparking the US decision to beginning arming and later training Kurdish forces. The US and the Coalition know very well that the Kurds in Syria consider themselves as part of the Kurdish freedom movement led by Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK. (Ocalan is currently imprisoned in Turkey). Ocalan was based in Syria for many years, and during this period he met and organized tens of thousands of youth who now are part of the SDF and its main component, the YPG armed forces. The majority of the Kurds in Syria are as supportive to Ocalan as the Kurds of Turkey, because they had ongoing frequent contacts with Ocalan and his senior advisers, among them the three men now on the US reward list. It is true the PKK and the PYD/YPG are two different organizations, but let’s not forget they have a single leader – Ocalan.
Assisting Turkey to arrest Ocalan did not weaken the PKK, neither did it end the violence. Similarly, arresting the three PKK leaders will also be ineffectual in stopping the bloodshed. The PKK is not an organization that could be weakened by targeting its leaders. . Even if the mission is achieved, the Kurdish question remains and needs to be addressed.
It is unethical for a democracy like the US, which claims to be the defender of democracy and peace worldwide, to place a $12-million reward for arresting three Kurdish leaders while not offering a plan for the resolution of the status of the 12 million Kurds in Turkey who face persecution, oppression and even genocide.
The US gained the appreciation of Iraq’s Kurds following the 1991 US support for the no-fly zone and the Iraq invasion. The Kurds of Turkey and Syria completely changed their attitude toward the US when the US-led Coalition approached the Kurds. The US-Kurdish alliance has been fruitful.
However, the US reward for the capture of three PKK leaders has led to condemnations all over the Kurdistan, including the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Kurdish social media users have never displayed the anger they showed for the US in the recent days.
In 2017, I interviewed Cemil Bayik, one of the PKK leaders the US has offered a $4-million reward, for Al-Monitor. In this interview, Bayik called on the US, NATO and the EU to mediate between the PKK and Turkey to resume peace talks and resolve the Kurdish question. What is the logic of posting a $4-million bounty for a person who calls you to help him in bringing peace and stability?
Continuing to criminalize the Kurdish freedom movement in Turkey and strengthening the Turkish authoritarianism through such decisions serves no one but President Erdogan and his neo-Ottoman, Islamist-nationalist agenda. This policy affects Kurdish-US relations, and will bring more instability and anti-American sentiment.
The Kurds are expecting further US support so that the revolution in Syria will succeed as a democratic system in alliance with the US and EU to become an example for the future of Syria, and ultimately the wider region. The democratic Turks and Kurds want to resume peace talks so that neither Turks nor Kurds will be killed anymore, and Turkey will become a model for democracy for the whole region.
The EU, US and NATO can play a vital role in bringing peace to Turkey. And peace in Turkey will play an influential role in stability in the regional countries and guaranteeing of defeat of ISIS which are very important for the security of the EU and US and stopping the influx of the refugees to the Western countries.
Kamal Chomani is a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for the Middle East Policy. TIMEP is dedicated to influencing policy toward the Middle East and North Africa through rigorous research and targeted advocacy efforts that promote local voices. TIMEP was founded in 2013 and currently has offices in DC and Brussels, with a network of expert fellows located throughout the world. TIMEP is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the District of Columbia.