The Turkish government insists that Sweden significantly change its permissive approach to the Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan (PKK, or Kurdish Workers’ Party) and other anti-Turkey groups as a condition for Ankara’s approval of Stockholm’s application for NATO membership. Western commentators have attributed the position of the Turkish government to upcoming Turkish elections, opposition to free speech, and/or visceral reaction to political provocateurs (Associated Press, January 19; Bloomberg, January 26; jonathanturley.org, January 24). However, the demands laid out by Ankara in the June 2022 Trilateral Memorandum stem from longstanding Turkish concerns over PKK support activities in Sweden and decades of Sweden formally proscribing, but still practically tolerating, the group (tccb.gov.tr, June 28, 2022). Most Western analysts have begun covering this story recently, but a look at the backstory is necessary when considering Turkish objections to the PKK’s presence in Sweden and its implications for NATO enlargement.
Bare Knuckle Beginnings
The PKK did not initially find warm welcome in Sweden. In 1985, following a series of targeted killings of PKK defectors, Prime Minister Olof Palme’s government designated the group as a violent terrorist organization. Sweden thus became the first European state to do so. After Palme’s 1986 assassination, a theory emerged that Iran and the PKK had collaborated in his killing. Swedish authorities could not prove this, but the PKK remained one of several plausible suspects (Jacobin.com, May 18, 2020). In 1998, former PKK field commander Semdin Sakik nevertheless claimed the PKK was behind Palme’s killing and PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan thought it possible that a splinter group may have carried out the killing (irishtimes.com, June 2, 1999; irishtimes.com, April 29, 1998).
Following Palme’s assassination, the Swedish approach to PKK activists and supporters shifted to laissez-faire. Tens of thousands of Kurds availed themselves of Sweden’s liberal asylum and extradition laws to build communities and influence there during the 1980s and 1990s, including PKK members. Over the following two decades, the PKK and its supporters developed significant lobbying, fund-raising, and propaganda capabilities in Sweden, Germany, and elsewhere (insidearabia.com, May 23, 2022; Spiegel.de, October 30, 2007). Sweden and several other European countries became a sort of rear base for the PKK, which made common cause with far-left politicians and developed a structure of cadres and support cells (fpri.org, February 1, 1999).
In Sweden, the success of this political and ideological entrenchment has been evident in the past two years. Ethnically Kurdish member of parliament, Amine Kakabaveh, provided the swing vote in 2021 to seat the government of Magdalena Andersson in exchange for sharply increased Swedish aid to the “Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria” (AANES), which is dominated by PKK-aligned groups (al-Arabiya.net, June 14, 2022). Public marches, demonstrations, and fundraising for the PKK have all continued, despite the group’s terrorist designation (Economist, June 28, 2022). Open public celebrations of the PKK’s founding (not the PKK-affiliated group, but the PKK itself) occur without hindrance (ANF, November 29, 2021). The PKK-linked Rojava Committee of Sweden also hung an effigy of Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in early January, which escalated tensions between Stockholm and Ankara (politico.eu, January 28).
European Safe Haven
PKK activities in Sweden are one example of the broader European problem. It involves the tension between the PKK’s status as a designated terrorist organization on one hand and the disinclination of governments to devote resources to combat its financing, political organizing, recruiting, and propaganda on the other hand. The dilemma stems from the deliberate “double-pronged strategy” of the PKK to conduct non-violent activities in Europe that will fund and enable its armed and overt political activities in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (spiegel.de, November 7, 2008).
It also stems from the desire not to trigger retaliation by the PKK on European soil. The director of PKK European branches, Huseyin Yildirm, felt comfortable enough to threaten Sweden about lifting its terror designation in the 1990s (middleeasteye.net, May 29, 2022). Ocalan previously threatened to respond to a police crackdown on the PKK in Europe with a wave of suicide bombings (chicagotribune.com, March 31, 1996). The PKK has thus pursued a tacit bargain of avoiding violence in European cities in exchange for laissez-faire treatment of the group (Perspectives on Terrorism, August 2008).
European countries for decades turned a blind eye to such PKK support activities (washingtoninstitute.org, December 2, 2005). However, tolerance of terror organizations or insurgencies created a de facto safe haven for the PKK, and history shows that this greatly increases risk for the targeted state (Turkey) (csis.org, September 11, 2018). Ankara can, therefore, reasonably be expected to use every tool at its disposal, including Sweden’s NATO accession, to end this safe haven.
EU police report that PKK criminal activities continue, including money laundering, racketeering, extortion, and drug-trafficking. Arrests, trials, and convictions have occurred in several countries, but Sweden is not among them (EUROPOL, 2022). There has also been an increase in the travel of left-wing extremists and anarchists from Europe to PKK camps in Iraq and Syria, where they receive weapons training and, in some cases, join PKK operations against Turkish forces (kurdistan24.net, June 24, 2020).
Support to Northeast Syria: Finance, Weapons, Legitimization
What makes the Swedish case unique and pressing for Ankara’s counter-PKK efforts is the rise of support for the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Sweden since 2020, which is the political arm of the People’s Defense Units (YPG) militia and very much a part of the PKK network of affiliated organizations. Sweden was one of several other European countries to allow the PYD to open an office in Stockholm in 2016 (almonitor.com, April 22, 2016). After a Swedish delegation visited northeast Syria and met with PKK-appointed officials of the AANES in late 2020, the AANES deputy co-chair predicted that Swedish engagement would have historic results in producing support in Europe for “Kurdish causes” (npasyria.com, October 21, 2020). This clearly did not refer to Iraqi Kurdistan or non-PKK Kurds, however, who already had many open, positive, and sympathetic relationships with Europe. Rather, this was about a revolution in relations with the “revolutionaries” of the PKK movement.
In 2021, the Swedish Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs held video teleconferences with senior leaders of the YPG, which is the military wing of the PKK in Syria, resulting in the Turkish Foreign Ministry to convoke the Swedish Ambassador (Associated Press, April 10, 2021). By 2022, the PYD-controlled Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) was able to organize a conference in Stockholm sponsored by the Swedish Foreign Ministry and, ironically, the Olof Palme Center (dailysabah.com, May 17, 2022). The Swedish government provided an estimated $376 million from 2016 to the present to AANES projects, and Swedish officials demanded a halt to Turkish military operations against the PKK in Syria (rudaw.net, November 12, 2021).
Ankara has not recognized any significant distinction between tolerance of PKK and PYD activities in Sweden, promotion of the PYD-led administration in northeast Syria, or direct military assistance to the YPG and PKK fighters in Turkey because it sees them all as part of the same campaign of terror and insurgency. The Turks have asserted that Swedish-made AT-4 rockets were used in attacks both on Turkish soil and in Iraq (aa.com.tr, May 19, 2022). However, Swedish tolerance of PKK activities and support to PKK affiliates has clearly been primarily political rather than military, despite the AT-4 rocket issue. This begs the question of whether the far more massive military assistance provided to the YPG by the United States, which has fueled YPG ambitions to control large swathes of Syria and PKK ambitions to gain the upper hand against the Turks, might be the real target of Ankara’s leverage tactics regarding Sweden’s NATO accession (washingtonpost.com, January 7, 2017).
Swedish toleration and empowerment of Ocalan’s PKK network is a proxy, in Turkish eyes, for broader European passivity about the PKK and American empowerment of the PKK’s Syrian affiliates. Because Swedes, other Europeans, and Washington consider Swedish and Finnish NATO accession as a critical element of collective security against Russian aggression, Ankara sees this as a unique opportunity to force action on a critical element for Turkish security— ending international support to the PKK. While only somewhat unfair to Sweden, this matter is about forcing the collective West to choose between the PKK and Turkey (foreignpolicy.com, January 25).
Some Western commentators may still be confused by the canard that there is substantive difference between PYD, YPG, and PKK. However, few with first-hand knowledge of northern Syria debate the organic ties between them, and researchers have demonstrated that the PYD and YPG are not parallel or descended organizations of the PKK, but instrumentalities under central PKK control (clingendael.org, April 2021). The inseparability of the PYD and YPG franchises from PKK policy and personnel control is such that serious analysis of northern Syria’s future requires discussion of ending the PKK campaign against Turkey, and not just of Turkish pressure against the YPG/PYD (ICG, May 2017).
That leaves Sweden, like many Europeans (and perhaps some Americans), needing to square an awkward circle. The war against Islamic State (IS) in Syria has wound down since 2018 (Reuters, April 30, 2018). There is no political mandate from any source to continue PKK control over the areas formerly held by IS in Syria. Turkey, meanwhile, has demonstrated new power projection capabilities and strategic independence and has proven an effective counterbalance to Russia (washingtoninstitute.org, July 9, 2021; businessinsider.com, October 22, 2020). Europe is re-learning geopolitics. At a certain point, the value to Europe and the U.S. of Turkey as a counter-terror (and geopolitical) partner globally will necessitate de-leveraging from the Syrian component of the primary PKK and related anti-Turkish terror networks. This applies for Europe—and probably the United States, in the long run—but most immediately, in the context of NATO accession, for Sweden (carnegieurope.eu, July 28, 2022).