Turkey and Iraqi Kurds Agree to Disagree on PKK’s Terrorist Status

In an interview with Italian newspaper Il Tempo, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani stated that “the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] is not a terrorist organization.” Barzani also added that “if the PKK rejects Turkey’s commitment to hold talks with it, the PKK can be then considered as terrorist” (Il Tempo, June 21).

Peyamner, the official media organ of Barzani’s political party (the Kurdistan Democratic Party—KDP), did not report on his statements, although the other main Iraqi Kurdish political party (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—PUK) did post a story containing the interview (PUKMedia, June 22). Naturally, Turkish media immediately picked up on Barzani’s statement (Hurriyet, June 23; Today’s Zaman, June 24; Milliyet, June 24).

This was not the first time that KRG President Barzani refused to characterize the PKK as a terrorist group. As recently as October 2007, Turkish newspapers reported on an interview Barzani gave to CNN in which he made almost identical statements, emphasizing that he did not see the PKK as a terrorist organization, but “if in order to solve the [Kurdish] problem Turkey proposed a peaceful path and the PKK rejected this, then I would agree that the PKK is a terrorist organization. At the moment, however, this is not the case” (Radikal, October 22, 2007).

Universally agreed upon definitions of “terrorist” remain elusive. Officials from Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Jamestown that in their view, a non-state actor challenging a state’s monopoly on the use of force is a terrorist organization (Author’s interview, May 21). The label of “terrorist group” also remains important for Ankara’s attempts to deny any legitimacy to the PKK and its stated goals of Kurdish autonomy and minority rights. Turkish officials use the terrorist label to rule out the possibility of any negotiations or discourse between Ankara and the PKK, since governments cannot be expected to negotiate with terrorists. Barzani’s view that the PKK should not be viewed as a terrorist organization because of its willingness to peacefully negotiate a solution with Ankara thus appears lost on Turkish officials, given their refusal to recognize much less negotiate with terrorists. Turkey’s willingness to meet with officials of groups such as Hamas and the Kosovo Liberation Army appears to contradict its stance on the PKK, however, or at least force Ankara to engage in a number of rhetorical gyrations to justify the apparent double standard.

For Iraqi Kurds, labeling the PKK a terrorist organization would be akin to Arab governments designating Hizbullah, Hamas or the PLO as terrorists. In the same way that Arab states such as Jordan harbor little affinity for Hizbullah, Hamas or the various groups that make up the PLO, the Kurdistan Regional Government tends to view the PKK negatively. Popular sympathy for the PKK’s “national liberation struggle,” however, discourages Iraqi Kurdish leaders from using the terrorist label or taking military action against the PKK. If the PKK were to begin challenging Iraqi Kurdish political parties for control of Iraqi Kurdistan, as it did briefly in the early 1990s, one could expect harsher rhetoric from the KRG and even a return to the fighting that occurred between Iraqi Kurds and the PKK in the 1990s.

The parallel for such a scenario might be King Hussein’s September 1970 military campaign against Palestinian groups in Jordan, when these groups progressed from raids on Israel to threatening to overthrow the Jordanian government. Even after the events of “Black September,” however, Jordan’s leaders would not label Palestinian groups terrorists. The Jordanian government did nonetheless manage, after 1970, to prevent Palestinian guerrillas from using Jordanian territory to launch attacks against Israel, which in turn put an end to punishing Israeli counterattacks on Jordanian territory. Should Iraqi Kurds wish to see an end to Turkish incursions into KRG territory, they will have to either contain the PKK better or mediate an end to the conflict between the PKK and Ankara.

For its part, the PKK has tried to shed its terrorist image and designation. The PKK claims to engage in a legitimate right of “armed struggle.” PKK leaders also insist that their goals do not involve carving a separate Kurdish state from eastern Turkey and that they are open to a negotiated peace to achieve “Kurdish rights and democracy.” Although the PKK targeted many civilians in the 1980s and 1990s, mostly “village guards” and their families—armed by Ankara to fight the PKK—as well as Turkish civil servants, PKK officials claim to have eschewed such a policy in recent years (Author’s interview, Qandil, April 2004). In contrast to groups such as Hamas, which glorify suicide bombings against civilian targets, the PKK today denies targeting civilians (BBC News, October 27, 2007). In January 2008 PKK military commander Bahoz Erdal (a.k.a. Fehman Hussein) unequivocally stated: “We are not fighting without cause, but are defending our national values, and we show sensitivity—especially when it comes to civilians. We have never harmed civilians intentionally, and we will not do so in the future” (elaph.com, January 31). The PKK thus claims that its attacks are limited to the armed forces of the Turkish state and national infrastructure such as power plants.

Their denials notwithstanding, possible PKK front groups have claimed responsibility for a number of recent bombings and civilian deaths in Turkey. Commander Erdal, for instance, recently warned tourists to avoid Turkey: “Turkey is not safe for tourists, and we advise them to stay away from it. Extremist Kurdish organizations like the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) have targeted tourists in the past, and continue to threaten them in Turkey [today]. We cannot predict what will happen in the future…” (elaph.com, January 31). A very logical PKK strategy would include harming Turkey’s tourism industry and the income it generates. Other bombings such as the January 3 bomb blast in Diyarbakir—in which five people, including three children, were killed—lacked any claim of responsibility, but Ankara blamed the PKK. In any case, the PKK remains on not only Turkey’s list of terrorist organizations, but that of the United States and the European Union as well.

Officials in Ankara feel that Iraqi Kurds have not done nearly enough against the PKK and Barzani’s refusal to categorize the organization as “terrorist” only strengthens this view. His recent statements clearly do not endear Barzani to the Turkish establishment and public. At the same time, Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish relations have and will continue to weather such statements. Although Ankara tends to judge its friends and enemies according to their stance on issues like the PKK, Armenian genocide resolutions, and the Cyprus dispute, Turkey nonetheless maintains working relationships with many states in spite of disagreements over these questions. One exception to this tendency occurred in 1998, when Turkey moved thousands of troops to the Syrian border and threatened war if Syria continued to allow PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan sanctuary in Damascus and Lebanon. In this case, however, it was clear that Ocalan resided in Damascus with permission and assistance from Syria’s top leadership, which enjoys tight control of the entire country. Syria promptly expelled Ocalan, and Syrian-Turkish relations have steadily improved since then.

In the case of mountainous Iraqi Kurdistan, as long as Barzani’s KRG refrains from providing obvious assistance or sanctuary to the PKK, Iraqi Kurds and Ankara can continue to do business. While Iraqi Kurdish military action to expel the PKK from its mountain bases would do wonders for relations with Turkey, the hope of smoother ties with Ankara appears insufficient to convince KRG leaders to make such a risky and unpopular policy choice. Hence the current status quo of tense but otherwise profitable and acceptable relations between Ankara and the KRG seems likely to continue.<iframe src=’https://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>