The PKK's cross-relations

Published 27.08.2015 00:00
Updated 28.08.2015 02:01
Illustration by Necmettin Asma
Illustration by Necmettin Asma

The PKK has created a hierarchical pyramid of which it sits atop under the umbrella of the KCK uniting the so-called defenders of Kurds, who in reality are the terrorist organizations in the region

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) has come to the forefront with the civil war in Syria and struggles for dominance in Kurdish regions of northern Syria with its armed People's Protection Units (YPG). As the civil war in Syria intensified and the influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in this region grew, the PYD came to be seen as a local ally by the U.S. and Western countries. Of course, the PYD being associated with the PKK, which carries on an armed struggle on behalf of Kurds in Turkey, is not a mere coincidence because the PYD was founded by the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S., EU, and the U.N. This is not well known in the West. Or, if it is known, it is not seen as a contradiction or problem. Perhaps it is not too important for the West, which terrorist organization the PYD has ties too, so long as there is enormous chaos and disorder in Syria.

However, where, when and how the West's local ally PYD was founded, together with its main features, still matters to Ankara. The fact that the PYD was founded by the PKK may just be a detail for the West, but facing problems stemming from PKK terror, Ankara inevitably pays attention to its Syrian offshoot, PYD.


The most tangible information about the relationship between the PYD and PKK comes from Osman Öcalan, brother of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Osman Öcalan was among the founders of the PYD. He has carried out various activities with the PKK for 26 years and has served as a top leader for 18 years. He left the PKK in 2005. In a recent interview, Osman Öcalan sheds light on the creation of the PYD:

"We founded the PYD in the Qandil Mountains. Taking account of a possible U.S. intervention in the region, we founded the PYD for the Kurds in Syria and the PJAK [Free Life Party of Kurdistan] for the Kurds in Iran. We held the PYD's first congress in October 2003 and the PJAK's first congress in September 2003 in Qandil. We also trained the leaders of both organizations."

Actually, what Osman Öcalan revealed is no secret. Those familiar with the PKK know that the PYD was founded in 2003 in the PKK's headquarters in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq. The PYD was established upon the order of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 2003, who was captured in Kenya in 1999 and brought to Turkey. 2003 was a critical year with significant developments taking place in the Middle East. The U.S. invasion of Iraq presented new opportunities for Kurds in the region. Iraqi Kurds have managed to establish the semi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) under the leadership of President Masoud Barzani and former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Meanwhile, the PKK reorganized itself the same year. At a PKK congress in the Qandil Mountains, a new umbrella organization, the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), was founded. The new organization was planned to carry out activities on behalf of Kurds living in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Separate parties were established for the four countries - the PYD in Syria, PJAK in Iran and the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PÇDK) in Iraq. In Turkey, however, the PKK, which changed its name to the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK) in 2002, reverted to its old name and continued its activities.


These four parties operate under the umbrella of the KCK. They use the Qandil Mountains as a joint headquarters. The KCK structure is a direct offshoot of the PKK, founded and still led by Abdullah Öcalan. The PKK's leadership trained, organized and armed the PYD, PJAK and PÇDK; appointed the leadership cadres; delegated duties and authorities and determined their tactical and strategic direction. In other words, PKK cadres sit atop the hierarchical pyramid. The PKK founded these sister parties in 2003 as part of its strategy to unify the four parts of Kurdistan. Members of these parties come from four separate countries. Dispersed into these sister parties, Kurds from Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq carry on activities. But leadership cadres are composed mainly of militants from Turkey who were trained in PKK camps, sharing a common leader in Abdullah Öcalan. They see Öcalan as a national leader whose books are used as textbooks.


Among the important details about the PYD are PKK-Syrian relations. Although the PKK's headquarters are located today in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, it had long been based in Syria. Öcalan had been based in Damascus during the rule of President Hafez Assad from 1979 until he was captured and brought to Turkey in 1999. Öcalan had run the PKK for 20 years from a base in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. All armed and political activities of the PKK had been shaped in Syria. Thus relations between the Syrian administration and the PKK go a long way back. Benefiting from the opportunity of having been based in Syria between 1979 and 1999, the PKK enjoyed significant support among Syrian Kurds. Hence, when the civil war broke out in Syria, the PKK already had popular support. President Bashar Assad's administration has easily handed over Kurdish areas along the Turkish border to the PKK-controlled PYD from the beginning of the revolt. The PYD, which has created cantons in the areas left by the regime without firing a single shot, still receives financing from Damascus. The Assad regime prefers to establish relations with Syrian Kurds today through the Öcalan-led PKK, which it had hosted in Damascus and the Bekaa Valley.


That Ankara has shown the strongest reaction to the portrayal of the PYD by the U.S. and Western members of the anti-ISIS coalition as local ally is related to this symbiotic relationship. Ankara can be at odds with the U.S. and the West over the issue, as it does not regard the PYD as a separate organization from the PKK. It is not without reason that Ankara is disturbed by the West establishing contact with the PKK and its Syrian offshoot PYD through an alliance relationship. This is because the PKK is an organization carrying out an armed struggle against Turkey that has left more than 40,000 soldiers, police officers and civilians dead over the last 30 years. Ankara believes that the PYD is a direct offshoot of the PKK, an instrument that can be used against Turkey. Decisions about attacks on Turkey are made at these parties' joint headquarters. I think that the reason why the West cannot understand this stems from its failure to grasp the structure of the PKK's KCK organization. The KCK is an umbrella organization that includes the PYD, too. It conducts activities in four separate countries with Kurdish populations. The most important detail here is that the KCK was founded and is still run directly by the PKK.


There is an interesting example regarding this issue. Cemil Bayık, one of the PKK's founders and a top KCK figure, gave a remarkable interview to Britain's Daily Telegraph recently. Bayık told the newspaper that they have been in indirect talks with the U.S. However, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby denied this claim saying: "There are no talks with the PKK. No direct, no indirect." It can be commented here that while one side exposes secret talks, the other side, i.e., the U.S., denies this exposure. But there is a more important detail here that is overlooked: Making official contact with the KCK affiliated PYD, amounts to contacting the KCK itself, and U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that the PYD was contacted. Bayık's claim is thus confirmed. In his capacity as KCK leader, with which the PYD has organic ties, Bayık interprets U.S contact with the PYD as contact with the KCK and PKK. At this point it can naturally be said that the KCK leader's claim is closer to the truth.


The features of the PKK and PYD relationship can be observed in the PKK relationship with the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) as well. As is known to all, the HDP is a legal party in Turkey. It elects its own executives and participates in elections. But the HDP is also actually a component of the KCK, one that operates in the legal arena. In addition to illegal components, the KCK structure also has legal components. The HDP's organization, strategies and election alliance are actually determined by KCK leaders in the Qandil More. What is more, the HDP itself was founded upon Öcalan's order. The HDP, which scored an electoral success in the June 7 elections and emerged as a new actor in Turkish politics, decides its moves after the elections in line with instructions from these leaders. For instance, during coalition negotiations the view from the Qandil Mountains rather than HDP executives' position was sought. Also, those in the Qandil Mountains did not want a coalition with the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Important statements on behalf of the HDP are usually made from the Qandil Mountains instead of Diyarbakır. It is unlikely for HDP executives to get rid of this dependency in the near future because the dependency relationship between the two structures is very strong. The HDP is another structure established, dominated and managed by the KCK. HDP management is shaped by the KCK's Turkey Coordination in the Qandil Mountains. This unit is run by experienced PKK founders, who have exclusive powers. These leaders decide who will run for Parliament and choose executives. All members taking part in the party's activities are determined by the leaders running the Turkey Coordination unit in the Qandil Mountains. This complicated relationship makes the HDP unable to operate independently of PKK leaders. The polemics between HDP executives and Qandil Mountains-based PKK leaders following the June 7 elections can be given as proof. Here are some examples: HDP executive Sırrı Süreyya Önder said on June 7: "We are definitely aware that we received borrowed votes from supporters of other parties and we will always keep this in mind." Finding Önder's statement politically problematic, Mustafa Karasu, a top PKK commander in the Qandil Mountains, reacted to it on June 8: "There is no such thing as borrowed votes." HDP Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş corrected Önder's statement on June 9 saying: "We have not passed the threshold with borrowed votes. The HDP managed to receive votes with its principles." It is possible to give further examples, but even this single anecdote indicates the balance of power between the HDP and the Qandil Mountains, clearly showing that the real power rests in the Qandil Mountains.


The biggest problem for Ankara, however, is the HDP's inability to stand on its own feet and continuing to be an extension of the terrorist organization. Although it enjoys complete political freedom, the HDP stands behind the KCK and backs it on every occasion. This in turn creates serious problems in Turkish-Kurdish relations.

Ankara chose to talk directly with the PKK and its leader instead of the HDP, since it knew the nature of the relationship between the PKK and HDP. Thus, having gotten a chance to influence the HDP, Ankara began to face problems after these talks stalled. As the KCK's expectations from Ankara increased and as it resorted to violence again after these expectations had not been met, Ankara's relations with the HDP became strained. Engaged in a fight against terrorism, Ankara does not know how to approach the HDP, so to speak. Ankara feels helpless against the HDP, which backs and aids terrorism and enables terrorist attacks in cities. Despite harsh reactions to the HDP, no strong measure has been taken against it. Possible reactions from the West and the public are shunned.

There is an organic relation and hierarchy in the case of the PKK and HDP relationship, as it is in the PKK and PYD relationship. When launching peace talks with the PKK, Ankara expected the commitment in civilian politics to strengthen. Armed politics would lose ground, become meaningless and eventually come to an end as civilian politics gained strength. Unfortunately, it did not turn out as expected since the PKK used the reconciliation process as an opportunity to stockpile weapons and bombs in cities. Meanwhile, with the advantage of taking part in peace talks as a political party, the HDP chose to intimidate through street violence those Kurds who think differently. And it did not stop there. Municipalities run by the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), the regional affiliate of the HDP, have gone so far as to let PKK militants use their construction vehicles to plant explosive traps. The complicity between the PKK and DBP-run municipalities was revealed to be behind the land mine explosion in Siirt that killed eight soldiers last week. Such incidents, which draw enormous reaction from the public, have brought the tolerance for the PKK and HDP by society to an all-time low. When you add the coffins of killed soldiers coming from the southeast into this picture, it becomes easier to understand why Ankara is suspicious of parties, organizations and groups related with PKK terrorism and why it reacts to the West's considering the PYD an ally.

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