What is the PKK and what's behind Turkey's war in Syria?

Kurdish men pose for a picture in front of the portrait of jailed Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan
Kurdish men pose for a picture in front of the portrait of jailed Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan Copyright REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo
By Euronews
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Turkey's invasion of Syria aims to crush the YPG, the Syrian ally of the PKK.


Turkey started a military operation to Syria on October 9 after U.S. President Donald Trump announced that American forces were pulling out of the country. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying he wants a 'safe zone' on Turkey's southern border.

Safety from who?

The operation is targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), who were backed by the U.S. in their fight against Islamic State. Turkey is concerned about the YPG, and the swathe of territory that the Syrian Kurds now control in north-eastern Syria.

The YPG has historic links with the PKK, who are listed as a 'terrorist organisation' by many including the UN and the EU. They have been fighting the Turkish state for some three decades.

The PKK was formed in the 1980s by Abdullah Öcalan, who has been in jail in Turkey since 1999. Although the government and the PKK negotiated a ceasefire in 2013, it broke down two years later..

There are around 15 million Kurds in Turkey, where they make up around 18% of the population. Many of Turkey's Kurds support the People's Democratic Party (HDP), which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of being linked to the PKK, something the party denies.

Why is there a Kurdish issue in Turkey?

All nations with imperial history have their baggage.

During the Ottoman Empire, Islam was the glue holding many different ethnicities together. But after its collapse, the name of the game became 'self-determination'.

Unlike many of the other groups that made up the Ottoman Empire but than gained independence, such as the Balkan states, the Kurds were subsumed into the state of Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the nation's founder, wanted 'Turkishness' to define his new state and not other notions.

Ever since, many Kurds have demanded their own independent state, while others simply want more recognition of their language and identity within the Turkish constitution - and some just don't care that much.

Similar demands are made by Kurds living in Iran, Iraq and Syria, making the Kurds the largest ethnic group in the world without a country.

How has Turkey dealt with this issue in the past?

Until the 1980s, the issue was largely ignored although several Kurdish uprisings were suppressed by the Turkish military. During the 1980s, Kurdish militants began to use guerilla tactics against the Turkish army, while terrorist attacks targetted the civilian population.

Based in Turkey and Iraq, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) was founded in 1984 - and is still in operation today. It is still headed by Abdullah Öcalan, who has been held in solitary confinement since 1999 in a maximum security facility on the small island of Imrali.

Who really represents the Kurds?

Politicians with Kurdish origins have always been actively involved in Turkish politics, but have often avoided speaking about Kurdish issues.

In 1990, the first legitimate pro-Kurdish political party, the HEP, was established. From the beginning, the HEP was believed to be linked to the PKK, particularly before Öcalan was arrested in 1999.

Three years later the HEP was banned, and replaced by various other Kurdish parties. The most recent is the HDP, led by Selahattin Demirtaş, who is currently serving two-and-a-half years on terrorism charges.

What next for the Kurds?

Mainstream Kurdish parties have gradually distanced themselves from the PKK and opted for a centre-left political stance during elections.

The Kurdish movement has become more inclusive in recent years, reaching out to new groups such as women, farmers, workers, students, LGBT and liberals.


The most recent pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, had broad support including among non-Kurdish liberals keen to stop the ruling conservative party, the AKP, from changing the constitution.

Since 2016, 55 out of 59 HDP representatives faced in total 510 investigation proceedings and nine representatives with more than 60 mayors are still in jail.

Is there a solution?

While there was optimism during the ceasefire in 2013, the involvement of Kurdish militias in the war in Syria - where they were, and are, backed by the United States - convinced Erdogan that the PKK were gaining military strength on Turkey's southern border.

And while there has been attempts by Erdogan to reach out to Kurds, anti-Kurdish rhetoric is very much part of his narrative now. In March, he said: “If you want to live in Kurdistan, there is a Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Take all the terror lovers with you, clear off and live there.”

Meanwhile, PKK hardliners reject talks with the Turkish state that would secure them anything less than an independent Kurdish state in southern Turkey.

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