Why America's Alliance With Syria's Kurds Has Many Worried

“The West often falls in love with freedom fighters, but those freedom fighters can turn out to be not-so-good guys later.”

ISTANBUL — It was a vicious double murder, even for a region growing ever more bloody.

Two Turkish police officers were found dead, shot execution-style, in an apartment near the Syrian border on July 22. Statements posted online by presumed Kurdish rebels said they’d been killed by a “team of assassins” in retaliation for what they described as the Turkish government’s complicity in a horrific attack on Kurdish activists likely carried out by ISIS. The double murder was claimed by the military wing of the outlawed, decades-old Kurdistan Workers Party, or the PKK, the parent and sister organization of the same Syrian Kurds helping the U.S. fight ISIS in Syria.

The killing of the police officers contributed to the start of a new and especially vicious round of the decades-long war between Ankara and Kurdish militants, sometimes hardcore Marxist-Leninists who have been fighting for cultural and political rights as well as a measure of autonomy for their water-rich region. It also occurred alongside the continued spillover of Syrian violence and troubles into Turkey that culminated in a vicious dual bomb blast last weekend that left up to 126 Kurdish and leftist activists dead in the worst terrorist attack in Turkey in recent history.

The new round of fighting will likely drain both Turkey's and the Kurds’ ability to fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It can also be seen as blowback from what analysts and at least one former U.S. official describe as a de facto U.S. partnership with the PKK, one that has prompted Turkish officials to warn Washington not to arm Syrian Kurds for fear the guns will spill back across the border.

“I think this is a case of the Americans bumbling into something they didn’t begin to understand,” said Robert S. Ford, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014 and is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “We’re setting up a long-term conflict.”

The U.S. has thrown its lot in with the Kurds as it tries to find partners who pose a credible threat to ISIS.

The dominant narrative of the Kurds in the U.S. shows its women fighters battling jihadis in cities like Kobane. The U.S.’s essential on-the-ground allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq are grouped into two main organizations: the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (or PYD), and its armed wing, called the People’s Protection Units (or YPG). Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Killea, chief of staff of the U.S.-led operation fighting against ISIS, described the YPG to reporters in Washington in September as “an incredible, reliable partner of ours on the ground in the fight against ISIL up in the northern part of Syria.”

But that partnership also underscores the perilous hornet’s nest the U.S. is jostling by empowering groups that share an interest in defeating ISIS but may oppose Washington’s other goals. Already the fault lines are beginning to show: Amnesty International on Tuesday issued a 38-page report using photographs, satellite imagery, and witness accounts to accuse America’s Kurdish allies in Syria of war crimes against Arabs, including demolition of civilian homes and in some cases the torching of entire villages “with no justifiable military grounds” in what may create even more potential recruits for ISIS.

Kurds are a stateless ethnic minority living among the region’s dominant Persians, Turks, and Arabs who have historically oppressed them. Founded 37 years ago, the outlawed PKK has various fronts and affiliates, including political parties in Turkey and Iraq, the PYD, and its YPG militia in Syria. All are part of the Group of Communities in Kurdistan, an umbrella organization created by the PKK’s jailed demigod-like leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

Until the war against ISIS started in June of last year and the U.S. partnership began, the PKK was an organization that had receded somewhat to the margins of Middle East politics in recent years. “The PKK has only recently renewed its role in transnational Kurdish politics,” said Cale Salih, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The one thing that has helped them regain their transnational popularity is their fight against ISIS.”

The U.S. partnership with the Syrian Kurds revitalized the fortunes of the PKK, which has been listed as a terror group by the State Department.

Experts and Turkish officials warn that U.S. support for the PKK’s Syria branch may undermine the fight against ISIS by alienating Syrian Arab opponents of the jihadi group. During a recent visit to rebel commanders in the southeast city of Gaziantep, Arab Syrian fighters vowed to fight Kurds to the death if they sought to establish their own state in the country’s north.

“They are fighting ISIS but only to promote their own goals,” said Izzedine Salem, a leader of an FSA unit near Homs. “Al-Qaeda is also fighting ISIS — but not to create a free Syria. They want to divide Syria.”

Critics say the conflict in Syria has also energized the PKK across the border and anti-Kurd hardliners in the Turkish government, motivating them to fight each other instead of jihadis. Just two months into the outbreak of hostilities, at least 150 Turkish security personnel have been killed along with scores of PKK fighters and at least 30 civilians. Nearly 900 people were killed during a previous two-year round of fighting that began 2011. In the three decades of war between Turkey and the PKK, about 40,000 people have lost their lives.

“The U.S. relationship with the PYD and its putting all the responsibility of fighting ISIS on the PYD has energized the PKK to become bolder,” said Cemal Hasimi, a senior adviser to the Turkish prime minister.

“The West often falls in love with freedom fighters, but those freedom fighters can turn out to be not-so-good guys later,” said Mustafa Akyol, an author of books about Turkey’s Kurdish dilemma and moderate Islam. “The PKK lately has gotten this romantic image because it’s fighting ISIS. But they should not be romanticized. The PKK is also a dangerous force.”

“I think this is a case of the Americans bumbling into something they didn’t begin to understand”

Sickles and hammers scrawled angrily on brick walls greet visitors to Istanbul’s Sultangazi neighborhood, a stronghold of the PKK on the outskirts of Turkey’s commercial capital. Residents here toss around phrases like “American imperialism” despite the budding de facto alliance with Washington south of the border. Unlike other districts outside the posh Europeanized enclaves of Istanbul, few women wear headscarves. The sole Islamic school, built two years ago by the Islamist-rooted government loyal to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, comes under repeated attacks by stone-wielding rioters during frequent, raucous protests that have erupted since the outbreak of war in July.

In the country’s southeast, PKK militants, some of them teens masked in balaclavas and holding assault rifles, have all but seized centers of several towns and cities, establishing checkpoints and clashing with Turkish security forces. In towns and villages, they have targeted security forces with roadside bombs, mines, and suicide attacks.

“With the developments in Syria, they began using similar tactics to [ISIS],” Hasimi told BuzzFeed News in an interview in the lobby of a hotel in central Istanbul. “They are using urban tactics that have been completely copied from Syria and transferred to Turkey.”

To the supporters of the PKK, the battle for Kurdish autonomy they are waging in Turkey is part of same one their brethren are fighting against ISIS in Syria. “The PKK, YPG, and other Kurdish groups in the Middle East are allies of the Western world, even if not officially so,” said Mevlut Ayloc, head of the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, office in Sultangazi. “If their struggles in Syria are legitimate, shouldn’t their struggles in Turkey also be legitimate?”

Turkey’s government has exacerbated tensions with the Kurds, and many insist it has done so for political ends ahead of snap elections called for Nov. 1. After declaring it would more actively join the U.S.-led war against ISIS, Turkey’s formidable air force launched a handful of airstrikes on the jihadi group while also hitting the PKK’s strongholds in Turkey and mountains of northern Iraq with hundreds of missiles.

But in the past, Erdogan has also sought to reach out to Kurds. In a famous 2005 speech, he apologized to Kurds for past atrocities committed against them by the Turkish state. Scholars say modern Turkey’s national identity is built on the repression of the country’s minorities, especially its large Kurdish minority. Under Erdogan’s governance, Turkey has permitted the teaching of Kurdish language at schools, allowed Kurdish television stations, and permitted parents to give their children Kurdish names, reversing 80 years of policies aimed at stamping out the identity of Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities.

As a result, many Kurds placed their faith in the political process to press their demands for change, giving rise to the popularity of the Democratic People’s Party, or HDP, sometimes described as the PKK’s political offshoot, and its charismatic co-chair Selahattin Demirtas. From the 1980s to 2013, the Kurdish political parties could only muster up about 6% of the vote. In the last 18 months, they have doubled their tally.

“This shows that Kurdish people are looking for a democratic solution for their struggle,” said Selcuk Sirin, a pollster and scholar who divides his time between New York and Istanbul. “They want to work through the parliament and the democratic process and they found their leader.”

Left-wing militants clash with riot police during protests in July.

Experts who have closely followed the PKK say it’s far from a democratic movement. The PKK’s vision for Kurds in Turkey as well as for those in the broader Middle East remains hard to pin down, partly because its founder, Ocalan, has been locked up on a Turkish island since 1998, serving a life sentence on terrorism charges. Its ideology has also evolved over time, from the 1970s Marxist-Leninism that inspired guerrilla movements like Peru’s Shining Path or Colombia’s FARC, to a version of feminism to something else altogether.

Today, the PKK promotes something called confederalism, which purports to transcend party politics by establishing networks of semi-autonomous local governments, sort of like the “mass republic” imposed on Libya by Muammar Gaddafi.

“PKK members believe that their Marxist-inspired ideology and system is the solution for any other community in the world, that everybody should embrace their system and ideology because this is the perfect way to administer lands and govern society,“ said Maria Fantappie, Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group. “But it’s a system that doesn’t allow other parties. It’s about applying certain rules, and those who do not comply with them should be corrected.”

Several scholars and analysts described cultlike, totalitarian tendencies within the PKK’s orbit, with founder Ocalan granted an almost deified role; his massive floor-to-ceiling portrait looms at the office of the HDP in Sultangazi. “Their reverence of Ocalan is similar to the way religions use God,” said Henri Barkey, Middle East program director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Throughout the decades, leaders of the group have sought to change its authoritarian ways. Many describe hardline and moderate factions within the group jostling for influence. But change has come slowly to the sprawling organization, which includes a vast network of Kurds and international sympathizers scattered in the Kurdish diaspora in Europe and North America, providing it with valuable cash donations.

“Many Kurdish people in the diaspora, especially those living in Scandinavia, perceive themselves to be victims of [Turkey’s] repressive state policy,” said Berivan Aslan, a Turkish Kurd who serves in the Austrian parliament as a member of the Green Party. “Thereby they feel the PKK understands them and promotes their cause.”

A version of their vision can be seen in northern Syria where the PYD controls three districts of Syria under a proto-state they call Rojava. In a widely overlooked 107-page report issued just days after ISIS’s takeover of the Iraqi city of Mosul, Human Rights Watch accused the PKK-affiliated Kurdish authorities of using child soldiers and making arbitrary arrests of political opponents. It also documented at least nine unsolved abductions or murders of political opponents of the PYD.

While diplomats and rights advocates may forgive the group’s transgressions amid the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the group has also been repeatedly accused of extorting “revolutionary taxes” among expatriate Kurdish communities in Europe. Others find its willingness to sacrifice loyal youths for its cause just as unseemly as those who dispatch suicide bombers in the name of jihad.

“They’re asking young kids in urban areas to take on the Turkish security forces,” said Gareth Jenkins, a Turkey analyst with the Silk Road Studies Joint Center. “When you call on people to rise up in residential areas, you’re plunging the country into chaos. There were some women killed in the crossfire in Cizre. It’s fantastic propaganda. But at what cost?”

The emergence of Rojava has also complicated U.S. strategic calculations, angering Turks worried that it will be used as a base for operations on its territory. “Projecting forward, this is a major political headache that won’t go away,” said Aaron Stein, a scholar at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East center. The Pentagon’s aim of elevating the YPG as a tool to defeat ISIS conflicts with U.S. needs to keep Turkey, a NATO ally and a launchpad for airstrikes against ISIS, content. “It’s a heavy lift, and a political problem that will not go away in the near term,” he said.

At the height of the Iraq War in 2004, with tensions between the U.S. and Iran peaking, U.S. officials began approaching PKK fighters in their stronghold up in Iraq’s Qandil mountains, seeking intelligence and assets to leverage against the Islamic Republic.

But the PKK, listed as a terror group by the U.S. and once sheltered by Tehran, was off-limits to American officials seeking to pressure Iran. Then a solution was found. According to former leaders and fighters of the group, the PKK launched the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, known by the acronym PEJAK, as a front to speak with Iraq’s new U.S. overseers.

“PEJAK was able to work with the U.S. because it was technically not the PKK,” said Wladimir van Wilgenberg, a Dutch researcher and journalist specializing in Kurdish affairs based in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Similarly, when the U.S. needed an effective on-the-ground partner to fight against ISIS in Syria, it allied with the PYD and YPG, founded by PKK members in 2003.

“The U.S. is working with the YPG, but everyone knows that the YPG is nothing more than the Syria branch of the PKK,” said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group.

Formally, U.S. officials insist they are not partnering with the PKK in the war against ISIS, also called ISIL. “Our fight against ISIL is not in cooperation with, coordination with, or communication with the PKK,” State Department spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in July.

But few believe the U.S. actually believes that. “There’s not a huge difference between the PKK and its offshoots,” said van Wilgenberg. “For every country, the PKK has a different name. And if there was no war in Syria, they would be fighting in Turkey.”

Ford, who also served stints in Iraq as a political counselor and deputy ambassador to the U.S. embassy, described strong historical, ideological, and organizational links between the Syrian Kurds’ PYD and the PKK. “Just because they are not on the terror list doesn’t mean they’re not PKK. I find the argument that the Americans make is sophistry.”

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