Kurdish liberation forces have come to global attention as the front-line defenders in the heroic battle against the marauding Islamic State group threat on the ground in northern Syria.
Hand in hand with beating back the advance of the Islamic State group, the Syrian Kurds – organized in People’s Protection Units (YPG) – are also implementing a democratic revolution within the liberated territory of Rojava, part of the historic homeland of the Kurdish people.
To better contextualize these rebels–currently supported by US-led coalition air strikes, and also a source of inspiration for leftists the world over – one must look beyond Syria into the greater Kurdish region, and at the YPG’s much-larger affiliate, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The female fighters taking on the Islamic State group in Rojava have received much media attention, but women have long being central to the Kurdish struggle.
For almost four decades, the PKK have been at the forefront of a national liberation struggle for an independent Kurdistan spanning the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Denied statehood in the wake of WWI by colonial powers carving up the regional borders set by the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Kurds have been struggling for independence ever since. The current reinvigoration of the Kurdish issue can be attributed to the resurgent PKK, with a support base numbering millions primarily among Turkish Kurds and a formidable guerrilla wing based in the Qandil mountains, northern Iraq, (or in Kurdish eyes, southern Kurdistan).
In a geographical area convulsed by war, upheaval, and competing local and global powers, the PKK and its affiliates have emerged as a uniquely progressive movement: secular, left-wing and actively promoting grassroots participatory democracy in its extensive zone of influence.
However, they haven’t always been so. Paul White’s new book, “The PKK – Coming Down from the Mountains,” is a timely and useful critical analysis, exploring the complicated, messy and bloody development of the organization, as well as charting its remarkable ideological evolution. In an “astonishing transformation” writes White, the PKK moved in two decades “from striving for an independent Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan to the current position of advocating ‘democratic confederalism’ by peaceful means.”
A History of Endurance
White offers an insightful history of the PKK organization from its founding in Turkey in 1978 by a small group of post-68 Marxist students and Kurdish nationalists, emerging out of “racist provocation, and Kurdish economic under-underdevelopment.” Like the history of the Kurds, the story of the PKK organization is one of endurance, existing under the constant threat of annihilation. Armed struggle was the tactic chosen by the rebels in the wake of the 1980 military coup in Turkey, launching their campaign in 1984 with guerrilla attacks on military targets.
As the conflict escalated, the Turkish military employed overwhelming force to crush the rebels, and “a total of 32,000 PKK militants were killed and 14,000 captured between 1984 and 2008,” writes White. “Some 5,560 civilians died and 6,482 Turkish soldiers were killed during the same phase.” Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were displaced by the military in scorched earth policies, driving many into the arms of the PKK. The Turkish military’s brutal counterinsurgency policies seemed to only fuel the insurgency, and by March 2013, 1 million Kurds were gathering in Diyarbakir, the de-facto Kurdish capital in the southeast, in support of the PKK.
By this stage, the PKK had changed its strategy, and sought a negotiated solution for the conflict. The group’s leader, the charismatic and somewhat messianic Abdullah Öcalan who has been imprisoned by the Turkish state since 1999, declared that “a new era is beginning and arms are silencing, politics are gaining momentum.”
White, an academic, although sympathetic to the cause, has little sympathy for the PKK. His previous work “Primitive Rebels or Revolutionary Modernizers? The Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Turkey” (Zed Books, 2000) provided a stinging critique of the PKK, particularly what the author saw as counterproductive Marxist-Leninist inspired armed struggle. White, however, is enthused by the PKKs turnabout and sees it as a breakthrough toward real conflict resolution. Although the nascent peace process is “contradictory and perilous,” White believes that Turkish President Erdoğan has the will to back it, and "appears to sincerely desire peace," although such a claim is severely undermined by Turkey's recent offensive against Kurdish targets, with air attacks against PKK bases in northern Iraq and 1,200 arrests within Turkey.
one goal: autonomy for all Kurds. https://t.co/VBJFYYoeE5— Juan Omar (@Juankirkuki) noviembre 17, 2015
Alongside striving for a peaceful solution, the PKK have initiated a revolutionary process of participatory democracy on the ground in their zones of influence.
White identifies the beginning of the transformation from “an orthodox guerrilla Marxist-Leninist group into an autonomist movement seeking democratic confederalism” with the first PKK unilateral cease-fire in 1993. Recognizing that the armed struggle would not achieve the aim of an independent Kurdistan, the insurgent movement began to explore alternative ways of achieving Kurdish self-determination. After his imprisonment, Öcalan developed a non-statist ideology influenced by his reading of US social ecologist Murray Bookchin (among others), advocating a self-managed autonomy with power based at community level.
Putting theory into practice, the PKK set up an umbrella network in 2006 called the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) to implement a network of autonomous local councils and assemblies across Kurdish zones in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, as well as among the sizeable Kurdish diaspora in Europe. White describes how the KCK has “spread out to cities, towns, neighborhoods, streets, village organizations, communes and homes” as a movement organizing “to establish its own democracy, neither grounded on the existing nation-states nor seeing them as the obstacle.” Thus autonomy has taken hold to such an extent that in major Kurdish provinces such as Hakkâri and Şırnak “the people don’t accept the state authorities and two parallel authorities exist.” The Turkish state has responded by imprisoning some 8,000 KCK activists, an indication of how seriously it views the threat of autonomy.
Intrinsic to the radical democracy of the autonomous model is equality for women, and Kurdish women have organized in the Free Women Unions (YJA) ensuring equal participation and representation within the assemblies of the KCKs. The female fighters taking on the Islamic State group in Rojava have received much media attention, but women have long being central to the Kurdish struggle. White quotes independent reports stating that women constitute between one-third and one-half of PKK fighters. Rapperin Afrin, a commander of the PKKs Women’s Army, explains how “the women’s movement is the most dynamic part of the PKK. We are aware that without the liberation of women, a liberated society cannot be developed.”
White also addresses the question of the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan. As the PKK transforms from an authoritarian and hierarchical structure to an autonomous, democratic movement. White outlines how Apo (Uncle, as he is known) has de-centralized the power structures of the movement, changing his role from absolute ruler to symbolic figurehead. Of course, being locked up in prison with his communication to the outside world mediated by his captors, realistically what other role can he play? Nevertheless, he remains revered and, as White explains, assumes a more transcendental place in the struggle as a symbolic embodiment of Kurdish aspirations. “Through their warm personal relationship with their serok (leader), his members and supporters have come to believe that they were already, in a sense, ‘liberated’ or at least ‘experiencing’ Kurdistan.”
Coming Down from the Mountains
It is often repeated that the Kurds have no friends but the mountains, and in this work, White postulates that the PKKs’ current political initiative offers a real possibility of breaking that isolation. However, he recognizes that the recent rise of the Islamic State group in the region destabilizes the peace process in Turkey. The Turkish government is seen as covertly supporting the Islamic State group while the PKK has urged all Kurds to take up the fight against the Islamist terrorists.
In August 2014, the PKK was hailed for rescuing 20,000 Yazidis surrounded by the Islamic State group in northern Iraq, and in the battle of Kobane, northern Syria, the PKK-affiliate YPG emerged as the most effective force fighting them. The anomaly of the PKK’s listing as a designated terrorist group is becoming increasingly absurd as the U.S.-led coalition openly supports them militarily on the ground. Such actions add to what White describes as the groups “long transition from ‘terrorists’ to legitimate rebels.”
As they continue to accrue political capital and expand their popular base among the Kurds, it would seem that, against all odds, the PKK’s time has finally come.
Ramor Ryan is author of Zapatista Spring (AK Press 2011) and Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press 2006).