28 April 2013

The PKK Strategy Involving Turkey, Iran and Syria

If you have been reading this humble blog since its inception you might know that my starting hypothesis was the inevitability of a larger peace process in the Middle East that would solve the Kurdish and Palestinian issues.

Recently, a good friend of mine told me that, until a couple of days ago, she thought that my working hypothesis was, well, let's use the term loopy to be charitable to the resident contrarian. She did not think that peace between Kurds and Turkey would happen in my life time. And don't let me get started about Israel and Palestinians.

I understand her reaction perfectly. It is shared by almost everyone I know. The daily stuff coming out of Middle East is mostly sound and fury. If you try to absorb it all you'll end up with the impression that these tales are told by Shakespearean idiots. While that might fit the bard's metaphor, these regional actors are far from being stupid. They might appear crazy but they are actually crazy like a fox.

Of all the actors in the region, I find the PKK the most fascinating. They managed to pursue (rather successfully) an armed struggle against the mighty Turkish army for three decades. They remained a thorn on Turkey's side and on the side of most of its neighbors. They formed ever changing alliances to play one country against another only to change sides rapidly when the winds shifted direction.

In short, they are as astute a player as anyone has seen in that region.

As you might know, a comprehensive peace plan is being negotiated by Turkey and the PKK (hence my friend's change of heart about my hypothesis). After three decades of mutual animosity the two sides are joined as partners in a historic process.

Mural Karayilan
A couple of days ago, Murat Karayilan, the acting leader of the PKK, announced that his organization is withdrawing from Turkey. This was something most people doubted even a few days earlier. The PKK would never acquiesce to such demands, they claimed.

Well, they did. And there is a reason for this as I will explain in a minute.

The peace plan itself is fairly simple:
  • Gradual withdrawal of PKK forces from Turkish soil
  • Constitutional amendments made by Turkish government
  • PKK completely lays down arms once Ocalan and other Kurdish militants released from prison
The timing is very good since currently the Turkish government is drafting a new constitution and if the peace process is not disrupted prematurely, one or more of the civilian offshoots of the PKK are likely to be integrated into the process.

I concur that normally, the PKK would not have withdrawn from Turkey and easily given up its most potent trump card in these negotiations. My thinking is that, they did so because they have better and bigger trump cards up their sleeves.

As I wrote before, the PKK has two satellite organizations in Iran and Syria, the PJAK and PYD respectively. The PKK created them in 2003 and have been using them to form temporary alliances with different players at critical junctures.

For instance, in 2011, Murat Karayilan announced that the PJAK was going to stop fighting against the Islamic Republic of Iran. His rationale:
"We don’t want to fight against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Why? Because the goal of the international powers that want to redesign the region is to encircle Iran. Nowadays, they are more preoccupied with Syria. When they are done with that, it will be Iran’s turn. At such a phase, as Kurds, we don’t think being at war with Iran is appropriate." 
And just like that, they abandoned their Iranian Kurdish brothers and sisters and sided with Tehran. Ostensibly, this enabled them to shift their resources to Turkey and to escalate their armed struggle there. But actually, the move was sponsored by Iran to make life difficult for Turkey and to curb this latter's aspirations to become a regional super power. And the PKK played along happily.

Now that the PKK is negotiating with the Turkish government for a permanent solution, there are signs that the PJAK is reacquiring arms in Iran and getting ready to fight against the Islamic Republic.

Two op ed pieces appeared on 10 and 11 April in a Turkish daily (Radikal) penned by Aysel Tugluk, a veteran Kurdish activist and an independent member of parliament from the eastern city of Van. In the first one she hailed the peace process as "a road of no return" and a historic opportunity. A once in a century opening, she said.

In the second piece she contemplated the future implications of the peace process:
Aysel Tugluk
"At this point, we are faced with the vital question: All is fine, but what will happen to the PKK? At least in the next quarter century, the PKK will be around one way or the other, wherever there are Kurds. This could be armed for a while in Syria, re-armed again in Iran in the near future and institutional in Europe. The PKK will be in Turkey in various shapes with its programs, ideas and political and social institutions in its areas of influence and democratic activities. But in [Abdullah] Ocalan’s vision of the near future, there is an irreversibly movement of the PKK’s armed forces out of Turkey’s political areas.” [emphasis mine]
Tugluk is an important figure within the Kurdish movement and her public ruminations carry a lot of weight. It is also rather telling that the suggestion was made not by the military wing of the PKK (i.e. Karayilan) but by a human rights activist.

Right after this op ed, PJAK called upon Iranian Kurdish groups to form a unified plan of action against Iran. Not surprisingly, the PJAK's call got a frosty receptions from the other Iranian Kurdish organizations largely because of their previous move to ally themselves with Tehran against Turkey. But I am confident that eventually the PKK's formidable resources and fighting apparatus will convince the other Kurdish groups to form an alliance with them. And if the PJAK became once again a major headache for Tehran, this would make the PKK a very important actor for Washington and Ankara.

There is also the Syrian situation mentioned by Tugluk.

As I suggested many times, Kurds hold the key to the Syrian conflict.

The PYD resisted until recently to fight against Damascus, claiming that this served Kurdish purposes better. But now that they signed up with other Kurdish groups and with the peace process in Turkey rapidly evolving, they are likely to get the signal to join the effort to topple Bashar and Co.

If that happens, their presence would change the current military equation. Right now there is a war of attrition with two exhausted armies in a situation of stalemate. The entry of a reasonably well equipped and well trained fighting force is likely to disrupt the current balance of power.

Secondly, their involvement would also signal a different balance of power within the Free Syrian Army.  Right now, Turkey, Israel and the US are worried that all the major fighting batallions consist of Salafist or Jihadi groups.
 Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.
Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.
This is why even reports of possible chemical weapon use by the Syrian army were not enough to encourage the US or Turkey to supply the rebels with better arms.

Unlike the Jihadis that make up the bulk of the FSA, Kurds are staunchly secular. If they join the fight, they will provide a much needed counterweight against entities like the Al Nusra Front whose leaders recently swore allegiance to Al Qaeda. In fact, these guys went so far that even Syrian Islamists denounced the Al Nusra Front and its foreign fighters.

But currently no one can contain them and these Jihadis are moving to control critical assets and strategic areas. They plan to become the dominant group in post-Assad Syria. A Kurdish entry might disrupt these plans and change the make-up of the post-Assad system. Their presence would also reassure Alewites, Christians and other non-Sunni minorities who view (rightly) these Jihadis with deep suspicion.

In short, through its satellite organizations and its formidable military apparatus, the PKK is about to transform itself into a kingmaker in the region. Essentially, its actions could make or break the US (and by extension Turkish) plans.

And that gives them all the bargaining power they need.

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