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On October 23, three off-duty Turkish soldiers were gunned down on a busy street in Yuksekova, a small, rugged town in the southeastern province of Hakkari. The following day, also in the southeast, a member of a Turkish paramilitary squad was found tied to a pole in an empty field, his body riddled with bullet holes. Turkish authorities immediately blamed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant group whose enemies include the Turkish army and, as of late, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The killings were believed to be revenge for the deaths of three PKK militants who were involved in an attack on a hydroelectric power station the day before. The PKK quickly denied any involvement. But it wasn’t long before another off-duty soldier, out shopping for food with his wife, was shot by masked assailants in Diyarbakir, the Kurdish political movement’s key stronghold. He died on October 30.
In Western capitals, the PKK’s stock has been rising. The group has emerged as one of the few forces willing and able to take on ISIS. This summer, hundreds of its fighters streamed down from their mountain strongholds in northern Iraq to stop the jihadists from reaching Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government. In neighboring Syria, the PKK’s offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has squared off against ISIS for more than a year. In the town of Kobani, in full view of TV cameras and Turkish tanks standing idly on the other side of the border, PYD militants, assisted by U.S. air strikes, have resisted an ISIS siege now in its seventh week.
Even Washington, which continues to label the PKK a terrorist group, has begun to embrace the group as a major asset in the war against ISIS. On October 19, the United States airdropped light weapons to the outgunned Kurdish units defending Kobani. Secretary of State John Kerry defended the move, noting that to do otherwise would have been “irresponsible” and “morally very difficult.” U.S. officials, meanwhile, confirmed that they had launched talks with the PYD, arguing that despite its evident links to the PKK the Syrian group remained a separate (read: non-terrorist) franchise. And among Beltway pundits, calls for the PKK to be removed from the U.S. terrorist list are becoming routine.
None of this has gone down particularly well in Ankara. Even though Turkey has held peace talks with the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, for two years, the country continues to view the group as its number one security threat. It has opened its doors to roughly 200,000 villagers fleeing the fighting around Kobani, but it has refused calls from Turkish Kurds and Western governments to help arm the men and women defending the city. Last week, Ankara appeared to change course, allowing 150 Kurdish fighters from northern Iraq, known as the peshmerga, to deploy to Kobani through Turkey. When the United States ordered the munitions airdrop to Kobani, however, the government cried foul. “The U.S. did this in spite of us,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week. “I told them the aid you’re sending is going to a terror group.”
Erdogan has gone so far as to equate Kobani’s defenders with its attackers. “To us, ISIS is the same as PKK,” he said during a trip to Latvia at the start of October. Western capitals were indignant, of course, but failed to notice that the Turkish leader had voiced a sentiment shared widely at home. For sympathizers of the ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the secular opposition alike, the PKK’s partial rehabilitation in the United States, Europe, and in the international press has been hard to stomach. Even if Turks readily condemn ISIS, they are far less eager than the West to embrace the PKK as the “good guy,” or even as the lesser of two evils. In a poll published in early November, 43.7 percent of Turks saw the PKK as a greater threat to their country than ISIS, compared to 41.6 percent who believed the contrary.
Much as Turks and Kurds like to dispute it, the war between the PKK and the Turkish state, like most conflicts, has produced many more victims than it has heroes. At the height of the fighting, Turkish security forces troops burned down hundreds of Kurdish villages, tortured thousands of activists and PKK sympathizers, and “disappeared” countless more through extrajudicial killings. Until the late 1990s, Turkey’s government denied Kurds the most basic cultural rights, including the right to speak their own language in public.
The PKK, for its part, killed and kidnapped Turkish civilians, including ethnic Kurds who chose to side with the state. The group also recruited child soldiers and ruthlessly put down rival factions. Ocalan himself was known to punish anyone who challenged his authority over the group, often with death.
Thirty years since the start of the conflict, both sides have partially disavowed past abuses. Through a raft of unprecedented reforms, the government has offered the Kurds new cultural rights. The PKK has largely ceased to target civilians, embraced the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Turkish government, and moderated its aims—from independence to cultural and political autonomy for the Kurdish southeast. Peace talks between Turkish officials and Ocalan, known as the “solution process,” are sputtering, but have remained on track.
Yet the list of the war’s victims, already more than 30,000 names long, continues to grow. In early October, as frustration with Ankara’s refusal to assist Kobani came to a boil, violent protests swept through the southeast, leaving about 40 dead in their wake. In Diyarbakir, a mob of PKK supporters brutally lynched Yasin Boru, a 16-year-old boy performing charity work for an Islamist group, along with two friends, after accusing the young men of being ISIS supporters. A week later in Adana, Kadri Bagdu, a 46-year-old distributor for a pair of pro-PKK dailies, was shot dead by masked assailants while riding his bicycle to work.
Kurds have a right to take Turkey to task for its inaction in Kobani. Turks have a right to insist that Kurdish suffering in Syria does not give the PKK license to kill civilians or off-duty soldiers in Turkey.
Erdogan, of course, was just as callous as he was wrong when he placed the PKK in the same box as ISIS. Leaving aside the more obvious differences—in a few days in August, ISIS killed more civilians than the PKK has in a decade—what sets the two groups apart is their attitude toward compromise. As Erdogan’s own “solution process” bears out, the PKK can be a partner for peace. The same cannot be said of ISIS. Much as some officials in Ankara might think otherwise, the extremists laying siege to Kobani are not likely to be appeased or placated. Given Turkey’s porous 780-mile border with Iraq and Syria, they are just as unlikely, if left unchecked, to be contained.
But the spotlight today shines not only on Turkey but also on the PKK and the Kurds. With a wave of news stories about the PKK’s female fighters and the desperate defense of Kobani, the outside world has already started to warm to the group. So have at least a few Turks. The PKK should not mistake a new surge of sympathy for a blank check, however. If it wants to become a bona fide ally in the war against ISIS and a reliable interlocutor in the peace process with Turkey, the group needs to disavow gratuitous violence. Attacks like the ones in Hakkari and Diyarbakir are not helping its cause—or Kobani’s.