Kurdish fighters gesture while carrying their parties' flags in Tel Abyad of Raqqa governorate after they said they took control of the area June 15, 2015.
Rodi Said / Reuters

Recently, Kurds on each side of the Turkey-Syria border have made significant advances in their quest for autonomy. In Turkey, those gains were won at the ballot box, while in Syria they were won on the battlefield. After garnering global sympathy and the support of U.S. airpower with their defense of Kobani against a formidable siege by the Islamic State (also called ISIS), Syria’s Kurds went on to capture the strategic town of Tel Abyad from ISIS on June 15. And as a result of Turkey’s elections a week earlier, the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has entered parliament, irrevocably altering Turkey’s political landscape. Indeed, seating the first Kurdish-oriented party in parliament constitutes a milestone for civil rights in Turkey. But in the context of events on both sides of the border, the true winner is Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a party and militant group that initiated the HDP’s creation and whose Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD),is responsiblefor the recent victories against ISIS.

The HDP’s entrance into Turkey’s parliament and the PYD’s control of Syrian territory mark a new chapter in the PKK’s decadelong attempt to create a pan-Kurdish confederation that would bring together the Middle East’s 30 million Kurds.

The PKK leadership has already outlined a path for Kurdish autonomy that obviates the need for independence. The HDP, with whom the PKK shares its grassroots support, has made sufficient gains in Ankara to begin making the PKK’s vision for a pan-Kurdish confederation a reality. In March 2005, PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan issued the Declaration of a Democratic Confederalism, which created a road map for establishing a confederation out of four autonomous Kurdish regions, each tied to its country of origin—Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Turkey—through federal relationships. Political advances like the HDP’s victory and military victories like the PYD’s advances in Syria are helping Ocalan’s plan become a reality. In other words, the PKK’s future has never looked brighter.


In 2012, the PKK-affiliated PYD established three autonomous cantons in Syrian Kurdistan, a major breakthrough for Ocalan, whose plan began with the establishment of affiliated political parties within the Kurdish-populated territories of Iran, Iraq, and Syria that would later pave the way for a cross-border confederation with Turkish Kurdistan. The PYD’s cantons became known as Rojavaye Kurdistane (Western Kurdistan), or more commonly as Rojava (the West), implying that the KRG’s Iraqi Kurdistan was merely its southern counterpart. Ultimately, Ocalan seeks to subsume Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), led by the rival Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), into a PKK-dominated confederation.

The KRG, however, was not content to let this happen without a response. The group subsequently dug a 10.5-mile trench between Rojava and Iraq’s Kurdish areas in April 2014 ostensibly to protect against Syrian ISIS fighters. The trench established a flimsy land boundary between the PKK’s growing sphere and the KRG’s territories. Months later, the KRG’s peshmerga abandoned the region in the face of ISIS’ advance into northern Iraq.

People march in solidarity with people of Kobani in Diyarbakir, Turkey, June 26, 2015.
Sertac Kayar / Reuters
When ISIS militants laid siege to Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq, fighters from the PYD-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) created a corridor from Rojava to rescue 10,000 besieged Kurdish Yezidis. Media images of PKK and YPG fighters rescuing Yezidis from ISIS militants earned the PKK widespread appreciation and enhanced its pan-Kurdistan mission.

Similarly, the ISIS attack on the Syrian town of Kobani may have cemented a partnership between the West and the PKK-aligned Kurdish forces, seeing an alliance as a way forward against the advances of ISIS within Syria. The Western-led anti-ISIS coalition adopted a policy of supporting Rojava through air strikes. This was a marked shift in the West’s approach to PKK-affiliated organizations, which had previously been adversarial. The United States relied on Kurdish troops to fight ISIS on the ground, providing air strikes during the Sinjar offensive and airdropping weapons and munitions to PYD forces during the siege of Kobani.

The West may have warmed up to the PYD’s fighting groups, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan maintained a cool distance from Rojava. Eight months after the PYD established autonomous Kurdish cantons in Syria, Ocalan declared a historic unilateral cease-fire with the Turkish state, halting a 30-year insurgency that cost over 40,000 lives. The resulting peace talks between the government of then Prime Minister Erdogan and Ocalan enjoyed broad public support and presented an enormous opportunity for Erdogan to strike a grand bargain. If Ankara were able to reach an understanding with Ocalan and provide Turkish Kurdistan with some semblance of autonomy, an Ankara-oriented PKK/PYD-led Kurdish confederation that subsumed the KRG would prevent Kurdish independence while transforming the KRG and Rojava into client entities. Turkey’s southern borders would be secured by a Kurdish buffer zone and Ankara’s diminishing status as a regional power would be restored. Nevertheless, Erdogan demurred.

As late as October 18, 2014, a month into ISIS’ siege of Kobani, Erdogan continued to push the notion that the PYD, as a PKK affiliate, was a terrorist organization and therefore no different from ISIS. Turkey’s Kurds were further astounded by Erdogan’s apparent delight in the impending collapse of the Kurdish stronghold to ISIS when the Turkish president exultantly declared, “Kobani is on the verge of falling.” The United States came to the PYD’s aid. Ankara subsequently allowed 200 KRG peshmerga to transit through Turkey to join the defense of Kobani, but continued to reject the PYD’s requests to open a land corridor for resupply efforts.

For those Kurds who had relatives suffer and die at the hands of ISIS during the siege on Kobani, Erdogan’s decision to walk away from broader cooperation was a defining political moment. The Kurds now had momentum, legitimacy, and blossoming international support. The ballot box would be their next battlefront for political legitimacy.

A Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter walks near residents who had fled Tel Abyad, as they re-enter Syria from Turkey after the YPG took control of the area, at Tel Abyad town, Raqqa governorate, Syria, June 23, 2015.
Rodi Said / Reuters

Both Kurds and non-Kurds who opposed the ruling AKP had much to gain by voting for the leftist HDP. And as a result, the Kurdish-oriented party obtained enough support from Turkey’s non-Kurdish left to receive 13.1 percent of the vote—comfortably passing the nation’s 10 percent electoral threshold to gain 80 seats in parliament. The HDP’s triumph ended the AKP’s parliamentary majority and prevented Erdogan from changing the nation’s constitution to discard its parliamentary system in favor of a presidential one, a move that otherwise would have given him unbridled executive power.

The HDP’s success marks a new era for Kurdish political representation. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the HDP’s predecessor, sat on the sidelines during Turkey’s nationwide Gezi Park protests in 2013, which occurred only two months after Ocalan’s declaration of a unilateral cease-fire and the onset of negotiations with the AKP government. Many on Turkey’s left believed that the BDP’s abstention was a political quid pro quo between Ocalan and Erdogan. To quell a growing movement to separate Kurdish rights from broader liberal efforts, Ocalan called for the BDP to reform into a new, inclusive party in order “to bring the Kurdish movement and the Turkish left together.”

In the run-up to the June 7 elections, the HDP ran a disciplined campaign aimed at building support beyond its Kurdish base, reaching out to Turkish left-leaning youth, women, and minority voters. After the party’s electoral successes, HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş called the results a victory of “all the oppressed people.”

The HDP’s success marks a new era for Kurdish political representation.
Despite the gains the HDP made among Turkey’s non-Kurdish left, the bulk of its votes came from conservative Kurds. According to the statistical analysis conducted by Stockholm School of Economics professor Erik Myersson, approximately 1.5 million conservative Kurds switched their support from the AKP to the HDP. A Turkish polling and research firm estimates that approximately a third of the HDP’s vote total came from AKP voters who crossed over to the HDP.


Now that the HDP has been voted into parliament, it will have to make good on its promises to both the Kurds and Turkey’s urban left. Doing so will hinge on its program to expand rights and entitlements to all of Turkey’s lower classes and minority groups. In Turkey’s Kurdish heartland, however, party support will be based on how well the HDP advances the cause of Kurdish autonomy. Given that the nation’s Kurdish regions boast the highest birth rates in the country, with total fertility rates reaching either 4–5 children or 3–4 children, depending on the particular province, the Turkish left must accommodate the Kurdish autonomy agenda if it wants to remain a political force in parliament.

Before it even had time to start on that agenda, though, YPG forces captured Tel Abyad, the Syrian town strategically located at the border crossing to the Turkish town of Akcakale. In capturing Tel Abyad, the YPG cut off a vital north-south supply route from ISIS’ capital in Raqqah. This strategic victory advanced PYD efforts to link Kobani with the Kurdish Cizire canton in Syria’s northeastern triangle, creating a contiguous territory eastward from Kobani to the Iraqi border. The PYD must now clear ISIS from territories between Kobane and the autonomous Kurdish canton of Efrin. The YPG has already begun a campaign to capture the mixed Kurdish-Arab town of Jarabulus in order to achieve this objective. As Turkey’s foremost voice in support of PYD forces fighting ISIS, the HDP will now be able to rally domestic and international support from the halls of Turkey’s Parliament.

With continued Western support, the PYD could soon establish a contiguous Kurdish territory in Syria that spans most of the region along Turkey’s southern border, despite President Erdogan’s new, hard-line vow last week to “never allow a state to be formed in northern Syria." In Turkey, the PKK-sympathetic HDP will be an increasingly powerful advocate for granting the Kurds some semblance of autonomy within the nation. As the cease-fire between the PKK and Ankara continues, it is becoming more and more possible that the Kurds can achieve their dream of autonomy through democratic means. Whether the PKK’s ambition to establish autonomous Kurdish regions on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border is ever realized, the progress it is making toward that goal has already altered the political maps of Turkey and the Middle East.

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  • MICHA'EL TANCHUM is a Fellow in the Middle East Unit of the Hebrew University’s Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace.
  • More By Micha’el Tanchum