On April 20, the State Department renewed multimillion-dollar bounties on three senior leaders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK): Cemil Bayık, Duran Kalkan, and Murat Karayılan. Bayık and Karayılan are founding members of the PKK and Kalkan is a senior commander.
The Kurdish freedom movement sees these men as instrumental in the defeat of ISIS, but to some this is no recommendation. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would rather hit the Kurds than the Islamic State. In renewing the bounties, the State Department has given him tacit permission to attack Kurdish democratic movements in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, since according to Erdogan they are all really PKK.
The bounty renewals are part of a long history of the United States bribing or rewarding Turkey by facilitating its attacks on Kurds. The bounties were originally part of an apparent deal in 2018 to get Pastor Andrew Brunson, a Christian evangelical preacher, released from a Turkish jail in time to be televised at the White House before midterm elections. In other words, Trump was willing to trade the lives of Kurdish leaders for evangelical votes.
Erdogan, head of the authoritarian AKP party, needs US support. He presides over a tanking economy, has put thousands of his critics in jail, and has gone to war in both Libya and Iraq. Despite protests from Baghdad, Turkey has built numerous bases in Iraq, where Operation Claw Lightning, its current campaign against the PKK, has killed many civilians. At home, where his party lost the 2019 mayoral elections in Ankara and Istanbul, Erdogan hopes to hold on to power by stirring up ethnic hatred and manufacturing a terrorist threat.
It is obvious that Erdogan’s ambitions destabilize the region and do not benefit the United States. So why is the Biden administration helping him? The current approach can only be called appeasement. Biden’s speech on foreign policy and his appointment of Brett McGurk, former special envoy to the coalition against ISIS, as White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, seemed to promise better. But putting a price on the heads of PKK leaders is a long way from the foreign policy based on human rights Biden outlined. Bounties are intrinsically a human rights violation; as Article Ten of the Universal Declaration says, “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal.”
The bounty renewals have alienated and endangered our most reliable ally against ISIS at a time when the battle is far from won. Kurdish fighters were central to the success of the Syrian Democratic Forces and, as McGurk said in his speech when he resigned from the Trump administration, “only the SDF provides stability in the areas that once made up the Islamic State in northeast Syria. Its forces cannot be replaced.” He could have gone further and said that the democratic, pluralistic basis of Rojava’s system provides a potential model for the whole region, in contrast to the repressive regimes that Washington now supports, many based on ethnic or religious discrimination.
Within the Kurdish freedom movement, renewal of the bounties has prompted anger and confusion, and encouraged distrust of the United States. This movement is united loosely in an umbrella organization, the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), which brings together Kurds living in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and the diaspora. KCK member organizations range from political parties like the PKK and the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) to civil society groups, national militias, and autonomous women’s networks. In a statement released on April 21, the KCK linked renewal of the bounties to US participation in Turkey’s 1999 capture and imprisonment of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. The statement said that were it not for Öcalan’s ideas, the three bountied PKK leaders, and the deaths of thousands of PKK fighters, ISIS would never have been defeated—and the United States might be negotiating with them as it is with the Taliban.
Terrorism is usually defined as attacks on civilians for political objectives. When the State Department tries to placate Turkey by giving a green light to attacks on Kurds, it gives the excuse that the PKK is on the US terrorist list. The question is why the PKK is on this list when it renounced attacks on civilians two years before the list was made.
Until its Fifth Congress, the PKK pursued a strategy of people’s war against Turkey in order to form a Kurdish state. But in 1995, under Öcalan’s leadership, it decisively changed its line, giving up armed struggle except in self-defense, and signing the Geneva Convention. Like other groups under the KCK umbrella, it now follows a strategy of organizing for direct democracy and community control in Kurdish areas while working for autonomy and civil rights within a federal Turkish state. The PKK has never been on the UN terrorist list, and European courts have begun to rule that it is not a terrorist organization. In a trial that started in 2010, with a final decision in 2019, Belgian courts said repeatedly that the PKK was not a terrorist organization but one involved in an “internal armed conflict.”
Far from pursuing a military strategy aimed at an independent state as alleged by Turkey, the PKK has been trying to hold peace negotiations with the Turkish government for many years. The most recent truce was in 2013, but that became strained in September 2014 when Erdogan felt threatened by Kurdish success in the battle of Kobane. He definitively ended the truce in July 2015, after the AKP failed to win an absolute majority in parliamentary elections. In that election, the success of the HDP, a progressive party that defends the rights of Kurds, women, and minorities, would have forced Erdogan into a coalition government had he not called a snap election and started a new war on the Kurds. He has since concentrated on criminalizing members of the HDP and making the party itself illegal.
If the State Department really wants to counter terrorism in the Middle East, it should take a good look at this NATO partner of ours. Turkey’s aid to ISIS during the course of the war has been documented not only by the Kurds but also by American researchers like David Phillips and Anne Speckhard. When Turkey invaded Rojava in January 2019, it used as its proxies Islamist militias notorious for their brutality: Jaysh al-Islam, which ruled Douma and Eastern Ghouta by torture and imprisonment until Turkey evacuated them; the Sultan Murad Brigade, accused by the UN of committing war crimes against the Kurds in Aleppo; and the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. McGurk noted in 2019 that “many of the Syrian opposition groups backed by Turkey include extremists who have openly declared their intent to fight the Kurds, not the Islamic State.”
Rather than give cover to Erdogan’s efforts to stay in power by renewing the bounties on PKK leaders, the United States should support peace negotiations between Turkey and the PKK, let jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan lead in these negotiations as Nelson Mandela led in the negotiations between the African National Congress and the South African government, and remove the PKK from the US terrorist list.