Turkey’s biggest Kurdish militant group is looking to expand, and it might turn to Russia for help. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym, PKK, has established an umbrella organization for the country’s leftist militancies in an effort to broaden its own capabilities and extend its support base beyond the pro-Kurd community. The new group, known as the Peoples’ United Revolutionary Movement (HBDH), is led by the chief of the PKK’s most radical leftist faction. Its stated intention is to promote its political agenda, which opposes the Turkish state and the ruling Justice and Development Party in particular, through the use of propaganda and terrorist attacks, including against foreign nationals.

Because Russia has a long history of using Turkey’s militant groups — especially the PKK — to promote its own interests in the region, there is little doubt that Moscow will seize the opportunity created by the HBDH to do so again. By supporting the PKK’s newest endeavor, Russia might be able to keep Turkey preoccupied with problems at home and out of Moscow’s affairs elsewhere in the Middle East.


Talks to form the new umbrella group surfaced in December 2015, and two months later, the HBDH held its first meeting in the Syrian city of Latakia — a notable choice, since the Russian military uses the government-controlled town as a base for its operations there. Then, on March 12, the group officially announced its formation. The HBDH’s mission is to unite and strengthen Turkey’s revolutionary forces and promote armed struggle against the Turkish government. The group has also highlighted the failure of Kurdish political parties, including the People’s Democratic Party, in making progress on Kurdish goals in Turkey.

So far, each of the 10 groups that have signed on to the new coalition are based in Turkey, and the HBDH’s mission remains narrowly focused on combating President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and defending the interests of Turkish Kurds. However, HBDH chief Duran Kalkan has talked about expanding the organization’s role to defending Kurds elsewhere in the region and contributing to the revolutionary process in northern Syria. In fact, a number of the groups within the HBDH already belong to the Internationalist Freedom Battalion, a coalition of leftist militants fighting alongside the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in the Syrian civil war. These groups, which include the Turkish Communist Labor Party/Leninist, the Turkish Communist Party/Marxist-Leninist and the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party, have been sharing training camps with the PKK for several years.

For the moment, though, the HBDH’s activities will remain confined within Turkey’s borders, executed by four “action region” divisions that are responsible for supporting the organization’s militancy plans. The HBDH has already opened logistics centers in Turkey’s east and northeast, as well as “self-defense” offices in several towns, and it is urging local political leaders to resign so that the group can gain direct control over the areas. Still, it is difficult to know just how developed the HBDH’s organizational structure is. For instance, on the weekend of the HBDH’s formation, two groups within it launched separate attacks, one in Ankara and one in Istanbul. However, it is unclear whether the incidents were centrally organized by the HBDH or carried out independently.

Pressure Increases on Ankara

While the HBDH is led by a Kurdish militant group, the PKK, its creation could breathe new life into Turkey’s communist movements as well. After all, several of the groups within the HBDH have communist ambitions, and the organization’s mission to attack the Turkish state could attract other communist groups with similar aims but few resources. One such group may be the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front, a Marxist movement opposed to Erdogan’s administration that has been steadily weakening for years. However, personality clashes between the Marxist group’s leaders and HBDH officials could prevent the two from coordinating more closely.

Meanwhile, the HBDH’s formation could create problems for the nonviolent Kurdish parties in Turkish politics. As the PKK expands its alliances with militant groups that refuse to open dialogues with Ankara, these parties will have difficulty maintaining their legitimacy within the government as they try to pursue their more moderate objectives. This will become even truer if the newly organized militancies prove cohesive enough to pose a greater threat to Turkey’s security together than apart, which is a distinct possibility.

Russia, for its part, might try to encourage further cooperation between Turkey’s Kurdish and leftist militants while bolstering its relationship with the new umbrella group. Moscow could see this as an opportunity to get revenge for Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian Su-24 in Syria last year. But more importantly, the Kurds are a critical bargaining chip in Moscow’s pocket. Russia could, in theory, use a heightened Kurdish threat in Turkey to increase its leverage in future negotiations with Ankara, or to distract Ankara from ramping up its involvement in Syria and the Black Sea region.