The PKK-Assad regime story: harmony, discord and Ocalan

A history of relations between Damascus, the Kurdistan Workers Party and the party’s ideological leader

Al Hayat & NowMedia – The relationship between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), under the leadership of Abdallah Ocalan, and the Syrian regime goes back to the early 1980s. Yet even before Ocalan left Syria on 10 October 1998, Hafez al-Assad’s regime categorically denied having any relationship with the PKK. Syria denied the presence of the PKK’s bases and its leader on Syrian territory, despite the fact that after the closure of the party’s Bekaa Valley base in 1992, the regime opened three more outside Damascus (in Sahnaya, Shebaa and Al-Nashabiya.) Tens of thousands of fighters were trained at these bases under the protection and observation of the Syrian intelligence services, just like the bases Hezbollah and the armed Palestinian factions ran in Syria.

Now, things are the other way round. The Syrian regime admits to providing support for the PKK, represented by its Syrian branch (the Democratic Union Party; PYD), and has threatened to prove that this is the case. On the other hand, it is now the PKK and its Syrian extensions that deny any relationship with the regime. In addition to this, the PYD claims that it is part of the Syrian opposition and supports regime change. In fact, it denies that it is the PKK’s Syrian branch, arguing instead that the relationship between it and the PKK is purely ideological. According to the PYD, Ocalan is the visionary leader, theorist and philosopher from whom the two parties take inspiration for their political and organizational projects. The question here is: what is the PKK’s true relationship with the Syrian regime, and how true is it to say that the PYD is a PKK subsidiary? Furthermore, how does this reflect on Syrian Kurds and their relationship with the Syrian revolution?

The beginning

Abdallah Ocalan established the PKK on 28 November 1978 and entered Syrian territory at the end of 1979, taking advantage of the instability prevalent in Syria at the time. The turbulent situation in the country was the result of the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian regime, which broke out in the summer of 1979 after the Aleppo Artillery School massacre. Ocalan contacted several Palestinian factions—including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (George Habash’s PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (Nayef Hawatmeh’s DFLP)—and succeeded in acquiring weapons training for some members of his party at Palestinian bases. It was through the Palestinian factions that his relationship with the Syrian regime began. The regime did not attribute any importance to the PKK at first, and it did not put any pressure on Ocalan, either, as his party happened to be an anti-Turkish faction at a time when Syria’s relations with Turkey were bad for a number of reasons. The PKK held its first conference in 1981 on Syrian territory, and in 1982 it turned heads during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; despite the fact that the Israelis had reached the heart of Beirut, the party’s fighters put up a stiff resistance at Beaufort Castle. Ten PKK members were lost in the battle and many others were injured and taken prisoner. Later on, the captured PKK fighters were released, along with the Palestinian prisoners, as part of the deal that saw the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leave Lebanon for Tunisia.

It was at this time that the Syrian regime recognized the importance of making room for the PKK and investing in it. Assad didn’t mind when the PKK took over one of the Palestinian bases in the Bekaa Valley’s Barr Elias area, after its owners fled from the invading Israeli forces. In 1982, the PKK held its second conference, on Syrian territory, and decided to prepare for armed struggle against Turkey. The goal was to form a unified Kurdish state governed by a socialist system. Consequently, PKK doctrine was a mixture of Kurdish nationalist radicalism (the liberation of Greater Kurdistan was proposed) and leftist radicalism (all communist and leftist parties were seen as deviant—the PKK alone bore the standard of scientific socialism).

A human reservoir

During the 1980s and 1990s, the PKK succeeded, with the full knowledge of the Syrian regime, in enlisting tens of thousands of young Kurdish men and women and pushing them in to a devastating war with Turkey, which the party began on 15 August 1984. The PKK also succeeded in convincing hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds that the solution to their problems in Syria lay in resolving the Kurdish issue in Turkey, and that Hafez al-Assad was a friend to the Kurdish people—his regime had supported the party by providing shelter for its leader and fighters, and treatment for its wounded. In a long interview conducted by Syrian journalist Nabil al-Mulhim, published in 1996 as the book Leader and People: Seven Days with Apo (the PKK leader’s nom de guerre), Ocalan denied “the existence of Kurdistan in Syria and the existence of a Kurdish problem in Syria.” He also said that “most Syrian Kurds are immigrants who fled to Syria from the oppression and violence of the Turkish governments” and that the PKK was trying to “return them to their original homeland.”

“The Syrian government is pleased about this,” he added.

The statement caused great confusion within pro and anti-PKK circles in Syria and, as a result, Ocalan had to release a voice recording that harshly condemned the criticism he received. The PKK leader described his detractors as “mouse-minded individuals who do not understand or grasp the difference between strategy and tactics,” implying that the statement had been a party tactic and did not represent overall strategy. This helped ease the displeasure and embarrassment felt by the pro-PKK masses in Syria.

In 1997, the Syrian regime began proposing that the PKK take up several political projects, which appeared to serve the party’s interests and bolster its organizational role in the Syrian Kurdish community, but actually put it under the control of the country’s security services. The most prominent of these projects was the establishment of a semi-official pro-regime Kurdish party called the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Gathering. Marwan Zerki, a Syrian intelligence official of Kurdish descent, led the new party, and was assisted by a number of Syrian Kurds close to Ocalan, including Omar Ose (a member of the current Syrian parliament). At that time, Saleh Muslim (the current leader of the PYD) was a member of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Gathering’s political office, which officially announced itself on 12 October 1998; two months after Ocalan left Syria.

After his abduction from Nairobi on 15 February 1999 and subsequent trial, Ocalan proposed his peaceful solution initiative, which called on the PKK to declare a truce and withdraw its fighters from Turkish territory. This surprise decision shocked the Syrian regime, which stood to gain more than anyone else from the continuation of the Kurdish-Turkish war, as it was wearing down both sides. The regime tried, using every means available, to stop the PKK adopting Ocalan’s project and his theses, but failed. So, even before the Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, Syria had begun to look for an opportunity to normalize its relations with Turkey. In keeping with this, Bashar al-Assad’s regime started to increase pressure on the PKK, closing its three bases in Damascus and arresting a member of the party’s central committee—Khabat Aamid, who was responsible for organization in Syria at the time and is now serving a life sentence in Turkey—and his aide, Salaheddin, during a meeting with Syria’s Air Force Intelligence Directorate. The two men were handed over to Turkish authorities, all PKK property in Syria was seized and dozens of other party members were arrested and handed over to the Turks. The Syrian regime then moved towards the effective implementation of the Adana agreement, which was signed on behalf of Syria by Major General Adnan Badr Hassan, the political Intelligence directorate chief, in early October 1998.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD)

After Ocalan’s abduction and detention, direct contact between him and the Turkish authorities took place. According to the books Ocalan wrote in prison, the Turkish authorities communicated with him and asked him to calm the atmosphere so that the Kurdish issue could be resolved internally. At the time, Bulent Ecevit was at the head of a coalition government that included the Democratic Left Party and the Nationalist Movement Party (a far-right party led by Devlet Bahceli.) Ocalan called on his party to declare a long-term truce and withdraw its fighters from Turkish territory. He also called for the dissolution of the party and the formation of four new Kurdish parties under the PKK’s aegis. The PKK’s leadership in the Qandil Mountains agreed to all Ocalan’s demands and declared its own dissolution. Then it changed its name to the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK), and then to the Kurdistan Democratic Confederation (KKK), and then to the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK). It was during this period that Ocalan’s orders were carried out: in 2002, the PKK’s Iraqi branch, the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PCDK), was established; in 2003, the PKK’s Syrian branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), was established; and in 2004, the PKK’s Iranian branch, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), was established. The founding congresses for each of these three parties were held in PKK bases in the Qandil Mountains.

From 2003 to 2011, before the Syrian revolution broke out, the Syrian security forces carried out a campaign of violent oppression against ordinary PYD members and party leaders. According to leaks published by the Turkish press—which saw the detention of PYD members as the fruit of Syrian-Turkish security coordination—this led to the arrest of around 1,400 people. Aisha Afandi, the wife of PYD leader Saleh Muslim (who had fled to one of the party’s PKK-controlled bases in Iraqi Kurdistan) was also arrested, and many PYD members died while being subjected to barbaric torture in Syria’s prisons.

When the Tunisian revolution broke out, the PKK sought to use the situation to serve its interests and welcomed the period of change the region was witnessing. The party’s media outlets sought to instigate demonstrations in Syria by heavily featuring programs that hosted well-known Syrian opposition figures, like Abdulrazak Eid, Haytham Manna, Fayez Sara, Hassan Abdul Azim and Yassin al-Haj Saleh. The PKK’s Roj TV was put into the service of the Syrian opposition, in a move that strongly suggested the party was prepared to join any rebel action against the regime. When the Syrian revolution broke out on 15 March 2011, the PKK ramped up its pro-revolution discourse, and increased its coverage of the events unfolding in Syria. It was at this point that Iranian artillery shelling of the PKK’s Qandil Mountain bases intensified. As shelling intensified, and in conjunction with the messages and orders coming from Ocalan in his prison on Imrali Island, PKK and PYD discourse was toned down. Doubt was cast on the Syrian revolution, and excuses for this were found; first, there were the traditional definitions of revolution and the necessity of finding a pioneering revolutionary party and a revolutionary leader (the ideological leader and theorist). Before long, the excuses used to cast doubt on the revolution were expanded, and used to attack and “demonize” it in the minds of Kurds. This took the form of questions: why do the demonstrations start outside mosques? Why are Friday protests given Islamic names? Why do protesters proclaim the greatness of God and shout Islamist slogans? Why does the Muslim Brotherhood control the opposition?

Partial withdrawal

In the summer of 2012, to avoid clashing with Syria’s Kurds, the regime partially withdrew from the Kurdish areas in the northeast of the country, handing local administration over to the PKK and its Syrian branch, the PYD. The latter, which labeled this process “liberation” and “the revolution,” claimed to have “expelled” Assad’s forces from the areas in question. However, the Syrian Army and security forces are present in Qamishli and Hasakeh, all signs of opposition to the Assad regime have disappeared, and the PKK has kept an iron-fisted grip on the area. Based on this information, many people have concluded that the Syrian regime has preserved its strength in Kurdish areas; or rather, that it is stronger in these areas than it is in Aleppo, Damascus, Latakia, Homs and Daraa.

As a reward for the aforementioned efforts by the PKK, which have been of assistance to the Assad regime, the latter has turned a blind eye to the declaration, by the PYD, of what it calls “the Democratic Self-rule Administration” in “Rojava.” The regime has also entered a few small Kurdish parties that are looking for a marginal role as well as a few pro-regime Arab and Assyrian personalities into the project. To avoid angering the Syrian regime, the PYD has stopped using the terms “Syrian Kurdistan” and “West Kurdistan” in the official statements and transactions of its authority “the Democratic Self-rule Administration.” To replace these terms, the name “Rojava” has been contrived, applied to Syrian Kurdish areas and disseminated among the people. The new name is a Kurdish word meaning “the west” and has no nationalistic or cultural significance that could be used to specify the identity of the area.

Despite Assad’s admission that he has provided support to the PKK and its Syrian branch, the latter categorically denies receiving assistance, and accuses the regime of trying to make the victories Kurdish fighters won over the Islamic State (ISIS) in Kobani serve its own interests.

Ocalan’s orders

When we review the early phase of the Syrian revolution and compare what happened during that period to the orders Ocalan issued from his prison, a clear pattern emerges. All events connected to the PKK’s relationship with the regime follow a sequence that corresponds exactly to Ocalan’s instructions. On 6 April 2011, during an interview with his lawyer, the PKK leader said that “Assad should meet with the Kurdish organizations. The PYD is there, and if Assad’s Syria carries out democratic reforms we will support them. Cultural and self-administration rights could be recognized as part of these reforms; for example, municipalities could be run [independently]. Kurds could be given the chance to administer their affairs for themselves and have their identity recognized. If they [the Syrian regime] do that, we will support them […] the Assad family knows my approach to the cause.”

Notably, the Assad regime has yet to recognize the administration announced by the PYD. On 13 April 2011, Ocalan said that “Assad should meet with the PYD as an official political actor, and not with the tribes [a reference to individuals who represented Kurdish tribes at the time]. There should be discussion with them so that a solution [can be reached]. If Syria accepts these demands, support will be given to Assad […] If the state moves in the opposite [direction], takes temporary steps and adopts a dilatory political approach, the Kurdish people, led by the PYD, will fight alongside the Arab opposition, following the principle of democratic self-administration.”

During a meeting with his lawyer on 4 May 2011, Ocalan asked: “Will the Kurds join the demonstrations too? How [would they do that]? There may be a basis for negotiations. They must tell Assad the following: ‘If the Muslim Brotherhood takes power, it will carry out massacres against us [the Kurds and the Alawites]. For this reason we will form our popular self-defense units. They could negotiate and reach a solution with Assad on a democratic basis.’”

Worries and doubts

The seven years of oppression (2003 – 2010) that the PYD suffered at the hands of the Syrian regime, have placed the party at the forefront of the anti-Assad political scene. That period has eclipsed the years in which the PKK and the Syrian regime were allies (1980 – 1998) prior to the signing of the Adana agreement between Ankara and Damascus. Those two decades of harmony and alliance came at the expense of Syrian Kurds and their cause. They have meant that the broad-based bloc which currently supports the inherently PKK-dependent PYD is seen by the PKK as its property. This bloc still has undeclared anti-Syrian regime tendencies, so Damascus does not believe it should be led by a Syrian Kurd. The Assad regime favors leadership of the bloc by a Turkish Kurd from the PKK, and that is what is happening now in Syrian Kurdish areas. Behind the scenes, a Turkish PKK leader is leading the PYD. The latter party and the autonomous administration it announced are no more than a façade. They do not have the freedom to make decisions without consulting the PKK leadership’s delegate or “high commissioner” in Syria.

The questions this raises are: if the PKK reaches a final settlement with Ankara, it will be forced to disengage from the Tehran-Damascus axis, so what will become of its Syrian branch? Will it reposition itself in relation to the Syrian opposition, even after the time for that has passed, or continue to tie its fate to that of the Syrian regime?

This article was originally published by Al-Hayat and has been translated from the Arabic by Ullin Hope.