TODAY’S MESOP OPINION : All strategic positions & options Oecalan’s have failed in the past – a brief history of the political change of directions of the PKK

FEBRUARY 22, 2015 BY SPYRIDON A. PLAKOUDAS – * Spyridon A. Plakoudas holds a Ph.D. in Politics from the University of Reading (UK) and an Ms.Econ. in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberystwyth (UK). He served as head of the research group “Islam in Russia and Eurasia” at the Institute of International Relations (Greece), 2007-2009.

Since 1984, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish authorities intermittently and with varying success. This article studies how this rural-type insurgency was staged, placing it within the context of a tradition of resistance to Turkish rule among Turkey’s Kurds. It highlights the development of a consistent guerrilla tradition among Turkey’s Kurds in the early twentieth century as well as how and why the party deviated from this tradition. 


Until quite recently, the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey received little attention in Western academia in comparison to other concurrent insurgencies of far less intensity (such as that of the IRA in Northern Ireland). The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) insurgency, which began in 1984, has continued on and off for almost three decades and has resulted in over 45,000 fatalities on both sides.[1]

While the PKK uprising has often been characterized as terrorism by the Turkish state, its external allies,[2] and a large portion of the academic community,[3]counterinsurgency (COIN) experts have referred to it as a rural-type insurgency. This outbreak of separatist violence did not take place in a vacuum. Rather, like many of the Kurdish guerrilla movements that emerged following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the insurgency too originated in the mountainous region of Southeastern Turkey (or Turkish Kurdistan). The warlike, semi-nomadic Kurdish tribes in the area clung to a strong tradition of resistance to the centralizing policies of the Ottoman Empire and, later, the Turkish Republic. These tribes had in fact developed a fairly consistent tradition of guerrilla warfare that had been passed down to generations of mountainous warriors.[4] While the PKK was in many ways similar to previous Kurdish guerrilla movements, over the course of three decades, the party developed a unique character and modus operandi.


In 1921, during the Turkish War of Independence, the first Kurdish uprising against the rule of Kemal Ataturk took place in Eastern Turkey. Drawing support primarily from the Alevi (i.e. Shi’i Muslim) Kurds of Eastern Turkey, the rebellion failed to win the support of the majority of the (Sunni Muslim) Kurdish tribal chiefs, and in less than four months, the uprising was crushed by the Turkish army. In the aftermath of the rebellion, Ataturk promised the Kurds a fair measure of autonomy in exchange for their support in the Turkish War of Independence. This pledge, however, proved void following the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.[5]

Ataturk’s radical policies (which included enforced secularization and the abolition of the Islamic Caliphate) aroused resentment within the conservative Kurdish society. In 1925, Shaykh Said (a leader of Sunni religious order) engineered a revolt that appealed to the strong religious and embryonic nationalist sentiment among various Kurdish tribes in Southeastern Turkey. The insurgents attempted to capture major towns and spread the uprising to the other Kurdish-majority areas, albeit unsuccessfully. After just two months, the Turkish army crushed the revolt by employing rival Kurdish tribes as auxiliaries and deployment of massive troops and firepower–including aerial bombardments against rebels and civilians alike.[6]

Two years after the Said uprising, the Kurds once again rose in revolt and succeeded to establish the short-lived Republic of Ararat in Northeastern Turkey. For almost three years, the insurgent statelet withstood the assault of the Turkish army. In 1930, however, the Turkish army completely surrounded the region, subjecting it to relentless artillery fire and aerial bombardment until the insurgents capitulated.

In 1937, yet another Kurdish rebellion broke out in Eastern Turkey, lasting a few months. The Turkish state’s military response was far more severe than its previous counterinsurgency campaigns against the Kurds. Entire regions were completely ravaged and depopulated, tens of thousands of civilians were killed, and poison gas was allegedly used.[7]

The successive Kurdish uprisings conformed to a relatively consistent guerrilla modus operandi due to the similar nature of the various Kurdish guerrilla movements. Led by the charismatic chief of a powerful mountainous tribe, the Kurdish guerrilla movements grouped together tough (male) warriors from the same tribe/clan, relying on the tribe and allied tribes/clans for support. Although the forces numbered just a few thousand each time, they had mastered the art of guerrilla warfare and, thus, had become a formidable foe.[8] Yet a lack of organization and a crippling shortage of recruits and weaponry in all the uprisings weakened the insurgency. Moreover, disunity and infighting among the various Kurdish tribes proved the principal agent for the eventual defeat of the Kurdish rebellions.[9]


The PKK’s tumultuous history and the party’s constant and dynamic mutation can be placed within the context of a larger-scale process of transformation that has been taking place in Turkey and in the Middle East over the past few decades. In 1974, a time of heightened political unrest in Turkey, Abdullah Ocalan, a Communist political activist and university graduate of Kurdish origin founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) along with a small group of associates. As indicated in the party’s name, Marxist ideology–not Kurdish nationalism–constituted the armed movement’s doctrine. Initially, the party participated in the undeclared civil conflict that was raging in the towns between the far Left, on the one hand, and the Turkish state and the far Right, on the other hand. The PKK sided with the militant leftist groups but soon clashed with Kurdish leftist groups that it regarded as heretic or simply antagonistic. The initial phase of the PKK’s armed struggle was terminated abruptly in 1980, when the Turkish army staged a violent coup d’état in the name of the restoration of law and order.[10]

The leading PKK members who avoided capture and incarceration, including Ocalan, escaped to Syria. Hafiz al-Asad, at the time Turkey’s archenemy, greeted them with a warm welcome and lent them critical support. The PKK quickly set up new military camps in northern Lebanon, which Syria had occupied since the Lebanon Civil War, and its hundreds of raw recruits received weapons and military training from the Syrian authorities. During this time, the PKK also developed close contacts with other militant leftist groups in Turkey and even non-Turkish armed groups (such as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA)). In addition to its military activity, the party refined its ideological stigma and constructed a massive political apparatus that would serve as a platform for an intensive propaganda campaign and rally the Kurdish rural population of Eastern and Southeastern Turkey to its cause: a struggle for the self-determination of the Kurdish people and a radical socialist revolution of Kurdish peasantry against the alleged dual oppression of the Turkish state and the feudalism of the local Kurdish tribal chiefs (the agha).[11]


Since Ocalan subscribed to Maoist theory, the PKK set out to implement a three-staged strategy corresponding to Mao’s three stages of “people’s war”: a) “defense” (i.e. organization of the peasantry); b) “balance” (i.e. establishment of base areas in the countryside and initiation of guerrilla warfare in the mountains); and c) “offense” (i.e. switch to regular warfare and capture of the towns).[12] By 1984, the organization considered the initial stage complete and proceeded to the second by staging a rural-style insurgency in Southeastern Turkey.

The movement outlined its struggle for the self-determination of the Kurdish nation in Marxist terms. PKK propaganda called for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan that would include the vast Kurdish-populated regions in the Middle East (Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq) as well as the advancement of genuine democracy and socialism in Turkey. Just as the previous Kurdish guerrilla movements, the PKK sought to take advantage of the Kurdish population’s resentment towards Ankara. Kemal Ataturk had built the Turkish Republic on the basis of a nationalist ideology (“one nation, one language, and one flag”) that left no room for the Kurds. For decades, the Turkish state had violated the rights of the significant Kurdish minority (by far the largest Kurdish population in the Middle East)–even refusing to grant the Kurds the right of education in their mother tongue. The Turkish state ignored Kurdish identity, referring to the Kurds as “Mountain Turks” and using coercion to “Turkify” them–albeit with limited success.[13]

In accordance with the central tenets of the Maoist theory of “people’s war,” the PKK sought to trigger a radical socialist transformation of the conservative, rural Kurdish population under the rigid control of the party. The party set out to implement a series of radical top-down reforms with revolutionary zeal and did not hesitate to use coercion. The PKK sought to root out Kurdish tribalism and sectarianism (which, inter alia, had contributed to the defeat of the previous Kurdish insurgencies) by promoting a fervent Kurdish nationalism that would transcend all bonds of faith and kinship among Kurds throughout the Middle East. In addition, the armed movement set up a parallel state in Southeastern Turkey and replaced the official Turkish state’s basic functions (e.g. the collection of taxes and the provision of security). The PKK organized institutions for “people’s rule” (under the absolute control of the party, in typical Communist fashion). These bodies catered to the basic needs of rural Kurds, something which had previously been unprecedented. However, the PKK’s revolutionary zeal led the party to foster radical policies (such as the advancement of gender equality and secularism) that marked a critical break from the traditions of the profoundly religious and patriarchal Kurdish society.[14] No Kurdish guerrilla movement had ever attempted such a daunting sociopolitical experiment in Southeastern Turkey.

The PKK’s radical policies revealed that it remained deeply Communist both in terms of structure and modus operandi. Ocalan stood as the movement’s undisputed leader and his will was implemented without question. His theory on society and politics (termed “Apoism,” from Ocalan’s nickname, Apo) was considered inherently true and, thus, influenced every policy of the armed movement. Like other Communist guerrilla movements from the Cold War period, the PKK employed both coercion and propaganda to impose uniformity of thought and behavior among the members of the movement and local Kurds. A cult of personality thus emerged and purges of dissidents were carried out.[15]

Despite its harsh methods and radical policies, the PKK gained widespread popularity as the insurgency grew. The movement won the support of the underprivileged and idealistic socioeconomic strata of Kurdish society, including the youth (both sexes and especially university students), women, intelligentsia, and peasants (in particular those who were poor and landless). Yet the principal reason for the movement’s popularity did not lie in its alien socialist ideology; rather, the oppressive policies of the Turkish state boosted its appeal, despite PKK violence directed even against other Kurds.[16] While there have been claims that the PKK did not command widespread popular support,[17] in effect the movement quickly rose within the collective subconscious of the Kurds as the most prominent Kurdish national liberation movement that protected the rights of Turkey’s Kurds through use of force.[18] In fact, the PKK has been associated with the revival of the Kurdish national movement in Turkey.[19]

From the beginning, the PKK insurgency was of far greater scale than that of the Kurdish guerrilla movements in early twentieth century. Initially, the group sought to seize control of the Southeastern Turkey countryside. As with previous Kurdish rebellions, small units of Kurdish rebels (including, for the first time, women) under the command of seasoned captains used hit-and-run tactics with relative efficacy. Although these units suffered from a critical deficiency in weapons, they in effect possessed admirable levels of intelligence, tactical skill, and military leadership and used their familiarity with the terrain and tribal Kurdish networks to the utmost efficiency. However, unlike the guerrilla groups of the previous Kurdish insurrections, the PKK stood out as a new type of guerrilla movement. From the outset, the PKK was led by civilians without any military expertise (Ocalan and his associates) and was modeled on the basis of a regular army–rank insignia and an anthem were introduced and a general headquarters and military academy (the Mahsum Korkmaz Academy) were established.

In the initial stages of the insurgency, the PKK had seized the initiative. The armed movement raided the vulnerable outposts of the Turkish security organs and methodically curtailed the power of the Turkish state and its institutions (e.g. education) in the countryside, replacing them with its own institutions. Moreover, the PKK tried to stop critical infrastructural projects such as the Southeastern Anatolian Project (a pharaonic project for the economic and infrastructural development of Southeastern Turkey). Anxious to monopolize power in Southeastern Turkey, the PKK moved swiftly and aggressively to neutralize any opposition within Kurdish society, including powerful Kurdish landlords, rival Kurdish tribal chiefs, and–above all–other militant Kurdish groups (such as the Kurdish Hizballah). Kurds who collaborated with the regime–in particular, those who worked in state-funded self-defense units (the infamous “village guards”)–were considered traitors and received cruel treatment. As in previous Kurdish rebellions, the geography of Southeastern and Eastern Turkey–a large high-altitude mountainous region with primitive transportation networks and infrastructure and few large towns, where international borders represented nothing more than drawings on a map–benefited the PKK. Despite its heavy losses due to frequent clashes with the Turkish security organs, the PKK persevered and by 1990, the party had isolated the towns of Southeastern Turkey from the countryside.[20]

The PKK capitalized on every opportunity presented by the regional instability and hostilities to increase its power. Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iran–both autocratic regimes that had  oppressed their Kurdish minority populations for decades–provided logistical support and sanctuary to the PKK due to their ongoing disputes with Turkey. In essence, Damascus and Tehran waged a “war by proxy” against Turkey by supporting the PKK. Indicative of the strong ties between Damascus and the PKK, the latter had set up military camps in Syria (and Northern Lebanon), and Ocalan resided in Damascus. Moreover, the PKK concluded a cooperation pact with the two major Kurdish leaders in Northern Iraq (Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani) under the aegis of the latter’s Iranian allies. Other states that opposed Turkey sympathized with the PKK and condoned its semi-legal operations in their territory and in some cases even supported the armed movement.[21] No previous Kurdish guerrilla movement had enjoyed such a large degree of peripheral support as did the PKK.


The PKK had completely isolated the state-controlled towns of Southeastern Turkey from the insurgent-occupied countryside and resolved to proceed to the next phase: the seizure of the towns by triggering urban uprisings typical of the Communist revolutionary orthodoxy. Instigated by PKK agents who had infiltrated the major towns of the volatile region, a series of simultaneous unarmed uprisings (serhildan in Kurdish) sprang across Southeastern Turkey’s major towns (notably in Cizre, Sirnak, and Diyarbakir) in the early 1990s and lasted three years. Much to the chagrin of the PKK’s dogmatic leadership, the swift takeover of the towns by urban revolutionaries did not materialize; Turkish security forces ruthlessly quelled the protests, resulting in a large loss of civilian lives.[22]

Despite the failure of the PKK’s urban insurrections, Turkish state officials had realized that the organization commanded widespread support among Turkey’s Kurds and that it was growing stronger both within and outside Turkey. The Gulf War in 1991 and the subsequent developments (the unsuccessful Kurdish uprising in Northern Iraq, the mass exodus of nearly two million people from Northern Iraq, and the establishment of a no-fly zone and a de facto autonomous Kurdish republic in Northern Iraq) compelled the Turkish government to seek a political settlement of the conflict. This uphill task fell on the shoulders of new Turkish President Turgut Ozal, a reformist politician who did not hide his half-Kurdish ancestry. Despite the vociferous objections of the powerful army and his own party, Ozal passed a series of groundbreaking laws that included, inter alia, the legalization of the use of the Kurdish language in public (though still with many limitations) and the release of several Kurdish political prisoners. Moreover, Ozal established secret ties with notable Kurdish figures to discuss the prospects of a peace settlement.

The clashes between the PKK and the Turkish armed forces did not, however, cease to rage across the mountains. In March 1993, under the mediation of Jalal Talabani (an Iraqi Kurdish leader allied to Ocalan), the PKK announced a unilateral ceasefire, which was extended the following month. However, Ozal’s unexpected death (which some circles attributed to the Turkish military) in April and a bloody ambush of the PKK in May brought the peace process to a halt.[23] The conflict resumed after a brief lull, but this time the Turkish state confronted a strengthened PKK.

During the early 1990s, the PKK methodically increased its power and influence within and outside Turkey. In Turkey, Ocalan supported the establishment of Kurdish political parties, which remained under PKK influence. Yet the parties could not withstand the pressure of both the PKK’s domineering stance and the Turkish state’s authoritarian policies. In 1993 and 1994 respectively, two Kurdish parties were disbanded by the Turkish authorities and several of their deputies were imprisoned. In 1997, a new Kurdish party shared a similar fate.[24] Thus, the PKK political experiment failed. At the same time, however, the PKK was building a strong international movement.

In sharp contrast to the previous Kurdish guerrilla movements, from the outset, the PKK did not concern itself exclusively with the Kurdish armed struggle within Turkey. Rather, Ocalan hoped to solve the Kurdish Question and thus strove to increase the PKK’s regional clout. He continuously promoted the movement as the sole champion of Kurdish independence and unity in the Middle East and the undisputed pioneer of revolution and democracy in the region. He encouraged the establishment of PKK-affiliated organizations in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. He set up umbrella organizations and organized conferences for Kurdish unity across the Middle East. He also intervened in the tribal feud between Talabani and Barzani in Northern Iraq.

The PKK dramatically increased its influence over the large Kurdish diaspora in Europe and established a vast network of interlinked political, economic, and cultural organizations. European state authorities supported the PKK’s international public relations campaign and its armed struggle within Turkey. Yet the movement’s ever-expanding illegal operations in Europe soon raised eyebrows among European governments. Apart from employing coercion to acquire indispensable political and economic assistance from the Kurdish immigrants in Europe, there were accusations that the PKK was involved in drug and human trafficking in order to finance its war effort.[25]

In 1994, the PKK resolved to proceed to the third phase of the Maoist “people’s revolutionary warfare,” i.e., regular warfare. The PKK hoped eventually to transform itself into a regular army and later seize the major towns of Southeastern Turkey. First, however, it had to overwhelm the Turkish armed forces that occupied the towns. The PKK thus wished to adapt a new modus operandi. It would abandon its guerrilla tradition of hit-and-run tactics for a brief campaigning season (i.e. spring and summer, when the snow had melted), after which it would withdraw to its bases in Northern Iraq. Instead, the insurgents would confront the Turkish army in pitched battles, seize territory, and stay active within Turkey throughout the year.

Ocalan’s grand plans, however, would soon prove unrealistic. Despite its continuous support from internal and external sources, the movement suffered from a crippling shortage in weaponry and manpower. Although the PKK had grown to roughly 15,000 fighters (in addition to thousands of reservists stationed in Syria and Iraq), the armed movement had not yet reached the strength set by Ocalan as a precondition for the success of the insurgency’s third stage. Worse, Ocalan–though unversed in the art of war–began interfering in the military affairs and ignored the counsel of the PKK’s seasoned commanders.[26]

In 1994, the PKK rashly switched from irregular to regular tactics, striving to capture the towns of Southeastern Turkey in pitched battles and defending the rebel-held positions against the powerful search-and-destroy operations of the Turkish army. Quite predictably, the PKK could not stand up to such a challenge. The Kurdish insurgents were overpowered in every set-piece battle by their opponents, who possessed a devastating superiority in manpower and firepower. The movement’s military failures in turn led to a significant increase in the number of counter-productive purges within the party as Ocalan searched for a scapegoat. These failures also induced the PKK to initiate new terrorist policies that spread throughout Turkey. This included the abduction of civilians (in particular of Western tourists), bombing and suicide bombing campaigns (although the latter remained a sporadic tactic), and targeted assassinations of state officials (in particular teachers). The goal was to destabilize the country politically and economically (mainly by harming Turkey’s tourist industry) and to create a no-go zone for Turkish state officials in Southeastern Turkey.[27]

By the mid-1990s, the Turkish army had gained the upper hand. Through a process of trial and error, the Turkish army significantly improved its strategy and tactics in irregular warfare. The Turkish state had initially underestimated the PKK threat and prescribed a military-centric (or what some counterinsurgency experts have termed enemy-centric) solution, which focused on destroying the PKK’s military capabilities rather than winning the hearts and minds of the discontented Kurds. Successive Turkish governments declared martial law in Southeastern Turkey, employed Kurds hostile to the PKK as paramilitary auxiliaries (the “village guards” system), and gave the army a carte blanche for its operations. The latter routinely conducted search-and-destroy operations with only temporary results.

By 1994, Turkish state officials had realized that an exclusively enemy-centric approach would never succeed. Instead, they attempted to isolate the PKK from its supporters among the Kurdish people. Ankara granted the Kurds official recognition and conceded limited cultural rights, while successive Turkish governments promoted major reconstruction programs in Eastern and Southeastern Turkey. At the same time, however, the state sought to obliterate the PKK. While government instability during this period was manifest in a number of successive failed and short-lived coalition governments, the Turkish military (the most powerful state institution in Turkey) remained strong and implemented its counterinsurgency policies without any civilian supervision. The army carried out a savage military campaign using new military tools (such as air power and commando units) and tactics (a variant of the concept of “staggered offensive”) with great success. It pursued the insurgents and inflicted on them painful casualties. Some other army activities were of questionable legality. Paramilitary organizations executed thousands of suspected PKK sympathizers in Southeastern Turkey. In addition, over 3,000 Kurdish villages were forcibly evacuated from Eastern and Southeastern Turkey in an effort to eliminate PKK support among the rural Kurdish population–the chief supporter of the Kurdish insurgents. In effect, this “dirty war”–hidden from the eyes of the Turkish and international public opinion–laid waste to a considerable part of Southeastern Turkey and terrorized a substantial portion of the rural Kurdish population into submission.[28]

At the same time, the Turkish state strove to isolate the PKK both regionally and internationally. An assertive (and occasionally aggressive) Turkish diplomacy, supported by the United States, succeeded in cutting off the Kurdish armed movement from its peripheral and international supporters. One by one the European countries curtailed (or even suppressed) the PKK’s underground activities within their territory; Iraq allowed Turkey to undertake cross-border raids into the PKK’s strongholds in Northern Iraq; and, almost significantly, Syria ousted Ocalan in 1998, after Ankara threatened to wage war on Damascus. The PKK leader traveled to Europe to request political asylum from the European countries that had sympathized with the movement’s struggle, yet to no avail.  The following year, Ocalan was arrested by Turkish intelligence services (with vital assistance from the United States) in Nairobi, Kenya. Leaderless and panic-stricken, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew its (by then meager) military forces from Turkey, while violent and bloody Kurdish protests in Turkey and Europe left scores dead and injured.[29]


Despite the ominous predictions about the PKK’s future,[30] the movement persevered and resumed its armed struggle in 2004. The PKK’s military activity startled Turkey with its vigor. Surprisingly enough, the group’s comeback occurred at a time when Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist government of had just begun to dismantle the secular Turkish army’s power and reign over society and politics.[31]

During this five-year period of military inaction (1999-2004), the organization had undergone a profound ideological and political transformation. Ruling in the name of Ocalan (who was first sentenced to death and later to life imprisonment), a committee of senior politico-military officials took control of the PKK and overhauled it. The armed movement abandoned earlier maximalist ideas (such as separatism) and embraced the idea of “democratic autonomy.” In addition, the PKK supported the development of a new generation of Kurdish parties and political organizations and rebuilt its power structures among the rural and urban Kurdish populace. In effect, the PKK exploited Ankara’s reluctance to implement a radical program of reforms on the Kurdish issue that would alleviate the chronic grievances of the Kurdish people.[32]

Once again, the PKK skillfully capitalized on the opportunities presented by regional crises and developments. After the fall of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of the de jure autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq, the PKK perceived a golden opportunity to strike again against Turkey and to reconstitute its power structures throughout the region, which had been radically transformed due to the U.S. intervention. The PKK revived the old tradition of guerrilla warfare and, sallying forth from its expanding enclave in Northern Iraq, rekindled a rural-type insurgency in the Southeastern region of Turkey. This time, however, the party infiltrated Turkey through the porous Iraqi-Turkish frontier with small (though mobile and flexible) units of veteran insurgents under the command of experienced captains, staging carefully-planned nights raids against the vulnerable military targets (e.g. isolated military outposts along the mountainous frontier with Iraq). Quite rapidly, the PKK reoccupied a considerable section of the Southeastern Turkey countryside and established powerful semi-legal and legal organizations in order to cement its control over the rural and urban Kurdish population throughout Turkey.

Year after year, the insurgency intensified at a rising political and military cost for the ruling Islamist government. The Turkish government under Erdogan, who demanded widespread support among the Kurds, presented the first serious challenge to the PKK’s long-established hegemony over the Kurds. Although the Kurdish parties gradually gained an increasing share of votes among the Kurds, Erdogan still mustered roughly half of the Kurdish population’s votes. Despite the insurgency’s escalation, the armed struggle did not reach the pre-1999 levels when thousands of people on both sides perished every year. Besides, the PKK had become a shadow of its former self in terms of its military strength since the party could mobilize just 7,000 fighters–most of whom garrison the PKK’s bases in Northern Iraq.[33]

As the first decade of the twenty-first century drew to a close, developments beyond the borders of Turkey benefited the PKK yet again. The intensifying antagonism between Turkey and Iran since 2011 prompted the latter to cease operations against the PKK’s Iranian offshoot. The Syrian Civil War, however, proved the catalyst for a radical change in the PKK’s policy. The party promptly supported the struggle of its fellow Syrian Kurds for national liberation amid the civil conflict and sent thousands of its fighters to Northern Syria to organize the armed resistance. Threatened with imminent collapse, the Alawi dictator chose to close the northern front with the Kurds. Since Asad and the Democratic Union Party or the PYD (the PKK offshoot in Syria and the most powerful politico-military group among Syrian Kurds) opposed the Islamist insurgents (who were supported by Turkey and other Arab and non-Arab states), in 2012 Asad shrewdly withdrew his troops from Northern Syria and opened the way for the PYD to set up its authority in the northern regions of the war-torn country. In 2013, the PYD clashed with the various Islamist insurgent groups in Northern Syria and occupied a large swath of territory in the northern Kurdish-majority provinces.

Encouraged by the positive developments in Syria, the PKK attempted to establish a state of its own inside Turkey. For that reason, in 2012, the PKK tried to seize small towns close to the frontier with Iraq and, afterwards, incite a popular uprising in Southeastern Turkey similar to those in the early 1990s. While this enterprise proved unsuccessful, it prompted the Turkish government, which realized that a military solution to the Kurdish issue would not work, to open preliminary peace negotiations with the imprisoned leader of the PKK. Erdogan had in the past tried to work out a peaceful settlement of the chronic conflict, but the clandestine peace parleys were abruptly terminated in 2009 due to the failure of the two parties to commit sincerely to the peace process.[34] The current peace process, irrespective of its outcome, demonstrates the PKK’s capacity to evolve and adapt to the changing conditions in the Middle East.

In summary, the PKK critically deviated from the rather uniform guerrilla tradition that previous Kurdish armed movements had adopted in the past. Although the first phase (1984–1999) of its armed struggle ended in defeat, this failure should be attributed only partly to its deviation from the guerrilla tradition. Ocalan’s unsound strategy of had cost the party dearly in the past.[35] Only the radical transformation of the PKK (as well as the partial return to the old guerrilla tradition) in the early 2000s offered the party the chance to take advantage of the regional crises and increase its power both within Turkey and beyond.

*The author would like to thank his supervisor, Professor Beatrice D. Heuser, for helping with the writing and revision of this article.

* Spyridon A. Plakoudas holds a Ph.D. in Politics from the University of Reading (UK) and an Ms.Econ. in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberystwyth (UK). He served as head of the research group “Islam in Russia and Eurasia” at the Institute of International Relations (Greece), 2007-2009.


[1] Amed Demirhan, “Turkey, US, and the PKK,” Kurdish Aspect, December 21, 2007,

[2] Andrew Mango, Turkey and the War on Terror: For Forty Years We Fought Alone (London: Routledge, 2005); Mustafa C. Unal, Counterterrorism in Turkey: Policy Changes and Policy Effects toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).

[3] See for example: Lawrence E. Cline, “From Ocalan to Al Qaida: The Continuing Terrorist Threat in Turkey,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 27, No. 4 (January 2004), pp. 321-35.

[4] David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, 3rd rev. ed. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), pp. 49-65; Wadie Jwaideh, The Kurdish National Movement: Its Origins and Development (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2006), pp. 54-74.

[5] David Romano, The Kurdish Nationalist Movement: Opportunity, Mobilization and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 28-32.

[6] Robert W. Olson, The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion, 1880-1925 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989); Jwaideh, Kurdish National Movement, pp. 203-13; Romano, Kurdish Nationalist Movement, pp. 33-37.

[7] Jwaideh, Kurdish National Movement, pp. 215-17.

[8] For a historical review of the war-fighting style of the Kurdish guerrilla movements in the early twentieth century, see: Paul J. White, Primitive Rebels or Revolutionary Modernisers? The Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Turkey (London: Zed, 2000), pp.70-88.

[9] Romano, Kurdish Nationalist Movement, pp. 36-38.

[10]Aliza Marcus, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence (New York: New York University Press, 2007), pp. 33-51.

[11]Ali Kemal Ozkan, Turkey’s Kurds: A Theoretical Analysis of the PKK and Abdullah Öcalan (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 170-72; Marcus, Blood and Belief, pp. 52-85.

[12] McDowall, Modern History of Kurds, pp. 422-23.

[13] Henri J. Barkey and Graham E. Fuller, Turkey’s Kurdish Question (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998), pp. 10-27; Ozkan, Turkey’s Kurds, pp. 85-107.

[14] Ozkan, Turkey’s Kurds, pp. 85-107; Marcus, Blood and Belief, pp. 89-106.

[15] White, Primitive Rebels, pp. 144-47; Marcus, Blood and Belief, pp. 89-151.

[16] Romano: Kurdish Nationalist Movement, pp. 70-78, 84-91, 429-30; Cengiz Gunes, The Kurdish National Movement in Turkey: From Protest to Resistance (New York: Routledge, 2012), pp. 103-11.

[17] Mango, Turkey, pp. 38-39, 42-43.

[18] Martin van Bruinessen, “Shifting National and Ethnic Identities: The Kurds in Turkey and the European Diaspora,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 18, No. 1 (April 1998), pp. 46-47; Barkey and Fuller, Turkey’s Kurdish Question, pp. 42-53, 61-96.

[19] McDowall, A Modern History, pp.420-54; Romano, Kurdish Nationalist Movement, pp. 159-60.

[20] McDowall, A Modern History, pp.423-26; Ozkan, Turkey’s Kurds, pp. 171-75; Marcus, Blood and Belief, pp. 89-131.

[21] Kemal Kirisci and Gareth M. Winrow, The Kurdish Question and Turkey: An Example of Trans-State Ethnic Conflict (London: Frank Cass, 1997), pp. 157-82; Mango,Turkey, pp. 34-37. For more information on the peripheral dimensions of the PKK’s separatist struggle, see: Robert W. Olson (ed.), The Kurdish Nationalist Movement in the 1990s: Its Impact on Turkey and the Middle East (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1996).

[22] White, Primitive Rebels, pp. 164-67; Marcus, Blood and Belief, pp. 175-82.

[23] White, Primitive Rebels, pp. 162-63; Marcus, Blood and Belief, pp. 211-14.

[24] White, Primitive Rebels, pp. 170-71; Marcus, Blood and Belief, pp. 200-36.

[25] White, Primitive Rebels, pp. 172-75; Marcus, Blood and Belief, pp. 183-84, 188-89, 200-06, 208-11.

[26] Ozkan, Turkey’s Kurds, pp. 175-91; Marcus, Blood and Belief, pp. 175-200, 254-68.

[27] Ozkan, Turkey’s Kurds, pp. 175-91; Marcus, Blood and Belief, pp. 155-253.

[28] Umit Osdag and Ersel Aydinli, “Winning a Low Intensity Conflict: Drawing Lessons from the Turkish Case,” in Efraim Inbar (ed.), Democracies and Small Wars (London: Frank Cass, 2003), pp.114-17; Marcus, Blood and Belief, pp. 221-68; Daniel Steinvorth, “Turkey’s Dirty War Against the Kurds,” Der Spiegel, May 27, 2009,; Unal,Counterterrorism in Turkey, pp. 51-65, 78-89; Ali Sarihan, “The Two Periods of the PKK Conflict: 1984-1999 and 2004-2010,” in Fevzi Bilgin and Ali Sarihan (eds.),Understanding Turkey’s Kurdish Question (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), pp. 93-94.

[29] Andrew Morgado, “Turkish Culture and Its Influence in the Counter-Insurgency Campaign Against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK),” (Fort Leavenworth, KS: United States Army Command and General Staff College, 2005-2006), pp. 47-60; Unal, Counterterrorism in Turkey, pp. 70-78.

[30] Matthew Kocher, “The Decline of the PKK and the Viability of a One-State Solution in Turkey,” International Journal on Multicultural Societies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2002), pp. 1-20.

[31] Sarihan, “Two Periods,” p. 95.

[32] Ahmet Hamdi Akkaya and Joost Jongerden, “The PKK in the 2000s: Continuity Through Breaks?” in Marlies Casier and Joost Jongerden (eds.), Nationalisms and Politics in Turkey, Political Islam, Kemalism, and the Kurdish Issue (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), pp. 143-58; Marcus, Blood and Belief, pp. 286-99.

[33] Emre Uslu, “Can the PKK Achieve Its Goal?” Today’s Zaman, August 24, 2012,; Sarihan: “Two Periods,” p. 95.

[34] Al Jazeera, “Amending the Turkish Constitution to Solve the Kurdish Question,” Aljazeera Center for Studies, March 3, 2013,; G. Dalay, “The Kurdish Peace Process in the Shadow of Turkey’s Power Struggle and the Upcoming Local Elections,” Aljazeera Center for Studies, May 24, 2014,

[35] Michael Radu, “The Rise and Fall of the PKK,” Orbis, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Winter 2001), pp. 47-64.