As daily violence and rhetoric between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) flare and elections loom, an introduction to the main currents in the Kurdish resistance movement today helps shed light on the developing conflict, as well as prospects for the future of the Syrian Civil War, the Rojava Revolution unfolding along the Syrian-Turkish border, and the domestic political scene in Turkey.
While political and revolutionary engagements of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HPD), People’s Protection Units (YPG), and PKK could be lumped under the broader category of the movement for Kurdish liberation, the varying political environments and strategies of their organizations require separate discussion. A reading of the state of the Kurdish resistance within these separate fields of struggle brings insights into questions of national self-determination, electoral and armed political engagement, and the actualization of new democratic structures.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Resignation of Revolutionary Statism
On September 8th, Turkey’s ongoing assault on the PKK and Islamic State entered a new phase. Turkish ground troops were deployed to the northern mountains of Iraq, where PKK leadership have been holed up, ostensibly for “short-term” engagement. A brief history of the party helps to contextualize today’s headlines.
Founded as a Marxist-Leninist organization in 1978, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has waged a bloody, on-and-off armed struggle against the Turkish state since 1984. Confronted with violent population expulsions, bans on Kurdish language and political organization, and the outright denial of their existence as a people, Kurds have had ample reason to define themselves as an oppressed nation.
Since the PKK’s founding, it has sought self-determination for Kurds in Turkey and, formerly, the creation of a Kurdish state. After PKK founder and leader Abdullah Öcalan was imprisoned in 1999 by the CIA and Turkish security forces, the party underwent a major theoretical shift grounded on his prison writings and court testimony. Öcalan, who remains incarcerated, led the party towards an anti-statist, feminist, libertarian socialism, and a “politics beyond the state, political organisation beyond the party, and political subjectivity beyond class” (Akkaya and Jongerden, 2012). The demand for a Kurdish state, the longtime mainstay of PKK mobilization, was dropped in favor of Öcalan’s ideology of “Democratic Confederalism,” drawing heavily from the work of post-anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin. In attempting to transcend worn Cold War politics and ideologies, the PKK synthesized a new roadmap for self-determination, which today is seeing its first daring attempts at implementation within Syria.
Öcalan’s prison writings present a grand narrative of the development of state-based societies from antiquity. He depicts the rise of early Sumerian state civilizations as the foundation for exploitative social relations, ecological ruin, and gender violence. Drawing intersections between colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy, Öcalan submits that women can be defined as an oppressed nation under the patriarchal nation-state, a colony damned to subservience and uncompensated labor. “More boldly and openly spoken: capitalism and nation-state are the monopolism of the despotic and exploitative male.” The nation-state (be it feudal, liberal, theocratic, etc.) forms the crux of these broad oppressions, as the hierarchical model in whose image particular iniquities have been created and maintained for millennia.
In diagnosing these ills, Öcalan presents an alternative: an anti-statist, feminist, environmentalist, and libertarian socialism. Social ecology, grassroots organization, critique of patriarchy’s relation to capital, and an opposition to state entities form the political principles of democratic confederalism. As a structure, it envisions a network of councils organized from below, which represent various demographics (ethnic, gendered, religious, etc.) and govern democratically on the ground. These councils, in their more regional articulations, are to transcend nation-states’ boundaries and establish a sort of nested dual power, “neither ground[ed]on the existing nation-states nor see[ing]them as an obstacle,” as the PKK describes it. By refusing conventional strategies of either accommodating the state or destroying it to reconstruct another, the PKK charts a third course, potentially free from the pitfalls of either.
This drastic programmatic evolution jolted the party. Imagine the PLO renouncing its claim to a Palestinian state — not in capitulation, but because they deemed a state-based solution insufficiently emancipatory. (Öcalan advises the Palestinians to not construct a state, and to pursue confederal organization in its stead). After a period of retreat and reorientation in the new millennium, the PKK was ready to apply these new principles on the ground, taking advantage of the void left by the partial collapse of the Assad regime.
Contradictions between the libertarian orientation of the party today and the hierarchical, anti-democratic elements leftover from its Marxist-Leninist stage are evident. Most striking is the PKK’s development into a “confounding case of a movement that supposedly has embraced a vision of ‘’bottom-up democracy’ on instructions ‘from above.” While traditional Marxist-Leninist parties have adopted top-down, centralized structures, the PKK has sought to invert this order, albeit with limited consistency. As a military organization, the party retains its Leninist hierarchy; however, as a social model, confederalism in Syria is run from below. This irregularity is no better illustrated than by Öcalan himself, the absent paterfamilias of this patriarchy-smashing ideology. A brief look at the party’s website reveals a veritable personality cult around Öcalan, whose image and articles form the bulk of the contents. This paradox aside, the situation on the ground in Syria presents a genuinely liberatory moment.
The Rojava Revolution: Towards a Trans-ethnic, Anti-Statist Self-Determination
While the PKK (labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, NATO, and the EU) has remained marginalized for decades by state security forces, the movement for democratic confederalism has recently taken off through the efforts of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the PKK’s Syrian franchise. (The YPG understandably insists publically upon their autonomy from the PKK, yet their one-to-one ideological overlap and grouping under Öcalan’s umbrella organization suggest otherwise.) Since 2012, the YPG have fought, initially against the withering Assad regime, and recently against the Islamic State, to establish an independent territory along the Turkish border. Some four million Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, and Armenians now live in this territory, and the process of implementing democratic confederalism outside the grip of a nation-state has begun.
While thorough reports from the ground are scarce, and often come through rose-tinted glasses, they all point towards the creation of a truly confederal and emancipatory system. Popular, polyethnic militias, accountable directly to councils on the ground, have taken the place of a state apparatus directed from above. Militia members are reported to receive feminist theory and non-violent conflict resolution training before being allowed to touch a gun, the ultimate aim being to do away with specially-armed bodies entirelythrough universal training. Women’s councils and brigades have been established, keeping men out of executive power in instances of sexual assault and domestic violence. The authority of women’s councils includes, among others, ecological issues, in an audacious attempt to counteract the legacy of male destruction of the environment. Nearly half of militia members are women. (Mixed-gender brigades exist alongside exclusively-female units.) And in a challenge to capital, Syrian state property has been converted for use by worker co-operatives, and utilities are undergoing socialization.
While Orientalist and fetishing narratives regarding the fighting women of the YPG abound in the West, obscuring the legacy of Kurdish women’s agency in political and military spheres, to claim that today marks a highpoint in that struggle would be an understatement.
Beyond the local articulation of democratic confederalism, the cantons of Rojava form a nexus in the regional implementation of the anti-statist project. Councils and organizations in Syrian Kurdistan are grouped under the umbrella of the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), alongside equivalents within Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Thus far, only in Syria has the KCK become the de facto governing body, but the regional program appears much more ambitious.
The Rojava Revolution has been compared to the Spanish Civil War, in part due to the presence of foreign fighters on both sides. The Islamic State’s reactionary ideology makes it a fitting counterpart to the fascist Falange. And although Western volunteers have joined the YPG from abroad, it is the native Kurds themselves and their comrades-in-arms that teach the world a lesson in solidarity. The YPG’s response to the plight of the Yazidis, brutally attacked and besieged by Islamic State forces, best illustrates this. When the US-backed Peshmerga left Yazidis to fend off Islamic State forces, the YPG fought open a corridor from Sinjar, rescued 10,000 people, and then helped Yazidis organize themselves along feminist, communalist lines within the KCK umbrella.
These developments not only counter racist tropes about the political capacity of Middle Eastern peoples, but also show the potential for radical movements and ideologies to be transmitted between cultural groups within short periods of struggle. Arabs, Kurds, and their neighbors are more than capable of bringing about democratic societies with a respect for women’s rights. Indeed, they appear to have eclipsed the West on the fronts of gender equality and democratic accountability in Rojava.
Sozdar Avesta, KCK presidency council member and Yazidi PKK-commander, commented upon the recent radicalization of her community:
The Islamic State…explicitly organizes against Öcalan’s philosophy, against women’s liberation, against the unity of all communities. Thus, defeating the group requires the right sociology and history-reading. Beyond physically destroying them, we must also remove the Islamic State group-ideology mentally, which also persists in the current world order.
While the theoretical maturity and bravery of the YPG have helped them stake out a core for a liberated, stateless Kurdistan, this project is endangered on all fronts. Turning to the domestic situation within Turkey, we discover both causes of the newest peril Rojava faces and a working route for emancipatory political progress in the face of a much more vigorous state machine.
The People’s Democratic Party and the Electoral Road
The fresh, electoral counterpart of the PKK, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) made waves earlier this year, winning a historic eighty seats in June’s election. The HDP fields candidates from a diverse cross section of Turkish society: Kurds, leftists, feminists, environmentalists, LGBTQ activists, and various ethnic minorities. While the party still predominantly drew support from Kurdish-majority districts, it was the HDP’s broad coalition-building that facilitated its expansion into a nationwide party. Critically, the HDP also received Öcalan’s blessing to represent the Kurdish struggle in Parliament. Throwing down the gauntlet to neoliberalism, patriarchy, centralization, climate change, and gender oppression, the party presents a political alternative which works through the state, rather than outside it.
However, as an unexpected consequence of their electoral success, the HDP has thrown the Turkish political scene into turmoil. The Republican People’s Party, Turkey’s traditional social democratic force and largest opposition party, has suffered defections to the HDP. Most critically, the HDP’s gains undercut the ruling Justice and Development Party’s absolute majority, leaving Erdoğan to try and fail to build a coalition government and dashing his hopes to form a presidential system within Turkey. The far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) also gained in the election, and are now tied with the HDP at eighty seats.
Amid political instability, continued international pressure on Turkey to join the coalition against the Islamic State, and a fatal attack against socialists on Turkish soil by ISIS, Erdoğan was presented an opportunity to strike against Kurdish revolutionaries. On July 24th, the Turkish administration launched Operation Martyr Yalçın, allegedly to help defeat the Islamic State. However, the vast majority of the Turkish airstrikes have been directed against PKK targets in Northern Iraq, and its recent intrusion into Iraq with ground troops confirms that this is the priority. The PKK has responded with attacks on soldiers and police within Turkey, unleashing a spiral of arrests and bloodshed.
Analysts have suggested that Erdoğan broke the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK to rally popular, nationalist support for his party ahead of the November snap elections. Given the 28-seat gains of the rightist, paramilitary “Grey Wolves,” the strategy doesn’t seem far fetched. At the same time, the HDP is presented with an opportunity to further consolidate popular support, in light of the broad assault on Kurdish mobilization both domestically and in northern Iraq.
So far, polling remains inconclusive. In the weeks before the November 1st election, the course of the relationship between the PKK and HDP will prove decisive.
Since breaking the ceasefire, the Turkish state claims to have killed over 1,000 militants, mostly through airstrikes in Iraq, while the PKK launches fatal attacks nearly every day. Civilian casualties have been registered by both sides. These fatalities are taxing on both Kurds and Turks, organized and unorganized, and they also jeopardize the HDP’s ability to garner sympathy and support across a broader electorate. HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, accused of collusion between his party and the PKK, has called for a ceasefire “without ifs or buts” between militants and the state. “It’s not the HDP’s role to decide if it’s time for us to disarm,” responded Cemil Bayık, a top-ranking PKK commander and KCK councilman, during an interview in Iraq.
This tension poses questions of the relationship between organizations working towards similar projects but with drastically differing strategies and means. Is it justified for the HDP to “police” the PKK’s armed struggle? Does the PKK have the right to undermine the broad, state-accommodating project of the HDP by utilizing defensive violence inside Turkey? Most immediately, these questions point towards the problem of strategy in the face of an ever-powerful state system.
A pro-government newspaper offers a critical view of the PKK’s continued use of violence under these circumstances. Commenting upon the deaths of Ümit Turhan, a 16 year-old PKK militant, and two soldiers he killed in a suicide bombing:
Most likely, they [the PKK]took Ümit to the mountains first and brainwashed him with all the atrocities committed by the state in the 1980s and 1990s. They told him how noble it would be to blow himself up against the enemy, which cannot otherwise be discouraged…Ümit probably never asked why there are 80 deputies representing them in the enemy’s Parliament or if sacrificing himself at that age is really the right response while there are 80 deputies sitting there.
Questions of age and agency aside, this framing of the PKK’s armed engagement raises questions about the use of violence as a political tactic when established democratic avenues — which affirm the primacy of the state — are not only open but already occupied. While the HDP is far from governing, its big tent organizing leaves room for sustained, inclusive, and democratic development. Such development would not only increase Kurdish autonomy, but set the stage for a broader transformation of an increasingly authoritarian Turkish society.
This may come into conflict with the immediate project of the PKK, but the overwhelming compatibility of the two parties’ aims may well justify a pivot towards the needs of the electoral front. That said, the Turkish state’s aggression (backed-up by NATO) and organizational momentum may make such a reorientation materially untenable. As far as Turkish nationalists are concerned, the HDP has thoroughly cast its political weight behind the PKK for the dawning phase of struggle. And as the HDP faces a wave of political violence, arrests, and investigations related to their alleged PKK links, the party’s room for maneuver closes in.
The democratic road does not necessarily preclude armed resistance and extra-systemic organization in conjunction, but the recent outbreak of violence demonstrates the fragility of their unmuddled coexistence. In the critical weeks before Turkish citizens return to the polls for the second time this year, (ir)resolutions to these trying dilemmas of violence, state, and strategy will define the future of both the Kurdish people and, ultimately, the region at large.
Malachi Dray, a sophomore studying history, is the international editor of Stanford Political Journal.