Why the PKK has become overstretched in its quest for self-rule in Syria

Turkish tanks near the Syrian border. EPA/SEDAT SUNA

For a group widely regarded as a terrorist organisation, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has huge regional influence. Fighting first for an independent state, and later for autonomy within Turkey, it is also heavily involved with the battle against Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

In October 2014, Kurdish forces linked to the PKK drove IS out of most of Kobane, in the north of Syria. Ever since, the PKK and its affiliates have come to be seen by many Kurds as champions for humanity in the face of barbarism. (Although its violent attacks have led others to hold the opposite view. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and the US.)

Support among Kurds has been accompanied more recently by a huge public outcry against the political elites of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Compared to them, the PKK is seen by many as the sole reliable force fighting for Kurdish nationalism. Images of PKK fighters holding their ground against Iraqi forces on social media have provided the group with a great deal of sympathy and respect.

So it may seem that right now that the PKK is better positioned than ever to expand its sphere of influence across Kurdistan. But the reality is that the group is dramatically overstretched and faces a complicated future.

Things are far from simple, for example, in Syria, where the PKK’s affiliates, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing People’s Protection Unit (YPG) won a military victory against IS which yielded de facto self-rule for Syrian Kurds.

Securing self-rule depended in large part on acquiring the support of both the US and Russia – a precarious political balancing act. But with intensifying competition between the US and Russia over the future of Syria, it became harder for the Syrian Kurds to maintain the relationship with those two countries during the three-year war against IS.

And in January 2018, Turkey’s (Russian approved) military assault on the Syrian enclave of Afrin demonstrated the weakness of the Kurdish autonomy project.

Yet Syria has also been a scene of unlikely partnerships. In an attempt to secure support against Turkey’s offensive, the PYD recently reached a deal with the Assad regime. However, so far, only a limited number of regime-backed forces have entered the town in support of the Kurdish defensive operation, with no real impact on Turkey’s advancement.

Eventually, the scope of Turkey’s military incursion will be up to Russia. Since Turkey’s move into Afrin, the PKK has kept a low profile – partly to show the US that its Syrian affiliates are fighting by themselves, autonomously from the PKK (which the US regards as a terrorist group).

American support for the Kurds, as the PKK is well aware, is still essential for the survival of Kurdish autonomy, especially in areas east of the Euphrates river which have previously benefited from US backing.

However, the PKK’s willingness not to offend American foreign policy all depends on how the fighting evolves in Afrin. If it intensifies and reaches the centre of the city, the PKK will throw its full weight into Afrin’s defence, potentially intensifying attacks against Turkey. But the cost of such action would be high.

In Iraq, too, the intensification of war between Turkey and the PKK will bring further instability to politics in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Since the eruption of the Syrian crisis, the PKK has actively sought to challenge the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) by reinforcing its ties with a range of other anti-KDP groups. But with a range of groups comes a range of distinct political priorities. Tactical alliance has not yet produced any tangible outcome.

Fighting too many battles

The Kurdish referendum on independence meanwhile left the major Kurdish political movements in disarray, presenting the PKK with another window of opportunity to seek influence.

Turkey’s hostile attitude to the independence vote in Iraqi Kurdistan and its subsequent invasion of Afrin have led to a rapprochement between otherwise diverging Kurdish groups. This, nonetheless, does not represent a real shift in relations between the KDP and PKK. KDP leader Nechirvan Barzani’s position on the PKK is still clear – he views them as a destabilising force.

After decades of fighting, the PKK is now in dire need of success to show Turkey’s Kurds that it has achieved something as tangible as self rule in Syria. Failing to do so would risk its political relevance in the eyes of the Kurdish constituency, which prompts its determination to be in control of developments in Northern Syria

In the future, Kurds may acquiesce to sharing power with the Assad regime in Afrin rather than let the city fall to Turkish backed rebels. But in reality this still means the end of the Kurds’ dream of unification in northern Syria. When the dust settles, the loss of Afrin could mark yet another tragic sense of defeat for the Kurds.

PKK’s quest for self-rule there has led the group to scale up its activities in multiple settings. But its strategy of seeking a dominating role across Kurdistan territory over the past years has now reached its limits.