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Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK)

Insurgency Overview

The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is a Kurdish militant and political organization founded in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan. Operating primarily in Turkey, the PKK consists of Kurdish nationalists who strive to improve the autonomy of the Kurdish population. Initially, their objective was to establish an independent Kurdish state in the Kurdistan region, situated between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. However, their current focus is on advocating for the rights, cultural identity, and self-determination of the Kurdish people within the respective states they inhabit (1). Over time, the PKK has embraced a range of left-wing and Marxist ideologies, adapted to the specific circumstances of the Kurdish people. This ideology, known as democratic confederalism, was formulated by Öcalan during his ongoing imprisonment in Turkey (2). The PKK employs a combination of militant, social, and political means to pursue its goals. Through the extensive Kurdish diaspora, the organization and Öcalan have exerted considerable international influence in the Middle East and abroad, shaping other Kurdish nationalist groups such as the People's Defense Units (YPG) in Syria. Öcalan's principles are implemented in the governance of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), also referred to as Rojava (3).

Since the early 1980s, the PKK has been involved in several armed conflicts, most notably against the Turkish government. The Kurds have long been a persecuted minority, where in Turkey they have endured the suppression of their language and culture, persecution by the state, and even ethnic cleansing. Using guerrilla tactics, the PKK has taken up arms in a protracted, on-and-off struggle against Turkey. Over the course of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict some 40,000 people have died, most of whom being Kurdish civilians. Designations of terrorist organization have been applied to the PKK by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. In recent years, the PKK has shifted its approach, adopting a more political stance and seeking peaceful negotiations to resolve the conflict with Turkey. However, sporadic clashes between the PKK and the Turkish government still occur (4).

History and Foundations

The Kurdistan Workers' Party came to be during a period of economic and political instability in Turkey. The worsening conditions in the 1960s gave rise to mass strikes and heightened radicalization, with various left-wing, nationalist, and Islamist groups gaining traction and fighting amongst each other in the streets. In response to the government's inability to control the situation, the Turkish military carried out a coup in 1971. Left-wing groups faced persecution, and martial law was imposed in many Kurdish villages (5). The official policy of the Turkish government, then and now, is to deny the existence of the Kurdish people. This denial led to oppressive measures such as the suppression of the Kurdish language and culture that continue today (6), which persist to this day. Non-violent Kurdish cultural groups, like the Revolutionary Cultural Eastern Hearths, were targeted for promoting Kurdish culture (7). Additionally, Kurds became victims of violence perpetrated by nationalist groups like the Grey Wolves (5). Despite the government's efforts to regain control through increased authoritarianism after the 1971 coup, the problems from the previous decade persisted. Political violence escalated, resulting in thousands of deaths in clashes between Marxist and nationalist factions (5). In the midst of this instability, Abdullah Öcalan founded the Kurdistan Workers' Party in 1978 to safeguard the diminishing rights of Kurds. While initially seeking to establish an independent Kurdish state, the party's objectives have since evolved. During its early years, the PKK carried out small-scale attacks against the Turkish government while also participating in demonstrations (8).

Towards the latter half of the decade, the Turkish government once again lost control, culminating in its collapse in 1979 and another military coup in 1980. Martial law was declared nationwide, the constitution was suspended, and parliament was dissolved. The military regime ruled for the next three years, cracking down on freedoms and adopting an even more nationalist stance. Political parties, trade unions, and student organizations were banned, and thousands of individuals, including politicians, activists, and intellectuals, were arrested. The military enforced strict media censorship and violently quelled all forms of dissent (5).

The military regime governed Turkey until 1983 when democracy was restored. However, the military retained significant power in Turkish politics, continued to influence politics (5). But rather than curbing extremism, the coup inadvertently pushed more people towards radical ideologies. During the period of military rule, the PKK faced severe crackdowns, with members being imprisoned and executed. Many fled and found refuge in Syria, as well as with various groups in Palestine and Iraq (1). The PKK regrouped and became increasingly militant after the 1983 elections. The organization established its paramilitary wing the following year and initiated its first major insurgency against the Turkish state. Operating from bases in Syria with support from the Syrian government, the PKK targeted not only the military and government, but the citizenry and its political enemies as well (9). Schools were burnt down and teachers murdered. Öcalan and the PKK argued that this was justified as these institutions were tools of assimilation employed by the Turkish state (4).

The Serhildan, or people's uprising, began in 1990 when Turkish police attacked a gathering of 5,000 mourners attending the funeral of a young PKK soldier. This incident triggered mass demonstrations across Turkish Kurdistan. Since then, protests have been held annually on the day of Abdullah Öcalan's capture and during the banned Kurdish New Year celebration known as Newroz. While these demonstrations have been met with violence and suppression by the Turkish state, they have also compelled significant concessions from the government (9).

Although it began as a secular Marxist-Leninist group, Öcalan and the PKK fleshed out their own unique ideology of democratic confederalism in the early 1990s. During this time, they also incorporated Islamic principles and messaging to broaden their popular appeal (6). In 1993, a ceasefire agreement was reached, but the peace process ended when president Turgut Ozal, who himself was part Kurdish, died (9). After this point, the violence escalated on both sides. The new government showed no interest in continuing the peace process and instead embarked on the destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages (9). In response to the increasingly aggressive tactics of the Turkish army, the PKK employed acts of terrorism such as assassinations, kidnappings, and hostage-taking, including the use of women as suicide bombers starting in 1996 (10). Syria and Iraq withdrew their support for the group. The PKK announced a ceasefire in 1995 in an effort to establish a diplomatic channel with the Turkish government, but their peace overtures were not reciprocated, and fighting resumed the following year (9).

The late 1990s marked a series of setbacks for the PKK. Turkey achieved military success in campaigns against PKK camps in Northern Iraq. In 1999, Öcalan was captured by the Turkish authorities with assistance from the United States and Israel after he was forced to leave Syria. Initially sentenced to death, his sentence was later commuted as part of Turkey's efforts to join the European Union (8). He remains imprisoned, and protests are held annually on the anniversary of his arrest. While his capture ended a ceasefire that was declared in 1998, the PKK were forced to declare another ceasefire in 1999, which lasted until 2004. During this period, the PKK underwent a transformation into a political organization. They withdrew from Turkey and relocated to northern Iraq, declaring an end to the war in 2000. However, the Turkish government rejected their diplomatic overtures, accusing them of continuing terrorist activities. The PKK reformed twice in the early 2000s, first as the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK) and later as the Kongra-Gel (KGK) (8). However, there were dissenting voices within the organization who were dissatisfied with its new direction. Splinter groups like the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) emerged, leading to a power struggle between those advocating for reform and those favoring a return to insurgency (11). The latter won out, resulting in purges of the reformist camp and the resumption of fighting in 2004. The organization reverted to its original name, PKK, a year later (8).

Due to its diminished capacity, the PKK shifted its tactics, relying on asymmetrical warfare and conducting quick, small-scale attacks on Turkish forces. Meanwhile, the TAK escalated its violence, criticizing the PKK for its perceived "pacifism" and launching attacks on civilian targets. The PKK condemned such attacks, although there were allegations that the PKK utilized the TAK to maintain plausible deniability and retained control over the organization (11). In 2009, the Erdogan government initiated another peace process with the PKK after the organization declared its sixth ceasefire. Bans on Kurdish cultural practices began to be lifted, and Kurdish refugees had their citizenship restored. However, the peace process faced obstacles when the government cracked down on Kurdish parties, provoking widespread outrage (8). Fighting resumed between 2010 and 2012, coinciding with the Syrian Civil War. Kurdish rebels managed to establish the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), also known as Rojava, with support from PKK forces. The People's Protection Units (YPG), the major Kurdish rebel group, is heavily influenced by Öcalan and the PKK's ideology. Presently, Rojava remains under attack from Turkey, Syria, and the Islamic State (3).

In 2014, many Kurds protested against the Turkish government's support of ISIS, which perpetrated a genocide against Kurds. The protests were met with violence from the Turkish state (12). Turkey's increased involvement in the Syrian Civil War and its targeting of PKK and SDF/YPG forces led to another breakdown of the ceasefire, and fighting continues to this day.

Objectives & Ideology

The goals of the PKK have undergone drastic changes throughout its existence. Initially, its focus was on creating a sovereign Kurdish state spanning the Kurdish-populated areas of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. However, in recent years, the PKK has shifted towards advocating for greater rights and recognition for the Kurdish people within the countries they inhabit. This includes demanding increased cultural autonomy, language rights, and political representation (1). While the group still seeks to overthrow the Turkish government and other nation-states occupying Kurdistan, it no longer aims to establish its own Kurdish nation. Instead, it envisions replacing the existing system with a decentralized cooperative government, similar to the model found in the AANES (13).

Today, the PKK espouses a distinct synthesis of Kurdish nationalism and libertarian socialism known as democratic confederalism. While spending his time in prison studying the ancient history of the region, works of philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, and ideas of contemporary thinkers like Murray Bookchin, Öcalan became determined to develop an alternative to the Soviet model. Democratic confederalism, the solution to his problem, advocates for decentralization, direct democracy, and social and environmental justice. It seeks to create a system of local self-governance where communities and labour are democratically organized. Rather than a single head of state, society is to be governed by councils with equal representation regardless of culture or gender. It is unique insofar that it rejects statist models for liberation while still incorporating nationalist elements. In the past, the organization adhered to Marxist-Leninist and communist beliefs until Öcalan developed his own theory (2).

Öcalan also developed a form of feminism called jineology, or “women’s science”. Jineology seeks to challenge traditional patriarchal structures and promote gender equality within Kurdish society and beyond. The ideology emphasizes the role of women in revolutionary struggle and argues that true liberation for all people can only be achieved through the empowerment of women (2). According to Öcalan, jineology is grounded in a materialist analysis of social relations, which seeks to uncover the ways in which gender oppression is intertwined with other forms of oppression, such as class, race, and imperialism. Jineology has been implemented in the PKK with practices of equal gender representation with the group’s organizational structure. Along with self-determination for the Kurdish people and the decentralization of the state, women’s rights have become one of the PKK’s main priorities (14).

Approach to Resistance and Capabilities

The PKK has engaged in armed attacks targeting Turkish military and police forces, bombings of government buildings and public spaces, as well as assassinations and kidnappings of Turkish officials and civilians. Employing guerrilla tactics like hit-and-run attacks, ambushes, and the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers, the PKK operates predominantly from the mountainous regions of Kurdistan. The rugged terrain provides them with strategic advantages and poses logistical challenges for the Turkish military (1).

Although he is unable to directly run the organization, Öcalan remains the PKK’s leader despite his imprisonment and continues to influence its ideology and practices. He has written several books while in prison. The organization is currently co-ran by Besê Hozat and Cemîl Bayik. Many positions in the PKK have equivalents for men and women to ensure gender equality within the organization. Its paramilitary wing, the People’s Defense Forces (HPG), is led by Murat Karayılan who was one of the organization’s founders alongside Öcalan. Karayılan was the acting head of the PKK from Öcalan’s arrest until Hozat and Bayik were instated in 2013 (15). The PKK also maintains a women’s armed unit, the Free Women’s Units (YJA-STAR). Both the HPG and YJA-STAR have seen action against ISIS in Rojava. Today, the PKK has around 5,000 core members (16).

The Turkish government has long been hostile towards pro-Kurdish organizations of any kind, stripping the PKK and other such groups of a chance to gain legitimate political representation. However, several parties in the Turkish parliament sympathize with the PKK despite the government’s ban on it, the largest of which being the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP shares many of the PKK’s left-wing and pro-Kurdish tendencies but takes a much less hardline stance (8). Pro-Kurdish politicians such as Leyla Zana have been jailed for allegedly supporting the PKK. Zana, a Kurdish member of the Turkish parliament, was a member of the Democracy Party before joining the HDP. Her party was banned in 1994 after Zana said the last sentence of her oath of office in Kurdish and she was subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of being a member of the PKK. However, she was released after ten years of imprisonment due to pressures from the European Court of Human Rights (15).

Because of their mass displacement due to war and terror, there is a large Kurdish population in countries like Germany, where there are over a million Kurds. The Kurdish diaspora in Europe has had the freedom to form political and cultural groups unlike in their home countries. Some of these, such as student groups like the Association of Students from Kurdistan and bands like Koma Berxwedan, have ties to the PKK and work to spread their message internationally (17) (18).

Relations and Alliances

The role of the PKK and Öcalan in the conflict with Turkey has been heavily disputed. In recent years they have distanced themselves from terrorist activities and adapted to a more diplomatic model. The PKK and other such underground groups have also been one of the few vehicles for Kurdish political action, since legal parties have been frequently banned. Despite the fact that the Kurds have been deprived of any political tools but violence, the PKK has often reached out in attempts to make peace with the Turkish government to no avail. In the early 2000s, the PKK attempted to legitimize itself but remained persecuted by Turkey. The Turkish government doubled back on peace processes in 1999 and 2009, only after the PKK began to disarm. Much of the fraught peace process and their hostility towards the Kurds can be attributed to the larger problems of democracy and political violence in Turkey (1).

The Syrian Assad regime once backed the PKK and allowed the organization to base its operations in the country, but their support ended in 1999 after threats of a Turkish invasion to eliminate PKK strongholds. This forced Öcalan to flee Syria, leading to his arrest (1). The PKK has been involved in the Syrian Civil War since the beginning of conflict in 2011, supporting the YPG and the other members of the SDF. Turkey labels the YPG as a terrorist organization due to its links with the PKK and has launched numerous military operations against the group in Syria. The PKK has backed the SDF in its fight against ISIS, who the SDF has played a key role in regulating the advancement of in the region (3).

The PKK has had a presence in the Kurdish region of Iraq since the 1980s, where it established bases in the mountainous regions of the north. The group has occasionally clashed with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, which has sought to maintain good relations with Turkey (19). However, the PKK has also cooperated with Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS. In Iran, the PKK's presence is much smaller than in Turkey, Syria, or Iraq. However, the group has occasionally carried out attacks against Iranian security forces in the Kurdish areas of western Iran (1).

The state of Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, has expressed support for the Kurdish cause. While Israel has officially condemned the PKK, their pro-Kurdish stance may be inspired by Turkey’s support of Hamas. However, the PKK is staunchly anti-Israel and it has supported the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Moreover, Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency participated in the capture of Abdullah Öcalan in 1999 (20).

Besides Turkey, the United States, Canada, the European Union, Australia, and the United Kingdom all classify the PKK as a terrorist group. However, this designation is controversial, as the PKK’s supporters argue that it is a legitimate political organization and that the Turkish government has labeled them terrorists to justify further persecution of the Kurds. The Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled twice against the EU’s classification (21).

The PKK is a member of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) and the Peoples' United Revolutionary Movement (HBDH), both alliances of various pro-Kurdish and/or left-wing groups with common goals. The KCK, founded in 2005, is a coalition of four Kurdish political organizations, one from each country within Kurdistan, with the aim of promoting Kurdish rights and autonomy across the region. Besides the PKK, the KCK consists of the Syrian Democratic Union Party, the Iraqi Kurdistan Free Life Party, and the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (8). Meanwhile, the HBDH brings together a number of far-left parties in Turkey with the goal of overthrowing the ruling AKP government and President Recep Erdoğan. Some members are Kurdish nationalists, whereas others are various strands of Marxists (13).

The PKK has also frequently clashed with the Grey Wolves, a Turkish ultra-nationalist paramilitary organization. Because of the militant nature of both groups, tensions have frequently erupted into violence. The Grey Wolves have targeted Kurdish civilians and political enemies, using support for the PKK as a pretext for violence. This has resulted in the deaths of some 6,000 Kurds since the 1970s. They have also attacked left-wing political opponents, such as the HDP, because of their alleged support of the PKK. Some claim that the Turkish government provides impunity to the Grey Wolves because of their mutual goals and political connections within the government (22). The conflict between the two groups has served as a focal point for larger issues in Turkey, as they both play key roles within the country’s political climate and hold extremist positions on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Additional Resources

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

(1) - Marcus, A. (2009). Blood and belief: The PKK and the Kurdish fight for Independence. Combined Academic.

(2) - Aytekin, M. (2021). Radicalisation processes of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK): ideology and recruitment tactics. Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, 14(1), 62-81.

(3) - De Jong, A. (2016). A Commune in Rojava? New Politics, 15(4), 69-76.

(4) - Unal, M. C. (2012). The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and popular support: counterterrorism towards an insurgency nature, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 23(3), 432-455,

(5) - Feroz, A. (1993). The Making of Modern Turkey. Taylor & Francis Group.

(6) - Poulton, H. (2006). Top hat, Grey Wolf and crescent: Turkish nationalism and the Turkish Republic. Hurst and Company.

(7) - Kutschera, C. (1994). Mad Dreams of Independence: The Kurds of Turkey and the PKK. Middle East Report, 189, 12–15.

(8) - O’Connor, F. (2017). The Kurdish Movement in Turkey: Between Political Differentiation and Violent Confrontation. Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.

(9) - Ibrahim, F. (2000). The Kurdish Conflict in Turkey: Obstacles and Chances for Peace and Democracy. St. Martin’s Press.

(10) - Attwood, F., Campbell, V., Hunter, I. Q., & Lockyer, S. (2012). Controversial images: Media representations on the edge. Palgrave Macmillan UK.

(11) - Gurcan, M. (2016). The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons: A Profile of the Arm’s-Length Proxy of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. CTC Sentinel, 9(7), 24–27.

(12) - Ersay, S. O. (2014, October 17). Anatomy of 'protests against the invasion of Kobani'. Daily Sabah.

(13) - ANF News (2016, March 12). Peoples' United Revolutionary Movement established for a joint struggle.

(14) - Phelan, A. (Ed.). (2020). Terrorism, Gender and Women: Toward an Integrated Research Agenda. Routledge.

(15) - White, P. (2015). The PKK: Coming Down from the Mountains. Zed Books.

(16) - U.S. Department of State. (2019). Country Reports on Terrorism 2019.

(17) - Baser, B. (2015). Diasporas and homeland conflicts: a comparative perspective. Ashgate.

(18) - Discogs. Koma Berxwedan.

(19) - Gunter, M. M. (1996). The KDP-PUK conflict in northern Iraq. The Middle East Journal, 50(2), 225.

(20) - Middle East Monitor. (2022, March 9). Turkey worried about Israeli cooperation with Kurdish PKK.

(21) - Reuters. (2008, April 3). EU was wrong to include PKK on terror list.

(22) - Abdulkader, D. (2022). The Ultra–Nationalist Grey Wolves: A Turkish Government Tool to Persecute Kurdish People. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 23(1), 92-98.


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