Recently, Kurds on each side of the Turkey-Syria border have made significant advances in their quest for autonomy. In Turkey, those gains were won at the ballot box, while in Syria they were won on the battlefield. After garnering global sympathy and the support of U.S. airpower with their defense of Kobani against a formidable siege by the Islamic State (also called ISIS), Syria’s Kurds went on to capture the strategic town of Tel Abyad from ISIS on June 15. And as a result of Turkey’s elections a week earlier, the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has entered parliament, irrevocably altering Turkey’s political landscape. Indeed, seating the first Kurdish-oriented party in parliament constitutes a milestone for civil rights in Turkey. But in the context of events on both sides of the border, the true winner is Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a party and militant group that initiated the HDP’s creation and whose Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD),is responsiblefor the recent victories against ISIS.
The HDP’s entrance into Turkey’s parliament and the PYD’s control of Syrian territory mark a new chapter in the PKK’s decadelong attempt to create a pan-Kurdish confederation that would bring together the Middle East’s 30 million Kurds.
The PKK leadership has already outlined a path for Kurdish autonomy that obviates the need for independence. The HDP, with whom the PKK shares its grassroots support, has made sufficient gains in Ankara to begin making the PKK’s vision for a pan-Kurdish confederation a reality. In March 2005, PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan issued the Declaration of a Democratic Confederalism, which created a road map for establishing a confederation out of four autonomous Kurdish regions, each tied to its country of origin—Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Turkey—through federal relationships. Political advances like the HDP’s victory and military victories like the PYD’s advances in Syria are helping Ocalan’s plan become a reality. In other words, the PKK’s future has never looked brighter.
In 2012, the PKK-affiliated PYD established three autonomous cantons in Syrian Kurdistan, a major breakthrough for Ocalan, whose plan began with the establishment of affiliated political parties within the Kurdish-populated territories of Iran, Iraq, and Syria that would later pave the way for a cross-border confederation with Turkish Kurdistan. The PYD’s cantons became known as Rojavaye Kurdistane (Western Kurdistan), or more commonly as Rojava (the West), implying that the KRG’s Iraqi Kurdistan was merely its southern counterpart. Ultimately, Ocalan seeks to subsume Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), led by the rival Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), into a PKK-dominated confederation.
The KRG, however, was not content to let this happen without a response. The group subsequently dug a 10.5-mile trench between Rojava and Iraq’s Kurdish areas in April 2014 ostensibly to protect against Syrian ISIS fighters. The trench established a flimsy land boundary between the PKK’s growing sphere and the KRG’s territories. Months later, the KRG’s peshmerga abandoned the region in the face of ISIS’ advance into northern Iraq.
When ISIS militants laid siege to Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq, fighters from the PYD-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) created a corridor from Rojava to rescue 10,000 besieged Kurdish Yezidis. Media images of PKK and YPG fighters rescuing Yezidis from ISIS militants earned the PKK widespread appreciation and enhanced its pan-Kurdistan mission.
Similarly, the ISIS attack on the Syrian town of Kobani may have cemented a partnership between the West and the PKK-aligned Kurdish forces, seeing an alliance as a way forward against the advances of ISIS within Syria. The Western-led anti-ISIS coalition adopted a policy of supporting Rojava through air strikes. This was a marked shift in the West’s approach to PKK-affiliated organizations, which had previously been adversarial. The United States relied on Kurdish troops to fight ISIS on the ground, providing air strikes during the Sinjar offensive and airdropping weapons and munitions to PYD forces during the siege of Kobani.
The West may have warmed up to the PYD’s fighting groups, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan maintained a cool distance from Rojava. Eight months after the PYD established autonomous Kurdish cantons in Syria, Ocalan declared a historic unilateral cease-fire with the Turkish state, halting a 30-year insurgency that cost over 40,000 lives. The resulting peace talks between the government of then Prime Minister Erdogan and Ocalan enjoyed broad public support and presented an enormous opportunity for Erdogan to strike a grand bargain. If Ankara were able to reach an understanding with Ocalan and provide Turkish Kurdistan with some semblance of autonomy, an Ankara-oriented PKK/PYD-led Kurdish confederation that subsumed the KRG would prevent Kurdish independence while transforming the KRG and Rojava into client entities. Turkey’s southern borders would be secured by a Kurdish buffer zone and Ankara’s diminishing status as a regional power would be restored. Nevertheless, Erdogan demurred.
As late as October 18, 2014, a month into ISIS’ siege of Kobani, Erdogan continued to push the notion that the PYD, as a PKK affiliate, was a terrorist organization and therefore no different from ISIS. Turkey’s Kurds were further astounded by Erdogan’s apparent delight in the impending collapse of the Kurdish stronghold to ISIS when the Turkish president exultantly declared, “Kobani is on the verge of falling.” The United States came to the PYD’s aid. Ankara subsequently allowed 200 KRG peshmerga to transit through Turkey to join the defense of Kobani, but continued to reject the PYD’s requests to open a land corridor for resupply efforts.
For those Kurds who had relatives suffer and die at the hands of ISIS during the siege on Kobani, Erdogan’s decision to walk away from broader cooperation was a defining political moment. The Kurds now had momentum, legitimacy, and blossoming international support. The ballot box would be their next battlefront for political legitimacy.
Now that the HDP has been voted into parliament, it will have to make good on its promises to both the Kurds and Turkey’s urban left. Doing so will hinge on its program to expand rights and entitlements to all of Turkey’s lower classes and minority groups. In Turkey’s Kurdish heartland, however, party support will be based on how well the HDP advances the cause of Kurdish autonomy. Given that the nation’s Kurdish regions boast the highest birth rates in the country, with total fertility rates reaching either 4–5 children or 3–4 children, depending on the particular province, the Turkish left must accommodate the Kurdish autonomy agenda if it wants to remain a political force in parliament.
Before it even had time to start on that agenda, though, YPG forces captured Tel Abyad, the Syrian town strategically located at the border crossing to the Turkish town of Akcakale. In capturing Tel Abyad, the YPG cut off a vital north-south supply route from ISIS’ capital in Raqqah. This strategic victory advanced PYD efforts to link Kobani with the Kurdish Cizire canton in Syria’s northeastern triangle, creating a contiguous territory eastward from Kobani to the Iraqi border. The PYD must now clear ISIS from territories between Kobane and the autonomous Kurdish canton of Efrin. The YPG has already begun a campaign to capture the mixed Kurdish-Arab town of Jarabulus in order to achieve this objective. As Turkey’s foremost voice in support of PYD forces fighting ISIS, the HDP will now be able to rally domestic and international support from the halls of Turkey’s Parliament.
With continued Western support, the PYD could soon establish a contiguous Kurdish territory in Syria that spans most of the region along Turkey’s southern border, despite President Erdogan’s new, hard-line vow last week to “never allow a state to be formed in northern Syria." In Turkey, the PKK-sympathetic HDP will be an increasingly powerful advocate for granting the Kurds some semblance of autonomy within the nation. As the cease-fire between the PKK and Ankara continues, it is becoming more and more possible that the Kurds can achieve their dream of autonomy through democratic means. Whether the PKK’s ambition to establish autonomous Kurdish regions on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border is ever realized, the progress it is making toward that goal has already altered the political maps of Turkey and the Middle East.