Just as the Assad regime is foundering, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK, is proving to be its loyal henchman. In this essay, Stefan Buchen writes that PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan made a deal with the Syrian regime back in the days of Hafez al-Assad
While the Syrian regime braces itself against its downfall in Damascus and Aleppo, a remarkable chapter of the war is unfolding in the Kurdish areas of Syria, far away from eyes of the world. There, the local branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK, is acting as henchman of the Assad regime and playing the part of both police and public administration.
No official declaration on this astounding development has been forthcoming from either the Assad regime or the PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who is currently imprisoned in Turkey, nor from the military leaders of the Kurdish political sect, which operates in secret mainly in the Qandil Mountains in north-eastern Iraq.
Nevertheless, the signs of a tacit alliance between the Syrian regime and the PKK are proliferating to an extent that appears to dispel any doubts. This was the case even before the statement made last week by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Assad had "entrusted" the Kurdish areas of Syria to the PKK.
PKK infiltration of Syrian territory
The head of the Syrian PYD (Democratic Union Party), an offshoot of the PKK, is the engineer Salih Muslim Muhammad. At the beginning of the revolution in Syria, he was in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan. He has now returned to Syria. In an illuminating interview with the Internet portal "Kurdwatch", Salih Muslim avowed that he did not see the Assad regime as an enemy, but rather the Turkish government.
He accuses the dissident Syrian National Council, which has its headquarters in Istanbul, of assisting the Turkish government. "I returned to Syria with many of my people. If we want to arm ourselves, we have the opportunity to do so," the PYD chief said in the interview.
There is a great deal of evidence that they have long since done so. A growing number of reports say that the PYD is putting up roadblocks in the Kurdish regions of Syria, arresting dissident Kurds and putting its own party loyalists in posts at the water and power utilities now vacated by members of the ruling Baath party. "The PYD, and thus the PKK, is clearly the strongest political and military power in the Kurdish parts of Syria," says Siamend Hajo, the well-informed director of Kurdwatch.
Salih Muslim is playing the role here of a shop-window mannequin, a status similar to that of the long-time head of the Iranian PKK offshoot Pejak, Abd ar-Rahman Haj-Ahmadi. The real power and decision-making authority are exercised by the underground PKK leaders. Word has it in Kurdish circles that the Pejak fighters, who for years carried out assaults on state institutions in the Kurdish regions of Iran, have signed a truce with the Islamic Republic and have now relocated to the Kurdish territories in Syria.
PKK training in Syria
In its pact with the Assad regime, the Kurdistan Workers' Party is following the old logic of "my enemy's enemy is my friend". In other words: Assad is the enemy of the Turkish government, which has been the enemy of the PKK as long as anyone can remember; therefore, Assad is now a friend of the PKK.
For more than a decade, until the outbreak of the uprising in Syria, things were different. Relations between Damascus and Ankara were characterised by close cooperation and partnership. A prerequisite for these amicable relations was the expulsion of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan from his exile in Damascus in September 1998. Shortly thereafter, the Turkish secret service apprehended Öcalan in Africa, abducted him and sentenced him to life imprisonment in Turkey.
Until 1998, Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, had granted Öcalan refuge in Damascus. The PKK chief ran military training camps in Syria and in Syrian-occupied Lebanon. From his base in Damascus, Öcalan organised the bloody guerrilla war against Turkey. In return for his protection, Öcalan made sure that the Syrian Kurds submitted to Assad's dictatorship.
Contradictions in PKK politics
It was one of the most blatant contradictions in the PKK leader's politics: while he was leading a "war of independence" for the Kurdish minority in Turkey, he demanded of his countrymen in Syria that they put up with discrimination and oppression by the central government there. For Öcalan, the Kurdish areas of Syria were at best a recruitment pool for new fighters, who would be sent into battle in Turkey.
But now, just when the Assad regime is on its last legs, the old alliance is being revived. From Afrin in the West to Qamishli in the East, PKK members are showing their strength in the Syrian-Kurdish cities, possibly not stopping at the murder of political opponents.
On 7 October 2011, the Kurdish politician Mishal at-Tammu was shot dead in Qamishli in a targeted attack. Tammu was the head of the dissident "Kurdish Future Movement" party, which is critical of the regime. He had previously spent three years in prison in Damascus. During the uprising in Syria, in which the Kurdish areas were also involved, he felt threatened by the PKK. His party colleague Zahida Rashkilu, who was seriously injured in the attack, found refuge in Berlin a few months ago with the help of the German Foreign Office. She believes the perpetrators came from the ranks of the PKK.
In its alliance with the foundering Assad regime, the Kurdistan Workers' Party is a prisoner of its own Machiavellian logic. Such murderous logic can be enforced only in sect-like political organizations. In this respect, the PKK is reminiscent of another political sect in the Middle East: the People's Mujahedin of Iran. That party believed in the 1980s that the best way to oppose Khomeini was to enter into an alliance with the Iraqi ex-dictator Saddam Hussein. This did neither the Iranians nor themselves any good. It will be the exactly the same for the Syrian Kurds and the PKK.
© Qantara.de 2012
Stefan Buchen is a television journalist who works for the German broadcaster NDR. He regularly reports from the Middle East and North Africa. In 2007 he produced a report on the PKK for the German broadcaster WDR.
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de