Even as it worked for peace, the PKK prepared for war with Turkey

Aliza Marcus writes: In February, Kurdish politicians held a joint press conference with Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan to announce a new plan for the rebel group to renounce its armed struggle while the government made democratic reforms. Erdogan quickly disavowed any deal.

“The cease-fire didn’t end in July; Turkey ended it long before,” [Cemil] Bayik [the de facto commander of PKK forces] said. “We are in favor of negotiations, but until that happens, we will continue the war if that’s what Turkey wants.”

Bayik’s reputation wasn’t built in combat — in the past, he was primarily responsible for running the group’s training academy in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and then its rearguard bases in northern Iraq — but he has a reputation for having a keen grasp of what it takes to maintain the group’s unity and focus on its twin goals of freedom for [PKK leader, Abdullah] Ocalan and self-rule for the Kurds. As his armed guards patrolled just out of sight, he laid out PKK demands for resuming the cease-fire.

“A cease-fire needs to be agreed on by both sides, and we need a public statement from Turkey that they are ready for dialogue,” added Bayik.

In other words, there won’t be any more unilateral cease-fires — even with de facto government agreement, as was the case in 2013. The PKK also wants a monitoring committee to ensure both sides are doing what they need to under any new cease-fire plan, and the group wants to be able to meet with Ocalan, who is held on Imrali island prison, in the Sea of Marmara, with access tightly controlled by the state.

Bayik, who wore a small pin with Ocalan’s image on his shirt, insisted that the PKK leader’s imprisonment shouldn’t be a barrier to direct talks with senior PKK officials. “These are technical issues,” Bayik said, “let them first accept that Ocalan can meet with the PKK’s leadership and then we can work out how.”

Bayik has reason to be confident. The PKK spent the past two years preparing for war, even as it was working for peace.The PKK spent the past two years preparing for war, even as it was working for peace. The group’s planned withdrawal from Turkey, which was promised by Ocalan as part of the 2013 cease-fire, was halted when rebels saw that Turkish soldiers were taking over the abandoned positions and building new, heavily fortified mountain outposts. The PKK sent its forces and weapons back in, and worked to expand its political dominance over the region through local, pro-PKK institutions. A quasi-civilian youth militia was organized and armed.

The PKK’s situation has also improved internationally, despite being labeled by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization. Its Syrian affiliate, known as the YPG, is working closely with the U.S. military in the battle against the so-called Islamic State in northern Syria. In northern Iraq, Kurdistan government officials say they want the PKK to leave their mountain camps, but rebels were key in helping Iraqi Kurds push back the jihadi assaults last year in Makhmour and around Mount Sinjar. In some areas, like Kirkuk, PKK rebels are still stationed in case of attacks by the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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