Syria’s Kurds Are Not the PKK

Amid the war against the Islamic State, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is bombing our villages and soldiers on an entirely false pretense.


Last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan bombed and shelled our villages in northern Syria. The strikes killed our soldiers and unnecessarily escalated the conflict between Turkey and us at a time when we are engaged in a historic battle alongside U.S.-led international coalition forces to retake Raqqa and end the Islamic State’s reign of terror.

I am a member of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), an umbrella organization made up of six political parties and civil society institutions, including the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the leading Kurdish party in northern Syria. We are recognized by the PYD, as well as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) as their political leadership. We are devoted to building an egalitarian, democratic, and ethical society where Arabs, Kurds, and Syriacs — along with Muslims, Christians and Yazidis — all live peacefully side by side and where women are treated equal to men.

In justifying this egregious attack on northern Syria, Erdogan used a common refrain. The PYD and the Syrian Kurds, he said, are the same as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), making them terrorists.

Erdogan recently repeated this allegation, saying that he is “seriously saddened” by television footage showing U.S. military forces operating alongside what he considers a terrorist insignia — our flag. And on May 3, one of his senior advisors went further: He suggested that U.S. forces, because they operate alongside our forces and are patrolling the Syrian-Turkish border, could also be targeted by the Turkish military. These statements are remarkable — a NATO member country is accusing its American ally of working with terrorists and, as a result, threatening U.S. soldiers.

Putting aside political circumstances and repercussions of this accusation, it is important to set the record straight. We are not the PKK, no matter how much Erdogan wishes it were so, and it is not difficult to explain why.

Modern Kurdish groups can trace their political philosophies to one of two founding figures: Mustapha Barzani and Abdullah Ocalan. The fundamental distinction between the two is that while Barzani, the father of the current president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Massoud Barzani, called for building a nationalist Kurdish state based on aristocracy and the rule of a few, Ocalan called for a socialist state where all were equal. Over time, Ocalan evolved his ideas from socialism to federalism, believing that a democracy where power is decentralized is the best way to protect both individual and collective freedoms.

The influences of these figures and ideas can be seen today. Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) springs from the Barzani school of thought, and as a result the KRG is ruled by a few, with power and wealth concentrated in the hands of the Barzani family and its friends. Ocalan’s school of thought, on the other hand, extends to the PYD, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and the PKK, as well as other groups in Iraq and Iran. All these groups have implemented Ocalan’s ideas differently and pursued different aims, as we interact with different geopolitical players.

We don’t deny our relationships with all Kurdish parties in the four parts of Kurdistan (spread across present-day Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq), as we don’t deny our connection to Ocalan. In fact, as I write this, I am proud to say I have a photo of Ocalan on my desk next to me. Ocalan’s views and philosophy are at the core of how we govern the Northern Syrian Federation, or Rojava. And they are why, under our control, northern Syria has become a model — respecting the rights of minority groups and women, and ensuring that individual and collective freedoms are not only protected but empowered.

We also don’t deny that PKK also traces its school of thought back to Ocalan. However, their implementation of his teachings differs greatly from ours, and their political circumstances do as well. These distinctions are important, however much Erdogan wishes the world to ignore them. We can share a founding philosophical father without being the same organization. Having different leadership, different members, and publicly stating we are different — as we are doing in this article and have done numerous times in the past — should be a clear indication as to our intent. Simply put, we are our own organization, and we are proud of that.

As Kurds, we of course sympathize with our brothers and sisters in Turkey. Many of their towns are divided along our border, partly residing in Turkey and partly in northern Syria. Historically, many Syrian Kurds joined the struggle in Turkey and were martyred there. Equally, some Kurds from Turkey and Iraq came to Syria to join the heroic resistance of Kobani against the Islamic State, and were martyred in Rojava. The PKK offered its help to Kobani, as did the United States.

It pains us to see those on the Turkish side of the border suffer from oppression and fear under Erdogan. But that is not our struggle, and we have said publicly and will say again that our territory and resources are not going to be used by the PKK or any other groups fighting Turkey. We don’t interfere in the domestic affairs of neighboring countries, and we expect other countries to do the same.

The fact that Kurdish towns are divided between countries is part of the complexity of our region. Yes, this nuance is difficult for those outside our region to understand, but it is critical. If observers or policymakers fail to grasp it, they will be led to believe false blanket statements — such as the ones Erdogan makes — where he equates us with PKK.

For Erdogan, the fact that the Syrian Kurds are not the PKK represents an inconvenient truth. It is inconvenient because it means that the pretenses for his attacks against northern Syria, his escalation along our border, and his advisor’s threats against U.S. forces are all false. It is inconvenient because it means the millions of dollars Turkey spends in the United States trying to turn public opinion against us, with paid lobbyists and PR firms, amounts to nothing more than an expensive propaganda operation. Sadly though, it has not been without effect — Erdogan’s pressure succeeded in having the State Department exclude us from the Geneva peace negotiations, has in the past restricted the Defense Department from providing us support, and even prevented USAID and its contractors from providing development assistance for fear of losing access to Syria through Turkey, where many nongovernmental organizations are currently based. Much of this occurred in during President Barack Obama’s administration. We can only hope that the Trump administration’s steadfast support thus far will continue in spite of Turkey’s false claims.

Whatever pretense Erdogan may claim, we in northern Syria know that he bombs us to distract his own population from domestic issues, including his recent power grab in the form of a national referendum. But what this means is that, as problems in Turkey continue to grow, his appetite for conflict in Syria will similarly escalate. This was not the first time he bombed us, and it will not be the last. Each time he does, he will call us terrorists and accuse us of being PKK. All we can hope is that the world sees these claims for what they are — politically motivated lies that not only threaten our safety but the safety of our American colleagues.

Until Erdogan’s lies are exposed, it will remain convenient for him to engage in this duplicity. But this is the truth: We are not PKK, no matter how often Erdogan says otherwise.