PKK, TAK and the sea of confusion

Like any war, Turkey’s conflict with the PKK has nuances that are not straightforward to unpack

Like any war, Turkey’s conflict with the PKK has nuances that are not straightforward to unpack

Despite the way leaders choose to portray them, armed conflicts are rarely a fight between the binary forces of good and evil. There are nuances that are overlooked, very often for the sake of an easier narrative.

Turkey’s decades-long conflict with the Kurds is no different. To dismantle a gross simplification: not every Turk wants to eradicate the Kurds and not every Kurd wants to destroy Turkey.

Another simplification in this conflict surrounds Turkey’s chief adversary: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish initials PKK.

The organisation founded by Abdullah Öcalan has gone through many phases, not least after Öcalan’s 1999 capture. It has unilaterally declared and renounced ceasefires. It has secretly and not-so-secretly held talks with Turkish intelligence officials aimed at ending the conflict.

Depending on who you talk to, it advocates a fully independent Kurdish state that includes territory currently part of Turkey, or simply a Kurdish autonomous region within Turkey’s borders.

But like just about any organisation, the PKK is not an entity with a single, unified message. Its divisions stretch across national boundaries and competing battles, not all of them involving Turkey.

Those divisions were thrown in the spotlight earlier this week when a PKK offshoot known as TAK, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, claimed responsibility for Sunday’s Ankara bombing. It also said it carried out the last Ankara bombing in February and an attack on an empty airliner at an Istanbul airport late last year.

TAK claims to be a separate organisation that eschews the PKK’s policy of negotiating with the Turkish government, instead calling for Turkey’s wholesale destruction. The PKK, too, says TAK has broken away from it.

Click to open infographic

But the picture is confused by people like Hüseyin Turhallı, a former PKK member who told Al-Monitor that the two organisations are one and the same.

“To me,” he says, “the TAK is not a PKK wing or independent. It is a structure that has adopted the PKK’s ideology and philosophy, but diverges from it in actions. In other words, if the PKK agrees to cease hostilities, the TAK will follow that line.”

And to complicate the picture of Kurdish fighting forces even further, consider the differences between Turkey and the United States over the People’s Protection Units, more widely known as the YPG. Is it a key Washington ally in the fight against Islamic State/Daesh, or is Ankara correct to consider it an offshoot of the PKK?

I have developed an infographic that should help decipher a few of the militant organisations and the legal political parties from the sea of acronyms and initialisms that dominate Turkey’s war with the PKK. Roll over the group names to reveal a basic description and the countries that consider it to be a terrorist organisation.

It is by no means comprehensive and very much a work in progress, but it does help to show how many organisations, but by no means all, have some form of affiliation to the PKK.

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