COPENHAGEN, Denmark – Today, as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) marks the 30th anniversary of the day it began its armed struggle for Kurdish rights in Turkey, the powerful group has little resemblance to its younger self.
What began as a guerrilla movement against Turkish repression of its estimated 15 million Kurds has transformed into a formidable force: in Turkey the PKK is engaged in a peace process with the government and in Syria its affiliates hold sway over the Kurdish regions (Rojava), where they have declared autonomy.
Since Islamic State (IS/ISIS) armies captured about a third of Iraq since June, the PKK has become part of the war, its affiliated forces from Rojava fighting alongside the Kurdistan region’s Peshmerga troops against the IS armies.
Now, the PKK is hopeful that its leader Abdullah Ocalan, in a Turkish island prison since capture in 1999, will be freed as part of the peace process, and that its name will be taken off the terrorist lists of the European Union and the United States.
The “terrorist” designation is turning into an inconvenience, even on the battlefield, as US forces carry out airstrikes on IS positions in support of Erbil’s Peshmerga forces.
A Peshmerga commander told Rudaw that PKK members blocked a planned raid on IS by Peshmerga and US Special Forces on Wednesday night, after the Americans refused to give in to demands that the attacks must be coordinated with the PKK’s Rojava forces.
According to the Peshmerga commander in the Shingal area members of the PKK and the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) from Syria are currently positioned on Mount Shingal.
The commander, who spoke to Rudaw on condition of anonymity, said that the US forces refused coordination with the PKK, because the group remains on the US terror list.
The designation of the PKK has also raised concern in several European capitals, as France, Britain and Germany send weapons to the Peshmerga, but worry about the arms falling into the hands of groups affiliated with the PKK.
Campaigners who began a petition on the White House website to have the PKK dropped from the US list, wrote: "The PKK has been a partner in defending Iraq and Kurdistan against the Islamic State, thus the US government should remove the PKK from the list of international terrorist organizations – immediately!"
Besides its guerrilla forces, the PKK commands people power among an army of loyalists wherever there are Kurdish communities in the world.
"One can be for or against the PKK, but one cannot deny its contribution to putting the Kurds of Turkey on the world agenda," said Abbas Vali, a professor at Istanbul;s Bogazici University.
The PKK has helped to mobilize and politicize a generation of Kurds in eastern Turkey, he said.
Vali noted that in recent years the PKK has been shifting from armed struggle to political struggle, and that since 1990 up to 10 pro-Kurdish political parties have been legally formed, chief among them the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Some were represented in the Turkish parliament, while others were closed down by judicial authorities for "connections to an illegal organization," namely PKK.
Nikolaj Villumsen, a member of the Danish Parliament and the European Council, criticized Turkey for reportedly having allowed IS militants across its border into Syria for a long time, and then labeling the PKK a terrorist organization.
"It is bizarre," said Villumsen. “Denmark supports Turkey through NATO, which allows extremist groups to cross the border, while we call those who help a people in need in Iraq -- for example PKK -- terrorists. "
He said that the “terrorist” designation of the PKK hinders peace.
"One does not negotiate with terrorists, so the terrorist label must be removed. It is also absurd to label the PKK as terrorists, even when the Turkish state meets with the (IS) organization," Villumsen said.
Some of the Western criticism of the PKK is rooted in the time the group was accused of killing defectors who tried to form new groups, although the organization itself denies the accusations.
Aliza Marcus, US author of a book on the PKK, believes that the PKK used to more authoritarian and less open to criticism than it is now.
"Part of this is due to the group's extreme leftist background, which did not tolerate dissent,” Marcus said.
“Finally the group was run by an authoritarian leader,” she added. “The PKK remains hostile now, too, but rarely seeks to assassinate opponents.”
She said one reason is that “the group is so much stronger now that there's not as much reason to be afraid of dissent. The other reason is that the landscape has changed: with more room for Kurds to speak out in Turkey and a mini state in Iraq, the PKK has to accept a certain amount of other voices.”
The PKK may well be on its way to changing its image in the West, now that it is on the same side of the struggle with the West against IS, according to Birgitte Vestermark, a journalist at Denmark Radio who has covered Turkey’s Kurds as a correspondent.
"If the PKK can use its fight against ISIS and be politically smart, it can get a better image in the West," she said.