Stalemate: The PKK as a Symbol of Identity and Insurgency in Modern Turkey

Kurdish PKK Militant
Stalemate: The PKK as a Symbol of Identity and Insurgency in Modern Turkey - Andrew Watkins


The conflict between the Turkish government and the Partiya Karkeren Kuridstan or PKK has persisted to varying degrees of intensity since the latter’s founding in 1978. Over this time, tens of thousands have been killed on both sides. This devastating death toll combined with the litany of failed peace processes along the way have culminated to cement a stalemate with deep mistrust on both sides. Though the most recent peace overtures from the Erdogan government and subsequent withdrawal of PKK fighters from eastern Turkey brought hope of a breakthrough, that progress has now stalled as both sides look set to retrench against the perceived insincerity of the other. While the conflict is complex and dynamic, one aspect is often written off to the margins: the nature of the PKK itself. Many governments and analysts simply write the group off as a mere militant group, terrorist organization, or band of freedom fighters. In this paper, I argue that the stalemate currently being experienced is precisely because policymakers have failed to realize the true nature of what the PKK has become. Indeed, rather than conforming neatly to any one label, the PKK has transformed into a symbol of Kurdish ethno-nationalism. Only when the peace process takes this into account will the stalemate truly have a chance to be broken.


The emergence of an ethno-nationalist challenge to state authority in modern day Turkey by members of the state’s Kurdish minority has given rise to a vast array of scholarship. Many have attempted to examine the emergence of this challenge by focusing on static causal relationships based on issues of economic marginalization (Van Bruinessen), violent state repression (Taspinar), or historic grievances (Mousseau). Others have broken down the conflict by combining aspects of these factors into a broader framework that, importantly, conveys an array of underlying social, economic, and political dynamics in the evolution of the conflict (Romano). As analysis continues on, so too does the stalemate between the Turkish government and the ethno-nationalist Kurdish movement in Turkey. However, in searching for a single or set of lenses through which to view the stalemate, one central component is often overlooked as a mere symptom of the wider conflict: the symbolic nature of the Partiya Karkeren Kuridstan or PKK.

Rather than existing as one in a litany of semi-legitimate insurgent forces vying for power against the central state, the PKK—since its inception in 1978—has been the main driver of the conflict as the power-center of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. What makes its position in this respect so interesting, indeed perplexing, is the nature of the PKK itself. It never managed to field a force that legitimately threatened the central government, coerced only minor changes to government policies that were in turn implemented only sparingly, did little to improve the daily lives of ordinary Kurds, attacked other Kurdish nationalists aligned in the fight for Kurdish rights, and greatly increased the overall hardships faced by the local Kurdish population. It would seem to follow that an insurgent group with such a record would find little sympathy amongst the local population for which it was fighting. Yet to this day, the PKK retains broad support both at home and in the neighboring Kurdish populations of Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Indeed, the PKK was able to not only cultivate support for the expression of Kurdish nationalism but also to focus that support through its guerilla war in Turkey. How has this been possible? This paper undertakes to answer that question.

Analysis begins with a breakdown of ethnicity and identity as central forces in the creation of a ‘constitutional identity’ in the Turkish context and the parallel development of Kurdish ethno-nationalism. This is followed by a study of the structural composition of the PKK as an organization. After critiquing a number of the most frequently given explanations for the PKK’s continued dominance as the leader of the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey, the paper synthesizes the available literature in support of the main argument: that the conflict has reached a critical stalemate principally through the PKKs ability to survive and thrive as a symbol of Kurdish ethno-nationalism rather than simply an insurgent group.

Setting the Stage—Constitutional Identity in Modern Turkey

The expression of Kurdish identity in Turkey is inextricably bound with the development of the Turkish state beginning in 1920. By extension, the rise of the PKK as a political and military force cannot be truly understood outside the context of this process. There exists an extensive literature on Kurds in the former Ottoman empire and how inter-communal relations developed up until the outbreak of World War I.[1] However, for the purposes of this paper, the focus is placed firmly on examining how these themes came to be dominated by and expressed through the PKK in opposition to the Turkish state. As such, the story begins neither in the Ottoman Empire nor in 1921 with the promulgation of a relatively inclusive Turkish constitution that placed sovereignty in the hands of the people, but rather with the passage, three short years later, of the 1924 constitution. In this later version, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, after winning the war of independence in 1922, instituted a constitutionally defining view of the country’s inhabitants.[2] Particularly galling for Turkey’s twenty percent Kurdish minority was the provision that, “Without religious and ethnic difference, every person of the people of Turkey who is a citizen is regarded as a Turk.”[3] This constitutional definition included legislation for Turkish to be the country’s sole language and for religion to be largely excluded from the center of state power. Differing substantially from Ottoman rule that emphasized religious observance for defining ones position in the empire, this new constitution was the first attempt by the nascent Turkish state to universally define its citizens as exclusively Turks. It also served as the first instance that Kurdish activists and political institutions were able to coalesce around opposition to a central state that many viewed as discriminatory and unrepresentative. In short, it marked the formation of a basis for political opposition in the state making process.

Following the implementation of the constitution in 1924, a host of Kurdish uprisings flared throughout the southeast of the country. These uprisings were brutally repressed by Ankara in a constitutionally sanctioned process of subverting Kurdish identity in favor of a definitively Turkish one. Aliza Marcus, in her study of the PKK’s founding, outlines how during the 1930s, Turkey, “…implemented a host of laws to wipe out Kurdish history and identity.”[4] She notes that Kurdish villages were given Turkish names, the word “Kurdistan” was expunged from textbooks, and the Kurdish language was essentially banned. In a nod to the Kurdish nationalism brewing in neighboring Iraq, Marcus offers the story of a British diplomat travelling in southeastern Turkey in 1956. “I did not catch the faintest breath of Kurdish nationalism which the most casual observer in Iraq cannot fail to notice.”[5] Such were the successes of Turkish policies aimed at subsuming the Kurdish minority within the Turkish state. The importance of Kurdish identity in other regions of the Middle East, particularly Syria, Iraq, and Iran, though not the main focus of this paper, nonetheless play an important role in the development of the PKK and are discussed later in this analysis.

The period from the mid-1920s through to 1960 was one marked by the clear dominance of the Turkish state. Dissenting voices were largely silenced and freedom of expression curtailed. However, the vicissitudes of Turkish politics would change this in 1960 when a military coup ousted Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and ushered in a more liberal period of Turkish politics. This in turn led to a relative proliferation of formal Kurdish political organizations. The socialist Turkish Workers Party (TIP) was founded in 1961 and cultivated a large following. In 1965, the underground Kurdistan Democratic Party of Turkey (TKDP) was formed as the first nationalist Kurdish Party in Turkey since the crushed rebellions of the 1920s.[6] M. Hakan Yavouz discusses the construction of Kurdish political identity in relation to the state during this period by noting the centrality of socialist themes in the secularization of the Kurdish issue.[7]The emphasis here is placed on the manner by which ideas of a unique Kurdish identity were framed against the then dominant Kemalist project put in place by followers of Turkey’s founding father. Gunes extends this focus on the relationship between socialist discourse and Kurdish identity politics in the early 1960s by noting that the former, “…led to the ideological condensation of the national liberation discourse. It characterized the Kurds as a colonized people…and nationalist unification could be achieved only under the leadership of a revolutionary movement led by the Kurdish working class.”[8] From this reading of the Kurds position in modern Turkey grew an array of activists and political organizations that recoiled at the hegemonic discourse of the state which, in attempting to solidify a unified Turkish identity, sought to portray the Kurdish population as “mountain Turks” who had lost touch with their linguistic and ethnic heritage.[9] In the evolution of a national discourse, Kurdish leaders and activists increasingly realized that their vision of an inclusive Turkish state could not be accommodated within the Kemalist framework being implemented from Ankara.

By the mid-1970s, the near constant friction between Turkish military leaders, political elites in Ankara, and Kurdish leaders in the southeast was becoming ever more combustible. The Turkish military, facing the emergence of leftist Turkish groups espousing violent socialist revolution, staged yet another coup in 1971 reversing the previous freedoms enshrined in the 1961 constitution. Kurdish political parties were shut down and leftist organizers were again arrested. It was in this milieu of uncertainty and repression that the seeds for armed resistance were planted and, during a meeting in the southern Turkish town of Fis, eventually culminated in the founding of the PKK in 1978. Over the next decade, the PKK would go from basement meetings in rural Diyarbakir to operating training facilities and bases in multiple countries, mobilizing a fighting force in the tens of thousands, and even maintaining a diplomatic presence in Europe. In order to make this transition, the PKK undertook a strategy of war fighting that would rattle Ankara and cement itself as the dominant fighting force in Turkey.

A Structural Analysis of the PKK

The organizational structure of the PKK has largely been defined and organized by its leader: Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan has monopolized the leadership of the PKK since its inception. Taken to longwinded treatises on the nature of war, the legitimacy of rebellion, and the righteousness of the Kurdish cause in Turkey, Ocalan has assumed an almost messianic status in the PKK. His military designs were beyond criticism and any failures were pushed on the inadequacies of those in the field empowered to implement them. The PKK would hold party conferences where fighters from across the region would meet and discuss events of the past year. These meetings were often a farce since Ocalan’s successful strategies were lauded and his failures placed on subordinates who were then humiliated and scorned.[10] In this way, Ocalan was able to denigrate those subordinates he felt were growing too strong within the organization. Their redemption in the eyes of the PKK movement would only come by the grace of the leader’s leniency. He was thus able to cultivate a fiercely loyal organization. Some who found such authoritarian tendencies unsettling were cast out as traitors and either fled Turkey or were murdered.[11] Such violence and political murders within the organization have become trademarks of an organization that puts party discipline and unquestioning obedience above all else.

Where Ocalan did build internal structures, he made sure that such sub-groups were inline with his own way of thinking. Formally, the PKK has three standing committees within its organizational structure. The first is the central committee—headed by Ocalan—and charged with the overall leadership of the organization. The second is the mass support committee, which focuses on cultivating Kurdish support for the PKK in both the domestic and international arenas. The third is the military committee, which oversees the guerilla war.[12]Ocalan is the dominant force over all of these committees. As a result of these inner dynamics and Ocalan’s effective control over them, the PKK has remained a complex entity prone to dramatic internal organizational change amongst Ocalan’s subordinates. By manipulating those under him, Ocalan is able to keep any one member from gaining enough power to threaten his overall control.

One area of little current scholarship that deserves further investigation is the role that PKK members, in the period just following the group’s creation, played in committing violent acts on their own initiative without consulting local PKK committees. Some see this as a product of the chaos then enveloping Turkey, chaos that made communication and consultation impractical. Others see it as a more genuine expression of anger taken by individuals against the state with only nominal adherence given to PKK directives. Further research on this point could clarify these early relationships between leaders and fighters in the evolution of the PKK. Regarding the role of leaders and elites in shaping and mobilizing ethnic identity, the instrumentalist framework outlined by political scientists Ted Robert Gurr and Barbara Harff is of particular relevance. The PKK, in particular Ocalan and his deputies, has been at the forefront of shaping the identity of Kurdish ethno-nationalism in Turkey. They have done this through publicity campaigns, the dissemination of nationalist literature, and most importantly the use of violence.

Warfare and Tactics

The PKK exhibits a shrewd understanding of the symbolic importance of its violent acts. This symbolism is central to understanding the fighting strategies it undertook. Formally unveiled in 1978, the PKK began its military operations not by attacking the Turkish state, but rather by focusing its arms on leftist opposition movements and Kurdish rivals.[13] Through force of fist when called for and force of arms when necessary, the PKK went about clearing a political space over which it could assert control. Initially, its political objective was to carve out an independent Kurdish state in southeast Turkey. The PKK’s strategy for achieving this goal was the defeat of Kurdish and Turkish political, military, and economic elites who supported the Turkish government. The tactics it used in furtherance of this strategy varied based on the groups it was fighting but largely centered on targeted assassinations, bombing campaigns, and guerilla warfare.

Initially, the primary tactical targets of the PKK were the Kurdish and Turkish elites in southeastern Turkey. Marcus offers a telling example of how the PKK, after one of its fighters was killed by a member of the powerful, land-owning Suleymanlar tribe in the Kurdish town of Hilvan, was unable to muster local support for a revenge attack. Two months later, Ocalan’s forces killed the tribe’s leader and eventually won widespread support in both the town and surrounding area.[14] Such attacks were a mainstay of initial PKK tactics to hallow out a sphere of local power and legitimacy in which it was the sole representative of the Kurds in Turkey.

Another tactic of the PKK’s military activity in southeastern Turkey included the assassination of village guards. Initially created in 1985, the village guard program was implemented by the Turkish government through the recruitment of villagers to protect areas in southeastern Turkey and provide intelligence on the movements of the PKK.[15] At its height in the 1990s, the guards numbered more than 90,000. These guards posed a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the PKK in that they were members of the local communities they were guarding and thus served as an extension of Turkish state control into areas the state would otherwise be unable to project power. In accepting money from the state in the name of protecting local populations from PKK violence, the guards positioned themselves as legitimate local actors cast opposite the ‘illegitimate’ PKK fighters. In response, the PKK undertook a targeted campaign against the village guards whom they deemed traitorous to the Kurdish cause. Thousands of these guards have been killed over the course of the conflict.

A third pillar of the PKK’s coercive actions is the undertaking of symbolically powerful attacks against Turkish military forces in southeastern Turkey. In contrast to the sporadic attacks that took place across the Turkish countryside through the late 1970s and early 80s, Ocalan decided to target Turkish military forces as an expression of the PKK’s growing power. The formal commencement of a guerilla war explicitly targeting the power of the Turkish military began in earnest on August 15, 1984. On this day, three separate PKK units each consisting of between ten and thirty fighters infiltrated three villages guarded by Turkish military barracks in southeastern Turkey. The focus of the attacks was not to kill Turkish soldiers but rather, “…to break the links between the soldiers and the people and to read the announcement [of the formation of the armed groups].”[16] While a number of soldiers were killed, the PKK fighters focused and holding off the remaining forces during which time a proclamation was read from the village mosques. The message was clear: the PKK possessed both the capability and the will to face the full might of the Turkish military. The symbolism of the act was more important than the tactical gains that victory would bring. Over the course of the conflict, these symbolic attacks would grow far more deadly. One of the most spectacular such attacks took place in May 1993 when PKK fighters killed 33 unarmed Turkish soldiers caught unaware at a PKK blockade.

Mustafa Cosar Unal, an agent in the Turkish national police department of intelligence explains these PKK tactics as exhibiting characteristics of both an insurgency and a terrorist campaign.[17] He notes that as an insurgency, the PKK aimed to achieve the specific political goal of creating an independent Kurdish state, which directly challenged the political legitimacy of the Turkish republic. It attempted to achieve this goal by mobilizing irregular fighters in a protracted Maoist campaign of People’s War.[18] At the same time, the PKK employed tactics characteristic of terrorist groups. Realizing that its forces would not easily be able to defeat entrenched Turkish military forces that could bring overwhelming force of arms and troop strength to the field of battle, the PKK began targeting non-combatant civilians through bombings and suicide attacks on tourist sites and metropolitan centers. The hope of this tactical shift was to break the military’s focus on the PKK’s southeastern positions and force it to maintain a more defensive posture thus allowing PKK guerillas to operate more freely. This shift in tactics would have dramatic consequences for the group in that it would lead to its designation as a foreign terrorist organization in both the United States and the European Union.

The PKK in Regional Geopolitics

The strategic logic of the fight that the PKK undertook against the Turkish state and the extent to which that fight was and has been successful cannot be disentangled from its geopolitical context. Two important currents inform this perspective. The first is the fact that Turkey, since it’s founding, has experienced military coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980 as well as softer military intervention in 1997 following the Islamist Welfare Party’s victory in national elections.[19]These tumultuous periods left the Turkish state internally weak and externally vulnerable. The second is the existence of large Kurdish minority populations in three of Turkey’s neighbors: Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The importance of this cannot be understated since it has allowed for the internationalization of what was previously a Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Central to the PKK’s ability to maintain its forces inside Turkish territory was the accessibility of bases and support facilities outside it.

The 1980 coup, in particular, was a response by the Turkish military to the increasing challenge of securing the southeast of the country and the government’s perceived inability to do so. Leading up to and then after the coup, the military undertook a sweeping campaign of arrests targeting Kurdish nationalists. One prisoner caught in the dragnet was PKK central committee member Sahin Donmez. With extensive knowledge of the PKK’s hideouts, Ocalan and others viewed themselves vulnerable and so took to flight. They found refuge in Syria. Through contacts in Syria, Ocalan met with the Syrian-backed Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), which agreed to take a small number of PKK fighters for training in guerilla tactics at the DFLP base in the Bekaa valley. The PKK struck similar deals with other Palestinian factions. Syrian dictator Hafaz Assad had a number of reasons to allow the PKK to operate, if not officially, within his borders. First, Turkish-Syrian relations remained cool from their split during the Cold War.[20] Further, the two sides had a continued border dispute over the former Syrian province of Alexandretta, which Turkey absorbed in 1939. In conjunction with these disputes, the issue of water rights was growing increasingly contentious at the time. This provided a powerful incentive for the PKK to be accommodated as a proxy through which Damascus could antagonize its larger neighbor.

The second major geopolitical issue involved the evolution of the Kurdish movement in Northern Iraq. Unlike the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq’s Kurdish minority had been fighting the central government in Baghdad for decades. War between Iraq and Iran from 1980 to 1988 and Saddam Hussein’s positioning of the majority of his forces in the country’s south allowed greater mobility for the main Iraqi Kurdish groups (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to better position themselves in the north. In 1982, still reeling from the crackdown by Turkish forces in southeastern Turkey, Ocalan made a deal with KDP leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani that would allow the PKK to maintain bases in the Qandill mountain range straddling the Turkish-Iraqi border.[21] Attacks from fighters entering Turkey from these bases would eventually bring Turkish military reprisals into Iraq and lead to a breakdown of the PKK-KDP relationship. Still, without access to these neighboring sanctuaries, it is unlikely the PKK could have maintained anywhere near the capabilities they were able to in the Turkish theater.

An important point to note is the symbolic importance this spread throughout the region had on the PKK’s ability to project power. Rather than being a primarily local group operating in a local context as the Kurdish groups in Iran, Syria, and Iraq were, the PKK—forced to cultivate other avenues in light of Turkish military actions—was able to broaden the scope of its message to a far greater audience. This elevated the status of the PKK both domestically and abroad. Further, its ability to cultivate relationships with other, far more established fighting groups in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon allowed it to develop a greater institutional capacity for guerilla war fighting and publicity than it ever would have been able to from the mountains of eastern Turkey.

Ethno-nationalist Mobilization and Explaining Support for the PKK

As the PKK was cultivating alliances and spheres of power in neighboring countries, Kurdish identity as an ethno-nationalist discourse was growing increasingly strident within Turkey. While initially garnering little support, the PKK eventually came to dominate the Kurdish issue in Turkey. How was this able to happen? Scholars have taken a number of positions to answer this question. Explanations include the extreme socio-economic changes taking place throughout Turkey at the time including the fact that in the late 1970s, the Turkish economy was battling inflation that ran at over 90%. These authors point to increasingly rapid urbanization, increased links to the global economy, and rising levels of education as key factors that led to the, “…growth of [Kurdish] nationalism by making available new forms of consciousness and creating new opportunities for Kurds to form links with and associations with other progressive forces.”[22] In further examining the influence of economic dynamics on the increase of support for the PKK, Demet Mousseau integrates both split labor market theory and ethnic competition theory to explain how the modernizing economy in the west of the country created a split market that pushed relatively menial jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, and simple services to the Kurdish areas in the east. He notes that this lack of jobs and increasing economic insecurity and inequality along ethnic lines, “…increase the likelihood of politicization of ethnicity and mobilization of ethnic groups.”[23] The socialist tenner of domestic politics at the time only further fed this feeling of economic disenfranchisement. While these economic motives offer a convincing analysis of initial support for the PKK, they fall short in explaining how the PKK was able to maintain this support even as the economic situation in eastern Turkey improved considerably over the past three decades. They also fail to explain why much of the Kurdish population would continue to support the PKK even as the latter’s actions only increased the economic marginalization of the Kurdish areas by turning the southeast into a war zone.

Another explanation is that the extreme coercive force used against the Kurdish population by the state was the determinate factor that pushed the population to mobilize in support of the PKK. Kurdish political identity was gaining ground and increasingly mobilized as a subset of global political phenomena such as Marxist liberation theory. Indeed, much of the most vocal pro-Kurdish groups were led by Marxist-inspired students who increasingly demanded the Turkish state end its policies of, “…repression, terror, and assimilation.”[24] As state authorities continued the state-building enterprise along Turkish ethnicity and identity, the voices of the Kurdish minority were increasingly and coercively pushed to the margins. Particularly in the early 1980s, the Turkish state—then run by a military regime—unleashed a wave of indiscriminate violence and widespread torture against civilians and activists in pursuit of its “Turkification” polices.[25] It is often posited that this violence only further pushed Kurdish nationalists to mobilize behind the PKK. Surely elements of this thesis ring true. The levels of violence employed by the Turkish state had an intensely galvanizing impact on the allegiances of the Kurdish population. In combination with the PKK’s attacks on oppressive Turkish (and in some cases Kurdish) landlords in defense of the rights of the Kurdish lower classes, this went a long way in garnering the sympathy of the Kurdish population in the face of state sanctioned violence.[26] This is the principal argument of renowned Kurdish historian David Romano. However, this theory does not explain why support for the PKK did not decline when the group itself targeted Kurdish political opponents or civilians. It also does not explain the fact that though still oppressive, the Turkish military action in the Kurdish areas has—since the late 1990s—been drawn down considerably from what it once was. It would seem that if violence by the Turkish military were the cause of support for the PKK, the absence of such state-sanctioned violence would coincide with a decline in Kurdish support for the group. This has not been the case.

A third casual factor offered in explanation of the PKK’s dominance of the Kurdish political sphere relates back to the constitutional identity imposed on the whole of the country by successive military regimes. Here, the argument is that by imposing a monolithic ethnic identity, the Turkish government forced the Kurds to view their ethnicity not as a composite piece of a multi-ethnic state but rather as an identity opposed to the one represented by the state. Politically, this entailed the widespread marginalization of Kurdish political rights in Turkey based on exclusive state policies. Such policies were only further institutionalized by the prohibition of Kurdish cultural and linguistic rights. Since this political agency was lacking, so the argument goes, the Kurds turned to the one organization that firmly fought for their rights. The background offered in the beginning of this piece gives more detailed insight into the impact of constitutional identity structures on the development of the Kurdish polity in Turkey. But, if this were indeed the driving force behind the support and mobilization of the Kurdish public for the PKK, it does not explain why this support continued even as more Kurdish political parties began to form as legitimate representatives of Turkey’s Kurds in the Turkish government. The first Kurdish political party to compete in national elections was the People’s Labor Party (HEP) in the 1991 national elections. The People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) competed in the 1995 national elections. Indeed even after political parties such as the Democratic Society Party—a Kurdish party with close links to the PKK—were shut down, others came to fill their places. In 2008, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) took over as the main legal Kurdish political party in Turkey. The party’s co-chair, Zubeyde Zumrut, in a telling comment on the PKKs continued dominance of the Kurdish issue, explained, “The PKK has become part of the people. You can’t separate them anymore. [This] means if you want to solve this problem, you need to take the PKK into account.”[27] So, there was some degree of political consolidation taking place within the Kurdish political sphere that both supported Kurdish interests and was viewed as legitimate in the eyes of the Turkish government. The RAND corporation puts it even more succinctly. “Even though most of the restrictions on Kurdish language and expression of Kurdish nationalism are now gone, public support for the PKK does not seem to have diminished.”[28]

The PKK as a Symbol of Resistance

The argument of this paper is that current explanations of the PKK and its centrality to the Kurdish issue in Turkey do not account for the group’s continued levels of support through space and over time. Rather than attempting to single out one particular catalyst, it is important to view a host of intertwined issues that have culminated in elevating the PKK from an insurgent group to something more: a symbol of Kurdish ethno-nationalism in Turkey. This is not a stylistic metaphor and is not meant to imply a metaphysical transition. Rather, it is the result of a number of very real processes that have evolved and culminated to modify how the PKK has been perceived over the course of the conflict. These varied processes are discussed below.

The most important aspect of the PKK’s emergence as the definitive symbol of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey was its symbolic use of violence. Kurdish-nationalism, as a pillar of Kurdish identity, was a fixture of Kurdish activist discourse prior to and then following the creation of the Turkish state. While some groups advocated the use of violence over this period, no group was able to engage the Turkish military for so long, so relentlessly, or over so great a space. In monopolizing the use of force in what it called “protection” of the Kurdish population, the PKK was able to rightfully claim that it was the only group willing and able to stand up to the Turkish army. This had a tremendous psychological impact on the way the PKK was viewed in southeastern Turkey. Further, it was not simply the fact that the PKK was attacking the state but rather the symbolic manner by which it undertook these attacks that accelerated its transformation into a symbol of resistance. Two examples stand out. The first was a series of events that involved the assassination of Kurdish tribal leaders who both dominated the local economy and remained steadfastly aligned with the state. The PKK, rather than engage the armed tribal groups that protected these leaders, instead sought the elimination of their leaders through targeted assassinations. This had the symbolic impact of showing the local Kurdish populations, previously dominated by these powerful tribes, that an alternative group existed that was powerful enough to touch those previously deemed untouchable. Second, in 1979, the PKK attempted to assassinate Mehmet Celal Bucak, a powerful Kurdish parliamentarian who had joined forces in government with the Turkish ultra-nationalist MHP party. Though it failed, the attempt received widespread notice and was contextualized by leaflets distributed throughout the southeast outlining the PKK’s goals. These violent acts were powerful symbols to a population unaccustomed to armed resistance on its behalf. The staying power of the PKK over the next four decades only further enhanced its evolution as a symbol of Kurdish ethno-nationalist resistance.

Another important characteristic of the PKK as a symbol is the importance of myth. The concept of myth, argues Laclau, places a crucial role in the institution of hegemony.[29] “Myth fulfills an important function by providing a surface on which dislocations and social demands can be inscribed.”[30] The dislocations faced by Kurdish society in modern Turkey included economic marginalization, political disenfranchisement, and continued social oppression. Against this backdrop, Kurdish nationalists resurrected the creation myth of Newroz.[31] Simply, the myth is based around the uprising of the Medes—ancestors of the Kurds—against the tyrannical Assyrian King Dehak. A local blacksmith named Kawa is told to have lead the Medes people in a popular uprising that culminated in the defeat of the Assyrian army, the death of King Dehak, and the liberation of the Medes people. This myth was employed in Kurdish ethno-nationalist discourse well before the creation of the PKK, but Ocalan’s group—through its armed resistance to the “tyrannical” government in Ankara—was unique in its ability to position itself as a modern day Kawa. It did this by remaining constantly in news headlines for brazen attacks against the government, by resisting the temptation to completely flee the country when military reprisals were at their worst (though some surely repositioned in northern Iraq), and by embodying the tenacious spirit Kurds have become famous for. The resonance of this Kawacomparison in the highly traditional culture of the region cannot be understated. For many Kurds, Kawa is a symbol of justice, equality, and the lifeblood of the Kurdish nation. Through its use of violence for what it called the “freedom of the Kurdish people,” the PKK was able to attach itself to this myth and become an elevated entity in the same vein as Kawa.

The use of violence and engagement of myth were central components in elevating the PKK from simply a fighting force to a symbol of resistance. However, these forces would not have been nearly as powerful were it not for the PKK’s strategic use of the media in cultivating its image. Without the ability to publicize its message and successes to the local population and the international community, the PKK would have very likely remained an obscure force fighting a forgotten insurgency in the mountains of southern Turkey. Instead, it was able to slowly build what, by insurgency standards, represents a media empire replete with satellite television stations, newsletters, publications, and websites. Through these means, the PKK was able to both publicize its actions and, more importantly, frame these actions in its own terms. This allowed the movement to counter the “terrorism” narrative that was central to the Turkish government’s coercive policies in the region. Further, its ability to reach populations who may not have been directly involved in the fighting but were nonetheless curious about the group and its aims was a pillar of the PKK’s ability to foster widespread support and admiration. Its defeats could be minimized as its successes were lionized thus feeding into the public perception of the PKK as the symbol of the ethno-nationalist struggle above all others.


Over thirty-five years after its founding and with its leader held in isolation on an island off the coast of Istanbul, the PKK is still at the center of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. In 2012, it was revealed that the Turkish government—led by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan—had undertaken secret negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan in an attempt to broker a peace deal and an end to the PKK guerilla war.[32] Hopes were initially high but have since been marred by mutual suspicion and a perceived lack of commitment to peace on both sides.[33] 

The fact that the expression of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey, as articulated through the PKK, has remained and grown over time is in part due to the exclusively Turkish constitutional identity of the state and the opposition this has cultivated amongst Turkey’s Kurds. Many also believe it is due in part to the continued economic dislocation of southeastern Turkey and the legacy of violence left behind by the Turkish military. However, these specific causal explanations do not explain the trajectory of the conflict and miss a crucially important point. By engaging the forces of Kurdish ethno-nationalism and channeling the discontent derived from the forces described above, the PKK was able to transform itself into something much more than a guerilla organization. Employing symbolic acts of targeted violence, engaging the Kurdish creation myth of Newroz, and promulgating its own version of Kurdish identity all combined to elevate the PKK to become the symbol through which Kurdish ethno-nationalism has been expressed. The PKK as a symbol, much like the people and forces it represents, is not a single monolithic force but rather a constantly evolving and changing set of interpretations of the past, perceptions of the present, and projections of the future.

With little other outlet for the expression of Kurdish identity, the PKK has become a visceral expression of that identity in Turkey. Decades of fighting on both sides have failed to produce anything other than anger and resentment while simultaneously pushing mutual accommodation and peace further out of reach. In order to break the stalemate, the Turkish government must see the PKK for what it is: a symbol of Kurdish ethno-nationalism. As such, the government must aim to cultivate an open political space into which a more democratic, legitimate, and representative voice of Turkey’s Kurds can be heard and have its grievances addressed. It could do this in a number of ways. First, the recent abolition of specially authorized courts (OYM) that were endowed with special powers and used to prosecute those suspected of serious criminal offenses including terrorism and organized crime is a positive development for the peace process. These courts were often used to prosecute those suspected of supporting the PKK and were loathed by the Kurds. Ankara must make sure that the procedures and effective powers of these abolished courts do not become incorporated into Turkey’s judicial system. The Turkish government could also undertake steps to elevate the position of the Kurdish language in Turkey by recognizing it as an important part of Turkey’s multi-cultural modern identity. Politically, President Erdogan could seek out Kurdish representatives to take more public and powerful positions within his administration, especially in areas concerning the provision of services for the country’s Kurds. This political opening could be undertaken in conjunction with an increased focus by the government in Ankara on economically developing the country’s largely Kurdish populated southeast. Finally, the Turkish government could halt—without exception—any moves to censor or intimidate journalists reporting on the Turkish-Kurdish issue in Turkey. The Committee to Protect Journalists notes that over the past two years, Turkey has been the world’s leading jailer of journalists. This, in combination with the blocking of popular sites such as YouTube and Twitter, only weakens the democratic foundations of the Turkish state. In sum, by opening the political, economic, and social space for Kurdish representation, the Turkish government will be much more effective in weakening support for the Partiya Karkeren Kuridstan.

Viewing the PKK monolithically as a terrorist group and battling it with coercive force alone only increases its symbolic power while pushing the more moderate voices within the Kurdish community to the sidelines. By allowing the Kurds a more definitive hand in shaping their own destiny as a constituent part of the Turkish state, Ankara can at once weaken the grip of the PKK and gain a powerful ally in its quest to make Turkey a secure, prosperous, and democratic country. History offers a bloody reminder of what could come if the stalemate persists.

Notes & References

  1. These sources include Janet Klein’s, “The Margins of Empire: Kurdish Militias in the Ottoman Tribal Zone,” (2011) and “Understanding Turkey’s Kurdish Question,” by Fevzi Bilgin (2013).
  2. Henri Barkey and Direnc Kadioglu, “The Turkish Constitution and the Kurdish Question,” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011,
  3. Ibid.
  4. Aliza Marcus, “The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence,” NYU Press, 2007, 18.
  5. Recounted by David McDowall, “A Modern History of the Kurds,” I.B. Tauris & Co, 1996, 402.
  6. Marcus, 19-20.
  7. M. Hakan Yavouz, “Five stages of the construction of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey,” Journal of Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, December 24, 2007.
  8. Cengiz Gunes, “Explaining the PKK’s Mobilization of the Kurds in Turkey: Hegemony, Myth, and Violence,”Journal of Ethnopolitics, October 2013.
  9. W. G. Elphinston, “The Kurdish Question,” The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Vol. 22, No. 1 Jan. 1946, 101.
  10. Aliza Marcus, “Blood and Belief,” NYU Press, 2007.
  11. Martin Van Bruinessen, “Between Guerilla Warfare and Politcal Murder: The Workers’ Party of Kurdistan,” Middle East Research and Information Project,
  12. “Kurdistan Workers Party,” Institute for the Study of Violent Groups, 2012,
  13. Marcus, 40.
  14. Marcus, 200-259.
  15. Sevim Songun, “The First Village Guards,” Hurriyet Daily News, September 15, 2009,
  16. Marcus, 81.
  17. Mustafa Cosar Unal, “The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and popular support: counterterrorism towards an insurgency nature,” Small Wars and Insurgencies. June, 2012, 432-438.
  18. Ibid.
  19. “Timeline: A history of Turkish coups,” Al Jazeera, April 2012,          
  20. Alan Makovsky, “Diffusing the Turkish-Syrian Crisis,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, January 1999,
  21. Michael M Gunter, “The Kurds of Iraq: Tragedy and Hope,” Palgrave Macmillian, 1993, 37-39.
  22. M. Van Bruinessen, “Shifting national and ethnic identities: the Kurds in Turkey and the European diaspora,”Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 1998, 39-52.
  23. Demet Yalcin Mousseau, “An inquiry into the linkage among nationalizing policies, democratization, and ethno-nationalist conflict: the Kurdish case in Turkey,” The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, Feb. 2012.
  24. Igor Lipovsky, “The Socialist Movement in Turkey: 1960-1980,” Brill, 1992, 78.
  25. Omer Taspinar, “Kurdish Nationalism and Political Islam in Turkey: Kemalist Identity in Transition,” Routledge Publishing, 2005, 97.
  26. David Romano, “The Kurdish Nationalist Movement: Opportunity, Mobilization, and Identity,” Cambridge University Press, 2006, 73.
  27. Aliza Marcus, “The Kurd’s Evolving Strategy: The Struggle Goes Political in Turkey,” World Affairs, December 2012,’-evolving-strategy-struggle-goes-political-turkey.
  28. “Public Support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey,” The National Defense Research Institute,2005, 113.
  29. E. Laclau, “The New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time,” London: Verso, 1990.
  30. Ibid, 64.
  31. D. Aydin, “Mobilizing the Kurds in Turkey: Newroz as a Myth,” Dissertation, Ankara: Middle East Technical University, 2005.
  32. “Secret talks reported between Turkey and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan,” July 2012,
  33. “PKK 'halts withdrawal' from Turkey,” Al Jazeera. September 2013,