The UK arm of Kurdish guerrilla army the PKK, proscribed by the Home Office as a terrorist organisation, has had a resurgence since its war with IS. Is it time to de-list and arm them?
As the flag of Islamic State continues to fly over parts of Iraq and Syria, another flag in Rojava, the Kurdish region of Syria, flies in the colours of the PKK – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, writes Symeon Brown.
The PKK has grown into a national movement that is widely supported by displaced Kurds across Europe and the Middle East since its birth in 1978 as a small Marxist separatist sect battling Turkey for an independent Kurdish state.
Read more: Kurdish spring - what are the PKK fighting for?
A revitalised PKK now calls for autonomy for the Kurdish regions between Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey.
Famed for its vanguard of women fighters (pictured, below), the guerrilla army has risen to popular attention fighting Islamic State in the north west of Iraq, where it was thanked for protecting and liberating Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar.
Although they have fought the Islamic fundamentalists since the early 2000s, the intensification of the present struggle has led to British Kurds joining the PKK to fight.
In 2001 the Home Office designated the PKK a proscribed terrorist organisation making fundraising, membership and all activity illegal in Britain. The EU followed suit in 2004.
Up to a quarter of a million Kurds are recorded as living in Britain.
Turkan Budak of the Kurdish People’s Summit (pictured, below), who has been part of the Kurdish movement in the UK since the 1980s, said between 50 and 100 British Kurds have left to fight in the last 20 years, but as a result of the battle against Islamic State more now want to go.
Budak said: “Even now people are going to fight Isis. I know some of them [those out there]. They have gone to fight terrorism.
“They are family men with kids but at the end of the day they say our people are dying there. Innocent people. Civilians dying every day and a lot of Kurdish men cannot ignore it.”
Memed Aksoy is a Kurdish activist based in London, who told Channel 4 News he has raised funds for the PKK. He described the PKK as a movement growing in confidence and numbers.
“(The IS conflict] has raised the Kurdish consciousness,” he said.
“Now is a time when we are going to push ahead to make sure the Kurdish movement and the PKK, the armed forces of the Kurdish people, can engage in a strong war with the Islamic State and defeat the Islamic State.”
Members and supporters of the PKK know that the party is now aligned to western interests and a new generation of British and western European-born Kurds believe the Kurdish question can now be solved with diplomacy rather than arms.
Mr Aksoy says the arguments for keeping the PKK on the list of terror organisations are waning.
The PKK is currently in the middle of a peace process with Turkey, following a bloody insurgency that started in 1984 and has taken the lives of over 40,000 people, including civilians.
Officials from Turkey’s embassy in the UK declined to comment on whether or not the PKK should remain on Britain’s terror list when approached by Channel 4 News last week.
The Home Office said: “The home secretary takes decisions on proscription after an extensive consideration and full assessment of available information. Applications can be made for deproscription.”
Britain and the other states [NATO] must see us as a friend. PKK commander
Mr Aksoy says the state are aware of open fundraising for the PKK but unlike in prior years the series of police raids that “criminalised” and “marginalised” British Kurds in 2011 have stopped.
He implies authorities are turning a blind eye whilst the PKK is an asset in the war against the Islamic State.
Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said this was likely to be due to the capacity of UK security services.
“With Isis taking all the resources, who has time to watch other groups?” he asked. Pantucci also warned against removing the group without careful consideration and said the group had used suicide bombers.
The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the start of the “war on terror” led to the ban on the secular PKK. Yet now the growth of the jihadist IS may be behind what British Kurdish councillor Gunes Magbule perceives as their “increasing legitimacy”.
But should the fact that Britain and the PKK share a common enemy be a reason to remove the group from the UK’s proscribed terrorist organisation list?
PKK Commander Cemshid Mardin told Channel 4 News: “Britain and the other states [Nato] must see us as a friend. We have fighters from all these countries. There are British citizens fighting with us which also include non-Kurdish people.”
Earlier suggestions on how the British could fight IS included working with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad – but this was dismissed by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, saying “our enemy’s enemy is not necessarily a friend”. But the picture with the PKK is more complex than this.
The US and UK have already pledged to arm the Kurdish peshmergas from the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. However, Commander Mardin told Channel 4 News the UK-backed peshmergas patrol and fight alongside the UK-proscribed PKK.
Another sticking point is whether a capitalist west could back a guerrilla army with its roots in Marxism that is still committed to communism? Western support for South Africa’s ANC only came after they embraced free market capitalism.
But among Kurdish communities there is also a sense of opportunity. The Kurds are one of the largest stateless ethnic minorities in the world. With the boundaries of the Middle East being redrawn, Kurds at home and abroad are trying to convince the world that the PKK is a friend and not a foe.