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Stop Calling Our Closest Allies Against ISIS "Terrorists"


The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was formed in Ankara, Turkey, in 1978 for the purpose of achieving, through armed struggle, an independent Kurdistan. The PKK has killed civilians, bombed tourist sites, and executed deserters and dissidents; it is directly or indirectly responsible for thousands of deaths in Turkey and elsewhere. That's why it was rightly classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, several member countries of which were, into the 1990s, the sites of PKK attacks.

But time has passed and four factors, or perhaps five, have changed the picture and should cause us to reconsider the status of the organization.

The first factor is that the organization renounced violence 15 years ago on the occasion of the fourth ceasefire unilaterally declared by PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan when he was arrested in 1999.

The second is that this apparatus, which once practiced Marxist-Leninist obedience and was based for so long on a cult of personality, transformed itself gradually into today’s nebulous array of parties advocating a settlement of the Kurdish question based on “dialogue” and “confederation.”

The third is that the new PKK is the organization that, particularly through its forces fighting in Syria under the banner of the YPG (People’s Protection Units), is on the front line in the battle against the dark caliphate of the Islamic State, where it is showing exemplary courage and no less exceptional effectiveness.

The fourth is that, in these areas as in others—in the martyred village of Kobani that the Peshmerga are, not incidentally, in the process of liberating—one finds a level of gender equality, a respect for secularism and minorities, and a modern, moderate, and ecumenical conception of Islam that are, to say the least, rare in the region.

So that if one compares Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party with Ocalan’s PKK, setting the increasingly immoderate Islam of the former against the increasingly anti-radical Islam of the latter; contrasting the double game of Erdogan, who let pass across Turkey’s borders convoys of heavy arms destined for decapitators, with the heroism of fighting women and men who, aided only by NATO planes, are holding off those same decapitators and meeting them head to head; if one compares the Turkish army, which has not let its membership in the Atlantic alliance prevent it from standing idly by as Christian minorities were massacred, with the PKK-affiliated PYD unit that, in the space of ten days, succeeded in saving 70,000 Yazidis stranded on Iraq's Mount Sinjar—after making these comparisons one is forced to admit that terrorism is no longer where we think it is.

In short, the PKK leaders have learned what many other former terrorists have learned before them.

They have reached the point reached by the Irish Republican Army when, at the close of the 1990s, after decades of urban guerrilla war, it renounced violence.

They have traveled the long path taken by so many of the founders of postcolonial states for whom blind violence was the first weapon.

Only for the record do I raise the case of the Israeli Irgun, the Stern Gang, or the ANC in South Africa. To think that Nelson Mandela had to wait until June 28, 2008, for the United States to remove his name and that of his party from their list. Ocalan is not Mandela, of course. His professions of friendship for Jews and Armenians must be put to the test of time.

The ambivalence of the PKK’s Syrian branch with respect to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, as well as the persistence of authoritarian political practices, both within the organization and in dealings with partners, is legitimate cause for concern. So we cannot rule out a reversal of course or some other setback that would again cast everything in doubt.

But as a matter of fact the Kurds are our most solid allies in the long-term war that jihadism has declared against us. The PKK in Syria is the tip of the lance not only of resistance against the Islamic State but of our defense of the values that IS would eradicate. The PKK, whose leaders for the most part fell into step with Ocalan when, at his 1999 trial on the prison island of Imrali, he asked for the forgiveness of his innumerable victims, is no longer a terrorist organization but, if words have any meaning, an organization that resists terrorism.

That is why the PKK and its affiliated parties should be recognized for what they are: agents of stability now and, tomorrow, of peace in the Middle East.

Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.