One Man’s Terrorist Another Man’s Freedom Fighter?

As ever, there is a fine line between a terrorist organisation and freedom fighters. As the old saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Perception and the country in question is key as are geopolitics and the context within which the struggles arise.

Many independent countries have come to the fore as a direct result of military uprisings by the people through rebel movements. Two recent examples are Kosovo and South Sudan, both of which their respective rebel movements formed a key part of achieving their nationalist goals.

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Hamas are other groups who have sought to secure rights and goals through use of force and have tip-toed a fine line between nationalist struggles and terrorist activities. In the case of Hamas, they are in political power, have foreign relations and are even supported by a number of regional counties, yet many have denoted them as a terrorist organisation.

Now the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel movement in Syria, albeit not on the grounds of seeking statehood but nonetheless symbolic freedom akin to other rebel groups, has tremendous international support as did the Libyan rebel movement prior to the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi.

Ask the respective governments that these groups sought to overthrow, and the terms “terrorists mercenaries”, “armed gangs” etc come to mind. Yet ask those who supported the rebel movements, and they will have heralded as revolutionaries, democracy seekers and brave men who stood up to tyranny.

In Kurdistan, the Peshmerga are without a doubt a nationalist icon of the Kurds. Without standing up to the brutality of Saddam, the Kurds would never have achieved their freedom. For the Kurds, the rebel movement was about honour, self-sacrifice and bravery. Yet for Saddam, it was the Kurds and not his barbaric policies that were to blame.

Even the Americans rose up in arms against their British occupiers in the name of freedom as have many other nations throughout history.

The point is depending on what lens the world is viewed, the situation is perceived and treated completely differently and often hypocritically.

Murky definitions

It goes without saying that people often brand terrorism depending on a number of general factors, such as the mode of operation used to seek goals, motivations and characteristics of the group.

An important element here is the popularity and backing of the group. There is certainly difference between a popular national struggle that is waged through a national liberation movement and terrorism that is spurred on by a small minority whose goals is to be recognised, infamy and to generally strike a higher bargain from governments.

Generally speaking nationalist struggle seek to acquire often freedom and rights, while terrorist movements seek to destroy. Yet at the same time, terrorists still try to acquire through destruction, fear and violence.

In any case, the so called credibility and mode of operation of national struggles is a blurred line. How often have we seen bombings of buildings and use of IED’s and hit and run tactics in Syria and Libya, that result in civilian casualties? Rebel movements are no match for the sheer firepower of their adversaries and thus urban guerrilla warfare is almost a necessity.

The key thing is whether there is a purposeful and direct intent to harm the civilian population, which is the case with classic terrorism to gain media coverage and to strike fear. But such terrorist movements often lack true public following and are rarely representative of a large segment of society.

Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)

Turkey has fought a bitter war with the PKK that is a little shy of 30 years. Throughout this time, Turkey has been unable to crush the “terrorists” that it has continuously labelled.

Just what are the PKK? A national struggle or a terrorist organisation? Again, it comes back to the argument of perception. Turkey and most of the west in strategic support of its key allies have been quick to blacklist the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

Others have merely jumped on the new “Assad is supporting and arming the PKK” bandwagon.

All this simply masks reality. The PKK have been around for much longer than the current revolutionary era in Middle East and the situation in Turkey is far from new.

This is not to doubt that the PKK has received backing from Assad or Tehran, indeed the PKK has been used and manipulated effectively by even the US and Turkey.

A life of any human being, Kurdish or Turkish is sacred and as much as a Turkish mother mourns the pain of the loss of her son, it is no different for a Kurdish mother. By no means whatsoever can violent struggles be condoned and in this new era the PKK must ultimately give up its armed struggled, but Turkey has seriously miscalculated the PKK issue and continuous to do so to its detriment.

The PKK started their operation in 1984 on the back of the military junta that gripped Turkey between 1980 and 1983. This was at a time when repressive policies against the Kurds were at their peak.

Now imagine, for one minute that there was never an Abdullah Ocalan or a PKK organisation in existence in Turkey, would there be peace today or would the situation be any different? The simply is an overriding no.

The PKK was born out of the situation, and the situation was not born out of the PKK. In simple terms, if there was no Ocalan or PKK, there would simply have been another leader and another Kurdish group that would have filled the vacuum.

More importantly, the PKK have merely continued the legacy of previous Kurdish revolts, uprisings and armed struggles. Only two years after the proclamation of the republic, Turkey crushed a revolt in 1925. This was just a flavour of what was to come.

Throughout Atatürk’s rule, conflict in the southeast of Turkey was a common feature. The last revolt of that era in Dersim was quelled by sheer force and use of chemical weapons.

It is Turkey that ultimately created the PKK and until this realisation hits home, there will never be peace, brotherhood and harmony in Turkey.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, in an apparent u-turn from his original stance of blaming Assad for rise in PKK violence, summed it up perfectly:

“Terror in Turkey did not appear as a result of the developments in Syria, it is a problem that has lasted for 30 years.”

Is the issue really 5000 or so PKK guerrilla’s or the 15 million Kurds? Lets say that Turkey was able to achieve its long-term goal of eradicating the PKK and 5000 rebels perished, can they guarantee under the current climate that another 5000 would not readily replace them?

Mere branding of the PKK as “terrorists” only services to mask the nationalist struggle that continues to plague Turkey.

Kurdish Rights in Turkey

There is no doubt that the situation of the Kurds in Turkey is a far cry from yesteryears but it has a long way to go, and although inconsistently employed the government has taken a number of bold steps. However, the polarisation of government policies and the military struggles runs too deep for wounds to easily heal.

Ankara has made a number of symbolic strides in addressing its Kurdish issue, but it has seemingly deemed these as sufficient to believe that there is no longer a “Kurdish issue”.

Ironically, the Kurdish issue if anything with the revolutionary winds in the Middle East has increased. Kurds in Turkey see Arabs and even their ethnic brethren achieve rights and yet how can they be expected to settle for the rights that Turkey deems “fair” to provide?

The bottom line is fear. Ankara has always feared the Kurds and for decades was able to effectively subdue them in line with the policies of neighbouring governments against their portion of Kurdish populations.

The more that Turkey continues along the lines of fear, the more that what they fear will come to light.

The violent struggle in Turkey serves no side and most Kurds are fed up of war, impoverishment and lack of investment in their region. Money is an important language and if the Kurds were able to enjoy employment, better standards of living, first class status then Turkey would see just how much the PKK would be supported.

Through the history of the Turkish republic, there have hardly ever been any significant Kurdish parties in parliament and most have been hastily shut down.

Now the BDP is facing the same plight as their predecessor. As violence has escalated in Turkey with August experiencing some of the highest level of confrontations since 1984, a BDP encounter with some PKK rebels caused inevitable uproar. Strangely, there were politicians, rebels and even the media but no state presence.

It is no secret that the PKK has a large support base amongst Kurds in Turkey but for many Kurds the PKK is their FSA, PLO or KLA. For them the PKK represents their national struggle. Not all Kurds agree with violence means but certainly see the PKK as their flag bearer, especially as the voted for AKP in large numbers but grew increasingly frustrated.

Whether open or private, it is not illogical that the PKK would have sentimental support from the BDP. After all they share the same cause and nationalism, if not the same platform.

Only when the grassroots support for the PKK is cut and Kurdish moderates are embraced can Turkey tip the balance against the PKK.

The end game

Most Turks are fierce nationalists and the mere idea of negotiating with the PKK or surrendering to their demands is a major red-line. The battle between the PKK and Ankara has become a question of pride and with sides are as entrenched as ever. No side is willing to cede with fear of their call for peace been perceived as a sign of weakness.

Turkey continues to reassure Kurds on the one hand and battle Kurds on the other, whilst trying to demarcate between a group of rebels and the general Kurdish population. Unfortunately, it is not about a group of rebels. If it was that simple the PKK would have been destroyed a long-time ago. It’s about addressing the root of the issue as opposed to cutting the branches of your problems.

It begs the question of just why Turkey has allowed the struggle to straddle for so long. Without a doubt the PKK has benefited many in the Turkish hierarchy as it has provided fuel to maintain the status-quo.

Times have dramatically changed and as the Middle East unravels, Turkey must either address new realities and influence the present or become swept as history is made.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources:, Various Misc.

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