Six stages in the USA’s PKK strategy

When Obama became president, he adopted a dual Kurdish strategy. Common economic interests were highlighted so as to prevent South Kurdestan and Turkey being pitted against each other as two hostile entities. With regard to Turkey, the Kurdish question was broken down into two subheadings of democracy and the PKK. This strategy then changed dramatically with the intervention in Syria as different interests and expectations came to clash. The US updated its Kurdish strategy in a way that heralded the apocalypse.


Cengiz Kapmaz


The Turkish original of this article was published as  ABD’nin PKK stratejisinde altı evre  on 30th January 2016.




In the wake of a visit by Obama’s Vice-President Biden, the dark clouds over Turkish-American relations do not seem to have dispersed. Witness the differences of opinion that have emerged over the PYD’s participation in the Geneva talks.


Turkey has been closely monitoring the relations that the US has forged with the PYD -- which is positioned within the KCK’s organizational hierarchy. Ankara sees these warm relations as a serious threat to Turkey’s national security, calling for Washington to cool them down. However, Washington has yet to respond positively to these calls.


The differences of opinion between Turkey and the US over the PYD in particular, and the strategic outlook on the Kurds in general, are so deep and grave that no parameter having anything to do withTurkey’s domestic or foreign politics can be discussed and evaluated independently of this question. The also issue lies at the heart of the USA’s “discomfort” with the AKP, as well as behind the crisis between Russia and Turkey.


In this article and the next, I will try to analyze Turkish-American relations with regard to the KCK-PYD. First we shall be paying a brief visit to the past in order to be able to understand the present. I shall then be addressing the various answers to the question of “where the US is on the Kurdish question.” I will try to clarify how the two parties approach the strategic depth of the problem.  

Support for the “Kurds were mountain Turks” theory


Turkish-American relations have gone through six strategic stages regarding the Kurdish question. The first stage was over 1950-1990. It was a time of “no problems” in a strategic partnership.


As decided by the USA, Turkey was transformed into a military, logistical and ideological centre against the communist threat. The US position was that “Kurds exist only in your mind,” so that “they don’t exist if you don’t think of them.” The US thereby also upheld  the theory that the Kurds were originally mountain Turks who came to be called Kurds because of the “kart, kurt” sounds their footsteps made in the snow. This was a time when the USA was most neutral towards the Kurdish question.


The second strategic stage covers 1990-2003. The happy days of the 1950s evolved into military cooperation in the 1990s. The USA was the greatest supporter of Turkey’s fight against the PKK, equipping the Turkish armed forces with the most advanced military gear.


Turkey was more than reimbursed for its billions of dollars in war payments to the US when the PKK leader Öcalan was tracked closely and delivered to Turkey in February 1999. 

Educating by using the PKK stick


The third stage corresponds to the years 2003-2006. It was at this time that the Turkish-American honeymoon suffered its biggest breakdown ever. This was over the rejection of the 1st March 2003 government request for parliamentary empowerment that would have enabled Turkey to intervene in Iraq together with the US-led alliance.


This led to bitter disillusionment in the USA. Turkish-American relations began to be questioned.  In Washington DC Turkey’s attitude was described as “treason” or “a stab in the back,” and calls for “Turkey not to go unpunished” echoed in the corridors of the Pentagon. 


During these years the USA adopted two strategies. For the first time it stopped its anti-PKK aid to Turkey, thereby leaving Turkey alone to face the PKK. Some analysts called this “the strategy of using the PKK stick to educate Turkey.”


But this wasn’t strictly true, as the USA supported neither the PKK nor Turkey. At the same time, it tried to manipulate the PKK’s inner power structure to move the organization to a paramilitary level that would serve its interests. However, things did not go as planned, and the strategy ended in failure.


Strained in 2003, Turkish-American relations were once more put back on a PKK-and-Kurdish footing in 2006, when Turkey decided to be a part of the USA’s new Middle East project. Erdoğan visited the US and signed a strategic partnership joint vision document, whereupon Turkish-American relations returned to the classical line of the 1990s regarding the Kurdish question. A tri-partite  mechanism coordinated by General Ralston was established among Turkey, Iraq, and the USA. 


“The PKK is also an enemy of the USA”


The US strategy initiated in March 2003 of educating Turkey but also keeping her in limbo so as not to lose her was shelved in Fall 2007. The new strategy was announced on 5th November 2007. This marked the beginning of the fourth stage.  


At a Bush-Erdoğan summit, Turkey was granted permission to engage in air operations in South Kurdestan based on the intelligence to be received from US drones. George W. Bush did not stop there but went on to say that “The PKK is also an enemy of the USA.”


In 2008, the US Presidency changed hands, Bush was replaced by Obama, and Turkish-American relations on the Kurdish question entered a fifth stage


Turkey was cast as a role model


Upon replacing Bush, Obama redefined the USA’s global interests. It was the Middle East that was most influenced by this new definition. The USA changed the rules of the game in this region that it now wanted to integrate with the overall global process. A game of “an actor who changes things all by himself” was replaced by another game of “a team who changes things together.”


In this new team-play strategy, Turkey was assigned the role of the Middle East’s Germany, while Egypt was going to be the Middle East’s France.  Through the interaction and transformation it would bring about in social consciousness, Egypt was intended to embody a Cultural Renaissance.


Turkey’s role, on the other hand, comprised a dual function. On the one hand, through a number of economic openings and collaborations to come, she would paint the picture of a country where partnerships based on mutual interests created prosperity. On the other hand, through the democratic standards she would attain, she would be a role model for the Middle East.


When Obama became President, he adopted a dual Kurdish strategy within this framework. The first strategy was about the relations between Turkey and South Kurdestan. It was based on the “win - win” idea.


A unity of economic interests was encouraged between Turkey and South Kurdestan in order to end the hostility between the two. The aim was to promote common interests over anger and prejudice. And indeed, there was considerable success in this regard.


Armed or political opposition?


Obama’s second strategy regarding the Kurdish question was all about Turkey. This, too, had two subheadings, namely democracy and the PKK. Under the democracy subheading, Turkey was encouraged to raise its democratic standards. These standards had to be set at least equal to EU criteria.


But when it came to the PKK subheading, it was realized that providing huge technological support to Turkey’s military capacity was not yielding the expected results in terms of eliminating the PKK. This led the USA to conclude that “if the problem could not be resolved through military measures, then Turkey had to be encouraged to engage in political dialogue with the PKK.”


This strategy was indirectly relayed by the US administration to Kurdish political actors in the form of a request for them to “make up their minds about whether you prefer an armed or a political opposition.” It was also communicated to all parties involved that cross-border operations were not going to contribute to any solution.


Then, however, Obama’s Kurdish strategy changed dramatically in 2012 with the intervention in Syria, when Turkey’s and the USA’s expectations and interests regarding Syria began to clash. This led the US to review and update its Kurdish strategy, which in turn heralded the apocalypse. Thus Turkish-American relations over the Kurdish question entered a sixth stage.


In my next article, I will discuss the USA’s new Kurdish strategy in this sixth stage, its interaction with Turkey, the strains it is likely to give rise to, and its future impact on the KCK-PYD axis.