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Friend or Foe? Group on terror list details US military meeting

The alleged contact highlights the complex web of alliances and adversaries stemming from the Syrian civil war.

Reporting | Middle East

Cemil Bayik has a $4 million U.S. counterterrorism bounty on his head. But the Kurdish guerrilla leader says his forces have been meeting with U.S. troops — and he’s ready to make amends.

Bayik is a founding member and half of the two-person committee leading the Kurdistan Workers Party, usually known by its Kurdish initials, PKK. The militant group has fought a decades-long struggle against the Turkish government, earning it a place on the U.S. State Department’s terrorist list.

A contradiction in U.S. policy has given his group an opening. U.S. forces have relied on PKK-aligned militants, including the Sinjar Defense Units of Iraq and the Syrian Democratic Forces, to fight the Islamic State across the Middle East. And so the PKK has been pushing for closer relations with the United States, over the objections of NATO ally Turkey.

Responsible Statecraft was granted a rare, exclusive opportunity to interview one of the PKK’s elusive leaders. Hiding from Turkish drones in the Kandil mountains, Bayik provided answers to a series of questions sent to him in writing.

“We used to exchange indirect messages via Rojava and Sinjar,” Bayik said, referring to regions of northeast Syria and northwest Iraq controlled by Kurdish forces. “We have already sent letters to all U.S. presidents. Through different mediators, some of our units have had a few meetings with U.S. units at the local level.”

“They might have wanted to learn our views,” Bayik added, although he declined to provide further details about these meetings.

After years of helping Turkey fight the PKK in the name of counterterrorism, the United States may now be talking to the group — also in the name of counterterrorism. U.S. strategy in the Middle East, which has swung from fighting the Islamic State to countering Russian and Iranian influence, relies on the goodwill of Kurdish militants who are considered sworn enemies of an ally dating back to the Cold War.  

Such a meeting was rumored to have taken place in August 2020, after Turkey launched air raids against the PKK on Iraqi soil. U.S. government sources denied the allegations at the time, according to the Washington-based news outlet Al Monitor.

U.S. forces did visit the area, as the Turkish airstrikes had “ruffled some feathers” among U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, and Washington wanted to reassure its partners, according to Aaron Stein, research director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. But Stein was not sure whether U.S. units had actually met with their PKK counterparts.

U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, gave a blanket denial of having met with the PKK. “CENTCOM was not involved in, nor is aware of, any such meetings,” U.S. Army Major John Rigsbee told Responsible Statecraft.

U.S. European Command, which oversees U.S. forces in Turkey, declined to comment. The Pentagon’s main press office did not respond to a request for comment.

Turkey has repeatedly accused the United States of supporting the PKK’s terrorism. The Turkish embassy did not respond to a request for comment as of press time,* but told Responsible Statecraft via email that it would reach out “if we have something.”

The U.S. State Department has listed the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization since the 1990s, when the group was led by Marxists and embroiled in a guerrilla war against the Turkish government. That war killed tens of thousands of people, with both sides allegedly committing war crimes.

Years later, the United States found itself on the same side as the PKK in its war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

U.S. forces re-entered Iraq in mid-2014 when it looked like the Yezidi people — who were being defended by the PKK on Mount Sinjar — were about to face genocide. The Obama administration then partnered with a collection of Kurdish militias now known as the Syrian Democratic Forces in a counteroffensive against the Islamic State.

Turkey sees the Syrian Democratic Forces as an extension of the PKK and accuses the United States of supporting terrorism.

Bayik denied that his group has “any organizational link” with the Syrian Democratic Forces, but claimed that “thousands of PKK sympathizers from all walks of life, undeterred by the attacks and obstacles of the Turkish army and police forces, marched over the border fences and joined the anti-ISIS fight.”

He admitted that many former PKK fighters of Syrian origin joined the Syrian Democratic Forces because they wanted to “wage struggle for the protection of their people and the freedom of their own lands, where they had been born.”

At the time that the U.S. partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces began, the PKK and Turkey were engaged in peace talks. But the negotiations broke down in 2015, and the United States has since struggled to balance between its NATO ally and its Kurdish partners.

The Trump administration green-lit limited Turkish interventions against Syrian Kurdish forces and slapped multimillion-dollar counterterrorism bounties on PKK leaders — Bayik called the bounties “utter injustice and disrespect” — but also kept up U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Nicholas Heras, a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute, said that the United States “would naturally engage with the PKK” during the pre-2015 peace process, and “would still have the ability to engage with the PKK” after the breakdown of Turkish-Kurdish talks, “especially as it relates to seeking to clarify the role that the PKK would play in determining the choices made by America's closest Syrian partners.”

“The United States has a clear interest in resolving the longstanding conflict between its NATO ally, Turkey, and the PKK,” added Heras, who has advised the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria. “This conflict destabilizes a core, strategic area of the Middle East, and it contributes to the authoritarianism that is expanding within Turkey's political culture.”

Ben Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, disagrees that talking to the PKK is a good idea.

“I’m generally not too worried about the United States offending Turkey, but this seems to be a prize issue for them, and I’m not clear on what benefits it gains for us by meeting with the PKK,” he told Responsible Statecraft. “It speaks to how totally unclear it is what U.S. forces are up to in Syria, what the goal we’re trying to achieve by having this modest force is.”

The PKK argues that revoking the U.S. terrorism designation and the bounties on its leaders is part of the solution.

“Our guerrilla forces have never made any military action, direct or indirect, against the United States of America,” Bayik declared. “If the United States makes policies in favor of the solution of the Kurdish question and democratization, we will never oppose them.”

President Joe Biden “knows we have waged the greatest struggle against ISIS,” he claimed.

The PKK would not be the first group to make it off the U.S. terrorist list in recent years. In January, the Trump administration designated the Houthi movement of Yemen a terrorist group, which the incoming Biden administration quickly reversed. Last month, PBS published an interview with Al-Qaida’s former leader in Syria arguing that he, too, should be taken off the list.

Bayik added that the PKK now promotes “democratic socialism” rather than “such concepts as proletarian dictatorship.”

“From the 1990s on, our freedom movement has undergone great transformations,” he claimed, but the United States “has largely upheld the visions, arguments and policies characteristic of the Cold War era.”

Bayik said that his group is interested in a negotiated solution that involves democratizing Turkey as a whole, but the Turkish government only wants to “subject the Kurds to genocide.”

Turkey maintains that Kurds are not discriminated against. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a speech last year that the PKK is “the biggest enemy of our Kurdish brothers.”

The aftermath of a February battle in Mount Gara in Iraq revealed how U.S. policy has left both Turkey and the Kurdish movement unhappy.

Turkish forces had attempted to rescue 13 prisoners of war being held by the PKK, but the operation left all of them dead. Turkey accused the PKK of executing the prisoners — and blamed the United States for its alleged soft line on Kurdish militancy.

"You said you did not support terrorists, when in fact you are on their side and behind them," Erdoğan said in a February speech. "If we are together with you in NATO, if we are to continue our unity, then you will act sincerely towards us. Then, you will stand with us, not with the terrorists."

Bayik, however, used that battle at Mount Gara as an example of how the PKK has rendered the West’s “high-tech weapons null and void.” He claimed that the prisoners were killed when Turkish forces used poison gas to assault the PKK base.

“Turkey uses all the weaponries of NATO. The USA and some European countries provide Turkey with all kind [sic] of support,” he said. “Despite this, our struggle has, for many times, taken the Turkish state to the verge of collapse.”

The PKK leader also chimed in about various regional political issues.

Bayik supported “the democratization of Iraq,” which “will make it hard for others to intervene in its internal affairs” but claimed that new prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is “not in a position to [oppose] Iran and Turkey.”

He also commented on the 2015 nuclear deal between the United States and Iran, which the Biden administration is negotiating to re-enter.

“The success of the 2015 agreement would have positive results for all the peoples of the Middle East,” Bayik said. “Given the fact that democratization is the best approach to solve the problems in Iran, the public opinion, both at home and abroad, should not get engaged solely in the nuclear issue. The Islamic Republic of Iran needs to undergo a democratization process.”

And he expressed skepticism that the United States would ever lose interest in the Middle East.

“Today, Europe is, in a way, integrated with the Middle East. There is no decline in the strategic importance of neither Europe nor the Middle East,” Bayik asserted. “We don’t want to elaborate on the positive and negative dimensions of the changes in the United States’ focal points of interest. We don’t think that there will be a decline in the significance of the Middle East.”

Stein, however, warned that there is an “inherent contradiction” in U.S. policy in the region which cannot be resolved.

“As a matter of policy, the United States government supports the Turkish government’s right to strike the PKK, including the PKK leadership, and assists those strikes,” he told Responsible Statecraft, but “the entirety of U.S.-Syria policy is dependent on a PKK affiliate.”

“War is messy,” Stein added.


* After publication, the Turkish embassy wrote in an email to Responsible Statecraft that Bayik’s comments “have verified once again this inseparable connection between PKK and its Syrian offshoots.”

“Their connection is not merely ideological, but structural and operational as well. They are under the same chain of command. These points — substantiated with concrete documents — have been transmitted to the US and other international partners on every occasion,” the statement reads. “U.S. officials have repeatedly underlined the tactical, temporary and transactional nature of their relationship with the separatist illegitimate entity. However, facts on the ground proved the opposite.”

The embassy emphasized the high death toll of the PKK’s “brutal terror campaign” and its threat to “the security and sovereignty of Iraq” as well as NATO forces in Iraq.

“Turkey expects that its allies show solidarity in the fight against this terrorist organization rather than paying…lip service,” the statement concludes. “This includes [avoiding] any sort of contact with these terrorists since the opposite could be construed as condoning terrorism.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify Cemil Bayik's status as founding member of the PKK.

Update: The Kurdistan Democratic Communities Union, the political front to which the PKK belongs, published its own version of the interview after this article was published. Responsible Statecraft’s questions were apparently translated into a different language and back into English, while Bayik’s answers were slightly changed.

Most significantly, Bayik’s original written answer to Responsible Statecraft stated that “[m]any of the Syrian Kurdish leaders have stayed with the PKK for tens of years.” However, the version posted by the Kurdistan Democratic Communities Union specifically names Mazloum Abdi and Ilham Ahmed, the military and political leaders of the Syrian Kurdish forces, as former PKK members.

Cemil Bayik, a founding member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Qandil mountains near the Iraq-Turkey border, October 19, 2013. Kurdish rebels are ready to re-enter Turkey from northern Iraq, Bayik, the head of the group's political wing said at his mountain hideout, threatening to rekindle an insurgency unless Ankara resuscitates their peace process soon. Picture taken October 19. To match Interview TURKEY-KURDS/PKK REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST HEADSHOT SOCIETY)
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