The Kurds' Sensitive Juncture
Last week's killing in Paris of three female Kurdish activists with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has spurred much speculation about the party responsible for the assassinations and the purpose behind it. The murders came immediately after the Turkish government had reportedly agreed on a roadmap with the PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Given that one of the victims, Sakine Cansiz, was a founding member of the PKK and a close confidante of Öcalan, it's clear the murders were political in nature.
The assassination of Cansiz and her two comrades needs to be placed in the wider context of Kurdish politics as a contested space between Turkey and Iran-namely Iran's attempt to influence the direction not just of the PKK, but of the Kurds more broadly, at a critical moment in Kurdish politics.
As is always the case with such political murders, the Paris assassinations spurred speculation about possible culprits. Of note was a comment from the deputy chairman of the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP), Huseyin Celik. "We know the PKK terrorist organization has carried out thousands of inside executions for years now," Celik said before raising the question of competing factions within the PKK.
While Celik's comments may have been politically imprudent, earning the opprobrium of a number of Kurdish politicians, nevertheless they weren't inaccurate. Internal liquidation of PKK members over the years is an established fact. Several of these killings were related to internal splits within the group. However, Cansiz's case is peculiar, as she was said to be not only close to Öcalan, but also an interlocutor who speaks in his name and relays his messages to party cadres in Europe, and who has represented him in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq, home of the group's headquarters and military command.
Cansiz was also said to have become very popular among the Kurds in Europe, unnerving hardline figures in the party. Specifically, the PKK figure in question is a Syrian Kurd by the name of Fehman Huseyin, better known by his nom de guerre, Bahoz Erdal, with whom Cansiz reportedly had a tense relationship.
Erdal is not a political leader, but rather a military commander. Turkish authorities fingered him as the leader of the deadly PKK offensive against Turkey this past summer. He is also said to be opposed to negotiations, and, last Friday, the Turks claimed they had intercepted radio communication from Erdal in which he denounced Öcalan's decision to enter into talks with the Turks and asked PKK fighters to prepare for new attacks. Indeed, as evident from Turkish media commentary and statements by Turkish officials, Ankara has zeroed in on Erdal as the prime suspect in the Paris hit.
However, many Turkish analysts, not to mention Kurdish activists and politicians, have acknowledged the likely involvement of a foreign intelligence service in the assassinations, namely Iran's. It's not only that the Iranians have the assets, as well as long track record, for this kind of operation (especially against Kurdish activists in Europe). It's also that their objectives align with Erdal's in his power struggle to control the direction of the PKK.
As some Turkish analysts have noted, Cansiz's killing represents a direct shot at Öcalan himself and his leadership of the PKK, as he considers reaching a settlement with Ankara. In the same vein, Turkish security analyst Emre Uslu observed last July that the Turkish national intelligence service (MIT) "fears that Öcalan is losing his influence over the PKK so long as he is kept in isolation, and alternative leaders such as Bahoz Erdal ... are emerging and could move the PKK away from Öcalan's influence." Taking out a senior Öcalan liaison with the outside world like Cansiz fits with this reading.
Following the Paris murders, officials in Ankara have again expressed concern about Öcalan's authority over factions that are "influenced by different power centers." With Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani moving the Kurdistan Regional Government closer in alliance with Turkey, the militants in Qandil would naturally turn to Iran to sustain the struggle with Turkey. A senior PKK adviser acknowledged as much last year: "Iran influences the PKK because the PKK is based on the Iranian border. When you fight a party, you have to find a support from some other party." Tehran has also reportedly sought to engineer a rapprochement between elements of the PKK and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whom Barzani tried to remove from office through a no-confidence vote in parliament last year.
Iran's interest, then, is to prevent the Kurds from moving closer to, or at least normalizing relations with, Turkey, and to have a direct influence on the trajectory of Kurdish politics and leadership. So, whereas Erdal may be challenging Öcalan, Iran's sights are set on Barzani. After all, it was with Barzani's sponsorship that the prospective negotiations between the Turks and the PKK were supposed to take place in Erbil. Ankara took this decision with an eye to further enhancing Barzani's prestige as the main Kurdish leader and interlocutor.
This comes at a time when Jalal Talabani's failing health has taken him out of the picture, leaving the future of his party up in the air. The absence of Talabani, who historically has had closer relations with Iran, is likely to increase Tehran's aggressive efforts to coopt Kurdish parties in Iraq to push against Barzani and Turkey. Ensuring the PKK stays in its orbit, and firmly against Turkey, is part of the same picture.
There are repercussions for Syria as well, where Erdal, according to one Kurdish analyst, commands the loyalty of a powerful wing inside the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has fought Barzani's attempts at projecting influence on the Syrian Kurdish scene. Needless to say, countering Barzani's efforts in Syria is also an Iranian interest. On a number of levels, then, there is a convergence of interests between Iran and Erdal's faction.
The assassination of Sakine Cansiz is likely inextricably linked to this complex power struggle. The Kurds are at a sensitive juncture, but they remain an arena for Turkish-Iranian rivalry. And it is precisely at this moment that Iran wants to make sure it has a dominant say on the balance of power inside the Kurdish leadership and the direction of Kurdish politics.