The Kurds' Sensitive Juncture

By Tony Badran

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.

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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.

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Tony Badran is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. Republished with permission.

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