On Nov. 6, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara posted a notice that “The Department [of State] has authorized rewards for information leading to the identification or location of the senior Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) members: Murat Karayilan (up to USD $5 million), Cemil Bayik (up to USD $4 million), and Duran Kalkan (up to USD $3 million).” Such bounties are not uncommon when it comes to master terrorists. In years past, the U.S. government, for example, issued bounties for Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, Islamic State head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Boko Haram head Abubakar Shekau.
But the three men just named are hardly in the same league.
Not only have they never targeted Americans, but it is not even clear that they are truly terrorists. Karayilan was a PKK cofounder and now leader. Bayik was also a PKK cofounder and is also head of the group’s civic organization. Kalkan, meanwhile, was both a PKK bookkeeper and an executive council member for its civil society umbrella. Rather, it seems their inclusion is a poorly thought-out effort to appease Turkey.
Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has become increasingly transactional. It takes American interests hostage — both literally and figuratively. It seizes U.S. citizens (pressure may have forced Erdogan to release Pastor Andrew Brunson, but he still holds NASA scientist Serkan Golge) and holds other U.S. interests hostage such as NATO functionality, access to the Incirlik Air Base, and cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State.
Erdogan has become increasingly obsessed about the Kurds, less because of Kurdish insurgency and more because Turkey and Syria’s Kurdish communities consistently prioritize ethnic and cultural identity above religion.
Just as many American and European diplomats once believed Erdogan’s rhetoric about commitment to democracy despite all contradictory evidence, today they convince themselves that Erdogan is more nationalist than Islamist. Turks can live with Kurds, however; it is most often Islamists who cannot. It is Erdogan’s distrust for Kurdish relative religious liberalism and tolerance which motivates his anti-Kurdish disdain. It is for this reason that he has imprisoned elected Kurdish political leaders like Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag on bogus charges and, despite using terrorism as an excuse to send Turkish forces into Afrin (without being able to name a single terrorist incident which originated in areas he occupied), it is why he then oversaw not only a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Afrin’s Kurds, but also imported Islamists to enforce conservative social and dress codes.
What makes the State Department’s recent move especially cynical is that it effectively allied with the PKK when Turkey not only obstructed the fight against the Islamic State but also actively aided the group. Turkish officials complain the United States cooperated with the PKK, but what they ignore is that the Pentagon did so only after seeking first to work with Turkey to counter the brutal Islamist group only to be met with Turkish rejection. U.S. diplomats may claim there is no relation between the PKK on one hand and the People’s Protection Units and Syrian Defense Force on the other, but this is disingenuous. Now that the Islamic State no long controls major cities or towns, the State Department is turning on allies in order to appease a government which not only enabled the Islamic State’s rise by providing free passage for its foreign fighters, but also sought to profit from it.
Legally, it is also questionable if the PKK belongs on the terror list.
It was designated against the context of the Cold War when it embraced Marxist ideology and targeted NATO members alongside the Turkish army. But it shed its Marxism at the end of the Cold War, and unlike groups with which the U.S. does engage (the Palestine Liberation Organization, for example), it has not targeted Americans for decades nor does it target civilians (the same cannot be said for some offshoot groups, but they are not what have been designated). More importantly, Erdogan himself recognized the PKK as a legitimate political entity and a representative for the Kurds when he began secret negotiations with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 2012.
Simply put, while the PKK is not as clean as many of its supporters may claim, many of the accusations against it have no basis in fact and are derived only from Turkish accusations, a state whose judiciary and intelligence services, as the Brunson case showed, have little, if any, credibility.
Allegations of drug smuggling and terrorism today appear more fiction than real, enshrined as conventional wisdom in inherited reports but with no basis in fact. Nevertheless, tales of PKK evil have been embraced uncritically by a generation of American diplomats seeking to please or placate Turkish hosts. Alas, just as some American diplomats became more Arab than the Arabs in their hatred of Israel or embrace of conspiracies in order to win post-retirement Saudi contracts, too many alumni of the U.S. Embassy in Turkey have become more Turkish than the Turks in their antipathy toward Kurdish political organization.
The three worst aspects of the State Department’s move, however, are as follows.
First, its cynicism creates a disincentive for future cooperation between Kurds and Americans when U.S. strategic interests are threatened. That wariness, of course, will not be limited only to Kurds. As Islamist terrorism remains a problem across the globe, every indigenous group must worry about U.S. commitment. Why should Afghans, for example, risk fighting the Taliban if the State Department will throw them under the bus at some future point in order to appease Pakistan?
Second, the designations’ erosion of the legitimacy of the entire terror list. To suggest that Karayilan, Bayik, or Kalkan are equivalent to Bin Laden, his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, or Saddam Hussein is nonsense. Perhaps Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Special Envoy (and former ambassador to Turkey) Jim Jeffrey believes the move can appease Erdogan but, in reality, it simply will raise questions about the legitimacy of all future designations. Objectively speaking, men like Erdogan and his son-in-law Berat Albayrak far more fit the terror label given their ties to Hamas, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State than do Kurdish activists.
Third, the State Department’s move assumes Erdogan can be appeased. But appeasing dictators seldom works, and Erdogan never so. Every concession offered by Western diplomats to Erdogan has been met with further outrage and more extreme demands.
The U.S. cannot win over Turkey or advance its position by taking Erdogan’s irrational hatreds as its own. It’s time to shed the artifacts of the Cold War once and for all, cease assuming that pre- and post-Erdogan Turkey are more similar than different, stop confusing perpetrators and victims, and base counterterrorism policy on reality rather than diplomatic nicety.
First published by Washington Examiner
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.