Throughout its history, the terrorist organisation has changed its narrative to suit the different states that fund it, and foreign powers have equally used the PKK for their ends.
When the US decided to arm and give political cover to the PKK Syrian affiliate known as the YPG in 2015, it became just one more country in a long line of states that have used the militant organisation as a proxy.
The PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by the US, EU and Turkey.
US support towards the PKK
Turkey’s operation in Syria is driven primarily by attempts to clear a 400-kilometre section of the Syrian -Turkish border from the clutches of the YPG, which it views as a national security threat owing to the latter’s history of terrorist attacks in Turkey.
Turkey has accused the US of supplying the YPG with lethal weapons which given the militant’s groups history could be used against Turkey. More concerning for Turkey is how different powers have used the PKK and its affiliates as a card against Turkey.
The PKK and its affiliates have often portrayed the organisation differently to the various states funding them.
To the Americans, it has been a democratic force willing to fight the Daesh.
For the Europeans, it is an organisation that is ecologically aware, feminist, and LGBT friendly.
To the Russians, it is a leftist force rooted in Soviet ideology, anti-imperialist and, presumably, anti-American.
On the other hand, foreign powers have been more than willing to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by the organisation to push their own regional goals.
Soviet and Russian backing of the PKK
The Soviet relationship with the PKK was based primarily on the Marxist-Leninist worldview that the PKK’s founder Abdullah Ocalan adopted. Ocalan is currently serving a life-long prison sentence in Turkey for his role in the decades-long campaign of terror in Turkey.
In the book The PKK's Regional Politics, the author argues that during and after the Cold War: “[The] writings of two leading Soviet leaders, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, were main, if not only, ideological sources of the PKK’s assumptions, beliefs, and values narrated mainly within texts written by Abdullah Ocalan.”
Marxism-Leninism made the organisation appealing to the then Soviet Union which duly attempted to weaken the NATO ally on its southern flank.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Israel worked with Iran to support Kurdish groups that were fighting in Iraq against central authorities in the hope that this would make it less likely that Baghdad would join other Arab states in a war against Israel.
Russia has always maintained some links with the PKK groups or its affiliates as a hedge against Turkey and as a means of exerting regional influence in a region often dominated by US power.
During the Syrian civil war, while the US has been the principal benefactor of the YPG/PKK, Russia’s role has also been present if less ubiquitous.
In 2017 a Russian general was seen posing in a picture with YPG spokesperson Noureddine Mahmoud with the Russian and YPG flags in the background.
Russia’s connections with the YPG were further demonstrated recently when it brokered a deal between the Assad regime and the group.
German involvement with the PKK
The US designated the PKK a terrorist organisation more than two decades ago. The PKK was seen as a proxy of Russia, formerly the Soviet Union, which NATO and the US saw as a threat.
In the 1990s, as the PKK’s terror campaign in Turkey spread to Germany, Berlin followed suit and designated the organisation as a terrorist threat.
Germany’s view towards the organisation has often oscillated between turning a blind eye to the militant organisation or delivering a slap on the wrist.
The PKK has used Germany as a base for its financing activities, and a means to propagate its message.
Germany’s hot and cold approach to what it classes as a terrorist organisation has often been a source of tension between Ankara and Berlin, one that has remained mostly unresolved much to Turkey's annoyance.
As long as major powers see the PKK as a proxy for their own power designs, Turkey will view attempts at normalising the militant organisation, giving it weapons or allowing it to spread its ideology, as a threat.
Taken within a historical and regional context, Turkey’s operations in Syria are aimed at securing its own borders against threats that have been weaponised against it time and again.