The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the movements it leads are the main forces resisting ISIS in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan). What is the PKK?
The PKK was founded in 1977 by a small group of students who had previously been involved in the banned Dev-Genç (Revolutionary Youth) organisation, one of several revolutionary organisations that formed in Turkey in the 1960s.
PKK defined itself as a "Marxist-Leninist" organisation prepared to wage armed struggle for an independent Kurdistan, and its base was mainly the Kurdish peasantry in the mountains of South Eastern Turkey.
It found auxiliary bases of support across Europe among Kurdish workers who had emigrated. At that stage the PKK described its mode of operation as "revolution in the countryside" which would have to take a "national character".
Since the PKK's formation, over 30,000 people have been killed in fighting between their fighters and Turkish state forces.
In 1980 a guerilla group called the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party–Front (DHKP/C) assassinated Turkish Prime Minister Nihat Erim. A general crackdown on armed and opposition political groups forced the PKK leadership and much of its militia to flee to Syria and Lebanon. Abdullah Öcalan, one of PKK's founders and its current leader, had already set up bases there and began to build contacts with other movements.
The PKK had uneasy relationships with Kurdish groups and parties in Syria, Iraq and Iran. However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s it was able to operate across the borders of those states particularly during the 1991 Gulf War. It was heavily associated with the importation of heroin through Iraq.
Early attempts by the Turkish government at peace negotiations fell apart in 1995 following the death of Turgat Ozal, a half-Kurdish Turkish Prime Minister. In the mid 1990s, after Kurds in Iraq gained a form of regional self-government, the PKK restarted its campaign against the Turkish state with a series of bombings, coupled with thousands of PKK prisoners going on hunger strike.
Following clashes with the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties, the PKK was forced to retreat from its bases in Iraq. It was then largely forced to operate from Syria and under increasing international pressure to use peaceful methods to fulfil its aims. Further international pressure increased following several suicide bombings, largely conducted by women within Turkey.
Relations between Turkey and Syria were increasingly under strain as the Government of Hafez al- Assad had sheltered Öcalan and the PKK leadership and allowed their military and intelligence training as well as drug trafficking to continue with relatively little interference.
At various points the PKK has sought and received support from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Armenia. Under increasing pressure from Turkey and Germany, where there is both a large Kurdish and Turkish community, the Syrian state confirmed it would assist Turkey in driving out the PKK.
The Syrian regime incurred Turkish ire for its lack of action, but when Turkey broke off diplomatic relations in 1998, Syria reacted and Öcalan was deported.
From exile in Rome, Öcalan declared that he wanted an end to the war and to get a political solution to Kurdish autonomy through a "process of peace and democracy".
He was arrested in Nairobi by the Turkish intelligence forces and has remained in a Turkish prison in Imerli ever since. He was sentenced to death, but pressure from the EU, which Turkey was hoping to join, commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. Through his lawyers, he remains the PKK’s leader.
He is commonly known as Apo, meaning uncle. His published books, particularly since his arrest are extensive, and his image adorns the yellow flags of Kurdish protestors and activists across the world.
Zaher Baher of Haringey Solidarity Group and Kurdistan Anarchists Forum has commented that the work of Öcalan is treated almost as "sacred", and that schoolchildren are told about him as the great leader of the Kurdish people.
His control of over the PKK and its affiliates from prison remains very strong. The apparent shift in their ideology from a nationalist variant of "Marxism-Leninism" (Stalinism) to the theory of "democratic confederalism" has not widened the democracy within the PKK itself, which retains a strictly hierarchical and largely military apparatus.
Murders of former members and rivals have continued, and Öcalan himself has had to request that no more of his supporters go on hunger strike for his release or repeat the act of six of his supporters in self immolating in order to get his release.
The BDP (Peace and Democracy Party). which is currently the largest legal Kurdish party in Turkey, calls for Öcalan to be the lead negotiator with the government on a peace deal. Alisia Marcus an expert on the PKK has said that if Öcalan was to die in prison then the Turkish state would be seen as complicit and this would make any deal much harder to negotiate.
Former members of the PKK who have been expelled or left have also made claims about the PKK’s attitude to women.
Many women are involved in combat operations and that they play a major role in the fighting against ISIS in Syria.
However Mehmet Cahit Sener, a founder of the PKK, has claimed of Öcalan that: "[He] has forced dozens of our female comrades to immoral relations with him, defiled most and declared the ones who insisted on refusing to be people 'who haven't understood the party, who haven't understood us'…The relations between men and women within the party have turned into a harem in Apo's palace and many female comrades were treated as concubines by this individual".
In a widely available quote from Öcalan’s 1992 book, Analyses, Orders and Perspectives he writes: "On these subjects, they leave aside all the real measurements and find someone and gossip, say 'this was attempted to be done to me here' or 'this was done to me there'! These shameless women both want to give too much and then develop such things… I'm saying it openly again. This is the sort of warrior I am. I love girls a lot, I value them a lot. I love all of them. I try to turn every girl into a lover… I define myself openly. If you find me dangerous, don't get close!"
The PKK dropped the hammer and sickle from its flag in 1991 and now does not consider itself a nationalist organisation as it no longer calls for an Independent Kurdistan. It views itself as the military wing of the "Kurdish freedom movement", and although it remains committed to armed struggle in defence of Kurds it no longer describes this as its main field of activity.
Like the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein the PKK has now moved towards gaining wider political legitimacy. The Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) is now the umbrella organisation that brings together the PKK and all its international affiliates, political parties and campaigning organisations.
Following Öcalan's arrest and imprisonment there has been a supposed change in his ideology to something he refers to as "Democratic Confederalism". This is influenced by the American leftist Murray Bookchin, who mostly described himself as an anarchist but in his later years rejected the label.
Öcalan is quoted as saying this rests on replacing the basic elements of modern society, "capitalism, the nation-state, and industrialism" with "democratic nation, communal economy, and ecological industry".
To do this requires three distinct programmes for a "democratic republic", for "democratic-confederalism", and for "democratic autonomy". This means in short, the granting of Kurdish civil rights, and a move from representative forms of democracy to a "more direct… political structure".
Some of the British left believe that this is being achieved in parts of Syrian Kurdistan and in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkish Kurdistan.
On the ground, assemblies exist, but they are dominated by the PYD, which also control all the arms and military actions in the area. In a report by the Crisis Group, a resident of Qamishli is reported as stating in an interview: "People’s councils are for everybody, not only Kurds. In Qamishli, Christians have their own council leader responsible for gas distribution who is selected by the PYD…. Members and leaders are selected by the PYD and report to the PYD-controlled police".
Another is quoted as saying: "I was in the YPG since before the uprising... Since last year, at least 400 new PKK military personnel came from Turkey and Iran. They are not Syrians, and they want to control everything".
The PYD, whilst tolerating opposition parties and activists, remains in full control of the state. Salih Muslim, the PYD leader, has also made statements suggesting Arabs may be forcibly expelled from Kurdish areas.
David Graeber, in his widely-read Guardian article "Why is the world ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria?", says in passing: "Clearly, authoritarian elements remain", but does not expand on what this means and how or whether this will be overcome.
The KCK contract which is part of the political basis for Rojava states that: "This system is one that takes into account ethnic, religious and class differences on a social basis... Three systems of law will apply in Kurdistan: EU law, unitary state law, democratic confederal law".
Whilst the Rojava cantons are vastly superior to the medieval barbarism of ISIS we should not have illusions that such a system has somehow abolished class antagonisms, or that a guerrilla movement with a Stalinist background has been able to transform itself so readily and with little opposition into protectors of a libertarian autonomous zone.
The PYD and its allied forces are defending the Kurds from IS fighters and protecting the right of Kurds to self-determination. That is enough to mandate international solidarity; but the need for independent working-class and socialist politics among the Kurds is still very real.
The Turkish revolutionary socialist organisation Marksist Tutum, which supports the Kurdish struggle, makes some illuminating comments on the character of the PKK towards the end of this interview.