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Kurdish Insurgency Faces Crossroads

Syrian Kurds demonstrators hold flags and portraits of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan during a protest in Derik, Al Hasakah, Syria, November 1, 2012.

Syrian Kurds demonstrators hold flags and portraits of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan during a protest in Derik, Al Hasakah, Syria, November 1, 2012.

The Arab Spring has given Kurds across the Middle East new hopes for independence through political means. But some are worried an armed Kurdish insurgency operating in four countries may ultimately derail national aspirations.

In recent months, Turkey's conflict with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has escalated rapidly, with some of the heaviest fighting in decades.

More than 700 people have died since large-scale hostilities resumed in summer 2011, the highest casualty rate since the late 1990s, according to reports.

The Turkish army has staged nearly 1,000 raids in the past six months against the PKK, branded by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization.

Splinter groups

When Turkey captured influential PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999 and cut most of the group's links to states offering support or safe-haven, the PKK countered by founding sister organizations, such as the PYD in Syria and Iran's PJAK, beginning in 2002.

Despite denials, the splinter groups are all PKK-run, said Ihsan Bal, an Ankara-based security specialist.

"[In] the case of PJAK, Iranian Kurds are involved, and, obviously, with the PYD in Syria, the Syrian Kurds are involved, but the main instigator and [effective] leadership is the PKK," he said.

European and American officials say the groups are loosely funded through the PKK's network of voluntary contributions from sympathizers in Turkey and the European Kurdish diaspora, as well as extortion, drug trafficking and kidnapping.

The PKK reportedly raises up to $25 million annually from the diaspora, but its main funding comes from within Turkey itself. The money is used for everything from armed operations to TV stations and a European lobbying organization.

Turkish demands

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded international action to curb the money trail from Europe.

“We would like to see the outcome of the European Union’s determined policies," said Erdogan. "So there should not be any ‘western-sponsored’, separatist terror organization. The West should clearly lay out its position in this case. It is our expectation.”

Founded in 1978, the PKK originally vowed to secure an independent, united Kurdistan for the Middle East's estimated 30 million Kurds, a goal that has been scaled back to autonomy within Turkey.

The conflict has killed more than 40,000 people since it began 28 years ago.

In the late 1980s, the PKK established bases in Iraq. According to analyst Bal, the group now controls about 4,000 guerrilla fighters based in that country's nearly impenetrable northern mountains near the Turkish border - and another 1,000 inside Turkey.

Neither Turkey nor the Kurdistan regional government has been able to shut down the PKK's main bases in Qandil [in northern Iraq], "where they will operate for a long time," said Denise Natali, a Kurdish expert at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

The commander of the PKK's armed wing, Murat Karayilan, was quoted as saying the group's military budget amounts to more than $140 million annually.

"[Outside experts] have also estimated it might be [as much as] $150 million. So that is the estimate of the PKK military wing," Bal said.

Syrian push

As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power began to disintegrate after March 2011, the leaders of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, moved from Qandil to Syria.

While its allied militia took over towns near the Turkish border, the PYD built schools, cultural centers and other Kurdish institutions.

The PKK and its Iranian offshoot, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK, appear even more closely aligned, said Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

But key Kurdish political leaders, mainly in Iraq, have been pursuing gains through economic means, thus offering an alternative to the insurgency. Iraqi Kurdish officials met this week in Tehran for talks on trade.

Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, offers a comprehensive regional vision that PKK militarism simply cannot match, said Barkey, who called the Kurdish leader "the single most important new force to emerge from the Syrian crisis."

"Barzani has institutions, he has money, he has a state, even if its part of the federal Iraqi state, it is still a recognized state," Barkey said. "[The Kurdish president] has international recognition and acceptance, versus a PKK that has been ostracized and labeled a terrorist [group] by the U.S., EU, etcetera," he said.

Ultimately, Barkey said, the Kurdish insurgency may become more of a detriment that an asset for the Kurdish cause.

"There's no question the PKK put the Kurds on the map in Turkey," he said. "But from this point on, they will not get a great deal more from continued violence."
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    Mark Snowiss

    Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus