Responding to a journalist’s question about the murder of Kurdish feminist theoretician and journalist Nagihan Akarsel by alleged Turkish intelligence agents in early October, Turkish Ambassador to Iraq Ali Riza Guney said that “those who are affiliated with the PKK are indeed our targets.”
In context, this statement is the closest the government of Turkey has ever come to acknowledging that extrajudicial killings of non-combatant politicians, activists, and civil society figures outside of Turkey’s borders are a key component of its strategic approach to the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and other Kurdish groups today.
This paper assesses Turkey’s historical use of these murders as a strategy in the Kurdish conflict and explains how the broad and politicized definition of ‘PKK affiliation’ used by Turkish authorities includes multiple categories of individuals who are not combatants and who have no involvement in military activity.
Relying on open-source data, it then looks at patterns in alleged Turkish targeted killings of non-combatant politicians, activists and civil society figures outside of Turkish territory over the past year.
Finally, it explains the likely motivations of Turkey’s current campaign and its implications for security and stability in the region. It concludes with suggestions as to how policymakers can best respond to these challenges, particularly in light of the Biden administration’s recent criticism of Turkey’s militarized approach to the Kurdish issue.
Extrajudicial Killings as a Turkish Strategy
When a legal pro-Kurdish political tradition developed in Turkey and won a presence in the country’s parliament in the early 1990s, Turkish security forces and far-right state-linked paramilitary groups murdered and disappeared hundreds of activists, politicians, journalists and other opposition figures.
In July 1991, People’s Labor Party (HEP) Diyarbakir branch president Vedat Aydin was found dead three days after being abducted from his home by men dressed as police officers. He had been on trial at the time for giving a speech in Kurdish. In September 1992, Musa Anter, a Kurdish intellectual who participated in the establishment of the HEP, the Mesopotamian Cultural Center, and the Istanbul Kurdish Institute, was killed in an armed attack.
Newly elected pro-Kurdish MPs were among the targets. In September 1993, pro-Kurdish Democracy Party (DEP) MP for Mardin Mehmet Sincar was shot dead while on a fact-finding mission investigating killings of local DEP members. DEP MP for Batman Nizamettin Toguç survived the attack with injuries. One week later, DEP MP Leyla Zana survived an assassination attempt while visiting Sincar’s family to offer condolences.
This period of violence was somewhat successful. It did not crush the legal pro-Kurdish political movement altogether or end popular support for both armed and civilian Kurdish groups in Turkey’s southeast. However, targeted killings removed capable leaders and activists from the political scene and raised the cost of political and social participation for Kurdish civilians.
This weakened peaceful campaigns for democratization, Kurdish rights and a negotiated end to the armed conflict between the state and the PKK and, paradoxically, strengthened the PKK’s case that armed resistance was the only effective means by which Kurds could gain their rights.
Perpetrators of killings and disappearances did not face meaningful consequences domestically. Turkey’s allies continued to provide it with weapons, security assistance, diplomatic support and intelligence, despite evidence that their support was aiding serious human rights violations.
All of these were positive outcomes for the most pro-war elements of the state and negative outcomes for Kurdish society. It is thus reasonable to assess political assassinations not only as a precedented Turkish strategy, but also as one that Turkish policymakers are likely to view as low-cost domestically and internationally and reasonably effective.
What does ‘affiliated with the PKK’ mean?
For a Turkish official to claim that any individual Turkey deems to be “affiliated with the PKK” is a target is an admission that Turkey targets non-combatants based on their real or perceived political orientation. Turkey does not distinguish between formal members of the PKK and non-members. Nor does it distinguish between combatant and non-combatant members of the group.
Most people and organizations formally accused by the Turkish government of being affiliated with the PKK are civilian individuals and entities who are not, never have been, and never will be part of the group. Accusations of PKK ties or PKK membership are a common catch-all charge used to criminalize Kurdish opposition, advocates for greater Kurdish political and cultural rights, and critics of the government’s national security policies.
In recent years, individuals and organizations accused of links to the PKK include:
- Dozens of democratically elected mayors and several democratically elected members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
- Artists who use the Kurdish language and reference Kurdish history and culture in their work.
- Academics who signed a peace petition.
- Kurdish athletes and their fans.
- Independent media that reports on government abuses of power.
- Politically unaffiliated citizens of Turkey who express anti-war sentiment, criticize the government, or simply attend common social events like holiday celebrations and wedding parties.
The PKK is also different from most non-state actors in that it is not exclusively, or even primarily, an armed force. It is an established political, intellectual, and social presence in Kurdish communities in Turkey, Syria and the diaspora.
As a result, millions of people in the Middle East and Europe who are not PKK members and who have never participated in or supported armed activity against Turkey have engaged in some way with the PKK’s political theories or with civilian political entities influenced by some elements of its ideology.
Jineoloji magazine and the Jineoloji Academy, where Nagihan Akarsel worked, are examples of this phenomenon. The concept of jineoloji comes from the theories of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder and leader of the PKK. However, academics, artists, writers, journalists, and activists of many backgrounds, predominantly women, have contributed to the development of the theory and its practical applications across the Middle East, Europe and Latin America.
There are also many people who are members of the PKK but who are not combatants and who do not have military responsibilities. When Sakine Cansiz was assassinated in Paris in 2013 by an alleged Turkish intelligence agent, she was a member of the PKK—but her role was entirely political. There was no legitimate basis on which Turkey could target her.
Some leading politicians in North and East Syria have previous military experience in the PKK’s ranks but are currently civilians with non-military responsibilities in Syrian Kurdish political structures not necessarily under the PKK’s authority. Individuals in this category include key leaders who regularly engage with the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at high levels. They are also not legitimate targets for Turkey under international law.
Alleged Extrajudicial Killings of Politicians, Activists and Civil Society Figures Abroad, October 2021-October 2022
Open-source research compiled from news reports, human rights monitors and social media suggests that, in the past 12 months, at least 14 non-combatant political figures and activists in Iraq and Syria have been killed in at least eight alleged targeted attacks by Turkish intelligence or the Turkish military. The data can be viewed here.
The reported victims of these attacks included nine men and five women. Two were citizens of Turkey living abroad, while 12 were citizens of Iraq or Syria. Most were ethnic Kurds, though Arab members of the Revolutionary Youth Movement and a Yezidi leader in Sinjar were also killed.
- Yusuf Gulo, community leader and relative of SDF advisor
- Merwan Bedel, Co-Chair of the Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Assembly
- Amina Mihemed, member of the Young Women’s Union
- Viyan Kobane, member of the Young Women’s Union
- Rojin Ehmed Isa, member of the Young Women’s Union
- Mirhef Xelil Ibrahim, member of the Revolutionary Youth Movement
- Welid Mihemed Menle, member of the Revolutionary Youth Movement
- Mesud Ibrahim, member of the Revolutionary Youth Movement
- Zeki Celebi, member of the Association of Working People of Mesopotamia
- Ferhad Shibli, Deputy Chair of the AANES Executive Council
- Suheyl Xurid Eziz, Executive Council Member of Tevgera Azadi
- Zeyneb Saroxan Mihemed, Co-Chair of the AANES Justice and Reform Office
- Yilmaz Shero, Co-Chair of the AANES Justice and Reform Office
- Nagihan Akarsel, academic and journalist, Jineoloji Magazine and Jineoloji Academy
All three of the attacks in Syria occurred within the territory of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Four of the five attacks in Iraq occurred in the Kurdistan Region (KRI). The fifth took place in Sinjar.
Most of the killings were carried out by drone strike, including all three that took place in Syria and two of the five that took place in Iraq. Turkey has also used drones to assassinate leaders in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS). All three armed attacks took place in Sulaymaniyah in the KRI.
These attacks occur in populated residential areas and on busy public roads. This shows that Turkey is not only willing to target non-combatant political opponents, but is also indifferent to the risk its actions pose to other people who may be in the same area. The same pattern holds for assassinations of SDF military personnel in northeast Syria and of YBS military personnel in Sinjar.
The government of Turkey is likely pursuing this strategy in Iraq and Syria today for reasons similar to those that drove its campaign of targeted killings of politicians and activists within its borders 30 years ago.
North and East Syria does not pose any credible military threat to Turkey’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It does not intend to ever do so. But its existence as an autonomous region in which Kurds have achieved a degree of self-determination and developed an organized political consciousness is a political threat to Turkey’s nationalist elites, just like the presence of pro-Kurdish parties in Turkish electoral politics was in the 1990s.
Political theories inspired by Ocalan and the PKK are arguably more influential in the region—and around the world—than they ever have been before, largely as a result of the successes of the AANES and SDF in the war against ISIS. The Kurdish national cause has gained global legitimacy for similar reasons, and Turkey’s militaristic approach to the Kurdish issue has been delegitimized—as the reaction to Turkey’s October 2019 invasion of northeastern Syria revealed. These trends are also a political threat to Turkey.
Drawn-out Turkish military operations against the PKK’s mountain hideouts in Iraqi Kurdistan have limited, though not halted, the group’s military movements. But they do very little to address these political threats. In some cases, they cause political harm—civilian casualties in Turkish operations this summer spurred mass protests and put unprecedented pressure on Iraqi leaders to stand up to Turkey.
Targeting individual politicians and activists, however, may be more effective. These killings weaken Kurdish political and civil society structures and the communities behind them by stripping them of competent leaders and thinkers, forcing politicians and activists to modify their behavior for security purposes, and increasing the risk of participation in or even perceived support for those structures.
In northeastern Syria, the climate of instability caused by drone assassinations discourages economic recovery and contributes to forced displacement and demographic change—a direct threat to the lives and livelihoods of the communities that support the AANES and SDF.
Turkish policymakers likely believe that this campaign will counter Kurdish political influence in the region and further militarize the Kurdish issue, much like how attacks on pro-Kurdish political parties and civil society organizations in the early 1990s struck a blow to pro-Kurdish politics domestically and inhibited efforts to resolve the conflict.
As elections approach in Turkey and Erdogan courts nationalist voters, political assassinations of Kurdish political figures, activists, and civil society leaders abroad may appear to Turkish policymakers as a low-risk, high-reward tactic that shows that the government is ‘fighting terrorism’ without carrying the economic and diplomatic costs of the ground invasion of Syria that Erdogan continues to threaten—incentivizing more attacks.
The risk here is likely to be most elevated for high-profile AANES leaders. If patterns in Turkey’s recent targeting of SDF leaders hold, those who have worked with the international community might be in particular danger. Attacks on Kurdish dissidents from Turkey living in Iraqi Kurdistan may also become more likely as Turkey deepens its global campaign of transnational repression.
The Transnational Threat
Turkey’s assassination campaign is an affront to basic principles of rules-based order and human rights. Extrajudicial killings of non-combatants on the basis of their real or perceived political beliefs or affiliations are contrary to international law. Carrying out these killings on the territory of foreign countries is a violation of those countries’ sovereignty.
Allowing Turkey to violate these basic international principles sets a precedent that states like Russia and Iran, which engage in similar practices, can use to justify their actions and discredit Western objections when they pursue similar strategies against opponents abroad.
There is also no guarantee that Turkey will confine its campaign to conflict zones near its borders. Erdogan’s government has allegedly carried out targeted killings in the heart of Europe before. It openly threatens and intimidates political opponents in Western democracies—including in the United States. Governments have a basic obligation to protect their citizens and people on their territory from the threat or use of force by foreign powers.
In Syria, these killings are a real threat to the AANES at a time when it is dealing with many other critical challenges, including economic and environmental crises and the threat of an ISIS resurgence. This challenge to AANES governance harms the counter-ISIS campaign and related stabilization efforts, drives migration, and weakens the AANES position vis-a-vis Damascus—a win for Russia.
In Iraq, they are one of the many forms of Turkish aggression that allows Iran and Iran-backed groups to position themselves as defenders of the country’s sovereignty, further entrenching these bad actors in Iraq’s political and security environment. Turkish drone strikes against any targets in Sinjar prevent Yezidis who survived genocide at the hands of ISIS from returning home and rebuilding.
So far, Kurdish military actors have had a remarkably measured and restrained response to the assassination campaign. They do not always retaliate. When they do, it is against Turkish or Turkish-backed security forces. But these assassinations of civilian leaders have caused a great deal of outrage among the Kurdish public and the public in North and East Syria, and Kurdish military and political leaders are responsive to the opinions of their supporters. There is a chance that they may escalate if the killings continue, increasing the risk of conflict.
The Biden administration has already suggested that it does not believe there is any military solution to the Turkey-PKK conflict and has questioned the efficacy of ongoing Turkish military operations in Iraq and Syria. If they are serious about this position, addressing this particularly deadly and destabilizing aspect of Turkey’s militarized approach to the Kurdish issue could be a valuable place from which to start.
To begin, some self-reflection may be in order. American weapons and technology have been used by elements of the Turkish intelligence and security forces known for targeting politicians and activists since the Kurdish conflict began. At least one recent Turkish assassination of a non-combatant PKK political figure on Iraqi soil was carried out with U.S. intelligence support. Senior Turkish leaders responsible for persecuting dissidents and waging war in Iraq and Syria have trained in the United States through U.S. security assistance programs.
The United States should cut security assistance programs known to have benefitted individuals responsible for these killings and halt the exports of weapons and technology used in them—particularly drone technology. If intelligence sharing on Turkey’s counter-PKK operations has resumed since the reported end of the program in 2019, this should also be ended.
U.S. policymakers should publicly and privately warn Turkey against taking actions that violate international law and the sovereignty of other states. This can be situated in a broader effort to push back on Turkey’s campaign of transnational repression and highlight the need for non-military solutions to the Kurdish issue.
In northeast Syria, the U.S. should inform AANES personnel believed to be at risk of being targeted by Turkey and offer them short-term protection. In the long term, the U.S. should explore ways to strengthen AANES and SDF capabilities to detect these threats and take the security measures necessary to keep their personnel safe.
Due to a lack of interest in addressing the threat of Turkey’s targeted killings on the part of local authorities, U.S. capabilities to address the issue in the KRI and in Iraq as a whole are limited, but U.S. policymakers can push their counterparts in Erbil and Baghdad to take the issue more seriously.