Turkey Increases the Pressure on the PKK Headquarters in Iraq

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 12 June 2020

Ismail Nazlikul (Kasim Engin) [image source]

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) announced earlier this week that one of its senior commanders, Ismail Nazlikul (who used the codename “Kasim Engin”) had been killed on 27 May in a Turkish airstrike in Iraqi Kurdistan.


The PKK was founded in 1978 in Turkey, blending Marxism and Kurdish nationalism with a cult around its leader Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK was driven from Turkey by the violent military coup in September 1980. Sheltered in Syria by the Asad dynasty and working as a proxy of that regime and by extension the Soviet Union against a NATO frontline state in the Cold War, the PKK began a separatist insurgency in Turkey in August 1984.

The PKK, ecumenical in its relations, established ties with Clerical Iran in the late 1980s and has had a base in northern Iraq since 1982 when it came to a deal with Saddam Husayn—part of which was to help the Iraqi Ba’thist regime divide and suppress Iraq’s Kurds. It was from northern Iraq that the first guerrilla attack signifying the beginning of the PKK’s long war on Turkey was launched.

Once the Cold War ended, Asad and the PKK were unable to draw on the Soviets to resist Turkish military pressure; the PKK was formally expelled from Syria in 1998 and withdrew from Turkey under a ceasefire not long after, establishing its extant headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq—albeit that the PKK would reignite its war by 2004.

Since the war on terror began, the PKK has sought to dissociate itself from its atrocities, creating a deniable urban terrorism wing, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) to use against civilians in Turkey, and front-groups in each of the four states where the Kurds have large populations. The most important of the latter is in Syria, where the PKK’s Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed unit, the People’s Protection Forces (YPG), have, under the camouflage of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that allows the Americans to avoid their own terrorism laws, become the main instrument of the anti-Islamic State (IS) war since 2014.

The side-effects of enabling the PYD/PKK to grab territory from IS are a vastly empowered a PKK, disincentivising them to seriously engage in peace talks that Ankara was offering, and created a PKK statelet on Turkey’s border, triggering secondary conflicts as Turkey tries to mitigate and ultimately eliminate this dire threat to its security.


The PKK propaganda outlet, Firat News Agency (ANF), said that Nazlikul was killed in Bradost region, north of Erbil. Nazlikul had been around the PKK since 1985 and went all-in in 1989. Nazlikul then went to Lebanon, where the PKK had a camp, which, the control of Asad, acting at the behest of the Soviet Union, trained terrorists through a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Some of the PKK’s earliest “martyrs” were operatives who fought alongside the PLO against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Having survived the horrific purges at the Lebanon camp—the mass-shootings of students suspected by Ocalan of being “spies”—and the height of the bloodshed between the Turkish state and the PKK in the 1990s, Nazlikul went on to become a member of the PKK’s Central Committee, currently overseen by Cemil Bayik, and an important ideologist for the group.

Nazlikul was head of the Press and Information office for the PKK’s armed units, as well as the bureau that deals with payments to the families of “martyrs”. The PKK is structured like a mafia syndicate in two senses, both in the way it generates revenue, from drugs and human trafficking, among other things, and in its social role of extorting (“taxing”) exile communities through protection rackets against Kurds spread from Berlin to London. An intrinsic part of this is keeping the families on-side after their loved ones are killed fighting for the “cause”, lest they create problems for PKK recruitment and resource extraction from Kurdish communities.

An event was held commemorating Nazlikul’s life earlier today, where inter alia his poems were read out.

Turkey has been expanding its anti-terrorist operations in Iraq for some time, an early warning of Turkey’s advances with drone technology, assisted by Britain and others. In August 2018, Ankara struck down Ismail Özden (Zaki Shingali or Mam Zaki), the leader of the PKK’s Yazidi division, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), in the Sinjar area near the Iraq-Syria border. These effects have come to greater attention with Turkey’s SPRING SHIELD operation against the pro-Asad coalition in Idlib in March, particularly the destruction of Russian anti-aircraft systems, and over the last few days as Turkey has altered the course of Libya’s war. Iraq shows that these operations are sustainable: Turkey has made Qandil as dangerous for the PKK as the Americans have made Waziristan for Al-Qaeda. The constraints this has imposed on the PKK are real, exposing its leadership (as with Nazlikul) and communications mechanisms to disruption, possibly feeding into strategic impacts over the long term.



UPDATE: The Civil Defence Units (YPS) of the PKK announced that its “Revenge Unit” has been activated, with crops burned in Turkey and supporters of the Turkish government attacked. Duran Kalkan (Selahattin Abbas), one of the most senior PKK executive officials, says a Kasim Engin Revenge Operation is underway,

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