Turkey, who declared PKK as a terrorist organization, considers PYD as the continuation of PKK in Syria. In other words, they declared PYD as a terrorist organization as well. This situation, however, is not the case for the USA and other Western countries. Since 1970, in each year the US declares their Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, where PKK became part of it in 1989. As for the PYD, the US government didn’t include it on their list and this means that they don’t consider this as a terrorist organization. On the contrary, they are treating them like freedom fighters, proving them military equipment, health aid, and using them as a means for their own goals in Syria. When ISIS captured Mosul in 2014, for the US, ISIS became a problem that has to be solved and other than YPG there wasn’t anyone more effective to overcome this problem. In that sense, the US, for their own national interests, uses Turkey’s regional terrorist organization as a countermeasure to overcome ISIS by not considering it as a terrorist organization rather treating it as a freedom fighter. While YPG is a separatist actor in Syria for the US, as for Russia, it is a political actor that has to be integrated in Syria.
Indeed, during the Sochi Summit in 2019, while the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu recalled PYD as a terrorist organization, Russia avoid using this label. Even though the aspirations for PYD is different for both Russia and the USA, by not recognizing this as a terrorist organization and treating this as a freedom fighter, they both threat the national security of Turkey. For the example of YPG, the expression that we have mentioned in the beginning can be understood through not only by the lack of universal definition of terrorism but through the third level of analysis put forward by Barry Buzan which happens to be the system level that accepts the international system as anarchy (Buzan, 1983) along with the idea that every state pursues their own interests. If the US adds YPG to their list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, it will be forbidden for them to provide any kind of help to YPG, well at least on the surface. This means that the US can’t fulfill its national interests. The same goes for Russia as well. Moreover, since the idea of anarchy within the international arena emphasize the supreme authority (Buzan, 1983), it can be said that the lack of universal definition of terrorism paves the way for the absence of supreme authority. This, however, doesn’t prevent Turkey to consider PYD as a terrorist organization, in fact, they can even consider it as a state-sponsored terrorist organization. Since under the state sponsoring terrorism, states use terrorist organizations as a tool for their own goals by providing them financial aid, military, and operational assistance, (Ganor, 2002) according to Turkey, YPG is a terrorist organization who receives military and financial aid from the US so it can be considered as a state-sponsored terrorism. This, indeed, raise tension between two parties because the Turkish government didn’t hesitate from reacting harshly to the acts of the American government towards PYD.
Overall, the expression of “one man’s terrorist, other man’s freedom fighter” can be understood in twofold: internally and externally. Internally, the lack of a universal definition of terrorism paves the way for a revision of understanding of who is a freedom fighter and this used as a justification tool by regional actors who labeled as terrorist organizations by the state. This is the relationship between Turkey and the PKK. While one side (Turkey) considers the other as the terrorist organization, other (PKK) claim itself as a freedom fighter and gain public legitimacy through the aspiration of self-determination and the way they mobilize people for this goal. Even though this expression will be kept used by religious actors such as PKK as a tool to legitimize their activities, a universal definition of terrorism will be beneficial to avoid the humanitarian consequences of countermeasures under the scope of international law. On the other hand, externally, when the lack of universal truth coupled with the idea that the international sphere is anarchic and every state has different interests, it is inevitable for two states to consider differently whether a group is a terrorist organization or not. This was the case for Russia, the US, and Turkey about YPG. While Russia and America were treating YPG as a freedom fighter, Turkey recognized this as a terrorist organization. However, in international relations, this expression will remain because of the aspirations of every state to pursue their interests. For instance, even though the USA recognized PKK as a terrorist organization, intelligence has shown that the US provides military equipment to PKK. In this respect, it can be said that all is fair in pursuing your national interest or the idea of someone else’s terrorist is other’s “friend” can be emphasize. Yet, the possibility of a common conceptualization will make it easier for countries to combat terrorism and cope up with its legal consequences along with requiring other states to treat them as a terrorist organization by facing them with sanctions.
Buzan, B. (1983). People, States and Fear: The National Security Problem in International Relations. NY: Oxford University Press.
Ganor, B. (2002). Defining Terrorism: Is One Man’s Terrorist Another Man’s Freedom Fighter. Police Practice and Research, 3(4), pp.287-304.