Does the US Bounty on PKK Leaders Mean Anything?

November 10, 2018

PKK leaders Murat Karayilan, Cemil Bayik and Duran Kalkan have been added to the U.S. ‘Reward for Justice’ list prepared by the U.S. State Department in fighting against terrorism.

Since the beginning of this month, the U.S. has taken many positive steps toward Turkey. The first was the joint patrols with Turkey in Manbij. The U.S. also declared that Turkey would be exempt from the sanctions on Iran. The U.S., on the very same day, also lifted the sanctions against Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu with regard to the ban on their entry to the U.S. and their possible financial affairs in the U.S. Turkey quickly responded in the same way by removing its own sanctions against the counterparts in the U.S.

A new one was added to these steps last Tuesday. On November 6, the State Department listed the PKK’s three top executives in its ‘reward for justice ’program. ‘Reward for Justice’ is a reward program developed by the U.S. Department of State for counter-terrorism. The program lists the names and information of the most wanted terrorists and promises a reward if information provided is useful for the capture of these persons. The list includes 11 categories covering rewards ranging from 250 thousand dollars up to 25 million dollars. The names of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are on the top of the list. The PKK leaders included in the list are Murat Karayilan ($5 million), Cemil Bayik ($4 million) and Duran Kalkan ($3 million). Three other familiar names are also in the list but none of them are new in the list. Musa Asoglu, Seher Demir Sen, Zerrin Sari, all from the revolutionary socialist DHKP-C organization, had already been in the category of 3 million dollars before last Tuesday.

Along with Murat Karayilan, Cemil Bayik, and Duran Kalkan, there are three other familiar names in the list of ‘Reward for Justice’ who are Musa Asoglu, Seher Demir Sen and Zerrin Sari, all from the revolutionary socialist DHKP-C organization.

One major aspect of this matter is about the significance of these positive steps, if they really are. Frankly speaking, there is not much going on here no matter how many steps the U.S. took toward Turkey. To start with, Turkey’s exemption from the Iran sanctions is not only for Turkey but also for seven other Asian countries, and is only temporary. And the main motive in this exemption is not about giving Turkey a relief but about controlling global oil prices. The removal of sanctions against two Turkish ministers is also no big deal. There was no real harm anyway, it was a sanction only on paper. The joint patrols in Manbij is good news but it came too late, much later than expected. Further, Turkey is still expecting the promises to be kept in its entirety, such as the removal of the PYD units from the city of Manbij.

The US bounty on the PKK’s top leadership is one thing. But Turkey-U.S. relations have much deeper issues to resolve ranging from the Halkbank Case to the ongoing American hospitality to coup plotter Fetullah Gulen and to the American support for the PYD.

If we go back to the bounty issue for the PKK’s top leadership, that’s another good sign, but just a sign, nothing more. It’s not as if the U.S. captured these three people and handed them to Turkey. It is still a mystery to many in Turkey whether the U.S. will use the expected information in favor of Turkey or not. Relations between Turkey and the U.S. have much deeper issues to resolve ranging from the famous Halkbank Case to the ongoing American hospitality to coup plotter Fetullah Gulen.

And perhaps at the deepest level, there lies the American support and shield for the PYD. Unless the U.S. shows a sign, a genuine sign, that it understands and respects Turkey’s concerns on these matters, other steps taken will be nothing more than noise. This should not be understood in the way that all these steps mean nothing for Turkey. They mean a lot if this is the first stage of a new path. But it does not really mean much, if at all, if this is the entire package.


Hüseyin Alptekin is Assistant Professor at Istanbul Şehir University and researcher at SETA. He received his PhD degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. Among his academic interests are comparative political institutions, ethnic politics, nationalism, politics of Turkey, and the Middle East. His research has been published, among others, in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Mediterranean Politics, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Afro Eurasian Studies, Insight Turkey, and Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought.