The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Turkey still thinks this guy holding a baby bear is a terrorist. Is he?

A PKK fighter nurses a bear cub who lost its mother during Turkish bombing in Iraqi Kurdistan in March 2008. (Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post)

The photo above, of a Kurdish fighter nursing an orphaned baby bear, is a controversial one. It appeared on The Washington Post's front page on March 8, 2008, alongside a dispatch by Post correspondent Joshua Partlow from northern Iraq, where he was among Kurdish rebels battling an offensive by the Turkish army. The fighters belonged to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that has waged a three-decades-long insurgency against Turkey.

The PKK is considered a terrorist group by Ankara, as well as by Washington and many other Western governments. It has the blood of thousands on its hands, say its detractors. Critics attacked The Post's story as romanticizing the outfit, particularly with the inclusion of such cuddly images. The reaction led to a meticulous report from the paper's ombudsman a week later that said the story needed "more history and context" and cited a lengthy criticism from Turkey's then deputy chief of mission at its Washington embassy.

Burak Akcapar said the story "was sympathetic and glorified an infamous and deadly terrorist organization," which was "indiscriminate in who [it kills]." He was also unimpressed by the image of the PKK fighter holding the baby bear, which, Partlow and photographer Andrea Bruce were told, had lost its mother amid Turkish bombing of PKK positions. "I don't understand why a terrorist is carrying a baby milk bottle," said Akcapar.

Six years later, and the Turkish government is still adamant fighters like the man pictured are terrorists. But there is an increasing number of people who disagree.

As the Post has covered extensively, the PKK and a web of other Kurdish militias are leading the ground war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In the past month, global attention has focused on the embattled Syrian border town of Kobane, a Kurdish bastion that the jihadists of the Islamic State have failed to capture.

Air strikes by the U.S. and coalition partners have helped stanch the extremists' advance, but the U.S. has been frustrated by Turkey's apparent reticence to come to the Kurds' aid. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees the People's Protection Units -- the Syrian Kurdish militia holding out in Kobane, which is also know by its acronym, YPG -- as a PKK proxy.

Speaking to Turkish media last week, Erdogan denounced reports of American officials meeting with the PYD, the Syrian Kurdish political organization to which the YPG is the military wing. "At the moment, the PYD is equal with the PKK for us. It is also a terrorist organization," he said.

Others are less convinced. A chorus of Western pundits want the U.S. and other European governments to consider removing the PKK from their terror watch lists. They see the pesh merga of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq and the YPG and PKK militias as forces for good. They say the Kurds' courage and sacrifice stand in stark contrast to the relative inaction of Erdogan's government, which has sparked heated Kurdish protests in Turkey and elsewhere.

Writing in the New Republic, outspoken French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy argues that "the Kurds are our most solid allies in the long-term war that jihadism has declared against us" (given his history of moralizing, one imagines "us" means the liberal, democratic West). The "Kurds" here include the PKK, says Levy, whom he likens to the Irish Republican Army, an organization that after years of armed struggle renounced violence and entered democratic politics.

The PKK is in the midst of a protracted peace process with Erdogan's government. Despite Erdogan's current bluster, he has done much more to reconcile the nation's minority Kurdish population than his predecessors.

Roughly 30 million Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria; the ethnic group was one of the largest not to win its own nation-state at the end of World War I and the collapse of some of Europe's great empires. In Turkey, earlier authoritarian nationalist regimes persecuted the Kurds and suppressed their language and culture to the point that it was once illegal to use certain letters to spell distinct Kurdish words.

The PKK emerged in this context as a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group fighting for a separate Kurdish homeland in Turkey. At the peak of their militancy, they employed a host of terror tactics that included car-bombings, hostage-taking, night-time raids and executions. As late as May 2013, the State Department still described the PKK as one of the deadliest terror groups operating in Europe.

But another narrative surrounding the Kurdish militias has gained far more traction in recent months as the world frets about the threat of the Islamic State. Levy, and other supporters of the Kurds, applaud them for their supposed anti-fundamentalist worldview. In Kurdish areas, Levy writes, "one finds a level of gender equality, a respect for secularism and minorities, and a modern, moderate, and ecumenical conception of Islam that are, to say the least, rare in the region."

Images of female Kurdish fighters, dressed like their male counterparts, have become a meme. The Iraqi Kurdish government, which has a sophisticated lobbying operation in Washington, has marketed its autonomous region in Iraq as an enlightened oasis in a troubled region.

The PKK, a secular organization which has the sympathy of some in the Turkish left, arguably fits into this liberal narrative. And as more influential voices in the West speak up on their behalf, Turkey may have new reasons to worry about that charming image of one rebel and his little bear.