"The Plight of the Kurds in Turkey and the Fate of the Middle East"
Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Miley
Lecturer of Political Sociology
The University of Cambridge
A decade and a half in, the “War on Terror” remains a disaster, of increasingly colossal proportions. The Middle East is in flames. The wars of aggression against Iraq and Lybia have not produced the freedoms that were promised. Thus far, they have only served to replace tyrannical states with failed states. Tyranny and chaos remain the only alternatives effectively on offer for the peoples of the region. This is the precondition or ultimate root cause of sympathy for ISIS, the objective grievance that renders the group’s apocalyptic vision plausible to so many in the Sunni Arab world. The combination of lethal ineptitude and hypocrisy by the Western countries certainly does not go unnoticed.
To make matters worse, the Kurdish forces in Rojava, who constitute the only group in Syria that has been an effective and reliable ally of the Western countries in the struggle against ISIS, remain subject to a cruel and debilitating embargo, having been consistently demonized as “terrorists” and threatened by NATO member Turkey, while, for the most part, the West turns a blind eye.
The Kurdish forces in Rojava possess a crucial strength: the courage of their convictions. Courage that has been on display consistently over the course of the past year, perhaps most dramatically during the heroic defence of Kobane and the liberation of the Yazidis on Sinjar mountain.
The Erdogan government is right about one thing: the Kurdish forces in Rojava are organically linked to the PKK. Indeed, the Kurdish forces in Rojava and the Kurdish movement in Turkey share a common political program, too – one called “democratic confederalism.” It is a program inspired by the ideas of their undisputed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, a man whose words are treated by many Kurds as something close to sacred.
Öcalan’s vision of “democratic confederalism,” which he has elaborated extensively from his lonely prison cell on Imrali, amounts to a striking re-interpretation of the principle of self-determination, and provides a road map for peace for the broader Middle East. His model combines (a) an expansion of outlets for local and participatory democratic decision-making, with (b) institutional guarantees for accommodating local ethnic and religious diversities, (c) an emphasis on gender equality, and (d) respect for existing state boundaries, including an explicit and principled renunciation of the goal of a “Greater Kurdistan.” Those inspired by Öcalan in Syria are thus not only nearly the only effective allies in the struggle against ISIS; they are also the most significant force fighting for something other than more tyranny and/or more chaos, indeed, for something resembling democracy.
Not coincidentally, in Turkey, too, the movement inspired by Öcalan has emerged as a crucial protagonist in the struggle for democracy. The impressive performance of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the June 2015 general elections temporarily checked Erdogan’s hyper-presidentialist ambitions, a fact that does much to explain the subsequent escalation of conflict and brutal crackdown on the Kurdish movement ever since. The government’s repression and intimidation of Turkish academics and journalists who have spoken out against its on-going atrocities in Cizre goes to show just how tight the connection is between the fate of the Kurdish question and the fate of democracy throughout Turkey.
Meanwhile, the Erdogan government’s assault on the Kurdish movement inside the country has been accompanied by an increasingly belligerent stance towards the Kurdish forces beyond the Turkish border in Syria. In recent weeks, the Turkish military has begun directly shelling the Kurdish forces advancing against ISIS, and is even threatening a ground invasion – a spectre whose realization could well trigger war with Russia, with certain dire consequences for stability in the region and the world. It is therefore becoming increasingly clear that the domestic and international fronts of the Erdogan government’s still-escalating policy of war-mongering against the followers of Öcalan are both (a) intimately linked and (b) extremely dangerous. The war in Syria has already effectively spilled over into the Kurdish region in Turkey, and the potential for further violence and destabilization throughout the rest of the country can hardly be underestimated.
Though the Kurdish movement in both Turkey and Syria is organically linked to the PKK, it is not reducible to the PKK. Instead, the glue that holds the entire movement together is Öcalan himself. Which is why the deliberate silencing of his voice – a voice that has consistently called (since at least 2005) for constraint and for commitment to a peaceful political resolution to the Kurdish question in Turkey – has been one of the most dangerous components of the criminal and polarizing policy pursued by the Turkish authorities vis-à-vis the Kurdish movement in recent months.
Thus far, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has shown great courage under fire, and its leaders remain constrained and staunchly committed to peace and negotiations. For instance, at the party’s congress last month in Ankara, co-chair Selahattin Demirtas passionately implored a restive attendance:
“The correct attitude needs to be defended even in the most difficult times. We cannot subject ourselves to this time of sorrows. We cannot let our traumas undermine our principled stance for peace. We are the only party defending the rainbow of diversity in Turkey. We aim for a new union in this country, one based not on the fascist principle of forced assimilation but on the pluralist principle of respect for diversity. Why do they claim that we aim to divide the country, when they are the ones dividing it with their monism? They call us the Kurdish party, but we are not only the party of the Kurds, but of Turks, Circassians, Armenians, and Arabs, too. We are the party of all religions, and we are the party of women. We are the party of the real Turkey, and we stand for self-governance and self-management for all the peoples of Turkey … Turkey is our country, our motherland. What is happening to the Kurds is a disaster. The strengthening of democracy is the only way to save us from this disaster. To argue for peace in easy times is very easy. Now it is much more difficult, when the people in the palace curse peace and push for war. But you cannot be for peace according to how the wind blows. Peace is an ethical choice; we will never give up on peace.”
Even so, the unravelling of the peace process, the total isolation and silencing of Öcalan, alongside the violent onslaught unleashed against the Kurds by the Erdogan government over the past several months, is rendering Demirtas’s position increasingly difficult to maintain. The government seems bent on closing the political space opened up by the HDP in June of 2015. Tellingly, one of the HDP’s most respected elected deputies, Emine Ayna, who is currently facing charges of “making propaganda for a terrorist organization and inciting hate,” resigned at the end of January from her post as parliamentarian, on the grounds that participating in the chamber gives a “veneer of democratic legitimacy” to the Turkish representative institutions, a veneer she insisted was inexcusable at a time when Kurds are being “massacred by the fascist state.” In dialogue with an international peace delegation led by Nelson Mandela’s former lawyer, Judge Essa Moussa, in Istanbul in mid-February, she explained with much righteous anger and indignation:
“I refuse to participate in the parliamentary pantomime. Turkey’s militaristic approach leaves no room for politics. Not now, because – let me be clear – these days are most challenging for us. Things are worse now than back in the nineties. In three basements in Cizre, 173 civilians, including women and children, were massacred and burned. Sixty people in each basement, crowded in small spaces. Also in Syria, the situation is worsening. And the Turkish officials refuse all requests for talk. The time has passed for begging for peace. We can no longer afford to beg for peace. Now we must create a situation where they will ask for peace.”
Despite such ominous words, Ms. Ayna would nevertheless still be quick to add: “We do not want to divide Turkey. That would mean only more hostility from the Turkish state. It would mean neither freedom for Kurds, nor peace for Turks.”
Virtually all of the representatives of the Kurdish movement with whom Judge Moussa’s international peace delegation had the chance to speak echoed Ms. Ayna’s deep concerns about the polarizing consequences of the still-escalating conflict in Cizre and elsewhere in the Southeast of the country. Many cautioned that the ongoing violence against the Kurdish population was on the verge of provoking a definitive rupture, a point of no return. For example, in a meeting with representatives from the Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK), co-chair Gülistan Kiliç Koçyigit would insist:
“An extreme war is being waged on civilians. Violence against women has risen. Despite the fact that the government doesn’t define this as a war, it is a war. Literally. Crimes against humanity are being committed. Women are being killed and stripped, their bodies humiliated. These security forces have written sexist and racist things on the walls. They are traumatizing society, causing feelings of disillusionment, and cutting off the remaining links between the Kurds and the rest of society.”
Likewise, co-chair Ertugrul Kürkçü would stress:
“A new war has erupted. We are witnessing a ground-breaking episode. For the first time, urban, settled areas have become war zones. Non-partisans are also being seriously hurt … The cities have been pounded by heavy artillery and tank fires. The gendarme special forces that have been deployed are licensed to kill. Full impunity is provided for them, and they are directly linked to the president himself … Meanwhile, our deputies have been stripped of our parliamentary immunity. They have been denied entrance to the areas under curfew … The state authorities have targeted certain localities, as if treating a cancer … Amongst the Kurds there is a very big anger against the government. There is the widespread belief that this is being done to us because we didn’t vote for Erdogan.”
The political space for a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish question in Turkey is rapidly vanishing. As HDP deputy Parvin Buldim, who had served as one of the chief negotiators on Öcalan’s committee throughout the now deep-frozen peace process, warned:
“I would like to stress that a massacre is under way. The ruling AKP party and the palace, to protect their power and their chairs, are attempting to get Kurds to evacuate their home and their land. Without the end of the isolation of Öcalan, the process will not start again. Shortly, I’d stress the need for peace and for a democratic solution. We are on the verge of a civil war here … I am deeply concerned that the war will spread to the western part of Turkey. The danger is rising. The conflicts should immediately end. The only way to avoid a catastrophe is to end Öcalan’s isolation and to restart negotiations with him.”
The point of no return seems to indeed be fast-approaching. Another of the erstwhile team of peace negotiators, Hatip Dicle, would be even more explicit in this regard. According to Dicle:
“Frankly, we want peace. We prefer negotiations and peace. We want the isolation of Öcalan to be ended. But Erdogan wants none of this now … From the minarets, announcements are being made telling people to leave the province, or else the government will not be responsible for their safety. Cruelty reigns in Kurdistan … The cruelty now surpasses that of the nineties. The police and the army are acting like ISIS to our people. They are beheading people, burning people alive, shooting young people in the head. It wasn’t this cruel in the nineties. Then they evacuated and burned villages. Now they want to do this to our cities. Sometimes I am ashamed of being alive… I fear what may come in the Spring. If this war is not stopped in two months, there are thousands of guerrillas in the mountains, waiting for the snow to melt. The war will expand to all of Kurdistan and throughout all of Turkey. We are concerned that a great disaster will happen in Turkey.”
The Erdogan government tries to justify its actions by alleging that it is fighting against “terrorism” and the threat of Kurdish separatism; but in fact, its belligerent course of action would seem the perfect recipe for conjuring (back) into being the very “separatist-terrorist” enemy it somehow desperately seems to need.