This is part one of a new article by Michael M. Gunter, who surveys some of the more important events that took place for the Kurds during 2022 and thus implicitly looks forward to what the new year, 2023, will bring. Part two to follow.
Beginning with NATO’s seeming relegation of the Kurds because of the war in Ukraine that began in February, continuing with the debate over delisting the PKK as a terrorist organization, and ending with the Turkish bombings in Rojava (Northeastern/Kurdish Syria) in November and the murder of three prominent Kurdish activists in Paris by parties yet to be determined in December, among others, 2022 brought major new crises to Kurdish relations, particularly with the United States, Turkey, and the European Union (EU).
NATO’s Concessions to Turkey
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 scared traditionally neutral Sweden and Finland to apply for NATO membership. What are the implications for the Kurds—seemingly the continuing victim in international power politics—of NATO’s apparent concessions to Turkey to obtain its approval of Sweden and Finland joining NATO? At first glance they seem rather ominous since Sweden and Finland have had to assure Turkey that they will stand up against supposed Kurdish PKK terrorism, extradite Kurdish and other exiles back to Turkey, and in so doing betray their long-standing commitment to human rights. Point 8 of their 10-point deal seemed the most sensitive because it contained a commitment by Sweden and Finland “to address Turkiye’s [Turkey’s new official name] pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously and thoroughly.” “Our government will be working closely with our Finnish and Swedish counterparts to implement this agreement,” announced Turkish Communications Director Fahrettin Altun, adding that the meeting between Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Jens Stoltenberg (NATO’s Secretary-General), and the leaders of Finland and Sweden “achieved concrete, specific and significant results regarding our concerns over terrorism.”
Significantly, added Altun, all parties, “agreed to full cooperation against the terror organization PKK and all its extensions.” This meant that Turkey viewed as terrorists such other groups as the Syrian Kurds. “Sweden and Finland committed to stand with Turkiye against all forms of terrorism and promised not to provide support to the PYD/YPG [Syrian Kurds].” The Turkish spokesman also cited the agreement on the two new NATO applicants lifting “restriction or sanctions on our defense industry” Further, Turkey claimed that Sweden and Finland “agreed to create an intelligence sharing and cooperation mechanism” to further these aims against Kurdish dissidents as well as “to ban any fundraising and recruitment activities by the PKK and its extensions.” Finally, a “Permanent Shared Mechanism” consisting of justice, intelligence, and security elements would oversee and verify the implementation of these steps.
Despite its denial, this deal in effect meant that the United States was also agreeing to support Turkey on these issues involving the Kurds. Indeed, a senior administration official told reporters that “Biden deserves credit for lengthy behind-the-scenes diplomacy.” Specifically, the United States agreed to help Turkey upgrade its air force with new F-16s fighter jets, a deal that had long been held up by Turkey purchasing a Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.
The embattled PKK reacted caustically: “NATO has agreed in Madrid to support and adopt the policy of massacres and genocide carried out by the Turkish state against the Kurdish people for a hundred years,” and concluded, “The Kurdish people are being turned into a bargaining chip for NATO enlargement.” The NATO agreement “is a declaration of enmity against the Kurdish people” and “shows the hypocrisy of a system that calls itself a ‘Western democracy.’”
Although the Kurds have clearly been treated unjustly over the years, they also were failing to appreciate their very secondary position in the existential power struggle involving NATO and Russia as well as exaggerating how hostile the NATO agreement really was to their interests. Thus, in the first place, it was unreasonable to expect NATO to refuse to bargain with Erdogan over admitting Sweden and Finland simply to support the Kurds. Unfortunately, in the scheme of existential world politics, the future of Europe regarding the Russian threat as manifested by its totally unwarranted invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the resulting need to strengthen NATO surely trumped blatant, total support for the Kurds. Moreover, the Kurds have been seemingly sacrificed on the altar of world politics many times before—as it once again appeared in this case—only to find that the situation was not as hopeless as it initially appeared. However, first let us turn to the current situation involving the concessions made to Turkey regarding its support for Sweden and Finland’s membership in NATO.
In the first place, despite the European Union, United States, Germany, France, United Kingdom, and others all listing the PKK as a terrorist organization, this has not led to any mass extradition of its members sheltering in Europe, among other actions against the Kurdish organization. As the Finnish government emphasized, the agreement is merely a political commitment. It does not provide a binding obligation in international law. If Finland receives any requests for extradition, they “will be addressed in accordance with the European Convention on Extradition, according to which extradition shall not be granted if the concerned offense is regarded by the requested party as a political offense.” Furthermore, declared Finland, extradition would fail even for an ordinary criminal offense if it had reason to believe it had “been made for the purpose of prosecuting or punishing a person on account of his race, religion, nationality or political opinion.”
For her part, Swedish then-prime minister Magdalena Andersson explained, “We never extradite anyone who is a Swedish citizen,” as were some individuals seemingly in danger. “So they don’t need to worry.” In addition, added the prime minister, “we will of course . . . follow Swedish and international law. . . . This means that if one is not conducting terrorism activity, one doesn’t need to be worried.” As did her Finnish counterpart, Andersson also pointed out that the agreement with Turkey “does not produce a binding commitment in terms of international law. It is no more than an expression of political intent.” In addition, as parties to the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention against Torture, and the Refugee Convention of 1951, both Sweden and Finland were bound by the internationally legal principle of non-refoulement, “which guarantees that no one should be returned to a county where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Moreover, Turkey’s loose definition of terrorism that went well beyond mere criminalizing participation in violent acts and punished basic freedom of speech also made questionable how willingly the prospective new NATO members would satisfy Turkey’s demands. For his part, therefore, Erdogan replied that he could still block Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership applications if they failed to implement their deal with him. As 2022 drew to a close, this bickering continued.
The partial U.S. withdrawal of protection for its de facto Syrian Kurdish allies against ISIS and acceptance of the Turkish incursion into northern (Kurdish) Syria in October 2019 constitutes a further example of this not-so-bad-as-it-seems syndrome. At first a seeming disaster for the Syrian Kurds, the Kurdish political and military presence in northern Syria nevertheless survived as did a smaller, protective U.S. detachment. This situation certainly was not what the Kurds wanted, but also less than what the Turks sought. In addition, of course, in the end the Turkish alliance was more important to the United States than total support of the Kurds. Still, some support for the Kurds remained, and so a closer examination of the present situation with NATO, Turkey, Sweden, and Finland also reveals, as already argued above.
Earlier in August 2014, the United States actually worked indirectly with the PKK by giving it air support in its battle to protect the heterodox Yezidis in Sinjar (Shengal) from the genocidal assault by ISIS. The United States was so impressed by the PKK’s military ability and that of its Syrian associates the SDF/PYD/YPG that a tacit alliance against ISIS soon developed, much to the chagrin of Turkey. Furthermore, in the past U.S. pronouncements about supporting Turkey by criminalizing PKK leaders as supposed drug kingpins also proved largely illusory. The end of 2022 again saw U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds bend, but not break. (See below.)
Led by the United States, NATO has correctly reacted to Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine by facilitating Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership applications. Such steps to beef up NATO are the best way to deter further Russian aggression, keep the larger peace, and thus help prevent possible nuclear catastrophe. As in nature, international politics abhors a vacuum. Thus, those who instead see NATO aggression fail to remember the lessons of Munich in 1938, and at best are witless apologists for Moscow, which in attacking Ukraine has broken arguably the basic rule of modern international law: Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter specifically proclaims: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.”
As for the Kurds, they need to understand the not-so-new situation regarding NATO’s deal with Turkey and respond appropriately to achieve the best results for themselves. This means comprehending the rationale behind the NATO deal with Turkey and not overreact against it. Otherwise, the Kurds risk needlessly burning bridges that would only have to be rebuilt later. As explained above, this deal with Turkey, like earlier ones, is not likely to be as inimical to Kurdish interests as first meets the eye.
Michael M. Gunter is a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and the Secretary-General of the European Union Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC). Over the years, he has published 17 scholarly books and more than 150 peer-reviewed, scholarly articles and book chapters on various aspects of the Kurdish issue.