On Tuesday, Kurds everywhere commemorated the 39th anniversary of the beginning of the PKK’s armed struggle. This huge and widespread support is itself an extraordinary achievement, justifying the name given to 15 August by the Kurdish Freedom Movement: Resurrection Day. The PKK has enabled millions of Kurds to be proud of their Kurdish identity, but they have not been able to achieve a situation in Turkey where Kurds can freely express their culture and live in dignity. They have brought “The Kurdish Question” to life, but not been able to get an answer. Meanwhile, 39 years of armed struggle has cost 50,000 Kurdish lives, according to the PKK themselves. Which naturally raises the question of what it would take to bring about a successful peace process.
It has to be said, that on the Turkish side the balance of forces is far from promising. Since turning his back on the last peace talks in 2015, President Erdoğan has doubled down on his anti-Kurd rhetoric. The fight against the Kurds and his demonisation of Kurdish organisations as terrorists provide an important rallying cry for his nationalist supporters; and by extending this across the borders of Iraq and Syria he has an excuse to pursue plans for a greater Turkey in what he has styled the Turkish Century.
Moreover, apart from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and small left parties, Turkish parties compete to prove their nationalist credentials. Although Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was seen as offering the greatest hope for peace in the presidential elections, his Republican People’s Party criticised the 2013-15 peace talks, and – as was revealed after the election – he was prepared to make a deal with the leader of the far-right Victory Party that would have handed over the vital Interior Ministry and control of the National Intelligence Agency. It will take a lot of work and political bravery to cut across the populist nationalist mood.
At the same time, the realignment of world powers has given Turkey a new strategic importance, and Turkey’s defence industry – including its drones – is expanding. Combine this with Turkey’s authoritarian control over the judiciary, and the stage is set for Erdoğan’s continued pursuit of the military “solution” to the Kurdish Question, even though civil and military resistance are continuing to deny him the success he dreams of. Today, Erdoğan’s refusal to engage with the possibility of peace is exemplified by the lack of any positive government response to the PKK’s post-earthquake pre-election ceasefire, and by the continued absolute isolation of Abdullah Öcalan who could hold the key to the success of any negotiations.
What makes a good peace agreement?
Even in much more propitious circumstances, peace agreements by themselves may not solve underlying problems, and these problems can be exploited to rekindle old divisions or fuel new ones. Ireland’s Good Friday agreement is often given as an example of a successful peace negotiation, but sectarian tensions persist, along with the material deprivation that makes them easily exploitable. Instead of the promised peace dividend, Northern Ireland has suffered from neoliberal policies implemented by both Westminster and the power-sharing parliament in Stormont. In order to keep the system running, Sinn Fein accepted devastating welfare cuts and allowed the British Government to impose their brutal “welfare reforms”, despite welfare being a devolved issue; and, even so, the executive (Northern Ireland’s cabinet) has been suspended for almost half its existence. The contradictions created by Brexit have demonstrated that sectarian divisions will continue to be exploited as people suffer social deprivation.
In South Africa, the masses who celebrated the end of apartheid have seen their white overlords replaced by a new black middle class that was specifically nurtured to continue their exploitation. As Peter Robbins put it: “economic apartheid has replaced legal apartheid with the same consequences for the same people, yet it is greeted as one of the greatest achievements in world history”.
A peace agreement, in other words, needs to be more than a ceasefire. It has to address underlying issues. The end of physical violence has to be accompanied by an ongoing process of change that requires continued pressure.
Crucially, the imperative of ending armed conflict cannot be allowed to obscure the reasons that drove people to take up arms in the first place. Commitment to an armed struggle is not an easy path to take and is only chosen when all other routes are barred and when the goal is deemed worth dying for. The ease with which outside commentators can forget this is illustrated by a much-shared 1970 interview between Australian journalist Richard Carleton and Ghassan Kanafani, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Carleton is insistent: “‘Why not just talk?’ ‘Talk about what?’ ‘Talk about the possibility of not fighting’ ‘Not fighting for what?’” After Kanafani has described the miseries of the Palestinian situation Carleton persists: “‘Better that way than dead though’” to which Kanafani responds “‘May be to you. But to us, to liberate our country, to have dignity, to have respect, to have our mere human rights is something as essential as life itself.’”
As the PKK’s Duran Kalkan said last Saturday, in response to a theoretical critic opposing all war, “What do you mean you are against all kinds of war? There is colonialist war, genocidal war, unjust war and there is also resistance against these.”
The PKK are no longer pursuing a Marxist-Leninist liberation struggle like that of the PFLP. Today, they are calling for regional autonomy within Turkey. This shift is both pragmatic and ideological. The Freedom Movement, through the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, has come to reject the concept of the nation state as inherently hierarchical and problematic, but must function in a world that is divided into nation states, and respond to a situation where the Kurdish homeland is divided between four nation states intent on preserving their integrity. They now argue for regional autonomy and maximising grassroots democracy within existing state boundaries. While this should make it easier to achieve an initial peace settlement, it necessitates strong guarantees that the crucial details of that settlement – those things the PKK has been fighting for – will not be pushed aside afterwards. Theirs is a fight for human dignity (the same word that Kanafani used) and dignity depends not only on basic cultural rights but on people’s ability to control their own life and to play a meaningful role in the running of their community and wider society.
Peace negotiations themselves involve small numbers of leading people, but if they are to succeed, or even to take place at all, those negotiators need to feel the pressure of a mass movement behind them. There is no doubt that the Kurdish Freedom Movement wants to see a political solution to the Kurdish Question, but the demand needs to come from the wider population too. Here the HDP – which despite its Kurdish base was founded to bring together all those struggling against oppression – has an important role to play.
However, the many debates before and after the election demonstrate how difficult these politics are in a state that has seen a century dominated by ethnic nationalism, where parties compete to demonstrate their nationalist credentials. The wider Turkish left has traditionally downplayed the significance of ethnic oppression and the importance of cultural identity to people and communities – which is why the founders of the PKK felt the need for a separate organisation. In the discussions over electoral alliances, TİP, the Workers’ Party of Turkey, though part of the HDP-dominated Labour and Freedom Alliance and supportive of Kurdish rights, chose to run its candidates under their own list and not as part of the Alliance’s main Green Left list. They may have had other tactical reasons for this, but the reason given publicly was that they could reach voters who would not vote for the HDP. Meanwhile, some HDP supporters were demanding that their party give a greater emphasis to the Kurdish Question and follow a Kurdish nationalist agenda. A broader movement for a dignified peace would have to overcome these tensions.
Perhaps the area in which the greatest unity of progressive forces has been achieved to date is women’s rights, where the HDP, basing itself on Öcalan’s philosophy, plays a leading role. Women are traditionally regarded as peace makers – not least in Kurdish society where they would wave their scarves in front of the protagonists if they refused to respond, and where the Peace Mothers provide a public reminder of the desire for an end to the fighting, despite continued persecution from the authorities. In Ireland women led the way in building bridges across the sectarian divide.
The HDP also campaigns for workers’ rights, and is well represented in KESK, the public sector union; and in its post-election self-criticism the party is engaging widely with local communities.
The PKK in Turkey and Iraq
Kurdish resistance inspired by Öcalan and the PKK takes many forms, not just military ones; but while they look towards a political solution, the PKK leaders emphasise the importance of the armed struggle. As Duran Kalkan wrote in an article for the Kurdistan Communities Union website, “only the guerrilla can open the way for all kinds of democratic developments by holding the fascist-genocidal mentality and politics to account.”
Murat Karayılan, speaking to Sterk TV, stressed the importance of the fighting within Turkish state boundaries, which gets very little talked about: “for the last 8 years, the war in Bakurê Kurdistan [North Kurdistan/southeast Turkey] has been going on without a break. The public cannot follow too much because the Turkish state imposes censorship very strictly. They only give information when we have losses, they do not give any at all if there is no loss.” And he claimed that “Bakur is the place where the war is most intense now.”
However, the guerrilla bases are in Başur (South Kurdistan/Northern Iraq), and there, Karayılan observes, “Kurdish girls and boys have been waging a war of will against the technology of the period for three years. They are waging this war with individual weapons. And the enemy cannot enter and occupy. It may have entered some places, but not everywhere. They can’t go to many places. This is truly a win for our people.”
The PKK and the KDP
Karayılan uses the interview to make an appeal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which dominates the government of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and has been actively helping Turkey attack the PKK and extend their military network in Iraq. He claims that the KDP exploits the PKK’s reluctance to fight against their fellow Kurds and observes that this situation cannot last if the KDP continues in the same way; and he warns KDP President, Masoud Barzani, “If they liquidate us, it will be your turn next.” On the other hand, he asserts “In our opinion, the success of the resistance here and the defeat of the Turkish state will strengthen the hand of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the politics of Başurê Kurdistan. The defeat of the Turkish state here will be a very important achievement for all Kurds.” “Even if we are not united,” he pleas “at least do not help the enemy.”
The duplicity of the KDP’s devotion to Turkey was illustrated yet again last Saturday with the announcement of the identities of the three people killed in a Turkish drone attack in Sulaymaniyah the previous day. The KDP had lost no time in announcing the attack as the “elimination of PKK members”. The burnt bodies were subsequently identified as an employee of a mobile phone company based in Duhok, his wife, and their daughter.
North and East Syria
The importance of 15 August for the Kurdish Freedom Movement means that it is commemorated everywhere. There were celebrations across North and East Syria, and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), which are organisationally distinct from the PKK, commemorated the anniversary of the start of the Kurdish armed struggle with a military parade. In her speech, YPJ Commander Rojda Efrîn observed, “15 August became the day of vengeance for the Kurdish people and the oppressed peoples and a move towards liberation from slavery.”
Turkey has continued their drone attacks on North and East Syria’s Tel Tamir, though thankfully with no fatalities this week. There is another report of mass appropriation and destruction of olive trees in Turkish-occupied Afrîn; the Afrîn River has dried up after Turkey diverted the water across the border; and another new settlement has been completed in Afrîn as part of Turkey’s plans for demographic change. This one is funded by Saudi Arabia and consists of rows of prefabs. The lack of any attempt to engage with social or aesthetic considerations in the construction of these settlements is indicative of the instrumentalist thinking behind them. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have again had to deny Turkish reports of their casualties as baseless; and the United States has added two Turkish-supported mercenary groups to their sanctions list. The SDF points out that the main culprit behind the horrific practices carried out by these groups is Turkey itself; while the ENKS – an opposition group in North and East Syria linked to the KDP in Iraqi Kurdistan – has protested against the sanctions. It has been reported that another of Turkey’s mercenary militias has released a former ISIS leader after only nine months in prison in exchange for a substantial payment; and doubts about Turkey’s pre-election claim to have killed the then-leader of ISIS have been shared by the United States: ISIS claims he was killed by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
In Turkey itself, the authoritarian clampdowns only increase. Erdoğan has used a presidential decree to appoint his supporters as General Director of State Theatres and General Director of Fine Arts. The new theatre director has previously targeted women who spoke out against discrimination, and supported LGBTI hate marches. The Turkish Higher Education Council has sent unofficial instructions to some private universities telling them not to renew contracts with some academics who have appeared in “opposition media”. A Kurdish member of the German Parliament has described how she was detained for several hours for tweeting “terrorist propaganda” when she visited Turkey.
And, in their eagerness to deport Syrian refugees, regardless of their rights and paperwork, the Turkish authorities managed to include two Moroccan tourists.
Three of the villagers detained as part of a military operation in Bitlis have been arrested and another was tortured. The operation also caused major damage to local farms and the wider environment.
This has been another week of numerous detentions in different towns and cities. Nineteen people in Mardin were apprehended for sending money to relatives in prison. Around 30 in Hakkari, including Peace Mothers, were not told why they were being rounded up, nor allowed access to a lawyer, which is not uncommon. Last Saturday, the police again blocked and attacked the Saturday Mothers, who demand information about disappeared relatives, and a supporting demonstration in Adana was similarly attacked.
Reports of sadistic practices carried out in Turkey’s prisons include a prisoner whose drawing materials were taken away, and the deliberately harsh and inhumane treatment meted out to Gültan Kışanak, when she was released from prison for four hours to attend her sister’s funeral. The former mayor of Diyarbakır has been held on remand for seven years.
The murky depths of Turkey’s politicised judicial system were laid bare by the case of Mazlum İçli, whose life imprisonment without parole was confirmed by the Court of Cassation on Wednesday. İçli has been convicted of involvement in the murder of four people in the riots that took place in Diyarbakır in 2014, after the security services and violent counter protestors attacked people demonstrating in support of the city of Kobanê, then under ISIS siege. There is a wealth of well-corroborated evidence to show that İçli, then aged 14, was playing drums at a wedding 140km away from Diyarbakır at the time the murders took place. His conviction is based on identification by a secret witness who later denied his identification statement. That the verdict is the result of political interference is made blatant by the fact that the prosecutor had earlier called for an acquittal, and a lower court had ordered a stay of execution, before both made a one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn.
İçli’s lawyer explains that the case was not allowed to collapse because the Kobanê Case, in which 108 people, including leading members of the HDP, are being tried for calling people to take part in that demonstration, hinges on the argument that the 108 were to blame for the deaths in the riots. Also, that other convictions based on the same witness statement would be put into doubt too. While the majority of those who died in the riots were supporters of the HDP, İçli and the others were charged with the deaths of people associated with the far-right Islamist Hüda Par. As İçli’s lawyer put it “it’s important to remember that in the Kobanê trial, [former HDP co-chair, Selahattin] Demirtaş and his political colleagues are arrested and standing trial for inciting these murders. The actual perpetrators of these murders must be identified, and their guilt must be confirmed by a court ruling in order to hold those who incited them accountable… In essence, interference occurred in this trial as part of the preparation to sentence politicians in the Kobanê trial.”
If this case is taken to the European Court of Human Rights, the judges will be able to refer to the Demirtaş case, in which they demolished the Kobanê case’s prosecution arguments. Whether Turkey would respond to their ruling is another matter. Demirtaş is still in prison despite the European Court’s demand for his immediate release.
While peace talks seem impossibly far away, any lessening of Kurdish resistance appears much more distant. Here in Strasbourg, the spirit of resistance that began 39 years ago is given musical voice by İçli’s father, who is a refugee in the city and an important part of the community’s many demonstrations.