Pro-Kurdish demonstrators dance and hold a flag showing Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, during a protest in Frankfurt, Germany, April 10, 2016. (photo by REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski)
The Kurds have been the most oppressed people of the region for the past 100 years. Although they have a strong, ancient and well-established presence in the region, they nonetheless fell victim to the nationalist conflicts of the empires that ruled and governed them, as well as to the interests of colonial powers in the region.
The federal entity established in northern Iraq has been their most important “achievement” to date, as the Kurds look with great optimism to repeat the same experiment in northern Syria and the region that they call Rojava.
But that experiment remains pending, with Syria embroiled in an infinitely complex universal war. In Turkey, on the other hand, the Kurds face the vilest of ethnic persecutions, despite them being the largest group of people with the longest history of armed struggle, who paid a heavy price filled with untold sacrifices.
Kurds are now a pre-eminent player in the Middle East arena, particularly since the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) emerged as an influential game maker, especially in Syria and Turkey, and its presence in Iraq has greatly increased, specifically in the war against the Islamic State (IS), where Kurdish troops are part of the armed presence along the various battlefronts.
To better understand the PKK’s aspirations, there is nothing better than to interview one of its most prominent leaders and founders, who held many important positions, the latest being the party’s head of foreign relations.
In other words, he is the party’s foreign minister, a most sensitive job in these times of regional and international intersecting interests. His name is Riza Altun, well known in Lebanon and Syria from the time of Abdullah Ocalan’s residency in both countries.
In Turkey, on the other hand, he is one of the most wanted people. PKK leaders never stay in one place for too long, as they are constantly on the move, and contacting Altun was not easy, even via modern technological means.
Yet in the end, and thanks to those same means of communication, As-Safir succeeded in conducting this interview with him, in which he expressed the party’s point of view at this critical moment in the history of the region, including Turkey, in particular, after the latest military coup attempt there.
As-Safir: Let’s start with a classic question: Do you still strive for an independent Kurdish state in Turkey?
Altun: We do not view the Kurdish cause as one predicated on specific nationalist or ethnic aspirations. We believe it is the basis for attaining the freedom of all peoples of the Middle East and the cornerstone of the symbiotic relationship between all components of the region.
In general terms, our stance is linked to the historical and social bonds that exist between all peoples of the Middle East. A review of the history of the region reveals that whenever nationalist aspirations were the basis for the establishment of a separate entity, said aspirations invariably led to ethnic, nationalist, religious or even sectarian conflicts with other components of society. Therefore, we are trying to avoid making the same mistakes. If we were to follow that same path, we would find ourselves caught in the same quagmire as the one currently afflicting the Middle East, and this would add to the other contentious issues of the region. We are searching for a solution to the prevailing status quo, as we aim to find an answer based on the ‘democratization’ of countries that would respect their own ethnic, religious and sectarian pluralism.
Instead of an independent state and calls for secession, partitioning and the like, we must focus on achieving social freedom for all inhabitants of the region. Before World War I, there were no [Arab] states, but an Arab nation composed of clans and tribes, which made those communities more interdependent than they are today. But after the war, the [Arab] nation was partitioned into many states, leading to a rise in problems and incongruities between the components of said nation.
As-Safir: Does that mean that the PKK’s past calls for an independent state were wrong?
Altun: I prefer not to characterize them as right or wrong. At that time, we did call for the establishment of an independent state, but if that state were attainable then, we would have focused on democratizing and instilling liberties in it. This did not happen. With time, the term ‘independence’ was replaced with that of ‘liberty,’ because the latter is key to us and others like us. By definition, the word “independence” does not include the notion of liberty, but ‘liberty’ does include that of independence.
After World War I, the partitioning of the Middle East into national states only created more problems. Therefore focusing on establishing a national Kurdish state would exacerbate existing problems, while focusing on freedom is the key toward achieving success.
The so-called Arab Spring rejected the Middle Eastern regimes that arose after World War I. Said regimes could never have led to freedom, happiness and well-being.
The Salafist takfiri movement represented by IS arose in parallel with the Arab Spring revolt.
Thus, focus should be on how to confront that movement and the ideals espoused by IS and the Salafist movement since the solution cannot come through them, and their espoused methodology could not even lead to the establishment of a caliphate.
On the other hand, capitalist and imperialist powers also want their policies advanced through their interventions. These powers caused the partitioning of the Middle East into states that they turned against each other. This Orientalist mentality that confers a backwards character upon the East is not a recipe for success. Where is the Middle East headed? What can we do amid this turmoil? As nationalist entities arose, so did the problems. We have no problem in the emergence of nationalist entities that reflect national identities, but the problem lies in the national fanaticism within those entities. As a result, we must not endeavor to separate our freedom from that of those around us.
Ethnic variances and diversity are important. But if a crossroads is reached, either to unite or separate, then our stance favors unity within diversity. I will refer, in this case, to the Kurds, Arabs and Persians, but I shall exclude the Turks, who later settled in the region and are not indigenous to it as the other three civilizations that maintained their ethnic identities, while collectively shaping the culture of the region.
Our respective cultures, customs, cuisine and so forth are similar and represent an integrated unit. How can one call for secession from said unit? We contend that we are all Muslims, and Islam preaches the right of all religions to express their beliefs. Yet we see that sectarian slaughtering is being perpetrated in the name of Islam, as communities are pitted one against the other. How is that representative of Islam, and how can it lead to a solution? It is the antithesis of Islam’s most basic tenets. The plan proposed by Ocalan is predicated on the democratization of the whole Middle East, with all entities afforded the opportunity to express themselves as part of this regional federation.
As-Safir: Your proposal is a perfect solution to the ever-increasing problems in the region. But in the case of Turkey, other groups exist within Turkish society, such as ardent nationalists and secularists, as well as Islamist extremists. Does your proposal garner acceptance within those groups? Why has the Kurdish problem not been resolved yet? What other options do the Kurds have in the absence of a positive response: peaceful confrontation through parliament or a continuation of armed conflict?
Altun: What I said about a change in mentality will be difficult to attain overnight. But when the proper framework exists for such a change, then we believe that all Middle Easterners will embrace such a mentality, except for people with bad intentions. All peoples who have suffered from oppression, exploitation and the ravages of war, who have lived in despair, are now in search of hope. We believe that this proposal represents the hope that those people aspire to attain.
What you said about the Turkish reality is true, the situation is complicated, but we have been resisting for the past 40 years.
The traditional Kemalist movement insists on remaining in power, but it is in a state of decline. Even nationalist movements have begun to lose their luster within society.
[Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and his party’s mindset is sectarian and exploits the Middle East’s predicament to advance its policies. But, lately, said movement has waned to a dreadful state.
Our proposal is not perfect, and it shall be translated into action as soon as the opportunity arises. For example, the parties that emerged to confront the state came as a result of the type of mentality that we called for adopting. The June 7 elections were very important in that regard as they hindered the achievement of Erdogan’s dream to have a parliamentary majority. The Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist [Action] Party failed to form a real opposition to the Justice and Development Party. Said real opposition was spearheaded by the Peoples’ Democratic Party thanks to the mindset that it espoused on the ground and its inclusion of leftist, Alawite, ethnic, communist, Christian and other minorities. This mindset is based on democracy and on the fact that it lets these minorities know that they would be allowed to express themselves freely.
Another example of that mindset is the Rojava revolution in Syria. In al-Qamishli, for example, Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Circassians and Turkmens, among others, all live in the city. We never even claimed that it was a Kurdish city. We did not demand their expulsion, even when Arabs were brought in as part of an Arabization policy. We did not use the term “state” in Rojava, because its use denotes it being imbued with a nationalist identity, with a particular ethnicity representing the majority, while other ethnicities are excluded. We proposed an alternative that is the canton, where each ethnic group can represent itself and manage its own affairs, via a higher [central] authority, as is the case right now.
We make it a point that Kurds never meddle in Syriac or other people’s’ affairs, on the condition that no other people should pose a serious threat to the well-being of others.
As-Safir: But the Rojava experiment is currently untenable in Turkey, and the Peoples’ Democratic Party garnered 13% of total votes in Turkey, thus changing the post-June 7 political equation, though not enough to instigate change. Will you maintain your presence in parliament despite the apparent lack of progress or is armed confrontation the only way out? In other words, what role will the military force play at this stage?
Altun: Our battle is multi-faceted and includes action on the social, intellectual, diplomatic, media and even military fronts, with the method used depending on the attitude of the state, as we try to exploit opportunities that we think have some chance of success. When the state uses military power to threaten your very existence, you find yourself forced to use violence in order to defend yourself, as occurred lately. Any breakthroughs on the military front will be used to effectuate democratic change.
We have lately been subjected to great pressure and were thus forced to resort to armed resistance. Parties and media outlets were shuttered, parliamentary immunity lifted and arrests made, leaving us but one available avenue; namely, the use of force.
As-Safir: Back to Turkey. Who executed and stood behind the latest coup? What effect will it have on the war against the Kurds and the Kurdish cause in general, particularly after the Turkish army was humiliated during the coup? Will that affect the army’s motivation in its war against the Kurds?
Altun: The situation in Turkey is highly complex, rendering difficult any future prognoses. Erdogan is promoting the idea that Gulen organized the coup. In short, that is untrue, and any role by the latter would have been extremely limited.
In Turkey, Kemalist traditional power is being upheld through a military guardianship with an anti-Kurdish, anti-Islam and anti-socialist mindset. Erdogan’s ascension to power was through Western backing due to the lack of prospects available to the regime as a result of its Kemalist traditions, among them its oppression of the Kurds. During the reign of Erdogan, the road was extremely bumpy, but in the end, the Kemalist tradition was broken. Two such Kemalist movements existed within the military — one that was trying to adapt to Erdogan’s policies and another that is more traditional, that I think was responsible for the coup. Yet, concurrently, that same movement found support among other army factions dissatisfied with Erdogan’s rule. The coup failed, and we are currently witnessing a counter-coup imbued with a civilian character. We are faced by one man, named Erdogan, who does not recognize constitutional rule. More than 50,000 people have been arrested so far. All university professors are sacked, and 17,000 teachers arrested, with the number rising every day.
The real coup is that which Erdogan is currently conducting. Even if we assumed that the coup attempt succeeded, the ensuing regime would not have been democratic, but anti-Kurdish. None of them is better than the other: neither Erdogan nor the army. After the June 7 elections, Erdogan rebelled against the results, in a move that represented the initial coup, when the regime mutated into a presidential one as other institutions were marginalized, among them the judiciary. The latest military coup was a counter-coup against Erdogan’s initial coup, but it failed, leading to yet a new coup today.
In short, Erdogan is a threat to Kurds and the region as a whole. The things that he did are but a prelude to future actions following his alliances with IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other backward reactionary movements that he wanted to exploit to become the leader of the region.
As-Safir: Will internal and anti-Kurdish repression increase after the coup?
Altun: Erdogan failed to attain his aspired role, and he is now trying to normalize relations with some, such as Israel and Russia. He only has Qatar and Saudi Arabia left on his side. He even had a row with the United States, and his decline led him to reassess his policies. Internally, events changed the situation on the ground, including his monopoly of the power structure. He even forsake his comrades inside the party, and only an acquiescing entourage remains by his side, leading him to cooperate with other forces in order to achieve his goals. All these developments laid the groundwork for the latest coup attempt.
The coup averted, Erdogan will never reassess his past policies, but will continue to implement them. He has reached a fork in the road: either stay in power and kill all who oppose him, or be killed. There is no other option. If he were to be held accountable for his actions, he would be found guilty of murder, corruption and receiving bribes. In addition, his actions will fail to put an end to future coup attempts. He will try to rule Turkey despite the chaos, but will embark Turkey on an even more chaotic path. His actions are clear, and he will keep this course and maintain the same policy against the Kurds of Syria. The Kurdish issue is key to the problems that Turkey faces, and it is the key that opens the door toward salvation. For either a solution is reached, or the crisis continues unabated.
As-Safir: So he will continue to support the Syrian opposition, despite the coup and his preoccupation with internal matters?
Altun: When the Justice and Development Party came to power, Erdogan acknowledged the Kurdish cause and espoused a democratic rhetoric. He said that he would resolve the Kurdish issue; statements that 80% of the people welcomed, as discussions began to find a solution to the Kurdish problem. But he reneged on his word and resumed previously adopted policies. Because he failed to resolve the Kurdish issue, he opened the door for a recurrence of future military coups. This wave of coups shall not be halted until stability is restored to Turkey soon, or in the future. We reject Erdogan’s policy, just as we reject the military coup. We form a third line of thought, whereby the Kurdish issue is democratically resolved.
As-Safir: Does Erdogan endure due to the United States’ need for him?
Altun: Turkey’s relationship with the West is a strategic one. The West embraced [Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk because the latter had Western proclivities. The problem lies in the fact that the Turks have their own culture, but embrace and live a Western lifestyle. The West uses Turks as a tool against its opponents. They sucked Turkey into NATO and the European Union, though Turkey did not acquiesce to Western whims during the Iraq War. For the first time, Kemalists forsake US policies, leading to the decision to allow Erdogan and the Islamists’ advent to power, with the Americans playing the pre-eminent role in that plan to kill two birds with one stone, whereby decrepit Kemalist traditions would be transcended by Erdogan’s new policies.
Erdogan is not a leader born from the will of the people. The United States prepared and brought him to power. Erdogan’s star shone overnight despite him lacking any official status, except for the fact that he visited the US, where he spent some time and was treated as a leader. Subsequent to that, the rift widened between Erdogan and the US due to his conflicting policies vis-a-vis Syria, Iraq, Libya, Israel, Egypt and other issues. America could no longer tolerate his policies that caused untold problems. Though the West proclaimed being against the latest coup, it remained silent during the first hours, until it became clear that the coup had failed. Statements would have been different had the coup succeeded.
As-Safir: Does that mean that the US played a part in the coup?
Altun: Perhaps. It did remain silent as events unfolded.
As-Safir: But why would the US be involved in a coup destined to fail?
Altun: America’s role, if any, cannot be ascertained. But Erdogan accuses Gulen of orchestrating it, and the latter lives in the US, where he could never have organized a coup without US knowledge.
The US’ approach to Turkey is different from its approach to other countries. No matter how upset it may become with Turkey, it nevertheless remains in need of its services. Problems exist between Turkey and the West, but that does not mean that they do not need Turkey, which has an assigned role to play in the region.
As-Safir: You said that Erdogan adopted policies not in line with those of the US, despite the fact that Washington brought him to power. Why? Is it because of his aspirations to revive the Ottoman Empire or out of desire to monopolize power in the region? Doesn’t he know that his survival depends on US approval?
Altun: Erdogan’s ascent to power has nothing to do with the changes he initiated once in power. Erdogan emerged due to nationalist traditions, which he betrayed, just as he betrayed Necmettin Erbakan in the process, preferring to espouse extremist Salafist Islamist policies once he assumed power.
In the beginning, Erdogan was supposed to rule for a specific period of time, but developments in the Middle East inflated his ego and led to him adopting authoritarian policies to the point where he thought that he was the leader of Sunnis in the Muslim world, as he aspired to build a new Ottoman caliphate, leading to his rift with the US. All of his statements had a basis in Islam, and the irony is that the same Turkey that abandoned its Eastern heritage to adopt Western traditions reversed course to strongly defend its Eastern heritage and confront the West.
As-Safir: Does America fear a strong Turkey?
Altun: Fear of the popularity that Erdogan attained was cause for concern to the Americans, leading to the disputes between them lately.
As-Safir: Are there contacts between the PKK and the US?
Altun: Contacts do exist, but they are of a low level and do not include any coordination.
As-Safir: Direct contacts?
Altun: They are somewhere between direct and indirect.
As-Safir: Are they positive?
Altun: Characterizing them depends on the region in question. For example, in Rojava, the Americans backed the model that emerged there and endeavored to prevent Turkish intervention in the area. But on the other hand, the US turns a blind eye to the massacres, killing and repression perpetrated against Kurds by the Turkish state. The US cooperates with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, provides them with support and prevents Turkish intervention. The US’ role is double-edged depending on its interests, and the relationship with Washington is therefore tactical in nature.
As-Safir: Did the Americans promise to back a Kurdish federation in Syria?
Altun: Absolutely not. The United States’ policy is pragmatic. It does not back federalism, but has yet to reject it outright. It allows the idea to endure until its outcome becomes apparent. The US’ interests dictate its approach to the matter. It adopts a conciliatory attitude toward all. Behind the scenes, it states that it does not object to the idea of a federation, but it publicly says that it is against partitioning, keeping in mind that federalism has nothing to do with partitioning.
As-Safir: Will Washington allow Kurds to reach Afrin and connect between Kurdish regions in the area?
Altun: The US is manipulating all relevant elements to prevent them from obstructing the Kurds’ advance to Afrin. But it also is telling Turkey that it would not recognize the Kurdish entity in Rojava.
As-Safir: Do you have contacts with the Syrian regime?
Altun: We have had relations with Damascus from the onset, and contacts never stopped. But I cannot say that the meetings between us are numerous.
As-Safir: Did Ocalan’s exit from Syria affect relations with Damascus?
Altun: We honor our relationship and the help that Damascus gave us in the past.
As-Safir: Adopting the federal nomenclature without consultations affected attitudes toward the experiment, with people viewing it as a secessionist move. Is it secessionist?
Altun: We also criticized the imposition of such a view, the wording of its announcement and the use of Rojava therein because Rojava remains an integral part of united Syria. The announcement should have been worded differently and we objected to the federation’s announcement text. We support the establishment of a federation in northern Syria, so why then do we need a federal Rojava? What would be the fate of the remaining Syrian territory? They did not think about the rest of Syria.
As-Safir: Whose fault was that? Isn’t there any coordination between you and the authorities in Rojava?
Altun: There is no coordination in the sense of ‘do this or that.’ We do not directly interfere there but rather offer suggestions, without giving specific instructions.
We also criticized them for announcing it prior to the completion of a proper groundwork for its announcement, which gave the impression that it was being imposed as a fait accompli, and that is harmful. The plan should have been explained prior to the announcement being made. We prefer the use of North Syria Federation and call for the removal of Rojava from the name because Rojava denotes a federation of Kurdish identity. North Syria is home to all of its constituents, and the freedom of Kurds there is contingent upon the degree of liberty enjoyed by other inhabitants of the region. Our focus, therefore, is on instituting an intellectual revolution, without which matters tend to get more complicated.