By V. U. Arslan
SEP leader Güneş Gümüş, had warned Turkish laborers and youth against the chauvinist atmosphere raised by Turkish bourgeoisie, that the “Kurds’ Nakba will not be a feast for Turks”. The operation, which was called “Peace Spring”, aimed to snuff out the Kurdish people´s breath under any circumstances. At the same time, the operation intended to reassure the power of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government by deeply dividing the working class and weakening social opposition. However, social opposition will recover and the AKP´s power will start to lose its momentum as the country´s internal problems dominate the agenda of the working class. However, the problem of the disorganization and division of the working class is deeply rooted. Certainly, it will never be possible for the working class to develop an advanced class-consciousness and become an active political subject without learning to defend the rights of the Kurds. Therefore, we, the revolutionary Marxists who try to turn the most advanced consciousness of the working class into an organized power, will continue to teach workers the Leninist principle of self-determination. In doing so, we will continue to criticize the Kurdish national movement and maintain our political independence.
Everything Upside Down
It all began with the end of the negotiations, which had lasted for years, between the AKP and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers´ Party). It was not difficult to foresee that the process would evolve back into total war, because neither the AKP and the bourgeois state wanted to grant the Kurds their real rights, nor did the PKK intend to lay down its arms. When the AKP came to power, it appeared to have adopted a moderate line on the Kurdish question, and the Kurdish national movement gave the AKP implicit support at very critical times. For example, during the Gezi Uprising in 2013, the HDP (People´s Democratic Party) kept Kurds away from the rebellion. This moderate-reformist image was a necessity for Erdogan’s policy of alliances in the power game. Based on mutual distrust, this partnership broke down in 2015. By then, charismatic HDP leader Demirtaş had clearly pushed the HDP to an anti-Erdogan position, becoming an obstacle for Erdogan’s attempts to monopolize his own power. On the other hand, the Syrian Civil War had changed the balance of forces. PKK forces in Syria were organizing autonomous rule over their liberated lands in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan). In addition, PKK militias, composed of young Kurds, took advantage of the negotiation process and had gained considerable control in many cities.
The self-confidence of the PKK leadership had begun to break its ties to reality. Couldn’t self-government experiences in Rojava be implemented in Kurdish cities to the north of the border? After the June 2015 elections, in which the HDP achieved a historic success with 13% of the votes, and the AKP lost its majority in parliament, the PKK declared that it had ended the ceasefire, and attempted to establish “de facto autonomy” with its militia forces in many Kurdish cities. This was exactly what the AKP wanted, because it was clear that the ceasefire process had weakened the AKP and Erdogan. Although the AKP tried to provoke the war before the June elections to prevent his electoral defeat, the PKK avoided clashes and prevented overshadowing of the election. But immediately after the elections, the PKK decided to end the ceasefire and sideline Demirtaş, who had achieved a big success. He was later arrested and is still in prison. After the declaration of the end of the ceasefire, self-government was declared in dozens of Kurdish cities and months-long urban wars broke out. The militias, lacking sufficient ammunition and preparation, did not have much of a chance against the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF). The urban wars did not turn into a popular Kurdish rebellion, and everyone carried on with their daily lives, except in the war zones. This was an expression of the people´s skepticism of the HDP´s urban war strategy. As a result, the militias were isolated in certain parts of the cities, and their defeat was inevitable. The consequences of this defeat were severe for the Kurdish national movement. Thousands of critical cadres in the cities were either killed or arrested. Thousands have fled to Europe. The HDP was intimidated and trustees were appointed to replace HDP mayors. In the wake of the urban wars, the state of emergency declared after the July 2016 coup attempt also exacerbated the oppression of the HDP. The arrests and dismissals were massive, and the HDP is still practically paralyzed. The Kurdish people have seen worse before, and mass civil protests can return, but the current situation indicates that the war-torn masses are now staying away from active politics.
In addition, the PKK suffered significant defeats in rural areas. Utilizing the technological opportunities well, and constantly improving itself, the TAF have significantly weakened the PKK in rural areas. The PKK’s capacity to act has fallen to the lowest levels in its history.
Despite these losses, the gains of the Kurdish national movement in Rojava were a great source of motivation. However, with the approval of Russia and other imperialist states, the TAF’s intervention in Syrian territory has started. First, the Al-Bab-Azez-Jarablus region was invaded by Operation Euphrates Shield, which started in August 2016. The symbolic Afrin region, where a dense Kurdish population lives, followed in January 2018; and finally, the area east of Euphrates was attacked in October 2019. This is how the Kurdish national movement lost Rojava after the US abandoned them.
The military defeats of the Kurdish national movement will have long-term consequences. It seems difficult for the PKK to recover in the military field. It is obvious that the Turkish state will not abandon its military advantages and superior position. In general, this is a historical period in which the possibilities of guerrilla struggle have diminished. On the one hand, the weakening of the PKK does not mean that the Kurdish people will give up their national aspirations. The national dynamic will continue to manifest itself in votes for the HDP. On the other hand, without significant changes in the political transformation of Turkey, the mobilization capacity of the HDP will continue to be limited.
History of the Oppression of the Kurds
In the early twentieth century, in the wave of rising nationalist movements and the formation of nation-states, the Kurds did not prosper under the Ottoman Empire. The turning point for them was that, after the First World War, the territory they inhabited was divided in four: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
On the other hand, the origin of the Kurdish question dates back to an early age. It is based on efforts to centralize the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. The centralist features of the administrative reforms then implemented, were carried out as part of a Turkish modernization plan. They faced resistance from the Kurdish tribes that had lived with facto autonomy until then. Those first revolts were led by Kurdish feudal lords. In the last quarter of the century, the leadership of the Kurdish religious authorities (sheikhs) would prevail in the uprisings.
After the overthrow of Panislamist Sultan Abdulhamid II, who was generally good to the Kurdish tribes and cooperated with them to suppress the Armenian minority, the state’s official ideology was rebuilt based on Turkism. Hence, the spirit of the time, shaped by the Armenian rebellions, the Balkan Wars and the imperialist war, pointed to a rise of nationalism. The development of Kurdish nationalism was strengthened as a reaction to Turkish nationalism.
The economic backwardness of the Kurdish regions has weakened the social classes that would be the bearers of Kurdish nationalism, delaying the united national character of the earlier Kurdish rebellions. But in 1908, with the II Constitutional Monarchy, Kurdish intellectuals would become politicized on the basis of a Kurdish national identity. Just before and during the First Imperialist War, those intellectuals began to emphasize the Kurdish identity and make nationalist demands.
During this period, the activities of Kurdish intellectuals in favor of establishing an autonomous or independent Kurdistan intensified. As the borders of the Middle East were drawn, Kurdish nationalism tried to arouse national consciousness among Kurds, and to establish a separate Kurdish political administration in its historical territory, as a late attempt of recovery.
Although the Sevres Agreement that the First Imperialist War´s winners imposed on the defeated Ottomans envisaged a large Armenia and a rather small Kurdistan autonomous government, the national liberation movement that started under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal – which the Kurds had joined – actually invalidated this agreement.
As a result of the ensuing battles, the occupation of Anatolia by English-backed Greece was defeated, the French troops in the southern regions were deported to Syria by a local resistance that included the Kurds, and the stability of the Soviet and Iranian borders was preserved. Thus;
- The historical division of the Kurds in two, between the Ottoman Empire and Iran, turned into a division in four regions under Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, and the present boundaries were established. As a result, the Kurdish problem has gained a regional character and the Kurdish people have been subjected to different forms of oppression under different regimes.
- Mustafa Kemal and his cadres used their authority, derived from their leadership of the national liberation, to break with the Ottomans and the caliphate, and establish a bourgeois republic. The Republic has ambitiously implemented a policy of centralization and nationalization inherited from the Ottoman Empire, and used Turkish nationalism intensively as its foundational cement. The Kurds, on the other hand, were ignored and assimilated during the war of national liberation, despite the assurances that the Kemalists had given their tribal leaders.
The most populated and largest Kurdish area is the Turkish Kurdistan. Although the Kurds rebelled against the new single ethnicity Turkish state and entered into conflict with the Kemalist regime in over twenty rebellions, these were harshly suppressed. The last of those rebellions, in Dersim (1937), erupted as a provocation rather than a rebellion; the cruelty and brutality of the state had reached extreme dimensions. As a result, the Kurdish national movement remained silent until favorable conditions developed in the 1960s.
The awakening of 1968 shifted the whole country to the left and brought the Kurdish youth into the gravitational field of socialist politics. Young Kurdish revolutionaries set up their own left-wing factions in Kurdistan in the 1970s. The PKK led by Abdullah Öcalan was one of them, though it did not stand out at first. Subsequent developments would bring about the recent Kurdish rebellion under the leadership of the PKK.
When the Kurdish struggle in Iraq is mentioned, the Barzani family, which has also been partially affected Turkish Kurdistan, comes to mind. The Peshmerga movement, led by the Barzani tribe, has a hundred-year-old experience of national struggle that has left its mark on Kurdish national history. The Kurdish guerrillas (peshmerga) led by Mustafa Mullah Barzani fought first against the Ottomans, then against the British, and then mainly against the Baghdad-based Iraqi state. In the meantime, with the weakening of the Iranian state after World War II, Barzani´s Peshmerga forces moved to Iran and became the military force of the short-lived Republic of Mahabad.
Barzani´s forces were forced to cross into the USSR after Stalin left the Kurds in the lurch. As they were not welcome in the USSR, they returned to southern Kurdistan in 1958 to obtain Kurdish political rights. Although autonomy was won from the central government in Baghdad, following some military victories, the corresponding constitutional provisions were never fully implemented and Saddam Hussein achieved a decisive victory over the Peshmerga in 1975, when the Shah regime in Iran ceased its support for the Kurds, who lost their rights again. In 1980, when the 8 year Iran-Iraq War had begun, the Peshmerga forces supported Iran in the war and, in return, Saddam Hussein organized horrific massacres with chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians died in the Halabja and Enfal massacres. In 1991, when the first Gulf War started, the US destroyed Iraq and created the conditions that led to the formation of a de facto Kurdish state in the region, north of the 36th parallel. Massoud Barzani became a close ally of the United States. In 1998, the endless clashes between the Barzani and Talabani tribes were resolved by US mediation, and a kind of Kurdish national unity was achieved. When the US overthrew the Saddam regime in the second Gulf War (2003), and destroyed the Baath state, the Kurdish administration in the north relaxed and became a semi-state, with its own army, bank, oil revenues, and economic growth.
In post-Saddam Iraq, ISIS emerged from the radicalization of the Sunni minority´s reaction. When ISIS seized Mosul and threatened Baghdad and Erbil, the US-backed Peshmerga forces saved a large region from ISIS. The Peshmerga started to control many controversial oil regions, such as Mosul and Sulaymaniyah. However, when Barzani tried to consolidate all these gains with an independence referendum, he found himself completely abandoned. In addition to Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara also showed sharp hostility.
But what was really devastating for Barzani was that the US and Europe left him at the mercy of his enemies. When the Iraqi army – which had been strengthened in the war against ISIS and had become a destructive force with the contribution of Iranian-backed paramilitaries – marched north, the Peshmerga forces could not resist. All the controversial areas, for example, oil-rich Kirkuk, which had been contested for 80 years, were lost. While the Iraqi Army could have easily seized even Arbil, Baghdad halted the operation once the Kurds returned to the previous borders of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Kurds were disappointed once again.
Iranian Kurdistan also has a history of a century of struggle, with considerable milestones, like the era when tribal leader Simko held the area around Lake Urmia for four years, from 1918-22; or the Republic of Mahabad, which lasted less than a year, in 1946, under the leadership of USSR-backed Gazi Muhammad, also supported by Barzani´s Peshmerga forces. When the Shah Pahlavi regime was overthrown in 1979, the Kurds once again attempted to take advantage of the authority vacuum, but when the Tehran administration stabilized its power, the Kurds had no chance of resisting. The pro-Barzani Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (IKDP) and the leftist Komala (Revolutionary Workers Union of Iranian Kurdistan) led the struggle, but retreated once again to a guerrilla struggle in the mountainous areas. IKDP leader Kasimlo was assassinated in 1989 in Vienna by the intelligence service of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the ongoing low-intensity guerrilla struggle, the PJAK, Iranian arm of the PKK, has come to the fore.
A part of the Kurdish minority in Syria consisted of those who fled repression in Turkey. The nationalist regime in Damascus declared that the newly arrived Kurds would not be granted citizenship, in order to hide the fact that they had become a majority in the Jazeera region. Throughout northern Syria, the government rolled up its sleeves to create an Arab belt and tried to disrupt the area´s ethnographic structure. On the other hand, the Hafez al-Assad administration decided to support the PKK against Turkey, which is his northern enemy. In fact, during the Cold War, the Assad regime actively supported Palestinian groups and all anti-Israel and anti-US guerrilla organizations. However, because of the disputed region of Hatay and Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was Assad´s greatest enemy, the Syrian regime was hostile to Turkey.
In this context, the support given to the PKK was of particular importance. In fact, Abdullah Öcalan led his organization from Damascus for many years. There were two major stipulations the Assad regime imposed on him. First, the PKK was not to use the Syria-Turkey border to stage guerrilla attacks against Turkey. Second, the PKK was not to organize the Kurds in Syria against the Assad regime. This agreement played an important role in the calm that reigned in Syrian Kurdistan compared to the other Kurdish regions. On the other hand, when the USSR collapsed, the Assad regime lost its main supporter, which weakened it significantly.
Because the PKK was organizing increasingly intense attacks against Turkey from Syria, Turkey gave Damascus an ultimatum after securing approval from the United States: Öcalan would leave Syria or Turkey would declare war on Damascus. Öcalan had to leave Syria and was subsequently captured in Africa by a CIA operation. Bashar al-Assad came to power in Syria after his father died in 2000. He reconciled with Turkey and Damascus began to cooperate with Turkey against the PKK. Sixty-four people lost their lives in a police intervention in the clashes after a football match in Qamishli, in 2004.
When the civil war started in Syria in 2011, the Syrian Kurds found the opportunity to establish their own government. However, when in 2019, the United States abandoned the YPG, which is the PKK-led armed forces of the Syrian Kurds, it was left alone against the TAF and Turkish-backed armed groups. Turkey seized almost half of the belt that makes up Syria’s northern territory and has changed its ethnographic structure. In the rest of Rojava, the Assad regime recovered control with Russian aid, which means the end of Rojava. The only concern of the US was to keep Syria’s oil regions secure, and it had used the YPG to this end.
HOW CAN THE KURDS BE FREED?
The Kurdish people are still confined to the borders of the First Imperialist War. Whenever nationalist states weaken and lose authority, as they have in Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish national movement acquires gains, but when those central authorities recover their authority, all gains are lost. Despite all the wars, the occupation, the crumbling of the state, and the war against ISIS, Barzani was ultimately defeated in Iraq. Likewise, despite the long civil war that ruined Syria, the intense US support that some thought was unshakable, and the victories against ISIS, Rojava has ended.
The imperialist forces supported the Kurds for as long as they served imperialist interests, just as England and France had, then the USSR, and then the US. In the end, they all mercilessly abandoned the Kurds. Similarly, rival nationalist states supported the Kurdish national movement at times, like Iran and Syria did, but then they also betrayed them.
The defeats sustained by the Kurdish national movement recently in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, in a row, will have very long-term political effects. Despite the hundred years of struggle, effort and the costs paid, the stability of the status quo that oppresses the Kurds has returned. The Kurds, who are predisposed to radicalism and socialism, combine their national aspirations with their anger against poverty and lack of future, resulting in a tremendous energy. The Kurdish youth and laborers must learn from the experiences of history.
The first aspect of reality to acknowledge, is that the liberation of the Kurds is only possible through the total disintegration of the imperialist capitalist status quo. The liberation of the Kurds is only possible through a united socialist class movement that attacks imperialist capitalism and targets the existing order. The history of the Kurdish national struggle over 100 years has also shown that the oppressed cannot be liberated by imperialist forces.
The energy of laborers and the youth is capable of carrying out an internationalist socialist struggle against imperialist capitalism, and in favor of the poor and oppressed people throughout the Middle East. To achieve equality, sisterhood and freedom, there is no other way than to establish a Socialist Middle East!
In a world of nationalism, nation-states and imperialist superpowers, a democratic or military solution is not possible for the Kurdish question. The only solution is class-based and revolutionary. Even when they think they have the world’s superpower behind them, even when bourgeois states like Iraq and Syria seem to fall apart, the gains of the Kurds are suddenly destroyed. The conclusion is that the freedom of the Kurds is only possible with the success of a united socialist popular movement that aims at the imperialists, bourgeois dictators, and states as a whole.
No power could stand against an internationalist revolutionary unity of laborers from different ethnic-religious origins in the Middle East. The oppressed Kurdish people can only be liberated in this way. The resistance of the oppressed is, of course, justified and legitimate, but it is our duty to tell Kurdish people that the only way to salvation is socialism.