Turkey: the struggle of the Kurdish people

Interview with V.U. Arslan, Socialist Laborers Party (SEP)

The Kurdish question has a long history of 150 years. Kurdistan was mainly a piece of land of the Ottoman Empire. Following the Armenians and the peoples of the Balkans, the Kurdish national movement emerged within the Ottoman Empire. The fate of the Kurds and the entire Middle East was determined at the end of World War I. At the end of this war, Kurdistan was divided into four parts: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The part within the borders of Turkey, Northern Kurdistan, is the largest and the most crowded part.

When the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, it was declared a state based on a single ethnic group and the existence of the Kurds was ignored. In the national war against Greece, however, promises of autonomy were given to the leaders of the Kurds, and a joint struggle was fought against the occupation. However, after the military victory under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, the Republic was established on a centralist, unitary and single-ethnic structure. Even the existence of the Kurds was denied, they were called “Mountainer Turks”. This caused a national reaction of the Kurdish people. Although the first revolts had feudal, tribal and religious characteristics, they were in fact national reactions. But these processes were clearly crushed by Turkish state after the 1930s, with the bloody suppression of the riots. The Kurdish movement was crushed and retreated, until 1960s.

The 1960s were the years that the left movement in Turkey leaped forward under a relatively more democratic constitution. At this point, a Kurdish national dynamic began to manifest itself in the left movement. By the 1970s, many Kurdish organizations with socialist tendencies had formed, and the last one was the “Kurdistan Workers’ Party” (the PKK). It was an organization that emerged later and was more dominant, and began to rise by violence in intra-left fights.  But the military coup of 1980 defeated the organizations of the left and the Kurdish national movement. The Kurdish movement protected itself by going to Syria. Assad supported the leftist groups and guerrillas from the Palestinian guerrilla camps. Among these groups, we see that the PKK stands out because it was the organization most determined to start the armed struggle. Most importantly, its leadership had survived. The other organizations were in crisis because their leaders had been arrested.

The guerrilla movement could not start from the Syrian side of the border because of the alliance with Assad, it had to start from the Iraqi side of the border, which was controlled by Barzani. Barzani supported the PKK by opening corridors along the Iraqi border. In 1984, the PKK launched a guerrilla movement. There was a very appropriate conjuncture for the PKK because the military coup was brutal in Kurdistan; heavy tortures, tens of thousands of people detained…  The reaction of the Kurdish people was accumulated and about to explode. In an era when the other leftist movements had been crushed, the PKK had become a dominant and unifying organization with its guerrilla strategy. After 1984, the guerrilla movement gradually accelerated and reached tens of thousands of guerrillas. On the other hand, the state gained experience in counter-guerrilla war, and organized a process of using collaborator Kurdish tribes as self-defense units by organizing so called “village guards”. It was a dirty war: extrajudicial killings, prisoners “lost in custody”, heavy tortures… As a result of all this, the guerrilla movement had stopped in the early 90s, the PKK was weakened and regressed.

In this process, the PKK experienced an ideological transformation. While there was a PKK closer to socialism in the 70s, in the 90s – especially after the collapse of the USSR – the sickle-and-hammer in its flag was put away. It has become more of an organization that believes in the EU, in its own words, “democratic Europe” and tried to establish international connections since then. Ocalan emerged at the head of the PKK as a new left project claiming that he had “gone beyond Marx” along with a postmodern perspective and identity politics. An attempt was made to reach a compromise with the state, but the state never approved it and did not want to organize a real negotiation process.

Then, at the end of 90s, Ocalan was backed into a corner. Turkey sent an ultimatum to Assad and threatened with occupation if he insisted on keeping Ocalan in his country. Finally, Ocalan was arrested with the support of the US (CIA). In the 2000s, the process of withdrawing the organization from the armed struggle began. The PKK began to withdraw to Qandil (a region between the Iran-Iraq border) and suffered many casualties during this withdrawal; but they maintained their social support. Since the PKK consolidated itself around Ocalan as a leader figure, even though Ocalan gave moderate messages and even said “I am ready to serve the Turkish state”, the control of the movement was not lost except for some contradictory voices. The PKK did not experience any division.

From this point onwards, the Kurdish legal parties came forward. The HDP’s predecessor parties have increased their public support since 1999, advanced in municipal elections in Kurdish cities and gained ground in democratic politics. Conservative Kurds approached the secular Kurdish national movement.

The AKP government had been in search of consensus claiming: “we will solve the Kurdish question.” By saying: “we will negotiate, we will solve the Kurdish problem in democratic ways”, it came to power with the discourse of the EU and “advanced democracy”. The Kurdish national movement had a positive attitude towards the AKP and was more willing to negotiate with the AKP than with the Kemalists. In those years, liberals were also supporting the agenda of the AKP, including its politics on the Kurdish question.  However, the real aim of the AKP was not the so called democratization. Its long term aim was to liquidate the Kemalists from the state and needed some allies for that objective. So, for the AKP, the Kurds were only a part of this tactic. In the end, not surprisingly, the so called “peace process” was ended.

In this process, the PKK formed irregular militia forces of the youth and urban forces. The YPG (Syrian branch of the PKK) filled the power vacuum created in the Syrian civil war very well and created its own space of dominancy. In fact, the most important part of this region is Northern Kurdistan (the part in Turkey). The PKK has been developed as a Northern Kurdistan movement and tried to establish hegemony in other parts of Kurdistan. It achieved this in Rojava and, to a certain extent, in Iran through the PEJAK. In Iraq, Barzani prevented it. The PKK, after a bloody war under the influence of Barzani’s collaboration with the Government of Turkey, was forced to settle for the control of a region around Mount Qandil.

The PKK’s negotiations with Turkey about establishing the structure of Rojava in Turkey’s cities did not go well. Under the influence of the AKP’s liquidation of the Kemalists, the institutionalization of the one-man regime naturally caused disagreements. The PKK leadership has always imposed its discipline on the legal parties. But Demirtas came forward as a more independent figure in this sense, showed great leadership to the masses, and became very popular even for Turks. A strategic difference has emerged between the PKK and Demirtas. Demirtas wanted to lead a mass movement through the HDP’s election successes; the military wing wanted to lead the political wing with the hegemony of the armed struggle following the experience of Rojava.

As a result, the negotiation process with the state was disrupted also by the initiative of the PKK and a bloody civil war started in Kurdish cities. Fierce city battles took place in many areas such as Nusaybin, Cizre, Sirnak, Sur, Diyarbakir, Yuksekova and Mazidagi. The PKK entered into these processes with the enthusiasm of the young militias in the region without any military preparation that could endure such a war. As a result, the Kurdish movement was crushed and the consequences were very severe. Because apart from sectarian PKK supporters, the grassroots of the HDP questioned this situation a lot. This was also the period when the HDP was very strong and popular as a opposition party in the parliament. When such a military fight took place, too many Kurdish youth lost their lives and political positions. Because of the oppressive politics, all the gains of the Kurdish people were eliminated. Achievements, political rights and political progress have all been reversed. It also paved the way for the establishment of an authoritarian regime in Turkey.

The PKK also carried out a number of bomb attacks in Ankara and Istanbul. These actions were suicide attacks that killed civilians and caused a public reaction. They were actions that played into the hands of the chauvinist atmosphere in the country. Today, unofficial sources report that the organizations that cooperate with the PKK have burned the forests as an act of retaliation without giving the name of the PKK but with the PKK discourse. These acts of retaliation mainly serve militarism and open the way for more oppression.

Finally, the local elections were important. They have led to a transformation in Turkey. For the first time, the AKP suffered a serious defeat in the elections, and the Kurdish movement’s anti-AKP coalition with the CHP and even with the right-wing parties had a major impact. The presence of the HDP in this alliance made a significant difference. In cities like Istanbul, Adana and Mersin that have large Kurdish populations, the HDP played a critical role against the AKP and supported its allies. And the HDP had won the municipalities in Kurdish cities. However, Tayyip Erdogan had already said that if the HDP won again he would appoint trustees. Four months after the elections, Erdoğan appointed trustees to the three most important Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van. And today, the HDP and the opposition are trying to do something against this.

Of course, the bourgeois parties opposing the government also protested the “trustee coup” in Kurdish municipalities only with words. Unfortunately, the HDP’s reaction on the streets was not very strong. We have also seen the decline of mobilizations in Kurdish cities. The Kurdish movement, which used to mobilize tens of thousands, no longer has such capacity anymore. People cannot take to the streets because of the tremendous pressure and police brutality. Although there are relatively more vivid actions in Istanbul, there are problems in creating a mass movement on the streets. We, as the SEP, support these mobilizations. However, when fewer people go to the streets, state pressure increases.

In short, the power of the HDP has been broken in this process. When one of their leaders, Demirtas, was imprisoned, the mobilization capacity of the HDP dramatically fell. On the other hand, it made important contributions to the CHP’s success in the local elections and broke the brutal domination of the one-man and one party regime. On the other hand, Tayyip Erdoğan continues to play the Kurdish card in order to maintain his pressure over the opposition. Defending the Kurds is not easy, even for bourgeois parties.

Developments in Rojava will be decisive. The YPG is currently under American protection in Rojava. If the US says we are not protecting you, it will not be difficult for the Turkish army to disperse YPG dominance in Rojava. The historical gains in Rojava are in Trump´s and the Pentagon´s hands. Two years ago, when Barzani attempted a referendum, he was abandoned, and Barzani’s significant gains suddenly vanished.

Our attitude is as follows: for example, we supported Barzani’s referendum decision because the Kurds have the right to leave. This is the same for Rojava. On the other hand, we should be critical of the Kurdish movement.  History has shown that no one should trust the United States. Although Barzani had long been an American ally, if the Baghdad government had wanted to, it would have even taken Arbil and Barzani would have lost everything he had. The central government of Baghdad allowed Barzani to survive. If it had not, all the gain of 100-150 years could have disappear in an instant. This is also the case for Rojava. Therefore, it is our duty to fight against the Turkish state’s policies of repression, assimilation and extermination. We are trying to provide this cooperation under the banner of the socialist struggle. And we defend the Kurd’s right to self-determination, including the right to be independent

But the Kurdish problem is a mega problem in the Middle East. And there is no possibility of solving it within the existing system, within the imperialist capitalist system. In order to solve this, a permanent revolution program is needed. Just like Palestine. Even if this fight is a righteous fight, there is no chance of defeating Israel. That is why Kurds and Palestinians can only achieve equality and freedom with a socialist leap across the Middle East. This can only happen if the red flag of socialism overcomes imperialism.