Depoliticizing freedom: Imperialist attempts to separate Rojava from Öcalan

The year of 2018 began with the Turkish army and its extremist mercenaries’ invasion and occupation of Afrin in Rojava/northern Syria and is approaching its end in a similarly eventful manner. While, Kurdish prisoners in Turkish prisons, as well as activists in Europe and beyond, are on unlimited hunger strikes for Abdullah Öcalan, the Turkish president Erdoğan is threatening with yet another Turkish intervention in the east of the Euphrates, to which the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria responded with the declaration of a state of emergency. The year was also shaped by ideological attacks against the Kurdish freedom movement, in Kurdistan, as well as in Europe, in particular in Germany.

Afrin, Öcalan and 25 years of PKK ban

Let us take a look at three examples that are illustrative of what can be described as ideological attacks and their consequences. For instance, countless solidarity actions took place during the two-month long resistance of Afrin at the beginning of the year. Many of the slogans that were chanted during these rallies called for the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan. I can remember the reactions of some participants of these demonstrations towards the decades-old slogan “Bijî Serok Apo” (Long live leader Apo) [Apo is a nickname for Abdullah Öcalan]. They said: “We are here for Afrin and Rojava. Let us only chant slogans that are directly related to the issue. What does Öcalan have to do with Afrin?”.

The year of 2018 marked the 25th anniversary of the German PKK ban, for which many protests and rallies were organized in Germany. In the discussions about possible protest forms to mark the anniversary and in the light of the increased criminalization and persecution of Kurdish activists and solidarity structures, a tendency crystallized in favor of the following approach: “Let us not put focus on the PKK. The YPG and YPJ are socially more accepted in Germany. Actions for the lifting of the ban on the YPG and YPJ symbols are more likely to succeed”.

The year also experienced increased cooperation between Kurdish activists and leftist activists in Germany. Joint discussions, seminars and panels were organized on Democratic Confederalism. Kurdish cultural centers were used as joint education venues. These rooms are often decorated with Kurdish flags, pictures of Öcalan and other central personalities of the Kurdish freedom struggle. Thus was the reaction of one person towards the many flags and portraits on the walls: “Why would people hang flags and photos of Öcalan, the PKK, and the YPG/YPJ next to each other? Aren’t these the same images that the German state uses to lump them all together?”

The battle between democratic and capitalist modernity

Many discussions were held regarding the occupation of Afrin and its consequences. The overt violation of international law is a disgrace for the international community. But the resistance of Afrin with its more than 1000 fallen fighters demonstrated to democratic forces once again that the fight of the Kurdish freedom movement in general and the Rojava Revolution in particular represents a battle between two world views – between socialism and capitalism, between democratic modernity and capitalist modernity.

Politically, we can speak of three lines or actors for our assessment: On one side are the hegemonic powers such as the USA, Russia and EU countries. Secondly, there are the regional nation-states, namely Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. And lastly, the local communities, women, workers, oppressed identities and societal sections. While the first two actors are primarily concerned with sharing the Middle Eastern pie among themselves and to secure as much as possible for themselves along the way, the third actor has completely different interests at stake – namely, democratization and liberation from the yoke of foreign determination. Essentially, there are therefore only two major ideological lines: that of capitalist states, whether global or regional, on one side, and that of the peoples, who for the first time managed to liberate a space in Rojava to determine it themselves, on the other side.

Will the revolution walk its way?

Much discussion took place about the tactical military alliance of the Democratic Self-Administration in northern Syria and the imperialist USA. This purpose alliance began with the resistance in Kobane and reached its military peak with the liberation of Raqqa. Speculations were expressed about the future of the democratic project after Raqqa, since the “common enemy”, the so-called Islamic State would soon be defeated. The question arose: will the revolution continue its path or will it be integrated into the capitalist world-system?

The USA’s archenemy

The revolutionaries of Rojava emphasized their vision for the region’s future with a gigantic banner of Abdullah Öcalan in the city center of Raqqa in front of which hundreds of Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) fighters stood to officially declare the liberation of the city as a victory for all women in the world. The USA reacted immediately with a statement from the Pentagon, which reflected their long-term strategy: “The PKK has been a U.S. designated Foreign Terrorist Organization since 1997 and we continue to see PKK as a destabilizing actor it the region. The United States continues to support our NATO Ally Turkey in its multi-decade struggle against the PKK and recognizes the loss of life Turkey has suffered in that conflict […] We condemn the display of PKK leader and founder Abdullah Ocalan during the liberation of Raqqa.”

Political commentators interpreted this statement of the US as being primarily directed to their NATO partner Turkey. However, a view that considers ideological dimensions of this development will help us understand the issue beyond geopolitics. It was the very same USA that almost exactly 20 years ago led and executed the international conspiracy against Abdullah Öcalan. Öcalan, as the architect of the PKK, the paradigm of Democratic Confederalism and the revolution in Rojava, embodies the archenemy of the USA.  It was him, who, after the collapse of real-socialism and the integration of national liberation movements into the state system, as well as after the prophesied “end of history”, declared: “Insistence on socialism means insistence on being human”.

In 1991, the former prime minister of Turkey, Bülent Ecevit, admitted after the kidnapping and arrest of Öcalan that he still did not fully understand why the USA had handed Öcalan over to the Turkish state. These words demonstrate the minor role of Turkey in the international conspiracy against Öcalan. Meanwhile, in his work written on the prison island of Imrali, Abdullah Öcalan explains in detail that the capitalist system is pressing charges against him in his identity as an anti-capitalist.

The second stage of the International Conspiracy

20 years have passed since the beginning of the international conspiracy. The imprisonment of Öcalan was only one dimension of the concept to destroy the PKK.  The other dimension was the attempt to marginalize the socialist line within the PKK, which manifested itself in the personage of Öcalan, in favor of strengthening liberal elements. The attempt was to create a PKK that would fit into the USA’s “Greater Middle East” concept – a PKK that withdraws from guerrilla warfare, a seemingly old-fashioned method unsuitable for the 21st century, a PKK that no longer asks the crucial question of “How to live?”.

The international conspiracy did not succeed in this sense however. Yet, throughout the past 20 years, there were constant attempts to annihilate the PKK. One main strategy to this end is the attempt to liquidate and fragment the leadership of the Kurdish movement.

Parallel to the international conspiracy, campaigns were started under the motto of “Yes to the PKK, No to Apo!”. These attempts reached a new level in 2018, which is why we can refer to the current phase as a second stage of the international conspiracy. Apart from the brutal physical attacks on liberated areas such as Afrin canton or the targeted assassination of the KCK Executive Council member Zekî Şengalî in August of this year in Şengal (Sinjar) due to a cross-border drone attack of the Turkish state, we must also consider ideological assaults.

The ongoing total isolation of Abdullah Öcalan and the attempt to normalize his imprisonment are symbolic for the second stage of the international conspiracy. In addition to this comes the US decision to put bounties on three leading personalities of the Kurdish freedom struggle, Duran Kalkan, Cemil Bayik and Murat Karayilan. The first comments regarding the US decision emphasized that the US wanted to assure Turkey in the light of the close cooperation of the USA with Kurdish forces.

In essence however, the intention is to implement a military solution against the PKK, following the so-called “Tamil solution” model. After all, it is the PKK with its vision of a democratic Middle East, which constitutes an obstacle to the capitalist re-design of the region. The USA is not trying to hide its intentions. Thus, the document of a US Think Tank was published in mid-2016, which clearly formulated a strategy to liberalize the revolutionary potential of Rojava for the region. The central thesis in the strategy paper argues that the politically central actors in northern Syria, such as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) ought to be cut off from the PKK and its ideologue, Abdullah Öcalan.

US imperialism has an abundance of experiences and means to suffocate democratic movements with claims to anti-capitalist politics in the capitalist nation-state system. The defamation campaign against the PKK and its timing, millions of dollars’ worth of bounties on three central personalities that enjoy great respect in Kurdish society, or the US reaction to the Öcalan banner at the liberation of Raqqa, expressing that Abdullah Öcalan was not a person worth respecting, are all aspects that can be understood in this context.

The role of Germany

Apart from the USA, countries like Britain, Israel, Russia, Greece and Germany also played decisive roles in the international conspiracy that led to the abduction of Öcalan in February 1999. During his ordeal through Europe, Germany issued an entry ban against Öcalan. At the time, a German arrest warrant against Öcalan was active, which would have demanded his arrest and extradition to Germany, according to the existing law. But the law was neglected and the extradition to Germany was dismissed. The German government denied Öcalan asylum and thus signaled to all other European governments to follow suit. Granting Öcalan asylum or prosecuting him in Germany would have meant to carry the historical and social contradictions and problems to the center of Europe. Therefore, all involved states played distinct roles in this “international conspiracy”.

In this vein, Germany continued to materially support the Turkish state against the Kurdish society, the PKK and the idea of Democratic Confederalism in 2018. We all know the images of the German Leopard tanks in Afrin or the red carpet that welcomed Erdoğan during his visit to Germany. Much has already been written about the economic collaboration between Germany and Turkey. Thus, let us instead take a closer look at the ideological confrontation of Germany with the Kurdish society and its avantgarde, the Kurdish freedom movement.

The history of the ideological attacks against the Kurdish movement began long before the now 25-year-old PKK ban in Germany. Kurdish activist Mehmet Demir told the Berlin-based information office Civaka Azad: “The first physical attack of the state happened in 1986. On March 21st of the previous year, the National Liberation Front of Kurdistan (ERNK) had been formed. Its first anniversary, which coincides with our new year, Newroz, was due to be celebrated in the Mercatorhalle in Duisburg. On that day, the German security forces closed the Autobahn roads to the city. The people, who wanted to travel to the celebration by bus, were violently pulled out of the vehicles and their faces were pressed to the ground, as they were individually checked. The reason for this excessive attack, as turned out later, was a rumor about Abdullah Öcalan attending the event to hold a speech.”

International division of labor

The war and the massacres in Kurdistan, as well as the international repression against the Kurdish freedom movement, are organized in the framework of NATO under the cover of maintaining “bilateral relations”, which are seemingly required as per NATO ally-ship. Germany was and continues to be a part of this war. Just as each state played a different role during the international conspiracy 20 years ago, the current second stage of the conspiracy also encompasses an international division of labor to weaken and eliminate the Kurdish movement. While the USA ideologically intervenes in the Middle East as described above, to influence Kurdish society in the attempt to alienate it from the PKK and Öcalan, the efforts in Europe and especially in Germany target the Kurdish diaspora abroad.

The examples mentioned at the beginning of the article show the attempts in Germany to separate the PKK and Öcalan, as the representatives of self-confident Kurdish politics with universal-democratic aspirations, from the society and revolution in Rojava. Even if the methods may vary, the intention is essentially the same. Compared to the Middle East, Germany utilizes more subtle methods, such as criminalization, bans, defamation campaigns and in the last two years, in the context of the Federal Ministry of Interior’s circulars, arbitrary games with German law to implement creative executions of the PKK ban.

The power of the Kurdish freedom movement, which enabled it to overcome the twenty-year-old international conspiracy, as well as all annihilation concepts launched against it, lies in its reliance and trust in its own power and its strong societal basis. While almost one year ago, capitalist modernity in the body of Turkey attacked the democratic achievements of Afrin, the Kurdish society went on the offensive to break the total isolation at Imrali prison, with wide-reaching implications: with all the hunger strikes that were recently started alongside manifold civil protests, the Kurdish society says, loudly and clearly: “Yes to the PKK, yes to Apo!” With this determination, the Kurdish society in northern Syria and in the other parts of Kurdistan, as well as the diaspora, will confront the threatening Turkish attacks on the Democratic Federation of northern and eastern Syria.