This year placed the Kurdish question in the Middle East on the international agenda again. Its solution, resembling that of a Gordian knot, continues to involve a democratization of the region.
For a long time, Kurdish society was considered a potential factor of instability in the four nation-states among which their homeland is divided. Since their foundation, the states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, almost all of which emerged from the Treaty of Lausanne after World War I in 1923, have each been confronted with their own “Kurdish question”, which was treated as a permanent security risk by the respective state authorities and thus also considered a factor of instability by the international community of states. This view was expressed most recently again by the Russian Foreign Minister at the International Mediterranean Dialogues in Rome in December 2019, when he said that the “Kurdish question is a real bomb for the entire region”.
However, the upheavals and crises that the Middle East has faced in recent decades have changed the role of Kurdish society in the region in a lasting manner. In particular, the continuing civil wars in Iraq and Syria have already turned the Kurds into a significant influential factor. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clearer that the Kurdish freedom movement is one of the few political actors in the entire Middle East that, despite all the opposing tendencies, promote and defend the model of a progressive democracy.
Turkey: Resistance in a dictatorship
The first half of 2019 in Kurdistan was marked above all by the hunger strike actions against the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan and for democratic negotiations to solve the social questions in Turkey. For months, these activities kept the Kurdish society and people in solidarity worldwide on tenterhooks. But the hunger strikers and the social resistance that formed around the activists involved ultimately led to the breaking of the isolation on the Turkish prison island Imralı. The situation of Leyla Güven, a Kurdish MP and co-chair of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), an umbrella organization of Kurdish civil society, who initiated the hunger strike from Amed prison (Diyarbakır), was and continues tob e symbolic of the overall situation of Kurdish politicians and activists in Turkey.
The result of this collective resistance was significant. For the first time in about eight years, the lawyers of the Kurdish representative Abdullah Öcalan were able to visit their client on Imralı. The first visit to the island in the Marmara Sea took place on May 2, 2019. Subsequently, at a press conference on 6 May, his lawyers read out a message from Imralı, which was signed by both Öcalan himself and his three fellow inmates. It was, in short, an offer of peace to the Turkish state. Among other things, it pointed out the urgent need for democratic negotiations for the solution of social issues in Turkey and the Middle East. With Abdullah Öcalan’s seven-point plan, the Kurdish side once again demonstrated its will to find a democratic solution to the social questions in Turkey, especially the Kurdish question. This is not new. Since the 1990s, Öcalan has repeatedly renewed his offers to negotiate, but these have fallen on deaf ears on the part of the Turkish state.
In addition to the hunger strike actions, the local elections on March 31, 2019 and the repeat of the mayoral election in Istanbul on June 23, 2019 were of decisive importance from a domestic political point of view. With the defeat of the government in both cases, the balance of power in Turkey and Kurdistan, which had been deadlocked for years and which had favored the AKP government, shifted. During the elections, the Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) acted as an “invisible force” in the large western metropoles of Turkey in accordance with the party’s electoral tactics of “winning in Kurdistan and losing the west”. Cities like Ankara, Izmir, Adana, Mersin, Antalya or Hatay were won by the “Nation Alliance” (Turkish: Millet İttifakı), which is mainly supported by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Good Party (İyi Parti). The fact that the HDP did not nominate its own candidates in these cities dealt a severe blow to the “People’s Alliance” (Turkish: Cumhur İttifakı), the ruling electoral alliance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the extreme right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The strategic importance of the Kurdish vote was particularly noteworthy.
On August 19, just as the isolation on Imralı had been broken, hopes for a resumption of the peace process began to emerge, and the HDP scored a decisive electoral victory, the AKP government took renewed action. Since that day, the Turkish state has once again been taking action against the Kurdish municipal authorities in the country. In the cities of Amed, Mêrdîn (Mardin) and Wan (Van), the HDP mayors Adnan Selçuk Mızraklı, Ahmet Türk and Bedia Özgökçe Ertan were removed from office at the instigation of the Ministry of Interior. By the end of the year, 28 of the 65 local governments conquered by the HDP in March were eventually to be put under forced administration. A regime was gradually been established in which elected officials are no longer elected but appointed. Only Kurdish cities and municipalities are affected by this authoritarian and corrupt form of government.
The rapprochement of the HDP with Turkish opposition parties such as the CHP in the face of the fundamental attacks on local democracy came to an end with the beginning of the Turkish war of aggression on Rojava/Northern Syria, beginning on 9 October 2019. With this war, the AKP once again fanned the flames of nationalism and chauvinism in Turkish society and its party landscape, thus leaving no more room for the HDP to come together with Turkish opposition parties. Moreover, Erdoğan also took the wind out of the sails of possible new party formations by ex-AKP politicians for the time being.
The forgotten war in Southern Kurdistan
While the Turkish occupation operations in Northern Syria in violation of international law, – be it the annexation of the Northern Syrian region of Efrîn in 2018 or the occupation of Girê Spî (Tall Abyad) and Serê Kanîyê (Ras al-Ain) since October 2019 – have not be sanctioned, let alone be seriously and sharply condemned by the international community of states, Turkey’s violation of international law in Southern Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) hardly attracts attention. With the independence referendum in Southern Kurdistan in September 2017, a new phase had started there. On May 27, 2019, the Turkish army started the cross-border “Operation Claw” and bombed the areas of Xakurke and Lolan. Their target are the Medya Defense Areas, which are under the control of the PKK guerrilla and which encompass almost the entire area around the Southern Kurdish border (Iraq) to Northern Kurdistan (Turkey). For decades, the Turkish army tried again and again in vain to occupy the mountainous region and drive the guerrillas away. Within the framework of this operation, the Turkish army moved several kilometers into the north of Iraq. Furthermore, there are dozens of Turkish military bases in the region. If one considers the silence of the powers that are influential in Iran and Iraq, everything points to a new comprehensive plan against the Kurdish freedom movement. In addition to the Turkish invasion in northern Iraq, the self-governing refugee camp Mexmûr has also become the target of further repression. Since mid-July 2019, the security forces of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Hewlêr (Erbil) have arbitrarily restricted freedom of movement for the residents. The camp’s inhabitants are not allowed to pass the checkpoint between Mexmûr and Hewlêr and are thus unable to enter the city.
The attack on Rojava and the international plot
Considering all of this, the Turkish war of aggression against the Democratic Federation of Northern and Eastern Syria, which has been ongoing since October 9, represents the preliminary climax of the Turkish state’s attacks on Kurdish achievements. Significantly, the operation was launched on the 21st anniversary of the beginning of the international conspiracy against the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. Öcalan was forced to leave Syria on 9 October 1998 under pressure from Turkey and was deported to Turkey on 15 February 1999. Regarding this NATO-ld conspiracy and Öcalan’s role, a lawyer and former legal representative of Öcalan, Mahmut Şakar, told Germany-based Civaka Azad information office that although Öcalan was supposed to be eliminated in 1999 “in order to weaken the influence of the Kurds in the Middle East, he returned to the Middle East years later with his thoughts, concepts and finally the Rojava Revolution. He left Syria as a party leader, but with the so-called Third Way he returned as a pioneer of a free, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and grassroots democratic society”.
In this sense, the Turkish war of aggression does not only target the Kurdish society and freedom movement but also the alternative social project of democratic confederalism. Until the attacks, the Democratic Federation of Northern and Eastern Syria was not a “factor of instability” but, on the contrary, the only stable region in the midst of the turmoil of the Syrian civil war. The war in Northern Syria has once again clearly confirmed Öcalan’s thesis that Turkish-Kurdish relations in Turkey have a key role to play in resolving the Kurdish question. Looking at the current situation in the region, there are two paths that open up for Kurdish society and the freedom movement, which Öcalan describes as follows:
“The first way is based on a compromise with the nation-states. It finds its concrete expression in a solution through a democratic constitution. Democratic autonomy is the basic principle of these rights. The main conditions of this principle are that the sovereign nation-state renounces any policy of denial and annihilation and that the oppressed nation abandons the idea of founding its own mini-nation state. As long as both nations do not turn away from such statist tendencies, the project of democratic autonomy can hardly be implemented. Any consistent and meaningful solution of the Kurdish question, which is not based on separatism and violence, leads through the acceptance of democratic autonomy. All other paths lead either to postponing the problems and thus to an even deeper hopelessness or to further intense conflicts and disintegration. The Turkish nation-state can only become a normal, constitutional, secular and democratic republic in peace, wealth and prosperity by abandoning this domestic and foreign policy and regime practice and by accepting the democratic autonomy of all cultures (including Turkish and Turkmen), especially Kurdish culture.
The second solution of democratic autonomy is not based on a compromise with nation-states, but on the unilateral implementation of one’s own project. In a broader sense, it is the realization of the Kurds’ right to exist as a democratic nation through the implementation of the dimensions of democratic autonomy. Undoubtedly, in this case, the conflicts with nation-states will increase. In this situation, in the face of attacks by individual nation-states or joint attacks (Iran-Syria-Turkey), the Kurds will find no other way out than ‘to move to general mobilization and combat readiness to protect their own existence and free life’. They will not refrain from fighting until they reach a possible compromise or independence in the form of an existence as a democratic nation in all its dimensions by their own efforts, on the basis of self-defense.”
The HDP and the DTK in Turkey and Northern Kurdistan as well as the Democratic Federation of Northern and Eastern Syria continue to plead for a compromise with the respective nation-states, which have so far rejected all peace offers. Thus, the perspective of the Kurdish freedom movement will be to develop the Third Way strategy further in the coming year. In this sense, the Third Way implies the self-confident attitude, which shows no willingness to be subjugate itself to foreign interests. Instead, the Rojava revolution will follow the course of defending the areas it liberated from external attacks and of advancing the construction of a grassroots-democratic, women’s liberationist and pluralistic social order. For the HDP in Turkey, the challenge will be to work together with democratic and left-wing circles in Turkey to form a new democratic pole in Turkish politics.