Categorized | Iraq

Kurds wage historic struggle

by Trevor Rayne

The Kurdish struggle is more significant to the future of the Middle East than ever. In Iraq and Syria, Kurds are crucial to the outcome of the battle against Islamic State (IS) and other jihadi groups. In Turkey, Kurds are in insurrection, the fate of which will decide whether the country succumbs to fascism or progresses towards democracy. The British government, the European Union (EU) and the US are indifferent as towns in Turkey are destroyed by tanks and heavy artillery, civilians are burned to death in their homes, academics, lawyers and journalists are branded as terrorists and the President says that democracy and the rule of law are meaningless in Turkey. Trevor Rayne reports.

The Turkish state planned for war on the Kurds in Turkey and Syria after the defeat of IS in Kobane, in northern Syria/Rojava in January 2015. Turkey’s ruling class fears that Kurdish self-determination in Syria will undermine its rule in Turkey itself, by encouraging the Kurdish struggle for rights. Turkish state forces prevented Kurds going to assist the resistance in Kobane and attacked and killed protestors in Turkey. The success of the Kurdish-led Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the June and November 2015 parliamentary elections thwarted President Erdogan’s ambition to change Turkey’s constitution from a parliamentary to a presidential system, and provided a pole of attraction for those opposed to the authoritarian rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. A wave of arrests of HDP members and supporters preceded the 1 November election and the predominantly Kurdish town of Silvan was placed under curfew. Turkish state forces attacked Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. On 3 November the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), established by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), declared the ceasefire, begun in March 2013, to be over.

Between 16 August 2015 and 18 March 2016 there were 63 official curfews in at least 22 districts of seven cities in south-eastern Turkey, affecting 1.6 million people. At least 355,000 residents have been forced to leave the places they lived in. Estimates of the numbers of civilians killed by the Turkish army and police have risen to over 650 in six months. 72 children have been killed in curfew areas. People have been gunned down protesting at the curfews. The Turkish government says that those who have been killed are terrorists. On 28 March 2016 Erdogan boasted that Turkey was a ‘soldier nation’ and said that ‘5,359 terrorists have been neutralised’ since July 2015. State forces have been given licence to kill.

On 22 March 2016 Amnesty International reported that the Turkish government is ‘not allowing… people to access food and basic goods. This can only be defined as collective punishment’. Some Kurdish districts have been under curfew for over 100 days. In February 2016, 178 people were burned to death by Turkish forces in Cizre in basements where they had taken refuge. This was a calculated act of murder intended to terrorise the Kurdish people into submission. On 19 March 2016 it was reported that Turkish state forces used chemical gas to enter Hakkari’s Yukesekova district. Soldiers wore gas masks and as many as 40 people were killed.

Descending into fascism

President Erdogan says the ‘terrorists’ must be ‘annihilated’. He explained his definition of ‘terrorist’ on 14 March 2016: ‘Their titles as an MP, an academic, an author, a journalist do not change the fact that they are actually terrorists. An act of terror is successful because of these supporters, these accomplices… It’s not only the person who pulls the trigger, but those who made that possible who should also be defined as terrorist.’ Erdogan warned those who oppose him: ‘Some circles, at home and abroad, are at a junction. They will either side with us, or with the terrorists. There is no middle way.’ Erdogan offered his contempt for opponents, saying that criticism of Turkey on issues like ‘democracy, freedom and rule of law’ were meaningless; ‘For us, these phrases have absolutely no value any longer.’ This is fascism and the British government and EU act as its accomplices by not opposing the Turkish state’s war on the Kurds and their supporters in Turkey.

On 23 March Turkey’s Ministry of Justice submitted 22 summaries of proceedings against HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas and 18 other MPs to Prime Minister Davutoglu. The intention is to strip them of parliamentary immunity. Davutoglu accused the Kurds and the HDP of ‘collaborating with Russia, just like the Armenian gangs’. This is an ominous echo of the Turkish genocide of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to the early 1920s; Turkey fought Russia during the First World War. In 1994 Turkey’s parliament lifted immunity from four pro-Kurdish MPs accused of helping the PKK. They were gaoled for nine years, until a European Court of Human Rights ruling against Turkey resulted in their release.

On 15 March 2016 three Turkish academics were charged with spreading ‘terrorist propaganda’. Over 2,000 Turkish academics signed a petition in January 2016 against the military repression of the Kurds. President Erdogan said that they would be punished for their ‘treachery’ and dozens have been sacked. On 16 March, the British academic Chris Stephenson was deported from Turkey for ‘making terrorist propaganda’. Stephenson said there had been ‘no offence, no trial, just an administrative decision to deport me after 25 years of residency in Turkey’. He had attended a court hearing in support of fellow academics, also accused of spreading terrorist propaganda because they signed the petition. Stephenson had in his possession invitations from the HDP to a Newroz (New Year) celebration on 21 March. The Turkish state banned Newroz celebrations in many provinces, but they took place in defiance of the proscription.

The government attack on the media continues. On 4 March 2016 Istanbul’s chief prosecutor ordered the seizure of the offices of the Feza Media Group which published Zaman, Turkey’s largest circulation newspaper. Police violently dispersed protestors. Feza was owned by Fethullah Gulen, formerly allied with Erdogan and the AKP and now exiled in the US. In late 2013 a corruption probe by prosecutors loyal to Gulen threatened to topple the government and implicated Erdogan’s family. Erdogan responded by sacking hundreds of prosecutors and thousands of police officers, closing down the corruption probe. The 14 March 2016 issue of the Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gundem was seized for aiding and abetting terrorism; it carried the headline ‘You cannot stop spring coming’, interpreted as a reference to the Newroz celebrations and a ‘Kurdish spring’.

In May 2015 Cumhuriyet published evidence that Turkey’s military intelligence smuggled weapons to jihadists in Syria under cover of delivering humanitarian aid. In November 2015 the editor and Ankara bureau chief of the paper were put in prison. When the Constitutional Court ordered their release in February 2016 Erdogan condemned it, saying he had no respect for the court, and demanded that they be tried for espionage, warning them that they would ‘pay a heavy price’. On 25 March a judge ruled that the case would be heard in private. The trial is delayed for a month because MPs refused to leave the courtroom in protest at the decision. The judge agreed to make President Erdogan the complainant in the case. The journalists face possible life imprisonment.

The government’s contempt for legal restraints was demonstrated in the early hours of 16 March 2016 when 32 homes in Istanbul were raided by police. Members of the Association of Libertarian Lawyers were detained. Brazen disregard for world opinion followed in Istanbul when police in riot gear attacked an international delegation of lawyers from Britain, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The delegation was attending the trial of 45 colleagues accused of terrorism offences, related to their representation of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The lawyers were attempting to hold a press conference outside the court when they were attacked. Nine advocates for the 45 lawyers were themselves arrested.

Refugees as bargaining chips

The Turkish government celebrated the deal it struck with the EU in March on the treatment of refugees, of whom there are 2.5 million in Turkey. Prime Minister Davutoglu said that it demonstrated ‘How indispensable the EU is for Turkey and Turkey for the EU… The whole future of Europe is on the table.’ President Erdogan and the AKP government are using the refugees to extort money, (they will get €6bn), and political compliance. The HDP’s Demirtas said that Erdogan’s leverage over the EU had given him a free hand to use the military against the Kurds, ‘[Erdogan is using] the refugee crisis to blackmail the EU. The crisis should not become a business deal.’

Davutoglu expressed satisfaction at the political benefits the deal delivers to his government, ‘God willing, you, our proud and honourable citizens, will no longer be waiting in queues at consulates at the crack of dawn. You’ll be able to pick up your… Turkish passport and go where you like, without a visa.’ Particularly pleasing to him was the distress caused to Greek Cypriots: ‘This [deal] has caused a fight within the EU. They were really forced to turn on the Greek Cypriots.’ Part of the deal is to re-start Turkey’s EU membership negotiations, which are opposed by Greek Cypriots because Turkey does not recognise the government in Nicosia or allow Greek Cypriot ships to dock in Turkish ports. The Financial Times said ‘Desperate EU barters away its values to Turkey’s strongman’ but a letter writer more accurately wrote that by relying on ‘the neo-fascist government of Turkey’s president… the EU has just chosen to sit on a powder keg’. (Professor Alan Sked, 22 March 2016).

Suicide bomb attacks have targeted Ankara and Istanbul. After the 17 February 2016 attack on Ankara, killing 29 people, Turkey’s government immediately blamed the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Rojava. Astonishingly, when Russia ‘expressed its deep condolences to the people of Turkey’, the Turkish Prime Minister, who had visited Ukraine two days before, threatened: ‘I am warning Russia once more. If these terror attacks continue, they will be as responsible as the YPG.’ Another attack on 13 March killed 37 people in Ankara. This time Davutoglu blamed the PKK. In both instances the attacks were claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK). The TAK is described in the British press as a splinter from the PKK. It was formed in 2004 and is not linked to the PKK, but claims it acted in retaliation for the savagery unleashed on the Kurds in Turkey.


On 12 March 2016 ten revolutionary organisations from Turkey and Kurdistan announced the formation of a People’s United Revolutionary Movement to oppose the AKP government and fascism. The PKK is by far the biggest of the organisations and it said that the future of all progressive and workers’ causes in Turkey is ‘intertwined with the future of the Kurdish resistance’. Cemil Bayik, co-chair of the KCK, said, ‘We want to topple Erdogan and the AKP. Turkey will never become a democratic country if Erdogan and the AKP are not toppled.’ The PKK continues to say that it wants a negotiated solution to the conflict and the release from prison of Abdullah Ocalan. PKK guerrillas have been under direction to wage defensive actions, but their commanders have now said they will conduct attacks in rural areas in solidarity with the Civil Protection Units (YPS) mounting the urban resistance.

Across the border from Turkey, in Syria, the PKK’s Kurdish allies in the Democratic Union Party (PYD) have announced the establishment of the Rojava and Northern Syria Federal System Constituent Assembly, combining representatives of Kurdish, Arab, Armenian, Turkmen and other peoples fighting for a secular and democratic state. Sections of the British establishment can sense that the Kurds are not about to go away or surrender; the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee released a report in March 2016 condemning the Turkish army’s attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria and said it was not acceptable for Britain to ignore abuses of the Turkish state against Kurds in return for Turkish co-operation on EU migration policies. The Kurdish struggle is changing the Middle East.

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