Saturday, January 30, 2016

Guide to Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Turkey by Steve Kaczynski

This article reflects the personal views of Steve Kaczynski

This article will look at the development and course of Kurdish nationalism.

It will concentrate on its impact within the current frontiers of Turkey, although Kurds cross international frontiers in the region and are also found in large numbers in northern Iraq, northwest Iran and northern Syria.

The Kurds are an ethnic group speaking a range of Indo-European dialects related to Farsi (Persian).

This distinguishes them from Turks, who speak a non-Indo-European language, and from Arabs. However, there are dividing factors among Kurds as well as unifying factors.

Linguistically, many Kurds in Turkey speak Kurmanji, which is also widespread in northern Iraq and northern Syria, but many also speak Zaza, which is not mutually intelligible with Kurmanji.

There are also religious differences. The majority of Kurds in Turkey are Sunni Muslims, but there is a significant Alevi minority, especially in the Dersim (Tunceli) area.

Last and not least, Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere have had tribal allegiances that can put them at loggerheads with other Kurds.

The importance of tribal affiliations has tended to weaken over time, in Turkey at least, as a result of urbanisation and other factors
The development of nationalism in the Middle East helped undermine the Ottoman Empire, most spectacularly in the case of Arab nationalism.

The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres envisaged a Kurdish area in the southeast of Turkey's current frontiers, although Kurdish participants in the discussions were disappointed by the small size of the area envisaged.

The success of Mustafa Kemal's movement led to the provisions of this treaty never being implemented, and it was superseded by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which made no mention of even limited Kurdish aspirations.

There had already been a failed Kurdish uprising against Kemal in 1920, called the Kocgiri revolt, and in 1925 a Zaza Kurd and Sunni Muslim figure, Sheikh Said, led another uprising, which was suppressed and he and many others were hanged.

Said was reacting against Kemalist secularisation and called on Turks to join his rebellion in the same spirit. Nonetheless the heartland of the revolt was in a significant part of Turkey's Kurdish region.

Not all Kurds joined the revolt and on grounds of tribal or religious affiliation some actively opposed it and sided with the government.

Another significant Kurdish revolt took place in the late 1920s in Ararat, with a short-lived Republic of Ararat being declared in the east close to the border with Iran. Ihsan Nuri, the leader of that revolt and a former Ottoman army officer, fled to Iran, dying in an accident there in 1976.

In 1937 another revolt took place in Dersim, this time predominantly by Zaza Alevis led by Seyit Riza. This was repressed, Riza and many others were executed, and Turkish state forces murdered a significant number of local inhabitants in reprisals for the uprising.

Turkish state policy was one of encouraging Turkification and assimilation while exploiting tribal and other divisions among Kurds. Sometimes favoured Kurdish tribes received weapons from the army for internal security duties.

For example, in the 1930s, a "Fellow citizen, speak Turkish!" campaign was primarily aimed at Kurdish speakers, although speakers of Greek, Armenian and Ladino were also affected.

It was even denied that Kurds and others existed at all in Turkey, because everyone was supposed to be a Turk.

In his pamphlet War and Peace in Kurdistan, published in 2008, PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan writes,

 "...The Kurds were very far from identifying themselves as a nation for a long time. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that the idea of a Kurdish identity began to develop in the course of intellectual debates mostly as a tendency of the Turkish left.

However, this tendency lacked the intellectual potential to overcome more traditional ideas of Kurdish identity affiliated with tribal order and sheikdom.

Both the real-socialist leaning communist parties and the liberal and feudal parties were far from understanding the idea of a Kurdish nation or the idea of the Kurds as an ethnic group.

Only the left-leaning student movement of the 1970s was able to contribute substantially to the awareness that there was a Kurdish identity."
This downplays somewhat the degree of Kurdish national awareness before this period, but it is true that the modern era of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey began under the influence of left-wing radicalism of the 1970s.

Ocalan in the same pamphlet says six people came together in April 1973 to establish an independent Kurdish political organisation. He does not say whether he was one of the six.

The PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) itself was established in November 1978 at a meeting near the city of Amed (Diyarbakir). There were, however, other Kurdish nationalist organisations of some significance in existence during this period, such as the DDKD (Revolutionary Eastern Culture Clubs) established in 1975, Kawa, established in 1976 and Tekosin ("Struggle") founded in 1978.

As was the case with the left groups of the time, Kurdish nationalist groups competed with another, sometimes violently.

The September 1980 military coup in Turkey did serious damage to both left and Kurdish nationalist groups - indeed, even mainstream political parties were closed down. "Modest foreign support for Ocalan's group at this time probably saved the young PKK from being crushed into oblivion during the post-coup security campaigns in Turkey.

Syria was happy to provide the insurgents with refuge and allow them to organise on its territory and in Lebanon, hoping to cultivate a political lever in its dealings with Turkey." (David Romano, The Kurdish Nationalist Movement: Opportunity, Mobilization And Identity, Cambridge University Press, 2006)

In August 1984 the PKK declared its upsurge, launching attacks on Turkish military facilities. It  maintained guerrilla warfare for the rest of the 1980s.

It was never able to create liberated zones, although it seems to have aspired to them, and guerrilla units had to stay on the move.

The PKK was under a certain amount of ideological influence from the Soviet bloc while that existed.

It declared its first cease-fire with the Turkish state in 1993. Ocalan claims that this was because signs of an opening in the attitude of Turkish leaders were detected, but it is also possible that the loss of the Soviet bloc in confronting NATO member Turkey contributed to some decline in self-confidence.

Repeatedly declared PKK cease-fires were never respected by the Turkish state. (At the symbolic level, the PKK removed the hammer and sickle from its flag in 1995, replacing them with a burning torch.)

The PKK and other opponents of the Turkish state confronted the full panoply of dirty war tactics, including torture and "disappearances". By the latter part of 1998, Turkey's government was threatening war with Syria for harbouring the PKK.

That Ocalan and other PKK leaders had long been based in Syria was scarcely a secret but in that year, probably with American assurances of backing if they did go to war, the Turkish authorities made it an issue.

The Syrian government told Ocalan to leave, and he was eventually captured in Kenya, probably with US and Israeli collaboration, and taken to custody in Turkey. He was sentenced to death but under European Union pressure this was commuted to an aggravated life sentence.

Although not destroyed by the capture of Ocalan, the Kurdish nationalist movement was severely damaged, and was in the doldrums until after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which, by destroying Saddam Hussein's Baathist state, created new openings for Kurds.

The PKK gradually began to replace or supplement its Syrian presence (which probably remained in at least a vestigial form even after the departure of Ocalan) with a substantial presence in northern Iraq.

Low-level guerrilla warfare continued even though the "moderate Islamist" AKP government seemed to offer an opening to Kurds, at least culturally, and appeared willing to tackle some of Turkey's Kemalist shibboleths.

In addition to the guerrilla effort, there have been a range of political parties in Turkey which stand in elections, generally with some success in the mainly Kurdish south-east. These parties have generally been banned after a time as being allegedly extensions of the PKK. After banning, they re-emerge under a new name.

More than previous governing parties, the AKP tried to be competitive in Kurdish areas, for example Tayyip Erdogan was elected to parliament in 2003 from the heavily Kurdish area of Siirt, and using Sunni Islam the AKP has tried with some success to make inroads in areas where people tended to vote for Kurdish nationalists.

Kurdish nationalists and the AKP spent a number of years in a complex relationship involving spasmodic warfare by the PKK, aimed at extracting concessions from the state, while the AKP made some cultural concessions, certainly compared to previous governments in Turkey, but maintained state pressure and repression and also tried to undermine Kurdish nationalists at the ballot box.

Turkish aircraft also periodically bombed PKK hideouts in northern Iraq.

The complexities of this period are well illustrated by the events of 2013, when discontent with AKP government behaviour turned an environmental protest in Gezi Park, central Istanbul, into anti-government turmoil that at its height involved millions.

Although Kurdish nationalists took some part in the protests, these were on a smaller scale in Kurdish areas than in many parts of Turkey, and Kurdish nationalist leaders spokespeople expressed some concern about CHP and other Kemalist involvement in the protests.

Kurdish nationalists appeared to believe that they might be able to reach a deal with the AKP in the "negotiation process" or "solution process" announced the same year.

This interview with Selahattin Demirtas, carried on Youtube, expresses the Kurdish nationalist dilemma.

On the one hand Demirtas talks about "AKP fascist" behaviour, and claims to support the Gezi protests, on the other he talks about the importance of the "negotiation process" which was initiated with the same AKP government.

The "process" reached its culmination in 2015, and also ran into the sand.

Headed by Demirtas, the HDP (Peoples' Democratic Party) had been set up as a kind of umbrella organisation which included some of the Turkish left, although its voting base was overwhelmingly Kurdish.

The HDP overcame the 10% electoral threshold and returned 80 members of the Turkish parliament at the June 7 election. It also deprived the AKP of an overall majority for the first time in its history.

However, instead of negotiating, the AKP and President Erdogan, shocked by its loss of an overall majority, made every effort to sabotage coalition talks with other parties, and when in July 2015 a bombing was carried out in the Turkish border town of Suruc, targeting volunteers seeking to carry out reconstruction work in neighbouring Kobane inside Syria, the AKP struck.

The bombing was attributed to Islamic State (as a result of AKP encouragement, Islamist armed groups involved in the Syrian civil war have found bases and sources of support in Turkey) but rather than attacking Islamic State the AKP government launched bombing raids on PKK bases in northern Iraq, and also arrested many Kurdish nationalists and left-wingers inside Turkey.

Ending a near-total cease-fire, the PKK struck back. In early September it carried out particularly successful ambushes of Turkish soldiers and police; the government retaliated by orchestrating pogroms against HDP offices and premises.

New elections were called - in October an HDP election rally in Ankara was attacked by a bomber, resulting in scores of deaths. The bombing was attributed to Islamic State but the suspicion is that the AKP/state forces connived at it, if they were not behind it in the first place, and it did mean that only the AKP, enjoying full state protection, was able to campaign openly in the elections and hold public rallies, gaining back its overall majority on November 1.

Brutal state repression is ongoing in Turkey's Kurdish south-east, and to a lesser extent in other parts of Turkey. Selcuk Kozagacli, the chair of the CHD (Contemporary Lawyers' Association), was interviewed by the German daily newspaper Junge Welt (January 20, 2016). Kozagacli was visiting Diyarbakir in the course of state repression there.

He said that Turkey was sliding towards "open civil war" as the state sought to create a "republic of fear".

What now for the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey?

Its tactics long seemed to be based on the idea that in the AKP it faced an adversary more capable of reciprocating and negotiation than the "secular" governments in Turkey before it.

In the early years of AKP rule there may have been some foundation for this belief.

But the rule of the AKP has faced challenges in recent years, its strategy of destabilising Syria has resulted in Turkey itself being destabilised, and the Kurds in Syria now control a substantial amount of territory just across the border from Turkey, despite the Turkish state's barely concealed fostering of Islamists like Islamic State and Al Qaeda as a counter to it.

The AKP's reply is to create a non-stop emergency climate - a response that is a product of both its own desperation and of the fascism in Turkey's political bloodstream, of which the AKP itself is a sign and symptom.

The Kurdish nationalist response has been to claim to want peace (which may play well in Europe but which the fascists they confront in Turkey would see as a sign of weakness) and to look to mediation or intervention from Europe and/or the USA.

Anti-imperialism has never been a strongly developed trait among Kurdish nationalists.

But there are no indications that the EU or the USA are abandoning their "strategic partner", Turkey.

What the Kurds need to do is pursue a revolutionary course, including an escalation of the armed conflict, if they want freedom from a fascistic government that will resort to any measure to stay in power.

Whether the Kurdish nationalist movement is capable of pursuing such a course, however, is doubtful.



Comrade Ibrahim Kaypakkaya on the Kurdish National Question (1972

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