A turning point for Kurds across the Middle East

Kurds find themselves in the eye of a fast paced and changing storm in the Middle East. We travel to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party mountain stronghold in northern Iraq to get a first-hand take on a critical moment for the whole region.


Riza Altun, Kurdistan Communities Union executive member and co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). © Karlos Zurutuza

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast is witnessing, what is possibly, an unprecedented peak of violence. Fierce clashes between Turkish security forces and urban militants have levelled districts to the ground. The ongoing post-coup crackdown in Turkey targets Kurdish political representatives as new fronts also open for Kurds across the Middle East. ‘It’s a turning point for our people,’ says Riza Altun from the headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Qandil mountain range.

The whole Middle East region is in turmoil. How are the Kurds coping with this scenario?

The Kurds have actually come to the forefront of the political agenda. In Iraq they enjoy a federal status and in Syria they have enforced self-rule through a system of cantons.

In Iran we are witnessing a lot of democratic developments and changes are also visible Turkey where, under the leadership of the PKK, the Kurds have proved a legitimate political force.

With the disintegration of the status quo in the Middle East and the struggle against Islamic terrorism, the Kurds have presented themselves as a reliable alternative.

On the negative side, we are facing the dire consequences of the support that foreign powers give to regional regimes. Some Arab countries, and particularly Iran and Turkey are against the gains of the Kurds. That the USA, Russia and the EU have not revealed their policy toward the Kurds poses a major threat.

Kurds have enforced a self rule in the northern parts of Syria.

Karlos Zurutuza

Can you elaborate on this?

Russia follows a policy of securing local regimes and the US seeks its own interest in the region through NATO. These two key international powers follow a tactical relation with the Kurds but they keep their ties with the regimes.

The US allowing Turkey to invade Syria, and Russian support for the regime in Damascus shows that these powers follow a policy of strategically interacting with regional states.

However, tensions between Ankara and the Kurds have escalated over the last months and a number of Kurdish towns have been levelled to the ground. Couldn’t this have been avoided had the PKK not broken the ceasefire with the killing of two policemen in Ceylanpinar, in July 2015?

Our hypothesis is that those two policemen were killed by people who acted on their own, without informing us. However, the current scenario cannot be explained just by the killing of these two policemen.

Even recently, an AKP official declared that these two policemen were killed by Gülenists. The event has been used as a justification for the fight against the Kurds and also for the struggle against the Gülenist movement.

Looking back we can see that the presence of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in power is a new situation inside Turkey. They want to establish a new Turkey whose founding leader will be Erdogan and whose founding party will be the AKP; this against the background of the first republic, who’s founding leader was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. What is happening in Turkey now is that the first republic is coming to an end and the second republic is emerging.

The replacement of the Kemalist-nationalist regime by a moderate Islamist one is part of an international plan for Turkey and the region. Hadn’t it been for the support of the West and the USA, the AKP could not have come to power. Its internal policy was based on weakening the power of Kemalists and the army as well as by filling the power vacuum with its own assets.

All this has to be addressed within the wider framework of the reshaping of the Middle East. Back to the two policemen, I can assure you that several Turkish security officials were killed before them but the actions weren’t highlighted by the state and the media.

But you dug trenches and set up checkpoints manned by armed people in several Kurdish areas of Turkey. Many claim you brought the war to the cities.

We’re a 40-year old freedom movement which vows for democratization in Turkey and the solution of the Kurdish question. We do not accept the legitimacy of a regime which refuses to accept these terms. This said, it’s not accurate to blame the YDG-H (a Kurdish youth movement) for the destruction of our cities.

The community is entitled to defend itself against AKP’s aggression. It wasn’t a plan drawn by the PKK but a measure taken by the people which got the support of both the YDG-H and the PKK.

PKK co-founder Riza Altun served 13 years in Turkish jails and was also imprisoned in France in 2007.

Karlos Zurutuza

When we compare the results of the Turkish elections in June and November we come across a sharp fall in the results of the pro-Kurdish political forces in Turkey. Are decisions in Qandil taken without taking into account their impact on the political arena in Turkey?

The HDP (Peoples' Democratic Party) got 13 percent of the votes in the June elections, something which prevented the AKP from gaining the majority to form a government.

After the power vacuum that followed the election process there were only two feasible ways. The AKP could have opted for solving the Kurdish question through democratic means but they preferred to establish a fascist regime that would try to erase its opposition.

From 7 June to 1 Nov, the HDP was not able to conduct an election campaign; offices were burned and/or raided and political rallies forbidden. A number of HDP members were arrested, banners and posters were outlawed and Kurdish political representatives could not speak on TV.

The whole situation was worsened by a chain of bomb attacks in Suruc, Ankara, Diyarbakir… This is the atmosphere of terror that hampered the results of the HDP and democratic forces in the November elections.

Kurds claim they have made significant moves toward peace with Turkey such as removing their troops from Turkish soil and releasing prisoners.

Karlos Zurutuza

You mention those attacks but those committed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons have caused several civilian casualties recently. What's your relation, if any, with them?

It's widely known that there may be former PKK members within their ranks but I want to underline that we have no organic link whatsoever with them. They accuse us of passivity while they present themselves as a group which vows for more radical actions.

Doesn’t the failed coup in July 2016 prove that Turkey is really facing, growing, existential threats?

There are a lot of obscure points to understand. We acknowledge that there was a coup orchestrated by Gülenists and Kemalists. The West and the USA also had a share in the coup but it was not too strong.

However, everything developed under the eyes of Erdogan. It’s hard to imagine he wasn’t aware of what was going on. Erdogan used the coup as a justification to enforce his own coup, in order to curb all opposition against Erdogan, who finally managed to accomplish all what he had been intending to achieve.

Hundreds of thousands of people were purged; from lawyers to teachers, from NGOs to trade unions. He got rid of every element labelled as hostile. Kurdish co-mayors were arrested and replaced with appointed trustees and they managed to silence the democratic media.

A PKK fighter holds his position in the Kirkuk front against ISIS.

Karlos Zurutuza

Erdogan recently said that Turkey would not allow Sinjar district to become another Qandil. Is that your goal?

Sinjar is a part of Kurdistan where people suffered a genocide attempt so we feel the responsibility to protect them from being massacred. Over the last two years we have been able to defend Kurds in many places such as Rojava, Kirkuk, Sinjar, Makhmur… But now the AKP regards PKK and the Kurdish struggle as the main obstacle to fulfil its dreams of one-man rule under Erdogan. Now we’re fully aware that Turkey is planning to conduct military operations in Sinjar and Qandil soon.

You have consistently denounced the tactical relation between Masoud Barzan, President of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Erdogan. But you do collaborate with Peshmerga forces on the ground. Isn’t this a contradiction?

We are facing profound and intense tensions because of Barzani’s policies. His strategic relation with Ankara is going to bring about very serious threats for the Kurds. Despite these threats, we are not for an internal fight among the Kurds as we’re going through a period which has witnessed lots of gains for the Kurds. If we unite we will succeed but Barzani’s ties with Ankara are an obstacle for Kurdish unity. We want Barzani to align with the Kurds, and not with Turkey.

What will Trump’s victory mean for the Kurds and Middle East?

The change of president may lead to some tactical changes but not necessarily to strategic ones. What we know is what Obama did. He stuck to an imperialistic policy, it’s never been about enforcing democracy or anything that can be beneficial for the people in the region.

They have created tensions among different actors to ensure their own security through chaos and instability. Let me give you an example: Washington is helping the YPG (People's Protection Units) from the air in its fight against ISIS while it gives full-fledge support to Turkey to invade Jarabulus – northern Syria – something which poses a threat to Kurdish gains in their struggle against Jihadists.

Whether it is America or Russia, It is impossible for a hegemonic power to be democratic. I don’t understand American internal policies but their foreign policies have proved fatal for the people and have nothing to do with democracy.

If you want to know more about Kurdistan, read the other exclusive interviews for New Internationalist:

Zagros Hiwa, the first point of contact for reporters looking to cover the Kurdish guerrilla movement: The face behind the PKK story

Macer Gifford, the British currency trader who left all to join the Kurdish front line: ‘My revolution across Syria and beyond’

Bese Hozat, female co-leader of the Kurdistan Communities Union: ‘Freedom can’t be contained by a wall’