The position of the Kurds regarding the Syrian crisis raises a number of questions. This is especially so given the vague statements of the Kurdish factions and the crisis' military and political complexities at the local, regional and international levels.
However, this vagueness becomes a mystery when it comes to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Multiple positions have been attributed to PKK leaders in the media, mainly the Turkish media, concerning an alliance or convergence of interests between the PKK and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for mutual tactical and strategic considerations, especially with respect to Turkey.
Turkey, along with the United States, has accused the Syrian regime of arming the PKK, an idea reinforced by messages frequently sent by PKK leaders — whether directly or through diplomatic channels — to Ankara and its allies, stating that the Kurdish fighters will not allow Turkey to intervene militarily in Syria. These statements often coincide with an escalation of operations by the PKK against the Turkish armed forces. Controversy over the role of the PKK has peaked in recent weeks amid news that Kurdish factions have gained control of some areas in Syria, and statements by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the Syrian regime has placed five cities in northern Syria in the custody of the PKK. The Turkish government has also been threatening to hunt down Kurdish rebels inside Syrian territory.
As-Safir explored the position of the PKK regarding the events in Syria through an interview with Bahoz Erdal, Syrian commander of the PKK's military wing. Due to the Kurdish commander’s situation on the ground, the interview was conducted via email, through an intermediary residing in Europe.
As-Safir: What is the position of the PKK regarding the crisis in Syria today?
Erdal: We are following the developments in Syria very closely. But we, the Kurdistan Workers Party, have not interfered in the Syrian affair so far. We support the revolution of the Syrian people and their aspirations for freedom and democracy, as well as the struggle of the Kurdish people in Syria to attain their national rights and democracy. However, we see that the fighting in Syria has gone beyond being a fight between the opposition and the authority. There is a direct intervention of regional and international powers in combat operations.
What is happening in Syria can be called “fighting in Syria and war on Syria.” We, the Kurdistan Workers Party, will not act as a proxy for any force in this conflict. We support the third party in this equation, meaning the struggle of the Syrian people — of all ethnicities, confessions and classes — to attain a decent life and achieve coexistence. We support an Arab and Kurdish brotherhood based on mutual respect.
As-Safir: What is your position on the Erbil meeting hosted by the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, with the aim of achieving a unified position of the Kurdish forces in Syria? On what do you agree or disagree with the other Kurdish forces in Syria regarding [the current security] developments?
Erdal: We consider the agreement reached by the parliament in western Kurdistan and the Kurdish National Council in Syria, and the formation of the Kurdish Supreme Committee, a historic step toward uniting the Kurdish ranks and developing joint methods of struggle. Through this agreement, the Kurds can play a leading role in the Syrian revolution. We, the Kurdistan Workers Party, support all the Kurdish parties in Syria, as long as they are struggling for a democratic pluralistic Syria and seeking to achieve the rights of the Kurdish people there.
As-Safir: Recent reports have talked about the Kurds’ control over their areas in Syria with the consent of the regime. How accurate is this? Do you think that the regime in Syria, through this move, wants to keep the Kurds out of the conflict, or pull them to its side in the confrontation with Turkey and the West?
Erdal: It is true that the political and civil-society organizations of the Kurdish people have taken over several Kurdish cities. They have started to work on establishing security in these cities, providing for the urgent needs of the people and organizing democratic, autonomous administrations. But to say that this has occurred with regime’s approval would be Turkish propaganda, which aims to raise suspicions about the struggle of the Kurdish people there, in order to create justifications and excuses for a Turkish military intervention. Everyone knows that the [Syrian] regime is in a critical position, and is finding great difficulty to retain even key cities in Syria, including Damascus and Aleppo. The Kurdish groups concerned have announced that this move primarily aims to prevent the Kurdish areas from turning into a battleground between the regular Syrian army and the Free Syrian Army groups.
As-Safir: What are the limits of your relationship with the Syrian National Council [SNC], the Free Syrian Army [FSA] and the other Syrian opposition forces?
Erdal: We, the PKK, are not a direct party in the Syrian crisis, and we do not have any relations with the SNC and FSA. However, we do not have a prior position toward any group in the Syrian opposition. Our position is based on the outlook of the forces concerned, over the future of Syria and the demands of the Kurdish people in Syria. But we are opposed to the Turkish guardianship over some groups of the Syrian opposition.
We believe that the Turkish intervention and the firm control over these organizations is the main reason behind the opposition's fragmentation, lack of unity and failure to reach a common future orientation that would respond to the requirements of the revolution and the Syrian community in all its categories.
As-Safir: Do you fear a foreign military intervention in Syria under the leadership of Turkey?
Erdal: At the moment, a lot of regional and international powers are coming into conflict in Syria. If we take into account Syria's strategic location from a historical and geographical viewpoint, we can conclude that the conflict is taking on a special and sensitive dimension. It is not easy for any regional state to opt for direct intervention in Syria, especially if this state is Turkey, which has historical ambitions in Syria. The despotic mentality of the Turkish authorities is working on the historical revenge for the Great Arab Revolt in World War I, and this mentality still believes that the Arab Revolt, in which Damascus was the most important center, is the reason behind the fall and division of the Ottoman Empire. I think that the Syrian people, including Arabs and Kurds, will not welcome the Turkish intervention, and we will not stand idly by in the event of any Turkish intervention that would affect the existence of our people and their rights within western Kurdistan.
As-Safir: How do you see the buffer-zone plan from a tactical and strategic viewpoint, and how will you confront such a scenario?
Erdal: There is talk in the media about buffer zones, but the issue is still nebulous. In other words, we do not know which areas these will include, where their borders will be, which forces will be responsible for protecting their security and what would be the aim of forming such a zone. However, we believe that any Turkish intervention, regardless of its pretext or cover, will further deepen the internal ethnic fight in Syria, thus foiling stability, security and peace in the region. Turkey's historical ambitions and Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government orientations are preventing Turkey from playing a neutral and constructive role in the Syrian revolution.
As-Safir: How did you perceive the presence of Turkish military forces on the border with Syria? And what are the repercussions and implications of such a presence on the military activities of the PKK?
Erdal: The Turkish military presence on the Syrian border reveals their true intention toward the Syrian people in general, and the Kurdish people in particular. The presence reflects the aggressive attitude toward the demands of the Syrian people and their aspirations to freedom and decent living. However, we would like to stress that the escalation of our military operations in Turkey is neither linked to this crowd nor to the situation in Syria.
We have been fighting with arms for 28 years in order for 25 million Kurds in Turkey's Kurdistan to get their legitimate national rights. The escalation of operations in recent months is related to the hostile policy of the Erdogan government toward the struggle of our people in Turkey's Kurdistan. In fact, inhumane practices are taking place in the Imrali prison against our leader Abdullah Ocalan, even worse than those taking place in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Ocalan has been forbidden from seeing his lawyer and family for more than a year, and the number of Kurdish detainees, including MPs from the Turkish parliament, heads of municipalities, journalists and lawyers, has reached more than 10,000 during the last two years. There is organized terrorism on the part of the police against the peaceful demonstrations, and dozens of children and women have been killed. Moreover, there are wide and non-stop military scouting operations targeting our troops. Thus, the escalation of the combat operations pace adopted by our forces is the natural result of Erdogan's policy and a rightful response to the terrorist practices of the Turkish state.
As-Safir: How can the popular movement of the Arabs in general and the Syrians in particular affect the Kurdish issue?
Erdal: The Arab people's movement and the overthrow of dictatorial regimes contribute to solving the Kurdish issue in the region in general. The Kurdish people's escalation of their struggle is part of the general popular movement in the region. It paves the way for the reorganization of relations between the Kurdish people and the Arab world on the basis of brotherhood, co-existence and mutual respect of rights.
As-Safir: In case the Syrian crisis culminated in a civil war or in partition, will we witness a Kurdish self-rule similar to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq?
Erdal: We believe that democratic self-rule is the best way to solve the Kurdish issue in Syria and the cultural, religious and national diversity in Syrian society in general.
As-Safir: In case of the overthrow of the regime in Syria, what do you think a new regime will offer the Kurds?
Erdal: Whatever the outcome, the most important criterion for the democratization of Syria is the position on the demands of the Kurdish people in the country. There will be no stability and peace in Syria away from a democratic and pluralistic political system that takes into account Syria's religious, national and cultural diversity.