Reports that the Turkish government plans to destroy the Kurdish movement in Turkey, similar to Sri Lanka’s crackdown on the Tamil Tigers, seem credible to Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who also cautions that any such operation is doomed to fail. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Demirtas also said Ankara’s security clampdown on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and increasing pressure on the HDP go hand in hand with efforts to suppress Kurdish self-rule in Syria, including the use of the Islamic State (IS) as a proxy. Demirtas asserted that Kurdish empowerment in the Middle East has reached a point of no return and that the international powers involved in the region should seek to develop strategic ties with the Kurds.
The HDP leader defended his recent visit to Russia, which Ankara condemned as “treason,” and said the Kurds had no intention of becoming a Russian tool in the ongoing crisis between Ankara and Moscow. Commenting on a visit to the United States in early December, he said the HDP has credibility in Washington, although he believes the United States would be bound to side with Turkey if it had to choose between Ankara and the Kurds.
A graduate of Ankara University’s law faculty, Demirtas began his career as a lawyer and served as head of the Human Rights Association’s Diyarbakir branch before entering politics. In 2010, he was elected chairman of the Peace and Democracy Party and retained this post when the HDP succeeded the party in June 2014. He quickly gained popularity beyond the Kurdish electorate in southeastern Turkey and ran in the 2014 presidential elections, winning 9.7% of the vote. In parliamentary elections held in June 2015, his popularity and charisma were instrumental in helping the HDP garner a historic 13.1% of votes. In the snap elections conducted in November, however, the HDP dropped to 10.7% amid renewed clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: After your visit to Russia, you were openly targeted by the government, including Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. You were accused of “treason.” Is Russia trying to use the “Kurdish card” against Turkey? What do you think is Moscow’s game plan, and where do you stand on this issue?
Demirtas: I had also visited Russia last year and met with the deputy foreign minister. No doubt, Russia has certain calculations and policies regarding the Middle East, Syria and Turkey. Yet, we do not have any outlook that would make us a tool of those policies, nor has Russia exhibited an approach to that effect. During our meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov specifically indicated that they did not see us as a “Kurdish card” in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. In any case, it’s out of the question for the HDP to enter into any relationship against Turkey. The prime minister and the government are criticizing the HDP’s diplomatic activities in a very emotional and childish manner through a policy aimed for domestic consumption. The government itself is eager to establish contact with Russia. It drives them crazy to see the HDP held in high regard at this time. In reality, they know very well that this is not and cannot be treason.
Al-Monitor: Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says ties with Russia are going to improve, but Russia keeps imposing sanctions. How are these bilateral tensions influencing Kurdish politics?
Demirtas: Turkey wants to mend fences with Russia. The AKP [Justice and Development Party] is, so to speak, eager to be a “traitor,” but Russia seems not to be in a hurry. [Moscow] wants to make the most of the grave mistake the AKP government committed. It doesn’t want to make do only with retaliation. They will pursue a process of sanctions extending over time to increase Russia’s influence in the Middle East and curb Turkey’s. Therefore, a cooling of tensions is not something that Russia really desires at the moment.
Al-Monitor: And what were the visit’s benefits for Kurdish politics?
Demirtas: Anywhere I go, I say the HDP is a party spearheading change in Turkey. That’s the basis on which we try to develop our relations. I also say it should be recognized that unlike in the previous century, the Kurds have become a political power and a political actor in the broader Middle East, and they will increasingly use this power toward liberation and sovereignty building. I say this in Turkey as well. In other words, developing strategic relations with the Kurds should become a goal for regional and international powers, because the Kurds and Kurdistan will be realities of the Middle East in the coming century.
The Kurds did not have a state in the preceding century. They failed to acquire any kind of sovereignty when the Middle East was carved up 100 years ago. Yet they didn’t fiddle the century away. They got organized, gained strength and raised their awareness, preparing well for the new century. States around the world have only recently begun to realize this. The United States began to notice the Kurds after the  invasion of Iraq, Russia with the Syrian war and Europe, especially Britain and Germany, only recently. The well-organized, impressive power of a people fighting IS effectively has gotten everyone’s attention, and everyone realizes that this power cannot be subjected to subjugation through a ploy like the Sykes-Picot agreement in the last century. No issue in Syria and Iraq is debated without Kurdistan today, and everybody is compelled to take this into account.
Al-Monitor: Some say the United States will opt for Turkey if it is forced to make a choice between Turkey and the Kurds. Is the Kurdish movement taking precautions against such a possibility?
Demirtas: That US-Turkish relations are very durable and cannot be easily broken is a fact. Everyone should bear this in mind when making their moves. The United States will definitely choose Turkey if it has to make a clear choice between Turkey and the Kurds. What matters here is to what extent the Kurds can stay on their feet through self-power [i.e., self-confidence]. There is no other way of taking precautions. The international coalition has actively supported the Kurdish forces in Syria, but a clear position is yet to emerge on whether or not this support will lead to [some sort of] status for the Kurds. The sensitivities of Turkey and Iran, in particular, are being taken into account by the United States and Russia. The only power balance that could break this is Kurdish self-power in Iraq and Syria. It would be naive to expect that the Kurds will acquire status by relying on international balances only. I do not see the Kurds as being naive and taking confidence from that — I say that for the Kurds nothing will be the same again.
Al-Monitor: What did you discuss with Russia at the height of tensions between Turkey and Russia?
Demirtas: The tensions between the two countries were caused not by the HDP, but the AKP’s madness. The Russian plane was not shot down under some parliamentary decision also approved by the HDP. The AKP made this decision alone, and the president and the prime minister even said they regretted it. They made some statements aimed at backpedaling. The HDP would be equally declared a traitor today if it went to Greece, Armenia or Iran or makes contact with Damascus or Baghdad. There is no neighboring country left with which Turkey remains on good terms. The Erdogan-Davutoglu team itself brought these relations to their current state. And we are not supposed to pursue a diplomatic policy dependent on or confined to the disarray they have caused in foreign relations. Yes, Turkey has been brought almost to a state of war with Russia, but we are not going to be a hostage of this misguided policy while the government itself is pleading [behind the scenes] to mend fences. With Lavrov, we discussed developments in the Middle East and Syria and the way the Kurds should be approached. There are many [Turkish] employees, employers and students in Russia, and we conveyed our views on their current situation and future. We expressed readiness to do our part to decrease the tensions between Turkey and Russia. It was a fruitful and positive meeting.
Al-Monitor: Was your trip to the United States similarly fruitful?
Demirtas: The United States wields influence in the Middle East, and our policies should have a perspective acknowledging this reality. It was neither the Kurds nor the HDP that invited the United States to the Middle East, but they are here. So, we cannot bury our heads in the sand. While in the United States, we tried to understand what the United States is trying to do [in the Middle East]. We conveyed the HDP’s proposed solutions concerning Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan and our policies on a democratic settlement in Turkey. We saw the Americans give credence to the HDP’s word in cases where there was a discrepancy between what we said and information they had received from the field. They now acknowledge the Kurds as an undeniable reality and power, developing their policies accordingly. The Kurds are not being steered by the United States; rather, the Kurdish struggle is shaping the United States’ Kurdish policy in the Middle East.
Al-Monitor: The Syrian Democratic Forces have crossed to the west of the Euphrates, which Turkey had declared a red line. Do you think Turkey can step back from this red line?
Demirtas: The Syrian Democratic Forces are conducting operations to the west of the Euphrates, and there are Kurdish forces among them. Turkey’s sensitivities on this issue have been expressed at the official level. It is pointless to stir this issue too much. The situation on the ground is what matters. In my opinion, this should not be turned into an issue of irritation in Turkey anymore. If Turkey doesn’t see this as the advance of the [Kurdish] People’s Protection Units [YPG], it’s pointless for us to insist on describing it as a YPG advance. Ousting IS from the region is what matters.
Al-Monitor: Why do you think IS has come to haunt the Kurds?
Demirtas: Erdogan describes IS as an international hit man and subcontractor, which is true. What Erdogan conceals, however, is that Turkey has an arm or a wing in this hit man-subcontractor organization, … a group waging a proxy war on Turkey’s behalf. I’m sure [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad, too, has occasionally used this organization. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, everyone, has waged a proxy war [in Syria]. Previously, it was Jabhat al-Nusra. These groups emerged from the Free Syrian Army [FSA], which all Western countries, and especially Turkey, have backed as a so-called moderate opposition. The FSA after a while shed the radical elements in its ranks, and they evolved into the current organizations — entirely with the support of myriad countries with schemes for Syria. Everyone has gotten IS to conduct attacks and operations that serve their own interests. Turkey has done this, too. Turkey has considerably supported and used IS. The IS assaults on the Kurds have served both Turkey and Assad’s interests, so Ankara and Damascus have remained silent on the issue.
Al-Monitor: Some claim the extensive operations currently targeting the Kurdish movement in Turkey are linked to developments in Rojava [term Kurds use to refer to western Kurdistan in Syria]. Do you agree?
Demirtas: These are processes that directly affect each other. The freedom drive and the victories against IS under the leadership of the [Kurdish] Democratic Union Party [in Syria] are making Turkey anxious. Turkey sees the existence of a Kurdish entity there [in Syria] as a future threat. Kurdish empowerment in Turkey is similarly perceived as a threat. So, a campaign of obstruction and repression is being waged against the Kurds in both Rojava and Turkey as part of the same plan. They used IS as a military force against the Kurds, but when they saw this was not very efficient, they put the army and the police directly into action in Turkey. A direct Turkish military intervention in Rojava is not possible at present, but they are seeking to keep the Kurdish movement busy inside Turkey and prevent the Kurds from focusing their attention and force on Rojava. We cannot say, however, that the war in Turkey is being waged only because of Rojava and the war in Rojava only because of Turkey. The two are mutually related.
Al-Monitor: There is talk of a “plan of destruction” — inspired by Sri Lanka’s annihilation plan against the Tamil Tigers — which allegedly seeks the total elimination of the Kurdish movement in Turkey. Is this just a rumor?
Demirtas: This has been reported in the press, and the government has not disputed it. The existence of such a plan seems quite credible, given that what’s going on at present is the implementation of pre-planned scenarios. The claims, I think, are very serious.
Al-Monitor: Comparing Sri Lanka and Turkey, what might be the outcome of such an operation?
Demirtas: In Sri Lanka, a grievous massacre was committed against the Tamil guerrillas and the people supporting them. In Turkey, the AKP would not hesitate to do the same if it had the power to do so. But Kurdistan is not Sri Lanka, and the PKK is not the Tamil Tigers. The AKP has neither the power nor the means to do the same, even if it wants to.