BRUSSELS — Landmark presidential and parliamentary elections that will determine the future course of Turkey, a major regional power and a critical member of the NATO alliance, are due to take place on May 14.
Turkey will either continue its downward spiral into economic decline and authoritarianism as it drifts ever closer to Russia under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or shift back toward the democratic path and economic orthodoxy under a new government. For the first time after more than two decades of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, the opposition led by Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has a shot at winning both races. However, it can only do so with the support of Turkey’s third-largest faction, the Kurdish-led People's Democratic Party (HDP).
One of the biggest challenges currently facing Kilicdaroglu is how to secure the HDP’s backing without alienating nationalists within his own party, the six-party opposition alliance known as the Table of Six, and the broader public.
The HDP is facing closure on the grounds that it takes its cues from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a claim HDP leaders deny. Scores of HDP lawmakers have been prosecuted and jailed on those same charges, together with democratically elected HDP mayors who were ejected from office and replaced by government appointees.
There is no denying that broad swaths of the HDP’s electorate harbor varying degrees of sympathy for the PKK, support that dips and peaks depending on the level of state repression. There are few families in the predominantly Kurdish southeast region who do not have relatives, either distant or close, jailed for alleged links to the PKK or for fighting in their ranks.
What the PKK and its affiliates have to say about politics still resonates with many ordinary Kurds.
The challenge facing the HDP is having to take those views into account while setting clear boundaries with the Abdullah Ocalan-inspired movement.
In recent years the HDP’s own success, scoring a record 13.2% of the vote in the June 2015 elections under its now-jailed former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, inspired new generations of Turks and Kurds in Turkey and the diaspora alike.
Direct peace talks between the Turkish state and the imprisoned PKK leader and a mutually observed cease-fire ignited hopes for lasting peace. However, the talks collapsed in 2015 and two and a half years of cease-fire ended in July that year. A historic opportunity was squandered over Erdogan’s personal ambitions, PKK overreach and state paranoia over Kurdish gains in neighboring Syria.
The Turkish army has since escalated its war against the PKK using its fleet of killer drones to target top-level cadres in Iraq and Syria. Since 2016, Turkish forces and their Sunni opposition proxies have carried out three major ground offensives against the PKK’s Syrian allies: The People’s Protection Units (YPG), which form the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The PKK is on the defensive in Iraq. Its operational capacity inside Turkey has been curtailed. The PKK’s urban uprising in 2015 that led to the leveling of entire neighborhoods across the southeast alienated many Kurds. Recruitment within Turkey has reportedly waned.
Despite concerted campaigns to get delisted, the PKK remains formally designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
For all such setbacks, the Ocalan-inspired Kurdish movement has expanded into a global network spanning several continents, with its sympathizers holding municipal and parliamentary seats in European towns and capitals and organizing on university campuses in the United States. The success of the YPG’s women fighters against the Islamic State catapulted them to universal acclaim and partnership with the US-led coalition that defeated the jihadis’ proto-caliphate in Syria, with the PKK effectively working with US forces on the ground.
However, global attention is now focused on the war in Ukraine and many Kurds worry that the United States may eventually withdraw its forces from Syrian Kurdistan or “Rojava,” leaving the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration there exposed. Would a change in government in Ankara accelerate the unravelling of the US-SDF partnership as the United States seeks to turn a new page with Turkey? The question is a pressing one.
Amid such uncertainties, the PKK’s military and civilian leaders are plotting a new course.
On Feb. 10, citing humanitarian grounds, the PKK declared that it was calling a unilateral cease-fire in the wake of the massive earthquakes that devastated Turkey’s southern region on Feb. 6. Coming just months before the elections, the cease-fire has broader implications and PKK leaders acknowledge that their main focus remains Turkey.
To discuss all these developments, Al-Monitor sat down separately with the two top civilian leaders of the Ocalan-led political and military organization, Zubeyir Aydar and Remzi Kartal, in Brussels on March 9. Their assessments were measured, their tone moderate — a far cry from the rigidly ideological rhetoric that is commonly espoused by the PKK’s commanders in the field. Their message was clear: Erdogan is not interested in peace with Turkey’s Kurds, and Turkey urgently needs a change in government.
The second interview, presented here, is with Remzi Kartal, a former member of the Turkish Parliament whose formal title is co-chair of the Kurdistan People’s Congress.
The following is the text of the interview that was conducted in Turkish and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Al-Monitor: How would you describe your relationship with the United states?
Kartal: The United States has traditionally backed Turkey’s Kurdish policies. This is true of NATO as well. Reducing your question to relations with the PKK does not give us the full picture. There are approximately 25 million Kurds currently living inside Turkey. Under Turkish law, the Kurds do not formally exist. The modern Turkish Republic was erected a century ago with the Lausanne Treaty on the basis of the denial of the Kurds’ existence. Turkey is a country of strategic importance and it conducted relations with foreign powers on the basis of this denial. This denial extends to the Kurds beyond its own borders. Turkey was successful in imposing its views, in getting foreign governments to go along with it. But from 2015 onwards, this policy began to face major challenges and this is reflected in its relations with foreign nations.
Al-Monitor: It is common knowledge that in the early days of the fight against the Islamic State, PKK commanders and fighters were on the ground alongside US-led coalition forces and that they were doing the heavy lifting. It is also common knowledge that many of the senior leaders in the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria and in the Syrian Democratic Forces were part of the PKK or the broader Abdullah Ocalan-led Kurdish movement. Since 2014, when the SDF-US alliance was first forged, these people have been in daily contact with US military officials, diplomats and aid workers. You are a left-wing organization with an anti-capitalist ideology. Has your daily exposure to Americans affected your worldview? Has your exposure to modern US weapons influenced your military concept at all?
Kartal: Without question, America’s regional policies have a direct impact on regional countries, and foremost on the Turkish and the Kurdish peoples and therefore on the Kurdistan freedom movement. Particularly, the developments you described in Rojava, however, cut both ways. The Kurds have had a very important impact on US policy as well because the PKK has undergone very important changes. Ideologically, the PKK started off as a Marxist-Leninist movement, a national liberation movement against the system of denial and destruction in Turkey. But over time, organizationally and ideologically the movement experienced significant shifts. In practical terms, this is most visible in Rojava, where different ethnic and religious groups — Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Yazidis — were embraced and governed under a new system that promotes women’s freedom and equality and advocates the democratic rights of the individual over those of the state.
Despite the full might of the US-led coalition’s air campaign, the Islamic State would have continued to exist and expand in the absence of an effective ground force. Inspired and motivated by Abdullah Ocalan’s democratic nation project and in the face of adversity from Turkey, the Syrian regime and countless jihadi militias, our people succeeded in defeating the Daesh monster and in insulating not only Syria but the region from the Salafist threat as a whole.
Interactions over this period, be they military, diplomatic or political, between our movement, the Rojava Administration and the United States have influenced both sides and indirectly led to a better mutual understanding between the United States and the PKK. For example, the PKK continuously passes along messages to the US government, urging it to formulate regional policies that promote a resolution of the Kurdish question in a democratic way.
Al-Monitor: How are these messages passed along? Does the SDF transmit them?
Kartal: The PKK writes directly to the American government as well.
Al-Monitor: And those messages reach the American government?
Kartal: Without question!
Al-Monitor: Do you, Remzi Kartal, communicate directly with the Americans?
Kartal: No, but the Kurdistan Communities Union’s executive council communicates with them through political and diplomatic channels. And we receive messages from the United States.
Al-Monitor: A common view articulated by Kurdish leaders and activists, certainly in the Rojava Administration, is that the United States and the EU should pressure Turkey to make peace with the Kurds. Do you agree that the intervention of third countries can be of benefit?
Kartal: We do not believe the intervention of international actors is helpful. To the contrary, the United States, Russia, Iran and other regional powers conduct their policies on the basis of the continuation of the Kurdish conflict. Abdullah Ocalan has repeatedly told the Turkish state and the Turkish government, “The resolution of the Kurdish conflict is yours and our business.” Foreign powers, its allies exploit the Kurdish issue to render Turkey more dependent on themselves. They pour oil onto the fire selling arms. But when Turkey embarks on the path of change, of democratization, then those same powers embrace that change for their own interests. Neither America nor Europe will stick its hand in this fire purely for the good of Turks or Kurds. But ultimately, it is Turkey that creates this environment.
Al-Monitor: Should the United States pull out of Syria, will your movement continue to maintain the relations that you described?
Kartal: The Rojava Administration will need to make that decision. I cannot respond on their behalf. That said, the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria will undoubtedly want to pursue its relationship with the United States. But for now, this is all speculative. There is no question of the United States withdrawing at this time. On the contrary, while the United States is actively seeking to contain Russia, it will not leave Syria to the Russians and Iran.
Al-Monitor: Would a change in government in Turkey change the US calculus?
Kartal: I don't believe so. Whether the opposition comes to power or Erdogan remains, the status quo is unsustainable. Turkey is obliged to back away from its policy of aggression against the Kurds.
Al-Monitor: You mean that the Turkish government’s objections to the US presence will fade?
Kartal: Allow me to explain. The Kurdish question, the struggle for Kurdish freedom, has reached a new level. Starting in 2014, and with the defeat of Daesh, the Turkish state fell into deep panic. It abandoned the peace process, which was never sincere to start with, and swiftly began preparations for war. Kurdishphobia is deeply ingrained in the Turkish state since its foundation. No politician can ever breach the Turkish state’s red lines.
Al-Monitor: But under Erdogan, the Turkish state held direct talks with the PKK and Abdullah Ocalan for the first time.
Kartal: It’s true that Erdogan is an important figure. At the beginning he had the support of Europe, the United States. But after his power struggle with the Fethullah Gulen fraternity, which also took a stance against the Kurds and the peace process, Erdogan capitulated to the state. The Gulenists were purged. Erdogan began attacking the Kurds, the PKK, and ensuring that a new Iraqi Kurdistan would not emerge in Syria. All the state’s capital was invested in this fight. But today the alliance that pushed those policies has crumbled because they failed. The one-man system under Erdogan failed.
But it would be misleading to pin all this solely on Erdogan. This is a result of the entire system being mobilized to roll back Kurdish gains using Erdogan, an Islamist, a man with influence in the region as a figurehead. Today, the deep state actors who were unified in this mission around the National Security Council are now split. Because their plan failed. International capital has fled Turkey and been replaced by mafia money, dirty money. Turkey is mired in gangs, corruption. The economy is tanking. There is societal collapse. There is no independent media or judiciary. No oversight. Closer relations with Putin. … Terrible relations with America, including sanctions on military sales.
Al-Monitor: The splintering of these deep state actors, as you call them, is surely a good thing?
Kartal: Yes. In the past the CHP used to support the state in its policies against the Kurds. It voted in favor of parliamentary motions to deploy troops to Syria.
Al-Monitor: It no longer does, though. The CHP has since 2021 voted against these motions.
Kartal: Faced with this terrible picture there are those in the deep state who are saying, “We need to reverse this situation, we need to rescue this country,” and are behind the opposition.
Al-Monitor: Are you suggesting that should the opposition come to power, it will be mere window dressing, with the deep state still in charge?
Kartal: No. These actors have come to realize that this one-man system is not working, that it's dragging Turkey into ruin. That it is crucial to revert to the democratic path, not because they necessarily believe in democracy but in order to salvage the country. That shift is very important for us.
Al-Monitor: But who are you referring to, precisely? More rational, thoughtful figures in the state? I know that there are various segments of the military, for example, who feel deep unease over their presence in northern Syria and dealings with the extremist Sunni Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Kartal: Precisely, I am referring to a convening of rational minds inside the state who want to pull Turkey back from the brink.
Al-Monitor: Let’s say the opposition comes to power. They will inherit a mess. But at the same time, the military tutelage system has been shattered under the AKP. That’s a positive, right, in terms of reverting to a democratic path? It gives them a head start of sorts?
Kartal: To some extent, perhaps. The fracturing of the deep state actors, as I described, is a good thing for democracy. But the opposition alliance lacks a firm democratic spine. These parties are all part of the state system. The state mindset needed to change. And the very deep crisis the country is faced with appears to have forced such a shift. This needs to be consolidated.
In any transition phase that is likely to ensue with a change in government, we as a movement will take all necessary steps to ease Turkey’s recovery, to ease moves towards democratization, just as we did following the earthquake by declaring a unilateral cease-fire.
Al-Monitor: In the future, if all the conditions that led to the emergence of the PKK were eliminated and political amnesty granted, would a lasting peace be possible?
Kartal: There is an extremely big difference between Abdullah Ocalan passing away in prison and doing so outside prison. Abdullah Ocalan is the key to peaceful coexistence between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people. This presents a huge opportunity to the Turkish state. The state must see this. [If he were to die in prison,] this would create a huge reaction, deep anger and alienation among our people.
Al-Monitor: Does this hold true for the younger generations?
Kartal: Absolutely. The younger generation is far more radical.
Al-Monitor: Why do you think the Turkish authorities have cut all communication between Ocalan and the outside world?
Kartal: This is in line with their policy of total annihilation of the Kurdish movement and the espousal of the so-called “military solution” to the Kurdish question. When Ocalan was still allowed to communicate with the outside world, he had said, “Just give me one week to solve the Kurdish problem and I will.” And it is true. He can. Because he possesses that intellectual heft and retains that sort of influence over society.
Al-Monitor: What I gather from your words is that you don’t believe there can be lasting peace with Ocalan still in prison?
Kartal: The resolution of the Kurdish problem in concert with Abdullah Ocalan will not only bring democracy to Turkey, it will elevate Turkey to strategic power status beyond its own region.
Al-Monitor: One final question: What is the PKK’s stance on the protests in Iran sparked by the death of Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini?
Kartal: We, as the PKK, believe that Iran should not repress popular opposition in this way. To the contrary, it should pay heed to the people’s demands and should approach social problems in a democratic way, also for the sake of its own security. We are on the side of popular resistance and popular solidarity. Iran’s current policies are unsustainable. You cannot suppress popular resistance by killing people, by executing them. This movement is not just rooted in Eastern [Iranian] Kurdistan but is spread across the country and it is extremely significant. Women are in the lead and are shattering the narrow ethno-nationalist narrative that seeks to sow division among the peoples of Iran, be they Persians, Kurds, Balochis, Azeris and so on. Women are building bridges, planting the seeds of peace. Jin Jiyan Azadi [Women Life Freedom].