In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Cemil Bayik, the co-chairperson of the executive council of the Kurdistan Communities Union, a Kurdish political organization committed to implementing Abdullah Ocalan's ideology of democratic confederalism, and one of the leaders of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), makes clear that a Turkish vote on April 16 in favor of constitutional changes to give the Turkish president broad powers will only lead to instability; that the PKK is not afraid of intensifying the war if the Turkish government continues to refuse to negotiate a peace deal; and why Kurds are central to a peaceful and stable Middle East. Once again, the PKK calls on the international community, particularly the United States, to mediate between the Turkish government and the PKK and to resolve the Kurdish question in Turkey.
Bayik, a Kurd from Turkey, was born in 1952 in the province of Elazig. He is one of the founders of the PKK in 1978, and has been the backbone of the PKK ever since. He was appointed as deputy secretary-general, the No. 2 man of the PKK after Ocalan. Being the leader of the People's Liberation Army until 1995 (these days the PKK's military wing is called the People's Defence Forces, or HPG, led by Murat Karayilan) and the director of the Mahsum Korkmaz Academy, the PKK's training camp in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, made Bayik one of the top PKK military leaders, as well as an influential party thinker.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: The PKK has not responded as before, neither militarily nor through mobilizing the masses against the arrest of Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) leaders and the destruction of Kurdish villages and cities. Does it mean the PKK has lost credibility with the people? Why?
Bayik: The aim of the government's decision to wage the war on us was to suppress the Kurdish movement for freedom. Unfortunately, the Turkish state is using the most lethal methods in this war. One can gain firsthand knowledge by referring to the February report of the UN Human Rights Commission, which was covered by numerous international media outlets. It clearly points to a mass destruction of cities and the use of excessive force. These are facts that are unfortunately ignored by the world.
The PKK has not lost credibility with the masses. In fact, there are continuous breaks from the state. The state attempted to prepare alternative movements during its war to turn away our supporters from us, but people who break away from the state don't join those organizations. Those movements have not shown any results, which is a clear indication that the masses continue to support our movement for freedom.
Al-Monitor: How will the PKK respond if the "Yes" campaign wins the Turkish constitutional referendum?
Bayik: We will support any constitution that allows more freedom and strengthens democracy, which is our criterion to support constitutional changes. The draft constitution, if approved, will take Turkey in a completely opposite direction, which will benefit neither Kurds nor Turks. Therefore, if the referendum does not pass, it will halt the hegemonic trend, benefit Turkey's democratization and could create new opportunities for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem, for which we have repeatedly called but the Turkish government refuses to commit. However, if the "Yes" campaign wins the referendum, we believe the war — which was resumed on July 24, 2015 — will intensify. After the failed coup last year, the state of emergency was declared, which is nothing new. We saw the same development after the 1980 coup. We have been engaged in our struggle for 45 years, and various governments of Turkey have failed to suppress our movement.
Al-Monitor: You have called the European Union, the United States and the international community several times to mediate a resolution to the Kurdish issue. Have you received any responses? On the other hand, some believe Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may resume talks with Abdullah Ocalan in Imrali if he achieves his dreams of changing the Turkish system. Is there any hope?
Bayik: There is no doubt that the Kurdish question is gaining international attention, despite the Turkish government's intensified efforts to downsize our movement. The past political context, which necessitated certain powers to remain silent about the Turkish genocides against our people, no longer exists. Therefore, we call on all global powers to play a positive role and force Turkey to accept peaceful negotiations to the Kurdish issue. We have declared before that if Turkey is ready for a peaceful solution, the government may invite its allies to monitor the negotiations. This is still our approach, which Turkey continues to refuse and its allies have not taken the necessary steps to start negotiations. We are very optimistic that the new US administration, led by Donald Trump, can encourage Turkey to seek a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue. We are ready to engage any party that serves peace and stability.
In the past, in February 2015, we had accepted the Dolmabahce agreement, which laid the democratization groundwork for Turkey. Unfortunately, Erdogan refused it because of his presidential ambitions.
Al-Monitor: Is it possible to restart the peace process with the Turkish state at this point in time?
Bayik: The question should be directed at the Turkish government because we are always ready for peace. However, how can you have peace when the government continues to believe that there is no Kurdish issue? The Turkish government is opposed to Kurdish rights even in Syria, let alone in Turkey. Erdogan attempts to show that he is not opposed to Kurdish rights by having good relations with the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] in South Kurdistan [Iraq], but the main aim of his relationship with the KDP is to oppose the PKK. Imagine that entire towns in Northern Kurdistan [Turkey] are demolished; thousands of activists are jailed, including the co-chairs of the HDP. How would these kinds of acts lead to peace? They are forcing us to surrender. The dust may clear, but it will not lead to peace.
If the government refuses a peaceful solution, and the international powers remain silent, then we have no choice but to continue our resistance. If a strong resistance manages to defeat the policies of the AKP-MHP [Justice and Development Party-Nationalist Movement Party], the road to democratization will start. Democratization and peace are directly related to each other. There will be no peace, unless Turkey undergoes the process of democratization.
Al-Monitor: Recently, the political situation in Syria changed. Turkish-backed rebels withdrew from Aleppo, and afterward the Astana talks started. The Kurds were excluded from the talks, how do you assess those talks?
Bayik: Turkey failed to secure the backing of the coalition for its Syria policy. We did not expect lasting peace from the Astana talks. It is impossible to ensure any lasting peace for the Syria issue without including in the talks the Kurds and other minorities that are included in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS). The participants of the Astana talks lack popular support in Syria. They lack social, political and military influence. They are simply foreign collaborators. This is certainly not the case with the parties of the DFNS. They have strong grassroots, with religious and ethnic diversity. They include Arabs, Syriacs, Circassians, Turkmens, Christians, Muslims, Yazidis and others. The DFNS is becoming a strong entity of Syria that presents a new alternative to the problems of the region.
Again, we are optimistic that the Americans and Europeans are following the developments in Northern Syria because it will be in everyone's interests to ensure that it is empowered to achieve peace and stability to the bloodshed in Syria.
Al-Monitor: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned there have been negotiations between Syrian Kurds and the Syrian regime under Russian supervision. Do you think there will some kind of agreement with the Syrian regime?
Bayik: There is no doubt that the mentality of the previous Baath regime makes any solution impossible. The old regime had a centralist character and did not recognize the democratic rights of any communities. The same regime denied the rights of the Kurdish for a long time. Therefore, the struggle of the Kurds in Syria for their rights is in one way the struggle for the democratization of Syria. In that respect, the Kurds are struggling independently from the regime and other forces for the democratization of Syria. They are not after setting up a separate state. Their aim is to establish a democratic system in Northern Syria that is part of Syria.
With regard to reaching a resolution with the Syrian regime, it cannot be dealt with in a shortsighted approach. A solution to the Kurdish issue in Syria has not been possible with the regime so far. However, if the regime undergoes democratic changes and adopts a democratic platform for the future of Syria, then we can argue there is a change. If it happens, then a possibility of reaching a solution will emerge.
Al-Monitor: The Kurds work with Russia on the one hand and with the United States on the other hand. To what extent can the Kurds keep this strategy? You said many times that third-line strategy of the PKK is successful. This might be true for now; however, can this be sustained?
Bayik: The Kurds carry out a very legitimate cause; they are struggling against atrocities. When our leader Abdullah Ocallan was taken captive in Imrali, he stated that "we are carrying out a legitimate struggle. We will explain this to Europe, the United States, Russia, China and to Christians, Jews and anyone." In that respect, anyone can observe the situation in Rojava to witness the legitimate Kurdish struggle, which fosters coexistence of different religious and ethnic groups. Everyone is united against [the Islamic State] and agrees to work on democratizing Syria. The Kurds, with their liberal and democratic approach, are the basis of peace and stability in the region. The SDF will collaborate with any parties that seek a peaceful, stable and democratic solution to the region.
Al-Monitor: There is information that the constitutional draft during the Astana negotiations was prepared with the Kurds. Do you support the content of this constitution?
Bayik: The Kurds had no role in the draft constitution of Astana. In fact, the draft was criticized by many Kurds because it is not aligned with the Kurdish vision for Syria. The draft pointed to cultural autonomy, but the DFNS is much more inclusive and democratic, so the rights laid out in the draft constitution are insufficient. But when considering the past harsh treatment — such as assimilation, genocides, nonexistence — that the Kurds faced, having discussions about the rights of the Kurds in the constitution is a positive intention but insufficient. There should be a more democratic approach to the Syrian problem.
Al-Monitor: Some people think that Syrian Kurdistan will be an energy line to the Mediterranean Sea and this is the reason why Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia oppose the North Syria Federation. Does Turkey wage an energy war against you?
Bayik: Energy could be a factor, but the main aim is the fascist mentality of the Turkish government that opposes the rights of the Kurds. Besides, the Kurds have no aim in taking control of any energy corridors. While the Kurds want a fair distribution of the energy revenues, they are ultimately seeking a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue.
Al-Monitor: The word "Rojava" has been removed from DFNS, which was objected to by many Kurds. Did the PKK completely support the removal of the word "Rojava"? Does this mean that the PKK wants to end the claims of nationalism and make its own confederal approach dominant over all of the Middle East?
Bayik: According to us, the removal the word "Rojava" from the DFNS is not wrong because the federation is not composed of solely Rojava. There are also many Arab cities within DFNS. For instance, there are Shaddadah, Hol and other cities and districts. From this aspect, adding Rojava to DFNS caused wrong impressions. The removal of Rojava from there does not mean denial and removal of the existence of Rojava because DFNS includes Rojava too.
If we object to the name of the "Syria Arab Republic" because of the Arab label, how can we label DFNS as "Rojava"? However, Rojava is included in DFNS as an autonomous administration.
So, to answer your question about the PKK, removing Rojava from the federation name has nothing to do with the PKK's approach to nationalism. The PKK has no nationalist views. We are a liberal and confederation-seeking movement, based on a democratic nation.
The removal of Rojava from DFNS is not because the PKK thinks it is nationalistic. Because everyone knows that the PKK does not have an approach of nationalism. The line of the PKK is a liberal, confederal line; it is based on that line. If DFNS becomes a political entity based on the vision of Abdullah Ocalan, then it will be organized as a democratic society where women, men and all communities live and organize their lives in a coexisting society.
Al-Monitor: Trump is looking to work more closely with the Kurds. Are there any new developments in the US perception of the PKK?
Bayik: Only time will tell how the US approach to the PKK will develop. Recognizing the decency of coexistence in the Northern Syria Federation — which is completely in line with the vision of Abdullah Ocalan — but viewing the PKK as an enemy is not a good approach. We must be realistic because there are ideological differences between the PKK and the United States. However, we are witnessing political parties in the United States with different ideologies, debating their differences in the US Congress. We are certain that our political differences can be debated as well. Islamic radicalization is a much bigger threat to the world than the PKK’s ideology.
Let me be clear that the PKK has no interest in war. We are seeking peace. We are very optimistic that President Trump will play a positive role in encouraging Turkey to return to the negotiation table. We are ready.
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