Osman Ocalan has a long and occasionally chequered history with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, a group that has been fighting for independence in Turkey for years, in an ongoing conflict that has seen tens of thousands of both Turkish and Kurdish people die. In fact, the PKK is categorised as a terrorist organisation by some Western nations.
Osman is the brother of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK who has been in a Turkish prison since 1999, and who is almost a figure of worship and certainly of inspiration for many Kurdish people. The Kurdish are the largest ethnic group in the world with no homeland and a “greater Kurdistan” would incorporate parts of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, where Kurdish-majority populations live.
Osman was one of the early members of the PKK and he was senior in its ranks. But he has also been highly critical of the party at various times and was even imprisoned by them. Osman withdrew from the PKK about nine years ago and he now lives on the outskirts of the Iraqi Kurdish capital city, Erbil.
He no longer holds any kind of position, military or political, in the PKK. Nonetheless when NIQASH arrived for this interview, there were armed men guarding his property.
During the exclusive interview that followed, Osman spoke about how the world's perceptions of the PKK have changed since the hardened guerilla fighters, who tended to live in the nearby mountains, started battling the extremist group known as the Islamic State. He also spoke about why the PKK's allegiances skew toward the country's Shiite Muslims, the peace process in Turkey and when he thinks his brother may be released.
NIQASH: The PKK's military wing has played a well publicized role in the current fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Do you think that's helping to change perceptions of the group in Europe and in the US?
Ocalan: The war against the IS group has presented new opportunities for the Kurdish people and for the PKK. It's an opportunity for the PKK to change international perceptions of it. In the past we tried to change this but we were unsuccessful. The PKK needs to work on its political struggle, as well as its military struggle. It needs to improve its relationships with other countries. But this cannot happen unless the party changes its politics.
NIQASH: So in your opinion, how does the US and Europe see the PKK since August 2014, when the fighters really began to engage with the IS group in places like Kobani and when they saved civilian lives in other areas like Sinjar?
Ocalan: The US and the PKK are now on the same front in this war against extremists. That's made the US – and Europe – see the PKK in a new light. It's true that neither of those are ready to take the PKK's name off the list of terrorist groups but there has certainly been more rapprochement.
Twenty years ago I asked the PKK to improve its relationships with the US and with Europe because I knew one day we would have to work together with them. I advised the party to change its policies – but it didn't. Now after 20 years, it's finally started to do this. But if it had done that earlier, as I advised, the group's name wouldn't be on that list today.
NIQASH: so you think that the PKK will soon be taken off that list of terrorist groups?
Ocalan: The PKK can make use of the situation today to be identified as a force against terrorism. But this requires a long struggle. Europeans wouldn’t make such a decision that quickly and not just because the IS group has managed to change the PKK's image. Europe will need time.
NIQASH: What can you tell us about the PKK's current status as a military and political entity?
Ocalan: During the last two years, the PKK has become a very strong party, with an army of around 10,000 fighters in western Kurdistan [Syria]. The peace process with Turkey has also made it stronger. I would describe the past two years as the PKK's most golden years since the party was founded.
NIQASH: And how would you describe the relationship between the PKK and the current Iraqi government?
Ocalan: The PKK has become part of the Shiite Muslim movement [here in Iraq] and in particular, there is a strong Alawite stream inside the party.
NIQASH: Is that because of senior PKK member, Cemil Bayek? He's an Alawite himself?
Ocalan: No. Cemil Bayek's parents are not Alawites, but he was influenced by that culture because he lived in Syria, Iran and Lebanon for a long time. So he's seen as an Alawite personality. However it was [another senior PKK member] Mustafa Karasu, who built up those relationships. This has taken the PKK closer to Iran and I believe the party now has friendly relations with Iran, al-Assad [President of Syria, also an Alawite] and al-Abadi [Prime Minister of Iraq, a Shiite Muslim].
NIQASH: Is that why the PKK does not fight Iran, where there is also a significant Kurdish population?
Ocalan: As I mentioned earlier, the PKK is on the side of the Shiites in this region. The PKK and the PUK [the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of Iraqi Kurdistan's biggest political parties] are also on this side.
NIQASH: Do you think that the PKK wants to be seen as the leading power in all of the parts of what would be Kurdistan – that is in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran – if Kurdistan were an actual country?
Ocalan: Yes, the Party wants this. It works with centralised power so for that reason alone, it doesn't believe that any other political forces should be present. It wants authority in all four parts of [what would be] Kurdistan. When they talk about unity and nationalism, they only mean that everybody should belong to the PKK.
NIQASH: In that case, what sort of position does the PKK occupy in Iraqi Kurdistan?
Ocalan: The PKK has a role to play in Iraqi Kurdistan on both the political and the military level. But the people who live here, they have been struggling for many years too and they too are clever and have experience. They love the PKK and they love the PKK's leader but they themselves do not necessarily want to be part of the PKK. They have drawn a boundary between themselves and the PKK.
They love the idea of the PKK as a force for their struggle but they don't want the PKK to rule over them – because their systems are so different. That's why I don't think the PKK can become so strong here.
NIQASH: Finally, what are your thoughts on the peace process in Turkey: Is it really happening?
Ocalan: Firstly, the leader is serious about the peace process in Turkey; its a strategic issue for him. It is also linked to his own life because it could lead to his release. However the Turkish state isn't serious. It wants to resolve the issue of the PKK but it doesn't want to tackle the Kurdish issue. Thats where the aims of Turkey and of Ocalan differ - and that is why the PKK leadership doesn't believe Turkey is serious about solving these issues.
NIQASH: Ocalan called for a ceasefire in 2013 and for the PKK to put down their weapons, and he's repeated that recently. Do you think this will happen?
Ocalan: The leader was talking about the military struggle in Turkey, not about simply putting down weapons. If Turkey decides to start solving their Kurdish issues, the PKK would end its military struggle in Turkey. The Kurds can become a very powerful political force in Turkey.
NIQASH: Some say that the PKK respects Ocalan's opinions but they don't necessarily do everything he says.
Ocalan: Not everything Ocalan says is implemented by the PKK immediately but ultimately the party abides by his decisions. He is the most important person in the party and there is nobody to replace him.
NIQASH: Do you expect him to be released sometime soon?
Ocalan: Things are not yet clear. Perhaps he will be kept in prison – or in a form of imprisonment – for another two years. If the peace process goes ahead in Turkey then I imagine he might be released in 2018.