After almost three years of a truce and peace talks between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, bombing runs by Turkish military last Friday may well have changed everything. The PKK has been fighting for Kurdish independence and rights 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.
Although there was supposed to be a truce between the Turkish and the PKK, last Friday Turkish planes bombed PKK positions in northern Iraq as well as launching missions to bomb the extremist group known as the Islamic State in Syria. As the BBC reported, “Turkey has turned its approach to the US-led coalition against IS on its head. Previously a reluctant partner, it is now flying combat missions and making its airbases available to US jets.”
While many welcomed the offensive against the Islamic State, or IS, group, the attacks on the PKK seemed more confusing. The PKK has actually been involved in fighting against the Islamic State in northern Iraq. And in Syria the PKK-associated movement has two wings, with the political side known as the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, and the military wing named the Popular Protection Units, or YPG – the latter also fight the IS group. Additionally bombing the PKK would most likely set off a new round of fighting between Turkish forces and the Kurdish guerilla fighters. There have already been several incidents.
NIQASH met with Damat Akeed, the spokesperson for the Foreign Relations Committee at the Kurdish Communities Union, a political body affiliated to the PKK in Iraq. In a wide ranging interview Akeed explained why he thinks the US seems to be supporting Turkey's attacks on the PKK, and why the US doesn't seem to mind the breaking of cease fire. He also talks about why Turkey's attacks on the PKK didn't really surprise anyone.
NIQASH: There has been a ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK for almost three years now. But this has now ended. In your opinion why has the situation deteriorated like this?
Damat Akeed: The fighting actually never completely stopped. But what has happened now is the Turkish government’s attempt to halt the peace process, because they don't have any real intention of giving the Kurdish people any rights. In fact, to this day, the Turkish government has done nothing for the Kurdish people in any area.
Additionally the Turkish government has been supportive of [the extremist group known as] the Islamic State. They thought that it would topple the Syrian government or the Iraqi government. But that didn't happen. Instead all three countries have been damaged.
NIQASH: So the end of the ceasefire and resumption of hostilities does not surprise you?
Akeed: Even before the Turkish elections [held mid-June] we were expecting fighting to start again. We knew that no matter how many votes the People's Democracy Party [or HDP, a political party described as a “Kurdish-Turkish, left-wing opposition party” by the BBC, with links to the PKK] won, the Turkish government was going to attack it. So we were prepared for that.
NIQASH: But some people here in Iraqi Kurdistan – including senior politicians like the President, Massoud Barzani, and the Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani – say that you started the fighting.
Akeed: This is not true. We did not start the fighting. We only want a peaceful solution to Kurdish problems and it is Turkey that does not want this.
The people you are talking about have never made a stand to condemn Turkey before, even while the Turkish military were killing and arresting us. They never asked why Turkey was doing this, why Turkey was jeopardizing the peace process like this? It's only now that they're making accusations and taking a stand and the reasons are clear. These parties have an interest in supporting the Turkish state, in business and in trade and on the oil fields. These parties care more about their own interests than the interests of the Kurdish people.
The people in Iraqi Kurdistan should know that as long as people like Barzani support the Turkish government, attacks on the PKK will continue.
NIQASH: In an important letter, Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK who has been in a Turkish prison since 1999, wrote that he believes Turkey wants peace too. But that doesn't seem to be happening. What is Ocalan's position today?
Akeed: We haven't met with Ocalan since last April – and a delegation from the HDP was not allowed to visit him. Turkey doesn't want Apo [short for Abdullah and also Kurdish for “uncle”] to talk. They want the PKK to surrender their weapons. This will never happen.
NIQASH: Do you think that, given the situation, Ocalan would support a return to fighting?
Akeed: Apo is always saying that he wants peace and he is working to achieve it. He also says that he will do everything it takes in order to achieve peace. But if Turkey and the PKK want war, then let that be.
NIQASH: So where does the PKK stand? Does it want war?
Akeed: Our political movement and our youth have activities inside Turkey. But Turkey wants to force our hand so that it seems as though we were the ones who started the fighting. But our leader is asking everyone to heed the call of peace. He did not tell us to attack.
NIQASH: So the PKK supports the peace process?
Akeed: A truce must be made between two parties. If only one party abides by it, then that truce will fail. We want the peace process to continue. Even if the war went on for one year, or even if it goes on for ten years, at the end we are still going to be sitting around a table. There is no other choice but dialogue – but now Turkey is refusing to engage in dialogue.
NIQASH: Some are saying that the US actually gave Turkey a green light to attack the PKK.
Akeed: The US doesn't have one general policy for the Kurdish people. It has policies that apply within the borders of the countries where Kurds are living. For example, the US considers Iraqi Kurdistan part of the Iraqi state and there they believe a centralized state is better. However the US also supports the Kurds fighting in Syria [where the Syrian Kurds have established their own autonomous zone] and has another policy altogether for the Kurds in Turkey.
Turkey and the US are both members of NATO and therefore the US is obliged to support Turkey. The US also wants Turkey to join in the coalition fighting against the Islamic State group and they want to give them a green light for US air strikes.
NIQASH: Do you think that Turkey and the US have come to some sort of arrangement when it comes to Turkey's bombing runs against the PKK?
Akeed: Definitely. If there was no arrangement, the attacks would not have been launched. US and NATO statements say that Turkey has the right to attack the PKK. So yes, I believe there is an arrangement.
NIQASH: Meanwhile the European Union has demanded the attacks stop.
Akeed: This is positive. Many of these [European] countries know that today one of the major forces in the war against the Islamic State is the PKK. Everybody is asking the same question: If the Islamic State is such a dangerous organisation, then why is Turkey attacking the PKK? It is clear that putting the PKK, the PYD, Syria's al-Assad regime and the Islamic State all in one category is irrational.
NIQASH: What are your thoughts on the Iraqi position?
Akeed: It's good. The President [Kurdish politician Fuad Masoum] has called on Turkey to stop the attacks on the PKK. Weakening the PKK doesn’t serve anybody's interests.
NIQASH: And what about the position of the Iraqi Kurdish authorities?
Akeed: The opinions that have been expressed up until now are not the official opinions of the government of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iraqi Kurdish government has many components. The opinions expressed by senior figures are coming from one party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party [or KDP, which is one of the leading parties in the semi-autonomous region, headed by Massoud Barzani].
The KDP isn't so different from Erdogan's party in Turkey: Both of them see the PKK as a threat to their authority. Additionally Turkey is using its relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan in the oil industry to pressure the KDP to support them.
On the other hand we are so very proud of the Kurdish people in Iraq who support us. They make us want to carry on. And we urge all the political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan to support the PKK and not let one message [from the KDP] dominate.
NIQASH: Do the forces belonging to the international coalition coordinate with the PKK forces? After all they coordinate with the Kurdish forces in Syria.
Akeed: There is no coordination. This relates back to US policy. In general, the US doesn't consider Kurdish rights to be a major issue for them. What is a major issue are the borders of the individual countries.
A lot of Islamic State activity goes in inside Turkey. If that channel for support is not cut off, then there's no hope of defeating the IS group. But it would be cut off if Turkey joined the anti-IS coalition. However Turkey wouldn’t join the coalition if the PKK were also involved.
NIQASH: Do you think that with these developments that the PKK will need to pull guerilla forces away from the fight against the IS group?
Akeed: We haven't discussed this yet and no decisions have been made. Our forces will stay where they are until there is a decision.
NIQASH: Right now there is a lot of tension in some of Turkey's Kurdish-majority cities. And there are also rumours that the PKK has sleeper cells in some of those cities, ready to attack. Is that true?
Akeed: If this Turkish policy continues, we are going to have to make some decisions as to how we should react. If Turkey truly wants to end the peace process, they will see how strong the PKK is.