PKK chief Cemil Bayik in the Qandil mountains: 'We didn't start this fight with Turkey. But we will defend ourselves'.
Since earlier this month, hostilities between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, have escalated once again. 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.
In the more recent past though, there has been a truce between the PKK and the Turkish government, and the armed militias associated with the PKK have become better known for their fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State, in both Iraq and Syria. In early August all that changed, after Turkish planes began to bomb both Islamic State, or IS, group positions and PKK positions in northern Iraq.
As the BBC reported then: “Previously a reluctant partner, [Turkey] is now flying combat missions and making its airbases available to US jets.”
This was confusing. The PKK militias were helping in the same fight that the Turkish were now part of; they had a common enemy in the IS group. Additionally bombing the PKK has upset a ceasefire that had been in force since 2013 and there have already been several incidents of bloodshed.
This is not the Turkish people's war, this is Erdogan's war and it is a war to ensure that he stays in power.
In an interview with NIQASH, Cemil Bayik, one of the co-founders of the PKK and one of the co-leaders of the PKK today, says he believes that Turkey is actually trying to protect the IS group - although he did not provide any definitive proof.
The interview was conducted in a carefully chosen, secret location in the Qandil mountain area in northern Iraq, where many PKK guerillas have been able to hide over the years. And it was clear that the fighters around Bayik, one of the most important men in their organisation currently, were very concerned about further air strikes from Turkey.
Speaking to NIQASH, Bayik himself was extremely critical of the Turkish leadership, saying they were only acting out of political desires because they felt threatened by the success of a Kurdish-affiliated party at the recent Turkish elections. While declaring the PKK's readiness to declare war on Turkey again, Cemil also said that he would like to see the US mediate between the two parties and that the PKK was open to the idea of external monitors, who could oversee any new truce brokered.
NIQASH: In your opinion, why has fighting broken out between your group and Turkey again? The Turkish say it is your fault. What do you say?
Cemil Bayik: Everyone knows that the party that rekindled this fight is the Turkish state, not the PKK. Nobody can possibly say we started this war. Turkey's National Security Council decided to start this particular fight.
But notably, it didn't want to start it until after the last Turkish elections. First of all the ruling Justice and Development Party wanted the truce between us to continue because in previous elections it has benefited from this. But when the party leaders came to realise that it wasn't about to benefit from the truce in this election, it changed its tactics. They know that if the Peoples' Democratic Party [or HDP, a left wing party which represents Kurdish interests in Turkey and which won an unexpectedly large share of votes in the most recent elections] managed to get into Parliament there, then [their leader and Turkish President] Tayyip Erdogan would lose power.
NIQASH: But did you expect fighting to begin again?
Bayik: Yes, because we know their tactics well. They want to re-start the fighting and they want to kill people, so that they can hold onto power. The HDP was keen to participate in the Turkish elections and to bring all our issues into Parliament; they want to solve the Kurdish issue in a political way. We were hoping this would happen. But every time there is an election, Erdogan and his party start fighting.
NIQASH: But the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has accused you personally of trying to start a new war.
Bayik: The state stopped meeting with [the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, also known as] Apo in April this year. Erdogan has stated that there is no such thing as the Kurdish cause. He says there is no agreement between Apo and Turkey. What does all that mean? It means he is the one ending the truce. He is the one ending the peace process. He has refused every option and he has declared war against us.
Bayik: No, we did not start this war. And we have not declared any war either. But given that fighting has started we must defend ourselves. Davutoglu says that I called upon the Kurdish people to take up arms and fight the state. But I never directed any such comments to the Kurds in the north [in Turkey]. Those comments were addressing the Kurds of the west [in Syria]. This is their right. And it means they should fight the [extremist group known as the] Islamic State, not Turkey.
The fight against the Islamic State is one for freedom, democracy, justice and human progress.
These accusations are baseless. It is a war of propaganda. They want to blame us for re-starting the fighting and say that Turkey is innocent. While we are only defending ourselves.
NIQASH: What do you think the Turkish people think about this new outbreak of fighting?
Bayik: Between 65 and 70 percent of Turkish people are against this war, they do not want it. They want a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue. There is even a group within Erdogan's own party that don't want this war.
But Erdogan wants to make people believe that Turkey is in danger and that he is the only one who can save the country from danger. But this isn't true. This is not the Turkish people's war, this is Erdogan's war and it is a war to ensure that he stays in power.
NIQASH: There are a lot of accusations flying around. You yourself have accused the Turkish leadership of cooperating with the IS group.
Bayik: The whole world knows that Erdogan's Justice and Development Party has a relationship with the IS group. There is a lot of pressure on the Turkish leadership because of this. Meanwhile the coalition countries [fighting against the IS group] have improved their relations with the Kurds and this frightens Erdogan. We believe that Turkey told the US and other allies that it would join in the fight against the IS group if the US and those allies stopped supporting the Kurds. We believe that Turkey also told them that it was going to start fighting the PKK again and that they should not stand in the way.
NIQASH: So do you think that the US has agreed to allow Turkey to attack the PKK?
We heard in the media that they had only come to an agreement on the US fighter planes using Turkey's Incirlik air base. But Turkey says it also agreed with the US that it could strike at the PKK. But the US says this isn't true.
We did not start this war. But we must defend ourselves.
NIQASH: Rumour has it that you met with US officials recently. What did you talk about?
Bayik: This is not true. There was no meeting. But we do receive their messages and they receive ours. We don't want the relationship between the PKK and the US to deteriorate. In fact, we think it is a very good relationship and we believe the US knows that the PKK is not opposed to America. The US and the coalition countries also know that if the PKK had not supported Kurdish fighters against the IS group, they wouldn't have been able to make the progress they did.
US officials say that the PKK should stop fighting Turkey so that negotiations can begin again. Well, we will agree to stop fighting Turkey if the US gets involved, and if a monitoring committee is created to ensure that any truce is maintained.
NIQASH: Clearly the PKK's image has been improved because of the fighting your group has done against the IS group.
Bayik: There is no doubt about that. Fighting the IS group is a moral and human obligation. We don't fight them because the IS group is opposed to the Kurdish, we fight them because they are against all people, all cultures and all religions, except their own. Anyone who doesn't serve the IS group, is considered their enemy. The fight against them is one for freedom, democracy, justice and human progress.
The fact that the PKK have been seen fighting in places like Syria, Sinjar and Kirkuk has shown the world what kind of movement we are. And the fact is that the PKK after the war on the Islamic State is the same PKK as before the war on the Islamic State. Turkey wants us to look like a terrorist movement but we are taking a stand against terrorism.
NIQASH: So you feel like other countries, like the US, should take the PKK's name off the list of terrorist groups? And that is, despite the recent fighting inside Turkey?
Bayik: That's up to them. If they want to do it, they can do it. If they don't want to do it, then they won't. What is important to us is our image and this has changed.
Of course it would be better for us if they took our name off that list but we are certain about one thing: The PKK's name won't be crossed off those lists until Turkey says it can be.
The whole world knows that Erdogan's Justice and Development Party has a relationship with the Islamic State group.
NIQASH: Most recently the Turkish government has suggested the creation of a kind of buffer zone between Turkey and Syria.
Bayik: Turkey wants to control the Jarabulus district and to prevent any connection between Kobani [on the Turkish-Syrian border] and Afrin [where the leadership of Syria’s semi-independent Kurdish region is based]. It wants to prevent the Kurds from becoming a more powerful force in Syria. If they become more powerful there, then once again Turkey will be forced to deal with its own Kurdish issues.
A buffer zone would allow Turkey to protect the IS group in Syria and the [Jabhat] Al Nusra front as well as other groups that Turkey has relationships with. Turkey has its own intelligence sources within those groups and we believe there are Turkish leaders inside those groups.
NIQASH: Some of the stories told about the PKK say that you are actually allied to the region's Shiite Muslims now and that you are hostile to the region's Sunni Muslims.
Bayik: That's not true at all. It's just another part of this psychological warfare. We are not part of any Sunni or Shiite front, we want each group to administer its own affairs and live in freedom and peace. The PKK wants to create another front altogether, one that involves the Kurdish people and their culture.
NIQASH: So, in your opinion, what is the situation now between the PKK and Turkey? And how will this situation go forward?
Bayik: We are only defending ourselves against attacks. We have not decided to fight a war. But if the Turkish state continues to attack us, we will declare war.
Change has taken place in Turkey democratically and the Kurdish issue should be resolved in the Turkish Parliament. They want to break us and they want us to surrender but we will never. We will protect ourselves and young Kurdish people against attacks and arrests.