Kurdish freedom fighters have been cynically used

Hauled before courts of injustice

Against the background of continuing tensions in Syria and Iraq, Esen Uslu reports on the legal assault on the internal Kurdish opposition

A new and all-encompassing legal challenge against the soft-left, pro-Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party) has started in Ankara’s criminal courts. The trumped-up charges against over 100 leading figures in the party are mostly related to speeches made by HDP members in parliament during the defence of the town of Kobane. This was the fight put up by Kurdish freedom fighters against the Islamic State onslaught in Syria in 2014. The indictments are for murder! Then there are allegations based on statements made by secret witnesses, along with a lot of conjecture. All this was deemed a proper basis of indictment by the court, which means that trials are to go ahead.

Even the simplest decorum and pretence of being an impartial law court went unobserved. The courtroom was so full of the gendarmerie and other security personnel that entry was denied to defence lawyers on the grounds of lack of space! While the bill of indictment is an example of intention of malice, the decisions to remand so many people in custody were superb examples of judges disregarding the letter and spirit of the law, not to mention the principles of natural justice. The judges are hand-picked and appointed by president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The allegedly binding rulings of the European Court of Human Rights were disregarded. Meanwhile the media and government propaganda machinery are bombarding citizens with nationalist and militaristic messages. Clearly there has been no change in the Kurdish policy of the Turkish state - the same show has been staged time and again since the 1920s. The only recent change is that the coalition formed around Erdoğan now seems unelectable.

In other words, to ensure the continuation of the same overall policy, Kurds will be battered more and more. Only a war footing will provide the basis to make Erdoğan electable once more - cowing the state’s enemies in order to win an election.

The regime lost a key supporter when Donald Trump was defeated. Joe Biden was known to be less than comfortable with Erdoğan as an ally, and following his election did not bother, unlike Trump, to give him a call. The first such call was actually to notify Erdoğan that, as promised during his election campaign, Biden would use the ‘g word’ in a statement released on April 24, on the anniversary of Armenian genocide (1915-17).

The term ‘genocide’ had not been publicly used previously by US presidents in relation to the slaughter of around one million Armenians. Every time a president seemed likely to use that word there was some crisis that made Turkey indispensable to the US, so the ‘g word’ was never used. In line with Turkey’s requests: for example, Barack Obama used the Armenian term, ‘Medz Yeghern’ (Great Calamity), instead.

When Biden’s statement was made public, the state propaganda machine went into overdrive, but internationally Turkey’s hands were full of problems and at this time the regime is not in a position to quarrel with the US president. However, Erdoğan also knows that the US use of the word ‘genocide’ is usually accompanied with placating noises - in other words, the understanding is that the US will turn a blind eye to yet another Turkish military onslaught against the Kurds.

Dirty war

In fact a combined forces operation, named ‘Claw Lightning’, bringing together both the airforce and special forces on the ground, was immediately unleashed on northern Iraqi territory. According to official reports, more than one thousand targets were bombed and targeted by UAVs, long-range artillery and multiple rocket launchers. This time the Qandil mountains, where the headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is known to be, was also targeted, using locally built long-range stand-off missiles, fired from aircraft flying in Turkish-controlled airspace.

Helicopter-borne special forces landed at key road junctions to disrupt supply routes from Iraqi Kurdistan to Syrian Kurdistan, as well as infiltration routes leading into Turkey. According to official reports, scores of Kurdish militants were killed, while civilian casualties are not disclosed.

Apart from militarist and nationalist propaganda, other achievements of the operation remain obscure. Since 2019, several ‘Claw’ operations have been conducted in the same region. Many Kurdish militants have been killed, caves they used blown up, and ammunition and explosives destroyed. However, the Qandil mountains stronghold and supply routes between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan are still in operation. The military ‘solution’ to the ‘Kurdish problem’ - in every case repeated with much fanfare - remains elusive.

The dirty war campaigns carried out through IS and other proxy forces have also failed, and each time their rout was only averted by the intervention of Turkish armed forces, as happened in Idlib in Syria in 2017. Unless there is a major shift in the regional balance of forces, the dream of Erdoğan and the army top brass of a continuous belt of occupied and ‘pacified’ zones along the southern border seems impossible to achieve. Yet all Turkey’s ‘official’ opposition parties - that is, the parliamentary opposition, excluding the HDP and other minor left parties, still delude themselves with the same ideas and dutifully support Turkish aggression in Iraq and Syria. Everybody pretends that, with the adoption of this or that tactic, such military operations will succeed, and consequently the dirty war on the Kurds goes on and on.

But back to the internal assault on the HDP. Will the party be able to use the upcoming bout of trials as a people’s tribunal in order to expose the facts? The Turkish regime is quite experienced in preventing such occurrences and is quite capable of drowning out dissenting voices in the courts as well as on the streets. The Kurdish press abroad, as well as social media channels, are utilised to the utmost, but the official censorship and rules imposed, with which the owners of the media willingly comply, do not allow any cracks.

The European Union and the USA stand aloof from the Kurdish situation in Turkey under the pretext of not interfering in Turkey’s ‘domestic policies’. Meanwhile, in Iraq and Syria, cooperation with local loyal Kurdish forces is more important to them. So long as they in turn cooperate with forces loyal to Kurdish Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani in Iraqi Kurdistan, the problem of the PKK being kept ‘under control’ by Turkey is acceptable. In Syria, Kurdish fighters have been utilised to provide boots on the ground for the American control of oilfields and in return Kurdish forces were provided with limited supplies, enabling them to continue fighting the pro-US war, but not anything else.

As for the Russians, they are quite happy if Syrian Kurds are forced by Turkish attacks to cooperate with the Assad regime. The rule is, apart from minimal measures at critical times, do nothing to upset their precious new customer, Turkey.

Iran, the other significant presence in the region, maintains an ambivalent attitude towards Kurdish freedom fighters in the light of its own quarrel with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq - considered to be made up of upstarts with ambitions on Iraqi territory. In Syria its position is more akin to that of the Russians. As for the Gulf states, which were more actively involved when IS was on the rise, after its defeat by Kurdish forces, their Islamist groups are now fighting a rearguard action.

Against the background of such a complicated situation, things are likely to remain unchanged until a major shift occurs in the region. However, we should not forget that the Middle East as a whole is rife with extreme contradictions that may give rise to unexpected developments at any time.