Turkey and Kurds: Imperialism welcomes deal
Yassamine Mather looks at the new PKK ceasefire and what it means
On March 21, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, used a mass meeting in Diyarbak?r to call on Kurdish fighters to stop all military attacks: “We are at a stage where guns should be silenced … a new era is beginning: politics is rising, not arms. It is time for our armed forces to withdraw beyond the border.” Öcalan is still held in prison on ?mral? Island, of course, and his message was read out.
According to Orhan Miro?lu, banned member of the Democratic Society Party, PKK guerrillas who do not have a criminal record will “simply go back to their villages”. It is expected that after a suitably lengthy period, provided the ceasefire holds, Turkish Kurdistan will be granted a level of autonomy; and over the next few months Öcalan will be moved from ?mral? to continue (for the time being) his sentence of “aggravated life imprisonment” under house arrest.
Murat Karay?lan, the leader of the PKK’s armed forces in northern Iraq, said his group would “implement Öcalan’s plan in a decisive manner” and the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, declared: “We not only support and welcome this call by Mr Öcalan: we believe that this is the right course of action and a vindication of our long-standing policy that the Kurdish question is a political issue and that this question cannot be resolved through armed or military means.”
The deal has clearly got the blessing of the US administration: “The United States will continue to support the people of Turkey in their effort to finally resolve this issue and move toward a brighter future,” said Victoria Nuland on behalf of the state department.
All this is a far cry from November 2012, when 700 PKK prisoners were on hunger strike in Turkish prisons and peace talks between the Turkish state and PKK had broken down yet again. Talks about a possible ceasefire have been going on since 2009 and rumours about the latest attempt first broke in early March. The cessation of hostilities represents the first step in a four-point plan that the PKK hopes will bring about constitutional recognition of the Kurdish minority, regional autonomy and Kurdish-language education in schools, as well as cultural rights.
For Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, keen to find allies in the region, the main advantage is rapprochement with the west. Erdo?an hopes the resolution of the Kurdish issue will increase the possibility of Turkey joining the European Union and that alone will convince Turkish capital to back him - despite the condemnations of hard-line nationalists and supporters of the founder of the republic, Kemal Atatürk, for selling out to ‘the Kurdish enemy’.
In the long term, if the peace plan goes ahead, as PKK supporters envisage, it will not only end the 30-year-old insurgency in Turkish Kurdistan, but could mark a fundamental change in the regional map. An autonomous Turkish Kurdistan, alongside an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, will inevitably raise the possibility of an independent Kurdish state, comprising Kurdish areas in Iran and Syria, as well as Turkey and Iraq.
The $64 million question is, what would the US think of such a scenario? On the one hand, it will present geopolitical advantages, in that it would weaken three states - Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Most notably it would pave the way for the break-up of Iran - a Kurdish breakaway would inevitably lead to similar calls by other nationalities. However, according to the US ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, his country is pursuing a different strategy, and has advised the occupation government in Iraq to seek better relations with Turkey: “I believe that Turkey and the US, as well as the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government, all share a single strategic interest: the development of oil and gas ... We would very much like to see Turkey become a strategic alternative to the Strait of Hormuz in getting all Iraqi oil and gas out to world markets. If Turkey and Iraq fail to optimise their economic relations, this would play into the hands of those who want to divide Iraq. Acting together will bring about great gains; acting separately great risks and great danger.”
In the first years of the Islamic regime, the Iranian clergy had a slogan: ‘Whichever way you look at it, the winner is Islam.” Thirty years later they might have a different view, especially when they consider the various scenarios the US is contemplating. Not just the possibility of an independent Kurdistan, but also that of an Iraqi-Turkish-Kurdish-Israeli alliance operating in favour of US long-term interests - provided, of course, the potential allies could overcome their tactical differences about the elephant in the room, the Islamic republic.
For the Turkish Kurds who have paid such a heavy price in their struggle for autonomy, continued war and repression were not a solution. According to the PKK, some 40,000 Kurds have died since the beginning of the armed struggle in 1974. However, while the current proposals rely heavily on satisfying Kurdish national aspirations, they are obviously aimed at suppressing the genuine class demands of the region’s workers - no wonder the four-point peace plan is cheered by the imperialists and regional powers alike.
Left nationalist groups have dominated the Kurdish political scene since the 1940s. The first Kurdish republic was set up in the Iranian city of Mahabad in January 1946 (lasting only until December of that year), in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation of Northern Iran. The allies had invaded Iran from north and south in 1941 to force the abdication of the pro-Nazi, Reza Shah, to ensure access to Iranian oilfields and to secure supply lines to Allied and Soviet troops.
Although Iranian nationalists blame the Soviet Union for the establishment of the Mahabad republic, historic evidence shows the Soviets were far more enthusiastic about the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic set up in December 1946 in Iran’s Eastern Azerbaijan province than they were about the new ‘state’ in Mahabad.
The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Iranian territory brought about the inevitable demise of both republics. The first Kurdish president, Qazi Mohamad, was arrested and subsequently hanged by the Iranian army, while Mustafa Barzani, a military commander of the Mahabad Republic, was given asylum in the Soviet Union. Young, leftwing Kurds blamed nationalist leaders and their tribal allies for military defeat and the collapse of the republic, and this disgust at the old guard was a factor in the establishment of a number of Marxist-Leninist organisations in Iran, Iraq and Turkey in the 1970s.
In Iraq the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was set up by ‘left’ activists Jalal Talabani, Kosrat Rasul Ali and Nawshirwan Mustafa as a rival to the reformist nationalists of the Kurdish Democratic Party under Massoud Barzani. However, Realpolitik had its effect and quite early in its existence the PUK began to accept funds from the Kurds’ arch-enemy, Iran’s Islamic republic. That was in the early 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war - the justification was that ‘the enemy of my enemy must be my friend’. The PUK later became part of US plans for regime change in Iraq - it helped American forces gain access to Iraqi Kurdistan before the collapse of Saddam Hussein. Following the removal of the Iraqi dictator, Iraqi Kurds were granted autonomy and they remain a close ally of the US, as it tries to pull together an arrangement beneficial to imperialism out of the Iraqi quagmire. PUK leader Jalal Talebani became president of post-invasion Iraq in April 2005. Nowadays one could say there is nothing left of the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ aspirations of the original PUK.
In Iranian Kurdistan, another set of avowed ‘Marxist-Leninists’ set up the Komala group in 1967, which launched an armed struggle first against the shah’s security forces and later in the liberated areas of Iranian Kurdistan. Komala joined forces with Iranian socialists to form the Communist Party of Iran in 1993, only to witness a split involving overt Kurdish nationalists in 2000. A large group, led by the party leader Abdullah Mohtadi, set up the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, which broke completely with any pretence of belonging to the radical left, established alliances with bourgeois forces and benefited from the largesse of the Iraqi Kurdish government. Nowadays Iranian Komala is part of the regime-change lobby in Washington DC.
If in Iran and Iraq the rural landscape presents an obstacle to the winning of socialist ideas among large numbers of workers, the same is not true of Turkish Kurdistan. By far the largest of the Marxist Kurdish groups, the PKK has massive support in major Kurdish cities, as well as the countryside. Formed in 1974 as a Marxist-Leninist organisation, the group changed its name to ‘Kurdistan Workers Party’ in 1978 and it helps run civil rights organisations, trade unions and women’s groups in several cities.
However, it is difficult to envisage how it will operate in the future. Once more, the domination of nationalist demands has meant that solidarity alongside the Turkish working class has suffered. The ceasefire was preceded by the mass arrest of labour and leftwing activists in Turkish towns and cities - for Erdo?an the current euphoria about peace in Kurdistan presents a unique opportunity to increase pressure on the Turkish left.
If the PKK is not to follow in the nationalist footsteps of Komala and the PUK, it must show much more tenacity in putting forward class demands - not just for Kurdish workers, but for the working classes of the whole of Turkey. Given that its main strength lies in eastern Turkey, the party is in a position to try to do so. However, the signs are not encouraging.