SHUBHDA CHAUDHARY | 9 FEBRUARY, 2019
‘The Hard Resistance of the Kurds and Others in North Syria Prevented a Full Turkish Invasion’
Erdogan is silently backed by the EU
US President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria signals further acrimony towards the Kurdish minority. In the absence of humanitarian or diplomatic protection for Kurds, the impending fear of the Turkish military further infiltrating into Syria to persecute them deepens the conundrum.
As the evolution and impact of Kurdish identity, especially in Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey, faces a continuous media blackout, we converse with Kariane Westrheim, chairwoman of the European-Union Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC). Westrheim is also professor of educational sciences at the University of Bergen, Norway and has worked extensively on multi-culturalism and knowledge construction in conflict and war.
Westrheim visited Rojava-North Syria in 2015 and has been denied entry into Turkey since February 2009.
You can read the first part of the interview here.
How will the declared withdrawal of US troops from Syria and Russia’s involvement in the region impact the Kurds?
With the beginning of the war in Syria, Turkey established direct relations with the Islamic State to fulfil its dream of becoming a new Ottoman empire by occupying weakened neighbouring states including Iraq and Syria.
The Turkish state’s main target is northern Syria, predominantly inhabited by the Kurdish people. Turkey’s President Erdogan will never accept a strong organised Kurdish autonomy along Turkey’s borders, or inside them.
The hard resistance of the Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, and Armenians in northern Syria has so far prevented a full Turkish invasion.
However, in 2018 the Turkish armed forces, working together with jihadist groups, brutally attacked and occupied the Kurdish city Afrin in northern Syria. Erdogan’s campaign to expand Turkey’s occupation of northern Syria continues. This is one of the main reasons why a peaceful political solution to the conflict in Syria seems difficult.
What are the internal fragmentations within the Kurdish revolutionary forces?
There is no internal fragmentation between the main Kurdish forces. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known as the PKK was founded in 1978, and has been a huge military support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which include the Kurdish forces YPG/YPJ.
Both in Rojava-North Syria and in Shengal (Sinjar) the PKK and the SDF/YPG/YPJ fought together, in order to try to rescue as many Yezidis as possible when Daesh attacked Shengal city in 2014.
The Kurdish forces managed to open a corridor to Shengal Mountain and thereby saved thousands of lives.
In the course of the Syrian war the Yezidis, the Assyrians and other minorities have formed their own armed forces fighting together under the SDF umbrella. They are coordinated and courageous; they never give in because they believe in their cause.
Why do you think the political, social and cultural aspirations of the Kurdish minority are ignored in the international geopolitical discourse?
As is written in a recent statement regarding the hunger strikes in Turkey, Turkey still has strong political, institutional, military and economic ties with Europe. Therefore, Europe still has significant power and influence over Turkey.
While European institutions have directed harsh criticisms over Turkey’s sharp turn towards authoritarianism, they have fallen short of taking any meaningful action to pressure Erdogan’s government.
Turkey is also a member-state of the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and a candidate for membership of the European Union.
Not one of these organisations has taken serious steps to stop the spread of authoritarianism in Turkey.
This becomes clear through the silence of the CoE’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture concerning the inhumane acts taking place in Turkey’s prisons.
What are the day-to-day challenges faced by Kurds?
Since the founding of the PKK, Kurds have been transformed from victims under extremely oppressive regimes, to proactive players and catalysts for change in the region. Moreover, the Kurds have now achieved the internationalisation of their cause and even though there is still a long way to go, the Kurdish issue is on the world agenda.
Do you envisage any concrete mediation that could resolve the Kurdish question?
There have been attempts at peace talks between delegations representing Turkey and the PKK, mediated by one or more international powers. The last known attempt to bring the two parties together was the secret Oslo-talks between 2006 and 2011.
However, the initiative broke down when leaked audio recordings revealed that secret talks also took place between Turkish intelligence officials and members of the PKK in Oslo in 2010.
As the situation in Turkey is worse than ever, it is doubtful that Erdogan will for a long time willingly enter into peace talks. Currently he is doing exactly what he wants.
These kinds of talks require a third party with authority, who is strong, influential and possesses the necessary means to force Erdogan to the table. It could be the United Nations but could also be a European state - or perhaps Norway could play the peace card once again.
What has been the impact of the Arab uprisings (and perhaps their failure) on the issue?
The Arab Spring presented opportunities for many political actors in the region to establish a presence on the ground and implement their own agendas. In this process the Kurds were led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), following the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader also of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the main Kurdish party in Turkey.
Instead of joining the general Arab uprising, the Kurds seized the opportunity to organise themselves into a society model known as democratic autonomy or democratic confederalism.
According to the Kurdish Institute in Brussels, Kurdish-dominated areas in north Syria, along the borders with Turkey, were captured by the PYD after Syrian regime forces withdrew.
The provisional governance structures that emerged during that time (in mid-2012) have since become formalised, and in January 2014 three interim governments were announced: one for each of the three Kurdish cantons that are separated by territory controlled by the Islamic State and other groups.
The PYD’s armed wing, the protection forces YPG and YPJ, which is the women’s protection units, have under a broader military umbrella (namely the SDF) been successful in defeating Daesh on the ground, liberating many areas also outside the Kurdish autonomous region.
So, when the Arab Spring broke out the Kurds sat back and waited, planning their own moves, marking out their territory. They strengthened their own Kurdish forces and started to build up their own democratic society model, practising direct grassroots democracy.
Even if the challenges are many and there is a long way to go before one can talk about a Kurdish autonomous region that is supported by the world powers, the Kurdish region in the north of Syria is a shining example of a people’s will to build their own protected society, in the midst of a horrific war.