Riza Altun is a cofounder of the Kurdish PKK, and serves as PKK’s head of foreign relations and on the KCK executive council.
PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê – Kurdistan Workers’ Party) is a left-wing, Kurdish organization based in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Beginning 1984, the PKK waged an armed struggle against the Turkey for the right to self-determination for the Kurds in Turkey, who comprise between 18% and 25% of the population and have been persecuted for decades.
In 2013, the PKK declared a ceasefire and began withdrawing its fighters to the Kurdistan Region of northern Syria. However, in July 2015, the PKK cancelled the ceasefire after the Turkish government infractions. One month later, they accepted a ceasefire with Turkey with guarantees from the U.S.
Although designated as a Foreign Terror Organization by the U.S. in 1997, the crucial role of the PKK and their affiliated YPG* forces against ISIS is one of the many ironic dilemmas for Western powers engaged in the Syrian conflict.
The following is Mr. Altun’s interview with Clarion Project’s Kurdish Affairs Analyst Zach D. Huff:
The Kurds are often incorrectly seen as a singular entity, and to many readers, this is their introduction to the PKK. Could you explain the development, mission and ideology of the PKK?
Kurds constitute one of the most ancient peoples of the Middle East. Our country, Kurdistan, was first divided between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of the Safavid Dynasty of Iran. It was later divided into four amongst the newly-founded Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
The nation state, which is more rigid and fiercer than other state formations in the past, is a form of sovereignty committed to the homogenization of all different cultural and religious groups living under its rule in favor of the dominant ethnic and religious identity.
Under the rule of these nation states founded after the World War I, Kurds have been subjected to persecution in order to make them forcefully embrace the Turkish, Arab and Iranian ethnic identities.
Although the majority of Kurds are Muslim, they have among themselves a variety of authentic faith groups such as Êzidis (Yezidis), Kaka’is, Feylis, Zoroastrians and Qizilbashes. Both the dominant Sunni and Shiite states refused to recognize this rich diversity of Kurdish population and were determined to homogenize them by means of assimilationist policies.
Whenever Kurds defended their national and cultural identity, and also their faith culture against these assimilationist policies, they were punished with large-scale massacres. From the post-World War I up till 1978, when the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê – Kurdistan Workers’ Party) was founded, our people revolted dozens of times in each four parts where they live, and each of these was repressed by brutal massacres which deserve to be defined as genocide.
As Kurdistan is mountainous geographically, and Kurds are a stateless people organized in natural social structures, throughout their history they remained at a distance from modern movements of ideas and political-social organizations.
Their forms of social organization were limited to tribal federations and confederations, with only several low-profile modern organizations established in early 1900s which lacked a powerful social support. This was the main reason why Kurds, despite their repeated uprisings, could not free themselves from Turkish, Arabic and Persian domination, all these states being equipped with modern political and military institutions.
The PKK is the name of the Kurds’ last outcry against the modern nation-state’s physical and cultural genocidal brutality against the Kurdish people — an outcry of Kurdish people’s children who came into contact with modern schools of thought and institutions in the late 1960s and early 1970s and who subsequently organized for resistance.
The PKK came into being at a time when cultural assimilation reached its climax and when capitalist relations of production started to enter Kurdistan, which resulted in the emergence of class distinctions within the Kurdish nation and which impacted the social life a great deal.
This was what mainly determined the PKK’s mission and its political position. The PKK set as its mission the freeing Kurds from the domination of the colonialist states they live in and helping them form a democratic, egalitarian and free social order.
With this objective, it was only natural that the PKK embraced scientific socialism which gave birth to these values. The PKK successfully developed a powerful synthesis of traditional Kurdish culture and values on the one hand and the Marxist interpretation of modern philosophy, which turned to be the main reason for the PKK’s ideological position to win the support of Kurdish society.
What is PKK’s stance on violence towards Turkey, and what do you aim to accomplish when you use force? Has your methodology shifted over time?
The PKK is often questioned as to why it chose armed struggle. Here we declare, with all sincerity and good intentions, that it was not the Kurds’ choice to take up arms; in fact, the Kurds were forced to resort to an armed resistance.
The sovereign states refused to recognize Kurds as an entity, granted them no status, not even as a colony. Being a colony, in fact, means to have a status. The colonizer recognizes the colonized people’s differences and allows them to live up to their distinct culture and traditions, to speak their own language.
The resistance by colonized people in case of an extreme repression by the colonizer is regarded as a legitimate response, a self-defense. However Kurds were simply considered non-existent. Their language, culture, songs, national holidays and traditional rituals were banned — let alone accepting their claims for their cultural and political rights, even speaking or singing in their mother tongue was severely punished.
No doubt that such treatment of a people can only be seen in totalitarian and fascist regimes, where democratic or political struggle is no longer an alternative. Here, it is not a matter of choice to decide on what form of struggle should be preferred; it is a matter of whether or not one can lead a “human” life.
A human being cannot be reduced to a mere living organism; he or she is a human being with his/her social environment, history, culture, customs and values. This is an internationally acknowledged fact and defined as “human dignity,” without which a person cannot exist as a human being – as witnessed in a wide variety of modern human rights declarations, from the U.S. Declaration of Independence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Self-defense against any attempt to deny human dignity of a person or a people is an internationally-recognized right. In fact, many nations including America, whose honor and dignity have not been denied as brutally as the Kurds, have exercised this right to defend their honor and dignity.
What is the basis of the U.S. State Department’s designation of the PKK as a “Foreign Terror Organization”?
It has been a great disappointment that the U.S. has defined as a terrorist organization a freedom movement of a people with the aim of defending their nation’s right to mere existence and the dignity of this nation’s members against the colonialist Turkish state.
The U.S.’ declaring the PKK as a “terrorist” organization is a politically motivated decision stemming from its interest-based relations with Turkey. In the past, this decision was in line with U.S. interests even though it contradicted its values. Today it is in contradiction with both its interests and values.
The role played by the British determined Kurdistan’s partitioning between four nation states right after the World War I. It was a time when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson stood for the principle that all peoples had the right to self-determination in line with the spirit of the U.S. Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
All these distinguished figures of American history would be ashamed if they could see that the current U.S. administration has called the freedom fighters of Kurdish people struggling for their right to self-determination “terrorist.”
What was the catalyst for the breakdown in the peace negotiations with Ankara, and is the PKK hopeful for a return to negotiations? Is that likely to happen, and what would that take?
There is no doubt that armed struggle was never a voluntary choice on the part of the PKK, just as the fact that the violence it has resorted to has never gone beyond the boundaries of self-defense.
On the contrary, the PKK made great efforts to contribute to a solution by means of political and democratic struggle and tried to make best use of all opportunities to this end. Towards this ends, since 1993, the PKK unilaterally declared a “state of inactivity” and cease fire at least ten times. It withdrew twice, in 1999 and 2013, its armed members out of Turkey’s borders.
In line with both its political program and the universal values it represents, our party has always believed that a struggle along political and democratic lines would bring about greater improvements in a shorter time as compared to armed struggle. It is the solid evidence of our commitment to this principle that Kurds as well as the democratic parties of Turkey gained considerable successes both in local and general elections.
Under these circumstances, where Kurds and Turkey’s democratic forces achieved large progress despite such adverse conditions, it would be out of question for the PKK to put an end to the process of dialogue and peace.
This process could only be discontinued by the party, i.e. [Turkish President] Erdo?an and his AK party government, who foresaw that it would not produce a favorable outcome for themselves.
The AK party began a dialogue with our party, not to take steps towards a democratic solution, but to use it as a tool to liquidate the PKK. It is because of this reason that the AK party, disappointed with the results of the June 7, 2015 elections, returned to the same old method of solving the issue by means of the age-old methods of denial and eradication.
Despite this, if there would be a chance to choose, our movement would still prefer political and democratic means of solution. In such a case, our leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who is kept in aggravated isolation conditions in the Imrali island, should be the chief negotiator and the chief interlocutor in the negotiations.
What are your most important demands?
We don’t have any preconditions for starting negotiations for a political solution. We just demand the acceptance of the minimum requirement for a solution applicable elsewhere in the world, i.e. that our leader should head our delegation on free and equal grounds as the chief negotiator and the negotiations should take place under the observation and mediation of a third party.
Does the PKK share the same aspirations for an independent Kurdistan as with the Kurds of Iraq, and if so, what can all parties do to ensure unity and avoid a repeat of the Kurdish civil war in the 1990s?
Our party has been offering the most reasonable proposals to all parties, first and foremost to the Republic of Turkey, and — unlike many other Kurdish parties — it does not believe that the issue will be solved by means of an independent Kurdish state.
We believe that the mindset and the practices of the nation state is the root cause of all ongoing problems arising from the ethnic and religious diversity throughout the Middle East, and that a Kurdish nation-state will only aggravate these problems.
The question is not a matter of having an independent state or not; it is a matter of democracy and basic freedoms. Only greater democracy and freedom can enable peaceful co-existence of diverse ethnic and religious groups in the Middle East, in which case, as the boundaries of freedom and democracy will extend over a larger area, the boundaries of nation states will become more and more meaningless.
Based on this understanding, our party believes that all ethnic and religious conflicts, including first and foremost the Kurdish question, can be reconciled through administrative structures such as democratic autonomy, federation and confederation without any changes in national boundaries.
Peoples in the Middle East have throughout centuries lived in constant interaction in terms of culture, language, faith and lifestyle, and were therefore intertwined to a great extent. The totality of peoples living in this part of the world can be resembled to a body, with each people constituting the extensions of this one body.
The separation of these people under individual nation states will be, and indeed it has been, a painful and bloody operation like cutting a body into parts with a knife. Therefore a Middle East Confederation based on local democracies would be a solution that is most suitable to the historical and sociological realities of the Middle East.
One of the dilemmas that the U.S. faces in Syria is that it needs to support the Kurds in fighting ISIS and Al-Qaeda, but it is illegal for U.S. aid to go directly to PKK. What is the relationship between the PKK and the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces?
Kurds in northern Syria are presently carrying out efforts to establish a Democratic Northern Syrian Federation together with other nations with whom they live side by side in this region. A democratic confederate based on the paradigm of a democratic and social model strictly committed to freedom for women — a model developed by our leadership [Abdullah Öcalan in PKK discourse] — has been a source of inspiration and encouragement to all other nations in the Middle East.
In this context, the position of our leadership and our party resembles the position of Marx and the Bolshevik Party in 19th and 20th centuries. Both Kurds and other peoples and groups elsewhere in the world are building their own social life and systems by embracing our leadership’s paradigm and by learning from our party’s experience to adapt it to their local circumstances. This is a source of pride for us.
People living in northern Syria have set up the Democratic Syrian Forces (DSF) in order to defend their lives against the assault of ISIS, Al-Nusra and the [Syrian] regime’s forces. We have common ideological traits with the YPG* and YPJ** who are a part of the DSF, and who incorporate the mindset and philosophy we share, which is the reason of our support to them.
However we don’t have organizational links with them, as they have their own decision-making mechanisms and organizational forms of operation, as well as their own alliances and connections. It is their autonomous entity that made them a part of the international coalition.
*The YPG (Pekîneyên Parastina Gel) is a Kurdish civilian force fighting the Islamic State in northern Syia . The force also recruits Arabs, Turks and Westerners. The Syriac Military Council, composed of Assyrian/Syriac Christians, units are also part of the YPG.
** The YPJ (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin is an all-female Kurdish military organization. It was set up in 2012 as the female brigade of the YPG. The YPJ and YPG are the armed wings of the Democratic Union Party in Syria (PYD), which has taken de facto control over much of Syria’s predominantly Kurdish north, Rojava.
Zach Huff is Clarion Project’s Kurdish Affairs Analyst