Kurdistan- After the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan

Mar 1999

Following his abduction from Kenya by Turkish secret agents, Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan was jailed in Turkey. He now faces the prospect of a prompt trial which is likely to be expeditious. This allows Turkey's political leaders to claim a victory in the guerilla war which has been fought for fifteen years in the Kurdish part of Turkey by the Workers' Party of Kurdistan (PKK) - an organisation which was always branded "criminal" and "terrorist" by Ankara. These words, however, should first be used to describe the policy of the Turkish government and military in Kurdistan. As to Ocalan's capture, it was much more due to the complicity of all Western governments with the Turkish authorities than to the efficiency of the Turkish secret service. Ocalan's case is yet another unfortunate illustration of how the interests of the Turkish regime - and that of other dictatorships in the region - are intertwined with those of the main imperialist powers. And it is because of these intertwined interests that the basic national rights of the Kurdish population have been ignored for decades.

Fifteen years of guerilla war

The PKK emerged under this name in the late 1970s. But it only began to carry out large-scale military operations aimed at obtaining the "national liberation" of Kurdistan in 1984. This was in the context of the situation created by the 1980 military coup in Turkey and brutal repression against left- wing and Kurdish activists. Subsequently the Turkish did show, on rare occasions, a vague intention to reach a "political settlement" on the Kurdish question. But the only concession they ever made - and a very limited one at that - was president Ozal's decision to grant, in 1991, the right to speak Kurdish - which had been denied so far by the regime. But on the whole, the regime's approach was always to increase repression. This resulted in the military occupation of the Turkish part of Kurdistan - i.e. the entire south-eastern part of Anatolia, to the Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian borders - the deportation of most of the countryside population to the suburbs of the large towns and the setting up of militias of "village guardians" under the control of a few local feudal families who collaborated with the Turkish army. And this is not to mention the jailing, torture and summary executions of political opponents, whether they were members of the PKK or not.

The brutal policy of the Turkish army pushed a section of the Kurdish population into the arms of the PKK, particularly among the youth, thereby providing the organisation with a constant flow of fighters. It was partly due to this support that Ocalan's organisation was able to carry on its guerilla war for years. But it was also because the PKK benefited from the supportive or neutral attitudes of bordering countries, particularly Syria, which provided a safe haven to the PKK (Ocalan himself was based there until recently) and allowed them to organise guerilla training camps in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa valley in Lebanon.

The situation created by the Gulf War, in 1991, also contributed to the reinforcement of the PKK. Indeed, the setting up of an autonomous Kurdish zone in the North of Iraq, as a result of the peace settlement, could only reinforce the hopes of the Kurdish population of Turkey that the day when their rights would be recognised was getting closer. At the same time, this autonomous zone also provided the PKK with new resources to carry out its military operations against the Turkish army, and particularly the possibility of using Iraq as a military base. This, however, did not last. While this situation was an unavoidable indirect consequence of the Gulf War settlement, the US leaders did not want to risk the destabilisation of the region, albeit it for the sake of the Kurdish minority's national rights - which was the least of their concerns.

The Gulf War and Kurdistan

It should be recalled that during the war launched by the USA and their allies against Iraq, following the occupation of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein's troops, the American leaders boasted that they were fighting Saddam's regime in the name of the rights of the Iraqi people as a whole, and more specifically of those of its Kurdish and Shiite minorities. Following Saddam's defeat, insurrections broke out both in the Shiite South and in the Kurdish Northern regions. But despite Washington's promises, the US army did not move while the Iraqi regime drowned these uprisings in blood.

Of course the US army's attitude only came as a surprise for those who had taken the US leaders' speeches on the "rights of peoples" seriously. Yet the only reason for making such speeches was to provide a pretext for a military operation which was primarily aimed at protecting the interests of the American oil companies in Kuwait and the Arab Peninsula. The US leaders would probably have preferred Saddam Hussein to be toppled. But they also wanted to avoid at any cost the risk of an insurrectionary situation in Iraq. On balance they chose to keep Saddam in power and, therefore, they allowed him to retain enough military resources to police the rebellious regions.

The "air exclusion zone" set up by the US army in the North of Iraq forced Saddam to tolerate a de facto Kurdish autonomous region due to the impossibility for his air force to operate there. But this only came about as a result of protests made by the Turkish government when confronted with an exodus of Iraqi Kurds into Turkey, due to the offensive by Saddam's troops, as they feared an increase in nationalist agitation as a result. And even then, if the Turkish and US governments chose this temporary solution, it was primarily because the Kurdish part of Iraq was controlled by the militias of two Kurdish Iraqi parties (the PDK and UPK) which were willing to cooperate with them.

Massoud Barzani's PDK (Democratic Party of Kurdistan) and Jalal Talabani's UPK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) - the main Kurdish organisations in Iraq - are both military cliques led by warlords who, in order to impose their demands on Baghdad, have always relied much more on the support of bordering states like Iran, Syria and even Turkey, than on the mobilisation of the Kurdish population. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, they could only exercise a precarious control over Iraqi Kurdistan provided they were prepared to cooperate with the USA and Turkey. Thus in 1992, Barzani and Talabani went to Ankara to be told in no uncertain terms by Turkish leaders that their full cooperation would be required if they wanted the Turkish army to tolerate their existence. In particular they were to avoid encouraging the struggle for autonomy among Turkish Kurds by preventing the PKK from setting up camps in Iraqi Kurdistan and its guerillas from infiltrating Turkey from Iraq. It was at this point that the Turkish army began to carry out massive incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan, sometimes going over 30 miles into this territory, both to hunt down the PKK militias and to make it clear to the PDK and UPK that in case they failed to cooperate they would have to face the fire power of the Turkish army.

Thus the relative margin of manoeuvre enjoyed by the Kurdish organisations in 1991-92 was soon reduced to very little. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the PDK and UPK were able to exercise a degree of power but only within limits circumscribed by the control of the US and Turkish governments on the one hand and the threat of the Iraqi regime on the other. In return, however, they received some financial support and their militias were allowed to take custom duties on all goods going through their territory, including those smuggled to overcome the trade blockade against Iraq. In 1994, the rivalry for territorial control and custom duties resulted in armed confrontations between the militias of the PDK and UPK. To gain a bit more autonomy, the UPK turned to its traditional backers - Syria and, above all, Iran. In August 1996, a new conflict broke out between the UPK (with Iran's support) and the PDK which, this time, was directly backed by the Iraqi army. Those who had hoped that a new Kurdish power was in the process of emerging, were left with the sorry sight of two rival military cliques fighting one another over petty privileges while acting as auxiliary forces for the bordering states' armies.

As to the PKK, which was watched constantly by both PDK and UPK militias, it was having increasing difficulties in operating from Iraqi Kurdistan and could only carry on its military operations thanks to the help of Syria. In Turkey itself, the PKK experienced a series of setbacks following several army offensives. In response to a few bourgeois politicians proposing a more flexible attitude towards the PKK, the Turkish generals' reply was that the only way forward was the final destruction of the PKK.

The September 1998 agreement

In September 1998, the PKK was dealt a decisive blow when it lost Syria's support. On 17 September, it was announced that the two Iraqi Kurdish factions, PDK and UPK, had signed an agreement in Washington under the auspices of the State Department. The agreement ended the conflict between the two factions and registered their commitment to prepare jointly the election of a National Assembly of Iraqi Kurdistan. At the same time, the USA reassured Turkey, stressing that this was not the beginning of a process leading to the recognition of a Kurdish state. Moreover, the agreement included an official commitment by both Iraqi Kurdish factions to prevent the PKK from using Iraq as a rear base for its operations. From then on, Syria was under increasing pressure to align itself with the US strategy. Turkey threatened Syria with war, should the Damascus government continue to provide the PKK with a safe haven. The odds are, that in addition, the US leaders who were apparently determined to throw their weight behind the Turkish government in order to finish off the PKK, also put pressure on Syria.

US policy has always shown great leniency towards the Turkish government, which is a key ally for them in this part of the world - and this also accounts for the attitude of their Western allies towards Turkey. But at the same time, it seems that behind the USA's attempts at seeking a normalisation of the situation in Kurdistan, at any costs, through the eradication of the PKK, there are considerable oil interests. The American oil companies are now involved in oil production in Azerbaijan and their plans to build a pipeline across the region to the Mediterranean remain at a standstill as long as the guerilla war goes on.

No-one knows how Syria was finally convinced to end its support for the PKK, with what arguments, in what secret negotiations and in return for what promises. In any case the pressure on Syria was effective, resulting in an agreement between Damascus and Ankara. And in October 1998, Abdullah Ocalan was told by the Syrian authorities that all PKK training camps in Syria would be dismantled and that PKK members, and particularly Ocalan himself, were no longer welcome on Syrian soil.

The way in which the PKK was "let down" by the Syrian regime is not an unusual episode in the history of the Kurdish struggle. Before this, the Iraqi Kurdish leaders had often experienced similar misfortunes. Iran, in particular, which had often provided the Iraqi Kurds with logistical support, had just as often let them down. Whenever an agreement had been signed between Iran and Iraq, the first victims had usually been the Iraqi Kurdish factions which had enjoyed Iran's backing in the previous period. This time, it was the PKK which was made to foot the bill for an agreement between Turkey and Syria. And this did show one thing - that the same policy leads to the same dead ends. Making the struggle of the Kurdish people dependent on fake friends such as the Syrian or the Iranian regimes inevitably leads to such catastrophes.

General complicity under US supervision

Ocalan's forced departure from Syria was the beginning of a journey which was to end in a Turkish jail. Having left Damascus at the end of October 1998, Ocalan first sought refuge in Russia. His request was turned down. He then went to Italy in November where he requested political refugee status. The choice of Italy was not random since, a short while before, the Italian Parliament had allowed its building to be used for a gathering of the PKK-launched Kurdish Parliament in exile. It was also revealed later that during his trip from Moscow to Rome, Ocalan had travelled with an Italian MP, who was a member of Rifondazione Communista. The PKK leader must have thought therefore that he could rely on some support in Italy, or maybe he expected the Italian government, which is led by a former leading figure of the Communist Party, D'Alema, to show some sympathy for the rights of people. But this was an illusion. Moreover this was ignoring the pressures which were about to be put on the Italian government.

In Turkey, the news that Ocalan was in Italy sparked off a violent campaign by the government and even a boycott of Italian products and companies. The US government publicised its view that Ocalan was a "terrorist" who should not be granted refugee status. True, the Italian courts turned down a first extradition request made by Turkey and D'Alema's government went so far as to turn for help from his European colleagues, stressing that Ocalan had taken refuge not just in Italy but in Europe, and that it was the responsibility of the European Union as a whole to face up to the consequences of the war in Kurdistan. But D'Alema's call was only met with a few words of solidarity with the Kurdish people, mostly from French and German leaders, who confined themselves to vague criticisms of Turkey's attitude. In fact, it was obvious that these leaders were very pleased that Ocalan was in Italy rather than in France or in Germany. The German government however, did cancel a warrant for Ocalan's arrest, issued after a series of murders attributed to the PKK in Germany. The German leaders clearly preferred Ocalan to be free (temporarily) in Italy rather than imprisoned in Germany. And if Italian goods were boycotted in Turkey rather than German goods - all the better, since German goods might fill the gap.

After two months in Italy, Ocalan left on 16 January, even before his request for political asylum had been examined by the courts. The Italian government claimed officially that Ocalan had made his own decision. But there again, international pressures must have had something to do with it, including the Italian government's own advice to Ocalan that he should seek urgently another refuge. These international pressures - that of the USA in particular - must also have had something to do with the fact that whenever a country was mentioned as a possible destination (presumably after initial contacts had been made), the authorities of these countries promptly thought of an excuse to prevent Ocalan's entry.

Ocalan's journey from country to country lasted until 12 February when it was announced simultaneously that Ocalan had been the guest of the Greek embassy in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and that he had been abducted by Turkish agents. While no-one knows precisely how this abduction took place, it appears that it involved close cooperation with the CIA - which has a heavy presence in Kenya. There has also been speculation about the possible involvement of Israel's secret service (since Israel also has close links with Turkey) and the complicity (passive or not) of the Kenyan authorities - and possibly that of the Greek government which, despite its proclaimed solidarity with the cause of the Kurdish people, probably did not want to add yet another bone of contention between itself and Turkey. Besides, secret diplomacy must have played a role too, both in terms of threats by the US and Turkish leaders and discreet promises for those states willing to show a "friendly" attitude to Turkey in this difficult case.

Ocalan's attempts at gaining recognition

The general complicity in refusing Ocalan refuge was also aimed at preventing him from gaining recognition as the exiled representative of the Kurdish people.

For several years now, the PKK and its leadership have tried repeatedly to appear as a possible legitimate partner in future negotiations with the Turkish government. Because, despite the fact that the PKK calls itself a "workers' party", it has never been anything other than a bourgeois nationalist party and as such wishes to be acknowledged as "respectable". In any case it has now officially renounced the "marxism- leninism" it previously claimed to embrace. It has also recognised Islamic values, in an effort to please local religious dignitaries but also the bourgeois, petty-bourgeois and feudal layers which make up the bulk of the dominant social layers in Kurdistan.

On several occasions, the PKK declared unilateral ceasefires while stating that it was seeking to establish dialogue with the Turkish generals. Ocalan not only sought to win recognition as a possible negotiating partner, but also put great effort in showing that he would be "reasonable" - by insisting that his aim was not Kurdish independence but merely an autonomous regional status, which would not alter Turkey's borders and would mostly amount to the recognition of the Kurdish language and culture. But Ocalan's attempts came up against the brickwall of the Turkish government and, above all, the Turkish army, which acts as the warden of Mustafa Kemal's Turkish nationalism, based as it is on the claim that there are only Turks in Turkey.

The few Turkish political leaders and generals who hint at a possible "political solution", mean nothing more than an offer to the small Kurdish bourgeoisie of a limited degree of autonomy and a few cultural rights, such as a Kurdish-language press or radio. But they certainly do not even consider the possibility of accepting the PKK as a negotiating partner, as this would be tantamount to an admission that the Turkish state cannot defeat it militarily. The Turkish leaders have therefore reached a concensus over their attitude to the PKK, all the more easily as the PKK's overtures were themselves an admission that it was facing growing military difficulties. The Turkish government's hounding of Ocalan up until his recent abduction from Kenya was in line with this general policy.

From the moment the PKK leader had to leave Syria, he tried to turn this setback into a diplomatic success. His problem was to gain some form of international recognition, even if it was only in the form of political asylum in one country or another. But his attempts failed due to the concerted attitude of the Western powers, the USA and, of course, Turkey. The leaders of these countries did not want to allow a Kurdish leader, settled in Europe or elsewhere, to become the official spokesman in exile of the Turkish Kurds.

Ocalan's search for international recognition was probably inspired by the example set by Yasser Arafat who was the leader of an organisation in exile (the Palestinian Liberation Organisation or PLO) whose headquarters moved from country to country for many years - until it was finally granted the right to exercise political power in a small part of Palestine. However, Arafat and the PLO enjoyed the real support of most Arab countries, even if this support was often limited. Moreover, if the PLO was able to gain these very limited concessions it was first due to its ability to survive in exile over a very long period, and second because the Israeli government had been itself confronted for years with a popular rebellion in the Occupied Territories (the "Intifada") which its army was incapable of bringing under control. Ocalan and the PKK, however, were not in a comparable position and the Turkish and imperialist leaders could therefore consider that they did not need the PKK as a negotiating partner. For them to change their minds - judging from the experience of Arafat and the PLO - would require that the Turkish army finds itself in a much more untenable position in Kurdistan than is the case today.

One must add that in Turkey, the national opposition between Turks and Kurds is not all that deep, even after over ten years of war in Kurdistan. They live together in many large towns. In Istanbul, the Kurds form the major part of the working class without this resulting in actual clashes with the Turks, outside a few provocations staged by a small milieu from the Turkish fa-right. The situation is, therefore, very different from that in Palestine, where a large gap exists between the Israeli and Arab population. This is another reason why the Turkish government does not feel an urgent need to negotiate a political solution with Kurdish representatives. On the other hand, the stubbornness of the Turkish leaders may at some point result in the widening of the gap between Turks and Kurds which could then force Turkey to seek talks, even with those who are waging a guerilla war against its army today. But the situation has not reached this stage yet.

The parallel made with the experience of the PLO is also useful to assess the perspective and policy of organisations such as the PKK and the other Kurdish nationalist organisations. At best, in the context of the Kurdish population being divided between several more or less dictatorial states in a region which is dominated by imperialism, these organisations can hope to be granted, one day, the right to exercise political power in a small part of Kurdistan. This is what has already happened to the PDK and UPK, who are allowed by imperialism, for lack of any better solution, to exercise political power in Northern Iraq. But this may only be temporary and does not even involve the formal declaration of an independent Kurdish state in this region. As a result the power of the PDK and UPK is in fact extremely limited and subject to the conditions laid down by imperialism and the contradictory diktats of the bordering countries. In addition, while the political power exercised by these small military cliques may present some advantages for a small layer of feudal overlords and their entourages, for the population it represents a heavy burden and a new form of oppression rather than liberation.

While there is such a narrow space for the PLO in Palestine and for the PDK and UPK in Northern Iraq, there is no such space for the PKK in Turkey. Whether this will change one day, under Ocalan or another leader, is an open question. Even if it did, it would provide a perspective only for a small layer of notabilities and PKK guerillas who would provide the cadres of a new microscopic state. But it would not offer the Kurdish population of Turkey a way out of its present impoverishment and oppression.

The need for a revolutionary proletarian perspective

The events surrounding the abduction of Ocalan have been appalling - the active cooperation of several Western powers in his abduction, the silent complicity of the others, the vocal triumph of the Turkish rulers and media, the way in which Ocalan was displayed publicly gagged and handcuffed in front of large Turkish flags and the way in which his trial is being prepared. All this illustrates the cynicism and deep contempt for the rights of people which is shared by the leaders of the imperialist countries and those of the states which are linked to them, like Turkey. The Kurds who have staged demonstrations in Turkey itself and in Europe, were there at least as much to express their outrage in front of these methods as to express their support for Ocalan and the PKK's policy (this support is far from being unanimous).

But for the Kurdish population - whether in Turkey, Iraq, Iran or Syria - the nationalist organisations do not offer a way out of the present situation. The Kurdish population will have to rely on other allies and other forces, rather than the support, always limited and conditional, offered by one state or another. As to the prospect of waiting for the day when imperialism will need to grant some political power to one of the Kurdish military cliques, this cannot either be a real perspective.

On the other hand, the Kurdish population could find allies among the proletariat and popular masses of the countries in which it lives. The Kurdish proletariat makes up a sizeable section of the Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi proletariats. It could exercise a significant influence within the working classes of these countries - which are all confronted with the same poverty, the same arrogance on the part of their bourgeoisies and the same dictatorial oppression. It would be in the interest of the Middle- East's proletariat to break the coalition between the states of the region, their ruling classes and imperialism. For it is this coalition which imposes its order on the region's proletariat, keeps it in poverty and forces it to remain divided by borders inherited from the colonial carving up of this part of the world.

In reality, the perspective of a proletarian revolution in the Middle- East is more realistic than that offered by the various Kurdish nationalist organisations - which all rely on imperialism's willingness to make some space for them at some point. A proletarian revolution embracing the region from Turkey to Iran, Iraq and the other Arab countries could pave the way for the emergence of a socialist federation of the region's populations. And in addition to bring to an end all forms of national oppression - including that experienced today by the Kurdish people - it would also bring to an end all forms of exploitation and oppression by imperialism and by the local ruling classes.

28 February 1999