Erdoğan's Kurdish policy isn't about the Istanbul elections - it's about the Syrian thorn in his side

By propitiating the Kurds, Erdoğan could destine the new elections in Istanbul in his favour, some people think. It is assumed that this is why he ended the confinement in isolation of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. But if that’s the case, why then did he simultaneously start an offensive against PKK fighters in the north of Iraq?

The Dutch version of this story was published in the online version of Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland.

By Fréderike Geerdink

Operation Claw is the name the Turkish army gave the operation it started late last month in the mountains in the north of Iraq. The Claw would drag PKK-fighters, who have their headquarters and most important training camps in those mountains, out of their caves and render them ineffective, crush their weapon stocks and rip their tent camps apart. The Claw would grab the separatist-terrorist organisation by the scruff of its neck and force it to its knees. Terrorism in Turkey, at its borders and in the region would finally be destroyed.


The timing was remarkable. On Sunday 26 May, the day before operation Claw started, there seemed to be reason for optimism regarding the Kurdish issue. There was even a sense of euphoria among Kurdish politicians and activists. The Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been serving a life sentence on Imrali prison island since 1999, after being convicted of treason, was in touch with the outside world again. For the first time since the summer of 2011, in May he had had two visits from his lawyers. With that, his isolation, which had been total since in March 2015 even his family and Kurdish politicians were blocked from visits, and a month-long hunger strike of at least three thousand Kurdish political prisoners to break Öcalan’s isolation, came to an end.

That Sunday, the Kurdish MP Leyla Güven, who had started the hunger strikes in November last year, had announced she would resume eating. Prisoners in no less than ninety two prisons all over Turkey declared they would do the same. Pictures and videos of weakened hunger strikers being taken to hospital for treatment and check-ups by police – sometimes with violence – started flooding social media. Also Leyla Güven (header picture) no longer refused hospitalization. On a stretcher and with a V-sign in the air, she was taken from her home to hospital.

What if Erdogan could convince enough Kurds to vote for AKP candidate Yıldırım by using Öcalan? 

It's because of the elections!, many people claimed. In the beginning of May, the High Election Board (YSK) had decided that the elections of 31 March had to be repeated in Istanbul. The AKP of President Erdogan had lost in several important cities, among which Istanbul and the capital Ankara. As for Ankara, Erdoğan didn’t mind too much, but Istanbul was too important. The city is the economic heart of the country on which also his AKP depends financially – not to mention his family, confidants and business partners.

Erdoğan pressured the High Election Board, which annulled the election results in the metropolis. The reason cited was that there had been voting station heads who were not civil servants. This is against the law, but in the history of Turkey nobody before had had the luminous idea to declare election results void because of it.

First things first

By pleasing the Kurds, Erdogan would be able to turn the outcome of the new ballot in Istanbul on 23 June – this Sunday – in his favour. Millions of Kurds live in Istanbul and quite a few of them had voted for Ekrem Imamoğlu, the candidate of the CHP, the Republican People’s Party. That had been a tactic of the Democratic People’s Party (HDP), the leftist party of Kurds and Turks that has its roots in the Kurdish political movement. The HDP had not nominated a candidate itself and called on its supporters to vote for the opposition.
Due to its nationalist ideology, the CHP hardly has any support among Kurds, but first things first: the most urgent thing now was to break Erdoğan’s increasingly dictatorial power. Imamoğlu, a newcomer with an inclusive message that is unusual for the CHP, won with a thin margin of thirteen thousand votes. What if Erdogan could convince enough Kurds to vote for AKP candidate Yıldırım by using Öcalan?

CHP-candidate Imamoğlu campaigns in Umraniye, Anatolian side of Istanbul. Photo from his twitter feed.  

Sounds reasonably logical, but it isn’t. There are plenty of Kurds who vote for AKP and there are even Kurds who sometimes vote for AKP and sometimes for HDP. But a Kurd who votes for CHP must want pretty desperately to get rid of Erdoğan. As well, it would be a balancing act for Erdoğan. For every Kurd he would win by ending Öcalan’s isolation, he would lose an ultra-nationalist Grey Wolf. The party of the Grey Wolves, the MHP, is in a close alliance with Erdoğan.

And that’s where operation Claw enters the story again. The Grey Wolves and other voters of the nationalist breed – basically the majority of Turks – love that operation. Balancing act completed? Kurds happy because of Öcalan, nationalists not disappointed because of operation Claw? Victory on 23 June secured? Sounds like a shaky analysis, doesn’t it?

Five thousand words

Öcalan is often called ‘PKK-leader’. This title is tremendously out of date. The group he founded in 1978 had grown into a tightly organized, mass popular movement, with political groups and self defence units in several countries. They come under the umbrella of the KCK, the Union of Kurdish Communities (of which the HDP is not a part), with Öcalan as honorary president. Under him serve the co-leaders of the executive committee, Cemil Bayık and Bese Hozat.

Picture from the Defense Ministry's twitter feed showing booty taken by the Turkish army in Operation Claw

A request for an interview with Bayık was rejected. It’s too dangerous because of the ongoing bombardments. Emailing questions is possible though. Bayık says that he sees no contradiction in the facts that, on the one hand, it’s too dangerous to meet each other (for the fifth or sixth time since 2013) and on the other hand there seemed to be hope on the horizon with Öcalan being accessible again. ‘It only shows’, he writes (although it is, as a side note, more likely that he recorded the answers and that a guerrilla typed it out, because he probably didn’t have time to write a staggering five thousand words), ‘that from the government, which depends on an alliance between the AKP and the MHP, no viable and balanced plan for democratization and the solution of the Kurdish issue can be expected.’

Bayık also points to a sentence in the declaration of Öcalan’s lawyers, who stated that their meeting with Öcalan doesn’t mean that a negotiation process is ongoing.

So, what is Erdoğan trying to do?

The Kurdish question of course reaches beyond Istanbul. Beyond the Turkish borders also, and even beyond the mountains in the north of Iraq. The issue stretches out into Syria. If you zoom out, you see that the current dynamics find their origin there.

 The ‘revolution’ is a thorn in Erdoğan’s side.   

Ever since 2011, the Kurds have controlled and shaped their own autonomous area in the north and northeast of Syria on an ever expanding parcel of land. A revolution, they call it. They govern their territory through a system of bottom-up democracy that pays respect to the ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity that has been the reality of the area for centuries. Militarily, it is defended by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who consider Abdullah Öcalan their ideological leader. The ‘revolution’ is a thorn in Erdoğan’s side.  

Wholeheartedly happy

The Kurdish ‘revolution’ evolves right at Turkey’s border. Turkey has been threatening to end it for years, but over the last couple of months the threat has become more serious. Ever since US President Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, in December last year, the dynamics have turned capricious for the Kurds. The American presence guaranteed that Turkey wouldn’t take action. It is, after all, out of the question that NATO-partners Turkey and the US would find themselves on opposite sides of the battle field. It’s not that Erdoğan is wholeheartedly happy with the announced American departure: he would have preferred for the US to abandon its cooperation with the YPG and SDF, without whom the war against ISIS wouldn’t have been possible, and turned against them in a joint effort with the Turkish army.

YPJ (women's forces) get ready to go to the frontline north of Raqqa to fight ISIS, May 2017. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink

The withdrawal is up in the air – a few hundred troops will remain anyway – and meanwhile a diplomatic effort has started about a zone along the Turkish border in Syria from where the YPG and SDF would have to withdraw to reduce the ‘threat’ to Turkey. A military threat that doesn’t even exist, but the US has to take Turkish worries seriously in the already tense relationship between the two countries. The YPG and SDF are busy enough securing the safety within their areas and keeping possible intruders at a distance. Attacking Turkey is not on their agenda.

‘The solution of the Kurdish issue lies within a fundamental change of the system.' 

In another respect, the Kurds whose struggle is inspired by Öcalan are indeed a threat. Both in Syria as in Turkey, they strive for a radically different make-up of society, in which there is even no place for the classical nation-state but where communities govern themselves on village and neighbourhood level. Turkey has always been a very centrally governed state and Erdoğan has only strengthened that, for example by introducing the presidential system.

Cemil Bayık puts it like this: ‘The solution of the Kurdish issue lies within a fundamental change of the system. On the basis of democratic autonomy (bottom up democracy, FG) the democratization of Syria can be shaped. Turkey doesn’t want such a Syria. A democratization that fundamentally solves the Kurdish issue puts existing Turkish politics under pressure. That is why Turkey doesn’t want a solution and chooses to attack. Not only because of the Kurds, but because Erdoğan doesn’t want a democratic Syria.’

Occupying force

The Öcalan-fighters have to be destroyed. And if that goal can’t be reached, then at least they must be weakened. That is what Operation Claw is about. That’s also what the operation in Afrin is about, the Kurdish area in the northwest of Syria that was not connected with the rest of the Kurdish enclave and that was occupied by Turkey at the beginning of 2018. The Americans had no presence there and Turkey got permission from Russia to enter the airspace over Arfin. Ever since, human rights have been violated on a large scale. Not only Kurds themselves say that, but international human rights organisations as well. Turkey does there what it has been doing for decades as occupying force on Kurdish territory: murder, torture, kidnapping, demographic change (in this case: Kurds out, to let in Arabs - in general displaced people from elsewhere in Syria),  economic looting, Turkification.

KCK co-leaders Bese Hozat and Cemil Bayık. Photo: ANF 

The AKP candidate for the mayoral race in Istanbul, Binali Yıldırım, alluded to this in the live TV-debate he had with his rival Imamoğlu: ‘Syrian refugees will return home. Almost half a million people have returned already to the areas that Turkey liberated from terrorists and more will leave Turkey after the area east of the river Euphrates has been cleared.’ That’s the area where the Kurdish democratic experiment is taking place. ‘Clearing’ is a euphemism.

Öcalan has communicated via his lawyers that he is prepared to play a ‘positive role’ in solving the problems in Syria 

The YPG has repeatedly stated that they will not accept a Turkish presence in Syria. In Afrin, they show that with a permanent guerrilla campaign against the occupation. Öcalan has communicated via his lawyers that he is prepared to play a ‘positive role’ in solving the problems in Syria, and no doubt he has said that to the Turkish intelligence agency MIT as well. He even said that ‘Turkish sensitivities’ have to be taken into account in Syria. It remains unclear to which sensitivities he was actually pointing. But an Öcalan in isolation can’t play a role to begin with, so the state had no choice but to let his voice come through again.

What Öcalan wants for Syria is the same as his wish for Turkey: advanced democracy, a radically new constitution with rights for minorities and equality for women, far-reaching decentralisation. The right to self defence for the Kurds also has a central place in the ideology. All things that make Erdoğan tilt.

White cloth

Is Erdoğan buying time? In the winter, an operation in the mountains in the north of Iraq wasn’t possible, but now it is. Is Öcalan being used to enable the Turkish army to strike? Did the hunger strikes really contribute to the lifting of Öcalan’s isolation? Do the elections in Istanbul have anything at all to do with Erdoğan’s current Kurdish policy?

Maybe the hunger strikes and the new elections have speeded up developments. More and more hunger strikers reached a critical phase in their action. Their mothers, with white cloth around their heads as a sign of love for their children and solidarity with their cause, were increasingly present in the streets around the prisons where their children were almost fasting themselves to death, just like the police, who sometimes approached the mothers with violence. Coffins being carried out of the prisons and videos on social media of mothers – almost sacred in Turkey – who are beaten and held for hours in detention, that’s never positive in election times.

The Kurds in Syria are on pins and needles and it remains to be seen if their democratic experiment will survive 2019. 

It’s not the first time that Öcalan has managed to end a hunger strike. The previous time was in September 2012 and then too the strike was about him. At the time, the end of the hunger strike was one the preludes to the ‘peace process’ that started in the spring of 2013. Between quotation marks, because it soon turned out that there was no genuine peace process. The diminishing of violence created space for the Kurdish movement to work on the same democratization process that had started in the Kurdish areas of Syria in 2011. It only strengthened the near sacred status of Öcalan.

Portraits of five PKK-fighters who didn't survive Operation Claw. Photo: ANF

But now? The Kurds in Syria are on pins and needles and it remains to be seen if their democratic experiment will survive 2019. If it is not the Turkish army that comes to occupy their lands, it could be Russian jet bombers setting out to help Assad take control again over the whole of Syria. How long will their break be after the battle for Idlib, in an excruciatingly bloody phase right now, is decided in their favour?

His comrade's status

The Öcalan fighters in the mountains in the north of Iraq are resisting, but Operation Claw seems to have them in their grip. Turkish ground troops are not their biggest worry – the guerrillas know the mountains like the back of their hand, and Turkish soldiers don’t –  but if an armed drone has detected you, your life as a guerrilla ends within seconds . What will it do to Öcalan’s status if nothing positive comes out of his involvement? Bayık, who was one of the co-founders of the PKK in 1978, doesn’t believe his comrade's status can weaken. He wrote: ‘If the violence increases, his importance will only grow. There is no solution for the Kurdish issue without Öcalan. He has said that even from his grave he will play a role.’

It is unclear how many lives Claw has claimed so far. On 17 June, the state claimed 58 PKK-fighters had been ‘taken out of action’, but the army tallies are notoriously unreliable. The official death count on the army’s side is two, for which the same level of unreliability applies. The PKK doesn’t keep track of how many of its own people and how many of the enemy have been killed in Operation Claw. The PKK fights a constant war against ‘the occupying army’ in the mountains in both Iraq and Turkey, with or without Claw. ANF, the news agency affiliated with the PKK, reports ‘actions’ in the whole area. Sometimes the number of murdered soldiers is specified, sometimes they say the number of deaths couldn’t be established. And for their own losses there are no clear statistics. There are messages of ‘martyred’ fighters who are ‘announced to the public’ after they have been identified, but it can take months before names and pictures are shared.

Conclusion of a peace process

But the number of casualties is too high anyway. The issue doesn’t have a military solution; that much is clear thirty five years after the first PKK attack against the state. Breaking the isolation of Öcalan is not enough. The negotiating table must be dug up from the dungeons of Erdoğan’s palace, set up and cleaned. The goal should be the freedom of Öcalan. This is also what the broader Kurdish movement, including in Europe, is aiming at. They know that the day he walks out of prison will be the day of the successful conclusion of a peace process in which the Kurds finally get the autonomy and security they are entitled to.