International engagement in reviving peace talks between the government of Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) would be viewed positively by the Kurdish side, Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) Co-Chair and founding member of the PKK Cemil Bayik told the Kurdish Peace Institute in an exclusive interview.
With security conditions in the PKK’s mountain strongholds in Iraqi Kurdistan prohibiting an in-person meeting, the KCK co-chair responded to questions sent in writing.
The following is the first part of the interview, which focuses on specific political dynamics and current events related to Turkey, Syria and the Kurdish movement. The second part of the interview, looking at wider global trends and philosophical frameworks, can be read here.
Kurdish Peace Institute: Elections are approaching in Turkey, and Kurdish voters are in a position to decide the outcome. How do you see the elections? What different outcomes are you preparing for, and how might you respond in each case?
Cemil Bayik: On February 6th, two strong earthquakes struck Turkey, particularly its Kurdish regions. According to official data, more than 40,000 people have lost their lives so far. But some estimates suggest that the death toll could reach the hundreds of thousands.
The peoples of Turkey are paying a heavy price for the AKP government’s allocation of all of Turkey’s resources to the war against the Kurds and the PKK. After seeing the destruction the earthquake caused and how it set the agenda of the peoples of Turkey, we, as a movement, thought it would be right to make a new assessment of the situation and act in line with moral and humanitarian necessities rather than politics. For this reason, we took the decision to pause military activity. I personally announced this decision to all our forces and the public on behalf of the Co-Presidency of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) Executive Council. Our forces will not take any action in the cities of Turkey unless they are attacked. The attitude of the AKP-MHP government towards this decision will undoubtedly affect and determine the direction of developments.
As for the elections, the AKP-MHP government will most likely not hold the elections at the scheduled time. The AKP has actually lost. There has never been as much corruption, theft and stealing in the history of Turkey as there is now. Erdogan’s sons, sons-in-law, daughters, relatives and peers are all corrupt. The people know this. Turkey’s economy is almost bankrupt. Inflation is at its highest rate in the last 40 years. Poverty and unemployment are at an extreme level and political instability continues to increase. On top of this the AKP is also at odds with global politics. Erdogan has set everyone against each other with his fanatical nationalism and Ottoman mindset. Therefore, it is almost certain that the AKP will fall from power in the next election.
Nationalism is the only argument they have. When a society faces oppression and persecution, when there is hunger, when there is corruption at all levels, I do not think that it will be influenced by nationalist propaganda. There will not be as much support for the AKP-MHP government as before.
The Labor and Freedom Bloc, formed under the leadership of the HDP, will be decisive in the elections. Both the People’s Alliance and the National Alliance know this very well. Neither the People’s Alliance nor the National Alliance will be able to win without the support of the HDP. This remains true whether the elections are postponed or not. I think that the HDP will support whoever shows a positive and consistent approach to the democratic solution of the Kurdish question and the democratization of Turkey. They are in a position to determine the outcome of the elections.
Turkey claims that the PKK is present in northeastern Syria and that it uses this territory to threaten Turkish national security. Can you address these allegations? What is your relationship with northeastern Syria?
The PKK does not have military forces in Syria, as Turkey claims, nor does it use the territory of Syria to threaten Turkey’s security. This is a lie. It is an attempt by the Turkish state to justify its occupation. It is true that the PKK went to North and East Syria to protect Kurds, Arabs, Christians, and all of humanity from ISIS. It is also true that the PKK paid a great price in its resistance against ISIS—and that by stopping this terror group, it made great gains for all humanity.
During the Kobani battle, many documents and images revealed how the AKP government harbored, trained, and equipped ISIS gangs and how they attacked the Syrian people, especially the Kurds. Erdogan confidently claimed at the time ‘Kobani has fallen, it will fall.’ But because of the resistance of the PKK, YPG and YPJ, as well as the support of the U.S.-led Coalition forces, Kobani did not fall. On the contrary, it was liberated, and a heavy blow was dealt to the inhumane ISIS thugs. After the defeat of ISIS, the PKK withdrew its forces from North and East Syria/Rojava, leaving only a limited number of sick, elderly, and wounded comrades.
Our relations with North and East Syria/Rojava go back almost half a century. Our leader Apo [Abdullah Ocalan] stayed in Syria for 20 years. During that time, he built relationships with many segments of society. He established great trust and prestige not only among the Kurds of Rojava, but also among the Arab and Christian communities of the region. This can be seen in the millions of signatures, marches, rallies and the demands of the Arab and Christian communities for the freedom of our leader Apo.
We saw it as a duty of honor to protect the Syrian peoples against the ISIS thugs supported by the Turkish state. Nothing could be more natural than the Syrian peoples loving, sympathizing with, and supporting the PKK.
The Turkish state sees this situation as a threat and therefore threatens to launch a third land operation following the attacks on Efrin [Afrin], Serekaniye [Ras al-Ain] and Gire Spi [Tal Abyad]. We know very well that the AKP has expansionist ambitions.
Erdogan bases these overt and covert ambitions on the fact that Turkey is the second largest force in NATO. In fact, he acts like NATO’s spoiled child. Turkey manipulates NATO and takes advantage of U.S.-Russia tensions for its own interests. As a result, it has intervened everywhere from North Africa to Syria and Rojava to Iraq and Southern Kurdistan. Its regime threatens the Middle East as a whole, not only the Kurds. In my opinion, it is even challenging global politics.
If Turkey attempts an invasion, how might this affect military and political dynamics related to the Kurdish issue? And how would you respond?
If the Turkish state launches a new invasion against North and East Syria/Rojava, the impact and consequences of this will definitely not be limited to the Kurds and Rojava.
I predict that a new attack will not be as successful as the two previous operations Turkey has carried out. The peoples of North and East Syria/Rojava have learned a great deal from these events. It is possible to see in their statements that they are preparing for such an invasion. Kurds have no choice but organized resistance and success. I believe that, based on these experiences, the peoples of the region will not let the occupation pass.
A new offensive will create new political and military dynamics for the Kurds. The division of Kurdistan into four separate nation-states does not mean that there are no political and social relations and spiritual unity among the Kurds. In this context, a new invasion will bring about a new assessment of the situation and will unify the Kurds both politically and militarily. It may also be possible for this to be reflected in the international arena and for the international community to emerge more strongly in favor of the Kurds. In short, a new potential for resistance may emerge in Kurdistan.
As a result, by trying to crush the Kurds in Rojava, the Turkish state may find itself with a bigger Kurdish problem. It may become even more desperate in the face of stronger Kurdish resistance—or it may be forced to accept the Kurds’ will for a solution as a last resort.
Turkey has so far failed to get a “green light” for a new offensive from the United States and Russia, the two guarantor powers of the post-2019 ceasefires in northern Syria. Erdogan is also trying to normalize relations with Syria in order to target the Autonomous Administration. How do you see the positions of the U.S. and Russia in northern Syria, and their approaches to Turkey more broadly? How do you see the Turkish-Syrian normalization process?
Russia has a 50-year treaty with the Syrian state, if I am not mistaken. Their relationship is strategic. In fact, currently only Russia has the right to have military forces on Syrian territory according to international law. Russia’s power in the Mediterranean and its influence in the Middle East is dependent on its relations with Syria. For this reason, Russia has supported Syria with all its power and resources. It has provided great military and economic support and defended it on international platforms.
The United States first wanted to have an impact on Syria by organizing and mobilizing moderate Islamist forces. It sought to train, equip and prepare these pseudo-Islamist forces together with Turkey on Turkish soil. Yet this project failed. These forces were inconsistent, and the United States lost confidence in them. The relationship that the Turkish state developed with these groups was very different. They were already ideologically close to each other. The Turkish state sought to organize and influence them more from below. For this reason, this project ended in failure for the U.S. Nevertheless, the U.S. is still in contact with some of these groups in northern Syria, in Idlib and in other regions. The U.S. gained influence in Syria after developing relations with the SDF. And as a NATO power, it also has relations with Turkey, which occupies a very large area of northern Syria. The conclusion here is that the current situation and future of Syria will neither be as Russia alone wants it to be, nor as the United States alone wants it to be.
Russia’s relationship with Turkey has always been problematic and troubled. The current relationship and policies of Turkey and Russia are more aligned. The AKP-MHP government’s tendency to favor Russia should not to be underestimated. Turkey’s break with NATO is seen as a weak possibility. But even so, Turkey uses its membership in NATO as a trump card, so to speak, even against NATO itself. In other words, to extract more concessions from the US and Europe, it reminds them that there is the Russian option. Undoubtedly, this is an unprincipled policy. Russia is approaching Turkey just as Turkey is approaching Russia. Its relations with the AKP state are purely based on a handful of aligned interests.
The US, on the other hand, is watching what the AKP state wants to do and the direction of its policies. Since Turkey is an important member of NATO, the U.S. pursues a policy of over-indulgence towards Turkey. While many of the Erdogan government’s political outbursts do not coincide with the interests of the U.S. and Europe, the AKP government is spoiled, so to speak. It uses this relationship to extract concessions.
Erdogan and the AKP government are in a very difficult situation in every respect. With elections approaching, Turkey needs a breath of fresh air. Erdogan can’t find success with his Syria policy. He would not be seeking a deal with Syria otherwise. Whether this may be an attempt to blackmail the US and Europe must be evaluated and understood. But even more than that, Erdogan and the AKP want to mend relations with Syria because they are struggling.
In Syria, the Erdogan-AKP state has supported groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra to the fullest. The killing of ISIS leader Baghdadi in Idlib, just a few kilometers from the Turkish border, is proof of this. These groups are a problem. The Erdogan-AKP government cannot completely give up on them, nor does it want to continue its strategy through these groups. It seems difficult for the Syrian state to normalize its relations with Turkey when Turkey occupies a large part of Syrian territory and supports so many extremist militias. On the other hand, to the extent that the Turkish state improves its relations with Syria, the militias under its control will be a big problem. Therefore, the AKP’s predicament is a tough one.
In any case, the Syrian state will not make many concessions to Turkey on this issue. Turkey has not only occupied Syrian territory but has also annexed it. It is not right to expect Syria, a sovereign state, to develop normal relations with Turkey under these circumstances. Erdogan will try to manage the process until the elections. Any way you look at it, Syria is a problem for him.
Ultimately, what kind of solution is needed to avoid conflict in northeast Syria? What would you be willing to do to promote such a solution?
It would be more accurate to think about the solution for Syria in general, rather than for northeast Syria alone. There is so much conflict and intervention in Syria that an opportunity will not be easy to find in the near future. What is needed is a new and democratic Syria.
North and East Syria has been governing itself based on the democratic autonomy model for more than ten years. There, all peoples, beliefs and cultures are living a democratic and free life. This democratic lifestyle and the status of democratic autonomy must be protected and developed. For this, the Syrian state must make a democratic transformation. The acceptance of the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria will not weaken Syria—it will strengthen democratic Syria.
But if Syria does not democratize, if it behaves as though the developments of more than ten years never happened, if it does not change its mentality—this will undoubtedly be a problem. The peoples of northeastern Syria will protect their democratic free life and autonomous status. They have paid a great price for it. For this, all forces that want the democratization of Syria must support the beliefs, cultures and communities living together democratically and freely in North and East Syria.
In Syria, where multi-faith, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic communities live together, we reject all forms of nationalism—whether religious, ethnic, or cultural. We welcome and support all efforts to realize a solution on this basis.
The United States lists the PKK as a terrorist organization and provides other forms of political and military support to Turkey in its war against Kurdish armed groups and civilians alike. How do you respond to these charges of terrorism and other legal designations?
First of all, I must say that it is a great injustice for the U.S. to list the PKK as a terrorist organization. The U.S. knows very well that it is not a terrorist movement. Forget terrorist—it is not even a nationalist movement. The PKK is a movement that desires the democratic and free coexistence of all beliefs, cultures and communities, creates a paradigm for this, and fights for this only.
This is the case despite genocidal policies against the Kurds. The Kurds are denied an existence as a people. Even birds have a language of their own, but the Kurdish language is not accepted, it is denied. It requires real empathy to understand what it means to ignore a people with a population of tens of millions at this level, to even deny their mother tongue.
Despite this, the Kurdish people, under the leadership of the PKK, have never fallen into the mire of nationalism. Can such a movement ever be terrorist? On the contrary, something should be said and done about the Turkish state for its refusal to give up its policies of denial and annihilation against the Kurds. And to be very clear: the Turkish state should not be able to do all of this with the support of its primary ally, the United States.
There are allegations that the PKK has used indiscriminate violence and other tactics that violate the laws of war. Can you respond to these allegations?
We have been fighting for the freedom of our people for almost half a century. During these long and difficult years of struggle, there have been some actions that we do not approve of, that did not sufficiently reflect our consciousness, morality, and values. These are nothing compared to the daily actions of the Turkish state. Nevertheless, I can easily state that we have questioned and held to account every incident and action that is incompatible with the laws of war, conscience and morality, and the reality of the PKK.
It is a great injustice to compare these to the thousands of villages the Turkish state burned and destroyed, the millions of people it has displaced and exiled, or the chemical weapons and banned substances that it still uses against the guerrilla, or the tens of thousands of murders that remain unsolved to this day. The Turkish state fights the Kurdish people in a way that has nothing to do with international law. It has carried out countless conspiracies, provocations and murders against the Kurdish people, businessmen, patriots, women, youth, people of faith, representatives of political and civil society organizations. It has even tried to blame many of these criminal practices on our organization.
For this reason, our leader Apo proposed a Truth and Justice Commission. He called for independent and impartial commissions, both national and international, to investigate all crimes. However, the Turkish state has never accepted this proposal. Nor has it allowed any other initiative or approach.
The PKK respects the rules of war. We signed two conventions with the U.N. Geneva Call Group in the 1990s. These conventions are signed by both non-state forces and states. One is that minors should not be used in combat. The other forbids use of landmines/anti-personnel mines. We have pledged to abide by international law. However, we know very well that the Turkish state commits many crimes against international conventions every day before the eyes of the world. The Turkish state sees no limits or drawbacks in committing crimes against the Kurds by using its strategic and geopolitical position and by placing the advantages of being a member of NATO above all contracts and agreements.
How has U.S. support for Turkey’s war affected the conflict? How has it affected political dynamics and stability in Turkey and Kurdistan?
The U.S. has provided the Turkish state with unlimited military, material, political and psychological support in its war against the Kurdish people and their struggle for freedom. Turkey would not have been able to continue its war or to commit war crimes so freely without this. The US, the EU, NATO and other international powers have helped Turkey commit crimes and evade accountability. All attempts and applications made to the relevant platforms on these issues have been immediately rejected. Unfortunately, we see that inter-state interests are once again prioritized above the existence and freedom of a people.
We are in February. February 15th is the day when our leader Apo was handed over to the Turkish state by an international conspiracy and imprisoned on the island of Imrali. 24 years have passed since then. Our leader Apo wanted to reach out to Europe to see if he could solve the Kurdish problem through democratic methods. But the international system, led by the U.S., rejected this and refused to accept him. This was open support for the Turkish state against the Kurds. It sowed the seeds of an endless war between the Kurds and Turks. However, our leader Apo prevented great dangers by developing a paradigm for the solution of the Kurdish question and the democratization of Turkey, free from all forms of nationalism.
The AKP approached our leader Apo’s proposals from a tactical perspective only. Unfortunately, the U.S. and the EU did not play a positive role during this time. They did not apply pressure on the Turkish state or engage positively with our leader Apo’s proposals for a solution and the unilateral ceasefires he has repeatedly agreed to.
We have a right to demand that the powers that have supported the Turkish state now take responsibility for what they have done and make amends by playing a role in a peaceful solution. The U.S. must assume responsibility. The time has come for a solution to the Kurdish question. Our leader Apo can play a facilitating role at every level.
There is a growing view in the U.S. that a peaceful solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question could be beneficial for regional stability and security. Under what circumstances would you be willing to support a new effort toward a negotiated settlement? What steps would you be willing to take to make it a reality? What steps would you need to see from the Turkish government? What would you need to see from the international community, particularly the United States?
We certainly see it as a positive development. The Kurdish question is a regional problem. It directly concerns the four Middle Eastern states of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, and thus the Middle East in general. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the Kurdish problem is not a regional problem, but an international problem. In this regard, the tendency towards a solution that is gradually developing in the US is very valuable for the solution of the Kurdish question.
The solution of the Kurdish question will bring democracy and freedom in the four countries where the Kurds live— that is, the democratization of the Middle East. This will have an international impact. There is no military solution to the Kurdish question. A purely military solution is not possible for either the Turkish state or the PKK. 40 years of war has shown this. In this context, it is very valuable that an official of Mr. Biden’s administration stated last summer that there is “no military solution” to the conflict. The problem has now come full circle to a democratic solution. All political dynamics in Turkey demand this.
If there is a serious will for a solution in the Turkish public opinion (which is developing), in the Turkish state, and in the international arena, especially in the U.S., the Kurdish side is both willing and ready.
Our leader Apo has concentrated on a solution more than anyone else, developing one perspective, suggestion, opinion, and project after another. He once said: “If they give me a week, I will solve the Kurdish problem, I am ready to solve it”. The problem is the lack of a similar will from the other side: the Turkish state.
If there is international interest in a solution, it would be impossible not to see positive developments. It is precisely at this point that the U.S. and the international community can and must play a constructive role. The Turkish state does not need to take too many steps. I believe that if the Turkish side puts aside its previous tactical and superficial understanding and attitudes, puts forward a serious will for peace and a solution at a high level, and starts negotiating with our leader Apo, a solution can be achieved. Mutual requests and demands and the negotiation process can develop on such a basis.
It is true that we have expectations from the international community, especially the U.S.. There are understandable reasons for this: since the U.S. supports the Turkish state in its war against the Kurds and the PKK at all levels, there is no trust problem between them and Turkey on this issue. As I mentioned, the Turkish state could not have continued this war for 40 years without the United States. We know this very well and the Turkish state does too. In this sense, the role of the U.S. and the international community is important. They should put pressure on Turkey, encourage it to abandon its strategy of war, and encourage a democratic political solution. This would be a very important step towards a solution.