Kurdish PKK leader tells ‘Post’ of ‘peaceful struggle’ against Turkey

Murat Karayilan, PKK military commander
(photo credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)

As the commander of an ongoing insurgency, he rarely speaks with journalists.

Murat Karayilan, 56, is one of the senior leaders of the PKK, or Kurdish Workers’ Party. A veteran fighter of this organization’s long struggle against Turkey and for greater autonomy and rights for Turkey’s Kurdish population, he is a marked man in the eyes of Ankara, surviving a Turkish assassination attempt in 2017.  
The war between Ankara and the PKK is today ongoing in the remote, mountainous territory between southern Turkey and northern Iraq.  Little reported in international media, clashes take place daily between the guerrillas of the PKK and the specialized Turkish army units seeking to flush them out from their mountain fastnesses. There are no signs of a resolution any time soon.   
Turkish armed drones in particular have been reaping a heavy toll from the PKK’s fighters in recent months.  Several of Karayilan’s close comrades have been killed.  Formerly the de facto leader of the organization, Murat Karayilan today commands the group’s military force, the HPG – the Peoples’ Defense Forces – and is a member of the executive committee, the PKK’s most senior body.
As the commander of an ongoing insurgency, he rarely speaks with journalists. Yet in conversation with the Magazine, this veteran fighter declares his preference for peaceful activity to gain Kurdish rights.
US-PKK relations
Your party is listed on the US terrorist list, and the US has issued a reward for information on your whereabouts. What is the cause of enmity between you and the Americans? Are you looking into ways to resolve this?
Kurdish nationalism is among the oldest in the region. Despite decades of denial and persecution, we were able to preserve our existence up to today. We are the party of the oppressed and we represent their rights. We do not have enmity toward any party, including the US, and we have never targeted the US. After the First World War during the Lausanne Conference, US president Woodrow Wilson acknowledged Kurdish rights, but the other powers worked against Wilson’s recommendations. The Lausanne agreement was catastrophic to the Kurdish nation.
Turkey practices a policy of denial when it comes to the Kurds. They work to eradicate Kurds physically or through cultural assimilation. America does not deny the human rights of Kurds, but it also doesn’t have a clear policy that acknowledges the Kurds as a nation. The PKK emerged in Kurdistan as an intellectual movement where students and youth countered the authority of the tribal chieftains, as we advocated for democratic values instead of tribal hierarchies. That’s why the chieftains work against us and encourage the Western world to list us as terrorists.
Up until now, America has not engaged with us. The US learns about us from third parties who are against us – like the Turkish state. I think that America has been fed misleading and fraudulent information about us. The only solution is for America to engage with us, lay out a clear policy toward the Kurds and contribute to solving the Kurdish issue. Listing me and my colleagues on the terrorist list was only a calculated maneuver from US politicians to appease the Turkish state.
When you co-founded the PKK, you had different goals than now. You are no longer seeking a united Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The Syrian Kurds who share an ideology with you are the only ally of the US in Syria. Do you still see the US as an imperialist state that works against your aspirations?
When we founded the PKK, Marxist-Leninism was a trend, and we were influenced by these ideas. We, however, criticized the Soviet ideology. That is why when the Soviet Union collapsed we were not affected negatively, because we always kept a distance from them.
Our leader, [Abdullah] Öcalan, left Syria on November 9, 1998, and he was subsequently kidnapped on February 15, 1999, in an operation carried out by many countries. Öcalan was trying to solve the Kurdish issue with diplomacy but that failed with his arrest. This was another declaration of war against our people. If Öcalan was not arrested, the Kurdish issue could have been solved.
Despite all of that, we insist on solving our issues with peaceful methods. We were never hostile to the US. Öcalan revised many of our party ideas while imprisoned. He has emphasized democracy, environmentalism and women’s rights.
We are always ready for a political solution. We encourage the Kurds of Rojava [Syrian Kurdistan] and the Kurds of Rojhelat [Iran] to have relations with the US. Öcalan once said “The Soviet Union collapsed because they did not have democracy, but America remained because of democracy.” We are not against having relations with the US. In contrast, we totally support great relations between the Kurds from every part of Kurdistan with the US.
Unfortunately, despite our support for democracy, liberty and human rights, the US and Western countries still support the Turkish state and its military campaign against us. We hope the US will review its policy and be more positive toward the Kurdish people. We call on the US to delist us from the terrorist list. The PKK had a major role in stopping ISIS from expanding in the region, and we hope that the US will change their views toward our movement. Such a diplomatic approach would benefit the US and its allies in the region.
The US could play a mediating role between you and the Turkish state, but might ask you to disarm. What would make you disarm?
Yes, America could do so if they put their weight into it. When the Turkish republic was established, Kurdish federalism was approved by the founders in 1919. Kurds were promised an autonomous region, but in 1923 Kurdistan was divided by four countries. The US and Europeans can help broker a peace agreement just as they helped resolve the troubles in Ireland.
The 66th article of the Turkish constitution says everyone who lives in the Turkish boundary is a Turk, and Turkey commits crimes against our people under this article. Some 20 million Kurds live inside Turkey, and the constitution of Turkey needs to be modified. Without acknowledging the Kurds in Turkey and without freeing all political prisoners, including Abdullah Öcalan, we cannot disarm.
But in 2013, didn’t Öcalan issue a call to put the guns aside and turn to dialogue rather than armed resistance?
Yes, that is true. At that time, the Turkish state responded to his call at the beginning and then resorted to their old policy of violence against us. We were forced to defend ourselves.
Erdogan, Iran attitudes toward Israel
Turkish President Recep Erdogan is adopting what is called a neo-Ottoman approach toward former countries of the Ottoman Empire. He also has exploited the Arab Spring. The AKP party is an Atatürkian party that opposes neo-Ottomanism. How do we understand that hypocrisy?
Also, are you now closer to parties that are more aligned with the vision of [former Turkish president Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk, like CHP, despite your disagreement with the ideals of Atatürk?
The AKP follows the doctrine of the Committee of Union and Progress (CPU) and not the doctrine of Atatürk. The CPU started in 1908 and continued until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The CPU wanted to preserve Ottomanism. This why they fought for that ideology and committed genocide against the Armenians, Greeks, Syriacs, Assyrians and all the Christians.
Erdogan is now in a coalition with the ultra-nationalist MHP Party that is anti-American, anti-Western and anti-secular. They are both working toward Islamization of Turkey by adopting a neo-Ottoman approach, which is a real threat against the Kurdish, Greek, Syriac and Assyrian peoples. Look at how they intervened in Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Armenia and in southern Kurdistan. Look at how they are relying on elements from al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic organizations.
Look at how Erdogan reacted because we defended the Yazidis in Sinjar and encouraged the war against ISIS in all parts of Kurdistan. CHP agrees with AKP when it comes to the Kurdish issue, but we agree with them on other issues because they oppose the alliance between the AKP and MHP. However, they are no different than them when it comes to the Kurdish issue.
I want to ask you about Iran: Why do you only focus on Turkey while the Kurds are persecuted in Iran? Do you have better relations with Tehran, and do you disagree with Iranian expansionism in the Middle East?
Turkey is not the only country that acts as a hostile occupier of Kurdistan. Syria and Iran have the same program and vision toward the Kurds. Turkey, Iran and Syria have always worked against us. It is not as the Turkish propaganda claims. We are very active against Iran, and the Iranians attack us on many occasions. The PJAK [Kurdistan Free Life Party] and many other Kurdish groups that are active against the oppression by Iran. We always favor the peaceful struggle, whether against Turkey or Iran, but these countries attack us with deadly force.
How do you see the peace agreements in the Middle East? Turkey has formal relations with Israel, yet stood against the Abraham Accords. As a Kurdish party, how do you look toward Israel?
Israel has the right to exist and Jews to have their own independent state, and so do the Palestinians. We support the UN resolutions to solve the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians with a two-state solution. This is why we agree with this peace treaty. It is a positive thing to have a peace treaty between Israel and the Arab countries.
We believe in confederalism to solve the problems of the Middle East. The Middle East has a very diverse population, and we have a great history of living in peace and harmony with each other.
Prospects for a ceasefire
The HDP, which is politically close to you, has 56 representatives in the Turkish parliament. When the PKK was established, the Kurdish people in Turkey were living under harsh circumstances that were much worse than today. Why do you insist on armed struggle against a large military power like Turkey – can’t you achieve your goals with nonviolent struggle?
When we started the armed resistance in 1984, it was something we were forced to do. We didn’t choose it. Turkey was a military dictatorship and oppressed our people. We were not allowed in the political arena, our people were not allowed to speak Kurdish even in their own homes. Under these circumstances, we had only one option – self-defense.
We kept fighting up until 1993. Then our leader, Öcalan, and the leader of the PUK, Jalal Talabani, met in Lebanon and declared a ceasefire. The armed resistance put the Kurdish issue on the table, and we declared the time of the armed struggle had ended. Our vision has always been about nonviolent struggle. Turgut Ozal tried to solve the Kurdish issue with dialogue, but the ‘deep state’ in Turkey stopped him.
Many of his assistants, like Adnan Kahveci and Esref Bitlis, were assassinated. Orzal’s ideas were thrown away and the Turkish state started a full-scale war against us. Starting from that date until now we’ve declared nine ceasefire initiatives. All these initiatives have failed because of the Turkish state. None of the negotiations with the Turkish state turned into agreement.
We stopped military campaigns for five years. In 2005, we met with a delegation of former UN officials who were working directly with me. Through the UN, we indirectly met with Turkey for three years in Oslo. While we were meeting and discussing peace, Turkey, Syria and Iran all agreed to work together against us. This agreement ended the dialogue.
In 2012, our leader Öcalan sent a letter to the Turkish politicians asking them to cease and to improve the dialogue, and Turkey agreed to that. We reached an official agreement in Dolmabahce Palace and we started the disarmament process. Eighteen days after reaching the agreement, on March 18, 2015, Erdogan said, “There is no agreement, I have no knowledge about any agreement.” Based on this statement, that July they started another military campaign against us that hasn’t stopped since.
We do not insist on armed conflict, but the Turkish state wants war. We want to sign an agreement to disarm ourselves. This will be difficult if the Turkish state continues its policy to eradicate us. We don’t want to continue with the war. We prefer dialogue to solve these issues.
The next phase in Syria
The Kurds of Syria suddenly have a lot more opportunities. They have diplomatic representations in many countries; Kurdish became an official language in Rojava; and Syrian-Kurdish leaders Mazloum Abdi and Ilham Ahmed are treated respectfully and meet with many world leaders. Do you think the Kurds of Syria are still under threat?
The Kurds of Syria fought against al-Qaeda and ISIS and had a key role in defeating these organizations. If ISIS had not been defeated in Kobane and Sinjar, ISIS could have controlled all of Syria and Iraq, and conducted raids against the world. The YPG and YPJ played a vital role in this resistance, later partnering with Syriac and Arab groups. They were all united under the values of a democratic federation not based on ethnicity, and proved that they are capable of working together. The SDF was later established as a multi-ethnic military coalition.
So, yes, the fact that Abdi and Ahmed are welcomed in capitals around the world is good, not only for the Kurds but for the whole population of north and east Syria.
The Kurds of Syria and elsewhere were also hurt by seeing the US abandon them in Afrin, Ras al-Ayn and Tell Abyad. The ethnic cleansing carried out is unique in our time, with these crimes committed by a country that is a member of and supported by NATO.
The Kurds of Rojava are living in a new age, but the threats are still there – from Turkey, ISIS and Syria’s Assad regime, which refuses any reconciliation. We have 50 million Kurds around the world, and they are not acknowledged by the UN as a nation.
The Kurds have proven themselves to be the champions of democracy, liberty, secularism, the freedom of women and they have fought against all types of terrorism. We will continue to do so.
Relevant groups: A guide for the perplexed
PKK: Kurdish Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê). A Kurdish militant political organization calling for greater autonomy and political and cultural rights for Turkey’s Kurds. Founded by now imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1978, the group has been engaged in an armed insurgency against Turkey since 1984.
AKP: Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi). A conservative Islamic political party founded in 2001, and supportive of Turkey’s Ottoman traditions and its Islamic identity. The party has been in government in Turkey without a break since 2002, winning pluralities in the last six elections. It is led by current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
CHP: Republican Peoples’ Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi). A Kemalist (secular Turkish nationalist) social-democratic party in Turkey. It is the oldest political party in the country and currently forms the main parliamentary opposition to the AKP. As a Kemalist party, it is also traditionally hostile to the Kurdish separatist ambitions of the PKK.
HDP: Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi). A leftist, pro-minority political party in Turkey, supportive of feminism, democracy and LGBT rights. The party wants to radically change the Turkish-Kurdish divide. It is accused by the AKP of links to and support for the PKK.
MHP: Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi). A far-right, Turkish nationalist party. The party stresses the unitary nature of the Turkish state, and supports a version of Turkish nationalism with an Islamic tinge.

Sign up for The Jerusalem Post Premium Plus for just $5

Upgrade your reading experience with an ad-free environment and exclusive content

Join Now >

Load more...