Comment on Current Events

Nilüfer Koç

The War for Hegemony and its Consequences

It is becoming increasingly clear that the war for hegemony between the Pacific, led by China, and the Atlantic, led by the US, is turning the political strategies and tactics of the 20th century upside down. In many places of the world, the brutal power struggle between the two hegemonies is fought in the form of an economic and trade war. Economically weak nation states are forced to face this competitive war and strive for the maintenance of their status quo. Because of this war, they are forced to position themselves in support of one of the giants. On the Asian, African and Latin American continents, this war for the division of spoils has a direct influence on the life of the civilian population. Increasing poverty, rural flight, the privatization of natural resources such as waters, forests and soils by foreign companies as well as the privatization of education and health care are the consequence.

Swing to the Right in Europe

In Europe, an increasing lurch to the right signals the weakness of the EU as a “project of the century,” as the swing to the right in the realm of politics continues, particularly in the states of the EU. One of the last examples was Greece; the national states are increasingly occupying center stage as with Brexit in the UK.

In Germany, this swing to the right is developing like a sword of Damocles that threatens people with a migrant background, but also oppositional politicians of the left. Apart from lip service, the German state rarely acts against the political right in the same way as it has done and still does against the left. The absence of struggle against the lurch to the right also very clearly shows the weakness of the left and the democratic forces in the affected countries. Today, it is the primary task and responsibility of the left and the democrats to fight the ascendant trend towards nationalism. Unfortunately, they are often satisfied with criticizing the state instead of approaching the population and offering the people alternatives. But the vacuum left by the inactivity of the left opposition is filled by the right. The more the federal government banks on expansionist ambitions, the more the lurch to the right will accelerate in Germany. A Germany that is strengthened within the EU will also mean a strengthening of German interests on a global scale, because Germany dominates the EU on account of its economic power. The election of Mrs. von der Leyen to the post of the president of the EU commission has already been described as the Germanization of the EU.

The German Middle Eastern Policy: Investment in the Sick States

In its Middle Eastern policy, Germany banks, just as it did in both World Wars, on the “sick man of the Bosporus.” The recent request by the US to join in the support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was answered in the negative. Apart from many other factors, the 150 years of alliance policy between Ankara and Berlin are a decisive reason for this.

Not just in the case of Turkey, but also in the current conflict with Iran, Germany is pursuing its own path despite being a NATO partner and an ally of the US, while the US is acting with France in Syria and with the UK in the conflict with Iran. Germany for its part entered into an alliance with the Ottoman Empire in the 20th century in order to fight British and French influence in Europe. Because today the US is the leading power in this region, the current German policy with regard to Turkey and Iran is tantamount to taking a stance against the US. Once more, it looks as if Germany is investing in the “sick man of the Bosporus.” But the Iranian regime is also sick.

Of course, neither the US nor Germany are interested in democracy in Turkey or in Iran. They and all other states only care for their own power interests. Germany wants to keep the status quo of the national states of the Treaty of Lausanne, while the US wants to remold them into federal structures within their borders in order to be able to keep each of these countries as a whole under their control. A clear example of this is Iraq, which is de facto a federal state: Arab-Sunni, Arab-Shiite, and Kurdish. Each of these parts can be used against the others at any time. Germany insists on the preservation of these national states, including their current regimes. But this German policy will not succeed, most of all because of the Kurds, but also all of the other oppressed popular groups, religious communities, and women see themselves as victims of these states and are pursuing their freedom.

The Third Way for Turkey

In this context, it is all the more important to support the Kurdish alternative of the “third way.” Neither Turkey, nor Iran or the US or Germany are interested in the concerns of the civil population. But the organization and mobilization of the civil population is the third way. It doesn’t count on violence, but rather, on the strategy of “state plus democracy.” Democracy is represented by those who are outside of power; that is, outside of the state. The state can continue to exist, but the population should be enabled to create its own alternative through its political and legal struggle, but also through the building of local forms of self-administration. In the course of his meetings with his lawyers in May and June 2019, Abdullah Öcalan has outlined the realization of this strategy for the case of Turkey. He reminded Turkey of the policy of “soft power” and actually described the current policy of “hard power” as failed and unworkable. Even though the strategy of “soft power” used to be a US doctrine after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Öcalan wants to point out to Erdoğan that a policy based only on aggression and violence cannot be successful. He has called on the people, the opposition in Turkey, to pursue a social reconciliation. His suggestion to the Kurds was to become a trailblazer of this strategy. Social reconciliation means to bring together all those who have been set against each other by the racist, nationalist, and sexist policy of division pursued by the state. His suggestion to the Kurdish resistance is to discuss the methods of Gandhi. This actually involves forms of action of the third way; it is an attempt to force Turkey into democracy by peaceful means.

For Turkey, Erdoğan’s “Vision 2023” is a Risky Gamble

Today, both Öcalan’s suggestions and the electoral defeat of Erdoğan’s dictatorship offer great possibilities for the struggle for democracy in Turkey. The elections have shown very clearly that Erdoğan has lost the Kurds. His racist arguments, his systematic bombardment of South Kurdistan (Northern Iraq), his attacks against Rojava, and his incitement of Iran against the Kurds has infuriated all Kurds against him.

It becomes more and more obvious what the strategy of the Turkish state called “Vision 2023” in the era of Erdoğan actually means. Up until the 100th anniversary of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which assigned only a small part of the former Ottoman Empire to the newly created Turkish Republic, the parts lost back then are supposed to go back to Turkey through the annexation of North Syria (Rojava) and Northern Iraq (South Kurdistan). Supposedly, these heirlooms of his fathers (the Ottomans) were stolen from him (Erdoğan).

Turkey has fought the Kurdish self-administration in Rojava since its very beginning in 2012. At first, it did so by supporting the Islamic State (IS), and now, after the successful military victory of the YPG/YPJ/SDF over the IS, it does so with its own army. Turkey wants to annex Rojava no matter what it costs. It wants to occupy it under the pretext of a “security zone.” Even though the self-administration has followed the advice by Öcalan to take Turkish phobias into account and has suggested allowing a Turkish presence under UN supervision in Rojava of up to five kilometers beyond its borders, Erdoğan insists on a Turkish advance into Rojava of 32 kilometers. This means that this is not about protecting the Turkish border, but that he wants to go into the Kurdish towns in order to occupy them, as he did with Efrîn on March 18, 2018.

The Dream of the Misak-ı Millî

At present, Turkey besieges South Kurdistan, using the PKK presence there as a pretext. But the positions of the Turkish bases in the northern mountainous regions in South Kurdistan clearly show the boundaries of the Misak-ı Millî, and reveal the PKK is being used as a pretext – but also as the force that actually resists the Turkish occupation.

Misak-ı Millî means “national pact” or “national oath.” It was supposed to mark the new, post-WWI boundaries of the Turkish state in the negotiations with the victorious powers that had defeated the Ottoman Empire. The partition of the Ottoman Empire in the Treaty of Lausanne was supposed to be effected in accord with this pact, and the Turkish territory was supposed to include not just Batumi and Thrace, but also the old provinces of Mosul (today’s South Kurdistan up to the Kurdish town of Silêmanî at the Iranian border) and Aleppo (including, apart from the region Aleppo itself, all of Rojava/North and East Syria).

Turkey Wants to Profit from the Chaos in the Middle East

The appetite of Turkish expansionism is fostered by the multipolar character of word politics, which, on account of the strong competition between the states, engenders chaos and situations of vacuum, particularly in the Middle East. In the turmoil of the war for the partition of the region, the regional national states such as Syria, Iraq, and Iran are weak. Turkey now hopes to finally be able to realize the dream of the Misak-ı Millî. It has intensified its war of occupation, especially with the increasing international isolation and encirclement of Iran. In the case of the possible downfall of the Iranian regime, it hopes to inherit the latter’s position as a regional power in the Middle East. In any case, the relationship between Turkey and Iran had always been characterized by confrontation; any cooperation between them was always directed against the Kurds. But because the Kurds in Iran, similar to those in Syria, are also pursuing the third way, Turkey finds itself unable to win over Iran as desired via the pursuit of anti-Kurdish goals. The Kurdish third way for Iran means democratization from within together with all ethnic and religious groups without any external intervention.

Turkey in Conflict with NATO

At present, it is not just the domestic weakness of the AKP and Erdoğan that offers a big chance for democracy, but also the international and regional conflicts that the Turkish state has generated with its expansionist policy. Since 1952, Turkey, as a member of NATO, had to play its role as a bulwark for the Atlantic interests. Now it wants to opt out of this role, to take over the position of Iran, and to become a regional power itself. Its conflicts with the US and the other NATO states result from this fact. The call of Erdoğan for the Misak-ı Millî on, of all days, the 24th of July, the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, was very hard to ignore. From this follows a war aimed at the desired borders of the Misak-ı Millî in two parts of Kurdistan. Rojava, that is, Northern and Eastern Syria, is in great danger, as Turkey has been increasing its military presence at the borders over the last several weeks. In South Kurdistan, the Turkish military is moving in the direction of Qandil in order to push forward to the Iranian border.

The Misak-ı Millî will prove impossible, primarily because of the old provinces of Aleppo and Mosul, since the Kurds, led by the PKK, are vehemently opposed to the occupation of their land. Even though Iran so far keeps silent about the air strikes at its borders in South Kurdistan, in the long run it will not be able to tolerate this expansion, because if Turkey militarily succeeds in getting from Qandil to Silêmanî, it will also make it directly to the Iranian border.

The Turkish war of occupation is particularly furious in the region of Xakurkê in the border triangle between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Here, it is confronted with the successful resistance of the Kurdish guerrilla of the PKK. Neither the US nor Iraq have so far said anything against this illegal Turkish act. The US wants a Kurdish movement that is as weak as possible in order to realize its designs for Rojava. The democracy model of Rojava in all of North and East Syria has always been a thorn in its side, because it prevents the division and the separation of peoples and their being played off against each other in the future – the development of Syria into another Iraq.

The government in Baghdad is split with regard to the conflicts between the US and Iran, and is therefore weak. This situation allows Turkey to continue its occupation campaign.

Turkey in the Dead End between Eurasia and NATO

With the recent acquisition of the Russian S-400 anti-missile system, Turkey wants to increase pressure on the US because of the latter’s Syria policy, in order to break up the military cooperation between the US and the SDF that has developed in the fight against IS. This purchase signaled Turkey’s readiness to join the Russian-led strategy for Eurasia. At any rate, Erdoğan’s “forward thinkers” are old Kemalists who think that Turkey needs, as similar to in the era of the Cold War, to profit from the conflicts between NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. But even though Turkey has come a bit closer to the Eurasia strategy with the S-400 missile deal, it still can’t disengage from NATO, because the NATO states have massively invested in Turkey since WWII.

On the other hand, Turkey has made lots of promises to the Russian side; promises that it cannot possibly keep. One condition of Russia’s was the recognition of the Assad regime by Ankara. This demand was honored. Recently, there have been quite a few visits to Damascus by Turkish delegations.

Russia for its part needs Turkey in order to weaken its opponents – both the US and NATO – in Syria. The conflict between NATO and Turkey was suitable for this, and thus the S-400 deal was concluded.

Because of its “Kurdophobia,” Turkey harbors strong ambitions to remove the self-administration in Northeast Syria, which it sees as a Kurdish area. Russia showed itself ready to make concessions to Turkey’s anti-Kurdish policy and allowed it its siege and occupation of Efrîn in exchange for Turkey’s retreat from East Ghouta. That is, Russia exploits Turkey’s anti-Kurdish policy to its own advantage. Another condition had been that Russian gas was to reach its market not via the Ukraine, but via Turkey.

It is a historical tragedy that it was the arms and the green light from NATO that allowed the Turkish state to militarily fight the Kurds in its territory for forty years. Today, these arms are used against the Kurds, if not in Syria, then all the more so in South Kurdistan.

It would therefore be simplistic to accuse the Kurds of acting together with NATO or the US. For the Kurds, there is no guarantee at all that the US will not tomorrow give a green light to Turkey for its “security zone,” that is, its intervention in North and East Syria, in which case the Kurds would have to pay the price. The only important point here is that the Kurds, together with the Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, and the other ethnic groups in North and East Syria, be able to protect themselves. It is the century of Machiavellianism, a century of pure profiteering. Friend and foe are constantly changing.

At present, the US is trying to mediate between Turkey and the SDF in North and East Syria and to force them to a compromise. For the US, Turkey as a state is still important. But also, the US doesn’t want to lose the Kurds, for the latter, much more than Turkey, play a key role in the Middle East because they also live in Iraq and Iran – there are 15 million Kurds in Iran alone.

The near future will show whether the US will succeed in bringing Erdoğan, as the representative of dictatorship and hostility towards the Kurds, and the Kurds, who stand for democracy and freedom, together. The decisive factor in this will be the Kurdish resistance.

Of course, the Kurds in Turkey and the rest of the world will not tolerate an occupation of Rojava. In the case of such an event, a new focus of resistance such as the one in Kobanê would emerge. At the recent elections, the Kurds in Turkey were able to strike a blow against Erdoğan. In addition, the seven-month hunger strike of political prisoners and politicians in Kurdistan, Turkey, South Kurdistan, Canada, and Europe has also demonstrated the determination of the Kurds to go to extraordinary lengths for their freedom. In the end, the hunger strikes forced Erdoğan to give Öcalan access to his lawyers after an eight-year-long ban on visitors.

Furthermore, millions of people in Turkey have seen, from the example of the Kurdish resistance, that Erdoğan, and thus the Turkish state, aren’t quite as strong as they both claim to be.

The international community will also not be silent in this case, because an occupation of North and East Syria will again revive the ISIS sleepers, who have functioned as a tool of Turkey before. In the occupied areas of Idlib, Cerablus, Azaz, and Efrîn, Turkey has these forces already at its disposal. And in the case of a siege and occupation, it will have the real action carried out by the “local” forces, just as it did in Efrîn. And then, an occupation would cease to be merely a Kurdish problem.


Translated from German by Michael Schiffmann

Kurdistan Report 205 | September/Oktober 2019