November 10, 2018 / 09:14 PM
PKK focusing on Syria and Iraq not Turkey, analyst tells Kurdpress

Paul T. Levin, the Director of Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies (SUITS) and the Department of Asian, Middle Eastern and Turkish Studies told Kurdpress in an interview that there is a feeling that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has left Turkey and has focused its activities on Iraq and Syria and the Syrian Kurdish regions in particular.

The university professor and political analyst stated that some groups believe Turkey Kurdish issue can be solved militarily and that’s why Ankara has chosen military operations to solve the issue and predicted a dark future for Kurds in Turkey as there is a lot of pressure on the Kurdish political activists and many of them are in prison.

The following is his full answers to Kurdpress questions

How do you describe the Kurdish Question in Turkey?

The way I look at the Kurdish Question in Turkey is that it is a long standing problem that has to do with the inability in Turkey to come together around a shared national identity that allows for multiple collective identities. Late Ottoman and Republican era attempts to forge a cohesive national identity out of a multiplicity of languages, ethnicities, and religions were inflexible and at times violent, and met with inflexible and at times violent responses from subnational groups like the Kurds. The question is also bound up with the high degree of centralization in the Turkish state, the prominent role of the military in Turkish political history, and insufficient levels of democratization.

It seems that Erdogan is not going to involve in another peace process, what the situation will be? Can he solve the Kurdish problem militarily?

I think that there are elements in the Turkish national security establishment that think that they can. The military suppression of the insurgencies in the cities in the Southeast that began in 2015 is perceived by many there as a victory, as is the relatively swift operation Olive Branch. From the PKK’s perspective, they can claim that they were not really defeated in either place since they instead chose to retreat, but it is clear that they have been dealt some heavy blows recently.

But no, if you ask me I think that even if a complete military victory were possible for Erdogan (and I am not at all sure that it is), that would still not mean that the Kurdish problem is solved. The problem itself can only be resolved by give and take negotiations and a political agreement that sufficiently satisfies all parties.

How do you describe the relationship between Syrian and Turkish Kurds? What about PKK and PYD?

My understanding of the PYD is that it is essentially the Syrian branch of the PKK or at least of the larger umbrella movement of which PKK is the core. And there are plenty of personnel overlap with Turkish fighters and PKK commanders in the PYD. Of course, the PYD has also had its own history and evolution, and the fight against ISIS in Syria has burnished their credentials as a fighting force in their own right. But from what I hear, the PKK is now quite focused on Rojava and what is happening in the PYD territories so any differences should not be exaggerated.

Why Europe does not support Kurdish problem is it because of PKK’s role or economic ties they have with Ankara?

This is a difficult question and you may have to look at individual countries for different explanations. I think that there is a great deal of sympathy for the Kurdish “cause” more generally in Europe, and even for the PKK in some circles, especially but not exclusively on the left in many European countries. Here in Sweden, for example, there are very strong and influential Kurdish voices in the public sphere. And you even saw Europeans travel to Kobane to fight in the PYD against ISIS.

But Turkey is an important neighbor and few European leaders want to fully alienate Ankara and have it turn away from Europe. There are economic ties, but also cooperation on energy and counterterrorism and refugees, for example. Finally, once Turkey’s long campaign to have the EU and US list the PKK as a terrorist organization achieved its goal, it became very difficult for the Europeans to turn around and offer their support to PKK-linked organizations. Still, you can see PKK and Ocalan-flags at demonstrations in many European capitals in ways that you could never see ISIS or al-Qaeda flags so the general perception here is not really one of the PKK as being a bona fide terrorist organization.

Some say that Turkey wants to annex Syrian territories like Afrin and Al bab, and other places, is it possible?

No, I don’t think that it is possible for Turkey to formally annex these territories. It would be too blatant a violation of international norms and laws. But Ankara already installs kaymakams, local governors, in the al Bab area and govern Afrin from Antakya, Hatay, along with Turkish appointed bureaucrats so we can imagine some kind of Northern Cyprus governance solution. Formal independence but de facto dependence.

Who can the European Union and the U.S can help in solving the Kurdish problem in Turkey?

There has been such deep hostility and suspicion on Ankara’s part against Western attempts to push for peace since at least the attempted coup in 2016 that their ability to help is limited. However, at the present moment, there is a desire in Turkey to normalize relations with both Washington and European capitals and this could perhaps be an opportunity for them to put pressure on Turkey to not merely release US/EU nationals but also release the HDP leadership. If the Turkish economy sinks further into recession, which is quite likely, Ankara may also be forced to come to the IMF and/or EU and ask for bailout packages. IMF conditionality is traditionally not of the political variety (it’s about economics and economic governance, not human rights), but if there was a will there could be a way for the West to make some demands on Ankara. The US presence in Syria east of the Euphrates is simultaneously a source of tremendous anger in Ankara and a potential bargaining chip. At least theoretically, it could give the US leverage to pressure Ankara to make some moves to ease the plight of Turkey’s Kurds. It looks like the Trump administration’s obsession with Iran means that at least for now, they will want to stay in Rojava and work with the SDF, but there may be things that they could do to placate Ankara’s anger over this.

How do you describe Kurd’s situation in Turkey in a near future?

Unfortunately, it looks very dire. From colleagues with contacts in the Kurdish movement in Turkey, I hear that the HDP is in disarray, that there is a sense in Turkey that the PKK has almost abandoned Turkey for now, focusing almost entirely on Syria and to an extent Iraq. We will see whether the recent spat between the MHP’s Bahceli and Erdogan means a more serious split in the Islamist/nationalist (AKP/MHP) alliance because as long as Erdogan is allied with Ülkücüler and MHP nationalists, there can be no positive movement on the Kurdish front. Erdogan has also now consolidated a wholly authoritarian regime, which is an obstacle to a resolution of the Kurdish question the extent that it depends on democratization more generally.  Of course, Erdogan is a pragmatic politician and if he determines that a peace process of some sort would be beneficial for him, he could turn on a dime. But even if he did, I don’t know on what basis there would be any trust on the Kurdish side to engage in negotiations again, after Kobane, Suruç, Nusaybin etc. I think that the best we can hope for is that he could eventually normalize governance in some of the cities in the Southeast and release some of the HDP-functionaries from prison, perhaps as part of an overture to the EU.

Reporter’s code: 40101