The myth has it that 2600 or so years ago there lived on the outskirts of Zagros Mountains a people ruled by a cruel king named Dehaq. King Dehaq was a supernatural evil as evident in the two snakes that grew on his two shoulders; snakes that demanded special delicacy for food. Thus, two children would be plucked from among his subjects, and their brains fed to the snakes.
Below the darkness of the evil king’s castle lived an ironsmith named Kawa. Kawa had sacrificed all his children except one. Dehaq ordered for the last one too to be brought for his snakes. Kawa, with the help of the king’s cook, tricked him by offering a sheep’s brain instead. Thus, his child and other children were saved and were sent high up in the mountains where they lived free and grew into a small army.
When the time came, Kawa led the small army in revolt, broke into the king’s castle and smashed Dehaq’s head with his hammer. The people were freed and the news was spread around the kingdom by fires lit on the mountain tops. A new day, Newroz, was declared. And those saved children who led people to liberation became the ancestors of Kurds.
Kyle Orton is a budding Middle Eastern analyst who authored an important op-ed for the New York Times last year on the former dictator Saddam Hussain’s rarely mentioned role in creation of Islamism in Iraq. In Syria, he is anti-Assad regime, pro ‘moderate’ rebels, and unsympathetic towards Kurdish national self-determination.
Recently, Orton published a couple of blog pieces on western volunteers in the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) ranks, here and here. The pieces, based on two separate lengthy interviews with a former and a current fighter, do a reasonable work of de-romanticising YPG’s International Brigades of Rojava.
Istanbul is Turkey’s most beautiful, modern and cosmopolitan city. Prime spots are along the Bosporus, where Turkey’s wealthy elite and the city’s old-time establishment reside in expensive historic properties that in the past used to be reserved for Ottoman government’s high-ranking officials. There is precious little space open to public along the coasts of the straits. Those lands and buildings not in private hands are usually educational institutions, some of which are used as setting to shoot soap operas.
The best of the coastline, and hence the schools by location, are on the cosy, tree-lined, Ciragan Street that stretches for 2 km from Besiktas to Ortakoy. There, midway between the two districts and opposite of the main entrance to Yildiz Palace & Park, is a seafarer’s Technical High School, now called Ziya Kalkavan Anadolu Denizcilik Meslek Lisesi. That is the school I boarded and studied for three years from the age of 14 to 16. I almost forgot my Kurdishness and became assimilated as a Turk in that school, hence my strong mixed feelings about the latest attacks.
Last month, during a football game in Besiktas, twin attacks claimed by highly secretive Kurdish militant group TAK, an off-shoot of the PKK, killed 40 members of the security forces. It was in retaliation for the destruction and massacres wrought in Kurdish towns and districts in 2016. Today, in the early hours of the new year in a prominent night club in Ortakoy, 40 revelers were gunned down and as many wounded by men wearing Santa costumes. Only one police officer was killed. Let’s see if and when ISIS claims responsibility for this carnage against secular-minded civilians in the name of jihad.
Secular Turks, the vast majority of whom continue to kowtow to the racist fascist ideology and legacy of Turkey’s founder Atta Turk, in response to the AKP government’s slide towards Islamism, will again refuse to evaluate and accept the distinction between the nature and the reasons between two attacks and the parties behind them. It is safer to accept the AKP government’s lumping of them both as terrorists who cannot be negotiated with and must be fought off with greater military force. If anything, Kurds are the biggest threat to them because Atta Turk said so, as do Erdogan now.
The reality is a lot different. The war engaged in by the PKK and its off-shoot TAK is, in Clausewitz’s famous words, “politics by other means”. They respond in kind because Turkey refuses to accept that Kurdish parties are rational political actors representing legitimate demands and grievances of a large repressed minority population. Like it or not, the PKK’s cause against Turkish security forces is that of an admissible national liberation struggle, not unlike that of Kosovo against Serbia and that of Iraqi Kurds against Saddam. Successive Turkish governments have failed, and will fail again, to completely rout Kurdish fighters from the country, a la the mortal blow Sri Lankan government inflicted on the Tamil Tigers. Negotiation and a political solution is inevitable if Turkey wants to end the conflict with the PKK.
The same cannot be said of ISIS. The so-called Islamic State is not fighting for political settlement in a world of nations; its ideology, aim and fight are for world conquest. Even if the loony ISIS jihadist dream of bringing all the lands from India to Turkey to Andalusia under Islamic rule turn into reality, they will seek to invade lands from China to Argentina to spread the religion to those infidels who have not yet heard the word and wrath of allah. Islamists have no limits, know no boundaries, recognise no laws and admit to no conventions not found in Koran. They cannot be negotiated with in good faith or even reasoned with. With the promise of paradise in the afterlife, living or dying is a win-win situation for the Islamist terrorist.
Turks fail to acknowledge the sharp differences in the their threat assessments between the two. While retaliatory Kurdish militant attacks on security forces are condemned swiftly and loudly, ISIS attacks are acknowledged belatedly and in a more muted fashion. For example, according to T24 internet newspaper, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said, “there are signs but we can’t say which group did it.” Meanwhile the country’s pro-government newspaper columnists are blaming the night club owner: “If you expected an attack, why did you open the club for customers?” Turkey’s unaccountable religious leaders were declaring Christmas and New Year celebrations as apostasy, and there was a bizarre video footage of racist fascist Turks with Islamist hues first circumcising and then stabbing a Santa puppet in the final days of 2016.
Currently, the lead story on the web page of the pro-AKP government Yeni Safak is a criticism of the renowned Turkish affairs correspondent Amberin Zaman who tweeted, “will the [Turkish] attacks on the most effective anti-ISIS forces YPG [Kurdish ‘People’s Protection Froces’] and the SDG [Syrian Democratic Forces] continue I wonder?” Yeni Safak responded with “she defends terrorist against terror.” The Islamist paper refused to not only speculate that ISIS could be behind the latest atrocity in Istanbul, but saw no distinction between Western-backed groups and ISIS.
For the last few years, international observers mocked the spectacular collapse of Turkey’s ‘Zero Problems with neighbours policy in Syria and Iraq. Turkish soldiers are now in the north of Syria trying to block a corridor linking Kurdish cantons around the town of al-Bab. In so doing they have found themselves combating three sides also staking claim on the town: US-backed YPG/SDF, Russia-backed Assad regime, and Turkey’s friend-to-frenemy ISIS.
What should be of great concern now is whether the instability Turkey has caused in Syria and Iraq will blow back into Ankara’s face. The signs are there; a clear ideological divide between Kemalist establishment and the new Islamist current, mass-casualty attacks, a failed coup that cost hundreds of lives, mass purges of high ranking government officials from generals to judges of Constitutional Court on the claims that they belong to yet another alleged terror network in the Gulenist movement, a police force that shouts ‘Allahu Akbar’ while firing in the air, the arrest of many pro-Kurdish rights HDP parliamentarians and the push to ban legal Kurdish politics all together, and, most recently, Muslim preachers denigrating Christian symbols and calling for assassination of Kurdish figures. The country is slowly simmering for a major internal multi-faceted armed conflict under AKP’s leadership.
This morning I cast my mind to the two spots that were attacked within a month by ISIS and TAK in Ortakoy and in Besiktas. Like many Opera House walks that I make under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in many weekends during my high school years, I would walk on Ciragan Street to the western pylon of the Bosporus Bridge, where the ISIS-attacked night club is now located, and from there I would walk back towards Besiktas, often alongside playing grounds of my football team where TAK blew up a police bus. Having lived there for three years as a teenager, I feel a great deal of affection for that refined, historic city with many centuries-old buildings. Now, it is slowly metamorphosing into a war-zone like Beirut and Baghdad. That is sad to see.
Turkish sociologist, scholar and former political prisoner Dr Ismail Besikci criticised Kurds for “lacking sufficient national consciousness” on Sunday and today in events organised by Kurdish community in Sydney.
“For so long as Kurds do not have an independent state of their own, they will continue to suffer oppression, violence and genocide,” Dr Besikci said. He remains puzzled that teachers in Sulaymaniyah protested Kurdistan Regional Government for unpaid wages in 2015, yet there has been no demonstration demanding the KRG to declare independence from Iraq.
“The United Nations have 50 nation-states with population figures of less than 1 million each. Yet these micro states, which waged no struggle and paid no price for freedom, have more power to determine the fate of the Kurdish nation than 50 million stateless Kurds themselves. This is a problem; it must be questioned and addressed,” he added.
The author of two dozen books and hundreds of articles on Kurdish society, history and politics, Dr Besikci is the pre-eminent Kurdish nationalist alive today. His scholarly works were considered to be dangerous and criminal and were banned by state officials. He spent 17 years in prison in total for refusing to toe the line of Turkish state ideology that denied the existence of Kurds. He was finally released in 1999, following the relaxation of anti-democratic laws as part of Turkey’s negotiations to join the European Union.
Dr Ismail Besikci was born in the conservative central Anatolian town of Corum in 1939. After graduating in Political Science in Ankara in 1962, he went to complete his compulsory military service as a reserve officer in the southeastern corner of Turkey. There, he met a people who could not speak Turkish but used a strange language to communicate with other from across the border. They were Kurds who were not supposed to exist, as he was led to believe by Ankara’s official narrative.
From mid to late 1960s, Ismail Besikci studied for his PhD and worked as an academic producing papers that focused on the ‘Eastern Anatolian’ tribes. A university colleague informed the authorities of the young researcher’s unhealthy interest in the backward people of the east, and Besikci was sacked and charged with Marxism, regionalism and racism. In prison, he met better educated and politically more active, Kurds. His academic interests in uncovering the truth entered a permanent collision course with the fascistic one-nation Turkish state doctrine, and he suffered for decades without compromising his personal and political integrity.
Throughout 1970s, 80s and 90s, Dr Besikci wrote books, articles and letters that contradicted precepts upon which Turkey was founded. He argued that not everyone in Turkey was Turkish, that the state was running an assimilation policy, that the state had committed genocide, and that it continued to use brute force against a people who did not identify as Turkish. Since his publications were banned, his court hearings turned into politically-charged academic lectures that would not otherwise be on public record.
In 1984, the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) started the armed insurrection for independence -later for autonomy- that is still going on today. Along with that of the Party leader Abdullah ‘Chairman Apo’ Ocalan, Dr Besikci’s writings were hugely influential among the rebels. The PKK embraced and disseminated widely his findings that Kurdistan was an “international colony” and that nothing short of statehood could ensure freedom. While Chairman Apo did a turnabout in his ideological aims following capture in Kenya in 1999, Ismail Besikci maintained his principled stand. This earned him excommunication from the PKK also.
In response to Turks’ repeated claim that there cannot be an independent Kurdistan because there has not been one before, Dr Besikci reminded that there were only 30 member states in the post-WW1 League of Nations and that even more nation-states were created from the West’s overseas colonies following the WW2.
Kurdistan however was neglected on purpose because it was a colony of neighbouring states. Unlike overseas colonies, it was easier for Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria to project force and brutality in Kurdistan than for Britain in Africa, Dr Besikci argued.
“Arabs were divided too. But they were divided among various states of their own. Kurds however were divided among enemy states,” he continued, “since 1919, there has been an anti-Kurd international order”.
Dr Besikci explained how the Soviets abandoned the Mehabad Kurdish Republic to Iran’s mercy in 1946, how Algeria, which gained liberation after a bloody war with France, hosted the Algiers Conference of 1975 that ended Melle Mustafa Barzani’s insurrection in Iraq, and how the Organisation of Islamic States conference on 18 March 1988 was completely silent on the gassing of Halabja two days earlier.
He then went on to explain some of the benefits of having an independent state: creating collective memory, economic development, less corruption, and honourable and dignified existence equal with other nations. As a case in point, he compared the KRG’s capital city of Erbil with Baghdad. Yes, there was corruption in Erbil too but nowhere near like in Baghdad because of the recent self-rule.
“Today some Kurds refuse statehood,” he bristled at the PKK’s abandonment of independence for Kurds, “without a state, atrocities against Kurds in the past will be repeated.” There was almost no one from Sydney’s pro-PKK community to listen to him in two separate public lectures in a conference hall in Olympic Park and at the University of NSW.
Dr Ismail Besikci will present several more lectures to community members in Melbourne before returning to Turkey next week.
Like many observers in the international media, Foreign Policy magazine also states in no uncertain terms that Turkish-backed FSA jihadi rebel incursion in Syria to capture Jarablus is intended not against ISIS but to roll back Kurdish gains in the west of Euphrates.
This article as well as several other news sources have stated that the Kurdish YPG have transferred the control of Manbij to the Arab-Kurdish alliance of SDF and “returned to base” without mentioning when and how the alleged withdrawal took place.
FP also states that the FSA jihadi rebels who took Jarablus in the north of Manbij without a fight might move on to al-Bab where ISIS fighters retreated. Al-Bab is a Kurdish populated town in the west of Manbij and until a few days ago was in YPG’s sights. Kurds there must now wait longer for liberation.
If there is a silver lining to the dark clouds over Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), that is the lack of convincing ideology, disorganisation and ineptitude of FSA rebels. They are not fighting and dying for a just cause but for the money they receive from Ankara. There is not a single town under FSA control that is administered properly. They will fail in al-Bab and Jarablus too.
As for the YPG’s withdrawal from Manbij, that resembles another incident during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At the time, Kurdish control of Kirkuk was also a red line for Turkey. The Peshmerga liberated Kirkuk, Turkey complained, the USA ordered withdrawal, and the Kurdish government said “we are doing it right now”, which they never did. Kirkuk is the most heavily defended city in Kurdistan now.
The fog of war prevents us from observing the YPG’s withdrawal back to the east of the Euphrates. What we know is that if the FSA rebels want Manbij, they will have to fight and die for it like Kurds did to liberate it from ISIS barbarians.
In the Middle East, fortunes can change in unpredictable ways. Sometimes they change for the better as slow as shifting sand dunes. Other times they can change overnight like an earthquake. One moment we nearly had a Kurdistan on the map as was the case in the aftermath of First World War. Then came a century during which all traces of Kurdistan were lost except to those who could still dream of it.
Instead, we had in Syria a nation state re-invented by the French who empowered the minority Alewites over and above Sunnis and Kurds. And where Kurdistan was supposed to be, we had Iraq, a nation state invented by the British who made Sunni minority the overlords of Shias and Kurds.
Take now the changing fortunes in Syria’s civil war. No one thought Assad regime would last when the uprising began in 2011. No one thought Free Syrian Army rebels would be so radicalised as to be indistinguishable from al-Qaeda. No one expected the rise of an even worse jihadi outfit in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
And no one gave much chance to Kurds, who were the weakest and the most marginalised community in Syria when the civil war began, to emerge as the fiercest of all fighting forces with the international coalition’s air power above and the world’s goodwill behind them. The Kurds were not only the best fighters, men and women alike, but represented the secular democratic values that civilised nations held dear as well.
The ever shifting alliances in Syria’s four-sided civil war make the three-sided global wars involving Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia in George Orwell’s 1984 look like a simple game of checkers. Unlike in 1984, however, this is not a ruse to keep the populace occupied with war. This is a real existential battle to stay alive as individuals and as communities.
Each one of the four sides, the Assad regime, the FSA jihadis, ISIS and the Kurds, have found themselves on the brink of defeat at some stage of the war, and yet they have managed to recover. Each one of them have had to fight the other three at the same time at some stage.
Today it is the Kurds’ turn to face attacks from all three sides. Having recovered from the brink of defeat in Kobani a year ago with the late-coming US air support, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their Arab allies went on to inflict ISIS a series of defeats. Manbij was liberated only two weeks ago.
Now, however, the YPG is warding off assaults from the Russian-backed Assad regime in Hasakah, Turkish-backed FSA jihadis near Jarablus and Saudi-backed ISIS in al-Shaddadi. And now Kurds cannot count on the US-led coalition air power any more because the US has just decided to shift its support to FSA jihadis again.
By abandoning the Kurds, the USA is repeating their mistake in Iraq. Not the historic mistake that Henry Kissinger made in mid-1970s when he betrayed promises to the Iraqi Kurdish leader Melle Mustafa Barzani. That mistake ended up strengthening Saddam Hussein and hastened the end of Shah of Iran, both of which proved wrong and very bloody in the long run.
The mistake the USA is repeating today is the one that they made after the overthrow of Saddam in 2003: not investing in a Kurdistan as a lasting reliable western ally and not placing sufficient trust in the regional government (KRG) to the benefit of untrustworthy partners in Baghdad. That too have come back and will continue to come back to haunt the USA.
For example, during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Mosul and many nearby towns were captured from Saddam and later from the Sunni insurgency with the KRG help. Yet, the US forced the Kurds to hand them over to the Shia Arab government in Baghdad. In June 2014, the Iraqi army rapidly surrendered those towns and several billions dollars worth of arms back to the ISIS-led Sunnis.
Now it seems we are about to watch the same movie in Manbij. The USA is ordering the YPG to withdraw to the east of the Euphrates after liberating the city from ISIS. Why? Because the FSA jihadis are at hand to take over the crucial crossroad city that the Kurds and their Arab allies took at the cost of 300 lives.
Assuming the YPG did that, sooner or later the myriad of FSA jihadis will fight among themselves for full control of the city, or ISIS will return to capture it, or even the regime will march re-take it. And then the US will again ask the Kurdish forces to go liberate the city from whichever extremist group controlling it, just as it is likely to happen again across the border in Mosul.
This must stop. This vicious cycle must be broken. In Syria as well as in Iraq, Kurds must refuse to surrender lands they liberated from Assadist fascists, Sunni and Shia jihadis, and from medieval ISIS barbarians. I am heartened with the YPG’s statement that “in the west of Euphrates [we] are in our own country. We will not withdraw because Turkey or someone else wants it.”
For us Kurds, our once-in-a-century opportunity to establish an independent state is in danger as regional alliances have once again shifted against our national interests. We owe it to future generations to not let this opportunity slip away.
Now it is time for a greater Kurdish national unity. Now we must put aside all party politics and all petty tribal and personal squabbling, and speak to the world in a single united voice: “We are here in our own land and we are not giving it up without a fight!”