A stable, democratic, and peaceful Middle East can only be achieved following massive political reform in Turkey. In turn, some of the only actors capable of challenging the autocratic status quo in Turkey are the Kurdish political movement and its leader Abdullah Öcalan, the long-incarcerated ‘Mandela of the Middle East.’ Their radical political programme of decentralisation, grassroots democracy, women-led governance, and protection of minorities is the antithesis of Turkish President Erdoğan’s autocratic, top-down, chauvinist regime.
As recently as 2015, the Turkish government and militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) were in productive, advanced peace talks and a state of ceasefire, mediated by Öcalan from his prison cell. But the Erdoğan government has since reopened hostilities with the PKK, resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians, and moved to liquidate the legitimate political opposition in Turkey by arresting tens of thousands of politicians, activists, and journalists on trumped-up terror charges. It’s time for other countries to follow the lead of the Belgian Supreme Court and delist the PKK as a terror organisation. This is the only route to dialogue, ceasefire and the reopening of the peace process in Turkey.
Erdoğan abandoned the peace process for two reasons. First, electoral gains made by the Kurdish-led, pro-democratic HDP, which is now the third-largest party in Turkey; and second, the establishment of democratic autonomy in Kurdish-majority regions of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), forming the core of the regions now united and governed by the decentralised Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria according to the principles of the Kurdish movement.
But Erdoğan has since used sweeping terror laws and accusations of support for the PKK to bring cases against 154 Turkish MPs – primarily HDP members – and remove 59 of 65 democratically-elected HDP mayors from office. One in three journalists jailed globally are held by Turkey, while Turkey now has the highest incarceration rate in Europe due to its systematic targeting of the political opposition under anti-terror laws. A single tweet or the use of the word ‘Kurdistan’ in a political speech can be enough to incur hefty jail sentences, in inhumane conditions amounting to torture.
Similarly, anti-terror rhetoric was used to justify Turkey’s successive invasions of North and East Syria, killing hundreds and displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians as part of a programme of systematic ethnic cleansing in formerly-Kurdish regions. The network of jihadist militias and criminal factions Turkey has installed in these regions include scores of former ISIS members in their ranks, with the US regularly assassinating top ISIS and al-Qaeda brass being sheltered by its erstwhile NATO ally in the Turkish-occupied zones.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s endless and bloody assaults against the PKK in Iraq have seen them deploying chemical weapons and drone strikes against civilian activists, with no end in sight. Erdoğan constantly attempts to conflate the Syrian SDF, the PKK, and ISIS – as though it were not the Kurdish freedom movement which was on the forefront of the campaign to eradicate the caliphate, losing over 10,000 fighters in the process.
Turkey’s aggressive expansion into Syria and Iraq is driven by its anti-Kurdish politics, and these assaults have been a proving-ground for expansionist tactics and military hardware seen in Turkish interventions from Nagorno-Karabakh to Libya to the Eastern Mediterranean, to the detriment of the entire region.
Under such circumstances, there can be no productive dialogue. But a recent, landmark decision by Belgium’s Supreme Court points the way forward to reopening peace negotiations. The Court of Cassation upheld a decision indicating that the PKK should not be considered a terror organisation at all, but a legitimate party to an internal conflict – i.e., a belligerent in a civil war. This is because the PKK does not conduct terror attacks; is highly structured and organised with the ability to hold its members accountable for their actions; has popular support; and provides services and administration in regions under its control.
According to lawyer Jan Fermon, who led the case, “There is no doubt that PKK meets all the criteria that allow it to be considered as a political-military organization, which carries out an armed struggle against Turkish security services, army and authorities, towards the realization of the right to self-determination of the Kurdish people.”
Indeed, though the PKK is de facto included on EU terror lists which are renewed every year, effectively at the behest of the Turkish government, no EU or international court has ever found that the PKK meets the definition of a terrorist organisation. Many of the crimes for which the PKK were held responsible were found, in the course of the Belgian case, to have been committed by Turkish forces themselves. Though the Belgian government rejected the ruling of its own top court on political grounds, the landmark ruling paves the way for more Western allies of Turkey to reassess their relationship with the PKK, and de facto inclusion of the PKK on terror lists.
The benefits of delisting the PKK will be threefold:
These aims seem distant at present, but the 2013-2015 peace process shows there is room for hope. And the conversation is shifting in Europe too. In a recent debate in the UK Houses of Parliament, Tory, Labour and SNP MPs all called on the UK Government to rethink its own approach to the listing of the PKK, with Labour MP Kim Johnson saying: “This historic ruling [in Belgium] must have significant ramifications for our own government’s position, and I call on the government to take up the report recommendations to review the listing of the PKK as a terror organisation in light of this evidence.”
Far from being terrorist in nature, the Kurdish freedom movement has proven itself a leader in the fight against ISIS – not only on the battlefield, but by promoting a radical, women-led, democratic alternative to all forms of authoritarian governance. It’s time for the West to recognise this reality and make room for the PKK and Turkey to reopen peaceful negotiations.
Matt Broomfield is a journalist, writer and co-founder of the Rojava Information Center, the top news and research organisation in North and East Syria.