The Kurdish problem, Barzani’s move and the Turkish referendum

The Kurdish problem, Barzani’s move and the Turkish referendum

A delegation of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in the Turkish parliament is expected to meet Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ on April 3 to discuss the decision by jailed HDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş to go on hunger strike, together with another MP, Abdullah Zeydan, in protest at prison conditions, HDP deputy Sırrı Süreyya Önder said in an interview with Fox TV Turkey on March 31.

Önder said the delegation would consist of him and Pervin Buldan, another member of the party which focuses on the Kurdish issue. Together, the two have visited Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a number of times in the framework of proxy dialogue between the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) governments and the PKK between 2011 and 2015.

Pointing at the situation of the jailed HDP deputies accused of having links with the PKK, Önder said it was not them but himself who had direct links with the PKK since he had talked to PKK figures “perhaps a hundred times” during the dialogue period with the knowledge of government officials, saying that accusing the HDP deputies of acts of terrorism was “slender.”

Recently on March 24, Önder testified before a court and said that during discussions between the PKK and the government, he survived numerous assassination attacks and that the government had allocated eight officers to protect him at different times. “I was the one from among my friends who read a statement [of reconciliation] sitting at the same level of the ministers of the government,” he said in reference to the Feb. 28, 2015, joint press conference in Istanbul that announced the PKK’s intention to abandon arms and the government’s intention to take necessary steps to ensure the three-year-long cease-fire was turned into a lasting political solution.

Neither happened, and fierce clashes broke out after the PKK resumed its acts of terror and the government massively reciprocated starting in July 2015.

The interview took place at a time when President Tayyip Erdoğan and the AK Parti government has started to eye support from Kurdish votes once again amid disappointment at the level of support from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) for the “yes” campaign to approve an executive presidential system in an April 16 referendum. Not all of the MHP has backed leader Devlet Bahçeli in his support for Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s AK Parti government. Bahçeli subsequently fired them from his party, causing worries within the AK Parti ranks about securing the 50 percent vote required on April 16. 

A recent visit by Massoud Barzani, the leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), to Ankara where he received red- (or rather turquoise) carpet treatment from both Erdoğan and Yıldırım, was expected to attract sympathy for the government in the eyes of tribal, traditionalist and rather uneducated rural Kurdish voters in the east and southeast who are thought to be out of the HDP’s reach. But Barzani, who also has the support of the U.S. forces in Iraq in the fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or DAESH, used this popularity to press for his national cause, perhaps thinking that the government would not react that much under the circumstances. Barzani first ordered his man to raise the Kurdish flag next to Iraq’s in all public offices in Kirkuk, which is officially outside of the KRG’s borders but was occupied by KRG fighters during the ISIL occupation of Mosul in June 2014. Then he announced that he was setting his sights on a referendum for independence from Iraq. Turkey reacted to those developments, but with a lower profile than usual.

In the meantime, Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, the Syrian sister of the PKK, which is cooperating with U.S. forces against ISIL, said in a telephone interview with Reuters on March 25 that he expected that Raqqa could join a Kurdish-led federation in Syria once it is cleared of ISIL. The next day, the U.S. commander in region said that in the northern sector of Syria next to the Turkish border, only 10 percent of the population are Kurds (and nowhere else in the country) and that their mission was not to facilitate a Kurdish federation in Syria but defeat ISIL.

Before concluding it is worth mentioning a very interesting story by the Washington Post reporter Liz Sly on Mar 31 about two young American Marxists from San Francisco and Washington DC. They rushed to fight among the ranks of the People Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the PYD as two internationalists charmed by the red star of the YPG banners and badges. After stuck in Syrian desert, they found out that they were actually fighting against ISIL as subcontracted foot soldiers for the U.S. Army they dislike so much.

That is why the April 3 meeting, if it takes place, will take place at a very delicate time. The Önder and Buldan meeting with the justice minister will be the first contact between the AK Parti government and the HDP in more than a year, and it coincides at a time when the government has announced that the military mission on Syrian territory has ended, even though troops will stay there in order to facilitate the resettlement of nearly 1,000 locals who escaped to Turkey after the breakout of the civil war in 2011.