January 15, 2016,
by Wieland Schneider, Qandil
The Kurdish leader Cemil Bayık compares Erdoğan with Assad, criticizes NATO military aid for Turkey, and demands that the EU exert pressure to stop the war.
The streets wind among the fields in narrow curves. Then the view opens up on a snow-covered mountain range. Dark brown cliffs tower over us. On one of them hangs a vast painted picture of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. Here in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, near the Iranian border, we enter the territory of the guerrilla organization PKK.
Since 1999 the PKK’s ideological leader has been in a Turkish prison. In 2013 Öcalan, from his prison cell, called for a cease-fire. A peace process ensued, which sought to end the decades-long war between the Turkish state and the Kurdish underground organization PKK. Now that process lies in a shambles as the Turkish government attempts to destroy the PKK with a military offensive. Turkish fighter planes repeatedly conduct airstrikes against the PKK’s retreat in the Qandil Mountains.
“About twice a week they come and drop bombs. It can last up to six hours,” says a young PKK fighter, shoving a few logs into an open stove. A Kalashnikov and an older American M-16 assault rifle lean against a corner of the small house. On the gray walls hang posters with photos of martyred PKK fighters. The men drink tea to warm themselves before they return to their posts outside on the grounds. This building is the first station on a path into the area of the Kurdish underground fighters. There—somewhere in a secret place—our interview with Cemil Bayık, the sitting head of the PKK—is to take place.
After an hour’s wait, the international press spokesperson of the PKK appears. Our cell phones, backpacks, and laptops must be turned over. Piling into an all-terrain vehicle, we are taken into the mountains. We drive over tracks whose deep grooves are filled with the brown water of the winter rains. Once we climb out, we wait another hour in another PKK shelter. We hike on foot over forested hills and through the small valleys that lie between them. Finally we arrive at the spot where PKK leader Cemil Bayık awaits us with his bodyguards.
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Die Presse: Since the summer you have been attacked by the Turkish air force. How do you manage to survive here in the mountains?
CB: We resist these attacks because our movement has a strong will. Turkey can’t break it. Turkey will never force us to submit. We want to live in freedom and according to our own values—or we won’t live. We may pay a high price and suffer losses, but our movement will become only stronger. Turkey is a NATO country and wants to join the EU. The US, the EU, and the NATO states say they adhere to certain values. Turkey, with its military action against the Kurds, is violating all these values. Yet the US and the EU remain mute and do not condemn the Turkish attacks.
What exactly do you want EU states like Austria and Germany to do?
They have to intervene and warn the government in Ankara against further violations of European values. The NATO states should not give Turkey any more military support. Austria and Germany should exert pressure on the Turkish state for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question. Turkey has isolated our leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in prison since April 2015. Since then we have received no information about him.
How massive are the attacks?
Turkey is attacking cities in North Kurdistan [southeastern Turkey] with tanks, artillery, and helicopters. The Turkish military is destroying houses and killing anyone who doesn’t observe the curfew. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, once condemned the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, for doing that, for inflicting state terror on his own population. But now Erdoğan is using the same methods as Assad.
Do you really want to compare Erdoğan with Assad?
Yes. Austria and Germany must send delegations into the besieged cities like Silopi and Cizre. That way they will witness firsthand the crimes that have been committed there against the Kurds. If the EU does not intervene, that means that it regards the devastating situation in the Kurdish cities as normal. The EU has condemned Assad’s policies. Why doesn’t it do the same for Turkey’s?
But Turkey is a more important partner for the EU, especially now, as it’s preventing the further emigration of more Syrian refugees to Europe. The German chancellor Angela Merkel visited President Erdoğan before the lection in Turkey. The EU needs Turkey.
We don’t want the EU states or NATO to cut their ties to Turkey. And we expect the EU countries to look after their own interests vis-a-vis Ankara. But they may not promote their interests at the expense of the Kurds.
How can NATO end its military collaboration with Turkey? Turkey is also an important ally in the war against IS. Turkish jets take off from Turkish military air bases and drop bombs here in Qandil. Not only that, US fighter planes take off from Inçirlik, as do German Tornados, for their missions against the IS in Syria.
The United States, the EU, and NATO all say they are fighting the IS. They have also accepted Turkey in this alliance and use Inçirlik. But there’s a contradiction here: Turkey is an important supporter of IS, and those who have fought the IS most effectively are the Kurds.
Was it smart of the PKK youth to initiate a rebellion in the cities of southeastern Turkey? Now all the civilian residents are suffering there under onerous conditions.
The PKK’s actions in the cities do not justify the Turkish army killing civilians. That the PKK supports the rebels in the cities doesn’t give the Turkish state the right to commit the crimes it is committing. If we made a mistake, that doesn’t entitle Ankara to make another mistake. The youths in the cities didn’t begin the war. They defended the people there against massacres by the army. Öcalan and the PKK have tried to solve the Kurdish question through negotiations. At the same time we supported democratic groups in participating the elections to enter into parliament and to be able to solve the Kurdish question there.
The election backfired on Erdoğan.
The election of June 7 was a turning point. It deprived Erdoğan, with his antidemocratic ideas, of his presidential republic. And on the other side the HDP and other democratic groups worked to build a democratic republic. The result of the elections was that Erdoğan’s AKP lost its absolute majority. He did not accept this result and basically decided on a coup.
But PKK sympathizers have killed two Turkish policemen in revenge for the IS attack on Suruç. And Ankara has accused the PKK and its followers of creating a parallel administration in the Kurdish areas.
When we realized Erdoğan was obstructing democracy in Ankara, we tried to build democratic structures at the local level. It’s not about separating from Turkey—it’s a struggle against Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman ideas. The Turkish state used the democratic self-administration and the murdered police as an excuse to attack the Kurds. Military planning for that had been going on since September 2014.
Has Russia offered assistance?
Russia understands the Kurds to be one of the most important forces in the region. If Russia had the Kurds’ help, it could implement its own policies in Syria more effectively and at the same time exert pressure on Turkey. Chaos prevails in the Middle East now, and every regional or international power is trying to promote its own interests. There’s for example a Shiite front and a Sunni front. Russia supports the Shiite front, and the US is for the Sunnis. The Kurds don’t care to support either front--we have our own third path. But we want to maintain ties with individual members of these fronts.
If Russia were to offer the PKK weapons, in order to weaken Erdoğan, would you accept them?
We will accept any partner who accepts the democratic solution to the Kurdish question.
If the situation in eastern Turkey escalates further, will the PKK send its guerrilla forces into the cities?
Turkey has already escalated the war. No one in this situation can deny us our right to self-defense. Even when an animal is led to the slaughterhouse, it struggles for its life up to the last moment. The guerrilla units have the right to go into the cities. If the people are being killed before their eyes, they can’t just stand by and watch.
What must be done to restart the peace process?
Turkey must end its war policy. The Turkish army must cease its crimes in the cities and return to the negotiating table.
The president of the KRG, Massoud Barzani, has demanded that the PKK withdraw from the Yazidi areas in Sinjar, in northern Iraq. But the PKK wants to stay. Isn’t there a danger that this situation could lead to a struggle between the PKK and the KRG’s Peshmerga?
Turkey wants to provoke conflict among the Kurds, but we won’t let such a thing happen. It’s long past the time for a congress of national unity, in which all Kurdish parties participate.
But Barzani has made it clear that Sinjar must remain part of the KRG.
Shengal [Kurdish for Sinjar] is the homeland of the Yazidis, who are the ancestors of the Kurds. The question of Shengal is therefore a question for all Kurds—it’s not a matter only for Barzani’s KDP or the PKK. When the IS attacked the Yazidis in Shengal, they were left defenseless. Neither the KRG’s Peshmerga nor the Iraqi Army came to their defense. It was the PKK that sent its guerrilla forces to Shengal to rescue these people. Without the PKK, all Yazidis would have perished. Without the PKK too, the Peshmerga would not have been in a position later to march into Shengal.
How do you support the Yazidis now?
Shengal is not yet entirely liberated. There are still villages controlled by the IS. And the IS is still nearby, in Tal Afar and Mosul. We want to help the Yazidis there to build their own administration and their own defense forces. Until that is implemented, our guerrilla forces will remain in place.
What should the political future of the area look like?
Officially the Iraqi central government is still responsible for Shengal. De facto, however, the area is administered by the KRG in northern Iraq. The status of Shengal is therefore unclear. In our opinion, it would be good if Shengal remained part of Kurdistan. But that will mean it adopts a kind of self-administration. The people there have to decide on the future status of Shengal. No Kurdish party can dictate a model to the Yazidis.
Cemil Bayık. Under the nom de guerre Cuma, he co-leads, with Bese Hoza, the KCK, the main umbrella organization of the PKK and its sister parties in Syria and Iran. The guerrilla military forces of the PKK are subordinate to the KCK. Bayık is the siting head of the underground movement and is number two after the imprisoned ideological leader Abdullah Öcalan.
Bayık has been a member of the PKK since its founding in 1978 so is one of the most long-standing followers of Öcalan. The originally Marxist PKK fought in Turkey originally for a Kurdish state. Now they seek a kind of autonomy at the local level.
This article was published in German in Die Presse, January 16, 2016. http://diepresse.com/home/politik/aussenpolitik/4905393/PKKChef_Wir-lassen-uns-nicht-zur-Schlachtbank-fuhren
Translated by Janet Biehl