Kurdistan and developments in the Middle East – an interview with Amir Hassanpour (AWTWNS 25 November 2013)

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Kurdistan and developments in the Middle East 
an interview with Amir Hassanpour

25 November 2013. A World to Win News Service. The recent declaration of intent to form a transitional autonomous government in the Kurdish regions of northern and north-eastern Syria is one of a series of developments marking an emerging new and complex situation among the Kurdish national movements. Following the withdrawal of the Syrian army more than a year ago, these areas came under the military and political control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). This Syrian Kurdish organization is allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of Turkey, which helped organize the PYD’s large and growing militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Since the 12 November announcement, the YPG is reported to have defeated anti-Assad Sunni Islamist fighters in the area and expanded PYD rule to other Kurdish villages and towns.

These events occurred in the context of two particularly important regional developments. One is an apparent major advance in the long-standing negotiations with the Turkish state through which the PKK hopes to end its armed insurgency and become a mainstream political party. The other is the first meeting of the National Congress of Kurdistan (NCK) that took place in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Representatives from Turkish, Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan took part in what they see as an initial step towards the formation of a Greater Kurdistan, a state that would include all the Kurdish regions. This nationalist project, however, is fraught with contradictions, among them the rival reactionary regimes various Kurdish organizations are allied with, as evidenced by the sometimes ambiguous relationship between the NCK and the PYD.

These regional developments would have been unimaginable without larger political shifts over the last two decades. One is the collapse of the Soviet Union, which made it possible for the U.S. to launch its first war against Iraq in 1991 and occupy the country in 2003. Yet the U.S. was unable to bring Iraq under its complete control and consolidate its regional domination. Another major factor has been the revolts sweeping North Africa and the Middle East that have challenged the region’s configuration of reactionary regimes. All this has been sharply felt in Kurdistan.

After WWI, when the imperialist powers divided up much of the world and especially the Middle East amongst themselves, they denied a national state for the Kurdish people and split them among four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Kurds have been fighting for their right to self-determination in these countries for the last 94 years. There have been ebbs and flows in the struggle, but the Kurdish national question remains unresolved.

In addition to the imperialists and other reactionary powers and their vicious oppression and conspiracies, a major problem for the Kurdish people through the course of their struggle has been the leadership of reactionary classes and political forces, mainly representatives of feudal and tribal relations. Right after WWII, Kurds under the leadership of Ghazi Mohammad formed the Democratic Republic of Kurdistan in Iranian Kurdistan, but that regime was crushed exactly one year later by the Shah of Iran. The upsurge in the Kurdish struggle during and after the 1979 Iranian revolution against the Shah was brutally suppressed by the Islamic regime. Until recent years, Kurds in Turkey were not allowed to call themselves Kurds or speak their own language. The Kurdish struggle reached a high tide in Iraqi Kurdistan until the capitulation to the Iraqi government led by Mullah Mostafa Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in the mid-1970s, but then rose again.

Following the 1991 war, the U.S. sponsored the formation of an autonomous Kurdish government in Iraq under the presidency of Massoud Barzani, Mostafa’s son, as part of its plan to reorganize the Middle East under its domination. Nevertheless, things didn’t work out the way that these imperialists wanted. With the Arab revolts and Syria’s descent into civil war driven to no small degree by reactionary foreign intervention, the Kurdish question became an even more powerful factor in regional geopolitics.

An interview with Amir Hassanpour published in the November 2013 issue of Haghighat, organ of the Communist Party of Iran (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) explores this situation, focusing on the negotiations in Turkey within this broader context. Hassanpour, an Iranian Kurdish scholar and researcher, is currently an associate professor at the University of Toronto. These excerpts have been slightly edited.


How much is the process of peace and compromise between the PKK and the Turkish state part of a larger regional and international project? Does it seem that the scope of this project is not limited to Turkey’s borders, but is part of a broader imperialist project for the whole region?

There has been much discussion about this issue. The various evaluations of this project form a spectrum, from those who call it an “historical move” in the positive sense to those who call it treason. However, these kinds of nationalist theories can’t get at the essence of the issue. Clearly this is not just an internal development – it has regional and international dimensions – but the point is the way that the internal and external contradictions developed to make such a project possible.

Looking at it internally, the contradiction between the Turkish state and the Kurdish people that reached its height with a war between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) cannot be resolved militarily, as PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan views it. After more than thirty years of war, even with the second biggest army in Nato and help from the U.S., Israel and some European states, Turkey has not been able to eliminate the PKK from the political scene in Turkey and the region. Even after Turkish security forces kidnapped Ocalan in 1999, the Ankara government could not end the conflict to its advantage. The PKK was able to preserve its military forces in the shadow of the developments that followed the U.S. wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003. It reconfigured itself politically and organisationally, ensured Ocalan’s leadership from prison and made its presence and power felt in all political, legal, media and diplomatic spheres in Turkey and the region.

However, while Turkey cannot eliminate the PKK and the national movement of the Kurdish people in Turkey, the PKK cannot change the political system in Turkey, or separate Kurdistan from Turkey. It has not even been able to achieve Kurdish autonomy within the Turkish state. This is not an exclusively military question. From the military point of view, the PKK has been waging a guerrilla war, not a people’s war such as in Vietnam, which over four decades succeeded in defeating three imperialist powers – Japan, France and the United States. Neither side has been able to overpower the other in Turkey.

Other developments in this situation include the partial collapse of the Baathist state in Iraq and the formation of the Kurdish Regional Government in 1991, the total collapse of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the subsequent political chaos in Iraq, and in particular the war that has been going on in Syria for the last two years with the active involvement of the Erdogan government. This has produced a situation that the PKK has been able to take advantage of, to enforce its hegemony among the Syrian Kurds and acquire a political and military weight that can no longer be ignored by Turkey, Iran and other countries in the region.

Over the last thirty years the contradiction between the Turkish state and the Kurdish national movement has overshadowed all other class and gender relations, and Turkey’s regional and international relations. The question is why the Turkish government, after resisting the PKK challenge for more than thirty years, has finally resorted to negotiations and sought a political solution, unlike the Iraqi governments between 1961 and 1991? What has drawn a more powerful and more stable state such as Turkey into negotiations with a party whose leader has been in jail for almost 15 years?

Clearly Saddam’s Iraq was different than today’s Turkey. There are two very different historical conditions. One is Turkey’s position in the present world order and the chaotic situation of that order. The world order established by the imperialist powers such as Britain, France and the U.S. after their re-division of colonies and the spheres of influence in WWI and WWII is now in intense crisis characterized by economic and political instability – chaos and disorder.

For its functioning and reproduction the imperialist system has always needed a division of labour among its elements or components. Turkey, in the past and in particular after WWII,  has been part of the nuts and bolts of the system and has played an important role in its functioning. Turkey is a member of Nato and was one of the most important American intelligence (spying) bases against the Soviets. It actively participated in the U.S. invasions of Korea and Vietnam and has been one of the backers of the Zionists. From this point of view, Turkey has been playing the role of regional gendarme. Its petty differences with the U.S., amidst today’s chaos, about its role in the 2003 war against Saddam, its differences with Israel and the government’s Islamic nature have not changed this relationship.

In fact, Turkey has a great potential to play an effective role in protecting the current imperialist set-up. In addition to geopolitical factors, Turkey has the second largest army in Nato. It has sufficient manpower and natural resources (except oil). From the point of view of the U.S. and EU, the “moderate Islam” of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is an ideal model for Islamic countries.

However, for Turkey to play an effective role in such a critical situation, it needs to be politically stable and to strengthen and consolidate its economy. The importance of the role that Turkey has shouldered doesn’t just arise from geopolitics or its military strength. From the ideological point of view, under the AKP government Turkey is hoping for the restoration of the Ottoman Empire in some new form or on a much limited scale.

While the AKP, like the Kemalists, are nationalists, ideologically (unlike the Kemalists) they are also committed to a combination of religion and politics, nationalism and Islamism. Turkey’s new Ottoman project is consistent with the enlarged Middle East project put forward by George W. Bush and other U.S. imperialist politicians who wish to redraw the political map of the Middle East and install moderate Islamic regimes.

To carry out the new Ottoman project is a very difficult task, even in such a chaotic situation, and this issue needs to be examined in its own right. But as far as the Kurdish question is concerned, if negotiations with the PKK are successful, this peace would help bring Turkey more political and economic stability. It would also deprive rival states in the region, such as Iran, Russia and Syria, of the opportunity to exploit the contradiction between the Turkish state and the PKK, and free up the Turkish military.

In the aftermath of the first U.S. war against Iraq in 1991, when Saddam intensified the suppression of the Shia and Kurds, some Kurdish leaders tended to want to append Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey. They thought that such a move would increase the number of Kurds in Turkey, so that under EU pressure Turkey would be forced to recognize Kurdish rights. However this didn’t happen. Instead an autonomous government was formed, and then later developments, in particular the 2003 U.S. war against Iraq and its consequences, turned the  Kurdistan Regional Government into an serious regional player, given the importance of its economy and oil. Today most investment in Iraqi Kurdistan comes from Turkey, and Turkey hopes that Kurdish oil will boost its economy and its gendarme project.

At the same time, the fluidity of the region has made it possible for the PKK to become a major force in Syrian Kurdistan and utilise that to its advantage in opposition to Ankara and Erbil (the Kurdistan Regional Government’s capital). In the summer 2012 when the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish party that supports the PKK, took control of Kurdish regions in Syria, that caused consternation in both Erbil and Ankara. The retreat of the Syrian army from the Kurdish region and the PKK’s new hegemony there makes it even clearer to the Turkish government that it cannot abandon the peace process, and at the same time also allows the PKK to put forward the possibility uniting some sections of Kurdistan.

While the peace project raises the possibility of participation of Kurds – or, to be more accurate, the Kurdish bourgeoisie – in the Turkish state, at the same time the fluidity of the region has also given rise to a discussion about the formation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq and an autonomous Kurdish government in Syria, and even the integration of these areas into a single Kurdish state (Greater Kurdistan, as they call it). Keep in mind that in Turkey, at a limited level, the PKK is already sharing political power. For example, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) has representatives in Parliament and helps run some municipalities. One of the main goals of the peace project is to put aside all thoughts of a revolution or the seizure of political power through armed struggle, and while saving the present system, use parliament to include the PKK and the Kurdish bourgeoisie in the power structure.

It seems that this political compromise has ideological and theoretical foundations, ideas that were formed in a specific political and regional/international context. PKK official historical sources indicate that this process of ideological and political changes began after Ocalan was transferred to Imrali Prison (an island near Istanbul) in 2000. Ocalan himself formulated it in his five volume Prison Writings, where he says he has been reviewing the experience of “real socialism” – by which he means the experience of the Soviet Union.

Different explanations have been given for the PKK’s right turn. Some people argue that, as with other revisionist parties, the change in the PKK was basically produced by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Others think that starting around 2000, when rumours of a new U.S. invasion of Iraq and the formal establishment of a Kurdish government there were spreading, Ocalan considered this an opportunity to take part in the realisation of that plan. Do you think that such notions have any bases at all? If so, what influenced the PKK more, the defeat of twentieth-century socialism or the political atmosphere created in the region?

The PKK was formed during the political struggles of the 1970s. It took up the names “workers’ party” and “Marxism-Leninism” and adopted the hammer and sickle symbol and a programme of striving to create a “socialist Greater Kurdistan” (i.e., a united Kurdistan). Over the last 35 years this party has both influenced the political situation in Kurdistan and the region and been influenced by important developments such as the bourgeois coup in China and the collapse of the Soviet social imperialist bloc in 1989-1992, the rise of an Islamic theocracy to power in Iran, and the U.S. wars against Iraq. However, I don’t think PKK should be considered communist, neither at its start nor through the subsequent years of its development. Whether or not a person or a party can be considered socialist or communists depends above all on their ideological and political line, not on their wishes or what they claim to be, or the background or status of their members or leaders.

PKK emerged as a leftist movement in the national movement of Kurdistan, in the same way that Komalah (Marxist-Leninist) in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Revolutionary Organisation of Kurdish Toilers-Komalah in Iran during the 1970s. Part of the particularity of their radicalism was a rupture from the feudal-tribal line that dominated this national movement, a rupture due to the social-economic development of Kurdistan. They were also influenced by the international communist movement, especially the split with Soviet revisionism led by the Communist Party of China. Even though the line of the PKK and the two Komalahs (in Iraq and Iran) represented an important development in the Kurdish national movement, their left turn was not an exception.

In fact, many nationalists and national liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America during the 1960s and ’70s claimed to be inspired by Marxism, Leninism and Maoism. In the Middle East, that was true of the Palestinian movement and the national liberation movement in Oman. Even the Iraqi KDP, which was totally nationalist and had distanced itself completely from the Communist Party of Iraq, stated in its constitution that it was inspired by Marxism-Leninism. Nevertheless, even though many members and fighters in the PKK and the two Komalahs were attracted to communism, those organisations could not rupture from the capitalist outlook and nationalist politics.

When he was in Europe for a short time in 1998 before being kidnapped, Ocalan suggested a ceasefire and negotiations for a political solution of the Kurdish question. Obviously, prison conditions bring serious limitations for any imprisoned fighter, and these limitations could have an impact on their line and programme. Prison guards, in this case the Turkish government, decide what the prisoner is allowed to read, hear and watch, and whether or not his or her discussions or thinking should be allowed to reach outside the prison walls – and how their ideas should be filtered. But it is wrong to attribute the line developments of this exceptional prisoner to prison limitations. He himself, in a text called “Manifesto for  a democratic solution of the Kurdish question” published in 1999, wrote that he had declared a ceasefire in 1993, and on other occasions suggested negotiation for a political solution.

In the same work he commented on the collapse of the Soviet bloc: “As we approach the end of the twentieth century, victory belongs to democracy, which is increasingly maturing” and cited the U.S. and Britain as historical examples of democracy. In the same work, he called the whole experience of socialism in the twentieth century “the totalitarianism of extreme equality”, and declared that “the suffocating totalitarianism of fascism and bourgeois nationalism” had been defeated because they abandoned the framework of democracy. From these comments and many other writings, it is clear that instead of making a Marxist critique of the setbacks that occurred when capitalism was restored in the Soviet Union in 1956 and in China in 1976, Ocalan repudiates the whole socialist experience in the twentieth century, and sees the future as one of repairing and enhancing bourgeois democracy.

The whole conception of nationalist movements is to form their own national state in the framework of capitalism, and if they see such goal as unachievable, they will be satisfied with autonomy, national rights and political power sharing.

It is clear that PKK and in particular Ocalan did not get to these conclusions and analyses overnight. His views have a particular theoretical basis, and have gone through certain processes to reach their present point. What are the characteristics and main aspects of that development? Also, do you think that the roots of this right turn were visible from the beginning in the PKK’s theoretical and political thinking, or did this line only begin to develop at a certain point?

Ocalan has written some 15,000 pages over the thirty-five years of his political activity, and the development of his thinking can be carefully followed. In this interview we can only refer to some of the main points they hinted at. In this case and others, the abandonment of  socialism and communism and embracing of bourgeois democracy is rooted in his subjective  response, that is, his thinking, in relation to objective conditions and developments. Like many bourgeois intellectuals, Ocalan concluded that the collapse of the Soviet bloc spelled the final victory of capitalism and the end for socialism and communism.

With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, for many people in the national movements who were banking on being able to take advantage of the conflict between the two imperialist superpowers, the U.S. and the USSR, that hope turned into despair. From the beginning Ocalan did not have a correct understanding of the capitalist nature of the social-imperialists, and it’s not surprising that he considered the collapse of the Soviet bloc as the end of socialism.

If at the beginning the main problem with the PKK was its non-Marxist understanding of socialism and communism, during Ocalan’s prison years he moved toward abandoning Marxism completely. And this is not only as a result of prisons condition. Cemil Bayik, until recently the PKK military commander, wrote an introduction to one of Ocalan’s writings explaining the development in the thinking and views of the party and its leadership:  “Ocalan’s analysis has presented new viewpoints on the mutual influences between democracy and society on the one hand and socialism on the other. His examination and investigation into democratic civil society gave rise to a fundamental revision in the PKK… [and] intense debate on Ocalan writings gave rise to enduring ideological reviews in the PKK. Marx, Engels and Lenin are now seen differently. The principles that once were so dear should have been questioned…reconstruction doesn’t mean that we abandoned the socialist goal; on the contrary, we see the process as a deepening of our beliefs. In parallel with these doubts, the PKK’s former positions on using the state as a tool of power were radically questioned.

“Because of its nature, the State is in contradiction to society and democracy. Therefore, it is logical to abandon the classic socialist doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Finally, we achieved an understanding of socialism that no longer uses state-centred positions or reasoning. We are convinced that socialism cannot be realised in the framework of the state. As a result, the PKK dropped its previous goal of a nation-state for the Kurdish people and decided to pursue the Kurdish question in a way that does not envision changing the current borders.  Our policy is no longer determined by the goal of seizing political power or the state that until now was the necessary symbol of a successful revolution.” (See  Ocalan’s Prison Writings: The PKK and the Kurdish Question in the 21st Century. Translated and edited by Klaus Happel, London, Transmedia Publishing Ltd, 2011.)

This wrong understanding of the relationship between the state and revolution is the theoretical basis for the PKK’s decision that the resolution of the national question, and also the realisation of democracy and socialism, are possible within the framework of the present political, economic and social system of Turkey.

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