Turkey will not budge from captured Syrian lands - veteran Kurdish campaigner

Once Turkey captures the Syrian district of Afrin from Kurdish forces it will not leave the area, but will stay put to push its own aims in Syria, veteran Kurdish politician Tarık Ziya Ekinci said.

Turkish troops, backed by allied Syrian militias, launched an offensive against the Afrin enclave two weeks ago in an effort to drive out Syrian Kurdish forces it says are allied to separatist Kurdish militants fighting in southeast Turkey since 1984.

The director of the main hospital in the city of Afrin said this week the facility had taken in 46 people killed and 86 wounded by the Turkish attacks. Turkey says it has killed hundreds of militants in the operations and insists it is not hitting civilians.

“If Turkey enters the region, it will not leave,” Ekinci told Ahval in an interview. “What they are saying, that they will leave when their mission is finished is just political statements. They can’t leave. They will remain for their personal and political benefit, as long as necessary to fulfil their political ambitions.”

Ekinci said the ongoing Turkish presence in the Syrian city of Al Bab after its capture from Islamic State a year ago showed that Turkey’s intention was to stay in Afrin as well.

“They went into Al Bab, why haven’t they left? Turkey has built schools and mosques, and has sent imams and teachers. They want to establish a government, which sides with Turkey. I don’t know if the people there are happy or not.”

Ekinci, aged 92, is known as the oldest living Kurdish politician. He was born in Diyarbakir, the biggest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast in 1925, the same year as the Sheikh Said rebellion, the first major uprising by Kurds against the newly formed Republic of Turkey.

The revolt was fiercely put down and its leaders hanged. The Kurdish language was banned and the region remained under effective martial law for decades. Thousands fled to French-controlled Syria, bolstering the Kurdish population there.

After studying medicine in Istanbul and Paris, Ekinci worked as a doctor across Turkey’s southeast before becoming a member of parliament for Diyarbakir for one term in the late 1960s. After the 1980 military coup, Ekinci was jailed for two years in the city’s notorious prison on charges of campaigning for Kurdish nationalism.

After receiving deaths threats after following his release, Ekinci went into exile in France before returning to Turkey in 1992.

Numbering at least 30 million spread across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, the Kurds are often said to be world’s largest ethnic group without a state of their own.

“The Kurds have been forced to live without a nation on their own lands,” Ekinci said. “If the Middle East had peace, there would be peace in the world. Peace in the region will only be possible when the Kurds are given their own state. Otherwise, the conflict here threatens the entire world.”

Peace in the Middle East though would be elusive, he said, as long as the world’s major powers competed over the region and its resources.

“Because the majority of the world’s oil reserves are in the Middle East, this region is a target for more powerful nations. Such countries that need oil will always fight for supremacy and foment violence in the area,” Ekinci said.

“For example, Russia and the U.S. are currently fighting for leadership in the area. It is not possible to establish a peace when they are fighting for superiority.”

Kurdish groups in northern Iraq succeeded in breaking away from central government rule after the first Gulf War in 1991 and have since set up a regional government. But an overwhelming vote for independence in a referendum there last year was condemned by its neighbours and resulted in the loss of territory to the Baghdad government.

Turkey, which has the biggest Kurdish population, has been the scene of an armed campaign by Kurdish separatists for more than 30 years. Tens of thousands, most of them Kurds, have been killed in the conflict.

Iran is also the scene of intermittent fighting between the government and armed Kurdish groups, while the civil war in Syria has led to large territorial gains by Syrian Kurds, backed by U.S. air power against Islamic State.

“A Kurdish government, established with the agreement and needs of all parties, would go a long way in promoting peace and prosperity.  It would benefit the region and the world for the Kurds to have autonomy and their own state,” Ekinci said.

“I would like to see a Kurdish country established in my lifetime. It would be the happiest moment of my 92 years.”