Afrin could be Turkey’s Vietnam, veteran Kurdish politician says

Turkey’s attempted invasion of the Kurdish-held Syrian enclave of Afrin could turn out to be its “Vietnam”, a leading Kurdish politician and former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said.

Turkish troops, backed by their Syrian rebel allies, launched an air and ground offensive against Afrin, in northwest Syria, on Jan. 20. They aim to clear the area of a Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), that Turkey says is part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting a separatist insurgency in Turkey since 1984.

“The Turkish government may take the area under its power, however this would resemble U.S. control in South Vietnam,” Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat told Ahval in an interview. “There is resistance in Afrin so Turkey may lose things to the degree they cannot handle and this may lead to the end of the government.”

Fırat, alongside President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was one of the founding members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the conservative Islamist party that has ruled Turkey since 2002.

A lawyer by profession, Fırat became a member of parliament for an Islamist predecessor to the AKP in 1999 and then for AKP itself from 2002, serving as it deputy head from 2002 to 2008.

Fırat said he resigned from the position after Erdoğan told him Kurds had neither a country nor a language. “On that day, I had told Erdoğan the Kurds brought him to power, but the cooperation ended there. Twenty million Kurds exist here and most speak Kurdish.”

But he said it was Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism that prompted Fırat to leave the AKP in 2014 and join the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish leftist coalition of minorities. He was again elected to parliament on its ticket in 2015.

“The party I set up is no longer there. Today's ruling party lost its core values of egalitarianism and freedom. Now it is an organisation advocating dictatorial rule in the country and each day they take this to another horrific stage,” said Fırat.

The AKP, he said, had lost values. “Look at its programme. It says it is a liberal democratic party. And now compare it with its current actions. Its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan doesn't define it as a democratic party, instead the party has adopted crude, destructive and aggressive values.”

In its early years in power, the AKP attempted to reach out to conservative Kurdish voters by appealing to Islamic values over and above ethnic identity. Erdoğan’s government even conducted secret peace talks with the PKK and concluded a ceasefire with the militants in 2013.

But after the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in June 2015 elections, fighting erupted again and the party was able to appeal to voters’ security fears and regain control of parliament in November rerun polls.

Fırat was born into prominent Kurdish family in the southeastern province of Adıyaman in 1943. His grandfather, uncle and cousin all served as members of parliament. Turkey’s Kurds make up some 20 percent of Turkey’s 80 million people and have long chafed under a centralised Turkish nationalist state intolerant of other identities.

“The government already knows it cannot totally destroy the Kurds, but they want to immobilise them,” Fırat said.

The government has lifted the parliamentary immunities of HDP parliamentarians, leading to 10 of them being jailed on terrorism charges, including HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş, who faces up to 142 years in jail on an array of charges.

Facing local, parliamentary and crucial presidential elections next year after winning only a slim majority in last year’s referendum, Erdoğan’s AKP has made an electoral alliance with a far-right party and, Fırat said, sought to ramp security fears and Turkish nationalist sentiment with its offensive against Kurdish-controlled Afrin.

"The intervention into Syria was put underway to prepare voters for the elections," he said. “This will increase AKP votes.”

More than two weeks into the Turkish operation, progress has been slow and Turkish casualties have begun to mount against U.S.-trained YPG forces, battle hardened from fighting Islamic State.

Turkey, he said, sees Afrin as a "secluded and easy part of Syria to take over, but it won't be easy."

Afrin and other majority Kurdish parts of northern Syria, he said, had long been a hotbed of Kurdish nationalism and had hosted thousands of Kurds who had fled Turkey since the first uprisings against the state in the 1920s.

“The Kurds of Afrin were politicised long ago and they have the strongest Kurdish nationalistic stance out of all Kurdish settlements in the Middle East," Fırat said. "Now the Afrin operation is nurturing Kurdish sentiment, thanks to Turkey's attacks."

Fırat nevertheless complained about divisions within the Kurdish movement and the influence of the PKK and its leaders based in the remote Qandil mountains of northern Iraq.

“Though the HDP received 13 percent of the vote in the elections of June 2015, PKK leaders in the mountains have been overruling in the party,” he said. “Politics should be free and genuine. PKK members and parliament should be separate. These two can talk, but they cannot give instructions to each other.”

Fırat gave the example of the PKK’s attempt to seize parts of a number of cities in the mainly Kurdish southeast in 2015 that brought the largely rural guerrilla campaign to urban areas on a big scale for the first time in more than 30 years of fighting.

The Turkish military sent in tanks and pounded densely packed neighbourhoods with artillery to crush the attempted uprisings.

“The Kurdish movement put everyone into a deadlock as it brought the war into the very streets where our people live. The PKK has since not given an account of the warfare where so many civilians were killed,” Fırat said.

Together with Demirtaş, Fırat said he had travelled to the areas at the time to stop the fighting, but he said they were sidelined by the militants.

"Kurdish politics must be more democratic and wise from now on,” he said. “Politics doesn't accept outside intervention and this was the reason Kurdish politics came to a halt. Kurdish politics is broken."