Öcalan calls for democratic nation project for Syria, Turkey

Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) that has fought for Kurdish self-rule on Turkish soil for almost four decades, said Kurds in Turkey and Syria could “make their way out of the pincer movement of genocide” through what he calls a democratic nation project, in an article penned for Jacobin magazine on Friday.

The democratic nation theory is part of democratic confederalism, a theory Öcalan developed after his conviction on treason charges and imprisonment in the İmralı island prison in the Marmara Sea in 1999 to serve a life sentence. 

The theory is “based on free and equal citizens, existing together in solidarity, encompassing all cultural and religious realities,” he wrote. “This is, then, a project designed to be forged together with the other peoples in the region.”

In the article Öcalan said nation states have militarised society and “fully submerged (it) in a kind of war,” under constant control and surveillance. In the Middle East, according to the top enemy-of-the-state, the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France signed in 1916 brought “a peace to end all peace” to the region as it defined or heavily influenced current borders between its countries.

The Ottoman Empire’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region was eventually divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran in the aftermath, and conflict arising from the partition continues to date in all four countries to varying extents.

“Maps drawn with a ruler are an invitation for wars between states,” Öcalan said, adding, “None of them are adequate to overcoming the deepening crisis.”

Öcalan called the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East “World War III,” and said it could “only end with the formation of a new regional or global equilibrium,” with its fate “determined by the developments in Kurdistan”.

Kurdish insurgencies have flared up occasionally since the modern Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, but the bloodiest has been the conflict between Turkey and the PKK, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives since the group's first attack in 1984 in the southeastern Siirt province, where the PKK killed several Turkish soldiers and police officers, and injured at least three civilians. The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and recognised as such by the U.S., the European Union, and a number of other countries.

“Turkish nation-state believes that with a final genocide of the Kurds, it will make itself eternal - a nation-state now integrated with its own country and nation,” Öcalan said.

The PKK founder has many admirers among Syrian Kurds, who control a small but significant strip of land along the border with Turkey. This admiration is why Turkey considers the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to be a terrorist organisation, saying the U.S.-backed group has organic ties to the PKK.

After the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Syrian Kurds established a semi-autonomous region in the north and, following a series of deadly attacks and occupations by the Islamic State (ISIS), became the primary force on the ground as part of the U.S.-led international coalition against the fundamentalist group.

Rojava, the name Kurds use for the region, is “run by an autonomous multiethnic, multi-religion self-administration, based on the freedom of women,” Öcalan said, calling it “a beacon of freedom” and what “enabled (Kurds) to eliminate ISIS.”

The Autonomous Administration of Northeastern Syria (AANS), despite U.S. support, is not officially recognised by any country, but a recent oil deal with an American company was read by many as a step towards recognition.

Syrian Kurds have demanded a seat at tables where Syria’s future is discussed among many regional actors including Turkey, Russia and Iran, while Turkey remains fiercely opposed to the idea. 

However, if Kurds’ demands are met, and “once a Democratic Constitution of Syria is declared,” Öcalan said, Syrian Kurds will be able to start to call on former residents of the region to return from Turkey, Europe, and anywhere else they sought asylum during the civil war.

“We insist on the need for social reconciliation and a democratic negotiation, to replace the culture of polarisation and conflict,” Öcalan said, mentioning a 2019 declaration he issued from İmralı where he called for “a dignified peace, and a solution of democratic politics”.

Moves to end the conflicts in both Turkey and Syria could be set up “within a week,” if favourable conditions were present, Öcalan said, calling for dialogue. “Nowadays, problems can be solved not with physical tools of violence but with soft power,” he said.

Following the collapse of a peace process in 2015, Turkey has focused on military solutions and carried out several military incursions in northern Syria in recent years as part of its fight against the PKK. With last year’s Operation Peace Spring, the Turkish military has achieved control in much of the former territory held by the SDF.

In 2020, Turkey focused on Northern Iraq, where it launched Operation Claw-Tiger and Operation Claw-Eagle in late June, targeting bases of PKK and affiliated groups.

The Turkish military has vastly expanded its capabilities in recent years, particularly in armed drone technology, which has “limited the conventional advantage of PKK militants enjoyed in rugged rural areas,” the Jalal Talabani Chair of Kurdish Political Studies at the University of Central Florida, Güneş Murat Tezcür, told Ahval in July.

“Consequently, yes, we can talk about a new phase in the Turkish-PKK conflict which primarily takes place across the Turkish borders since 2017, the end of the PKK’s urban strategy,” he added.