Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has pushed Sweden and Finland to crack down on Kurdish groups in exchange for NATO membership. He cites his country’s “legitimate security concerns” — but it’s the long-oppressed Kurds who have most to fear.
Finland and Sweden are moving closer to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership — but only thanks to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan giving up his veto to their joining the military alliance. This came with conditions: citing “security concerns,” he extracted a string of concessions from the Nordic countries, the United States, and NATO — accepting them only after signing a memorandum that would again turn the Kurds into victims.
The memorandum promises a lot for Turkey, to the detriment of the Kurds. After the NATO summit in Madrid on June 29 and 30, the ultranationalist Devlet Bahçeli — Erdoğan’s unofficial coalition partner — termed it a “strategic gain for our country and at the same time a national success.” In a sense he is right: this is, indeed, a step forward in Turkey’s war against the Kurds and for a government that needs such “successes” to prop up its domestic rule.
I am the European representative of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s second biggest opposition force and the biggest left-wing party. It is my sad experience that people will talk about the Kurds but without the Kurds being part of the talks. And once again, instead of listening to the Kurds, the West is caving in the face of Erdoğan’s blackmail.
Democracy, women’s liberation, ecology, popular participation, and freedom are universal values that the Kurdish freedom movement has been politically upholding for years. It seeks a democratic alternative to the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East that undermine freedoms. Western governments cite many of these values in the name of their support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion. But when it comes to the Kurds themselves, the West is perfectly willing to throw these values away — and throw the Kurds to the wolves.
It seems the West has given in to virtually all of Erdoğan’s demands. These include Turkey’s reentry into the F-16 fighter jet program; the resumption of full arms trading with the two Nordic countries; the extradition of Kurdish exiles and political figures, including an Iranian Kurdish MP in the Swedish parliament, Amineh Kakabaveh, who has no ties to Turkey whatsoever; and an end to these countries’ limited support for political dialogue with Kurdish representatives and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).
Worse yet, fresh Turkish military attacks against AANES, with a new bid to occupy its territory, are now imminent. The regions of Manbij and Tell Rifaat are in the crosshairs after Erdoğan’s latest statements. It should never be forgotten that AANES led the struggle on the ground against ISIS on behalf of the world, losing more than 11,000 of its daughters and sons as the official partner of the international coalition to defeat ISIS. Indeed, both of these regions were liberated as the federal political project in northern Syria spread from the Kurdish region of Rojava to encompass millions of Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Turkmen, Circassians, Chechens, and Yezidis in a direct-democratic, decentralized system. Yet both Russia and the United States (under the Donald Trump administration) gave the green light to Erdoğan’s devastating invasions of the region in 2018 and 2019, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians.
The same European Parliament that recently recognized Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns” over the Kurdish movement last year called on Turkey “to withdraw its troops from Northern Syria which it is illegally occupying outside of any UN mandate.” It stated that the Turkish occupation “could amount to ethnic cleansing” against the Kurds, while the United Nations found that Turkey’s occupation of the Afrin region resulted in mass gang rape and kidnapping of Kurdish and Yezidi women, “forcible displacement” on an ethnic basis, torture in the presence of Turkish officers, and the destruction of historical, religious, and cultural sites, among other atrocities.
At home in Turkey, thousands of depopulated Kurdish villages and unsolved murders, tens of thousands of political prisoners, and bans on political parties, organizations, and associations are just a few examples of repressive measures the Turkish state has used against our people.
Thousands of HDP members, including former cochairs, deputies, executives, and mayors, have been arrested since the June 2015 general elections. There are twelve former HDP MPs in jail and many more in exile, while fifty-nine of sixty-five democratically elected HDP comayors have been removed from office.
In addition, there is also now a case at the Constitutional Court seeking to ban the HDP. There is a major threat that the government will use the judiciary, which is under its full control, to shut down the HDP before the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2023.
For Democracy, Against Colonialism
Turkey’s anti-Kurdish politics are able to prevent all Kurdish-led efforts for democratic struggle because there is no official body representing Kurdish interests and rights internationally. The Kurdish people are manipulated and made use of by the colonial states. It is the colonial powers that present Kurdish resistance against exploitation, repression, and ethnic cleansing as a “security threat.” This is precisely where the security threat arises for the more than 40 million Kurds.
If the Kurds could be accused of anything today, it is that they did not resist enough in the past and have not defeated colonialism. This does not mean that we are seeking to build our own nation-state. For the Kurdish freedom movement, it is absolutely clear it can fight for freedom and recognized democratic rights with autonomous self-governing structures in their respective states, and they have a right to do so.
Indeed, all the states where the Kurds are present in their millions — Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran — are in urgent need of democratization. The Kurds and their struggle are key to the enduring peace and stability of these critical states and the Middle East as a whole. The only solution lies in dialogue with the Kurdish freedom movement, the release of imprisoned Kurdish “Mandela of the Middle East” Abdullah Öcalan, and a resumption of the peace talks like the ones in place in 2013–15.
Even before such a process can take place, there is an urgent need for a no-fly zone over AANES, which is also rightly demanded. Various international bodies can use their political weight to prevent further attacks by Turkey on the Kurds at home and abroad. In general, it should end its shortsighted policy of giving in to all of Erdoğan’s demands in the deluded belief that he will one day be appeased.
In reality, Erdoğan’s anti-Kurdish and ultranationalistic politics are built on the same anti-Kurdish hate that has resulted in genocides and pogroms throughout history (like the Armenian and Assyrian genocides), and which he uses to bolster himself in the polls in Turkey. His talk of “security concerns” is just an excuse — as a BBC investigation found, the Turkish government has wildly exaggerated the virtually nonexistent threat the AANES poses to its borders, in 2018 claiming it had faced “over seven hundred” attacks from the region. In their statements, however, the AANES representatives said that no attack from their region was directed against Turkey and called for dialogue and a democratic solution. Even now, none of the regions that Turkey wants to attack are even on the Turkish border.
Autocrats and oppressors cannot have legitimate “security concerns.” On the contrary, the oppressed have security concerns that should be morally, politically, and legally supported by everyone else.
Kurds are not part of any body with the power to decide whether NATO should be expanded, reduced, or dissolved. But Kurds do have the right to demand a clear commitment to international law, democracy, and freedom, which should also apply to the Kurds. Hannah Arendt said that no one has the right to obey. The Kurds and the other diverse peoples that HDP represents do not obey Erdoğan and his authoritarian regime. And others should not either. It is not Erdoğan but our universal values that should determine the future.