Ocalan v. Ataturk – a reappraisal of the nation state.

 Blog No. 80.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the father of the Turkish nation


Until recently, I had paid little attention to Abdullah Ocalan. I knew that he had been imprisoned on a Turkish island for the past twenty or so years on the grounds of his having inspired the PKK’s Kurdish rebellion against the Turkish government (thereby earning the everlasting sobriquet of “terrorist’ and a high ranking on the USA’s hate list.)

To me, and apparently to the vast majority of ME commentators, he was a distant figure in the background, occasionally brought into public view by the Turkish leadership for ‘negotiations’ and put down again, as soon as his ideas were no longer convenient. In short, he had become an un-person and, in the overall scheme of things,  hardly seemed worthy of further concern. Recently, my opinion has changed. In my last blog https://khakispecs.com/?p=1811 I gave a glossary of the alphabet of Kurdish organisations and a superficial overview of the Kurdish question and of how it is manifesting itself in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

This wiki gives an Ocalan bio up to the more recent renewal of hostilities between Erdogan and his Kurdish subjects https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdullah_%C3%96calan

Abdullah Ocalan was born in eastern Turkey in the late 1940s. He studied at university and entered the civil service. It was (and still remains) a time when prospects for members of the minority, Turkish Kurdish community were limited.

The end of WWI also marked the end of the tolerant Ottoman Empire in which (with notable exceptions, such as the unfortunate Armenians) multiple cultures and ethnicities had generally managed to live peaceably together. The Ottoman’s were replaced by Kemal Ataturk with his determination to build a modern, unified, secular, national state along western lines.

Ever since Ataturk’s coming to power, the Turkish solution to the problem presented by the fact that 20% – 25% of the nation’s population were of a separate ethnicity and culture, has been to pretend that those divisions didn’t exit. Regulatory assimilation, rather than peaceful co-existence has been the policy of choice, with all manifestations of Kurdish ethnic, cultural and linguistic separateness being legislated against and suppressed.

Ocalan was a natural leader and in 1978, finding these repressive conditions intolerable, was the lead influence in the founding of the Marxist-Leninist tending Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) a Kurdish nationalist party, with the announced intention of breaking away from Turkey and establishing an independent Kurdish state. Shortly thereafter, in 1979, Ocalan was forced to seek exile in Syria, where he remained until 1998. In 1984, after several years of sporadic violence, a full-scale civil war broke out between the Turkish government and the PKK (of which, despite his enforced exile, Ocalan remained the acknowledged leader.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurdish%E2%80%93Turkish_conflict_%281978%E2%80%93present%29

In February 1999, Ocalan, when visiting Kenya, was kidnapped by The Turkish National Intelligence Service (MIT.) With the aid of several Western intelligence agencies including the CIA, he was renditioned to solitary confinement in a Turkish prison on Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara.

Ocalan at home on Imrali Island

Ten years later, under pressure from the European Court of Human Rights and sundry western NGOs, the terms of his imprisonment were modified and his solitary confinement relieved by the imprisonment on the island of several other PKK prisoners.

In September 1999, eight months after its leader’s kidnapping and imprisonment and after 40,000 deaths had been shared out between both sides, the PKK declared a unilateral cease fire.

This held until 2004 when the PKK resumed hostilities against the Turkish government. Sporadic hostilities continued until mid-2011, when there was a marked increase in the level of violence.

In 2012 the Turkish government entered into negotiations with Ocalan in an endeavour to reach a peaceful settlement to the Kurdish question. In March 2013, in a statement read to hundreds of thousands of Kurds gathered to celebrate the Kurdish New Year, Ocalan announced the end of armed struggle and a ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish state. “Let guns be silenced and politics dominate… a new door is being opened from the process of armed conflict to democratization and democratic politics. It’s not the end. It’s the start of a new era.”

The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had conceded the rights of the Kurds to the practice of their own language and culture, appeared to welcome Ocalan’s statement and expressed his commitment to a peaceful settlement. Having no further requirement for armed conflict in Turkey, PKK field units moved into the mountainous region of northern Iraq, from where they were able to join the Peshmerga in their defence against the assaults of the Islamic State.

Kurdish peace rally
Kurds celebrate Ocalan’s decision to cease armed struggle

Unfortunately, the political exigencies of internal Turkish politics have led to the early ending of the reconciliation process. In the midst of their life and death struggle with the Islamic State, PKK bases in northern Iraq were attacked by Turkish special forces and bombed by the Turkish air Force. In July 2015 the PKK declared an end to their ceasefire. Today, the Kurdish cities of south eastern Turkey are once again under attack from Turkish armed forces, so too are PKK/YPG forces in Northern Iraq and in Syria, south of the Rojavan – Turkish border. Sporadic acts of PKK related terrorism are starting to occur in main centres throughout Turkey.

Ocalan’s inception of the PKK in 1977, was as a basically communist workers’ revolutionary/terrorist movement dedicated to gaining separation of a Kurdish national state from successive, oppressive Turkish governments. By the time of the renewed outbreak of hostilities between the Kurds and the Turkish government in July 2015, Ocalan had made a remarkable intellectual Odyssey. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/magazine/a-dream-of-utopia-in-hell.html?_r=0 (This article was written in 2014, before the resumption of hostilities between the PKK, its various manifestations in Iraq and Syria, and the Turkish state.)

From being a communist advocate of armed and violent insurrection, Ocalan took as his favoured mentor, Murray Bookchin, an American anarchist theorist. Since then, he has become a pacific and prolific author of political works and the creator of a distinctive egalitarian political philosophy, “Democratic Confederalism,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_Confederalism which is widely adopted among the Kurds of Turkey and Syria and the PKK elements in the KAR. It provides the ideological motivation behind all PKK units fighting both the Islamic and Turkish states. With its emphasis on grassroots democracy, female empowerment, environmental protection and its argument for peaceable coexistence between different ethnic communities within existing national frontiers, it may possibly have the potential to offer a solution to many of the problems arising from the collapse of Ottoman Empire and the subsequent depredations of the Western powers.

It would appear that the influence of Ocalan’s political theories is not limited to the Kurds. There are indicators that they are starting to gain traction among intellectual and feminist circles in Europe and the Americas (though probably not elsewhere in the Islamic world.)

The most effective resistance to IS in northern Syria comes from the PKK’s PYD affiliate and its military wings the YPG and YPJ (male and female, People’s Protection Units), while they are, at the same time, enduring artillery bombardments and, in the KAR in northern Iraq, air attacks from Erdogan’s Turkey. Add to the picture, repeated reports of the Syrian Islamist forces using Turkish supplied poison gas against the YPG https://macedoniaonline.eu/content/view/29010/53/   Regarding the self-confessed atheist, Ocalan, as their leader and inspiration, the PYD and its militias appear to spend as much time in teaching his political philosophy as they do on weapons training (and as much time as is spent by IS, on Islamic indoctrination.)

YPG ideology. https://roarmag.org/essays/pkk-kurdish-struggle-autonomy/ An interesting and very practical outcome of Ocalan’s feminist teachings is the formation of YPG female combat units (the YPJ.) Evidently, these units are exceptionally effective against the Islamic State, as the terrifying rumour has spread among the religious dupes, who provide the cannon-fodder for the capos and extortion racketeers controlling IS, that the gates to paradise are barred to those who meet their martyrdom at female hands!

Kurdish soldier
Xwinda, 17-year old, soldier with the YPJ  Peoples Protection Units in Rojava

Clearly the war against IS was not a war chosen by Ocalan and the PKK. Ocalan’s new found search for peaceful coexistence succumbed to a war forced on the Kurds by the declared intention of IS to enslave their women and eliminate their communities in Iraq and Syria. Likewise, no blame can be attached to Ocalan for the breakdown of the peace with Turkey in July 2015.

The fault for that rests entirely with Erdogan’s two driving personal ambitions. The first, which involved giving material support to the Islamic State and to other Syrian militant factions, was to  see the secular Assad regime in Damascus replaced by a Moslem Brotherhood regime sympathetic to Erdogan’s personal religious ideology and hostile to all Kurdish ambitions for autonomy. The second, being his driving political ambition to change the Turkish constitution so that he could personally acquire over-riding presidential powers.

By mid-2015, it was apparent to Erdogan that for his AKP Party to gain a parliamentary majority sufficient to enable an amendment to the constitution, he had to force a minor, and largely Kurdish supported, People’s Democratic Party (HDP) below the 10% threshold, which would allow it back into Parliament. To destroy the HDP, Erdogan cynically chose to clad himself in the flag of Turkish nationalism. This could best be achieved by forcing the Kurds into fresh conflict with the Turkish state and running on a national unity and security ticket, while accusing the HDP of being linked to terrorism.

The plan misfired in that the HDP retained just over 10% of the vote, so Erdogan has not yet been able to alter the constitution. Instead, he has a major domestic uprising on his hands and has singularly failed to lessen the military threat the PKK/YPG poses to his Islamist and jihadist fellow-travelers in Syria. Erdogan is now having to console himself by using those presidential powers that he does possess to curb the free press, instigate military rule in much of the country and set Turkey on track to become yet another sordid Middle Eastern dictatorship. However, in contrast to other such states, as a key conduit for the USA’s Russia targeted rat-lines running East into the Caucasus and the Stans, Turkey is allowed to remain a full and honoured member of the Holy Order of the NATO Knights Templar.

Erdogan-barenakedislam-poemTo enter the realms of pure speculation, one cannot help wondering where all this will end up. The days of IS as a holder of territory in Iraq and Syria are clearly numbered. After IS, even greater uncertainty is likely to follow as the victorious puppeteers attempt to sit their man on whatever throne or thrones they can extract from the rumps of Syria and Iraq.

At the moment, Ocalan’s Kurds in Iraq are overtly supported by the USA and, begrudgingly, by both the Barzani government of the KAR and the Iraqi government. In Rojava, they are supported by both the USA, the Russians and the Syrian government. In Turkey, the Kurds may well be receiving surreptitious encouragement from the Russians. However, come the collapse of IS as a holder of territory, all will change.

The Russians might well like to have a Kurdish movement more threatening to the Turkish state. (Certainly the Turkish-based PKK’s recently instigated sabotage campaign against Turkish pipelines, works entirely to Russia’s benefit.)  The Americans, will opt for a regime that poses less of a threat to capitalist ideals and to the Barzani government it has helped establish in northern Iraq. Assad, while he accepts Syrian Kurds at the moment as allies of convenience, has already announced his wish to reunify the whole of Syria under his one flag, an ideal to which the USA still pays lip-service – provided the flag is not being waved by Assad.

The big question will be whether Ocalan’s theories of democratic self-rule by communities within existing state boundaries, could be accepted as a peace-making compromise?

My guess is that the Syrian Kurds, once their usefulness against the Islamic State, has been exploited to the maximum,  are due do be dumped. With his ideas of feminine empowerment, Ocalan will deeply worry some of the major Islamic players. Likewise, it is unlikely that the USA will be prepared to give serious consideration to any system such as Ocalan’s, with its strong egalitarian and socialist overtones and which is unlikely to willingly embrace the principle of international capitalism’s freedom to exploit.

The USA will want to stick with Barzani as its comprador in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq. Then the stage will be set for an interesting battle for hearts and minds. Will it be Barzani, or Ocalan’s democratic confederalism that will triumph? By then, the Kurds of the KAR might well have had their fill of living unpaid and unemployed in a failed petro-state and have become susceptible to Ocalan’s democratic ideals.

More on Ocalan’s feminism in practice https://www.alterinter.org/spip.php?article4447

Ocalan’s books available form Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Abdullah-%C3%96calan/e/B001HCW4RW

Radical – (as opposed to liberal) – democracy: an academic exegesis!  https://ejts.revues.org/4615

Stop Press. This week it is rumoured that the Rojavan Kurds, still excluded, at Turkey’s insistence, from the Geneva peace talks, are about to formally declare their unilateral formation of an autonomous, multi-ethnic, Kurdish region in northern Syria. This is in the face of loud protests from both the Assad regime and its opposing Syrian rebel factions that no future  form of federalism will be acceptable to whichever faction ends up controlling the seat of government in Damascus. Already facing intense Turkish hostility, it would appear that the Kurds are in for a rough ride should peace break out among the Arab Syrians!


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2 thoughts on “Ocalan v. Ataturk – a reappraisal of the nation state.

  1. Lasse Riise says:

    For most other political factions in the region their wettest Dream is the destruction of Rojava. It seems that the Rojava federation in the end will be forced to seek independence from Damascus. All competing alternativesd in the region jockeying for taking Power in Damascus will force the Rojava fedreation to seek independence. In the end, this will be the only option available, if the Rojava federation is to survive.

    • khakis5_wp says:

      Ocalan’s philosophy allows for autonomous communities within Rojava to remain within the borders of the Syrian state. It is possible that at the end of the fighting, some sort of compromise will become feasible and the Rojavan Kurds retain a large degree of autonomy – but that will also entail an understanding between Russia and Turkey. And then of course, there is always the possibility of a President Clinton authorised major US armed intervention and Damascus being handed over to Sunni Islamists. In these circumstances America might protect the Kurds, or might sacrifice them to their Jihadist and Turkish foes. The fat woman has not yet sung and the show (sadly) is not yet over.

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