Thursday November 22 2012

Kurdistan: Victory, but no solution

Despite the ending of the prisoners’ hunger-strikes, the Kurdish question remains unresolved, writes Esen Uslu

Kurdish pershmerga: young lining up

The mass hunger-strike staged by hundreds of Kurdish prisoners ended on the 68th day of the campaign, on November 18, when committees in 37 prisons decided to end the strike on the basis of the call issued by Abdullah Öcalan, jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), that reached the prisons the night before.

On the penultimate day the infamously mishap-prone shuttle ship from the mainland to the island prison of İmralı finally managed the passage, and the usual ‘unfavourable weather and sea conditions’ suddenly disappeared too, allowing comrade Öcalan’s brother to visit him for the first time in months. Öcalan was expecting a visit from the solicitor representing him, as previously agreed during the negotiations. However, after a protest against the government’s last-minute tricks, he agreed to see his brother and hand over to him his hand-written note calling on the prisoners to end their strike.

Comrade Öcalan appealed to the prisoners in these terms:

 

Those who staged the hunger-strike undertook the tasks and responsibilities of those who are free. Those who are free should not shift the burden of their own tasks and responsibilities onto the shoulders of prisoners who have been suffering under very difficult conditions for a long time, who are sick and weakened behind those thick walls. While I do not consider the hunger-strike as an appropriate type of action, I believe if such a course of action becomes inevitable it should be carried out by those who are free, and should not be left to the prisoners. As an action the hunger-strike is extremely powerful. It has reached its target and achieved its main aim. They should end the hunger-strike at once without any hesitation. From here I extend my personal greetings to each of the hunger-strikers, particularly to those who started the action in the first and second groups.
 

That appeal was supported by the speeches of the prominent figures of the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), who had themselves started hunger-strikes in front of the prisons in support of the prisoners’ action. The guerrilla command based in the Qandil mountains echoed comrade Öcalan’s call as their own. Overnight prisoners considered the appeal and ended the strike, issuing the following statement:

 

We regard our leadership’s call - “it has reached its target and achieved its main aim. They should end the hunger-strike at once without any hesitation” - as our base line, and end our action on November 18 2012. We will carefully observe any approach to our leadership, and the concrete outcome of the process of negotiations.
 

Afterwards immediate medical treatment was administered to the first and second group of hunger strikers - two of the protestors were by now in a critical condition. However, the hunger-strike has ended without loss of life - although two fatalities have resulted from the interventions of police or fascist gangs against the support actions organised in almost every province of Turkey.

As may be remembered, the prisoners launched their hunger strike on the basis of three demands: end the isolation imposed on comrade Öcalan; end the ban on prisoners speaking Kurdish at their trials; and end the ban on mother-tongue education.

The first step towards resolving the impasse came from the government, which hastily introduced a bill removing the discretionary power of judges to prevent defendants using Kurdish in their own defence. Through this bill the state was conceding to one of the demands of the Kurdish prisoners, while maintaining to the end that it would not give in to their ‘blackmail’.

The government then opened up talks with comrade Öcalan after a break of a year, combining this with bitter denunciation of the so-called Oslo process, where it had maintained separate talks with comrade Öcalan, as well as the guerrilla leadership. But when a family visit was arranged, comrade Öcalan was adamant that members of his family were not the appropriate people to convey messages to his organisation. He was determined to maintain contact through a solicitor. The government side conceded, but argued that the solicitor should be one it deemed acceptable. In the end an interim solution was found.

It was agreed that the third demand, on mother-tongue education, would be considered in forthcoming discussions over the new constitution. But the main demand - that is, an end to the isolation imposed on comrade Öcalan - was won through the sheer determination of the Kurdish prisoners.

Regional battles

However, we should not consider the outcome as a victory pure and simple, as if it was a question of who blinked first. In the Middle East a period of two months can be quite a long time - and the period of more than a year, during which comrade Öcalan’s isolation was maintained, was indeed a long time.

While the players in the region remain the same, their relative strength and positioning have changed. A year ago, the so-called Arab spring was expected to sweep the Middle East, and the regimes of Syria and Jordan were not expected to survive.

Despite a bloody civil war, the Syrian Ba’athist regime is yet to be toppled, and is still able to manoeuvre between the various communities. The Assad regime has conceded a swathe of land along the Turkish border to the control of Kurdish groups. But it was able to regroup against the Free Syrian Army, while maintaining a relative peace in Kurdish areas. Of course, it is realistic enough not to attempt to hold onto those areas if it can stay in power while a prolonged process of reform agreed with the ‘international community’ is implemented.

On the other hand, the Assad regime knows that, given the opportunity, FSO forces and the local Kurdish administration would become involved in a power struggle that would inevitably escalate into armed conflict. The first salvoes of these future battles were heard just as the hunger-strike was ending.

Turkey has issued an ultimatum to Damascus, warning it that any Syrian air force flight towards the Turkish border would be considered hostile once it reached a certain zone and would be met with the appropriate response. However, Syria has bombed the border towns held by Kurdish forces with impunity, even though the attacks were so close to Turkish territory that people just over the border have been killed and maimed too. So Turkey’s warning is designed to placate its own majority population, while Kurds are left to suffer.

While, for its part, the Iraqi Kurdish regional government has come face to face with Syrian forces on the border, the Baghdad government has tried to impose its own line to end the conflict, and has attempted to occupy some border posts.

But more dangerously, acting in response to Iranian instigations, the Shia-dominated government is preparing new constitutional arrangements. Consequently the Kurdish president of Iraq has left his post and sought safety within the Kurdish zone. The dispute is allegedly over who controls the oilfields of Kirkuk and Mosul, but the Iraqis are in reality desperately trying to link up with coastal Shia communities in Syria and Lebanon. Under such conditions the only viable option for the Kurdish regional government is to maintain a good or working relationship with Turkey. The destabilisation of Lebanon and Jordan, as well as the Israeli attack on Gaza, are also part of the rapidly changing mix in the region.

During the spring and summer the PKK adopted a new, rather strange stance for a guerrilla movement: instead of hit and run tactics, they decided to occupy liberated zones within Turkey. During the increased military action and air raids following the collapse of the Oslo process, while the hunger-strikes were going on, almost 900 guerrillas were killed. That is an extremely heavy toll, but it has not ended the will and determination of Kurdish youth to answer the call from the mountains.

The strengthened will and morale resulting from the hunger-strike victory and the successful mass mobilisation in support of that action will be put to the test in negotiations over the coming months - nothing will be easily gained by the Kurds nor easily conceded by the Turkish government. The recent period has produced a victory for the Kurdish hunger-strikers and Abdullah Öcalan, but still sterner tests are awaiting all of us in the Middle East.

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