Interview

Kurd Leader to Haaretz: Erdogan and Allies Seek Dictatorship via Turkish Referendum

In a conversation in Iraqi Kurdistan, Bese Hozat repeatedly decries Turkish 'fascism,' but Ankara notes it's facing a group considered a terror organization by the U.S. and EU as well

Bese Hozat, the co-chief of the Executive Council of the Kurdistan Communities Union, in Iraqi Kurdistan, April 2017.
Guillem Sartorio

It was a calm and quiet dawn on the snowy peaks of Iraq’s Qandil Mountains after several days of heavy airstrikes by Turkish fighter jets attacks that didn’t even respect the dead. The guesthouse of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s “martyrs’ cemetery” was left a mound of rubble, amid photographs and charred memories after the planes targeted a Kurdish rebel stronghold.

It was nothing unusual. Turkish airstrikes on this mountain range in northern Iraq have been a fixture since the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union set up bases here in the early 2000s after leaving Syria. The airstrikes are so regular that Kurdish militants and local civilians have gotten used to looking up at the sky.

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Apart from the constant threat of an air raid, there’s now the strong possibility of a Turkish ground operation against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“There is such a possibility because an operation against Qandil has been on the agenda for a long time,” said Bese Hozat, the co-chief of the Executive Council of the Kurdistan Communities Union, the umbrella group to which the PKK belongs.

Hozat was born in Turkey’s Tunceli province in 1978 and joined the Kurdish guerrillas in the late ‘90s after losing several relatives in fighting against the Turkish army.

Hozat, who spoke to Haaretz in a wooded valley following an exhaustive security protocol, mentioned the AKP President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and the MHP, Turkey’s far-right Nationalist Movement Party.

“There is now a process for a constitutional referendum, and the AKP and MHP fascist groups want to conduct a cross-border operation in order to take the nationalist Turkish votes,” Hozat said.

On Sunday, Turks will decide in a referendum whether to maintain the current parliamentary system or switch to an executive presidency, which both Erdogan’s party and the Nationalist Movement Party support.

While Erdogan’s government promises that a yes victory in the referendum “will bring stability and the end of terrorism to Turkey,” the PKK calls the plebiscite a trick to “legalize and legitimize the dictatorship of the Islamist president.”

The remains of a Kurdish building after being hit by Turkish fighter jets, Iraqi Kurdistan, April 2017.
Guillem Sartorio

The PKK and pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party have called on the Kurds to vote no, a position supported by the main opposition force, the Republican People’s Party.

“The AKP-MHP coalition wants to formalize a one-man dictatorship through this referendum,” Hozat said. “The Kurds will say no to this dictatorship regime.”

Speaking to the local NTV and Star networks last week, Erdogan said the situation was worse in Iraq’s Sinjar region, adding that the region was about to become the “second Qandil” for the PKK, referring to the PKK’s stronghold in the Qandil Mountains.

“There are around 2,500 PKK terrorists in the efforts to create this second Qandil,” Erdogan said.

But as Hozar put it, “Ankara has already invaded South Kurdistan [Iraqi Kurdistan], an invasion that has economic, politic and military aspects.”

The PKK has always denounced political and military collaboration between Erdogan and Masoud Barzani, the head of Iraqi Kurdistan. “We are ready to carry out a very strong defense against the invasive policies of the Turkish government,” Hozat said.

Failed diplomacy

Debris after a Kurdish guesthouse was hit by Turkish jets in Iraqi Kurdistan, April 2017.
Guillem Sartorio

In July 2015, a month after the presidential election where Erdogan did not win an absolute majority, a two-year cease-fire between Ankara and the PKK collapsed after a bombing in the town of Suruc killed 32 people, mostly Kurdish activists. Since then thousands have died in the fighting.

According to the UN Human Rights Office, between July 2015 and December 2016, “some 2,000 people were reportedly killed in the context of security operations in South-East Turkey.”

Based on information received by the United Nations, this would include nearly 800 members of the security forces, and around 1,200 local people, of which an unspecified number may have been involved in violent or nonviolent actions against the state.

Hozat said the reconciliation process in Turkey failed “because Abdullah Ocalan’s democratic proposals were rejected by the Turkish government,” referring to the PKK leader now in a Turkish prison.

She said “Turkey wanted the PKK to lay down its arms without giving the Kurds anything following a policy of elimination against the Kurdish freedom movement under the name of a solution. When the PKK rejected such an elimination project, fighting continued.”

Hozat added: “Against all these practices the PKK has been waging a legitimate self-defense armed struggle.”

According to the Turkish government, the PKK had conducted a number of attacks that killed and wounded members of the Turkish security forces and other people.

According to Ankara, the Kurdish militants have also taken part in kidnappings, including of children; dug trenches and placed roadblocks in cities and towns; and blocked the provision of emergency health services.

“The fascism of the AKP-MHP coalition is waging genocide against the Kurds,” Hozat said. “They have destroyed many Kurdish cities and killed a lot of Kurds.”

According to a UN report, the number of displaced persons in southeastern Turkey is estimated at between 355,000 and 500,000 people, mainly Kurds. These people have reportedly moved to neighboring suburbs, towns and villages, or to other regions in Turkey.

“In an attempt to change the demographic map of the Kurdish cities, they are evacuating the Kurdish people and they are replacing them with the families that have an ISIS mentality,” Hozat said.

Political and women’s rights

According to Turkey’s Interior Ministry, 47,155 people remain in custody following massive sweeps by the authorities in the wake of the failed 2016 military coup.

Ankara has also arrested 13 Kurdish opposition politicians, including the co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag. It has also taken over 82 councils controlled by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, according to Human Rights Watch.

“Europe is responsible for the rise of fascism in Turkey because this silence and indifference are indirect support for Turkish policies,” Hozat said.

Ankara accuses the PKK of using suicide attacks to kill civilians, but Hozat denies this. “We have not committed any suicide attack against the Turkish cities,” she said. “Those attacks have been carried out by patriotic youth and people who reacted desperately against the practices of the AKP administration.”

Meanwhile, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has made a raft of recommendations to Ankara to address gender inequality and remove obstacles for women and girls regarding education, employment, justice and reproductive health.

Some nongovernmental organizations have also claimed that women’s rights are worsening in Turkey under Erdogan. “With the rise of the AKP, male domination of culture and political life has increased sharply,” Hozat said.

“As the society grows more conservative, the level of crime against women increases. We can observe that in the high level of rape, harassment and also suicides. The AKP government is trying to form a fundamentalist and religious society based on enmity towards women.”

Regarding the situation in Syria, Turkey said last week it had “successfully” ended its seven-month Euphrates Shield offensive in the north of the country. Turkey launched the campaign in August to push Islamic State militants away from its border and prevent the Kurdish People’s Protection Units from gaining more ground in northern Syria.

Turkey has been pressing NATO and Russia to stop supporting the Kurds and to consider the Kurdish People’s Protection Units a terrorist organization like the PKK.

“Turkey is doing its politics and diplomacy based on enmity towards Rojava,” Hozat said, referring to the de facto autonomous region in northern Syria. “Ankara defines [the Kurdish People’s Protection Units] as a terrorist organization, and they want this attitude adopted by the entire world.”

She said the world knows that the Kurdish People’s Protection Unions and the Women’s Protection Units “are very strong forces that are defending human values,” but it’s always possible that “some hypocrite” and two-faced states “may try to adopt the policies of Turkey against Rojava and the Kurds.”

As Hozat put it, “if those countries are sincerely against ISIS, they should give full support” to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and Women’s Protection Units “and invite Kurds to the next peace talks.”