The Complex History and Relations of the Kurdish YPG, Syria, and US

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Turkish-Kurdish journalist Ali Ornek discusses the history of the PKK, Turkey’s brutally violent repression of the Kurds, and the complex relations between the YPG, Syria, and US.

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Story Transcript

BEN NORTON: This is Part 3 of the Real News interview with Ali Ornek. Ali is a Turkish journalist of Kurdish origin. He previously worked for the leading Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily, where he was a foreign news editor. And he’s also spent many years reporting on the war in Syria. He’s a close analyst of the war there.

In the first two parts of this interview we discussed the Turkish invasion of northern Syria. We also discussed the very complex U.S. relationship with the Kurdish forces, the People’s Protection Units, the YPG. And we also discussed the history of Syria’s relationship with the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party.

In this final part we’ll be discussing more of these details and the history behind U.S., Syrian, and Kurdish relations. We’ll be discussing what is called the Kurdish question, if you will. And at the end Ali will provide some insight as to what he thinks the future of the war in Syria could look like.

BEN NORTON: Maybe we can talk a little bit about the history of the PKK. We know that actually Syria was one of the strongest supporters of the PKK, historically. This is the Kurdistan Workers Party. And that support has gone, you know, off and on over time. But in the 1990s there was even discussions of a so-called undeclared war between Syria and Turkey over Syria’s support for the PKK. So we know that that goes back.

However, we also know that Kurds have been oppressed not just in Turkey but also in Syria. You know, there was an Arab nationalist government and the Kurdish language was not officially used, and Kurds were not citizens until 2011. In April of 2011 Bashar al-Assad allowed Kurds in the north to get citizenship in response to some of the protests as a reform.

So how do you explain, you know, clearly the U.S. has betrayed the Kurds numerous times historically, not just in Syria but also in Iraq. So clearly the U.S. is an absolutely unreliable ally in these regards. But Syria also has a history of oppressing some of these Kurdish forces while also supporting the PKK against Turkey. How do you explain that contradiction?

ALI ORNEK: Actually, after the after the war in Syria, the Kurdish question in Syria was actually some sort of, now we are listening a corrupt version of the history of Kurds in Syria. Actually, 2.5 million Kurds are living in Syria. And just 130,000 of this population without, without identity, without Syrian passport or citizenship, because it’s a very complex issue not simple, simply about Assad cracked down on Kurds.

This goes back to 1920s, when Turkey, in Turkey there were some tribal uprisings, Kurdish tribal uprisings. And when Turkish armed forces cracked down on these uprisings Kurds took refuge in northern Syria. For instance, Aleppo has a really famous neighborhood called Sheikh Saeed. He’s a tribal leader in Turkey. It’s a Kurdish tribal leader. And actually, Sheikh Saeed neighborhood of Aleppo was founded by those followers of Sheikh Saeed who took refuge after the crackdown.

Also in Afrin there are people from Dersim, the Turkish eastern city of Dersim. And this showing a refugee flow. And Syria claims that actually, these guys we thought, these Kurdish people without identity or citizenship, are actually people that took refuge to Syria after the Turkey crackdown on the tribal uprisings.

So it’s, it’s not yet giving the whole picture. But PKK also was supporting this idea. You know, in 1980s, they have a very famous journal called Serxwebun. In Serxwebun they mostly relate the problem of Kurds in Syria, and they said PKK, some sort of refugee problem, not the Kurdish question itself in Syria.

And they said, and these are really interesting articles. For instance, in 1980s there’s a, there was a very famous Syrian uprising triggered by Muslim Brotherhood. And PKK said—

BEN NORTON: In Hama.

ALI ORNEK: Yeah, in Hama. And what PKK, it was very interesting. They said this is a U.S. conspiracy, and by using Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, as a proxy force to weaken anti-imperialist and progressive leadership of Hafez al-Assad. After Hafez al-Assad died, PKK published eulogies.

And another interesting point of when we are talking about Afrin, PKK had two MPs. These are actual PKK-linked, and they were part of Syrian parliament. Because Syrian government always considered PKK as a necessary evil, or some sort of good guys, when comparing it with Barzani, which is very close to Israel. So they think PKK is a precaution, a barrier, to Barzani-linked movement in northern Syria. And they cracked down, mostly the Syrian government always cracked down [on] Barzani, the politicians, arrested them, put them in jail. But never the same thing happened to PKK-linked politicians.

This changed right after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, when PKK’s top think that it’s now time for the United States to reshape the Middle East. So they act accordingly. But before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we saw the very, we saw evidence actually, this is a de facto alliance between PKK and the Syrian government.

As I said, this is not just because PKK, Syrian government wanted to revenge from Turkey, take revenge from Turkey. Because Turkey backed Hama uprising of Muslim Brotherhood. And they said, mostly Western experts said, that’s why also Syrian government supported the PKK to take its revenge. But not, this is not the whole reason. The other reason is they always wanted to prevent Israeli-linked Barzani movement in northern Syria.

So this is actually a little bit corrupted version of the Kurdish question in northern Syria. Perhaps you may remember that FSA first entered into Aleppo. There were reports that they were arresting Kurdish people, civilians, because they think, then they were thinking, that Kurds were Assad’s agents.

They were just arrested, because Afrin people, there are some sociological differences between Kurdish communities in northern Syria. Afrin Kurds were always part of Syria’s economy. Aleppo was a big, has always been a big industrial city. And Afrin people, both feeding Aleppo, by their agricultural products, and also they went to Afrin and worked there.

On the contrary, the Kurds of Hasaka, which is close the Iraqi border, are just producing, it’s some sort of cotton-like economy. They produce cotton; they produce wheat, to feed the industrial Aleppo. So Kurds in Afrin are always part, have much more a Syrian identity than they have fellow Kurds in east.

And I think this is another reason of why did they called Syrian army to protect Afrin, while in the eastern cities YPG officials were saying like, Syrian army never, can never turn back to the territory that we liberated.

BEN NORTON: It’s also true that in the 1980s when there was a military coup in Turkey that many Kurdish activists and militants fled to northern Syria for refuge. Can you talk more about the relationship between Syria and many Kurdish activists?

ALI ORNEK: Yeah. Actually my uncle, who was a Kurdish activist before the coup in Turkey, took refuge in Syria after the coup. And he told me his experience in Damascus as a Kurd from Turkey. He said he was shocked to see Kurdish [speakers] from Kurdish place in capital Damascus. You know, during that time in Turkey speaking Kurdish was prohibited by government, and it was really dangerous thing to do.

The other thing he said, whenever he went to a public building, official building, he saw Kurdish civilians of Syria speaking in Kurdish, with the Kurdish public employees. So he said, basically Syria has a Kurdish question, that’s true, but it’s not at the scale of the oppression in Turkey.

Now I think some fairy tales [were] created about the past of Syria, due to YPG is trying to legitimize its control and get territory. Some sort of, you know, some sort of stories about Kurdish oppression are very exaggerated, to demonize, I think, Syrian government and Syrian people.

But actually this is not completely true. As I said, there’s a Kurdish question in Syria. And we can discuss the reason for many, many hours. It’s a very long topic. But it’s not the same; it was not, it has never been the same as the oppression in Turkey. As a Kurd myself, I saw some quite difficult things in Turkey as a Kurd, state persecution, et cetera, et cetera. But things were different in Syria.

And as I said, many of the Kurds, some Kurds, have citizenship, while some of the people, the Kurds which are claimed to be refugees, actually, [are] without the citizenship. But the reason, okay, Syrian government never accepted Kurdish as an official language, but it never prohibited or tried to ban it for public using.

BEN NORTON: Well, that’s a very interesting distinction. Thanks for outlining that, the difference between the oppression of Kurds in Turkey, which is extremely violent. And you know, we’ve seen many thousands of Kurdish civilians killed.

In fact, what got very little attention is that the Turkish military waged a brutal war just in the past few years against Kurdish communities in the south while the war in Syria was ongoing. Of course, Western corporate media outlets focusing on the war in Syria largely ignored the fact that numerous Kurdish communities in southern Turkey were razed to the ground.

So yeah, clearly there, while Kurds may have been repressed historically in Syria, there is not anything that is on the same level as the extreme violent repression inside Turkey.

ALI ORNEK: Definitely. This is completely true.

BEN NORTON: You mentioned that the U.S. certainly has a history not only of betraying the [Kurds], but also of not actually wanting to ally with [them], even though you said this is kind of a unidirectional tendency. So how do you see this panning out if the PKK is interested in allying with the U.S. over, as a higher priority, the creation of an autonomous region, and the U.S. has shown no interest and standing by its side of the bargain and actually defending the interests of Kurds in Syria or anywhere else?

Of course we can’t forget that while Saddam Hussein was committing genocide against Kurds in Iraq, which are different politically and speak different language, and different culturally. But when he was carrying out a genocide in Iraq the U.S. was supporting Saddam Hussein.

So we see throughout history the, of course, the United States has has no problem moving in and out of alliances with these dictatorial forces, with reactionary forces. So how do you see this panning out in Syria? What, what do you think will happen, and what do you think would be a preferable outcome for the YPG and other forces in the region?

ALI ORNEK: Now YPG relies on the U.S. need for a proxy force, and also capturing Syria’s territory to choke Syria economically. So they think, the YPG leadership think, that in the long term United States could never dare to leave them alone.

One of the latest news about the YPG delegation visiting the capitals of Europe, one of the leaders said that yeah, in Afrin, the U.S. didn’t offer them protection. But things not will not be same for the east of Euphrates River, and said while the Trump administration is focusing on Iran, he will need Kurds. Because you know, one of the other branch of PKK is in Iran. It’s called PJAK. And they think that this is going to be a regional alliance instead of just limiting it into Syria.

I think basically, yeah, this reading is true. But they know the capacity of Turkey. Turkey is a very powerful country when it comes to military force. And it’s a very critical country for the United States. Turkey bought tanks. Turkish membership in NATO.

Now NATO has an army in Black Sea, and also in Caucasia. And they can carry out plans for Iran. And they can protect Israel by setting up huge bases in Turkey. And Turkish military, too, responsible of training of some African forces. Turkey is a very big country when it comes to, for a NATO alliance.

But the problem is YPG couldn’t offer this capacity to the United States. So if the United States couldn’t, came to achieve convincing Erdogan, and when they think that the relations will be very, very badly damaged, I think they can prefer Turkey over YPG. But the thing is now United States government thinks that they can have some middle way between, with Erdogan, by offering some sort of joint consulship control mechanism in Manbij, or in the eastern, some part of the east of the Euphrates River, like the town of Tell Abyad.

Honestly, I think it’s not going well for YPG, because by relying so much, at the end of day, whether U.S. has 2000 troops or is militarily superior to other countries, it has its own limits in northern Syria. By relying so much on this foreign force, by rejecting any kind of agreement with Damascus government, they risk their achievements that they’ve gained so far with the battle against ISIS.

So I think northern Syria is very complicated and very unpredictable for many reasons, because Syrian government is also still a very powerful actor in northern Syria. They have very good relations with Arab tribes there, and also even some Kurdish politicians; they have good relations.

And seeing as Rojava, the region under the YPG control, is still economically very dependent on Damascus. OK, they have rich oil fields; OK, that’s true. They have rich cotton farms. They have rich wheat farms. They have some grass fields, too. But all means something when you think that with the serious industry in the west, in Homs and the Damascus, when you have Turkey on the north, Syrian government in the south.

I’m trying to say when you have an isolated geography you need to find a ally to yourself. But currently, and unfortunately YPG leadership ignore this basic geographic reality. And this means that the U.S. plan, as I said, is to choke Syria economically. But it also means choke Rojava economically, too. Because when you isolate Rojava from the Syrian government, who can who can run the economy of Rojava? It’s a really dependent the economy, as I said.

So in the future I’m, I have no hopes for the region, actually, and unfortunately. Because after Afrin, YPG never questioned its relations with the United States.

BEN NORTON: Well, Ali, thank you so much for joining us on the Real News. It was a very insightful interview. I know I learned a lot. And we definitely look forward to interviewing you in the future and getting more of your insight.

ALI ORNEK: Thank you, Ben.

BEN NORTON: For the Real News, I’m Ben Norton.