German expert: "YPG and PKK established dictatorship in Syria"
Coordinated attacks on Turkish mosques and German-Turkish public organizations happened recently in a number of German cities like North Rhine-Westphalia, Berlin, Schleswig-Holstein and Baden-Württemberg. They coincided with successes of the Turkish army in Afrin. The police thinks that that Kurdish extremists living in Germany are behind the attacks. Eva Savelsberg, president of the European Center for Kurdish Studies, discussed activities of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Germany and the conflict between Turkey and the PKK in an interview with T-online.
- How much do Kurds in Germany support attacks on Turkish objects located in Germany?
- Only a part of those who write hateful comments truly believe that it's good to attack Turkish shops or mosques. But it's not completely clear who is behind these attacks. But I can imagine that young people from the PKK-related environment were strongly radicalized after events in Afrin and believe that such attacks are legitimate. I can't say with certainty that these attacks were planned in a certain center or that they were planned by individual youth groups with tacit consent of the center.
- Can someone in Germany stop attacks with one order?
- Can someone stop all these attacks? I don't know. After all, on the one hand, the PKK is an organization with a very centralized structure, but, on the other hand, it's a huge organization with a wide range that has strongly radicalized over several months and years, taking into account situation in Syria and, above all, Afrin. Perhaps it doesn't want to stop these attacks. The PKK is well aware that such radicalization also leads to the fact that anyone who makes even slightest criticism of the actions of the PKK in Afrin can be branded as "national traitor."
- Recently "Kurdish Youth Initiative" openly called for further attacks. How important is this organization?
- There are many different youth initiatives, one of the characteristics of the PKK is that new groups, associations and committees are constantly being created, and some of them can't be understood even by experts in this field. I wouldn't attach importance to individual names from youth committees.
- How appealing is this call for more attacks?
- First of all, it reflects political position of many young Kurds, especially from Turkey. If this action is a challenge issued by the PKK, it naturally has a certain appeal, because it promotes current mood. The PKK and PYD feel betrayed by the Americans and by Europe. They say that they fought for us against the ISIS (a terrorist organization banned in Russia), and now we leave them at the mercy of the Turks, supply them with weapons. Based on this, they conclude that they have a right to carry out attacks in Europe.
- How widespread is hatred for Turkey among the German Kurds?
- The PKK has an incredibly strong propaganda machine that dominates in public discourse in Germany. If Turkey attacks any Kurdish faction, it's automatically assumed that the Turks are bad, and the Kurds are always good. It's also a form of Kurdish nationalism. It's hardly possible for the Kurds to be critical when it comes to themselves. This situation further aggravated after Turkey invaded Afrin. Anyone who writes anything that doesn't correspond to the party line will be insulted and berated the next day. Many people prefer not to write anything, since they don't want their entire family to be attacked and receive death threats.
- Will situation get worse after the fall of Afrin or continuation of Turkey's operation in other regions of Syria?
- It's possible. The question is whether the PKK will decide to revise its relations with Europe, and whether the issue of attacks in Europe will return to agenda - it can remain a marginal phenomenon in some youth groups within the PKK. I think that both scenarios can play out.
- Does the Turkish government win something from such attacks in Germany?
- At the very least Turkey has new arguments that support calls to take measures against the PKK in Germany. Therefore, I think that the Turkish policy can actually benefit from such attacks. Also, the attitude of local population is radically changing sonce the first attacks happened. The same thing will happen after latest attacks in Germany.
- Is this why the YPG hasn't carried out attacks in Europe for a long time alredy?
- I'm surprised by these attacks. The PKK wants to continue to control various associations in Germany. It was always clear to it that it was hurting itself by attacks in Europe, since they could lead to a change of policy.
- Turkey calls Germany "the PKK's base for retreat" ...
- It's clear that the PPK collects donations here, and also that many Kurds in Germany send money to it because they are afraid of the consequences that may come if they don't do it. But this happens exclusively in the Turkish-Kurdish environment, which generally doesn't affect the majority of society. No Kurd that is being blackmailed by the PKK in some way goes to the police, because he doesn't believe that the police can help them, but the consequences and revenge from the Kurdish community can become worse. Germany knows about these structures. But since such things don't lead to social unrest, nothing is being done. This is the policy of the federal government when it comes to the PKK. There is a gap between Germany and Turkey, associated with conflicting interests, and it's hard to get over it.
- Turkey also complains that Germany doesn't take active actions against the PKK.
- Everyone knows that many Kurdish associations operating on German territory are close to the PKK. But, thank God, Germany doesn't have any laws that require to shut them down automatically. Before this, it was necessary to go through a complex and lengthy process. Organizational relations with the PKK should be thoroughly proved, and an independent court must recognize validity of existing evidences. This, in particular, is the difference between democracy. Open democracy has to observe rules of the game, even if they are used by enemies of democracy. Perhaps it's more effective to observe existing structures and not ban them, since it leads to creation of new ones.
- Turkey perceives this as inaction of Germany.
- It's hard to explain this to people in Turkey, who are actually afraid of terrorist acts and lost loved ones in attacks on civilians. The opposite is happening in Turkey itself - if your neighbor suspects you it's enough to get arrested for alleged relations with the PKK. You just need to look at the list of Turkey's Interpol, which includes not only alleged criminals, such as Salih Muslim, but also human rights activists such as Dogan Akanli, who, apart from criticizing the Turkish politics, did nothing. When you do this, you shouldn't be surprised if some of your problems aren't taken seriously and that you're no longer trusted.
- Ankara claims that it must protect itself and therefore fights in Afrin.
- "Must" is a relative term. There's no doubt that this is a violation of international law and an illegitimate operation. Turkey claims that it was attacked first, but, as far as I know, it provided no evidence. Missiles flew only after Turkey launched this offensive operation. However, after the failure of the 2015 peace process, it was predictable that Turkey wouldn't be able to just constantly watch from the sidelines how the group, which is ultimately a part of the PKK, expands its arsenal of weapons and military structures. To believe that the PPK will establish a lasting peace, or at least stability, would be naive. Turkey felt that the ever growing presence of the PKK near its border is a threat, and it's understandable.
- Is there any difference between the PYD and the PKK?
- Actually, it's the same organization. You can't separate them. If you look at who fought against the ISIS in Koban, you will see that the PYD forces were supported by the PKK. About half of those killed in the ranks of the PYD in the fight against the ISIS are Kurds from Turkey. It's a strong evidence, and if you look at those who lead them, there can be no questions. Ultimately, it's undeniable that personnel of the PKK and the YPG (military units of the PYD) are the same people.
- Turkish government has similar position. You're a president of the European Center for Kurdish Studies, located in Berlin, you're German, but your name often appears in the Turkish media.
- We also appear in the German media, but there are prejudices against our position. I think that this is also due to the fact that our position on the conflict between Turkey and the PKK is relatively unpopular in Germany, and, as a consequence, it's less in demand. The PYD and the PKK established dictatorship in Syria, which is in no way inferior to dictatorship that is being developed in Turkey. Germany likes to view the PYD and the PKK as a liberation movement that builds democracy from below, while Erdogan's position isn't percieved like that. This contrast is very common in Germany. The fact that the PYD limits freedom of expression is something that people don't really like to hear.
- Germany often views these sides differently.
- For a long time Germany considered the YPG as a separate organization, which represents Western values in Syria and the Middle East, fights for freedom and democracy. The fight against the ISIS changed public perception of the PKK. But it's very strange to see the YPG fighters in Afrin on tanks with Ocalan's flags on one sine and Assad flags on the other. It's hard to understand why a group that support such man can be viewed as left-wing progressive group in the West. The absurdity of this situation is that positions of the PYD and the PKK leadership and the government of Turkey aren't that different. Neither side thinks about freedom of expression, and they don't like the opposition. They are similar to each other more than they themselves would have liked.
- Do you face the consequences of voicing such position?
- Actually, this story concerns many people in the community. As a German journalist, you can more or less say what you want. You may have several unflattering comments in your articles, but few people are interested in that. It's interesting what the so-called "traitors" are saying.
- What Syrian Kurds think about this situation?
- Many non-PKK Kurds in Syria are divided when it comes to this issue. Many understand that the fight between Turkey and the PKK that spread to Syria's territory bring no benefit to Syrian Kurds, only civilian casualties. The YPG not only accepts such sacrifices, but also prevents civilian population from leaving Afrin, using it as a human shield. The more civilian casualties there will be in Afrin, the better it is for the PKK, since Turkey is blamed for every civilian casualty.
- Can it be said that the occupation of Afrin has symbolic value?
- With the loss of Afrina and possibly other areas, the PYD and the PKK might lose huge sources of income. They are mostly independent from European revenues, because their administration charged huge fees for various services and took customs duties. It's awful that at first civilian population was suppressed by the PYD, and now Turkey has invaded. Some consider the fight against the PYD and the PKK positive. But I'm pretty skeptical about whether Turkey will really try to build local administration together with local forces.
- But shouldn't the West be grateful to Kurdish militants?"
- I think that this question is incorrect. The fact that they fought against the ISIS has nothing to do with Western values, it was in their own interests. The term gratitude is inappropriate. The fact is that Americans didn't find other allies in Syria, who wanted to fight solely against the ISIS. The Americans reached an agreement with well-trained PKK, which has many years of fighting experience, wanted to lead this battle and cooperated with Bashar Assad. It was an ideal ally, which could consolidate its forces, because it received weapons.
- What should be done to resume the peace process?
- Right now it's time when Europe can really begin to pursue meaningful Turkish policy and make it clear to the Turkish government that without reaching agreement, there will be no peace in Turkey. Erdogan also understood this, because Kurdish policy of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) of early years had very strong positive sides - suddenly there were television channels in Kurdish language, Kurds became a part of society. This strong social discovery has now completely changed. I believe that Turkey needs to reach the point where it will once again understand that without negotiations with the PKK, peace with Kurdish population in Turkey can't be achieved. Unfortunately, there won't be any solution in Syria either.
Right until his re-election next year, Erdogan won't be interested in starting any negotiations. The PKK can change its position if it loses Syria, since it will be under greater pressure in Turkey and, probably, in Europe. In recent years, the PPK is on the rise, and it's interested in negotiations only when it's weaker. The problem is that if Turkey is too strong, then it won't have any interest in dialogue with the PKK. It's dangerous because the Turkish government will think that it can finally defeat the PKK militarily. History since the 1980s shows that such thing is unlikely to happen.