The recent attack on PKK officials in Paris has once again brought the Kurdish problem into the focus of Europe. Repeated attacks, especially by the nationalist “Grey Wolves”, in Europe’s cities on Kurdish cultural institutions also make it clear that the West must finally position itself more clearly.
At the end of last year, a French assassin carried out a racially motivated attack on a Kurdish cultural center in Paris. Shortly thereafter, serious riots broke out in the French capital, solidarity rallies were organized across Europe, at which the thesis of the single perpetrator was called into question and Türkiye was accused of complicity or even authorship.
Among the victims was the chairwoman of the Kurdish Democratic Council (Conseil Démocratique Kurde), who came from a Turkish village in the Kurdish south-east of the country. In 1994, when her family fled to the Makhmur refugee camp in Iraq after the village was being destroyed by the Turkish military, she was active in the women’s combat groups of the PKK.
It was only after the attack shortly before the end of the year that it became public that she had been a member of the PKK’s highest leadership body, the twelve-member Executive Council, whose leadership is in Iraq’s Kandil Mountains, since 2013. In 2014 she was sent to northern Syria, where she was active in civil administration and organized the rescue and care of the Yazidi refugees from Sinjar. In 2019 she was sent to Europe for health reasons.
Starting in 2005, the Kurdish Workers’ Party PKK – following a program written in prison by PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan – changed and renamed itself in several steps. The organization has been called the Kurdistan Social Union (KCK) since 2007. Among other things, it is responsible for the new Brussels-based European organization “Congress of the Kurdish Democratic Society in Europe” (KCD-E).
The PKK ban that has been enacted in many EU countries for several years, including other Kurdish organizations, has caused a lot of mischief. With this ban, the states followed the urging of their NATO partner Türkiye. But despite the change that the once violent cadre party PKK in Europe has long since made in the direction of a peaceful and democratic solution to the conflict, the ban remains in place to this day. This has stigmatized and criminalized tens of thousands of politically active Kurds in this country – often enough only because of verbal or symbolic “deeds” – has put them under general suspicion, stamped them as potential violent criminals and dangerous “terrorists”, declared them domestic political enemies and security risks and marginalized them. The official justification: The PKK, which is also militantly defending itself against the oppression of the Kurdish population in Türkiye, is using Europe “as a space for withdrawal, refinancing and recruitment”.
The criminalization had at times reached a dramatic dimension: for Kurds, most of whom had fled Türkiye from persecution and torture, it was almost impossible, especially in the 1990s, to make use of their elementary human rights without fear. The ban severely restricted the basic rights of association and assembly, freedom of opinion and freedom of the press and thus free political activity.
However, the doubts about the thesis of the single perpetrator of the last attack in Paris are only partly to be found in the fundamentally critical attitude of the Kurds towards the state. The CDK-F is said to have applied for police protection a few months ago and some observers claim that the assassin was dropped off right in front of the CDK-F bar’s meeting point and only missed an important coordination meeting by chance.
Because the attack took place at the time of intensive preparation work for the annual protest events at the beginning of January, at which the Kurds commemorate the triple murder of Kurdish activists in Paris in 2013 and demand relief from prison for Abdullah Öcalan.
In view of this series, it is not surprising that Kurdish activists find it difficult to accept the assassination of the chairperson of the “Democratic Kurdish Council”, the fourth member of the Executive Council killed in 2022, as an attack by a single perpetrator. The bitterness and anger was directed at the French state, which Kurdish activists believe is doing too little to investigate the attacks. Above all, the demonstrators demand recognition and support for Rojava and the decriminalization of the PKK.
But not only the French government is criticized by the Kurdish side, also in Germany there are increasing voices that state authorities should sit up and take notice. The Turkish secret service MIT, which has recently been significantly upgraded and also has police powers, is said to use numerous agents to spy on opposition figures and critics of the regime as well as clubs, schools and other institutions on a large scale in Germany, and even threaten them. According to estimates by security experts, there are up to 6,000 agents and numerous voluntary informers from the nationalist Turkish community, whose sights are in particular on alleged supporters of the PKK and the Gülen movement, whom the Turkish government holds responsible for the 2016 military coup attempt. After the MIT secret service handed over black lists with hundreds of research targets, including companies, to the German foreign intelligence service BND in 2017, some of those affected were informed by the local security authorities in so-called “endangered speeches” and warned against repression and trips to Türkiye.
In this context, the worrying statement by a member of the Turkish parliament that there is a death list on which the names of Kurds and other opposition figures who come from Türkiye and live in European exile should appear. Death squads are said to have already been sent to Europe to hunt them down. She recalls that three Kurdish activists were murdered in Paris in 2013 by a suspected Turkish liaison with MIT.
The assassination attempt in Paris came at a time when the organization as a whole was under a lot of pressure. Ankara has been able to show successes in the fight against the Öcalan movement on a military and diplomatic level for several years. Ankara’s threat of going to war against the autonomous administration of North and East Syria regularly leads to irritation with the USA, which, however, should be seen as part of a larger alignment of interests. At the same time, Ankara is exploring the possibility of an invasion in Moscow and Damascus, which is to be followed by the repatriation of some of the Syrian refugees from Türkiye in order to strengthen President Erdogan’s back in the 2023 election campaign. Türkiye is also using Sweden’s and Finland’s applications for NATO membership with relative success to persuade the governments of the two Scandinavian countries to revise their pro-Kurdish attitudes.
Since then, migration-positive parties in Europe have had to choose between Kurdish revolutionary romanticism and Turkish electoral arithmetic. And finally, the organization is not without controversy in the international Kurdish scene either: in Rojava, the Öcalan movement is accused of dictatorial tendencies, it is openly at enmity with the Kurdish nationalists in Iraq, hated by the Kurdish Islamists and isolated within the vibrant Kurdish scene in Iran.
But the diplomatic-political pressure only makes sense for Türkiye as long as Ankara is able to show military successes. Based on the use of their own combat and reconnaissance drones, a realignment of the cooperation between the secret service and fighter combat forces was initiated.
At the national level, the European governments have nothing to oppose the political narratives represented by the Republic of Türkiye and the PKK and have therefore lost a lot of scope for action. The previous European practice of banning the PKK while at the same time silently tolerating its European elements against the will of Türkiye dates back to a time when the Kurdish-Turkish conflict was perceived as a problem far beyond one’s own sphere of responsibility. Incidentally, it was only in September 2017 that a Belgian court of appeal ruled that the PKK was not a terrorist organization, but a legitimate party in an internal armed conflict in Türkiye, that the PKK was fighting for the rights of the Kurds and did not terrorize civilians — even if it was involved in attacks on military targets sometimes result in civilian casualties. The PKK can therefore not be classified as a terrorist organization and prosecuted with anti-terror laws, nor can its members and supporters.
The European PKK dilemma no longer applies, not only because of the changed demographics in Central Europe, the Syrian conflict has also turned the problem into a European challenge. So it cannot be denied that the Syrian parts of the Öcalan movement in Rojava have made and continue to make an important contribution to European security with their fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS): namely by guarding huge refugee camps in northern Syria , in which there are numerous European IS supporters. A collapse of Rojava would free thousands of IS supporters and trigger a wave of refugees to neighboring regions and to Europe.
Reduced to the refugee issue, which is a priority in Europe, the option would arise to support Rojava with direct aid in the humanitarian field. However, any support will also be understood as a stabilization of the utopian communist project Rojava, apart from the fact that it would enhance the Assad regime, through which the aid deliveries would have to go. Türkiye has repeatedly rejected any move by Europeans in this direction, calling European and US attempts to separate the Syrian Ocalan supporters from the leadership in Kandil naïve.
While the Turkish, Kurdish, US and Syrian positions are understandable in their respective logic, the Europeans have not yet developed a political vision for northern Syria or weighed up their interests and formulated the appropriate courses of action.
Clearly, squaring the circle of conflicting interests and ideological positions is difficult. But this problem is not new and the shots in Paris have repeatedly demonstrated their topicality. Irrespective of the result of the police and legal processing of the case by the French, the Europeans are therefore required at the security policy level to finally define their common interests on the Kurdish question.
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