Right now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is undertaking a massive assault on Kurdish communities in southeastern Turkey in an effort to wipe out the only truly democratic movement in the Middle East. In December, he unleashed a force of 10,000 soldiers, armed with tanks and mortars, who have cut water and electricity supplies, imposed draconian curfews, and razed buildings; they are following shoot-to-kill orders against local residents who venture from their homes to seek food, first aid, or alternative shelter. Already more than 200 Kurdish defenders, and 198 civilians, including children, teenagers, and the elderly, have been murdered. In photos, the areas under siege look like war zones, comparable in destruction to Syria and Bosnia.
Reuters estimates that as of late December 200,000 people from 19 cities had been displaced, becoming refugees in their own country. Erdogan has justified this rampage in the southeast as an act to “cleanse every place” of militant Kurds affiliated with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the organization that has fought the Turkish state for independence on behalf of some 15 million Kurds living within its borders who’ve been subjected to decades of repression.
The PKK is labeled a terrorist organization, not just by Turkey but also by the United States and many countries in Europe. This label has stuck despite the fact that the PKK in 1999 initiated a unilateral cease-fire that lasted until 2004, and in 2013 again halted its violent confrontation with the Turkish state for two years, trying to negotiate peacefully for greater autonomy for Kurds until Erdogan withdrew his support for the talks.
European Union parliamentarians from Holland, Denmark, and Iceland have stated recently that the EU countries’ continued designation of the PKK as a terrorist organization is hypocritical, because Europe supports the PKK’s Syrian Kurdish sister militias, the People’s Protection Units (the YPG and the all-female YPJ), which have successfully fought off the Islamic State and are ideologically allied with the PKK. Worse, they say, the designation is hampering peace by giving Erdogan license to abandon the negotiations with the PKK that began in 2013 and ended last year. It’s no accident that Erdogan’s assault on Kurdish cities was stepped up dramatically just days after the EU voted against delisting the PKK as a terrorist organization, and that some of those murdered have been members of a Kurdish opposition political party.
What exactly is the PKK political model for autonomy that Turkey—and, apparently, Washington and the EU—find so frightening? Imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, and the Kurds in Turkey and Syria who follow him, seek to create communities that enshrine the values of direct democracy, non-hierarchy, the empowerment of women, ecological stewardship, a moral economy, and religious tolerance. Abandoning their ideological bent toward Marxism and demand for an independent Kurdistan, these activists have instead focused on democracy-building: putting power in the hands of local citizens.