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PKK vs. Turkey: Brothers of Nihilism and Non-empathy

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Abdullah Ocalan was a member of a Marxist Kurdish movement. Initially, he disseminated opinions of social injustice within Kurdish identity and used the grievances to foment military operations against Kurds as a means to recruit many young Kurds to his cause. His statements flourished in the economically undeveloped eastern part of Turkey. Ultimately, Ocalan wrote “The Way of Kurdistan’s Revolution – Manifesto (Kurdistan Devriminin Yolu-Manifesto)” and established the PKK on 27 November 1978 in the village of Fis in Diyarbakir.

The primary aim of the PKK as an ethnic insurgent group is to create a separate state or to elevate the social status of the Kurds (Byman 1998). The main argument of PKK is that historic grievances over the last century under both the Ottoman Empire and then the Republic of Turkey left no option other than strategic violence. Harsh counter policies by the Turkish government were subsequently used by the PKK to further legitimate its existence, not just locally but internationally (Ekici, Ozkan and Demir 2007). The group placed a great deal of emphasis on language as it is a powerful trait of national identity (Weber 1978). Through language the PKK attempted to strengthen the idea that ‘to be a Kurd’ meant ‘to not be a Turk’ as envisioned and promulgated by the Turkish government. Distinguishing and psychologically pushing an ethnic identity that is separate from the dominant secular Turk identity promotes great sympathy if not outright allegiance to the PKK as an ethnic insurgent group. The PKK, for example, forces the Kurds to use Kurdish language in both social and official life.

The PKK has employed psychological operations (psy-ops) to force non-compliant or rival groups to emigrate from the southeast region. Ultimately, it wants to strengthen ethnic identity by literally changing the demographic makeup and character of surrounding regions. The PKK is effectively using this method in East Anatolia. In order to obtain a more expansive population advantage, PKK operatives force Kurds to migrate from heavily-populated Kurdish areas to less-populated ones. With this tactic, the aim is to win mayoralty elections and ultimately achieve extended autonomy for radical Kurdish politics.

Thus, political activities are also very important for the PKK. A formal political party serves as a legal home-base for urban militants. Through this legal structure, new members are recruited to more radical insurgent operations. During the mayoralty elections in 2009 in Van, members of the Peace and Democracy Party (Baris ve Demokrasi partisi – BDP) created great fear amongst the public to force a heavy voter turnout for BDP. In this manner, the PKK becomes institutionalized under the legal structure of the Turkish state and organizes a second front of political struggle against the government.

The fog of war between the PKK and Turkish government resulted in the victimization of non-aligned Kurdish civilians. On 20 June 1987, PKK killed 30 villagers – 16 of them children – in Mardin (Ergil 2000). After this attack, the government decided to employ several methods in retaliation. First, the government deployed military troops in the southeast region. The army initiated counter-operations, conducting routine patrols and providing convoy protection. Additionally, two elite Special Forces units were created to counter PKK terrorism: Special Teams working as a unit of gendarmerie in rural areas and Special Operation Teams working as a unit of police in urban areas. Finally, the government also deployed air forces and conducted air attacks against PKK camps in mountainous regions.

Perhaps more controversially, the government organized an armed village guard system from Kurdish villages. Tribal leaders were assigned as the head of the village guard system. By using this system, the government was aiming to create local opposition against PKK militants. This system, however, brought about the misuse of power by tribal leaders and antagonism between Kurdish villagers and PKK militants. Beginning in 1985, PKK threats and attacks dramatically increased against Kurdish civilians who were suspected of supporting the village guard system. Allegedly, Abdullah Ocalan even ordered to kill families of village guards as they were seen as ‘state collaborators’ (Imset 1993). This violent polarization forced people to pick sides. Due to societal deficiencies in education and a lack of communication technologies such as internet and TV broadcasting to Kurdish areas, many young Kurds were convinced by the PKK to fight against the Turkish government. With this increased number of militants, the PKK created new units of fighters.

The government could not establish an effective way to prevent the enlarging popularity of the PKK. It declared a regional “State of Emergency” (Olaganustu Hal Yonetimi – OHAL) in Kurdish-inhabited zones, including the cities of Bingol, Diyarbakir, Elazig , Hakkari, Mardin, Siirt, Tunceli, and Van in 1987. A short time after this declaration, the region of “emergency management” was expanded and continued for an almost inexplicable 20 years. After the declaration of the OHAL, severe armed fighting with PKK militants became more common. Turkish military authorities had outlawed Kurdish organizations and banned all forms of ethnic and leftist movements with the coups of 1971 and 1980. Many people, including Kurdish nationalists, were jailed, the use of Kurdish language was forbidden, Kurdish village names were changed to Turkish ones, and Kurdish families were coerced to give Turkish names to their children (Ergil 2000). These military coups, aimed to ensure the ‘integrity’ of Turkish society, instead created the perception of deliberate discrimination and assimilation by the Turkish government, trying to annihilate Kurdish nationalism.

These maneuvers and counter-maneuvers are what started the truly destructive war with the PKK. The primary victims of this war were civilians who were stuck between Turkish security forces and PKK fighters. They had to endure dual atrocities: suppression and execution by the PKK when suspected of collaborating with the state and the evacuation and destruction of Kurdish villages by the Turkish military when suspected of helping the PKK. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 1996 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2297 villages had been evacuated or destroyed and 2 million Kurds had been forced to leave their homes or villages (Ergil 2000). From 1996 the OHAL was gradually softened and in 2002 it was finally lifted. The policies implemented during the OHAL process, however, continued to restrict daily social life and caused bitter grievances within the Kurdish population.

Thus, restrictions on social practices and cultural freedom, police discrimination, and oppressive regime operations, all intensified by the military coups, strengthened Kurdish separatism/nationalism. These things not only helped spur the creation of the PKK, they unintentionally helped foment its deepening ties within Kurdish society. Turkish counter-policies stirred up the Kurdish problem; ruthlessly suppressing demands for cultural, linguistic, and political rights ironically caused the solidifying of Kurdish extremism (Olson, 1996).

The devolution of the Kurdish question in Turkey represents the destructive effects of poorly thought state actions trying to force a uniform national identity. All of this chaos between the PKK and Turkish government has forced tens of thousands of families to migrate to other cities. This migration consequently increased the poverty level and street crime in various regions, stressing the already weak welfare state in Turkey (Durna and Hancerli 2007). In addition, as this crisis became a globalized phenomenon, supporters of the Kurds living in Iran and Syria, as well as the strategic involvement of European countries, made the Kurdish question far more complicated than just labeling the PKK a terrorist organization. With the new millennium, the Turkish government started to develop more moderate policies by trying to develop improved economic and social conditions in Kurdish regions. This effort to strengthen the ‘loyalty’ of Kurds to the state is called the “democratic opening” in Ankara. However, the trends seen so far in the “democratic opening” movement indicates a lack of optimism based on the non-transparent and non-inclusive nature of the project. Both sides accuse each other of being insincere and having secret, hidden agendas.

In sum, the Kurdish question is the product of a negative blending of social, economic, cultural, and political factors in an environment in which both sides have been unwilling to empathize with each other. Misperception and prejudice prevents them reaching the roots of the problem. The authorities’ unwillingness to understand the concerns of the Kurds is perceived as humiliation and discrimination. This perception brings about hate, loss of identity, and an increased risk for fanaticism and terrorism. The Kurds argue that the government’s approach left them no choice but to resort to collective violence and terrorism. The Turkish government may need to accede to the idea that addressing different perceptions about identity does not necessarily entail accepting them as reality; but taking them into account can provide a true progressive first step to solving what has up to now been an intractable social problem throughout an important part of the Turkish state.

* This piece is partially excerpted from a larger article from Springer International Publishing AG 2016, A. Farazmand (ed.), Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_2977-1

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Middle East

Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce

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Iran and elections have not been two synonymous terms. A regime whose constitution is based on absolute rule of someone who is considered to be God’s representative on earth, highest religious authority, morality guide, absolute ruler, and in one word Big Brother (or Vali Faqih), would hardly qualify for a democracy or a place where free or fair elections are held. But when you are God’s rep on earth you are free to invent your own meanings for words such as democracy, elections, justice, and human rights. It comes with the title. And everyone knows the fallacy of “presidential elections” in Iran. Most of all, the Iranian public know it as they have come to call for an almost unanimous boycott of the sham elections.

The boycott movement in Iran is widespread, encompassing almost all social and political strata of Iranian society, even some factions of the regime who have now decided it is time to jump ship. Most notably, remnants of what was euphemistically called the Reformist camp in Iran, have now decided to stay away from the phony polls. Even “hardline” former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad realizes the extent of the regime’s woes and has promised that he will not be voting after being duly disqualified again from participating by supreme leader’s Guardian Council.

So after 42 years of launching a reformist-hardliner charade to play on the West’s naivety, Khamenei’s regime is now forced to present its one and true face to the world: Ebrahim Raisi, son of the Khomeinist ideology, prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, death commission judge, perpetrator of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, chief inquisitionist, and favorite of Ali Khamenei.

What is historic and different about this presidential “election” in Iran is precisely what is not different about it. It took the world 42 years to cajole Iran’s medieval regime to step into modernity, change its behavior, embrace universal human rights and democratic governance, and treat its people and its neighbors with respect. What is shocking is that this whole process is now back at square one with Ebrahim Raisi, a proven mass murderer who boasts of his murder spree in 1988, potentially being appointed as president.

With Iran’s regime pushing the envelope in launching proxy wars on the United States in Iraq, on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and on Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, and with a horrendous human rights record that is increasingly getting worse domestically, what is the international community, especially the West, going to do? What is Norway’s role in dealing with this crisis and simmering crises to come out of this situation?

Europe has for decades based its foreign policy on international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The International community must take the lead in bringing Ebrahim Raisi to an international court to account for the massacre he so boastfully participated in 1988 and all his other crimes he has committed to this day.

There are many Iranian refugees who have escaped the hell that the mullahs have created in their beautiful homeland and who yearn to one day remake Iran in the image of a democratic country that honors human rights. These members of the millions-strong Iranian Diaspora overwhelmingly support the boycott of the sham election in Iran, and support ordinary Iranians who today post on social media platforms videos of the Mothers of Aban (mothers of protesters killed by regime security forces during the November 2019 uprising) saying, “Our vote is for this regime’s overthrow.” Finally, after 42 years, the forbidden word of overthrow is ubiquitous on Iranian streets with slogans adorning walls calling for a new era and the fall of this regime.

Europe should stand with the Iranian Resistance and people to call for democracy and human rights in Iran and it should lead calls for accountability for all regime leaders, including Ebrahim Raisi, and an end to a culture of impunity for Iran’s criminal rulers.

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Middle East

Powershift in Knesset: A Paradigm of Israel’s Political Instability

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The dynamics of the Middle East are changing faster than anyone ever expected. For instance, no sage mind ever expected Iran to undergo a series of talks with the US and European nations to negotiate sanctions and curb its nuclear potential. And certainly, no political pundit could have predicted a normalization of diplomacy between Israel and a handful of Arab countries. The shocker apparently doesn’t end there. The recent shift in Israeli politics is a historic turnaround; a peculiar outcome of the 11-day clash. To probe, early June, a pack of eight opposition parties reached a coalition agreement to establish Israel’s 36th government and oust Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. While the political impasse has partly subsided, neither the 12-year prime minister is feeble nor is the fragile opposition strong enough to uphold an equilibrium.

Mr. Netanyahu currently serves as the caretaker prime minister of Israel. While the charges of corruption inhibited his drive in the office, he was responsible to bring notable achievements for Israel in the global diplomatic missions. Mr. Netanyahu, since assuming office in 2009, has bagged several diplomatic victories; primarily in reference to the long-standing conflict with Palestine and by extension, the Arab world. He managed to persuade former US President Donald J. Trump to shift the American embassy from Tel Aviv to the contentious city of Jerusalem. Furthermore, he managed to strike off the Palestinian mission in Washington whilst gaining success in severing US from the nuclear agreement with Iran. To the right-wing political gurus, Mr. Netanyahu stood as a symbolic figure to project the aspirations of the entire rightest fraction.

However, the pegs turned when Mr. Netanyahu refused to leave the office while facing a corruption trial. What he deemed as a ‘Backdoor Coup Attempt’ was rather criticized by his own base as a ruse of denial. By denying the charges and desecrating the judges hearing his case, Mr. Netanyahu started to undercut the supremacy of law. While he still had enough support to float above water, he lost the whelming support of the rightest faction which resulted in the most unstable government and four inconclusive elections in the past two years.

While Mr. Netanyahu was given the baton earlier by President Reuven Rivlin, he failed to convince his bedfellow politicians to join the rightest agenda. Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu probably hoped to regain support by inciting a head-on collision with the Palestinians. The scheme backfired as along with the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the tremors overtook Israel’s own Arab-Jewish cities resulting in mass chaos. The burning of Mosques and local Synagogues was hardly the expectation. Thus, both the raucous sentiment pervading the streets of Israel as well as the unstable nature of the Netanyahu-government led the rightest parties to switch sides.

As Mr. Netanyahu failed to convince a coalition government, the task was handed to Mr. Yair Lapid, a centrist politician. While the ideologies conflicted in the coalition he tried to forge, his counterparts, much like him, preferred to sideline the disputes in favor of dethroning Netanyahu. Mr. Lapid joined hands with a pool of political ideologies, the odd one being the conservative Yamina party led by the veteran politician, Mr. Naftali Bennett. While Mr. Lapid has been a standard-bearer for secular Israelis, Mr. Bennett has been a stout nationalist, being the standard-bearer for the rightest strata. To add oil to the fire, the 8-party coalition also includes an Arab Islamist party, Raam. A major conflict of beliefs and motivations.

Although the coalition has agreed to focus on technocratic issues and compromise on the ideological facets, for the time being, both the rightest and the leftish parties would be under scrutiny to justify the actions of the coalition as a whole. Mr. Bennett would be enquired about his take on the annexation of occupied West Bank, an agenda vocalized by him during his alliance with Mr. Netanyahu. However, as much as he opposes the legitimacy of the Palestinian state, he would have to dim his narrative to avoid a fissure in the already fragile coalition. Similarly, while the first independent Arab group is likely to assume decision-making in the government for the first time, the mere idea of infuriating Mr. Bennett strikes off any hope of representation and voice of the Arabs in Israel.

Now Mr. Netanyahu faces a choice to defer the imminent vote of confidence in Knesset whilst actively persuading the rightest politicians to abandon the coalition camp. His drive has already picked momentum as he recently deemed the election as the ‘Biggest Fraud in the History of Israeli Politics’. Furthermore, he warned the conservatives of a forthcoming leftist regime, taking a hit on Naftali colluding with a wide array of leftist ideologies. The coalition is indeed fragile, yet survival of coalition would put an end to Netanyahu and his legacy while putting Naftali and then Lapid in the office. However, the irony of the situation is quite obvious – a move from one rightest to the other. A move from one unstable government to a lasting political instability in Israel.

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Middle East

The Gaza War

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Destruction in Gaza following an Israeli strike in May 2021. UNOCHA/Mohammad Libed

On May 22, 2021, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei’s website, posted a congratulatory message from one of the Hamas group’s leaders, Ziad Nakhaleh. In his message, Ziad Nakhaleh addresses Khamenei and says, “Qasem Soleimani’s friends and brothers, especially Ismail Ghani (Iran’s IRGC commander) and his colleagues, led this battle and were present with us during our recent conflict with Israel. … We pray for the preservation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its brave soldiers.”

Since the regime’s establishment 42 years ago, Iran has been instrumental in inflicting war and chaos regionally. When Iran finds itself cornered and entangled with its internal problems or facing an impasse, a war or bloody conflict gets ignited by the regime to divert the Iranian people’s attention. This undeclared policy of the Iranian regime frees itself from the most pressing internal issues, even temporarily.

Today’s Iranian society is like a barrel of gunpowder ready to ignite. Last year, the Iranian parliament declared that more than 60 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. According to the media close to the regime, close to 80% of the population below the poverty line this year. It is worth mentioning that Iran is one of the top 10 wealthiest countries globally, despite the challenges of the current sanctions.

This poverty is mainly the result of rampant institutionalized government corruption. According to Qalibaf, the current speaker of Iran’s parliament, only 4 percent of the population is prosperous, and the rest are poor and hungry. The two uprisings of 2017 and mid-November 2019 that surprised the regime were caused mainly by extreme poverty and high inflation. The regime survived the above widespread uprisings by opening direct fire at the innocent protestors, killing more than 1500 people. There is no longer any legitimacy for the regime domestically and internationally.

The explosive barrel of the Iranian discontent is about to burst at any given moment. To delay such social eruption, Khamenei banned the import of COVID-19 vaccines from the US, Britain, and France, hoping the people will be occupied with the virus and forget about their miserable living conditions.

On the other hand, the Iranian regime is in the midst of new negotiations with the western countries regarding its nuclear program. These negotiations may force the regime to abandon its nuclear plans that have cost billions of dollars, its terrorist activities in the region, and its ballistic missiles stockpile. This retreat will inevitably facilitate the growth and spread of the uprisings and social unrest across Iran.

The Deadlock of the Regime

The regime is facing an election that could ignite the barrel of gunpowder of the Iranian society. In 1988, when Khamenei wanted to announce Ahmadinejad as the winner of the presidential ballot boxes but faced opposition from former Prime Minister Mousavi. Widespread demonstrations were ignited. The same scenario is repeating itself in this year’s presidential election, where Khamenei intends to announce Raisi as the next president of Iran. There is a legitimate fear that demonstrations will ignite once again.

To avoid the happening of the same experience, Khamenei is forced to make an important decision. Like any other dictator, he pursues a policy of contraction during these challenging and crucial times, deciding to favor those loyal to him and his policies. Khamenei needs a uniform and decisive government to exert maximum repression on the Iranian people.

By disqualifying the former president (Ahmadinejad), the current vice president (Jahangiri), and most importantly, his current adviser and speaker of the two parliaments (Larijani), he has cut loose a large part of his regime. One way or another, Khamenei’s contraction policy is going to weaken his grip on power.

On the other hand, the Iranian regime must comply with the West’s demand for nuclear talks. In 2021, the political landscape is entirely different from 2015 in the balance of regional and global forces. The regime’s regional influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria has been severely weakened.

There is an explosive situation inside Iran. The resistance units spread throughout Iran after the 2019 uprising and have rapidly increased in recent months. They are spreading the message of separation of religion from the government, plus equality between men and women in a society where women do not have the right to be elected as president or a minister. The resistance units call themselves supporters of Maryam Rajavi, the Iranian regime’s sworn enemy. These units can direct a massive flood of people’s anger towards the Supreme Leader’s establishments with every spark and explosion.

Khamenei wanted to force the West to lift all sanctions and demonstrate a show of force within Iran and the region by initiating the Gaza war. The Gaza war was intended to divert the attention from Khamenei’s decisions on Iran’s presidential election. In this situation, the regime wanted to break its presidential deadlock by firing rockets through Hamas and carrying out a massacre in Israel and Palestine.

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