by Suzanne Baustad
Cover and support for state terrorists
The world’s 30 million Kurds are often referred to as the largest stateless nation. After World War I, European colonial powers established nation states to serve their interests in the Middle East. Divided by borders establishing the new states of Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, the Kurdish people have long resisted attempts by these states to massacre, deport, co-opt and assimilate them.
Depending on conditions in the ‘hosting’ state, Kurdish resistance has taken different forms. In Turkey where Kurds make up a quarter of the population, attempts at self-determination have been brutally repressed. After the 1980 military coup established martial law in the Kurdish regions of southeastern Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) turned to armed struggle to fight for an independent Kurdish state. Over the next 15 years, international human rights organizations documented over 2000 death-squad killings of suspected PKK sympathizers, over 2 million internally displaced, and more than 2200 villages destroyed by Turkish security forces.
Turkey’s brutal counterinsurgency was made possible through the complicity and silence of its NATO allies, including Canada. In violation of international law, NATO partners provided the weapons used by the Turkish state against its Kurdish population. Montreal-based Bell Helicopters, for example, provided helicopters to police forces assigned to internal security and border control in Turkey’s countryside.
In 1999, the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured and jailed for life in Turkey. By then the PKK had shifted its strategic goals, calling for political and cultural autonomy for Kurds living in Turkey. Öcalan called for a ceasefire and entered into a fragile peace agreement with Turkey withdrawing PKK forces into Iraqi Kurdistan. Thousands of PKK political prisoners remain in Turkish prisons.
Back in 2002, following similar measures in the United States, the Canadian Minister of Public Safety added the PKK to its growing list of banned ‘terrorist’ organizations under the newly minted Anti-Terrorism Act. If terrorist listings are about the illegitimate use of violence against civilian populations, then Turkey – with its flagrant scorched earth policies against its Kurdish population – surely deserves a spot on the list.
Instead, Turkey pressured its NATO allies to list the PKK in the critical period after Öcalan’s arrest. PKK on the list serves Turkey well: it undermines support for the Kurdish resistance; isolates those engaged in armed struggle and popular resistance; and provides cover for its own repressive policies.
The United States, EU and Canada have been more than willing to accommodate Turkey – a critical ally providing an important staging area for coalition forces in the ‘war on terror’ in the region.
Lesson #2: Yesterday’s ‘terrorists’, today’s ‘last hope’?
In the summer of 2012, in the midst of the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime withdrew its troops from Rojava, the Kurdish area in northern Syria. Syrian Kurds affiliated with the PKK in Turkey seized the cities with the help of the Kurdish People’s Defense Units.
Over the past two years, Rojava’s liberated zone has become an incubator for new forms of dual power. The canton of Kobani, in particular, is seen by many Kurds as a model for the region. Without the intervention of the central Syrian state, the Kurdish people have organized to build and operate their own schools, courts, hospitals, and are generating their own electricity. They’re experimenting with new forms of self-government based on grassroots control through city, village, and neighbourhood-level councils. The councils are multi-ethnic and multi-religious, including Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrian or Armenian Christians and mandated to include at least 40 percent women. There are women’s councils, unions, and entire women’s combat units including Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and Women’s Security Forces.
In August 2014, the “Rojava Revolution” became known to the world when the Islamic State (IS) attempting to take control in northern Syria was fiercely resisted – not for the first time – by Kurdish fighters. From his jail cell in Turkey the PKK leader called for Kurds to come together to defend Kobani against the reactionary Islamic State, understood to be a product of imperialist machinations in the Middle East and a clear threat to the Rojava Revolution and liberation struggles across the region.
PKK fighters have been at the heart of the battle to defend Kobani after the Iraqi army, Syrian army, Syrian rebels, and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga were all routed by the IS. Since August, a US-led international coalition, including Canada, has been conducting air strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria.
In the midst of the fighting, the western media has discovered the liberated zone, some even framing Rojava as a model for democracy in the Middle East. These are alarming developments not only for Turkey which cannot afford to have the Kurds humanized or their “democratic confederalism” showcased on its border, but also for the United States, the EU, and Canada who are now in the uncomfortable position of backing Kurdish ‘terrorists’ under the glare of an international media spotlight.
These developments come only two short years after the Harper government reaffirmed the PKK’s inclusion on Canada’s terror list. In 2012, Public Safety officials renewed the PKK listing as Turkish security forces cracked down on Kurdish resistance in the wake of uprisings across the region. At the time Canadian security intelligence was signing off on its review, we now know PKK and Kurdish fighters were the only force pushing back the Islamic State in northern Syria. Meanwhile, evidence mounts showing Turkey, staunchly defended by Canada, has been supporting the Islamic State in the hopes that its brutal attacks will weaken Kurdish resistance in the region.
As a result of the listing, it remains a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison to provide financial support to the PKK. Persons who “facilitate” the activities of the PKK – and presumably this would include dropping arms and ammunition and bombing missions in support of PKK fighters on the ground – could be jailed for 14 years. In a further twist of anti-terrorism logic, those same Kurdish fighters now standing as the West’s “last hope” in the fight against Islamic State are inadmissible under Canada’s immigration laws and would be prevented from entering or remaining in Canada as “members of a terrorist organization”.
Lesson #3: Beyond civil liberties to a defense of revolutionary struggles
Over the past 12 years, Canadian criminal and immigration security regimes have ham-fistedly targeted not only the PKK but most Kurdish resistance groups throughout the Middle East. This has devastating consequences for individual Kurds who have sought asylum in Canada only to be tagged ‘terrorist’ and deported or who remain for years in refugee limbo as a result of security investigations.
As with other exile communities, the taint of terrorism also functions to intimidate Kurdish Canadians who fear that speaking out about the realities of their people, let alone the complexities of organized resistance movements, will attract the attention of Canadian security officials. As Red Sparks Union member Charlotte Kates notes, “When you can be prosecuted for supporting the national liberation movements of your country and your homeland, that’s a strong pressure. It helps parents tell their children to not get involved in politics. It helps people say let’s not engage in solidarity work or let’s not speak of this outside the home or outside the community because of fear, intimidation, and silencing.” The terror list creates a chill: while some Canadians can exercise their freedom of speech and political association, others cannot do so without the fear of CSIS or RCMP knocking on their door.
But the consequences of anti-terrorist laws and labels extend beyond their impact on individual refugee claimants and constraints on the civil liberties of Canadian permanent residents and citizens. The listing is a direct attempt to shape the radical imagination and politics of organized resistance.
The way the list works is, first and foremost, to isolate movements for national and social liberation. Why had we not learned of the revolutionary experiment in Rojava only now capturing the imagination of the international left? Previous generations may have had organization-to-organization contact and direct exposure to movement organizers on international speaking tours or even traveled themselves to Rojava to see firsthand what was happening. But the PKK is a listed entity in a global ‘war on terror’ and the extent to which this has suppressed displaced Kurdish communities and severed connections with international solidarity groups who could learn from – and ultimately work to defend – the Rojava Revolution, cannot be underestimated.
Beyond politically isolating and ideologically discrediting liberation movements, the terror list is an attempt to shape revolutionary movements from within. When state terrorism causes mass displacement and migration of peoples – whether Kurds, Palestinians, Tamils, Filipinos, or Irish – those displaced have historically remained an integral part of national liberation movements, often raising material support for charities, schools, unions, and women’s groups on the ground. But very real criminal and immigration consequences attached to “facilitating terrorism” have put an end to this kind of grassroots support.
So which groups find other sources of funding? As Kates points out, the most right-wing, pro-imperialist organizations continue to attract the support of reactionary states such as Saudi Arabia and the wealthy families who have the most to benefit from imperialist gains. In this way, she says, the terror listings serve not only to de-fund and starve grassroots-based people’s organizations but, more than that, “to change their politics, to inspire them to change themselves, in order to be de-listed”. In the end, Kates says, the list not only suppresses exile communities here but “transforms revolutionary movements around the world into shadows of their former selves or into organizations subservient to US imperialism”.
Predictably, as the twisted logic of anti-terrorism continues to be exposed, there have been growing calls to petition the United States and European Union to delist the PKK. But this and other measures of interest in the Kurdish struggle by Western powers should be treated with suspicion.
Speaking in Vancouver at a recent global day of action to defend Kobani, Iranian Canadian Parvin Ashrafi outlined the many forms imperialist intervention has taken in the Middle East including not only air strikes, occupation, and support for reactionary states and armed groups, but also ‘humanitarian’ interventions, “an old and well-known excuse to cover up for imperialism’s sinister calculations.” “Let’s remember,” she said, “that when Saddam Husseins’ regime was killing the Iraqi Kurds on a mass scale, including the deadly gassing of 5,000 people in the village of Halabja in 1988, the so-called ‘international community’ did not lift a little finger to help. Now, the plight of the Kurds has offered a new cynical argument for Western powers and their reactionary allies, to justify their military escalation in the Middle East.”
For Ashrafi, the long history of Kurdish resistance has shown, “[t]he Kurdish people must place no confidence in any imperialist coalition. Neither the US, nor Europe, will do anything to achieve a genuine homeland for the Kurds.”
Clearly the terror list has severe material and ideological consequences for the Kurdish people and struggle. But with Ashrafi’s words in mind, do demands to delist the PKK, or any other group, serve the strategic interests of popular struggle?
A willingness to engage in fights with the state about which groups should or should not be listed, however successful, runs the risk of actually legitimizing the list and, in doing so, reinforcing the security apparatus of anti-terrorism as a powerful tool in the hands of imperialist states – states long implicated in producing and perpetuating terror at home and around the globe.
In any case, as Kurdish Canadians rallied with supporters across Canada, there has not been a broad call to demand the delisting of the PKK. Speaking about the importance of Kurdish resistance in Kobani, Ashrafi stated: “The only real security can be established by popular struggle and resistance, not imperialist armies and air forces that have only brought terror, sectarianism, reaction, and death wherever they go.” The call has been for progressive and revolutionary forces to come together to defend Kobani and what it stands for: the strength of Kurdish resistance; a rejection of the reactionary politics of Islamic State and its imperialist supporters; and an attempt at a new way of living by an oppressed people who have organized and seized power in a revolutionary situation.
Whatever role the PKK is to play in the Kurdish struggle, that is ultimately for the Kurdish people to decide. Two things are clear. The Canadian state does not have clean hands and, in perpetrating terror at home and around the world, cannot decide for us who is and who is not a ‘terrorist.’ And if there is to be a real future for liberation movements and imaginings beyond what US and Canadian imperialism deem acceptable, Canada’s anti-terror laws and labels must be resisted.