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Sweden and Finland’s NATO Aspirations Put Kurds at Risk

13 Jul 2022
By Dr Helena Grunfeld and Fionn Skiotis
PKK Soldiers stand together. Source: Kurdishstruggle, Flickr, .

Kurds have again been betrayed, this time to enable Sweden and Finland to apply for NATO membership. The trilateral memorandum between these two countries and Turkey paves the way for the extradition of political refugees to Turkey.

Sweden and Finland are now on track to become NATO members. Yet again, Kurds have become the currency with which geopolitical deals are made. Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership hinged on a promise to extradite Kurds suspected by Turkey of having terrorist associations who have sought refuge in these countries. Since signing the agreement on 28 June, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has refused to deny deportations to Turkey as part of the NATO deal. Turkey’s ambassador to Sweden has gone even further than what is required in the memorandum, demanding the Swedish government do something about rallies where demonstrators wave the flags of organisations banned by Turkey.

According to the 1920 Treaty of Sevres that followed the demise of the Ottoman empire, there was supposed to have been an autonomous Kurdistan. However, in an attempt to appease Turkey, which did not recognise the Kurds as a separate ethnic group despite having their own languages and culture, the United Kingdom betrayed the Kurds in the negotiations leading up to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, in which their lands were divided. The Kurdish population was then split into Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Each has been ruled by tyrannical autocrats responsible for massacres of the Kurdish population, such as the chemical attack by Saddam Hussein in Halabja, Iraq in 1988. Due to the oppression of the four states occupying the land of Kurdistan, there is a large number of Kurdish refugees across the globe, many of whom found their way to Sweden. Others, such as Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish Freedom movement, have been in solitary confinement in Turkey for decades.

In the late 1970s, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) emerged in Turkey against the background of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Kurds and the prohibition of any expression of Kurdish culture, even speaking the language. Similar to other freedom movements, such as the ANC in South Africa and FRETILIN in East Timor, the PKK has used armed resistance to achieve its goals. However, unlike other freedom movements striving for human rights, the PKK has been designated a terrorist organisation by many Western states. This stems from the pathological hatred Turkish leaders have for the Kurdish people and reflects Turkey’s geopolitical power. Its location, with access to the Mediterranean as well as the Black Sea, makes Turkey a desirable ally.

Two of the so-called terrorist organisations mentioned in the tripartite memorandum agreed at the NATO summit in Madrid on 28 June are the PKK and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), organisations that were instrumental in defeating the ISIS “caliphate.” Their fighters were admired for their rescue of the surviving Yazidis from the marauding ISIS gangs. The agreement commits Sweden and Finland to significant changes of laws and policies to enable the extradition of people designated by Turkey as “terror suspects” affiliated with these organisations.

YPG is the major component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is supported by the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. It serves as the defence force of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), formed in 2018, as an evolution of a previous autonomous administration established in 2014, following the withdrawal of the Syrian government forces during the civil war. SDF is now simultaneously fighting both ISIS sleeper cells and attacks by Turkey, both directly and through its Jihadist mercenaries. In its June 2022 report, SDF noted that it had conducted 11 security operations and arrested 17 terrorists, most of whom were funded by Turkey and operating from areas occupied by Turkey. The report emphasised that the Turkish occupation’s continuous threats of launching new attacks will negatively affect the SDF’s fight against ISIS and would provide a safe harbour for other terrorist groups.

Both PKK and YPG are informed by the principles of democratic confederalism, which incorporates democratic institutions from the micro levels of society up to the macro level. In areas governed by AANES, also known by the Kurdish name Rojava, these principles have been implemented with equal gender representation for each governance structure, with female and male co-chairs. This level of gender equality is unusual even in the West, let alone in the more patriarchal Middle East. Furthermore, these groups have introduced a solidarity economy, prioritising social goods like ecological sustainability over profits.

That this democratic enclave has been able to survive regular onslaughts by Turkey, including rape and other forms of torture and ethnic cleansing by Jihadist mercenaries of the Turkish regime, is a testament to the resilience of the population and their strong belief in the democratic system. Turkey has recently threatened another invasion for the purpose of occupying more land, a threat that has been preceded by almost daily bombings of civilian targets, often in Christian villages. As part of the tripartite memorandum, Sweden will also lift its arms export embargo on Turkey, introduced following the 2019 invasion and occupation of Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ain) and Gire Spi (Tel Abyad).

It is not surprising that an authoritarian leader such as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan finds it difficult to accept the existence of adherents to this humanitarian philosophy within or in proximity of Turkey’s borders. Capitalising on its beneficial geopolitical position, Turkey has successfully convinced Western democracies, including Australia, to list the PKK as a terrorist organisation and is now attempting to extend this definition to the US ally YPG. In Belgium, the only country where this classification of PKK has been legally challenged, the Court of Cassation found that the PKK is not a terrorist organisation.

Can the Australian government show moral courage and do anything to counter this inappropriate concession to Turkey in the form of betrayal of Kurds? Yes, it can bring forward the next review of the listing of the PKK as a terrorist organisation with a view of removing it from the list. PKK has been listed in Australia as a proscribed organisation since 2005, and this listing is reviewed every three years. In its submission to the 2021 Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security review on the relisting, the Federation of Democratic Kurdish Society Australia argued that PKK’s actions should be viewed in the light of the ongoing oppression of Kurds by Turkey, that the delisting of PKK has the potential contribute to peace and stability in the region, and that the continued listing of the PKK is traumatic for the Kurdish diaspora in Australia and leads to discrimination. The next scheduled review will occur in August 2024, when the current three-year listing expires. By starting the review now, Australia would signal its contempt for the injustice enshrined in the trilateral memorandum.

Considering the widespread listing of PKK by other countries and the large Turkish diaspora and its associated lobbying power relative to the much smaller Kurdish community, it would be a courageous move by Australia to delist it. However, demonstrating such independent foreign policy could position Australia to play an important role in achieving peace, freedom, and democracy in that part of the Middle East.

Dr Helena Grunfeld and Fionn Skiotis are co-chairs of North and East Syria Solidarity.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.