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'We Are Prepared to Defend Kurds in Iraq at Any Cost'

Cemil Bayik, longtime military leader and cofounder of the PKK, sat down with us in Iraq to discuss the Kurdish response to ISIS.

by David Meseguer
Jun 24 2014, 2:15pm

Photo by David Meseguer

All over the world, hands are being wrung over the amount of territory in Syria and Iraq now controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The rate at which the insurgent group has recently gained territory in Iraq has been particularly alarming. But even as ISIS advances almost at will, routinely routing the Iraqi military, its commanders have quite purposefully steered clear of Kurdish-held territory in Iraq. They clearly don't wish to tangle with Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

VICE News recently caught up with Cemil Bayik — known among his comrades as Cuma — about 75 miles east of Mosul. In 1978, Bayik became one of the cofounders of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and for years he ran its military wing, having himself trained in Syria and Lebanon military camps. Though never far from controversy, he has long been a key figure in the Kurds' fight to establish their own autonomous state in parts of what is now Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. He believes ISIS's advances in Iraq and Syria have been aided by others in a premeditated, coordinated plan to thwart the gains Kurds have made in the region.

VICE News: What was your reaction to the ISIS offensive in the Middle East?
Cemil Bayik: The Middle East is suffering rapid disintegration, which is a great threat not only for the peoples of the region, but also for humanity. The sectarian war will bring great destruction, and therefore democracy, freedom, and justice will suffer a serious blow. The US and Europe are the main [ones] responsible for this threat. They based their intervention in the region with the strategy of supporting political Islam, and ISIS is a branch of that strategy. This will bring the disintegration of Iraq, and there are only two alternatives: a confederate state to keep the unity of Iraq, or the emergence of new states.

ISIS is radicalizing kidnapped Kurdish students. Read more here.

Are you surprised by how rapidly ISIS advanced?
The fact that ISIS has taken Mosul and Saladin [province, where Tikrit is located] without encountering any resistance shows that there is a pre-established plan with regional and international powers involved because ISIS cannot advance so quickly by itself. The main objective of this plan is to disintegrate peoples and states and create new ones, and also eliminate Rojava [Western Kurdistan] revolutionary forces.

If necessary, will the PKK give military support to peshmerga forces in a fight against ISIS?
We are prepared to defend the Kurds in Syria and Iraq at any cost.

There are strong political divides among the Kurds. Do you think having ISIS as a common enemy will allow you to put aside those differences?
In accordance with our duty of bringing changes to the region, the Kurds must be united and serve as an example for other peoples of the Middle East. We should not mix the national strategic interests of the Kurdish people and the interests of each political force. The differences between the various Kurdish parties should not interfere or be an obstacle to the consolidation of national unity.

'The unilateral ceasefire and the withdrawal of our troops from Turkish territory is not a sign of weakness, it is strong evidence of our commitment to peace.'

There are hundreds of fighters from all over Kurdistan in Syria. Does the PKK want to consolidate control of the region?
Defending the revolution in Western Kurdistan is the duty of all forces fighting for democracy and freedom. We have done it from the beginning and we will continue. This revolution is not only related to the Kurdish area of Syria but is exportable to the whole Middle East. No other model except Rojava’s model offers a lasting solution to the problems in Syria and Iraq.

It has been reported that the Turkish government has used the ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK to build dozens of military posts. Is the peace process doomed?
Building military posts is a way of encouraging war. [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has no real intention of solving the Kurdish issue through democratic means. He just makes propaganda to create an empty hope among the people and make them believe that they will solve the Kurdish question but never concrete measures are taken. [The Tayyip] government is trying to eliminate the Kurdish movement through psychological warfare after failing to defeat us militarily.

ISIS fighters roll across Iraq — until they see the peshmerga. Read more here.

What's the status of the peace process with Turkey?
We started to talk in Oslo and then there have been some conversations that have not crystallized. New meetings with new proposals should happen, but we need to start these conversations with something concrete on the table. Ankara thinks that buying time and not negotiating with the PKK will wear us out and will bring our movement to the end. No one can eliminate the PKK because we are a well-established organization among our people. The unilateral ceasefire and the withdrawal of our troops from Turkish territory is not a sign of weakness, it is strong evidence of our commitment to peace.

Is the PKK going to keep the ceasefire?
Everything depends on the Turkish government attitude. The ceasefire and the withdrawal of our troops are unilateral steps; the Ankara commitment has been not to launch military operations. Building new military bases, increasing the number of village guards, and supporting radical groups in Syria are all actions that violate the terms of the ceasefire. If Ankara doesn't help to define ceasefire terms and start negotiations, we will use the legitimate right of self-defense.

Follow David Meseguer on Twitter: @DavidMeseguer