A youth holds a flag with the image of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, during the Newroz celebrations, marking the start of spring, in Istanbul, Wednesday, March 21, 2018. Thousands celebrated the Newroz festival in Istanbul and in Diyarbakir, a mainly Kurdish city in a region where Kurdish militants regularly clash with government forces. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis) Image Credit: AP

Beirut: Veteran Kurdish commander Abdullah Ocalan has issued a groundbreaking statement from his prison cell in Turkey, calling on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to engage in dialogue with Damascus.

The statement, being his first since 2011, was read by his lawyers earlier this week.

“We believe that, within the scope of the SDF, problems in Syria should be tackled by staying away from a culture of conflict, with constitutional assurances given within the framework of Syria’s territorial integrity.”

Influential figure

No name could more familiar to young Kurdish warriors in the Syrian battlefield, who grew up under Ocalan’s towering influence and still refer to him as their “father” and “historic leader.”

For twenty years, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) led a military uprising against the government of Turkey, aimed at creating the independent state of Kurdistan, fifty per cent of which he wanted carved out of the modern Turkish Republic.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers the PKK, the SDF, and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) all “terrorist organisations.”

To Erdogan, Ocalan is a “traitor.”

Erdogan has often said that he will never accept “another northern Iraq (in reference to the Kurdistan Regional Government) to be established in northern Syria (Rojava).”

“Although Ocalan has called on the SDF for a compromise, he also asserted that the Syrian crisis must be resolved as per SDF worldviews,” said Kamal Chomani, non-resident fellow at Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

Speaking to Gulf News, he explained: “By compromise, he meant that the SDF should seek local democracy which is in line with Ocalan’s democratic nation and democratic confederation, rather than a regional government parallel to that of Syrian Government.”

The SDF, he noted, still has “huge leverage over the Syrian regime to force it to accept local democracy,” pointing to the recent fuel crisis in regime-held areas, which makes them dependent on oil from the Kurdish areas.

Critical timing

The timing of Ocalan statement is noteworthy, coming amidst difficult choices that Syrian Kurds are currently faced with: either to side with Damascus in order to fight off an upcoming Turkish offensive on the town of Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo, or to side with US forces stationed in the Kurdish enclave since 2015.

Fears were heightened earlier this week as Turkish troops advanced on Tal Rifaat, parallel with a Russian operation on the northwestern city of Idlib, raising speculation that the two operations had been agreed upon by Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Talks between the SDF and Damascus collapsed last December, after US President Donald Trump announced that he would be keeping 400 troops in the Syrian battlefield.

Earlier in the year, they had received a Russian officer to surrender entire cities and towns under their control, like Al Hassakeh, Al Qamishly, and Raqqa, in exchange for Syrian protection against the invading Turkish Army.

A similar offer had been made in mid-2018, where Kurdish politicians sought the help of Damascus in fighting off a Turkish assault on the city of Afrin, perched west of the Euphrates River, deep within Russia’s sphere of influence.

Those talks collapsed, due to Kurdish reluctance to take the Syrian officer, which conditioned the surrender of their heavy arms as well, and the full return of Syrian sovereignty to all territory presently in the hands of the SDF.

Those cities, they insisted, where their reward for eliminating the Daesh threat throughout the Syrian northeast, thanks to US arms and military assistance.

“By calling for Syrian territorial integrity, Ocalan means that Turkey should withdraw Afrin,” said Chomani, adding: “That will not be achieved unless the SDF reaches an agreement with the Syrian Government.”

Who is Ocalan?

Ocalan, now aged 70, has been in prison since his arrest in Kenya in February 1999.

Previously, he was a guest of the Syrian government, which granted him asylum in July 1979 and hosted him until October 1998.

Then-president, Hafez Al Assad, asked him to leave, without extraditing him to Turkey, under threats of an all-out war between his country and Turkey, which had amassed troops on the Syrian border earlier that summer.

Ankara sentenced him to death on the charge of leading an armed insurgency against the Turkish Republic, a sentence that was commuted to life imprisonment after capital punishment was abolished in Turkey, which back in 2002, was softening its laws in order to gain admission to the European Union.

Around 3,000 Kurdish prisoners have been holding a hunger strike at 92 Turkish prisons since last November, protesting Ocalan’s solitary confinement on a small island in the Sea of Marmara.

Seven of them took their own lives last March.

Two of Ocalan’s lawyers, who read their defendant’s statement at a press conference, said that it was the first time they were allowed to see him in eight years.

A total of 810 requests had all been rejected by Turkish authorities, according to one of Ocalan’s lawyers, Ebrahim Bilmez.