Assyrian Nationalists Cooperate with Kurdish PKK Insurgents

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 8

Kurdish PKK resistance fighters (AFP)

For many people in the West, mention of the “Assyrians” brings to mind the relentless empire-builders of northern Iraq who conquered most of the Middle East, including Egypt and large parts of Anatolia, in the period stretching between the 20th to 7th centuries B.C. Few are aware of the existence of the modern “Assyrians,” an Aramaic-speaking Christian community still centered on the region surrounding the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh (Arabic – Ninawa). Though they are undoubtedly an indigenous group predating the Arab invasion of the 7th century, there is still intense debate within the community over the reality of a direct link to the Assyrians of old. Three developments have spurred the growth of modern Assyrian nationalism:

• The introduction of the concept of ethnic nationalism from Europe and America in the late 19th century.

• The repression of the Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

• The violence suffered by elements of the community during Ba’athist rule and again in the post-2003 period, which has hastened the flight of the community to new homes in the West.

Today, some Assyrian nationalists have tied their fortunes to the militant element of another nation-less ethnic group in the same area, the Kurds. The radical Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has proved willing to accommodate the nationalist aspirations of this Christian community, though not all members of the community agree that an alliance with the militant Kurds is in their best interest.

The Assyrian actors

According to Assyrian nationalists there are around three million “Assyrians” living in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States. But not all these Middle-Eastern Christians see themselves as “Assyrians.” Some self-identify as Aramaean, others as Chaldean, and others as Syriac. [1] There are also a number of confessions practiced by this ancient Christian community, including Orthodox Christianity, Chaldean-Catholicism and even Presbyterianism. Assyrian nationalist organizations commonly aim to “revive” Assyrian culture and to “re-establish” Assyria in its Middle Eastern homeland, which is roughly identical to the region occupied today by the Kurds – south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, north-eastern Syria and north-western Iran. This region is also home to large numbers of Arabs, Turks, Persians, Yazidis and Turkmen. Some Assyrian nationalist groups with more moderate ambitions seek only cultural recognition in a region where ethnic, cultural and linguistic identities are often the focus of violent disputes.

Many Aramaeans, however, are firmly opposed to the use of the term “Assyrian,” condemning it as either an intrusive concept introduced by 19th century Protestant missionaries working in the area or an historically inaccurate attempt to link the Aramaean people with the long vanished Assyrian Empire. One of the first communities to have accepted Christianity, the modern Aramaic speakers refer to their homeland as Beth-Nahrin, “The Land of the Two Rivers.”

Assyrians have formed a number of ethnic-based opposition movements that advocate certain goals for the Assyrians in the diaspora and try to play a political role in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The main Asssyrian actors used to be the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO – Mtakasta Demoqrateta Atureta) formed in Syria, the Beth-Nahrin  Democratic Party (BNDP) and the  Mesopotamia Freedom Party (Gabo d’Hirutho d’Beth-Nahrain – GBH), which seeks an autonomous state for Assyrians in Iraq and is related to the Assyrian National Congress (ANC) in America. The Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM – Zowaa Demoqrataya Aturaya), with a secular and democratic program, is one of the most successful Assyrian political parties in Iraq. Under the leadership of Yunadam Kanna, the ADM was involved in armed opposition to the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein.

But according to Fikri Aygur of the European Syriac Union (ESU), there have been changes on the political front. [2] Among the new players is the Assyria Council, with a small group of people who follow the ideas of the ADM and lobby for Assyrian rights. They work against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. The ADM recently lost all of their seats in the regional parliament to the KRG-supported Chaldean Syriac Assyrian People’s Council as a consequence of working with Iraqi Shiites after the fall of Saddam.
 
Assyrian lobby organizations have managed to create ties with Christian political parties in Europe and various governmental organizations. Due to successful lobbying from influential Assyrian-Americans and Congressman Henry Hyde (Republican-Illinois), the ADM obtained recognition as an Iraqi opposition movement from the Bush government in 2002. [3] The Syriac Universal Alliance (an ethnic Syriac umbrella group founded in New Jersey in 1983) was given special consultative status by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations in 1997 (sua-online.org).

Common Interests of the PKK and the Assyrians

The PKK newspaper Yeni Ozgur Politika dedicated several articles to the relations between Assyrian organizations and Kurdish political parties in November, 2006. According to this pro-PKK medium there are ties between Kurdish parties and diaspora Assyrians in Sweden, France, Holland and Germany. There are also Assyrian members in the Kurdistan Parliament in Exile (KPE), which was established in 1993. The name of this PKK front organization was later changed to the Kurdistan National Congress (Kongra Netewiya Kurdistan – KNK).

The PKK share a common enemy with the Assyrian nationalists – Turkey. An Assyrian lobbyist noted this in an interview with a Christian newspaper; “There are Assyrians who fought with the Kurds, against the common enemy Turkey.” (Trouw, December 21, 2000). Turkey has no intention of recognizing Assyrian claims that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide (an incident the Assyrians call Seyfo) against them or to recognize their cultural rights. The PKK uses the Assyrians to promote their human rights and cultural organizations while the Assyrians use the media organs of the PKK and their lobby organizations to confront Turkey. A few Assyrians have even joined the armed wing of the PKK.

Because the Syriac Orthodox are a very small minority in Turkey, they lack the ability to force Ankara to listen to their demands; “We are a small nation and our population numbers aren’t sufficient enough in the Middle East to form an independent power bloc,” observed Petrus Karatay, leader of the Association des Assyro-Chaldéens de France (AACF) and a member of the KNK (Magazine Kurdistan, January/February 1997). The danger has always been that radical members of the community would become associated with a terrorist organization. Some Assyrian nationalists believe they can use their collaboration with the PKK to put pressure on Turkey.

Currently, the PKK still supports recognition of the “Greek, Armenian and Assyrian genocide.” In November, 2008 a PKK front organization, “The Association of Reconstruction of Dersim,” organized a “Dersim Genocide” conference in which it was claimed Turkey committed genocide against the Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, Jews, Alevis and Assyrians (kurdishinstitute.be, 4 November, 2008).

The Beginning of the Assyrian Revolution

On April 24, 1993, members of the ADO, including Numan Ogur, visited PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in Syria. There they signed an agreement calling for the PKK media to promote Assyrian identity and interests. In addition, the Assyrians would share in the victory if the PKK succeeded in their struggle against the Turkish military (Berxwedan, April 24, 1993). However, not all members of ADO agreed to work with the PKK. The PKK had good ties with the Ba’ath regime in Syria and therefore ADO members who were receptive to an alliance with the PKK separated from the ADO and established the Bethnahrin Revolutionary Party (Zaman, 19 October, 2006). 200 Assyrians were reportedly sent for training in the PKK camps (Haber7.com, August 19, 2006). “We as Christians should be the first that should start resistance against oppression,” argued Petrus Karatay (Magazine Kurdistan, January/February, 1997). The Bethnahrin Patriotic Revolution Organization and the Bethnahrin Freedom Party were both put on the terrorist list by Turkey in 2001 (Zaman, December 30, 2001).

Assyrian nationalists were allowed to broadcast on the PKK TV-stations. For instance, Assyrian activist Attiya Tunc made programs for Med TV (Trouw, 21 December, 2000). “We have our own Assyrian programs, produced by Assyrians and spoken in our own Assyrian language,” KNK member George Aryo explained in an interview (Zenda magazine, December 7, 1998). [4] The ESU has used their experience with PKK media operations to set up their own independent channel, Suroyo TV. The ESU supports the formation of an autonomous Christian region in Iraq. Assyrian activist Matay Arsan (a.k.a. Metin Tunc) says the ESU cooperates with Turkey and the Syriac Orthodox Church in Turkey, which doesn’t support Assyrian secular nationalism. Arsan claims Suroyo TV is financed by Turkey and that the ESU members have meetings with the Turkish intelligence services. [5]

Some Assyrian nationalists, including members of the GHB, are highly critical of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Massoud Barzani. According to George Aryo, Barzani cooperated with Turkey to “kill Assyrians and to attack the PKK” (Zenda Magazine, December 7, 1998). In 1999 the GHB killed more then 39 KDP members in a revenge attack for the alleged murder of an Assyrian woman (RFE/RL, August 6, 1999).

Turkish intelligence services kept a close watch on the activities of the GHB (Yenicag, March 6, 2000). The GHB organized hunger strikes in 2000 "to condemn the Turks who barbarously killed 500,000 Syrianis/Assyrians and Chaldeans!" More then 100 members of the GHB also occupied a government building in Lausanne, Switzerland to protest against Turkey. In January, 2001 the GHB participated in a demonstration with PKK organizations in Cologne to support hunger strikes in Turkish prisons.

A report prepared in 2000 for the Turkish National Security Council (Milli Güvenlik Kurulu – MGK) warned; “Attention is also drawn to the increase of (Syriac) activities to achieve their objectives and the close co-operation of the Assyrian/Syriani/ Chaldean community with the Armenian and Greek organizations and the terrorist organization PKK” (Turkiye, March 6, 2000).

Downfall of the Assyrian revolutionaries

The GHB was weakened by the capture of PKK-leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but continued their plans to fight for an independent Assyrian state (Zaman, October 19, 2006). Eventually there were internal fights and the party become divided. In 2002 GHB fighter Michael Judi (a.k.a. C. Kulan), a former Amsterdam policeman who joined the PKK military forces, allegedly froze to death in the mountains, though many claimed he was murdered when he decided to part ways with the PKK. In 2003 the founder of the GHB, Numan Ogur, was kidnapped when he attempted to leave the organization (Pirmasenser Zeitung, January 20, 2003). According to Fikri Aygur, the GHB was dissolved in 2005 and transformed into the Mesopotamia National Council. [6]

There are some Assyrian nationalists who still cooperate with the PKK or maintain ties with PKK organizations. Kurdish Roj TV broadcasts an Assyrian program and the Assyrian Chaldean Syriac Association continues to work with the PKK. AACF leader Petrus Karatay also cooperates with Roj TV. On 25 December 2005 Ali Ertem, president of the Association against Genocides, joined him in a debate to discuss “the genocide against the Chaldo-Assyrians and the Armenians.”

Assyrian Opposition to the Kurdistan Regional Government

Assyrian activist Attiya Tunc helped to establish the Assyria Council of Europe to lobby for the Assyrians in the European Union capital of Brussels (Huyodo.com). On June 11, 2008 the Assyria Council organized a conference in cooperation with the European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED), the biggest bloc in the EU parliament. According to the conference, the rights of Turkmen and Chaldo-Assyrians are severely neglected in their homelands.

Tunc is currently a member of parliament of the Dutch Labour Party, part of the government coalition. In 2008 she used her position in the party to advance the Assyrian cause and tried to bring Dutch politicians with her to northern Iraq. Tunc follows the position of the ADM in opposing the KRG and their efforts to incorporate the Assyrians into their autonomous region. Tunc recently succeeded in convincing the Dutch government to launch an investigation into the situation of Christians in Iraq. She also works closely with the Iraqi Turkmen lobby in Europe.

On November 4, 2008 the Assyria Council of Europe, the Iraqi Turkmen Front, the Yezidi Movement for Reform and Progress and the Mandaean Human Rights Group issued a protest against the lack of political representation for minorities in Iraq (assyriacouncil.eu). These groups also campaign against the KRG in northern Iraq. They argue that the Kurdish government takes over their regions and supports terrorist attacks against them. Some Kurdish nationalists claim these organizations are supported by Turkey against the KRG government. The Turkmen front especially is accused of receiving support from Turkey, but denies these claims.

During the 2009 regional Iraqi elections, the KDP-supported Assyrian Ishtar Patriotic List won the reserved Assyrian seats in Mosul province and the reserved Christian seat in Bagdad. This resulted in a fierce counter-campaign by Assyrian nationalist media after the nationalist slate performed poorly in the vote (aina.org).

Assyrians: a Continuing Challenge for Turkey and the KRG

It seems that some minor Assyrian organizations will continue to work with the PKK and other organizations to confront Turkey with the “Assyrian genocide.” The Assyrian lobby organizations want the recognition of cultural rights and possibly the establishment of an Assyrian safe haven in Iraq. Turkey has successfully incorporated some former violent elements of the GHB and seems to be more tolerant of Assyrian activities than in the past. It is possible Turkey played a role in the fragmentation of the radical Assyrian militant party. Currently Assyrian and Syrianc Orthodox organizations are using the legal dispute over land claimed by Mor Gabriel Syriac Orthodox monastery in Turkey as a rallying point. The Belgian-based PKK TV station, Roj TV, has used the dispute to villainize Turkey.

The Assyrians who have worked with, or are still working with the PKK, are also lobbying against the KRG of northern Iraq. The armed Assyrian branch of the PKK was dissolved, but the Assyrians continue to use the broadcast media and lobbying networks of the PKK. The interests of the PKK, the Turkmen front and the Assyrian nationalist organizations intersect in their opposition towards the Kurdish government. The Turkmen front, however, only cooperates with Assyrian nationalist organizations to combat the “democratic image” of the KRG and to obtain more rights. It’s unlikely that Turkish security services would accept the development of strong ties between the Turkmen front and PKK-related Assyrians.

Currently, both the KRG and the Turkish government have an interest in combating the activities of Assyrian nationalists who are opposed to both administrations, but are unlikely to overcome their mutual differences to cooperate against what remains a lingering but minor security threat, due to the small number of Assyrians in the region.

Notes:

[1] Syriac is a dialect of the Aramaean language, an ancient and once widely-spoken Semitic language that has been largely replaced in the Middle East by another Semitic language, Arabic.  Those who identify themselves as Syriac are often criticized by other Assyrians/Aramaeans for misuse of the word. Syriac has no relationship to the Syrian state.
[2] Fikri Aygur (Aho), Vice chairman of European Syriac Union (ESU), correspondence with the author, March 18, 2009.
[3] Jonathan Eric Lewis, “Iraqi Assyrians: Barometer of Pluralism,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2003.
[4]Footage of the broadcasts can be seen on YouTube: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKJ26gahK18).
[5] Matay Arsan, Assyrian activist, correspondence with author, March 15, 2009.
[6] Jonathan Eric Lewis, “Iraqi Assyrians: Barometer of Pluralism,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2003.