Interview with Prof. George Katsiaficas on Turkish use of chemical weapons

Prof. George Katsiaficas is a Greek-American historian and social theorist. He is known for his many writings on social movements.

Prof. George Katsiaficas is a Greek-American historian and social theorist. He is known for his many writings on social movements, including The Imagination of the New Left: The Global Analysis of 1968 and The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life.

Mr. George Katsiaficas, for the last two months, there have been violent clashes between the Turkish state and the guerrillas in southern Kurdistan. The Turkish state, unable to advance in the face of guerrilla resistance, uses chemical weapons. What would you say about the use of these internationally banned weapons?

Use of chemical weapons is a war crime. With appropriate evidence, Erdogan should be indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague on war crimes charges. If convicted, he should be imprisoned. Erdogan's domestic situation is now very precarious. He has mismanaged the economy, the currency has plummeted, and he bungled the response to COVID. Asking the Hague Tribunal to declare him a war criminal and to indict him for his use of chemical weapons should make him think twice. As we all know, despite his tenuous hold on power, he is currently trying to persuade Europe, especially Finland and Sweden, to outlaw the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Can the tables be turned on him by introducing evidence and legislation in those countries documenting his regime’s use of chemical weapons?

Erdogan’s use of chemical weapons is a cowardly sign of weakness. The Turkish army has tens of thousands of soldiers with air supremacy, but they do not have the will to fight. That is why they need to use chemical weapons. Following the defeat of the Turkish troops in Garê last year, the ongoing seven-week offensive in Zap, Metîna, and Avaşîn (beginning on the night of April 23 to April 24) continues to meet with fierce opposition. Despite NATO help, Turkey is unable to defeat the guerrilla resistance, so it has resorted to toxic and prohibited weapons, in violation of international law as well as global humanitarian and moral values.

The International Solidarity Group (from the UK) took samples of these chemicals and wanted to give them to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. But the evidence was not accepted. What would you like to say about the OPCW's failure to fulfill its mandate?

We already know that “Great Power politics” disregards international law. To rely solely on appeals to international institutions and nation-states is to be naïve. Is anyone really surprised by the OPCW’s failure to fulfill its mandate? Turkey’s war is receiving very little attention from the international media. At the same moment in history, Western politicians who provide tens of billions of dollars and Euros for advanced armaments to Ukraine are deaf, dumb, and blind with regard to Kurdistan. That is why a two-pronged campaign is needed in the metropoles of Europe, Asia and the US: initiatives attempting to impose international law; and mobilizing people into the streets.

The Kurdish movement is celebrated all over the world for its commitment to grassroots democracy, gender liberation, multicultural solidarity, and criticisms of nationalism. Along with the Zapatistas, it is one of the leading international forces for progress and can help shape the international focus for movements globally. In my opinion, all weapons of mass destruction in the hands of nation-states should be criminalized and abolished. That would be in the universal interests of humanity. For the Kurds to initiate an international campaign for abolition of such weapons could help forge a global movement aimed at nothing less than a qualitative transformation of a world system that perpetuates war, inequality, exploitation and ecological devastation. If the PKK were to lead a global initiative to abolish weapons of mass destruction, could they revive the massive disarmament movement of 40 years ago, a movement that was called a “third superpower“ by The New York Times?

With regards to international law:

The first step is to prove Turkey’s use of prohibited weapons. Archive samples analyzed by an internationally recognized laboratory of Turkey’s chemical warfare in a respected museum or institute, such as the Swedish Parliament. Build a collection of Turkey’s chemical weapons and cluster “mother” bombs complete with markings of manufacture and other identifying symbols. Document day-by-day specific attacks that use internationally prohibited weapons. Capture chemical protective clothing worn by Turkish troops and add it to the collection. Sponsor legal action and protests at the manufacturing sites.

Kurdish comrades have identified by their color 7 different types of the chemical weapons the Turkish army has used—black, yellow, silver, green, brown, red and white.  The suspected gases used by Turkey appear to be:

  1. Tabun: its neurotoxin is the oldest of the three so-called G-warfare agents, alongside soman and sarin;
  2. Green Cross: the lung warfare agent contains chloropicrin as an active ingredient;
  3. Mustard gas: the skin warfare agent, also known as yellow cross, belongs to the mustard gas group;
  4. Unknown sleeping gas: used by the Turkish army which makes those affected sluggish, have memory loss and leads individuals to collapse;
  5. Tear gas: substances that are irritating to the eyes and mucous membranes.

According to jurist Haitham Bakr, the Kurds could benefit from the provisions of the International Court of Justice through which the Court's Attorney General can initiate a complaint on his own. If he reaches a conclusion after studying the evidence, the court can make a decision to hold Turkey accountable for the use of internationally prohibited weapons. Bakr noted that if observers report chemical war violations to the Executive Committee of OPCW that prove that any country has used these weapons, in the event of a failure to respond, the reports will be submitted to the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Security Council and the necessary measures are taken, including the use of military force according to Chapter VII.

The 1993 Convention for the Prohibition and Destruction of Chemical Weapons, which was put into effect in 1997 prohibits the use or development of chemical weapons, and calls for destruction of all weapons, factories, and structures that manufacture chemical weapons. Where are Turkey’s factories of death?

Since the OPCW is most responsible by international law, then it should be the focus of the legal initiatives and street demonstrations. Already Kurdistan Community Unions and civil society organizations have sent letters to OPCW, but the latter did not take any steps even to investigate.

In reality, holding chemical weapons users accountable is subject to the calculations of the major powers that dominate international institutions. In 1988, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Kurds in Halabja, killing more than 5,000 people, including children and women. The international community did not act until 2006, and Halabja was used to settle its scores with Saddam Hussein. When allegations surfaced that Damascus government forces had used chemical weapons against the people of Eastern Ghouta in 2013, the major powers reacted, but when it comes to the Turkish state's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, the international powers have looked the other way. By now, Kurds have realized they cannot count on any foreign power for support. That is why they should build their own networks of solidarity from the grassroots.

With regard to popular protests:

Massive and militant protests in the streets of the metropoles should be aimed at pressuring international institutions like OPCW and nation-states to investigate and bring charges against Turkey and Erdogan. Another objective of such protests would be to educate and mobilize the metropolitan public. At present, few people know about Turkey’s war crimes, including its invasion of Kurdish territory in Iraq and Syria. 

Already, the Kurdish Women's Movement in Europe and the Kurdish umbrella organizations in Belgium and the Netherlands are holding protests in front of the OPCW building in The Hague every Tuesday and Thursday that they plan to continue until June 30. For the legal initiative to gain momentum, pressure needs to be kept on OPCW. Such measures as an occupation of the streets until it accepts the evidence could be organized by solidarity groups. Bigger actions with Europe-wide, even intercontinental synchronicity, would dramatize the plight of the Kurdish resistance—and its will to win.

If action is limited only to submitting reports through political parties and intellectuals to the Attorney General of the International Court of Justice or to OPCW, what more can be done? The failure of these international organizations to accept and investigate documentation should be insisted upon by thousands and even tens of thousands of people assembled in the streets around it. The power of people in the streets is a great weapon in the international struggle for peace and justice and should be utilized to the utmost extent.

Chemical weapons were also used in the Vietnam War and you protested at the front in this war. Then you went there, what can you say about the effects of these weapons?

The largest chemical warfare program in all of human history was designed by US President John F Kennedy, whose regime is often referred to as “Camelot” because of its allure and pageantry. Less well known is his use of chemical weapons in Vietnam, which were given the gentle names of Agents Orange, White and Blue.

By the end of the war, the US had sprayed more than 19,500,000 gallons of dioxin, one of the world’s deadliest chemicals, equivalent to nearly one gallon for every man, woman and child in southern Vietnam. Forests, jungles, roadsides, and military base perimeters were sprayed to remove foliage that could be used to conceal enemy troops. The chemicals were sprayed on rice crops to destroy food destined to feed the enemy.

The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that three million Vietnamese have been affected, including at least 150,000 children born after the war with serious birth defects. The problems persist even to today, more than half-a-century after the chemical was first used. Hundreds of thousands of US soldiers were also exposed. Agent Orange exposure has led to long-term health effects in many Vietnam era veterans, including multiple myeloma, Parkinson's Disease, and various types of cancer.

The US used phosphorus bombs, napalm, several types of gas, and antipersonnel weapons (including newly-developed cluster bombs) while at the same time employing millions of tons of conventional bombs, equivalent altogether to more than 700 Hiroshima’s. The total tonnage of bombs aimed on Vietnam by the United States was more than three times the tonnage dropped on Europe, Asia, and Africa during all of World War II. Half of the population of southern Vietnam were made refugees.

Nonetheless, despite copious amounts of weapons of mass destruction, the US was defeated by Vietnam. The mobilized people shot down more than 5,000 aircraft including at least fifteen B-52 strategic bombers during the criminal Christmas 1972 saturation bombing of Hanoi, the North’s capital. Using metal remnants of downed American war planes, Vietnamese fashioned rings as thanks to international supporters. From the tires of destroyed vehicles, they made sandals for their people as well as for supporters. They mobilized international support as much as possible.

During the Korean War, nearly every major building in the north was completely destroyed by bombs, battleship and artillery fire. The United States used five times the amount of napalm that had been deployed in all of World War II, bombed dams and dikes killing thousands of people, and so heavily bombarded cities that their streets were turned into rivers of unrecognizable human body parts.

The US used germ warfare on more than 1,000 occasions, especially in the period from January to June 1953—near the end of the fighting when the US realized it could not win a military victory. The War Museum in Pyongyang contains vials of infected insects as well as bombs that were used to drop them. I personally witnessed biological and chemical bomb casings marked made in the USA. Smallpox powder was spread in residential areas as early as 1951, and in 1952, at least 10 kinds of germs and pests were disseminated by 20 kinds of bombs, especially on traffic and railroad lines leading to China. North Korean prisoners exchanged on April 7, 1953 were found to have been infected with the plague.

Nonetheless, North Korea won its independence, the first major defeat of expanding European settler-colonialism.

The United States has set an international example by lowering the standard of civilized behavior in warfare to include nuclear weapons, (never forget that the United States is the only nation to use atomic bombs), biological and chemical weapons, modern antipersonnel weapons such as cluster bombs, modern helicopters equipped with so much fire power that they can obliterate a village in a matter of seconds, using technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Never has the US government or its willing accomplices ever apologized; these institutions rather celebrate their war crimes by claiming victory in the Cold War. The US government has been reluctant even to formally recognize its use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Promised reparations were never paid, but instead right-wing media spread the lie of American POW’s still being held captive. Despite the 1953 armistice agreement suspending the Korean War, the US has consistently violated its written promise never to impose a blockade of any kind on North Korea. Over its two centuries of existence, the US has torn up nearly every agreement it made with Native Americans, part of a lamentable “Trail of Tears” imposed upon indigenous Americans. The US parades itself internationally as a defender of “human rights” and supporter of “democracy,” but its actions have had murderous impact on millions of people on five continents.

About the war that Erdogan started both in the guerrilla areas and wanted to start in Rojava, and about this aggressive attitude he showed against the Kurds.

I suspect Erdogan wants total annihilation of the free Kurdish regions. The Turkish neo-Ottoman project, its revanchist dream of restoring Turkish control of the entire Middle East and much of North Africa, calls for the liquidation of freedom-loving Kurds. Erdogan’s reactionary and criminal state is supported by the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), including in its invasion of Southern Kurdistan. In turn, Erdogan supports the subservient Kurdish KDP, much as the Ottomans used loyal local rulers to extend their dominion. Despite his ambitions, Erdogan is doomed to fail and may well be imprisoned as a war criminal. The spirit of Kurdish resistance fighters and their people’s yearning for freedom are powerful forces reverberating round the world.

What should be done in terms of international solidarity, do you have a call to war opponents and revolutionaries?

To answer this question, I must turn to history. Direct actions in the US, in “the belly of the beast” as Che called it, played a significant part in winning the Vietnam War. Vietnam’s leading general Vo Nguyen Giap celebrated US people’s resistance to the war among his reasons explaining why the Vietnamese won. In 1971, the US anti-war movement launched an attempt to shut down the city of Washington DC. “If the government doesn’t stop the war, we will stop the government!” was our slogan. More than 12,000 people were arrested. The main front page headline of the Washington Post of May 4, 1971, proclaimed that the shutdown of DC traffic “helped end the Vietnam War.”

State repression in Turkey is far more restrictive of liberty than in most of the worlds so-called democracies. Dozens of members of parliamentary opposition parties are routinely arrested; the Kurdish language is criminalized; more than 100 elected mayors in Kurdish areas were arbitrarily replaced; dozens of newspapers and radios/TV stations have been closed. Erdogan’s use of chemical weapons is the most odious of his many illegal actions. As international pressure is mounted, he may one day cease using chemical weapons. Once he is removed as president, and that they could come within a year when new elections are scheduled, the Kurdish movement may have to adjust tactics as it faces new challenges.

The world’s great powers, held in bay by Erdogan’s threat to release hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Europe and by Turkish control of the Dardanelles (checkpoint for grain from Russia/Ukraine), have turned Kurdish freedom fighters into the gendarmes needed to police tens of thousands of captured Isis members in Syria, while giving control of huge oil revenues to the Barzani family in Iraq, leaders of Erdogan’s ally, the reactionary KDP.

Direct action campaigns to compel policy changes in the metric polls could help change the international constellation of forces. Broad coalitions should be built to mobilize as many people as possible. In my experience, a few large mobilizations can be more effective than ongoing smaller protests, which also have an impact, as do cultural events such as celebration of Kurdish New Year as happened this year here in San Francisco. At the same time, militant protests like shutting down Washington DC during the morning rush hour also have their role, one often underestimated. In San Francisco, after Turkey attacked Rojava in 2019, protesters shut down the Bay Bridge, dropped a large banner on its main overpass, blocked another highway, and disrupted the Turkish Airlines counter at the main airport. If multiplied by many cities, simultaneous confrontations of Turkey illegalities expose the criminal character of Erdogan’s regime.

Today, the US movement (if we can speak of a movement) remains latent. While sudden sparks can cause enormous outbursts (such as the Black Lives Matter national rebellion), activists and the public are generally uninformed about Kurdistan. Reactionary forces within spread false facts about Ocalan. Many activists know about Erdogan and Isis, but the vast majority of people could not locate Kurdistan on a map.  In Europe, where there are more Kurds and political consciousness is higher, activists groups could sponsor central days of action at the OPCW, even closing the streets around it for a day or more (as occurred in 2016). A War Crimes Tribunal in the streets could take evidence that would be published and handed over to the OPCW.

The Vietnamese struggle united activists in more than 100 countries and thereby built a global movement that helped to end the US war. The Kurdish struggle is multi-leveled and hinges around the battlefields, the free territories, and appeals to international law, but it also needs popular support in the metropoles both to inform and mobilize the public. Together, we will win!