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Thousands of Kurds in Germany rally against Turkey

Chase WinterSeptember 3, 2016

Thousands of Kurds have rallied in Cologne against the Turkish government and military intervention in Syria. It is likely to further test relations between Germany and Turkey.

Deutschland Köln Demonstration der Kurden
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Kaiser

Nearly 30,000 Kurds rallied peacefully in Cologne against the Turkish government on Saturday, in a protest with clear signs events in Syria have inspired the Kurdish movement in Germany.

Under the banner of "Neither military coup nor dictatorship," the rally took aim at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, only weeks after a pro-government Turkish rally was held in the same location against the failed July 15 military coup attempt.

Organized by the Kurdish organization NAV-DEM, the rally also slammed Turkey's intervention in Syria, viewed by many Kurds as aimed at thwarting the political and military advances of the Syrian Kurds and not the "Islamic State" (IS).

Many people waved flags of imprisoned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, who holds near God-like philosopher status among supporters. "We are here for the freedom of Ocalan and Kurdistan," said Mustafa Durmaz, a Turkish Kurd from Sanliurfa, flag in hand.

Deutschland Köln Demonstration der Kurden
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

Ocalan has been isolated since peace talks broke down last year. Some 50 Kurdish politicians and activists in Turkey will start an indefinite hunger strike this Monday until they hear word from him.

Police allowed flags and pictures of Ocalan so long as they were not superimposed on anything related to the PKK. Protesters appeared largely to heed the police warning, although some PKK symbols could be seen in the crowd. Dozens of people were dressed up in PKK guerrilla fighter outfits.

Asked by DW where the line would be drawn between "illegal propaganda" and free speech, one police officer shrugged, seemingly confused by the multitude of flags representing various Kurdish organizations, most of which align in some way with the PKK.

The PKK has long been dubbed a terrorist organization in Europe, but the line is often blurred and various Kurdish organizations sympathetic to the PKK are able to operate.

Yet, the overwhelming prevalence of Syrian Kurdish symbols was revealing. The Syrian Kurds have become the standard bearer of the Kurdish cause through their fight against IS and ability to establish self-governing areas in Syrian Kurdistan, referred to by Kurds as Rojava.

Infografik Kurdische Siedlungsgebiete ENG

Kurds have rallied under the banner of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most powerful Syrian Kurdish party, and its YPG militia. The PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, although the EU and United States don't recognize it as a terrorist organization.

The PYD successes on the frontlines against IS have earned the organization respect and an alliance with the West.

"At this point, America needs us, we need them. Europe relies on us, we rely on them," Salih Muslim, the head of the PYD, told DW.

Muslim said it was natural for Kurds in Turkey to show solidarity with their brethren in Syria, while pointing out that the demands of the PYD for greater rights and federalism were directed only towards Syria and his movement was not a threat to Turkey.

"Rather than supporting jihadists and executioners, Turkey should extend a hand to the secular Syrian Kurds as neighbors," Sirri Sakik, a veteran Kurdish politician in Turkey, told DW. He added that Turkey needs a new democratic constitution that would recognize and grant rights to all groups, otherwise the country risked danger.

Muslim and Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chair of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the third largest party in the Turkish parliament, were the keynote speakers. The presence of the two leaders of the Kurdish movement in Syria and Turkey is telling of how intertwined the Kurdish issue has become regionally.

The demonstration in Cologne may add tension to already simmering ties between Germany and Turkey, which views the PYD as a terrorist organization on par with IS.

"We don't believe there is any difference between a demonstration held by supporters of the PKK, an armed group that the European Union considers a terrorist organization, and IS, another group that's considered a terrorist organization," a Turkish official told DW, speaking on anonymity.