In late February, The Jerusalem Post spoke to prominent Kurdish leader Zubeyir Aydar in the Brussels offices of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK).
Aydar's official title is vice-president of the Koma Civakên Kurdistan (KCK) (Group of Communities in Kurdistan.
He is one of the top figures in the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), second only to movement leader Cemil Bayik, and is the head of the movement's European operations.
The PKK has been engaged in an insurgency against Turkey since 1984. It was once widely condemned as a terrorist organization, and remains on the EU and US list of terror groups – though this designation has little connection to the group's current activities.
Today, the PKK rules over one of the two de facto Kurdish autonomous enclaves currently in existence – that of northeast Syria, or "Rojava." It has emerged as one of two very different pan-Kurdish movements competing for the overall leadership of Kurdish nationalism. The other is Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which rules northern Iraq.
The Middle East order, established after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, has been rocked to its foundations in recent years. One of the results of this is that nations and groups which lost out in the period of ferment that followed the Ottoman collapse now have the distinct sense that history may be about to afford them a second chance.
Most prominent among such peoples are the Kurds. This ancient, non-Semitic Middle Eastern nation of around 40 million people is spread between four Middle Eastern states – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Aydar is soft-spoken and precise – a lawyer, not a military man. Born in the town of Siirt, in the Kurdish heartland in southeast Turkey, he fled the country in 1994, and has made his base in Brussels ever since. Our conversation was the first this senior PKK official had conducted with an Israeli publication.
It took place in the KNK offices in the Belgian capital, which are located behind discreet wooden doors in an elegant if slightly shopworn old Brussels house. The Kurdish official's messages were clear and unambiguous.
First and foremost, he noted the reality of emergent Kurdish self-government: "In the Middle East, a Kurdistan is rising," Aydar said. "It doesn't yet have official borders. But it is there, a reality. There is Kurdish authority running all the way from the Iranian border to close to the Mediterranean."
Quizzed on the subject of his movement's strategy with regard to the ongoing war in Syria, Aydar made clear that the Kurds see "no end in sight" to the bloodletting in that country – and no allies on either side of the line in the Syrian civil war: "Kurds will not accept the return of the Ba'ath regime; an Islamist regime would also be disastrous for the Kurds. So our strategy is to keep our areas safe – and to stay out of this fight."
In the longer term, "if possible, we'd like to build a democratic Syria – which would either be a federal state, or be divided into autonomous regions."
"It's possible Syria may collapse," he continued.
"If it does, the Kurds won't put it back together. They will rule their own areas. The map of the Middle East may change. Its not written by God; no one asked us when they drew the map. In any case, the Kurds must be ready for all possible developments."
One of the central accusations made by Syrian oppositionists regarding the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria is that it maintains a clandestine alliance with the Assad regime and with Iran.
Certainly, as this reporter can attest, there is a regime presence in some parts of the enclave – specifically, in the cities of Qamishli and Hassakeh. Aydar, however, indignantly rejects these allegations.
"Iran called for the Kurds to align with the Assad regime. The Kurds rejected this… The purpose of the Iranian regime is to preserve Assad and fight the Sunnis, so they can leave Rojava be for a time. But if the regime achieves victory, Iran would support Assad in destroying Rojava."
On the vexed question of Kurdish disunity, Aydar expressed a formulaic support for the convening of a congress bringing together the PKK, KDP and all Kurdish political forces. He did not sound particularly optimistic, however, and probably with good reason.
Relations between the PKK/Democratic Union Party (PYD)-dominated administration in Rojava and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq are not good.
The KRG sharply restricts the passage of aid to Rojava via the Fishkabor border crossing.
This leads to resentment.
But more broadly, both KDP and PKK see themselves as the natural leaders of the Kurdish nation. Each has enjoyed considerable success, and each are formidable movements in their own way. Competition and friction between them are probably inevitable.
"Barzani sells oil to Turkey," said Aydar, "but the conditions in which Kurds live in Turkey and Syria and Iran apparently don't bother him."
Aydar also made some fascinating and far-reaching comments about Israel and its place in the region. His tone was one common among Kurds, yet probably without parallel elsewhere in the region.
"There is an Islamic approach toward Israel in the Middle East," he said. "Before that, there was a leftist point of view. But both of these were based on Arab nationalism. This view was saying that Israel has no place in the Middle East, and Jews have no rights in the Middle East.
"The other nations in the Middle East – Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Kurds – have to accept the existence of Israel in the Mideast. They have to recognize that these people are from the region, and are indigenous people of the region. And whatever rights Arabs have, Israel also has. This nation has the right to live on its own soil."
Aydar went on to call for "breaking the walls between Kurds and Israelis, and getting to know each other. If we can continue our friendship, both sides will benefit from it. The region needs the Israeli experience.
So it's important that we develop and further relations – not just as two peoples, but also at the highest levels.' The conversation also touched on the troubled "peace process" between the PKK and the government of Turkey. Aydar was one of the Kurdish officials involved with the talks from the start. These talks have rapidly run aground over the details of such issues as Kurdish language rights, and the degree of autonomy to be afforded Kurdish areas. "Expectations have come to an end," Aydar said. "We don't say the process has stopped, but there are core problems that we currently can't surmount."
Local elections are set to take place in Turkey on March 30. The PKK-associated Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) is expected to do well. There are rumors that following election gains, the BDP may declare a Kurdish autonomous zone in southeast Turkey. The gains in Rojava, the stalled peace process and the current travails of the Erdogan government all make such a move more likely.
Aydar would not be drawn out on this possibility. But the very fact that it is being discussed is testimony to the strides taken in the recent period by Kurdish nationalism in general, and by the group of parties and movements associated with the PKK in particular.
"The reality of Kurdistan is emerging in the Middle East – Kurdish sovereignty is on its way," Aydar reiterated at the end of our conversation. That this statement sounds more realistic today than at any time in recent memory is a testament to the deep and historic changes underway in the region.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.