Khaddam documents: When Assad realized that leaving Ocalan was better for everyone

publisher: المجلة

AUTHOR: عمر اونوهون

Publishing date: 2023-04-07


Syria acknowledged in the Adana Agreement that it had the leader of “Kurdistan” in its possession.

This is a magazine story published on March 29, 2023, about the meeting minutes of Ocalan-Khaddam, offering a historical look at some of the main events that took place in 1998 when Turkey and Syria were about to enter the midst of war.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Syria’s main issues with Turkey were related to water, which came from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, and the evolving relations between Turkey and Israel. During that time, Syria provided refuge to Abdullah Ocalan and his party, the PKK, as well as some radical Turkish leftist organizations, and used them to confront Turkey. However, Damascus continued to deny this officially.

There is a well-known story about a meeting between Turkish Interior Minister Esmat Sezgin and President Hafez al-Assad in Damascus in April 1992. The minister presented documents confirming Syria’s support for the PKK and demanded that it be stopped. When Assad tried to deny any involvement of his country in the matter, Sezgin invited him to look out the window at Qasioun Palace, which overlooks Damascus, and pointed to the tallest tower in the city, saying that Ocalan was there.

The two sides succeeded in signing an agreement on a security protocol in which Syria committed to fighting terrorism. Syria closed a well-known PKK camp in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, but quickly established a new camp elsewhere.

In October 1998, tired of games and denial, Turkey sent a clear public message to Syria: “Stop protecting Ocalan or else…”

Syria was inclined to believe that Turkey’s threats did not pose a significant risk. However, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, with his strong political instincts, realized the seriousness of the situation and Turkey’s determination to follow through. He successfully convinced Syria of the gravity of the situation.

Finally, Syria came to the realization, as expressed by Abdel Halim Khaddam and General Adnan Badr Hassan of the Political Security Division, that it would be better for all if Ocalan left the country.

Two details from that meeting in Badr Hassan’s office caught my attention. The first was how Khaddam analyzed Ocalan’s psychology. He mentioned that when Ocalan entered the meeting place, he rushed to kiss Khaddam’s hand, but Khaddam prevented him and instead hugged him. Khaddam also noted that Ocalan appeared scared and worried, and his eyes were filled with tears at the end of the meeting.

This story by Khaddam reminded me of what happened when Ocalan was transferred to Turkey after his arrest in Nairobi. There is a famous video captured by the Turkish security team on the plane, showing a dialogue between Ocalan and an officer. Part of the dialogue is as follows:

Officer: You are our guest now. I want to ask you a few questions. Relax. Don’t worry. Do you need anything?

Ocalan: I love my country, and my mother was Turkish. If Turkey needs our services, we are ready to provide them. Other than that, please don’t ask me anything.

Officer: Answering our questions is a service in itself.

Ocalan: I will serve when I return to Turkey if you give me the opportunity.

Officer: We are recording.

Ocalan: Sign up and post the recording. I testify that you did not torture me. I love Turkey, and I love the Turkish people, and I believe I will serve them well. If you give me the chance, I’ll do it.”

The crisis comes to an end, and Syria fulfills its commitments.

By reading this interview, where Ocalan expresses his “love for Turkey” and his willingness to “offer his services,” along with Khaddam’s account of his behavior in Damascus, we can have a clear understanding of Ocalan’s stance.

The second detail is Ocalan’s preference for Cyprus or Greece as his desired destinations once he leaves Syria. He mentions Iraq as well, but Khaddam dismisses Iraq as an option, stating that “Syria has no political relationship with Iraq, and there is no mutual trust between the two countries.” Khaddam suggests Armenia as an alternative, and Ocalan agrees.

However, Ocalan’s final choice was settled on Cyprus and Greece, which not only provided support but also acted as sponsors. Ocalan indeed moved from Damascus to Athens, but due to pressure from both Turkey and the United States, he was unable to stay there. He was then transferred to Russia, followed by Italy, and finally Kenya. Throughout this journey, he was accompanied by a member of the Greek intelligence service. In Kenya, Ocalan resided at the Greek ambassador’s residence and was arrested while leaving the headquarters en route to the airport.

When news of Ocalan’s arrest broke on 15 February 1999, PKK fighters in Damascus attempted to attack the Turkish embassy. However, the Syrian authorities intervened and dispersed them, preventing further clashes. Prior to targeting the Turkish embassy, the fighters made an unsuccessful attempt to storm the Greek embassy, resulting in serious injuries to the Greek ambassador.

Years later, in December 2020, the former Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs, Theodoros Pangalos, published a book revealing the close relationship between Greece, Ocalan, and his organization.

The crisis came to an end in 1998 with the signing of the Adana Agreement on October 20. The agreement included commitments from Syria regarding Ocalan and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Article 1 of the agreement stated that “Ocalan is not currently in Syria and will not be allowed to be there.” The term “now” indicates the acknowledgment by the Syrians that he had been present there before that time.

Both parties appointed high-ranking officials to oversee the implementation of the Adana Agreement. Turkey appointed General Aytaj Yilman, the commander of the Second Army, while Syria selected General Adnan Badr Hassan, the head of Syrian intelligence, who had dealt with Ocalan during his time in Syria.

During this new phase of relations, both officials performed commendably, and the agreement paved the way for improved relations between the two countries.

Khaddam’s memoirs delve into the relationship with the former Turkish Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan. It is worth noting that the communications mentioned by Khaddam were not made public in Turkey. Later, in October 2009, a member of Erbakan’s parliament confirmed in a press interview that Erbakan had intended to initiate a dialogue with the PKK. Talks were held with Syria regarding this matter, and even meetings took place with Abdullah Ocalan himself, facilitated by intermediaries.

Abdullah Ocalan was extradited to Turkey, where he faced a trial that initially sentenced him to death. However, following Turkey’s abolition of the death penalty in 2004, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

As of 2023, Abdullah Ocalan remains incarcerated, serving his sentence in prison.

After 1998, Syrian-Turkish relations experienced a period of growth, but they have deteriorated significantly due to the consequences of the Syrian civil war.

The People’s Protection Units (YPG), an extension of the PKK in Syria, has emerged as a crucial factor in the crisis between Turkey and Syria. The Adana Agreement has also resurfaced as a topic of discussion, with Russia proposing a return to its implementation as a means to normalize relations between Turkey and Syria.