This is the first of a two-part series on the topic. The second of which will be posted next week on the Defence-in-Depth blog.

Turkey’s very own Kurdish problem

Turkey’s AKP government’s attempts to seek a resolution to the country’s domestic Kurdish problem had by the second half of 2015 deteriorated into violent conflict throughout the predominantly Kurdish populated southeast, between the state’s security forces and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Turkey’s political leaders have declared their intention to militarily defeat the PKK – something the Turkish state has failed to achieve since the PKK first resorted to violence in1984 – rather than resume negotiations with it. The current round of violence, which is accompanied and partly explained by Ankara’s growing political authoritarianism, includes Turkish bombing raids against PKK bases in the Khandil Mountains of northern Iraq, the imposition of curfews lasting from weeks to months, and widely reported excesses on the part of the security forces. Urban districts have been flattened by government shelling, and tens of thousands have fled their homes. The government has stripped the MPs of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP) of their parliamentary immunity, which clears the way for their prosecution and imprisonment. Subsequently, the HDP leadership is contemplating setting up in exile.

Events such as these have occurred throughout the history of the Turkish Republic. Ankara’s treatment of its Kurdish citizens since 1923 has been littered with executions, curfews, decades of emergency rule throughout the southeast, forced evacuations, intense ‘Turkification’ campaigns, the exclusion of foreigners from Kurdish areas of the country, population flight, the destruction of towns and villages, imprisonment of activists, the banning of Kurdish political parties, all sorts of abuses of human rights and the law, and even the denial that Kurds exist as a distinct people. However, what has shocked some observers about this latest round of violence is that it immediately followed what many had thought was a serious attempt to address the country’s Kurdish problem.

But to what extent did the events leading up to the resumption of violence in July 2015 really constitute a ‘peace process’? At no point did President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicate his readiness to accept any item on the Kurdish side’s wish list. These included the release from prison of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the recognition of Kurdish as an official language of the Republic, state education in the Kurdish language, some kind of devolution – dubbed ‘democratic autonomy’ by the Kurdish movement – a disbandment of the government armed and funded Kurdish ‘village guard’ militias, a change to the ten percent electoral threshold, an amnesty for PKK fighters, and so on. Nor would the government countenance the Kurdish side’s suggestion that some third party mediation be introduced into the process.

Rather, Erdogan sought to impose his terms from above. He insisted that the PKK should disarm unconditionally, and dissociated himself from the so-called ‘Dolmabahce Accord’ that emerged from a meeting of government figures and HDP MPs in February 2015. His anti-HDP and nationalistic rhetoric became harsher once he recognized that the HDP stood to exceed the ten percent threshold and gain sufficient parliamentary seats in the June 2015 election to deny the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a majority. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas also declared his unwillingness to support Erdogan’s aspiration for a more presidential constitution. Erdogan’s belief that Turkey’s generally conservative Kurdish voters could be persuaded to forsake Kurdish nationalist candidates and support Islamist parties dates back to his Welfare Party days in the 1990s, and this is what he hoped to achieve.

Many in the PKK were skeptical of the government’s goodwill from the outset. Furthermore, both the PKK and the Turkish military treated the ceasefire that accompanied the ‘peace talks’ as an opportunity to prepare for the next round of violence. The military hardened existing fortifications and built new ones. Kurdish youth, many of them members of the PKK-affiliated Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) and no doubt soon to become the next generation of PKK fighters, dug trenches and threw up barricades, while elected Kurdish officials declared their support for the establishment of Kurdish autonomous zones. In any case, in the wake of the HDP’s electoral success in June 2015, the government used the excuse of the killing of two policemen in the aftermath of the bombing at Suruc near the Syrian border which killed over thirty Kurdish activists to launch its military campaign. Although the government simultaneously declared its opposition to Islamic State (IS) and permitted US access to the NATO base at Incirlik, most IS activists that were initially detained were subsequently released. Although IS terrorist attacks inside Turkey and the intensification of IS cross-border shelling into Turkey from Syria in recent months has undoubtedly alerted the Turkish authorities to the threat posed, Ankara’s pursuit and prosecution of IS activists still seems desultory when compared to its campaign against anyone associated with the Kurdish cause.

In its one hundred year history, the Turkish state has either denied the Kurds exist at all, sought to obstruct any Kurdish political voice, or offered them assimilation either on the basis of ‘Turkification’ or, under the AKP, on the basis of a shared Islamic faith and appreciation of the benefits of the AKP’s economic policies. In fact, many Kurds are assimilated, but the Turkish state has never embraced or even truly grasped the fact that Kurds are at least as different from Turks as, say, Poles are from Germans or, if preferred, the Irish and Scots are from the English. There will be no settlement of Turkey’s Kurdish question until and unless Turks accept the ethnic, linguistic, cultural and historical distinctiveness of the twenty percent or so of Turkey’s citizens that are ethnically Kurdish rather than Turkish. There are few serious signs that this recognition is imminent.


Image: Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of the Russia High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s