Turkey and the Kurds: yesterday, today, tomorrow

Whatever the end of the quagmire in the Middle East will be, it can be confidently claimed that the Kurdish problem is now looming larger than ever in the politics of the region. In Syria, the YPG, armed groups under the local Kurdish party PYD, are among the most solid and reliable forces fighting against radical jihadists; in Iraq, the prospects of possible independence exert a steady impact on national politics; and in Turkey, the horrors of a nationwide insurgency have hit the headlines. The latest attack in Ankara perpetrated in February this year, served as a horrible reminder of the bloody military uprising led by the left-nationalist Kurdistan’s Worker Party (PKK) throughout the 1970s-1980s. But why has the period of unprecedentedly peaceful relations between the Turkish government and its Kurdish minority come to an end so abruptly, and what consequences for the local politics it may bear? These are the questions this piece strives to answer.

To understand the Kurdish issue properly, it is necessary to get rid of the widespread myths surrounding it, with the major of them being the perceived unity and homogeneity of this people. Indeed, it is tempting to regard the almost 40-million nation dispersed among the several states of the region and striving for autonomy or wholesale independence, as a monolithic revolutionary entity. This opinion would have very little in common with the truth, however. The PKK, in fact, is not a sheer national independence movement- since its creation it has posited itself as a zealously secular leftist force, which is not surprising bearing in mind the alleged role played by the Soviet secret services in its promotion. Its leader, Abdulla Öcalan, pursued the parallel goals of fighting the Turkish “police state” and forging a new Kurdish identity at the same time; the party experienced no shortage of internal enemies – conservative Kurds who were not ready to abandon their values for the sake of national ideals. However, the years of oppression and neglect instilled a deep sense of mistrust towards Ankara, while the latter’s sometimes indiscriminate treatment of PKK-supporters and other Kurds for a time-being made the latter keep neutrality.

Kurdish political entities in Iraq and Syria

On the contrary, the Iraqi Kurdish movement, while hostile towards the Saddam Hussein government, did not share the ideological commitment of their Turkish kin and limited their aspirations by a wide autonomy which they believed vital to protect them from atrocities such as those Hussein’s army committed when suppressing the 1987-1988 rebellion. Since the aggressive Iraqi regime was besieged by unprecedented international sanctions, the Kurds here had been enjoying de-facto independence in their internal affairs. The position of Kurds in Syria was the most ambiguous: while being partially infused with Öcalan’s ideas, they faced tough geopolitical choices: although Hafez al-Assad was not Ankara’s friend and would like the Kurds to weaken its neighbor, he was still an Arab nationalist and thus viewed them as a potential threat. Hence he developed an ambivalent attitude towards Kurds, often providing safe haven for PKK militants but also restricting Kurdish national rights and economic benefits, too. Finally, in Iran, where the Kurdish minority might, according to some estimates, approach the 10% of the population, the ruling regime has been able, through a mixture of repression and co-optation, to keep the Kurdish movement mostly at bay.

The Kurdish problem has been a constant sore spot on the Turkish Republic’s body since Ataturk was laying its foundations in the 1920s. His uncompromising stance on the consolidated Turkish identity led him to deny the Kurds any kind of autonomy promised to them by the Sevres treaty. The resulting Kurdish uprising in Eastern Anatolia was cracked down with exorbitant violence; 14,000 Kurds were killed in what would later be known as Dersim massacres. Subsequent constitution of the Turkish Republic explicitly grafted the secular Turkish identity onto the whole population, and considering oneself non-Turkish was equaled to treason.

In the 1990s the Turks managed to bring the PKK finally on their knees after two decades of strife that claimed, according to most estimates, about 40,000 lives; Öcalan himself was detained and imprisoned for life on the Imrali island in 1999. Soon after, the moderately Islamic party of Justice and Development (AKP) headed by the charismatic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power and sooner rather than later a lot of dramatic changes were set to happen in Turkish politics. Erdoğan, who was alien to the traditionally dominant class of military officers, was free from many of the prejudices of the Turkish politics, so he very soon realized the benefits to be accrued from a change in the attitude towards the Kurdish problem. Just about that time, the US-led invasion in Iraq put an end to Hussein’s rule and sealed the de-facto independent status of the Iraqi Kurds who became a crucial element in preserving the fragile regional stability. Erdoğan established a robust partnership with their leader, Masud Barzani, and exploited these contacts in order to promote Turkish economic interests in the region. The moderately Islamic political views of the Iraqi Kurds’ elite likewise greatly contributed to the growing Turkish influence in the region.

The new leader also had in mind his own vision of the pacification process in Turkish Kurdistan that seemed to be in stark contrast with that traditionally associated with the Kemalist politics. After decades of cultural assimilation, when the existence of the independent Kurdish identity was denied in favor of the unificatory Turkish one, and education or media in Kurdish were virtually non-existent, Erdoğan embarked on gradually expanding the minority’s cultural rights. As the AKP gradually curbed the power of the military, it began taking steps that would previously have been unthinkable. The aforementioned bans were lifted, and the Kurds, for the first time, got a real opportunity to be represented in Turkish politics. In 2011, Erdogan publicly apologized to the Kurdish people for the aforementioned Dersim tragedy, while not missing a chance to put the blame on Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP). The election of Abdullah Gül, an AKP heavyweight allegedly of Kurdish origin, bore a considerably symbolic meaning for the national politics. At the acme of this process, in March 2012 Öcalan called from his place of detention to the PKK supporters urging them to end armed struggle and switch to political methods instead. The success of the Kurdish emancipation process was, for Erdoğan, a crucial element in his counter-hegemonic neo-Ottoman project that implied a gradual deterioration of exclusive ethnic nationalism characteristic for the Ataturk legacy and its substitution by pluralistic Turkish identity based on common history and Islamic traditions. The discourse promoted by the new elite was best expressed in this quotation from the pro-government Yeni Şafak: “Yesterday, the crusaders fought against us, the Turkish and Kurdish Muslims living on this land. Today, for the same reason, they are attacking Turkey.”

However, the events of 2013 in Turkey, when thousands of protesters occupied the centers of Istanbul and Izmir- the country’s most westernized cities – pointed out to growing tensions within the Turkish society. People gathered to express their anger at what they believed to be the undermining of the secular state foundations by the AKP and dictatorial aspirations of its leader Erdoğan. Though eventually curbed, these protests were a huge blow to the ruling party, namely to its self-awareness and the feeling of total success its leaders had enjoyed for a decade. The AKP leadership started to realize that in order to change the Turkish socio-political landscape, it was not enough to tame the military’s’ influence, and a wholesale cultural war may be needed. The widening cleavage in the Turkish society contributed to a growing popularity of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), founded in 2012 by a certain Selahattin Demirtaş. While having a Kurdish base, the HDP tried to avoid excessive ethnic associations and instead tried to put itself as a social democratic party endorsing secularism and supporting the rights of any majorities in Turkey whatever they are, from the Kurds and non-Muslim ethnicities up to the LGBT who claimed to be oppressed by the pro-Islamic regime. This strategy paid off, and at the 2015 Parliamentary elections they polled at 13.12%, exceeding expectations and turning into the 3rd political party in the country. However, the HDP practice represented a rupture with the PKK ideology only for those weakly aware of the ongoing changes: while in jail, the Kurdish leader had studied the Gramscian theory and came to conclusion that only cultural wars and counter-hegemony will provide the Kurds with an opportunity to win over in the battle for self-determination.

The 2013 events made Erdoğan realize that in order to impose his view of what the Turkish society should be (the pro-AKP majority finally turned out to be quite a narrow one) he would have to launch a crackdown on democratic institutions, which Erdoğan was not able to afford. In order to re-boost his popularity, the Turkish president felt compelled to consolidate his foreign policy standings, and the war-torn neighboring Syria seemed to be the space ideally fit to do this. That’s how the Kurdish problem has been resuscitating again since early 2015 when the tension seemed to be at its historic low. Probably, Erdogan’s calculation also suggested taming the Syrian Kurds into the same kind of alliance relationship as exists with Erbil, through positing itself as the only viable force standing in the way of radical Sunni Islam. The Kurdish militants in Syria, however, held a different opinion regarding this matter; their mistrust of the mostly Islamic opposition forces fighting against President Assad, greatly exacerbated by the ISIS’ atrocities in the late 2014-early 2015, made them quite hostile to the Sunni-based Free Syria Army, let alone other more religious groups. Rojava, the word used by the Syrian Kurds to designate their homeland territory, became a new stronghold for conspicuously secular, left-anarchist PKK supporters. But Erdoğan quite unequivocally supported the latter, thus making the nationalistically-minded Kurds feel insecure. The “religion versus secularity” dimension served only to revive older ethnic enmities. In fact, 2015 revealed the real extent of a rupture between secular- and Islam-oriented Kurds; the latter, dominant in Iraqi Kurdistan, did not seem to resent much the Turkish policies in the region. The PKK again took up an assertive role believing that when its influence Syria were consolidated, it would be able to hold a much more advantageous seat at the negotiation table with Ankara. Hence, it regarded the evolution of Turkey’s Kurdish peace process as being contingent upon developments in Rojava. Ultimately, the fight between the Kurds and the Islamic State group has only further aggravated the relations between Turkey and the regional Kurds. The so-called People’s Protection Units (YPG) that constitute the backbone of the Kurdish forces fighting in Syria, came to be viewed by Ankara, quite controversially, as a PKK extension, the claim denied by the Kurds themselves. Thus, after a couple of terror acts of a scale unseen since long were committed in Turkey, responsibility for them being taken over by the PKK, Ankara targeted the YPG as hostile force- the latter blamed it in launching an offensive under the pretext of fighting against ISIS. The return to violent practices characteristic for the 1980s became self-perpetuating, with each crackdown on the PKK members in South-Eastern Turkey (more than 750 people were killed in and around Dıyarbakir, the major city of the area, during the two months only).

Despite the visible success of Turkey’s operations against the one more rebel group, the very situation Ankara has been caught into is not a benevolent one. In fact, the restart of the conflict recently thought to be obsolete, has dealt a huge blow to the macro-narrative of the AKP’s neo-Ottoman ideology, namely its thrust to turn Turkey into a regional hegemon, a guarantor of security in the Middle East and a conflict mediator. In contrast to Turkey’s plans of ousting Assad, war with the Kurds can never approach any kind of popularity, and in fact it made Western critics of Erdogan much more vocal. The more alarming fact for the Turkish leader is that his allies from NATO do not seem to be admiring his recent policies, and his current relations with President Obama can be described as lukewarm at best. Another pitfall Erdogan now faces is the need to appease his principal stance of decoupling army and police from politics with challenging security concerns, not only in the PKK-operating zone but in large cities as well. Any increase in the powers enjoyed by the force authorities will be interpreted as a sign of weakness of the ruling party and its political grip. The biggest harm to President Erdogan, however, was the diminished credibility of his previous policy philosophy. Since coming to power, the charismatic leader had been trying relentlessly to overcome the legacy of somewhat narrow-mindedly nationalistic Turkish identity as engendered in Kemalism and bring back to life the inclusive, pluralistic one of the old good times of the Sublime Porte. Now this prospect seems probably as distant as when he only made his first steps as the national leader.

The article was originally published on The Politicon’s website.

Murad Muradov is an independent researcher who has recently graduated from an MSc in Comparative Politics course at the London School of Economics. He also holds an MA degree in International Affairs from the ADA University (Azerbaijan). Mr. Muradov’s spheres of interest include European politics, post-Soviet space and the Middle East, as well as international political economy.