Turkey and the Kurds: politics and military action

About the author

Turkey's cross-border military incursion into the Iraqi Kurdistan to attack bases and militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) began on 21 February 2008 and at the time of writing is in its fifth consecutive day. This is the Turkish army's largest ground offensive into northern Iraq for over eleven years. It came as a surprise, given the unfavourable weather conditions that still prevail in the mountainous region. Thus, the scale and the timing alike signal Turkey's determination to continue to pursue and damage its PKK enemy.

The latest incursion, which by 25 February is estimated to have cost the lives of 153 PKK operatives and nineteen Turkish soldiers, is part of Turkey's response to the gradual, year-on-year escalation of attacks by the PKK since June 2004. The latter culminated in October 2007 with the killing of some fifty Turkish soldiers and civilians, and were in turn followed in December by an intense Turkish aerial bombardment of suspected PKK hideouts in the rugged, snow-covered mountains of northern Iraq.

Hasan Turunc is a doctoral researcher and tutor in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of LondonThe result of this intensifying cycle of violence is again to refocus international attention on Turkey's "Kurdish question"; on the complicated relationship between Turkey and the Kurdish regional government (KRG); and the role of the United States in northern Iraq. But in considering this kaleidoscope of interests and institutions, it is important not to lose sight of a factor that is crucial in making sense of what is happening: the current political dynamics within Turkey itself, especially in relation to the country's Kurdish population.

A political hurricane

Turkey is in the midst of tumultuous change which is transforming many areas of the country's life - its perennial "Kurdish question" included. The components of this change include globalisation, rapid urbanisation, multi-party politics, state-sponsored secularisation of society)and the European Union accession process. But no change takes place in a political vacuum; and the domestic political context of Turkey's change has been and is dominated by the government of the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP), first elected in November 2002 and confirmed in office in the general election of 22 July 2007.

Also in openDemocracy's "The future of Turkey" debate:

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: sour romance or rugby match?" (13 November 2006)

Katinka Barysch, "Turkey and the European Union: don't despair" (27 November 2006)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey divided: politics, faith and democracy"(4 May 2007 )

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's political opening" (24 July 2007)

George Schöpflin, "Turkey's crisis and the European Union" (23 July 2007)

Safa A Hussein, "Turkey's Kurdish tightrope: a view from Iraq" (5 November 2007)

Soner Cagaptay, "Turkey and the Kurds: everybody's problem" (5 November 2007)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's Kurdish challenge" (8 November 2007)

openDemocracy, "Turkey and a new vision for Europe" (12 December 2007)

Fatma Müge Göçek, "Hrant Dink: memory and hope" (17 January 2008)

The scale of the AKP's victory dumbfounded many analysts. A significant feature of its andslide victory was that it received 54% of the votes in Kurdish-dominated southeastern Turkey, against 24% for the pro-Kurdish (and effectively single-issue) Demokratik Toplum Partisi (Democratic Society Party / DTP). In response, much post-election comment tended to explain the victory either as merely tactical voting by Turkey's Kurds or as a vote of gratitude for the socio-economic improvements the AKP had sought to make in the underprivileged southeast. These explanations may have some validity, but they don't tell the whole story.

Why then did the AKP win at the expense of the DTP? A clue is that the AKP is increasingly championing a novel cultural discourse that reflects an emerging, all-encompassing national identity in Turkey. For its part, Kurdish society too has over the last decade been witnessing transformational change, of a kind that is not explicable by the common refrain of clashing Turkish-Kurdish nationalisms.

Two indicators of these processes are worth mentioning. First, Dogu Ergil of Ankara University conducted a comprehensive survey of Kurdish attitudes in south-eastern Turkey; this found support for secular ideals among 90%, and preference for looking west rather than east. at 83%.

Second, the respected MetroPOLL polling organisation in Turkey collated opinion in the southeastern region in the aftermath of the escalation of PKK violence in October 2007. The results found that just 1% of respondents who indicating a yearning to leave Turkey for an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq; only 2.2% who cited discrimination as an issue; and 1.8% who regarded the Kurdish question as a problem. In addition, most people expressed the view that unemployment, education and lack of investments are the major sources of instability in Turkey; socio-cultural shortcomings came fifth on the list.

A number of influences are helping to shape - and reshape - these Kurdish views. Among them are the linked processes of migration and urbanisation. The most vicious phase of the Turkey-PKK confrontation was in 1984-99, when around 37,000 people were killed; it led to a big migration of Kurds from villages and rural areas to western Turkish cities (Istanbul and Izmir, for example) or to Kurdish-majority southeastern cities (Diyarbakir, Van and Batman). Such rapid urbanisation happened in a very short period of time by historical standards; one its effects was to deprive the PKK - a movement originating in the socially and economically underprivileged rural areas of Turkey - of its natural grassroots support-base amongst rural Kurds.

A third variable is the agency of the AKP itself. The party's success has been built on its understanding of the evolving social and political dynamics in Turkey, which it has in turn encouraged and channelled: among them the redefinition and moderation of Turkish and Kurdish identities, and the emergence of a liberalising, secularising Islam. The results of polls for the Pew research organisation and other reputable institutions show clearly that a growing majority of Turks is separating the Kurdish issue from the phenomenon of PKK violence. Turks also regard the AKP as the party best able to represent Turkey's national interests; and its leader, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as the country's most popular politician amongst Turks and Kurds alike.

Thus, even against the background of the PKK's escalation of violence since mid-2004 and the cross-border confrontation since October 2007, surveys indicate that AKP is more popular than ever among Kurds in Turkey (as well as among the entire population). There are important strategic and structural reasons for this Kurdish embrace of the AKP, which themselves contribute to the transformation Turkey is experiencing.

A military alliance

The two main and longstanding Iraqi Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and Masoud Barzani (Kurdistan Democratic Party), acknowledge the AKP election success in the July 2007 general election, while still remaining committed to the nationalist dream of a common Kurdish homeland. During the 1990s, both cooperated closely with the Turkish military against the PKK presence in northern Iraq, since the anti-tribal PKK challenged their traditional system of governance and power. At the time, the momentary convergence of Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish interests allowed the Turkish military to carry out waves of incursions into northern Iraq; the Turkish public then conflated PKK violence with the Kurdish issue, seeing it through the lens of national unity and national security.

The United States-directed intervention in Iraq in 2003, coupled with the rejection by the Turkish parliament of US requests to launch military operations via Turkey, altered a delicate balance of power between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds. Barzani and Talabani, emboldened by US support, adopted a more robust and muscular approach towards Turkey fanned by an urge of pan-Kurdish nationalist aspirations. Turkey's muted reaction to the so-called "bag incident" - when US troops arrested eleven Turkish special-forces' officers in northern Iraq and treated them humiliatingly - reinforced the confidence of the Iraqi Kurds.

In fact, it is clear that the US patronage of the landlocked Iraqi Kurds has fostered Kurdish ideas of a permanent protective alliance with the US rather than seeking harmonious relations with "hostile" neighbours, especially with Turkey. A comment of Qubad Talabani, son of Jalal Talabani and the Iraqi Kurdish representative in Washington, is revealing of this aspiration; he told the United Press International that "Kurds want the sort of 'strategic and institutional relationship' that Israel and Taiwan have with the United States ... We are seeking the same protection."

The Kurdish desire for greater autonomy, which would be strengthened by the inclusion of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk into the Iraqi Kurdish region, has been opposed vehemently by Turkey. Since the US military intervention of 2003, the Iraqi Kurds' position as the US's most trusted ally in Iraq has been consolidated; and this has placed the US in the challenging position of simultaneously trying to satisfy the expectations of Turkey and the KRG. Amid this geopolitical game, there is a widespread feeling in Turkey that Barzani and Talabani are employing the PKK as a bargaining-chip to undermine Turkish resistance to Kurdish autonomy and the annexation of Kirkuk.

The importance of the Turkish military incursion is arguably that this dangerous game of poker has run its course. Turkey had already signalled its intentions by carefully utilising the threat of unilateral force as a diplomatic tool to extract concessions from the United States, in which the visit of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the White House on 5 November 2007 was from the Turkish side an important further step. The Turkish prime minister then elicited from George W Bush a form of "trilateral understanding" between the US, Turkey and (indirectly) the Iraqi central government in Baghdad; this involved Washington's tacit approval of targeted Turkish military operations against the PKK in northern Iraq that would act upon a stream of real-time, high quality US-sourced intelligence and information.

But beyond the stated aim of eliminating the PKK, the air and land campaign has an ulterior motive: cutting the Iraqi Kurdish regional president Massoud Barzani down to size, at the same time working with the more "moderate" Jalal Talabani to the disadvantage of Barzani. Turkey has been perturbed by Barzani's stridently nationalistic rhetoric, normally timed to coincide with conciliatory statements and overtures from Ankara. By launching continuous cycles of attacks into northern Iraq in coordination with the US, Turkey's military adventure aims to severely erode the authority, strength and image of Barzani.

It is notable that even during the ground operations in the mountains of northern Iraq, the Turkish president (and close Erdogan ally) Abdullah Gul invited Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, to visit Turkey; and that Talabani has (uncharacteristically) maintained an eerie silence on the military incursion, failing to join Barzani's tough declarations of defiance and condemnation.

A strategic ambition

The momentous shifts in Turkish society are leading the AKP - perhaps even with suggestions of indirect approval from the military establishment - to draw up plans that it hopes will resolve the Kurdish issue within Turkey: by introducing a new "civilian" constitution strengthening democracy and human rights; opening up the definition of the nebulous concept of "Turkishness" to implicitly incorporate Kurdish identity; permitting the possibility of Kurdish being taught as a second language in state schools; and restricting the status of the military in line with European norms. Additional policies emphasise greater socio-economic betterment of Kurds and further cultural entitlements beyond the narrow reforms promulgated under European Union pressure.

Globalisation, rapid urbanisation, multi-party politics, state-sponsored secularisation of society and the EU accession process are dramatically restructuring the Turkish identity - all with spillover effects on the Kurdish population (distributed, it is worth emphasising, throughout Turkey) and the Kurdish "problem". Turkey's citizens, political parties and state institutions are increasingly embracing a multi-dimensional perspective towards the Kurdish question, which has been mirrored in the AKP's approach to tackling the upsurge of PKK violence. This has managed to thwart the PKK's triple aim of internationalising the conflict, frustrating the prospects of liberal reforms, and reversing shifts of popular feelings amongst the Kurds in Turkey.

If the AKP implements an indigenous, bold and comprehensive programme of social, economic, cultural and political measures to cut the oxygen to ethnic nationalism, the PKK will likely face accelerating isolation and marginalisation. Whether Turkey's military incursion helps to advance or retard the retreat of the PKK remains to be seen.