North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

How is Turkey answering its ‘Kurdish question’?

Ankara treats all Kurdish opposition whether peaceful or militant as terrorism. And it is taking its war into neighbouring countries

Erwin van Veen
11 March 2021, 12.01am
Supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) scuffle with police in Istanbul, on 4 February 2021
REUTERS/Murad Sezer/ Alamy

Between 10 and 14 February this year, the Turkish military conducted intense air strikes on the Gara mountains, in Iraq, followed by a special forces air assault before withdrawing. When the Turkish forces withdrew, dozens of militants, a few soldiers and 13 Turkish hostages of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) had died. The operation’s objective had been to free them.

The operation was partially driven by Turkish domestic political considerations: A successful rescue of the hostages would have given a boost to the coalition of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), whose popularity is waning. Two days before the operation started, President Erdoğan even announced he would have good news for the nation within a few days. Prematurely, as it turned out.

The raid also continued the regionalization of Ankara’s fight with the PKK by, once again, taking it onto Iraqi territory and by targeting a key transit area between Sinjar and Qandil in Iraq where the PKK headquarters are located, and Al-Hasaka in Syria, held by the PKK-linked People’s Protection Units (YPG). The raid was enabled by the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of the Barzani family – Turkey’s main Kurdish ally due to their tight economic linkages that include oil exports.

From a conflict perspective, Turkish forces going after the PKK is the lesser concern. No state will tolerate the presence of an armed group like the PKK on its territory and many states have pursued such groups across the border if their neighbours failed to deal with them. It is understandable that Ankara views the PKK and the PKK-linked YPG as national security concerns.

What is problematic is that Turkey has reduced the Kurdish quest for greater collective minority rights to a fight against the PKK and YPG. Ankara treats all Kurdish opposition (peaceful and militant) as PKK-inspired ‘terrorism’. Also problematic is how Turkey is taking its ‘war on terror’ into the region without addressing root causes of the conflict in Turkey itself. This combination will create new Kurdish grievances at home and instability in the neighbourhood.

Narrowing space for dissent

Turkey has long marginalized and repressed Kurdish collective minority rights, which helps explain the very existence of the PKK. Yet, such practices intensified greatly over the past few years after relative improvement in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

In today’s Turkish Republic, there is a near-total absence of space for independent political representation and societal debate regarding collective minority rights – and much else. The main party standing up for minority interests – the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – has been eviscerated. Its leaders and many members are in jail on charges of terrorism without due process or convincing evidence.

The paradox is that the same AKP that is the architect of the current repression started informal peace negotiations with the PKK in the mid-2000s

Many of Turkey’s 15 million Kurds have once more become second-rate citizens. The paradox is that the same AKP that is the architect of the current repression was the one that started informal peace negotiations with the PKK in the mid-2000s and substantially increased the space for Kurdish autonomous civic engagement and political representation. In Turkey’s modern history, this was unprecedented. But it did not last.

Once the HDP became a threat to AKP’s electoral dominance and peace talks with the PKK failed (some say because of the HDP’s success), the tide turned. Fighting resumed between Turkey and the PKK, and the HDP was put down by mobilizing Turkey’s politicized judiciary against it.

Operations beyond borders

In addition to intensifying the repression of its largest minority, Ankara no longer limits such practices to Turkey’s frontiers. Instead, it systemically expands them across Syria and Iraq under the banner of anti-terrorism, with the PKK and YPG as core targets. This includes an array of permanent Turkish bases and operations in Iraqi Kurdistan against the PKK; several incursions into Syria against the YPG; regular air strikes against PKK-linked forces in Iraq’s Sinjar and Makhmour areas; as well as expansion of Turkish military control over its own south-eastern provinces of Sirnak and Hakkari.

Basically, Turkey is addressing its Kurdish problem across the region. Yet, its over-reliance on security-heavy anti-terrorist methods is likely to be counterproductive and increase regional instability.

One issue is that its drone strikes, bombardments, special forces operations, use of Syrian auxiliaries and own force deployments produce significant collateral damage in Turkey, Syria and Iraq alike – akin to the dead hostages in Gara. These include large-scale human rights violations, destruction of livelihoods and infrastructure, mass displacement and the violation of the sovereignty of other countries. Neither the PKK nor the YPG are guileless of some of these practices themselves, but on a much smaller scale. Also, as a state with the duty to protect all its citizens and as a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is held to higher standards and has the greater responsibility.

Ankara’s ‘anti-terror campaign’ moreover lacks a positive dimension focused on the improvement of the wellbeing of Turkey’s own Kurdish population. It treats political parties such as the HDP and Kurdish populations in areas with a PKK or YPG presence as enemies, accomplices or even terrorists, unless they actively support Turkey’s agenda. Consider, for example, the recent arrest of human rights activist Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu – who is also a member of Parliament for the HDP.

The result is that instead of conducting a targeted counterinsurgency effort, Turkey pursues a broad campaign of repression and intimidation – as for example its occupation of Afrin in Syria demonstrates. For these reasons, Ankara’s practices are anti-Kurdish and not just anti-PKK or anti-YPG, even though it also has a Kurdish partner like the KDP in north Iraq.

The campaign’s regional scope, military nature and absence of a diplomatic dimension is already eliciting regional pushback from Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus.

The deep script of securitisation

Securitisation of the Kurdish issue has been Turkey’s default strategy for decades. The late Ottomans viewed the Kurdish question as a problem of establishing central rule at the periphery of empire and sought to resolve it through a mix of force and co-optation. They mostly framed the ‘Kurdish question’ as one of backward tribalism and ignorant resistance against the benefits of empire.

The Turkish Republic of 1923 securitised the late Ottoman approach using terms like ‘separatism’, ‘banditry’ and ‘terrorism’ to set political discourse parameters. The objective remained integration of Kurdish populations into Turkey’s new ‘imagined community’. This reflex was institutionalised by the centralised development of the Turkish state, which until today remains grounded in a narrow conception of nationalist identity.

Following the emergence of the PKK in the 1980s, the Kurdish issue has typically been treated as a major national security threat with a few notable exceptions like the developmental South-eastern Anatolia Project (GAP), conciliatory moves under former president, Turgut Özal, in the early 1990s and peace negotiations in the late 2000s to early 2010s.

The point here is the existence of a ‘script of securitisation’ that is internalized among Turkey’s ruling elites. Turkish political parties and elites can tap into this script when it suits their electoral prospects, when they need to rally around the flag or when they need to cover up failures in other areas.

In brief, without some re-conceptualisation of what it means to be ‘Turkish’, resolution of the Kurdish question will remain difficult because it disables framing the Kurdish issue as one of a significant minority in search of greater collective rights.

A combustible mix: the Syrian civil war, elections and failed negotiations

The turning point of Turkey’s intensification and regionalization of its strategy against Kurdish opposition was in 2015. One important factor was the YPG’s survival of the siege of Kobane earlier that year with the help of the US and Free Syrian Army elements.

The battle marked the beginning of the YPG-US partnership against IS. Buoyed by American support, the YPG continued fighting the radical group, but also supported the Syrian regime in the 2016 battle for Aleppo and expanded towards Manbij and Tel Rifaat to connect areas already under its control. These moves would have created a contiguous YPG-run area along Turkey’s border. As the YPG is linked with the PKK, they were a bridge too far for Ankara.

Back in Turkey, the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won 13% of the votes later in the year during the June 2015 parliamentary elections, which caused the AKP to lose its absolute parliamentary majority.

Overnight, the growing Kurdish political movement turned from dialogue partner into electoral threat, leading the AKP to strengthen old bonds in the form of an alliance with the ultra-nationalist MHP. A major goal of this alliance has been to maintain political power by rallying around the flag on the premise of ‘you are with us, or against us’.

Finally, despite progress in 2013-14, the peace negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK ultimately failed in mid-2015. The main bones of contention were the PKK’s refusal to disarm, the unwillingness of the party’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, to compromise the YPG’s territorial gains in Syria, Ankara’s refusal to permit local governance autonomy and Kurdish language education in public schools, and its reluctance in accepting the HDP as a capable, legitimate electoral competitor.

Today, the urban ruins across south-eastern Turkey bear silent witness to the interplay of the PKK’s escalation of violence that followed the failure of the peace talks, and Ankara’s disproportionate securitized response that included large-scale offensives against the armed group and disablement of the HDP.

Impact on regional stability

Apart from seriously weakening the YPG, three Turkish operations in northern Syria made Ankara a party to the civil war, brought its relation with the Syrian regime to a new low and created another set of tensions with the US: Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 (in part), Operation Olive Branch in 2018 and Operation Peace Spring in 2019. The newly occupied areas are run by local Syrian councils and policed by Syrian armed groups in Ankara’s pay, supervised by Turkish ‘assistant governors’. Ankara has already threatened further incursions.

Turkey-Kurds in Syria and Iraq March21.jpg
Northern Syria and Iraq. Blue dots indicate Turkish army bases; yellow dots indicate refugee camps; light green/grey areas indicate Turkish-held territory; Yellow areas are controlled by the SDF or KDP and PUK
Source: Liveuamap

In northern Iraq, Turkey has established dozens of army bases since early 2018 right across the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), mostly in territory governed by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). This has created a buffer zone of about 25km deep along the border that has been reinforced by more than 400 military operations over the past three years.

More recently, Turkey pushed for extension of its operations into Iraq’s Sinjar area, which lies further away from its border. The aid on Gara can be considered as a step in this direction. Ankara’s aim is to cut connections between the PKK in Iraq and the YPG in Syria, as well as to eliminate the local (also PKK-linked) Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) notwithstanding the fact that these organizations saved many Yezidi from IS in their hour of need and enjoy a measure of local legitimacy.

For example, the Turkish minister of defence, Hulusi Akar, visited Iraq in January 2021 and insisted on clearing the Sinjar area ‘until the last terrorist is eliminated’. While the Iraqi Kurdish KDP might (have to) play ball due to its dependence on Turkey, Baghdad and, especially, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, are likely to put up strong resistance.

In brief, Turkey’s pursuit of its campaign against the PKK across the border sets the scene for further regional conflict and instability as long as root causes of Kurdish opposition against it remain unaddressed.

If Ankara is truly set on the PKK’s elimination, it should work out a deal with the HDP, treat it as a peaceful alternative to Kurdish militancy, grant greater collective minority rights to its Kurdish population and closely guard its frontiers. Without a cause, after all, there is little to fight for.

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