North Africa, West Asia

Turkey: seeing Kurdish politics through a narrow prism

With its stance on Kobane, Ankara is in danger of undoing advances in the Kurdish peace process. It must act boldly now to set things back on course.

William Gourlay
2 December 2014

Pro-Kurdish graffiti in Diyarbakir, Turkey, October 2014. Image credit: William Gourlay. All rights reserved.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan is one for making definitive statements. In early October he declared that Kobane, the Syrian Kurdish town besieged by ISIS, was about to fall. He was not alone in thinking this at the time. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Kobane were putting up a brave fight, but seriously outgunned, it appeared that theirs was a losing battle. The situation elicited global despair, but Erdoğan’s pronouncement had a hint of schadenfreude to it.

Turkey’s response to the situation raised eyebrows, too. Tanks were positioned on hillsides across the border in full view of the hostilities unfurling in Kobane, yet no move was made to protect the city, and the border was closed to Turkish Kurds wanting to aid their beleaguered Syrian brethren. This incensed Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, who protested in cities across the country, resulting in the worst political violence in the south-eastern provinces for years.

As events escalated internally and externally, Erdoğan, on the defensive, asked somewhat rhetorically what Kobane had to do with Turkey. Yet, as if to contradict himself, he later argued that in Turkey’s view the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), the dominant political entity in the de facto Kurdish autonomous region in Syria, is one and the same as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), with which Turkey has been at war for three decades.

Elaborating–definitively again–Erdoğan declared that there was no difference between the PKK and ISIS. This surely puzzled western observers, but, Erdoğan opined, both were terrorist groups, thus they could both be categorised as undesirable and dangerous. A recent poll showed that on this many Turks agree with him.

Herein lies the conundrum for Turkey. It appears unable to view the dynamics of Kurdish politics through any prism other than that of its perceptions of the PKK. This is not entirely unreasonable, as the PKK has been the dominant Kurdish political vehicle in Turkey since the 1980s. PKK operatives have embroiled the Turkish military in a protracted and bloody war, at times resorting to terror tactics.

Thus, as prominent Turkey-based journalist Amberin Zaman argues, when ISIS appeared poised to take Kobane and PKK-affiliated militias looked set to be annihilated, Ankara saw it an opportunity.  The PKK, with which the Turkish government is in negotiations, would be weakened at the bargaining table and the Kurdish political movement broadly defined would be dealt a body blow.

As we now know, Kurdish militias put up such a brave fight that Kobane did not fall. The US military began cooperating intensively with the PYD and came to the aid of the YPG battalions, allowing them to push back ISIS forces. In the process, Turkey has lost face in the international arena and questions have been raised as to its reliability as an ally. Meanwhile, the Kurdish cause, in Syria and across the region, has attracted global attention and sympathy, and the PYD has achieved a position of importance in regional calculations. But could Turkey have played its cards differently?

Observing Kobane, Ankara adopted a seemingly default anti-PKK stance. As a result south-eastern Anatolia saw a–thankfully brief–return to the street violence and deaths that marked the 1990s, and Kurdish nationalist sentiment has surged. My own research amongst the Kurds of Turkey in October and November this year indicates that many Kurds are resentful of Turkey’s position on Kobane and that many see the PKK as their most important political representative. Thus by continuing to vilify the PKK, Ankara is at best failing to win Kurdish hearts and minds, and at worst further alienating them.

Rally in support of Kobane in Istanbul, Turkey, 1 November 2014. Image credit: William Gourlay. All rights reserved.

Turkey continues to judge the PKK on the basis of activities it undertook in the ’80s and ’90s–many of which were indeed reprehensible–insisting that it remains a terrorist organisation. Largely in deference to Turkey, the US, the EU and Australia also classify the PKK as ‘terrorist’.

Recent events, however, call into question such a classification. PKK operatives and affiliated Kurdish YPG units from Syria attracted international attention and won plaudits for the prominent role they played in rescuing stranded Yezidi refugees on Mount Sinjar in August. Many western observers see them as the most effective bulwarks against ISIS encroachment. Meanwhile, across Europe calls are being made to remove the PKK’s ‘terrorist’ classification. This raises the question of what might have happened if Turkey had adopted a more conciliatory stance towards the PKK/PYD, and had in some way come to the assistance of Kobane.

For one, the violence that recently struck south-eastern Turkey would most probably have been avoided. It is also true that the PKK’s hand would have been strengthened, but by the same token the PKK, and Kurdish people on both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border, would have had one less gripe with Ankara. It must be remembered that Turkey has for some time been negotiating with the PKK to resolve issues of Kurdish rights; for Turkey to have made a positive gesture regarding Kobane most likely would have expedited this so-called ‘resolution process’.

Outside the sphere of the negotiations, Turkey’s posture towards Kobane has created considerable rancour and distrust for Kurdish laypeople. Had Turkey acted to aid Kobane the opposite would be true – it would have created a reservoir of goodwill and a feeling amongst Kurds that they have common cause with Ankara, which, ultimately, they do in the struggle against ISIS.

Kurdish neighbourhood, Diyarbakir, Turkey, October 2014. Image credit: William Gourlay. All rights reserved.

When Kurdish groups first established their autonomous region in northern Syria in 2012, the Turkish academic İhsan Dağı noted that many in Turkey were concerned because they regard any advance for the Kurdish political cause(s) as being to the detriment of Turks. The salience of Dağı’s observation has been made all the clearer in Turkish responses to the Kobane crisis, where it seems that many Turks saw the impending fall of the Kurdish enclave as being in the interests of Turkey.

The flip side of this is that many in Turkey see the survival of Kobane, or the other Kurdish enclaves of northern Syria, as a threat to Turkish interests. Ankara long viewed the fledgling Kurdish regime in northern Iraq in similar terms, fearing that Kurdish autonomy south of its border would inflame Kurdish nationalism within Turkey. A decade ago, American academic Henri Barkey argued, on the contrary, that a strong Iraqi Kurdish entity would be beneficial for Turkey, most particularly if Ankara established amicable relations with the administration in Erbil.

Barkey’s perspective proved to be entirely correct. The Turkish government forged strong trade and diplomatic links with the Iraqi Kurdish regional government, which is now firmly entrenched in the regional political landscape. However, there was no corresponding surge in Kurdish nationalism or agitation within Turkey, perhaps precisely because Turkish Kurds observed Ankara cooperating so effectively with Erbil. Turkey had a new regional ally, as did Erbil, and Turkey’s Kurds were placated–it was a win-win-win.

There is no reason that Ankara could not establish similar relations with the Syrian-Kurdish cantons. If it did, it may well enjoy similar geopolitical benefits. Had it played a more positive role when Kobane’s fate hung in the balance, Turkey would have more political capital to expend amongst Syria’s–and its own–Kurdish population, but that now appears to be an opportunity lost. As things have panned out, it looks likely that Kobane will endure as a Kurdish enclave, but it has been able to do so without Turkish support.

Ultimately, it appears that Ankara has failed to view Kobane from a sufficiently broad regional perspective, and failed to account for shifting regional and global political dynamics. It should be noted that the current AKP-led Turkish government has worked much harder than previous administrations to address the Kurdish question, recasting it as a political rather than security issue, and it has made some headway. But it still has a way to go to instil goodwill and trust, measures that will ultimately help solve Kurdish grievances once and for all.

It is now for this Turkish government to take the initiative, to once more take bold steps – something that it was once noted for – to win Kurdish hearts and minds, because ultimately Turks and Kurds share the same lot, and after close to 1000 years of co-habitation their fates are entwined.

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