Turkey’s Kurdish challenge

Gunes Murat Tezcur
8 November 2007

A series of developments in the last month has internationalised Turkey's Kurdish problem and gravely threatened the already fragile stability in the region. The essence of the problem lies in the historical conflict between regional powers and a Kurdish nationalism that has recently found a safe haven in northern Iraq under United States protection.

In two separate attacks in October 2007, members of the Kurdish militant organisation the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers' Party / PKK) killed twenty-five members of the Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri (Turkish Armed Forces / TSK); they had also seized eight Turkish soldiers, who were held hostage before being released on 4 November. In response, the Turkish parliament on 17 October authorised the TSK to conduct cross-border military strikes against suspected PKK camps in Iraqi territory under the nominal authority of the Kurdish regional government (KRG).

Gunes Murat Tezcur is a native of Turkey who teaches political science at Loyola University, Chicago. He is a scholar of Turkish and Iranian politics, Islam and democracy, and Shi‘a Islam.

Also by Gunes Murat Tezcur in openDemocracy:

"The Armenian shadow over Turkey's democratisation"
(13 October 2005)

"Hrant Dink: the murder of freedom"
(23 January 2007)

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

"Turkey's political opening" (24 July 2007
While Turkey has so far refrained from staging a comprehensive military operation, the political atmosphere remains tense. Turkey opposes Kurdish ambitions over oil-rich Kirkuk and categorically rejects the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in the region. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds see in the US invasion of Iraqi in 2003 a unique opportunity. For the first time in history, Kurds are allied with a global power and have managed under its protection and in the conditions of post-invasion Iraq to create a sustainable embryonic state.

There is this a delicate three-way dance. The Iraqi Kurds are playing a risky game: attempting to persuade or compel Turkey to recognise the existence of a de facto independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq. Turkey is determined to prevent this, and to defend its perceived strategic interests on its eastern flank (mindful too of the approximately 15 million Kurds, citizens of the Turkish state, within its territory). The United States is trying to allay Turkey's concerns while forcing the Iraqi Kurds to end their logistical support to the PKK.

The US policy may be successful in the short term. The crucial task of reaching a compromise between Turkish hostility towards the Kurdish state and Iraqi Kurds' demand for self-determination will be much more difficult.

Turkey's Kurdish policy

The Republic of Turkey has historically employed a dual strategy towards its Kurdish-speaking citizens: repression and assimilation. In this first decade after its establishment in 1923, the republic brutally suppressed armed Kurdish rebellions. From that early period, Kurdish intellectuals and organisations have remained under intense pressure and been periodically persecuted.

The 1980 military coup inaugurated a period of unprecedented cruelty across Turkey that was particularly harsh in Kurdish regions. The state even denied the existence of Kurds as a people sharing this designation and sense of themselves as a distinct ethnic group.

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

Fred Halliday, "Turkey and the hypocrisies of Europe" (16 December 2004)

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: the end of the beginning"(5 October 2005)

Daria Vaisman, "Turkey's restriction, Europe's problem" (29 September 2006)

John Palmer, "A commonwealth for Europe" (11 October 2006)

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)

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)

At the same time, three factors helped over the decades to facilitate Kurds' inclusion in the Turkish political order. First, Kurds have been subject to discrimination in Turkey only to the extent that they openly express their ethnic and cultural identity. Many prominent statesmen and prominent public figures in Turkey, for example, have been of Kurdish origins.

Second, the fact that Turkey has had (since 1950) competitive and pluralistic elections, has contributed to the integration of Kurds into the Turkish political system. It was only with the rise of mass based Kurdish nationalism in the early 1990s that Kurdish citizens ceased voting for mainstream Turkish parties. This trend has to an extent been resumed: in the July 2007 elections, the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) successfully mobilised the Kurdish vote.

Third, the Turkish state and its politicians have periodically attempted to highlight and promote Islamic identity as a counterweight to the exclusive and conflict-promoting tendencies of both Turkish and Kurdish nationalism.

This dual strategy - repression and assimilation - has been partially successful. Kurdish nationalism has only limited appeal among Kurdish-speaking citizens of Turkey. In particular, millions of Kurds living in central and western parts of Turkey have mostly avoided being identified with Kurdish nationalism. It is not uncommon for a Kurdish citizen to hide or downplay her ethnic identity even from her closest friends.

Two comments gathered in the course of a recent research trip in Turkey illustrate this point:

* "We have a brilliant engineer in our office. I know he is a Kurd but he walks to balcony whenever he speaks to his parents in Kurdish. He does not want us to hear him speaking Kurdish" (a social-democrat professional in İzmir, one of the most liberal and cosmopolitan cities of Turkey

* "Many [Kurdish] parents do not want their children to be politicised and join our [Demokratik Toplum Partisi / DTP] party. They prefer them to have good education, secure decent jobs and stay away from trouble" (a high-ranking member of the Kurdish-based DTP, when asked about the reasons for his party's inability to fully mobilise Kurdish citizens).

The PKK complex

Kurdish nationalists lacked a strong and mass-based organisation until the rise of the PKK in the 1980s. By employing a variety of strategies - including violence, intimidation, mass mobilisation and ideological indoctrination - the PKK effectively challenged the authority of the Turkish state in the predominantly Kurdish regions of eastern Turkey. However, the PKK ultimately failed.

By 1992, the Turkish army had opted for scorched-earth policies and counter-guerilla tactics. The TSK had become the main force that guided and implemented Turkey's Kurdish policy. It forced hundreds of thousands from their villages, and created clandestine organisations that killed thousands in an attempt to deprive the PKK from mass support. All Kurdish political demands were dismissed as terrorism and a culture of fear and impunity prevailed in the region. The capture of the PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in Kenya in 1999 signified the zenith of Turkey's fight against the PKK.

Nonetheless, the PKK remains a powerful force among Turkey's Kurdish citizens. A considerable number of Kurds believes that the Turkish state would not even have recognised their existence without the PKK. Unlike the Kurdish nationalist parties such as the DTP - which are fragile and lack bargaining power - the PKK is an armed group that can inflict real damage on the Turkish state. Indeed, like all guerrilla organisations the PKK needs to engage in militant action to keep the morale of its constituency high and demonstrate that it is still capable of staging attacks.

The PKK suffered heavy causalities in summer and early autumn 2007. The provocative PKK attacks in October were mainly a show of force to counter any impression that it was fading away. The PKK's intention is not to "defeat" Turkey - that is impossible -but for Turkey to acknowledge it as a "side" in the conflict with which it would negotiate rather than dismiss it as a mere terrorist organisation.

The problem of Europe

The first half of the 2000s was a time of hope among people who would like to see the peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue in Turkey. The PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire after the capture of its leader, and it lasted until 2004. Meanwhile, relations between the European Union and Turkey turned in a positive direction.

Turkey became a candidate country for EU membership in 1999. The early 2000s saw a series of parliamentary legislations that aimed - under the acquis communautaire process - to make Turkey's constitutional and legal system more compatible with liberal-democratic standards. The EU, satisfied with Turkey's progress, agreed in October 2005 to open accession negotiations with Turkey.

These hopeful developments had a strong impact on Kurdish politics and made many Kurds ardent supporters of Turkey's membership of the EU. For instance, a group of prominent Kurdish politicians and intellectuals had an open letter published in the International Herald Tribune in December 2004 arguing that Kurdish hopes for a better future now depend on progress in Turkey's process of negotiating accession to the EU.

This high tide is receding. Kurds are now slowly losing their interest in the EU process, for three main reasons. First, legal reforms do not necessarily lead to changes in implementation. Kurdish politicians and intellectuals who prefer non-violent methods to express their demands are still subject to intense legal and administrative persecution.

A striking example is the troubles that have befallen Abdullah Demirbaş after he was elected mayor of Sur municipality of the major city of Diyarbakır in southeast Turkey. After coming to office, and with the support of the municipal council, he initiated a project that involves providing municipal services in four languages apart from Turkish itself: Kurdish, Arabic, Armenian and Syriac (an overwhelming majority of Sur residents speak Kurdish as their mother language, though speakers of all other languages are represented in the area). In response, the council of state removed the mayor and all members of the municipal council from their posts. A prosecutor also accused the mayor of violating the constitution.

The mayor responded (in a private conversation, which is communicated with his permission): "The Didim municipality [in western Turkey] issues water bills in English as many of its residents are from Britain. The council of state does not dismiss the Didim mayor. Turkish Airlines serves its passengers in English. The goal is to make customers happy. If what we do is a crime then Turkish Airlines should be also closed. This is a double standard".

Such repression leads many Kurds to lose confidence in the efficacy of the EU process. The second reason for this development is that many Kurdish citizens now believe that the prospect of Turkey's inclusion in the EU is becoming more and more remote. The prevailing feeling - reinforced by reporting of the views of prominent European leaders such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy - is that the EU is fundamentally unenthusiastic about Turkish membership. This concern will hardly be allayed by the European commission's annual progress report released on 6 November 2007, which highlighted the barriers that still stand in the way of Turkish entry.

The third reason for the receding tide is that some Kurdish nationalists find that EU-sponsored democratisation is insufficient to meet their demands. They want a form of regional autonomy that goes beyond the hard-won freedom for Kurdish language and culture which to a very limited degree they have acquired in recent years.

The accumulating result of these trends is that Kurdish political discourse makes fewer references to the EU compared even to two short years ago.

Turkey and Iraqi Kurds

Many people in Turkey recognise that Turkey will not be able to neutralise the PKK threat without a comprehensive policy that addresses legitimate Kurdish demands for cultural and political rights. At the same time, the armed conflict fosters a xenophobic Turkish nationalism that often translates into animosity towards Kurdish citizens. Many Kurds who are faced with discrimination become ethnically politicised.

A barber in Diyarbakir, speaking in a private conversation, conveyed how this dynamic can work from the inside: "My best friend learned his Kurdish identity when he was serving in the army. When his commander recognised that he is a sharpshooter, he asked him how many carcasses does he have to his name. He assumed that my friend was a PKK militant just because of his Kurdish identity".

In any case, governmental policies that legitimise and protect Kurdish ethnic identity will be unsustainable in the absence of a paradigmatic shift towards Iraqi Kurds. It would be in the interest of both sides if Turkey engages with Kurds living under the authority of the KRG. The existence of a self-governing Kurdish entity in northern Iraq will not threaten Turkey's integrity and unity as long as Turkey fully recognises the civil and political rights of its own Kurdish-speaking citizens.

This would not necessarily end the PKK and secessionist Kurdish nationalism - but it would result in their marginalisation. It remains to be seen if the AKP government, still riding high in Turkish politics after its sweeping victory in the July 2007 election, and the subsequent elevation of its former foreign minister Abdullah Gül to the presidency of the republic - can mobilise the political will to pursue a prudent (if with an element of risk) strategy along these lines.

Crisis and opportunity

A month into the crisis sparked by the PKK operations - and despite heated rhetoric, an escalating military build-up and a steady if low-level human toll - the large-scale Turkish incursion into northern Iraq that many expected has not (at the time of writing) materialised. The meeting between Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the US president, George W Bush, in Washington on 5 November 2007 made a big military operation highly unlikely at least until spring 2008. However, it seems that the Turkish armed forces now have a green light to conduct pinpoint strikes against PKK targets inside northern Iraq.

There is thus, amid continuing dangers, precious breathing-space to find a settlement of the current cross-border tensions. But as this article has argued, the real key to a long-term resolution of "Turkey's Kurdish challenge" lies within the Republic of Turkey itself.

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