Turkey, the Kurdish issue

Turkey has a long history of discrimination and injustice committed against the Kurdish people. The Kurds’ issue in Turkey represents the most serious and unresolved ethnic problem in contemporary Turkey and today Kurds still represent the largest group of stateless people in the world.

The Turkish government has always denied to recognize the right for Kurdish people to create an independent state. That of the Kurds is a story of persecution and broken promises. The Treaty of Sèvres signed in 1920 after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, had deceived the Kurds hoping for an independent Kurdistan. That was never realized, since this agreement was replaced in 1923 by the Treaty of Lausanne, which completely ignored any idea of an independent state of Kurdistan. Because of this, the Kurdish nationalist minority began to demand greater rights in the name of the Kurdish nationalism.

Ankara’s relation with its Kurdish minority dramatically differs from the one of Baghdad’s, where the Iraqi Kurds have a high degree of autonomy and are well-represented in federal institutions. Turkey has historically promoted a policy of repression against its Kurdish minority as well as a real genocide as they did with Armenians in the early years of the 20th century. Today as in the past the Turkish government denies any charge of genocide.[1]

Since the 40s of the last century, the Turkish government has promoted a forced assimilation policy towards the Kurds, consisting in the denial of their cultural and linguistic identity. The Kurdish violently reacted calling for greater autonomy and independence. It became clear that the Kurdish problem had started to emerge – a problem that was inexistent at the times of the Ottoman Empire.

Between 1960 and 1980, there has been a remarkable proliferation of political and cultural groups mostly suppressed by the military regime following the 1980 coup. An exception was represented by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known by its Kurdish initials, PKK, which survived the repression and launched its first attacks against Turkish military targets in 1984.

Born in 1974, the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) is a Marxist party using guerrilla and military repression, and it is perhaps the only Kurdish organization internationally recognized as a terrorist group. Since the Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has taken the leadership of the country in 2002, Erdogan’s attitude towards the Kurdish people has experienced several reversals. For a certain period of time, Erdogan has seemed to be more prone to amend the constitution in favor of the Kurdish people. This was probably driven by the attractive prospect of joining the European Union side, which is now, however, an increasingly remote hypothesis because of the numerous arguments against Turkey’s EU membership.[2]

The Syria crisis has exacerbated the Turkish fears of Kurdish autonomy and in 2015 Turkey has renewed its campaign against Kurdish militants. From mid 2013 to mid 2015, the Turkish state and the PKK enjoyed a period of relative calm under a cease-fire, but when negotiations fell apart Turkey began a bombing campaign against PKK breaking the ceasefire.[3] Such campaign has largely been condemned as a humanitarian disaster and the international community has blamed Erdogan for the collapse of the peace process, pointing to the Turkish President’s refusal to recognize a distinct national status for the Kurds.

The resumption of hostilities by Erdogan’s government was justified with the fear felt by Turkey’s government that the Kurds may control the northern regions of Syria. Turkey fears the aspiration of the Syrian Kurds to establish an autonomous democratic confederation. Erdogan is terrified that an independent Syrian Kurdistan will help Turkish Kurdistan wage a revolutionary war against Ankara.[4] Erdogan mostly fears the Kurdish capture of Raqqa. If they will succeed doing so, they will gain a number of strategic advantages. They will insure themselves against direct attacks on the north of Syria. They will gain more influence in Syria and access to the talks on its future. For the Turks, the fall of Raqqa will be bad. They will no longer have a force that will terrorize and exhaust their enemy. And most importantly the Turks will stop being the West’s key ally against Daesh – fact that they constantly use for blackmailing their own allies. Turkish aversion to this minority can be explained with the state’s fear of the institutional consequences and loss of centralized power.[5] Kurdish independence in Syria, from Ankara’s point of view, could escalate a three-decades-long conflict and at worst threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity.[6]

While Turkey is fighting the Kurds, it is also facing the threat coming from Daesh. In this sense, Erdogan is fighting two enemies at the same time but unlike the Kurds, Daesh has not been at war with the Turkish government for the last 30 years. In that respect, from the Turks’ point of view, Daesh is the lesser of two evils.

While PKK is internationally recognized as a terrorist group, other organizations such as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) or the People’s Protection Units (YPG), also known as the People’s Defense Units, are not. While the international community does not condemn the YPG as an international organization which contrariwise is seen as an important ally in the fight against the Daesh in Syria, Erdogan brutally condemned the Party.

Because of these different opinions, Turkey’s President feels abandoned by the West. While Turkey sees the PYD and YPG as offshoots of the banned PKK, the US does not and believes they are the only effective force against Daesh on the ground in Syria.

Today the Kurdish problem in Turkey remains open and the Turkish government is waging a war against those people who refuse to call themselves Turks. According to Erdogan, all Kurdish rebels are terrorists, with their President Erdogan having already blamed the West and Russia for supporting Syrian extremists. Erdogan and his government keep on saying that there is no Kurdish issue in Turkey, only a terrorism problem. The sentiment of millions of Kurds is ignored by the government and their most successful political party, The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is publicly derided as a front for terrorists.

Meanwhile, today more than ever the European Union is urging Turkey to restart the peace process with the Kurds. Until Erdogan and the ruling AKP will not decide to put Kurdish rights on the forefront of their political agenda and compromise a portion of its nationalist support, the Kurdish problem will inevitably persist and worsen. For what has been said so far it is not surprising that Turkey is doing everything to prevent the Kurds from participating in the Geneva talks.[7] For the government, the key to solve Turkey’s crisis is to win the war by militarily crushing the PKK and its affiliated militias while smothering dissent with arrests, limitations on the press and, potentially, the revocation of citizenship among those who oppose the government.

But for many Kurds, the refusal of dialogue, the potential loss of citizenship and the ongoing war will only serve to push their backs further against the wall, driving divisions and the feeling that their grievances will never be addressed by the government without pressure.

Giorgia P. Giorgi

Master’s degree in International Relations (Roma Tre University)

References and notes

[1] Turkey still refuses to recognize the Armenian genocide. The Turkish government’s official position is that there was no genocide because there was no systematic campaign to wipe out the Armenians. Although Turkey admits that massacres did take place, it insists they were just a regrettable consequence of war, not the result of an organized or targeted plan. Those arguments are, to say the least, inconsistent with the historical evidence. Not only Turkey but also the majority of States and many international scholars rejects this definition claiming that sometimes that word does not fit the reality or it is  not substantiated by the facts.

[2] “Arguments for and against Turkey’s EU membership,” Debating Europe. www.debatingeurope.eu/focus/infobox-arguments-for-and-against-turkeys-eu-membership/#.VwtT_XCwvhU

[3] Rosenfeld, Jesse. “Turkey Is Fighting a Dirty War Against Its Own Kurdish Population,” The Nation, 9 March 2016. www.thenation.com/article/turkey-is-fighting-a-dirty-war-against-its-own-kurdish-population/

[4] Rosenfeld, Jesse. “Turkey runs risk of losing control of southern border,” The National, 3 April 2016. www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/turkey-runs-risk-of-losing-control-of-southern-border

[5] Dilek, K. “Not a Road map for Peace. Erdoğan’s Democratisation Package Defies Kurdish Expectations,” SWP Comments 35, November 2013.

[6] Totten, Michael J. “The Trouble with Turkey: Erdogan, ISIS, and the Kurds,” World Affairs, 16 December 2015. www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/trouble-turkey-erdogan-isis-and-kurds

[7] Wood, Josh. “Erdogan’s stance leaves Turkey’s Kurds with backs against the wall,” The National, 6 April 2016. www.thenational.ae/world/europe/erdogans-stance-leaves-turkeys-kurds-with-backs-against-the-wall

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