Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Turkey’s Gordian Knot: the Kurds

A man waves two flags, one with the portray of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan and another one with the symbol of the outlawed PKK party, during Newroz celebration, in Diyarbakir, Turkey, 21 March 2017. Photo SIPA Press

Since its birth in 1923, the Turkish republic has had a troubled relationship with its minorities, none more so than the Kurds. Since 1984, Turkey’s mainly Kurdish south-east has played host to conflict between Ankara’s armed forces and Kurdish militants demanding, at least, greater rights and recognition, and at most, full secession and independence. Peace talks and ceasefires have come and gone, with a five-year peace ending in 2004. Since then, violence has crept back into Turkish society, buoyed by the war in Syria, and an increasingly ambitious President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

This conflict has by no means been limited to the battlefield, outside of which activists have struggled for greater cultural, linguistic and political rights. However, it is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the most prominent Kurdish armed group and one widely branded as a terrorist organization by foreign governments for its attacks across Turkey, which has defined the conflict.

In 2015, the uneasy 11-year truce between Turkey and the PKK finally broke down, with fresh outbreaks of violence. In 2016, Kurdish bomb and gun attacks across Turkey killed and maimed dozens of policemen and soldiers. As militants took up arms and occupied quarters of Kurdish towns, battles broke out in the streets of Cizre, Sırnak, Sur and Diyarbakır, the unofficial capital of the south-east. Months of fighting left thousands of houses destroyed and scores killed, though government restrictions on reporting have helped to hide the true cost of the violence. In 1992, at the peak of the war with the PKK, similar street fighting forced 20,000 of Sırnak’s 25,000-strong population to flee. This time, allegations of human rights abuses dogged Turkish operations. In the worst incident, soldiers stand accused of killing around 100 Cirze residents, who were sheltering from the fighting in their basements. Justice for the victims of such attacks is elusive, and human rights groups point to widespread obstruction by Turkish authorities of investigations into abuses by the security forces. In Cizre, the neighbourhood that saw the worst fighting was bulldozed, burying evidence and, with it, any hope of the alleged perpetrators of abuses being brought to justice.

A key component of such obstacles has been repression of independent Kurdish news outlets. Kurdish writers and journalists have long been the target of attacks on the media in Turkey, winning the country a press freedom ranking consistently among the worst in the world. In the 1990s, repression was often physical, with arson and physical attacks on journalists commonplace. Although imprisoned journalists in Turkey are typically Kurdish (68 per cent in 2012), in recent years pressure has shifted, with broadcasting service providers bullied into reducing services for Kurdish outlets and websites blocked by telecoms authorities. This repression has seemingly been tied directly to limiting coverage of the Kurdish conflict, with the majority of detained journalists charged with terror offences.

Since the coup attempt in July 2016, this pressure has only increased. A number of Kurdish language outlets were closed down as threats to national security, as was a Turkish language TV station that merely reported on issues within the Kurdish region.

Yet many of Turkey’s Kurds remain defiant in the face of growing repression. In late March 2017, tens of thousands took to the streets to celebrate Nowruz new year in Diyarbakir, where revellers chanted slogans in support of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. In recent years, one of the most effective means of Kurdish resistance has been through elections. The liberal, majority-Kurdish HDP party has been gaining ground, and even made it over the 10 per cent threshold  for admittance to the Turkish parliament in 2015 – a first for any Kurdish political party. However, increasingly Ankara has attacked Kurdish politics.

President Erdoğan has been more than happy to claim links between the HDP and PKK, and many Turks have taken their vigilante revenge out on HDP offices following attacks by Kurdish militants, most recently in December 2016. In May 2016, members of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development (AKP) party called a parliamentary vote to amend the constitution and strip MPs of their criminal immunity, a move that immediately put 138 MPs, mostly from the HDP and opposition CHP parties at risk of prosecution. Since then, some 26 deputies of the 59-member HDP have been detained, with 12 of those arrested, including HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. In November 2016, Demirtaş was detained, along with HDP deputy Idris Baluken, both accused of having links to the PKK.

Although the conflict with the PKK has lasted for decades, the attempted coup has reinvigorated the government’s desire to root out the elements it sees as tied to any kind of terrorism. In September 2016, 28 elected mayors in the Kurdish south-east were removed from office, using an emergency law enacted after the coup attempt. Clashes broke out in the region’s cities following the move, and the announcement that the government would be appointing its own (presumably more Erdoğan-friendly) trustees. Of those sacked, four mayors allegedly had links to the Gülenist movement, which is blamed for the coup attempt, and 24 to the PKK.

In a further blow to Kurdish politics, in late October 2016, authorities arrested Gultan Kisanak and Fırat Anlı, co-mayors of Diyarbakır, on charges of working for the PKK. These south-eastern cities have long traditions of high voter turnout and political action, both of which present a threat to Erdoğan’s upcoming constitutional referendum vote, in a region he has long been trying to woo.

This purge has not been limited to politics. In September 2016, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım announced without evidence that 14,000 Turkish teachers have terrorism links, and promised to suspend them as a precaution.

Trouble Abroad

Relations between Ankara and the Kurds are not confined to within Turkey’s borders. Turkey keeps a close eye on Kurdish populations along its border in Syria, Iraq and Iran. Kurds have waged militant campaigns in all three, calling for greater rights, recognition and autonomy. Ankara believes any independent Kurdish state on its borders will fuel ethnic aspirations in its own Kurdish population, threatening Turkey’s territorial integrity. It is the Kurdish projects in Iraq and Syria that have most worried Ankara.

In recent years, as ties with Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan have warmed, mainly due to the trade in oil, Ankara has come to accept the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) that rules the region. Yet relations, especially at the public level, are still far from cosy. For the first time, the KRG flag was raised alongside the Iraqi flag during KRG President Masoud Barzani’s visit to Turkey in February 2017, sparking a war of words among Turkish commentators, even though PM Yıldırım defended the flag’s presence. During the 1990s, the flag was the primary source of friction between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey, and vehicles that carried KRG flag stickers were not allowed to cross the Turkish border. As in Iraq, the chaos of the war in Syria, and Damascus’ dwindling ability to control its territory, created a power vacuum that Kurdish political groups filled, establishing the semi-official region of autonomous Rojava in northern Syria.

The Turks have been keen to stymie attempts to cement Kurdish rule, bombing the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia in Rojava, and even mounting an incursion  that ended hopes of uniting the two Kurdish cantons along the Syrian border. However, under tremendous international pressure, Ankara has made concessions to Syria’s Kurds, saving the city of Kobane as it was about to fall to Islamic State (ISIS) fighters by allowing Iraqi Peshmerga to reach the city through Turkey. However, American and international support for Syrian Kurdish forces remains a major point of contention in Turkish foreign relations, with Ankara angry at its allies and keen to try and block the Kurdish forces from liberating Raqqa, ISIS’ stronghold in Syria.

With the lives of some 30,000-40,000 people lost in the conflict between Turkey and Kurdish militants since 1984, it is without doubt one of the greatest stains on the republic’s history.

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