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Turkey and the Kurds: Violence Is Not the Answer

Erdogan never understood the Kurds’ mindset. He needs to revisit history to see the hardships they have experienced.

September 26, 2016

Erdogan never understood the Kurds' mindset. He needs to revisit history to see the hardships they have experienced.

Turkey’s President Erdogan has claimed that military operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) will continue until “the very last rebel is killed.”

What is puzzling about this statement is that after more than 30 years of violence that has claimed the lives of over 40,000 Turks and Kurds, Erdogan still believes he can solve the conflict through brutal force.

However, he is fundamentally mistaken. The Kurds’ long historical struggle is not only embedded in their psyche, but also provides the momentum for their quest for semi-autonomy. That mindset will endure until a mutually accepted solution is found through peaceful negotiations.

The Kurds’ mindset

To understand the Kurds’ mindset, Erdogan will do well to revisit, however cursorily, their history and the hardship they have experienced since the end of World War I.

An independent Kingdom of Kurdistan lasted less than two years (1922-1924) before it was parceled out between what became Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. That move was made regardless of ethnicity or geographic relevance.

Nevertheless, the Kurds have clung to their cultural heritage. The rejection of that heritage by Turkey remains at the core of their grievances today.

From the time Kurdistan was dismantled, and despite the discrimination against the Kurds and the precarious environment in which they found themselves, they remained relentless in preserving their way of life. They fear that otherwise their national/ethnic identity and language will gradually fade away.

Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Iran

In Iraq, there are seven million Kurds (roughly 15% of the population). Since 1991, they have consolidated autonomous rule under U.S. protection and now enjoy all the markers of an independent state.

In Syria, the two million Kurds (about 9%) have been largely politically inactive under the Assad regimes.

In the past five years, they took advantage of the civil war and established a semi-autonomous region inside Syria’s border, which Erdogan vehemently opposes. He fears that it could prompt Turkish Kurds to seek autonomy of their own à la the Iraqi Kurds.

The eight million Kurds in Iran (nearly 10%) officially enjoy political representation but have historically experienced socio-political discrimination. This has emboldened the militant wing of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iran (KDPI) to turn to violence, making the Iranian Revolutionary Guard their main target.

Turkey houses the largest Kurdish community (15 million, approximately 18% of its population). Although they are largely Sunnis like their Turkish counterparts, their national aspirations for autonomy and cultural distinction trump their religious beliefs.

Denial of basic cultural rights

Prior to the formation of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan and his followers raised awareness about the Kurds’ plight in Turkey through political activism throughout the 1970s.

However, after becoming the target of a government crackdown, they moved toward guerrilla warfare. In that process, they formed the PKK in 1978 and also launched its insurgency in 1984, during the premiership of Turgut Özal in Turkey.

In 1999, Öcalan was arrested and sentenced to death. Under European pressure and due to the prospect of EU membership, Turkey abolished the death penalty and Öcalan’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

The fact that he was not executed allowed him to continue his role as a leader and assume a moderate voice, which remains essential for future negotiations.

Calls for peaceful negotiations

In 2006, the imprisoned leader called for peaceful negotiations to end the conflict. At the time, Erdogan was unwilling to grant the Kurds any significant concessions such as allowing them to enjoy their cultural tradition, including the use of the Kurdish language in their public schools and universities, and permission to run some of their internal affairs.

Erdogan partially relented in 2013 and granted the Kurds small concessions. Kurds could increase Kurdish-language education (only in private schools) and use Kurdish town names. In addition, the parliamentary threshold was lowered to allow Kurdish and other smaller parties to enter parliament in Turkey.

During scores of conversations I had with many Kurdish MPs and academics in Turkey who have firsthand knowledge about the Kurdish problem, no one suggested that the Kurds want independence. Rather, they want certain socio-economic and political freedoms consistent with Turkish democracy.

Collapse of peace talks

Conversely, Erdogan insists that the Kurds already enjoy full Turkish citizenship in a “democratic Turkey” and are full-fledged Turkish nationals. He proudly points to the fact that the People’s Democratic Party (pro-Kurdish party) has 59 seats in the parliament and is part and parcel of the legislative body.

His parading of Turkish democracy, however, proved to be nothing but empty rhetoric.

In May 2016, he pushed his AK Party-controlled parliament to approve a bill to amend the constitution to strip parliamentary immunity from lawmakers. This move was clearly aimed at Erdogan’s chief enemies, the Gulenists and the Kurds thus paving the way for trials of pro-Kurdish legislators.

Under EU pressure, peace talks took place in late 2012. However, by July 2015, the negotiations collapsed and full scale hostilities resumed between Turkish forces and the PKK with each side blaming the other for the failure of the negotiations.

This failure, though, was almost a given. The parliament was deliberately left out, the public was kept in the dark, the military had no clue about the negotiating process and the negotiations were reduced to concerns over terrorism rather than the substance of Kurdish demands. This approach ensured deniability as to which side was to blame for the inevitable collapse of the negotiations.

Moreover, with the prospect of EU membership all but dead, Erdogan ultimately aborted the negotiations. He feared that, if he provided any opening, it would encourage the Kurds to seek full autonomy. They would be emboldened by their counterparts in Syria, and in particular Iraq, where they enjoy full autonomy.

Erdogan’s anti-Kurd rampage

In the wake of the failed military coup in July, Erdogan wasted no time in rounding up tens of thousands of people from the military, academia, think tanks and teachers connected to the Gulen movement. He then moved on to the Kurds, believing that in doing so he will put an end once and for all to the Kurdish problem.

Only recently in the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that around 14,000 Kurdish teachers would be suspended for having ties with the PKK.

Erdogan’s rampage against the Kurds continued in spite of the United States’ and EU’s call to stop his heavy-handed approach that was arbitrary at best and an outright violation of basic human rights.

Öcalan’s call

Öcalan’s recent call to engage in peace negotiations for the third time, and the PKK’s willingness to abide by his call as they have in the past, provided another opportunity to end the violence, but Erdogan refuses to heed Öcalan’s call.

Violence, however, regardless of the reason, is not acceptable, even though Erdogan is using equivalent violent measures.

Regardless of how legitimate the Kurds’ grievances are, civil disobedience will ultimately be far more effective in achieving their political goals. This approach will also engender international sympathy. Resorting to violent resistance would only play directly into Erdogan’s hand.

Even his erstwhile ally, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, recognized the need for Turkey to return to the peace process. He was rebuffed by Erdogan, whose national fanaticism overshadows the future stability and well-being of the country that he presumably wants to secure.

Reality check for Erdogan

After 30 years of bloodletting, none of the prerequisites to end the conflict are present. Neither side has reached a point of exhaustion. Both expect to improve their position over time and no catastrophic event has occurred to change the dynamic of the conflict. This leaves both sides fighting a protracted war that neither can win.

Erdogan will be wise to remember a popular Turkish proverb that says, “No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back.”

Indeed, unless Erdogan finds a solution through negotiations, and heeds Öcalan’s renewed calls for talks, the conflict will continue to fester. One thing is for sure. The conflict with the Kurds and would doubtless outlast him just as it outlasted his predecessors.

Erdogan will not succeed in killing every PKK fighter — not only because of the nature of guerrilla warfare. Primarily, this is because of the Kurds’ determination to realize some form of semi-autonomous rule and preserve their rich culture and language that no people would sacrifice, regardless of how much pain and suffering they endure.

It is time for Erdogan to accept the reality that the solution to the Kurdish problem rests solely on peace negotiations. Anything short of that will only lead to ever more death and destruction on both sides, with no end in sight.


Turkey’s rejection of the cultural heritage of the Kurds remains at the core of their grievances.

Turkey houses the largest Kurdish community: 15 million, approximately 18% of its population.

More than independence, Kurds want socio-economic and political freedoms consistent with Turkish democracy.

Erdogan’s anti-Kurd rampage continued in spite of US and EU’s call to stop his heavy-handed approach.

Erdogan should remember the Turkish proverb, "No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back."

Erdogan's national fanaticism overshadows the future stability and well-being of Turkey.

Regardless of how legitimate the Kurds’ grievances are, civil disobedience will be more effective in achieving their political goals.