Turkey and the Kurds: What Goes Around Comes Around
Erdogan neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position — without sparking the ire of much of the international community.
October 16, 2019
Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria, neglecting alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.
Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds
What could prove to be a bad strategic error on his part is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights. This was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.
The Turkish policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.
The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20% of the country’s population, traces its roots back to the days of carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, or Father of the Turks.
It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.
The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president, Erdogan.
The Turkish government had traditionally referred to Kurds not as Kurds but as mountain Turks. It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq to enable the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region and subsequently spark a real debate inside Turkey about the Kurdish question.
Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land as long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.
The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.
“We want to live within the borders of Turkey”
The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters and a call for an end to the insurgency.
Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.
The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”
The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as an ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Bitterly opposed to the U.S.-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.
Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
A major opportunity missed
Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners, a move made in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region, could have provided inspiration for a U.S.-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.
Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August that a safe zone would have helped:
realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria.
The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria.
Ultimately, as is the case so often, Mr. Erdogan is not guided by true strategic considerations in his foreign policy moves, but rather by often petty and short-term domestic political considerations.
His decision to go after the Kurds inside northern Syria did split the multi-party coalition that was formed to elect as the new mayor of Istanbul, very much against Mr. Erdogan’s wishes.
But his move bears great political risks for Erdogan at home if he doesn’t succeed in the manner he has very publicly advertised. After a temporary patriotic hurray period, the country may soon find itself in the economic doldrums again.
What could have been the beginnings of a sustainable solution benefitting Turkey and the Kurds fell by the wayside when Trump withdrew US troops from Syria.
Erdogan’s decision to invade Syria is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish rights.
Erdogan is not guided by strategic considerations in his foreign policy moves, but rather by short-term domestic political considerations.
Most Turkish Kurds, who had opportunities as long as they identified as Turks, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.