Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds
As the University of Exeter researchers insist, there are some 30 million Kurds in the world. Since they don’t have an independent state they live in foreign countries. In the Middle East region Kurds, almost entirely, live in four countries; Syria (1.7m), Iraq (4.5m) Iran (5 m) and Turkey where the Kurds are composing 20% of the state population. The fact that Kurds are spread in four above mentioned countries makes the Kurdish Issue not just local/internal issue but also a regional dilemma.
In the aftermath of the World War One Kurds lost their semi-autonomous status that they had enjoyed during the Ottoman era. The modern Turkish founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk used the Kurds against the imperial powers and gave promises to them. However, the Atatürk broke his promise and built the modern Turkey based on new characteristics: Secularism, Centralism, Turkification. He ignored other ethnicities living in the country and sought to impose on identity and culture, the Turkish one. Since then, the modern Kurdish problem started.
The Turkish repression of Kurds, since the 1920s and 1930s, had put the basis of the current conflict: social hatred, segregation, hostility, denial. Fighting the Kurdish separatists as terrorists and maintaining the military existence in the South-Eastern areas of Turkey did not work out. In other words, the military solution in which Turkish successive leaders believed since 1920s did not achieved its intensions.
Kurdish nationalists in 1921 were fighting the “foreign powers” according to the constitution-like document that “… [A]mid the struggle against the victorious World War I powers that invaded the Anatolian heartland, served as a preliminary document intended to unify all inhabitants against the foreigners.” Some Kurdish nationalists believed that the 1921 Document“… was the only constitutional document that provided them with a path to recognition and equal citizenship.” Nevertheless the views had changed after drafting 1924 constitution and significant difference appeared between the Turkish and Kurdish nationalisms. The main aim of the former was to create a state unified politically and culturally. Whereas the latter’s ideology was based on ethnic particularism through highlighting cultural, linguistic and political differences.
These unavoidable facts partly explain why some later developments took place; such as Sheikh Said’s uprising in 1925 or the proliferation of Kurdish Defensive National Perspective, or even it explains why the PKK is currently fighting the Kurdish government.
The beginning of Turkish-Kurdish conflict was dominated by military operations, arrests, terrorist attacks, uprisings. In 1980, after the martial law was imposed, many Kurds suffered from torture, murder and humiliations, especially in eras like Diyarbakir and Van. During the three military led years the Kurdish issue became more complicated. It was in 1984 when The PKK launched its first attack. PKK is an organized movement that performs against the Turkish Government and it claims to be the Kurdish rights Guardian and demander.
Late nineties represents the most tensioned years of the PKK-Turkish struggle. Syrian authorities were supporting PKK and they had hosted their leader – Abdullah Öcalan. After long-lasting reconciliation process, the Syrian Leader Hafez al Assad agreed to cut the support from PKK and he expelled Öcalan from Syria in 1998. Accordingly, a new phase started in both Syrian-Turkish and PKK-Turkish relations.
The AKP and the Kurdish Issue
The AKP leaders were keen to solve the Kurdish problem since they took the power in 2002. Apparently two factors pushed the AKP leaders to change government’s policy towards the Kurdish Issue. First: failure of the possible military solution; although the military played central role in maintaining Turkish internal security and the stability but it had never been a rightful and ultimate solution for the problem; Second: the EU accession process.
AKP managed various essential moves in order to transfer the conflict from its violent nature to long term solution. At the beginning the Government started dealing with the central issues such as the Kurdish Language. A prominent Turkish Kurd writer, Yaşar Kemal, says: “it is 90 percent language. If you solve this it’s mostly done.” Even though the 90% is an exaggerated figure, but linguistic is crucial as Ambassador Knutt Vollebaek (OSCE High commissioner on National Minorities) said: “Governments can win the trust and support of minorities only by respecting linguistic diversity…”
Although some linguistic reforms had been recorded in 1991 but more serious changes came with the AKP. In 2002 Turkish government permitted Kurdish broadcasting in 2003 Kurds were authorized to enjoy Kurdish Radio Stationand in 2009 a Kurdish channel was opened.
Beside the linguistic reforms, other vital changes happened on the educational level. The Turkish government, in 2003, allowed teaching in Kurdish language in private institution (Although it partly failed). In 2009 the higher education Board (YÖK) declared the Kurdish Language to be made an elective course at Universities.
But how far can AKP push its reform policy?
Ahmet Birsen, who was previously arrested, despite any link to violent action, says that although “There has been change, but the logic, the mentality hasn’t changed…” Some AKP leaders might disagree with Mr. Birsen but there are many other examples that highlight the Kurds directed segregation practiced by the Turkish Government. For example, Abdullah Demirbas, A Kurdish Mayor “… was fired for multilingual services, while other municipalities that offer these services to English expats aren’t ‘banned’.”
Even though the restrictions on the Kurdish language have been slowly ‘removed’ or ‘ignored’ this was only in a de facto manner. To date the use of Kurdish language is forbidden in the Turkish parliament. To make a real reform the Government should address the constitution says Ahmet Türk, veteran Turkish Kurd leader, he continues “… you can’t have a constitution based on race. If everyone is a Turk, one race, there will be no democracy.”
Comparing to Syrian, Iranian Constitutions the Turkish one is more democratic. However, it remains one of the most centralized constitutions in the west. Many articles express racism, overt discrimination and ignorance. Therefore changing the 1982 constitution, as AKP leaders mentioned during the electoral campaigns in 2007 and 2011, became primary goal. Nevertheless, until now the most authoritarian charters remain the same.
Many constitutional articles ignore the basic ethnic and religious rights of the Kurds. Like, Article 66; “everyone bound to the Turkish state through the bond of citizenship is a Turk. The child of a Turkish father or a Turkish mother is a Turk.”Constitutions first three articles also provoke many Kurds, alongside the fourth article that immunize the first three ones.
The election treshold is another well known problem. Nowadays, the main victims of this law are the Kurdish nationalist parties. Until now, the Kurdish demand to reduce the 10% limit to 5% is not realized.
The Failure of the AKP Reform Policy
Previously mentioned problems and barriers were somehow traditional ones, for which the Kurds have been fighting for a long time. Current frustration is the AKP’s failed attempts to solve the issue which itself became a problem! In other words, each unsuccessful try raises the suspicion between the Kurds and the Government.
On the personal level, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was one of the few politicians who risked breaking some Kurdish related taboos. As a charismatic leader, who could reach the hurts of millions of Muslims and gained reputation and credibility through his rhetorical Diplomacy, can’t break the promises he gave to the Kurds throughout his speeches. Because the feedback will be harsher if those promises were made by other leaders.
In 2005 PM Erdoğan stated that “the State has made mistakes about the Kurdish issue.”Hence he pushed the Language reforms. Surprisingly after the reform attempts, PM gave a speech in a predominantly Kurdish area using Nationalistic tone than it was before in 2005. Even his close friend, Fermi Koru, criticized his attitude.
In 2007 parliamentary elections AKP increased its votes in the Kurdish areas from around 26% to approx. 53%. However, the Party couldn’t resist Nationalist wing’s pressure backed by the militants. Thus, it stopped the Kurds related reforms. As a result Kurds who supported AKP during the election felt betrayed.
In 2009 almost the same scenario happened. President Gül declared so called “The Democratic Opening” and promised more reforms to the KurdsPositive feedback also appeared from the Kurdish side. Murat Karayilan, PKK’s political and military commander proclaimed that PKK, too, wants peace. However, what happened next was disastrous; after the failure of 24 October’s initiative new wave of arrests had begun. According to BDP sources 3000 personnel were arrested. After almost two months on 11 December 2009 the constitutional court banned the Kurdish National Party (DTP). Accordingly, once again, Kurds felt Betrayed.
In 2011 June elections, BD Party won more than 30 seats in the parliament. However, number of Kurdish Parliamentarians were not allowed to take their seats. So, the BDP boycotted the Parliament. As a result, new wave of attacks has been launched.
Democratic Opening had failed. A father of a PKK insurgence says:
“I’ve never taken up arms, but just one of the law cases against me is for 35 years in jail, and the total is for 178 years. The police published a photo of me in plastic handcuffs, in a line being led away. The people understood this: “you can’t do politics”. That was the message. All this happened under AKP’s Democratic Opening.” [But the worst consequence of this failed policy of the AKP is that as a result of this frustration, the father says that] “1,500 kids have gone up to the mountains”
Worthy to remember that, the Turkish government is not the only responsible side for these failures, PKK also shares part of the responsibility. PKK, in a way or another, is involved in the Turkish political life. So its leaders, alongside the BDP, would have thought that if the Democratic Opening succeeded then they might have lost their loyalty of the Kurdish people. Specially, when many Kurds believed in Erdoğan’s reforms and voted for AKP, means that they do not see PKK or BDP as the only way out from their miserable life. Hence, we can say that PKK also worries about that and tired to abort the Democratic Opening mainly by carrying out terrorist attacks, trying to pull the Government into an “armed struggle” and it succeeded in doing that as the Zaman Newspaper writes “the government has responded [to PKK attacks] and it has given a military response. In other words, the PKK got what it asked for.”
It is not an easy task to solve the Kurdish issue. Mainly because the problem does not consist of 2 or 3 factors, there are many other factors and variables that should be solved. However, in order to carry out a successful project one should firstly think about the problem then draw a strategy and then implement already drawn plan. Concerning the Kurdish Issue, the AKP has no clear strategy; it is implementing partial solutions that do not prosper. Chieftain Murat Karayılan asks people who believe that AKP will solve the Kurdish issue, he says: “what is the AKP’s settlement project?’ Is there anyone who has an idea what the AKP’s settlement project is, where it is? Is there anyone who has insight about that project? No… Why? Because there is no such project Karayilan adds saying that PM Erdoğan “…is walking in the dark, without a project for a settlement. He has begun fearing that Turkey will fall apart in his hands…”
The Kurdish Issue as a Political Card
The Kurdish issue, as we mentioned in the introduction, is an intertwined and complex regional dilemma. Throughout the modern history the Kurdish issue had been used by and against the four countries who host predominant Kurdish population (Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq). Even the international powers, usually, got involved in this dilemma. However, none of the powers who supported the Kurdish cause thought about the Kurdish interests. This comes to support the idea that the minority causes are often used as a political tool.
For example during the Cold War, Soviet Union supported the Kurds in establishing their own country in Northwestern parts of Iran. This later became known as the Republic of Mahabad (1945-1046). Howsoever, Soviets did not care about the Kurdish rights it was part of the Cold War game.
It is obvious that the minority card is a dangerous one when it comes to the Middle East region. Michael S. Bernstam suggests inflaming the minority issue in Iran, specially the Kurdish Issue as “Another way to stop Iran”
States like Turkey, Syria, and Iran, who suffer from minority issues should seek to find solutions through sustaining the collective identity and integrating the minorities into the society by giving them their basic rights. Otherwise they might have the same destination as Iraq had in 2003.
Concerning Turkey, the successive governments’ failure in dealing with the Kurdish issue gave the opportunity to the Syrians to use the Kurdish card twice: firstly, during the 1980s and 1990s and then in 2011 after the Arab spring reached Syria and Turkey opposed the Syrian government. Hence, Syrians restarted using the Kurdish card.
Does Syria Use the Kurdish Card Again?
Turkish Syrian relations can be characterized as low and changeable. Since 1920s both sides had problems with each other. Maybe the most important issue was the Sanjak of Alexandretta’s detachment. In 1939 part of mandatory Syria had been matched to Turkey by France. Not so long after the incident the Cold War started, thus Syria joined the communist camp while in contrast Turkey became a vital US ally and NATO member. Consequently, a new hostile environment prevailed Syrian Turkish relations. Current foreign minister of Turkey, Ahmed Davutoglu best described the bilateral relations “… an example of laziness, sluggishness and recalling, as it can rarely ne seem between two neighboring countries…”
In 1970s Turkish government came with a new development project known as GAP (South East Anatolian Project). It aimed to build 22 dams and 19 power plants by 2005. This project was to become the main source of tension between Syria and Turkey.
Syrian president Hafez al Assad, planned to use the Kurdish separatist organization called PKK, against the Turkish government, as a pressure card to suspend the (GAP) project from its realization. Thus, Syria hosted PKK leader Abdulah Öcalan. Syrian regime had been supporting the PKK until Turkey and Syria signed the Adana Protocol, however the real reason was the Turkish threat to use military power against Syria if the later did not stop its support of PKK.
Bashar al Assad, Hafez al Assad’s successor, started developing economic relations with Turkey. Both countries’ new leaders, Bashar al Assad (2001) and AKP (2002), considered from their vital interests to build an interdependent relations. During this reconciliation in the relations, Kurds in general and the PKK in particular felt increasingly angry against Syria.
After the good relation had been established, did Syria drop the Kurdish Card? It would be unwise to think that current Syrian regime will drop this card once and for all. Because Syria has no other pressure instrument against Turkey, as Sedat Laçiner says: “for Syria, lacking the political, economic or military means to counter Turkey’s attitude, the only card available to them is PKK.”
‘Accidently’ the Kurdish terrorist arracks increased since Turkey started to press Syria because of the uprising inside the country. Howsoever, it would be wrong to blame Syria as the only dynamo and supporter of the PKK, other factors also do exist. Two factors can be mentioned; first; it is from very interest of the PKK, however not all the Kurds, to create a chaotic situation in the Eastern parts of Turkey. PKK feared that if many Kurdish voters believe in Erdoğan then it may lose the Kurdish support, therefore it sought to slander Erdoğan’s image by pulling him into a violent confrontation.
Second factor is in a relation to Israeli support of PKK. Historically Israel developed secret relations with the Oriental Kurds. In 1980 Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin confirmed “[T]hat Israel had sent the Kurds not only humanitarian aid but also military advisers and weapons…” In Turkey there are analysts who think that nowadays PKK organizes its operations cooperating with the Israelis, one of these analysts is Sadat Laçiner thinks that “[The] [m]ajor terrorist incidents carried out by the PKK in big cities bear the footprint of Israel”
Although there are no conclusive proves that the Syrian government restarted supporting PKK after Turkey escalated the pressure on Damascus concerning the internal uprising, but since Turkey started the escalation towards Syria, PKK operations dramatically increased.
Howsoever, these developments did not surprise the Turkish authorities since they knew that instability in Syria will move the PKK forward. Therefore, Prime Minister Erdoğan insisted, at the beginning, that Syrian case was different than the Egyptian, Libyan or Tunisian ones.
Turkey was one of the first countries who welcomed the Syrian opposition. Having the Syrian opponents in Turkey provoked the Syrian authorities, and since then, the bilateral relation started its downfall. Turkish, as well as other sources like Qatar based Al-Jazeera channel claim that Turkish Government tried its best to compromise the Syrian authorities but there was no positive response from Damascus. As a result, Ankara strengthened its pressure on Damascus and now, after 9 months since the uprising, Turkey asks Assad to step-down.
PKK Activities in Turkey
Meanwhile the Turkish pressure on Syria, the PKK operations dramatically increased. From January 2008 until the end of 2010 PKK carried out 8 operations whereas from July 2011 until October 2011 PKK launched 6 operations.
There are many indicators that illustrate the probability of Syrian involvement in the PKK recent operations. Since the tension increased between Syria and Turkey, Syrian leadership implied of using the Kurdish card, as Today Zaman writes “… Syrian Leader Bashar Al-Assad mentioned that Turkey would face a trend similar to what Syria has been facing for the past five months”
Even the Turkish officials referred many times to this issue. MP Volkan Bozkir the head of Turkish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission Stated that “ … Syria might play a ‘negative role’ in Turkey’s struggle against the PKK” he also added “ … Who sheltered the terrorist chieftain [Abdullah Öcalan] for years, are still ruling the country”
Likewise MP Bozkir, Foreign Minister Davutoglu avoided from directly accusing the Syrians in supporting PKK but he hinted saying that “Recalling the past, [Syria] should not even think of playing the PKK card. Everybody will see where such an act would lead”
But as many sources point out, it seems that Syrian regime could penetrate the most inner circles of the PKK. Top PKK leader Cemil Bayık said in an interview that “If Turkey intervenes in Syria militarily the PKK would fight against Turkey on Syria’s side”
In January 2007 ‘Doctor Bahoz, who is a Syrian Kurd probably enjoys good relations with Syrian Intelligence, was appointed to lead PKK’s day-to-day military operations. Even on the lowest levels of PKK pyramid the Syrian existence is noticeable; according to James Town research Foundation 20% of PKK’s 4000 fighters have Syrian Origins.
On the one hand it is obvious how far the Syrian intelligence has gone and on the other hand it became clear that the Kurdish motion is not organized under one aim – Establishing Kurdistan – but there are self interests often dominate the movement. Under the Arab Spring Context, Syria and Iran are successfully using the Kurdish card against Turkey. Iran, according to MiT, is holding military operations against PJAK (PKK’s Iranian Arm) without sharing information with Turkey because of its position towards Syria.
There are neither official Turkish statements accusing Syria in supporting PKK nor official Syrian confessions of doing that. However, depending on above mentioned indications I think that Syria has its own share in destabilizing Turkey through PKK.
The terrorism is one of the most hideous phenomena that have been practiced by the human being. Terrorist attacks, which targets civilians in general who do not have any relation with the given conflict, were always condemned. However, there is a significant difference between adopting the “terrorism” as a mean and committing “terrorism” as an objective.
PKK is considered as a terrorist organization by some countries such as Turkey and US. Howsoever, is the terrorism itself is PKK’s aim or it is a way to express the Kurdish legitimate demands? PKK claims that its objective is not the terrorism itself, but it is a mean to make the Kurdish voice be heard. Specially, when throughout the history Turks always tried to oppress the Kurds and deny their legitimate rights. In contrary to these claims Prof. Dr. Ihsan Bal says that the PKK Issue should be separated from the Kurdish Issue:
“[In] this case [Hakkari attacks] should be separated from the Kurdish issue… Terrorism slightly becomes the main goal itself rather than being an instrument”
If the AKP has real intentions in solving the Kurdish Issue, maybe it should separate between the PKK and Kurdish Issues. That might be the rightful revive the solution. According, on the one hand the AKP can fulfill the demands of public opinion that supports the military operations (specially the right wing nationalists). And on the other hand Turkish Authorities can integrate the Kurds into the Turkish society and give all the basic rights.
HABERTURK Newspaper, ”Kurdish new record!”,27,11,2011. http://www.habermonitor.com/en/haber/detay/79857/3939kurdish-new-record3939
Today’s Zaman, “Is the PKK signaling Syria?”, August 19, 2011. /http://www.todayszaman.com/columnist- 254259-is-the-pkk-signaling-syria.html
Hurriyet daily news, “What is the AKP’s settlement project?”, September 2011. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=what-is-the-akp8217s-settlement-project-2011-09-27
“MIT: Secret report on Syria, Israel, Iran and PKK”, defence-point.gr, August 9 2011, http://www.defencegreece.com/index.php/2011/08/mit-secret-report-on-syria-israel-iran-and-the-pkk/
of the Arab countries and sending letters to the foreign ministers, Turkey massed 10.000 troops near the border and the Turkish jets made low altitude flights over the Syrian border” (see: Oktav Özden-Zeynep, “WATER DISPUTE AND KURDISHSEPARATISM IN TURKISH-SYRIAN RELATİONS”, November 2009, p17 )
Al-Jazeera English, “Celebrating the AKP Victory”, June 14 2011 http://www.aljazeera.com /indepth/opinion/2011/06/20116138190522760.html
Today’s Zaman, “PKK – Syria Axis?”, October 9,2011. http://www.todayszaman.com/columnist-259378-pkk-syria-axis.html
Hurriyet Daily News, “MP Warns of Syrian Support for Terrorism”, September 21, 2011 http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=mp-warns-of-syrian-support-for-terrorism-2011-09-23
and Turkish Authorities, No. 95, October 14, 2011.