Revisiting Turkey’s Kurdish Question: Where Do Matters Now Stand?
The collapse of the Turkish-Kurdish peace process in July 2015 and renewed fighting seemingly pushed the situation back to square one. What led to this failure? Despite incredible progress toward a resolution, the two sides proved unable to bridge the enormous gap between them. On the one hand, the government of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) proved unwilling to actually negotiate with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Instead the government believed it could simply list the conditions for peace and have them accepted with a minimal of concessions. The old Kemalist penchant for maintaining a unitary ethnic Turkish state remained. Tellingly, for example, the government rejected a neutral third-party observer or facilitator who might have encouraged and recorded the talks while even making suggestions when the process reached impasses. The failure of the minimal Dolmabahce consensus—an attempt in March 2015 to establish a monitoring committee to oversee the failing peace process—and simmering Kurdish anger over the Turkish government’s failure to support the Syrian Kurdish struggle in Kobane that raged from September 2014 until January 2015 proved to be two of the final blows to the peace process.
On the other hand, the PKK’s attempts to institute democratic autonomy or grass-roots, local governing structures of decentralization throughout much of southeastern Anatolia seemed to the government Kurdish independence disguised. Indeed a month before the peace process even formally began in March 2013, the PKK formed the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H). This new organization grew quickly into an armed, urban youth militia that enticed government security forces into street battles in numerous southeastern cities. Thus, a genuine resolution of the Kurdish issue proved beyond reach despite the veneer of a peace process.
However, despite the current broken situation, the Turkish-Kurdish peace process has not returned to square one for a number of reasons. Compared to the days when the very word “Kurd” constituted a four-letter word in the Kemalist lexicon and denial of a Kurdish ethnic problem prevailed, the Kurdish issue now has been institutionalized within Turkish domestic politics and furthermore regionalized, indeed internationalized. Despite the current impasse, official Turkish talks with Ocalan, the PKK, and the legal pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) have given the Kurdish issue in general and the PKK specifically a permanent legitimacy that would have been inconceivable even a decade ago. This has led to a situation where even such esteemed Turkish scholars as M. Hakan Yavuz and Nihat Ali Ozcan have recently suggested that Kurdish autonomy be considered as a solution: “for the first time, some Turks are thinking about separating from the Kurdish minority,” and that even “a Kurdish state seems to be inevitable, given the current political fragmentation throughout the Middle East.”
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s once touted policies of zero problems with neighbors and strategic depth have instead metastasized into ones of huge problems with neighbors and strategic quagmire. The opportunity spaces created by the Syrian civil war have helped give rise to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as the institutionalization of Rojava (Western or Syrian Kurdistan) as a second de facto autonomous Kurdish state and in this case one closely linked to the PKK. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, of course, is the other autonomous Kurdish state. Within the horrific Syrian civil war raging just below Turkey’s southern borders, ISIS and Rojava, two dynamic non-state actors, have created a dilemma of new realities that cannot be ignored or imagined away. Moreover, on all of these new problems, including its early call for the demise of Bashir al-Assad’s Syrian regime, Turkey has arguably come down on what seems the wrong or at least losing side.
ISIS and Kurds
In a well-documented, misguided attempt to facilitate the overthrow of Assad and restore stability to its southern Syrian neighbour, Turkey allowed jihadists from all over the world to transit its territory and cross into Syria to join ISIS. By so doing, Turkey also hoped to reduce or even eliminate the threat it perceived in the rise of Rojava, which Turkey saw as a proto-PKK state that would transform its success against ISIS into a contiguous Kurdish-dominated territory along Turkey’s southern border.
Thus, Turkey also sat by passively watching ISIS try to destroy the Syrian Kurds holed up just across the Turkish border in Kobane during the vicious fighting for that city from September 2014-January 2015. As Turkey perceived matters, support for the Syrian Kurds in Kobane would be tantamount to aiding the PKK, a terrorist enemy that had been trying to dismember Turkey for more than 30 years. In addition, why should Turkey get involved when the United States, its superpower NATO ally, would not do more? It suited Turkey that ISIS and the Syrian Kurds were weakening each other by slugging it out while Turkey sat idle. Many Turks also felt betrayed that by giving the Syrian Kurds air support against ISIS as well as their American NATO ally was strengthening Kurdish attempts to seize Arab lands near the Turkish border and thus unify previously non-contiguous Syrian Kurdish cantons.
Subsequently, Turkey came to blame ISIS for deadly attacks that mostly killed only ethnic Kurdish citizens in such Turkish cities as Suruc (Kobane’s twin Turkish city) and Ankara in July and October 2015. These twin attacks furthered the Kurdish belief that the Turkish government could not or even did not want to protect them. Some actually claimed that Erdogan had turned a blind eye to such attacks in order to further the perception of Turkey under siege and thus successfully in a wag-the dog-like fashion increase his fortunes in the election held on 1 November 2015. Such perceptions might have helped Erdogan regain power in the short-run, but would certainly hinder his chances to restart the peace process in the long-run.
In the summer of 2015, Turkey finally claimed to have entered the struggle against ISIS by allowing the United States to use the Turkish Incirlik airbase just 60 some miles from the Syrian border to carry out bombing raids against ISIS. However, instead of Turkey striking ISIS, most of the Turkish air attacks hit the PKK bases in the Kandil mountains along the border of the KRG and Iran. Moreover, even on occasion Syrian Kurdish forces in Rojava, leading some to conclude Turkey was simply using ISIS as a foil to go after both the PKK and Democratic Union Party (PYD), its Syrian Kurdish partner.
In the autumn of 2015, the Syrian crisis exploded with yet another destabilizing dimension when more than a million Syrian refugees began entering Europe from Turkey where more than 2 million of them already had been severely taxing Turkey for some time. This sea of desperate humanity threatened the stability of the European Union (EU) and soon led the EU to offer Turkey $3.2 billion, progress toward visa liberalization, and a revitalization of Turkey’s EU moribund EU accession process in return for Turkish help in stemming the refugee flood.
In Turkey, violence against the pro-Kurdish HDP had already begun in the lead up to the 7 June 2015 elections and grew exponentially in the days heading toward the subsequent ones on 1 November 2015. Indeed HDP leaders blamed their loses in the second election to the violent atmosphere that prevented mass rallies as well as their party representatives from appearing in the mainstream mass media particularly following the deadly bombing of the HDP rally in Ankara on 10 October 2015. Between July and 15 December 2015, violence claimed the lives of 194 security officials, at least 221 PKK insurgents and as many as 151 civilians. Thousands of people across the region were also displaced.
What is next?
So, what are the future prospects for the Turkish-Kurdish peace process? Despite the breakdown of the process in July 2015 the current process is probably just one more tortured step toward an eventual solution of the Kurdish problem rather than a return to square one. Even as they now fight and blame each other for the situation, the two sides are maneuvering toward new positions within a continuing process. After his near-death experience in the election of 7 June 2015 and three other elections in just the past two years, a possibly somewhat chastened, but now renewed Erdogan will have no more distracting elections for the next four years. He can devote his full attention to solving real problems, rather than devising mere tactics for the next election. Despite its losses in the 1 November 2015 election, the pro-Kurdish HDP also maintains its guaranteed place in the Turkish parliament. Hopefully their experiences and lessons learned to date will serve as a most important background for the renewal of the peace process.