Understanding Turkey’s Kurdish question

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As the dynamics of the new government are still in flux, the future of Turkey’s Kurdish issue is also unclear. With the lands across Turkey’s southern borders engulfed by turmoil, the question appears to be entering a new, uncertain phase.

This volume of 13 weighty essays by scholars and journalists considers the historical, political, economic and geostrategic angles of the Kurdish issue. The tone throughout is level-headed, analytical and dispassionate. Co-editor Fevzi Bilgin works at the Gülen movement-linked Rethink Institute in Washington DC, but there is little incriminating material in the volume itself (apart from one soft piece on Gülen-affiliated operations in Turkey’s southeast). On the whole the contributions are rigorous and independent-minded.

The book contextualizes the violent recent past of the Kurdish question within the broader historic evolution of Kurdish nationalism, back to the 19th century. Today around 30 million Kurds are spread across four states: Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, as well as a global diaspora. Iraq and Syria are currently in the process of violent disintegration, which is having a huge effect on Turkey’s own Kurdish question. The rallying effect of last year’s defense of Kobane against Islamic State jihadists in northern Syria contributed significantly to the swing of Kurdish voters behind the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey’s recent general election.

The regional effect is nothing new. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was a product of Turkey’s turbulent internal dynamics – founded in 1978 amid the tumult of broader leftist militancy, and in 1984 launching a war against the Turkish state amid the post-1980 coup crackdown. But the neighborhood situation has been critical in shaping the conflict ever since. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the PKK benefited from the support of powers that saw it as a tool to weaken Turkey. The Soviet Union, Syria, Cyprus, Armenia, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Bulgaria and Cuba all provided the PKK with direct logistical support. Contradicting the anti-Western rhetoric of many Turkish nationalists, who see the Kurdish issue as a product of Western meddling, the PKK was actually used by anti-Western forces on the opposite side of the Cold War divide to undermine NATO frontline member Turkey. Kurdish activists also benefited from an open EU, opening beachheads in a number of EU states for media operations.

By the late 1990s and 2000s, the international conjecture had shifted. The PKK’s freedom to operate was squeezed and regimes in the region either crumbled or moved toward rapprochement with Turkey. PKK head Abdullah Öcalan was captured in 1999 and he declared a ceasefire that held until 2004. Despite steps taken by the first AKP government after 2001 to find a peaceful solution, the ceasefire broke down in 2004 due to internal politics within the PKK leadership. But with the group having less room to maneuver and being seen as a bigger problem by other states, the second phase of the conflict was less intense than the first. Former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s one-time policy of “zero problems with neighbors” also helped blunt the PKK’s effectiveness, capitalizing on the growing anti-PKK accord in the Middle East. For many states, the cost of permitting the group’s activities became too high compared to the material fruits of cooperating with Turkey. Previously hostile powers became Turkey’s new allies.

That favorable situation now seems a long time ago, as the states across Turkey’s southern borders break down and the Middle East spirals into chaos. Nevertheless, another uneasy ceasefire has largely held for over two years amid stalled peace negotiations. The silencing of weapons in the southeast has been one of the few positives in recent years amid a collapsing regional order. But with the recent success of the HDP, the Kurdish movement’s political expression now has the formidable task of satisfying both conservative Kurdish votes in the southeast and liberals in Istanbul.

But Turkey’s domestic Kurdish issue remains dependent on the neighborhood. While the PKK’s armed activities within Turkey may have come to a halt, it appears unlikely that it will completely abandon its arms while the Middle East is in such turmoil. Ultimately, the PKK is a political actor looking to consolidate its position and that of its affiliates, particularly in northern Syria. Still, with Turkey’s domestic politics in flux and the region in meltdown, it would be unwise to make any confident predictions.

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