President Donald Trump attempted to justify his decision to abruptly withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria last month by saying Turks and Kurds have been fighting for centuries, but the claim is not borne out by history.
Trump repeated the assertion at a White House meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last Wednesday, thanking his counterpart for Turkey’s efforts in Syria.
“This has been thousands of years in the process between borders, between these countries and other countries that we’re involved with 7,000 miles away. So, we want to worry about our things,” Trump said.
But experts dispute the president’s view of the conflict.
“The idea that Turks and Kurds have been engaged in conflict for centuries is very ahistorical,” said Janet Klein, an expert on Ottoman Kurdistan and associate professor of history at the University of Akron.
The Turkish cross-border offensive in Syria last month, green lit by Trump, is ostensibly motivated by a desire to crush the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey since 1984.
The Turkish government sees the Kurdish forces that took control of much of northern Syria after the civil war broke out in 2011 as a branch of the of PKK and is concerned that Kurdish autonomy in Syria would increase the likelihood of a breakaway Kurdish entity in Turkey.
Relations between Turks and Kurds are not, however, monolithic, irreconcilable, nor primordial.
Lisel Hintz, an expert on Turkish identity politics and assistant professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, said, “There’s danger in simplifying a vastly diverse group of people from the same ethnic group, with differences in language, religion, sect, tribal affiliation, ideology, political aspirations, and belief in the use of violence as the solution to their grievances.”
The roots of the present conflict stretch back only as far as the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the state formation process in modern-day Turkey less than a century ago.
“Under Ottoman rule, there were several uprisings by local Kurdish notables against the central authority, however, ethnicity was not a major motivating factor as it is today. In general, the Ottoman system did not allow ethnic conflicts to emerge because ethnicity was not the main identity of individuals; religion was,” said Hakan Özoğlu, an expert on Kurdish nationalism and director of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Central Florida.
“During the First World War, most Kurds preferred to remain in an intact empire with their Turkish compatriots, albeit with some level of local autonomy,” Klein said. Even before the war though, she said Turkish nationalists had begun, “to dismiss Kurds as backwards, barbaric, and in need of civilizing.”
The post-war powers did consider creating an independent Kurdish state, but ultimately independent Turkey retained eastern Anatolia and Britain incorporated Mosul province into Iraq.
“Although some Kurds had fought with the Kemalists,” Klein said, “soon after the foundation of the Turkish Republic they found that the state had embarked on a widespread campaign to suppress and erase Kurdish identity, engage in population transfers to dilute the Kurdish population, and to violently suppress Kurdish leaders and members of their community.”
The Kurds have not, therefore, “been fighting with the Turks for 300 years,” as Trump claimed at an Oct. 21 cabinet meeting.
The PKK was initially formed in 1978 in response to the prohibition of expressions of Kurdish identity by successive 20th century Turkish nationalist governments.
Since Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, Hintz said, with “its promotion of a Sunni identity and the traditions of the Ottoman sultanate, the identity red line against Kurds expressing their identity publicly and politically is gone.”
The AKP also tangentially helped the PKK by undermining the Turkish military establishment, which had defined both political Islam and Kurdish nationalism as national security threats since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
A ceasefire was negotiated in 2013 between the AKP government and the PKK, opening the door for a political settlement, but the peace process collapsed in 2015. Hintz said the Islamic State siege of Kobani in Syria was a key factor in the breakdown.
“Kurdish citizens in Turkey wanted the government to defend the city or at least be able to travel to defend it themselves,” she said. When Erdoğan refused, he lost Kurdish support for his presidential project.
To maintain dominance in parliament, Erdoğan’s AKP then turned to highly nationalist, and therefore anti-Kurdish, rhetoric and by late July 2015, the government was bombing the PKK again after two Turkish security officers were shot.
“Thus an unprecedented opportunity to finally solve the Kurdish conflict in Turkey – an opportunity that arose with the removal of a red line against the political expression of Kurdishness – was sacrificed in large part on the altar of presidential ambition,” Hintz said.
As Trump seeks to appease Erdoğan’s ambition and justify leaving Syrian Kurdish forces exposed to Turkey’s incursion into Syria, his narrative proclaiming the irreconcilability of Turkey’s conflict with Kurds inside and outside its borders is more than false, it is dangerous.
“To characterise a group as having long been at war with another entity serves to naturalise the conflict, justifying it as inevitable, and treating as primordial what is constructed through political processes,” Hintz said.
The positive developments prior to 2015 suggest a political settlement that reduces the present conflict between Turks and Kurds is possible, regardless of Trump’s false claims.