Turkey and the misfortune of the Kurds

Paul Michaels

Recently, Turkey’s president, Recep Erdogan, under the cover of finally joining the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), has revived an old battle against the Kurds. 

This is a major step back for Erdogan who, for the past several years, had moved to recognize limited rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority (14 million, or 18 per cent of the population) who have been seeking autonomy, not sovereign independence. Erdogan had also been negotiating with the PKK, the Kurdish separatist movement based in northern Iraq. Given Turkey’s tortured history with the Kurds – 40,000 people, mainly Kurds, killed over three decades by Turkey’s army and security services – Erdogan had tried to set relations with the Kurds on a new course.

However, when the Kurds’ People’s Democratic Party (HDP) passed the 10 per cent threshold in the June 7  elections and won representation in parliament, Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost their parliamentary majority.  With that went Erdogan’s plans to strengthen his presidential rule. (Many worry that the Islamic Erdogan is aiming, through his AKP, to rule as an autocrat.)

Failing to put together a coalition government, and ruling in the interim with a caretaker government, Erdogan has set Nov.1 for new national elections. Still aiming for a majority, Erdogan’s best chance arguably is to appeal to grassroots nationalists who are suspicious of the Kurds. 

Erdogan capitalized on that populist suspicion when, blaming the PKK for the July killing of Turkish police officers, he launched a series of bombing raids against them in northern Iraq and south-eastern Turkey.  While the HDP has been explicit in rejecting violence, Erdogan seized the opportunity to paint the Kurdish party as a front for the PKK and even called for the prosecution of some HDP parliamentarians.

Around the same time, ISIS carried out a suicide bomb attack on the Turkish town of Suruc, which borders Syria.  Thirty-two people, mainly Kurds, were killed, forcing Turkey finally to respond against ISIS. 

This involved allowing the U.S.  access to Turkey’s Incirlik airbase for bombing operations against ISIS in Syria – an operation that Turkey indicated it would also join. 

What transpired was something else: more Turkish bombing raids not only against the PKK but also against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG), America’s ally confronting ISIS in northern Syria. Turkey was hitting the very Kurdish forces that had been the most effective fighters against ISIS. As many analysts pointed out, Erdogan views the political arm of the YPG as an independence-threatening Kurdish movement with implications for Turkey’s own HDP which, especially before November, he wants to see weakened. 

Turkey did strike ISIS targets in Syria but, according to most accounts, they were more token than substantial.  Erdogan’s main targets were Kurdish forces – in Iraq, Turkey and Syria.

Kurdish movements in the region cannot be viewed in isolation from one another even if, historically, they’ve adapted to different political and geographical realities.

In her profile on the plight of Turkey’s Kurds for August’s Atlantic magazine, Lauren Bohn reminds readers that the Kurds belong to a 40-million strong people encompassing Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran and constituting “the largest stateless ethnic group in the world.” 

For decades, “progressive” forces, especially in North America and Europe, have taken up the cause of the Palestinians but remained silent about the far more numerous Kurds – silence all the more ironic given Israel’s serious but rejected offers for Palestinian statehood. Meanwhile Muslim and Arab states with large Kurdish populations remain hostile to the very idea of Kurdish statehood. 

Reflecting on this disparity, the New Republic once said that the Kurds would have received the international attention they deserved if the Jews had been their enemies. The misfortune of the Kurds, it added, was that the Jews were not. 

Paul Michaels is the director of research and media relations for CIJA.