The Kurdish Problem

A new revolt is brewing in the Middle East. Prepare for the Kurdish Spring.

Whatever his impressive domestic achievements, Turkish prime minister Erdogan has done a lot of fancy footwork this year trying to repair a vigorous and much-advertised Middle East involvement. Once the avowed comrade of Qaddafi, Bashir, Assad and Ahmedinejad, he has now emerged as a rousing democrat, defender of the Arab revolts. He seems to have been successful in burying the past—at least in Turkey where public criticism is increasingly muted and he reigns supreme. In Syria, he has joined the West by distancing Turkey from Assad but not yet disowning him, incurring the wrath of both Syria and its staunchest ally, Iran, which has sent warnings to Ankara. In Libya, which once bestowed upon him the Qaddafi human-rights award, he is trying desperately to restore the huge Turkish economic stake by fervently and helpfully embracing the rebels. But for all his foreign-policy activism, he can no longer escape his biggest problem, an internal one: the growing difficulties with his own twelve million or so Kurds.

In the period between 2005–2009, Erdogan became the first Turkish leader to do much for the Kurds, bringing in significant investment and notably accepting the ‘Kurdish reality.” He implemented some modest reforms on expressions of Kurdish identity—whether he believed in them or did so to guarantee the vote in southeast Turkey and a route to a new presidency is not clear. But the basic issue has advanced little, and today intensified military activity on the part of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has once again shattered a deceptive Turkish calm. Some forty Turkish soldiers have been killed and many wounded in the southeast over the past two months. In response, Erdogan has shifted gear and publicly declared his intent to finally destroy the PKK and, along the way, to undermine the major domestic Kurdish political party.

Erdogan has resorted to the usual military tactics—bombing the PKK in Northern Iraq and intensifying military activities in the southeast. He also seems intent on turning the ground war in Turkey over to special police units and the gendarmerie rather than to the army, which he distrusts and whose tactics he has publicly belittled. There are fears he might mount another large ground operation in Northern Iraq, but that is unlikely and certainly unwelcome to the Turkish military, which has been under great pressure from ongoing investigations and detentions. Politically, at least for the moment, he appears to have fallen back on traditional Turkish nationalism instead of the Islamic communalism he used to espouse to bind in the southeast. Peace with the PKK seems a long way off.

The next page-turner will be the promised new Turkish constitution sometime this autumn and what reforms he will secure in that document for the Kurds. Top AKP leadership rhetoric on the new constitution has been democratic and conciliatory, but with popular nationalist feeling running high and Kurds deeply skeptical, not much can be expected. Many fear violence will extend to Turkey’s major cities and to urbanized Kurdish youth. That has always been a concern that has not yet materialized, although small-scale clashes like car burnings, attacks on coffee shops and flash mobs are on the rise. With the schism with Iran the possibility of urban violence may have increased.

This time, however, Turkey’s internal Kurdish issue may turn international. Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Iran—Turkey's next-door neighbors, are all agitating.

Turkish elites have always been haunted by the possible establishment of an independent or even autonomous Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq, which took place after the first defeat of Iraq and gained even greater credence with its enormous economic success after the second Iraq war. One might dispute this, but I believe the present, virtually independent and flourishing Kurdish entity has had a major psychological impact on the outlook of the Kurds next door in Turkey as they consider their own position. It has helped make it unclear what will now politically satisfy Turkey’s Kurds. Northern Iraq has been also the military home of the PKK, which is allowed to operate, with misgivings, by the Kurdish regional government and receives help from friendly Iraqi Kurds. Erdogan impressively changed Turkey’s long-standing isolation policy; rather he embraced Iraq’s Kurdish government and invested heavily in the region. The Iraqi Kurds are increasingly troubled by what is happening in Turkey and seemingly caught in the middle. Turkey has pushed the United States hard to help defeat the PKK in Iraq. They have gotten significant American intelligence support but no willingness to attack PKK forces or try to make the Iraqi Kurds do so.