The Kurdish Problem

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.

Syrian-Turkish relations have long been troubled. Syria once housed PKK leader and Kurdish idol Abdullah Ocalan until the Turkish government scared the Syrians into expelling him; the Americans found him and turned him over to Ankara. Erdogan embraced Assad, thinking he had the influence to change the Syrian president and ultimately change Syrian-Israeli relations. He either did not or could not because of his own increasing frictions with Israel after the 2008-09 attack on Gaza, and now relations with Syria are in shambles. He remains fearful of what might follow Assad’s demise and worried about Syria cooperating with Iran to undermine Turkey on the Kurdish issue. Some two million Kurds live in Syria, so far very meekly, although there are some indications of ferment. Attacks on them and a much greater flow of Kurdish refugees into Turkey could traumatize even today’s much-stronger Ankara. Interestingly, President Obama has apparently relied heavily on Erdogan’s views on Syria in managing American policy toward Damascus.

The Turkish-Iranian honeymoon has come to an end over Assad. Iran helps to keep Assad going. While Iran has been tough on its own Kurds (and although right now an Iranian counterpart of the PKK operating from Northern Iraq is doing battle with Iran), relations with Turkey have become increasingly testy. An unspoken Turkish-Iranian military coordination against the PKK appears to continue for now, and while one cannot preclude its deepening, there has been increasing concern that Iran is sending signals to Turkey that it could reverse that policy if it so chose. Tehran could also use its assets in Ankara to help generate PKK violence in the cities. Turkey is not without means to counter Iran. This is an important, evolving, highly volatile tale with repercussions for other Turkish-Iranian issues.

So the Kurdish issue now has a bigger canvas. Turkey must see it in a broad, long-term perspective. Right now Turkey’s domestic prospects for resolving the Kurdish issue look bad, and one cannot be optimistic that we will not see a lot more violence. Ocalan still remains the leader of most of Turkey’s Kurds, although some are skeptical his control of the PKK is what it used to be. Many Kurds are not happy with the growing violence. Whether Erdogan can produce a domestic political solution that satisfies both nationalists and Kurds is increasingly in doubt, particularly if PKK violence continues. The United States and the European Union might help on the regional aspects, but Turks have long had deep suspicions about Western interest in Kurds. Erdogan alone is in the hot seat.

Image by Jan Kurdistan