x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Turkey and the Kurds: back to arms?

The "Kurdish opening" reform package was meant to appease Turkey’s restive minority, lifting restrictions on language and local identity. What went wrong?

Men wave a flag of the banned Kurdish group, the PKK.
Men wave a flag of the banned Kurdish group, the PKK.

Last year, the Turkish government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a series of reforms to address the grievances of its 12 to 15-million-strong Kurdish minority. Following a series of political missteps, a nationalist backlash and the closure of a Kurdish political party, the initiative has imploded. A recent referendum has given it a new lease on life.

On a bus ferrying a delegation of academics from Turkey to a conference in northern Iraq, the Kurds are jittery. Many are entering Iraqi Kurdistan for the first time in their lives. My neighbour, a doctoral student from Mardin, a city in south-east Turkey, snaps pictures of the border gate at Habur and the fatigues-clad Kurdish peshmerga (fighters) manning the crossing. As his eyes climb the nearby flagpole, he grows emotional. "To be a Kurd and to see the Kurdish flag for the first time, really, it's a very special feeling," he says.

Once the passport check begins, the Kurds from the group separate from their Turkish colleagues to exchange spirited greetings with the peshmerga. Before posing for pictures against the backdrop of the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) flag, a few of them try on the guards' berets. Laughing, the peshmerga seem flattered by the excitement and the adulation. The Turks on the bus look on in consternation. Their government's historic nightmare - that northern Iraq, home to nearly five million Kurds, might become a magnet for Turkey's own Kurdish population - seems to be unfolding before their eyes.

In Dohuk, about an hour south of the border, their dismay increases. Stepping off the bus and into the reception hall of a local university, the group comes face to face with a fictional map of "The New Middle East". On it, a "Greater Kurdistan" stretches from Kirkuk in the south to the Black Sea in the north, covering large swathes of eastern Turkey in between. The map draws loud protests from the Turkish professors and amused bewilderment from the Turkish Kurds.

At the university, the Kurdish quasi-state's oil-powered economic miracle is on full display. The reception hall - upholstered furniture, flat screen TVs and air-conditioning at full blast - gives way to a gleaming sports arena, the likes of which few European universities can boast. A girls' volleyball match is taking place. "I'd love to teach here," whispers one of the Turkish Kurds when we step outside. "The kids are motivated, confident, not like some of my students in Turkey. They can get jobs here, the economy is strong. There is hope for Kurds here. But not in Turkey."


Back on the Turkish side of the border, outside the local cultural centre in Sirnak, a group of gun-toting gendarmerie officers, accompanied by an armoured vehicle, keep watch over the surrounding streets. Inside, the opening ceremony of a conference on the future of the region is under way. Much like the enormous signs ("Homeland above all" or "Happy is he who calls himself a Turk") etched by Turkish soldiers into the nearby hillsides, the decor and the mood yield nothing to Sirnak's Kurdish heritage. A portrait of Ataturk, the founding father of the modern Turkish state, hangs above the hall. So does a Turkish flag. Prompted by one of the hosts, the guests rise to observe a moment of silence for Ataturk and his comrades-in-arms. They remain standing to sing the Istiklal marsi, the Turkish national anthem.

At street level, beyond the security detail, the scene is very different. Here, the dress of choice, instead of the suit and tie, is the jacket and chalwar. People speak Kurmanji, a Kurdish dialect. It is a telling sign of the change that has taken place over the past decade. Perceived as a threat to national unity, speaking Kurdish in public was unthinkable - that is to say, punishable by law - until the 1990s. These days, people have no qualms about speaking it in shops, restaurants and even in schools. On October 9, a university in Mardin launched a master's programme in Kurdish language and culture, a first in Turkey.

In the wake of a separatist insurgency launched in 1984 by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) - since listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the United States - Sirnak and the rest of the south-east fell into a spiral of violence that has claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people, among them Kurdish militants, government troops and civilians, victims of terrorist attacks and of brutal reprisal campaigns by the Turkish army. As many as three million people abandoned their countryside homes in the 1980s and the 1990s. Some left out of fear of revenge killings perpetrated against "collaborators" by the PKK. Others were forcibly cleared from some 3,000 remote villages destroyed by government troops in order to deprive the insurgents of local support.

Things improved during the past decade. In February 1999, Turkish commandos captured the founder and leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, in Kenya. Having been on the run for months, Turkey's most wanted man was spirited away to an island prison off Istanbul, tried, and sentenced to death for treason. The sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment when Turkey abolished the death penalty. Following Ocalan's capture, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire in September 1999 and relative calm was restored. The bombings, the extrajudicial killings, the kidnappings, and the fierce shootouts subsided. Ceasefires have since come and gone, but the violence has never returned to previous levels. In places like Sirnak, the local economy has begun to show signs of life. The border crossing with northern Iraq, 40km away, is now a lifeline. Flush with oil money, Iraq has become the destination for 99 per cent of Sirnak's exports.

All the same, the scene outside the cultural centre in Sirnak speaks volumes about the region's enduring problems. It is Friday morning and the local cafes are already full of men playing backgammon. In Istanbul, these would be moustachioed 60-year olds, making the best of their retirement. In Sirnak, they are working-age men. The local unemployment rate, at 22 per cent, is the highest in Turkey. Per capita GDP is a third of the national average.

Turkish governments have been slow to adopt any comprehensive policy to improve living standards in the south-east and a massive infrastructure programme launched in the 1990s has gone only some way towards solving the problem. But they have been even slower to recognise Kurdish minority rights and freedoms. Bureaucratic inertia, a narrow understanding of national identity and lingering fears of western plots to weaken Turkey have always impeded efforts in this direction. According to a 2009 poll, 76 per cent of Turks believe that the European Union, which Turkey aspires to enter, has a secret agenda to divide their country. Any concession to Kurdish ethnic identity is seen as a potential blow to the very existence of the Turkish state. Only five years ago the Turkish environment ministry changed the official Latin name of the red fox, Vulpes vulpes Kurdistanica, to Vulpes vulpes. Use of the old name, the ministry explained, challenged national unity.


After last year's local elections, change finally seemed to be on the horizon. With its share of the vote increasing in each election since 2002, Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) had reason to believe it could finally wrest control of the south-east from the Democratic Society Party (DTP), the standard-bearer of Kurdish politics. The AKP had an Islamist lineage, which would appeal to Kurdish conservatives. It had a record, however patchy, of catering to EU demands for greater minority rights, which would appeal to Kurdish nationalists. And, most importantly, it had cash. AKP members repeatedly intimated that mayors from the ruling party could tap into the government's coffers. By winning the south-east, they would finally give the Kurds what they were said to need most - jobs, factories, roads and funds. The DTP, they warned, could only offer more of the same - identity politics and conflict.

But the AKP miscalculated. Its mayoral candidates lost in eight Kurdish provinces, including Diyarbakir, the region's most important urban centre. Overall, the governing party saw its share of the vote drop by eight per cent in comparison to the 2007 elections for parliament.

"They try to fool us with religion and with money. They give refrigerators to the poor to buy votes. We are Kurds and we will stay Kurdish. We cannot renounce that," says Mehmet, a young man from Diyarbakir. "Still, we need jobs, a place to work. Otherwise, there will be more crime." Mehmet, as he readily admits, has just been released from jail. He pulls up his shirt to reveal dozens of barely healed scars lining his stomach, clear evidence, as he appears to see it, of having done time in a Turkish prison. The guards, he says, slashed him repeatedly with razor blades.

The disappointing election results, the lack of major breakthroughs in the EU accession process, plus a series of bloody PKK attacks against army targets, persuaded the AKP government that the time was ripe to reach out to the Kurds. Launched several months after the elections, the "Kurdish opening" initially appeared no more than a catchphrase. Gradually, it turned into talk of an economic package, optional Kurdish language courses at schools, the restoration of Kurdish place names, and partial amnesty for members of the PKK.

The initiative began to unravel just as it got under way. On October 19, 2009, a group of 34 people - eight PKK members and 26 Kurds from the UN-run Makhmour refugee camp in northern Iraq - crossed the Habur border gate and handed themselves over to Turkish authorities. Originally intended as a show of support for the “Kurdish opening”, the move turned into a PR disaster for the AKP. Released after questioning, the returnees received a heroes’ welcome from tens of thousands of Kurds who travelled to Habur for the occasion. Television images of PKK members greeted by victory parades across the south-east were too much for many Turks to swallow. For the people watching, says Kemal Kirisci, a professor at Istanbul’s Bogazici University, “this was scandalous”.

A month after the Habur debacle, Ocalan added more fuel to the fire, complaining about conditions in his new prison cell. “Here they want to constrict me even more... Here, I cannot breathe at all,” he said in a statement released through his lawyers. In the past, similar complaints, echoing the widespread belief that the Turkish state wants to expedite Ocalan’s death in jail, have been known to provoke riots across the south-east. This time was no different. Protests and street fighting erupted in Kurdish areas across the country. Ocalan’s new prison cell turned out to be 17 square centimeters smaller than his previous one.

From there, things got rapidly worse. On December 11, 2009, Turkey’s Constitutional Court decided to ban the DTP, having found that the party had become a “focal point for terrorist activities”. The party denies being the political wing of the PKK, but Kurdish politicians have been reluctant to condemn PKK violence. The ruling prompted a massive wave of arrests of prominent DTP politicians including ­Osman Baydemir, the popular mayor of Diyarbakir.

The fallout has continued up to the present day. Though the DTP has reconstituted itself as the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), its leaders remain banned from politics. In June, Baydemir and 150 others were indicted on charges of abetting a terrorist organisation. Roadside attacks by the PKK and air strikes by the Turkish military on the group’s positions in northern Iraq once again feature regularly on the daily news. With the government accused of appeasement, funeral services for soldiers killed in PKK attacks – more than 100 have died since the beginning of the year – have seen physical assaults on the ruling party’s dignitaries. During one service, Taner Yildiz, the minister for energy, was punched in the face. “We don’t want openings, we want blood,” chanted mourners during another. 

Worryingly, reports of inter-communal fighting between Turks and Kurds are on the increase. With Kurds dispersed throughout the country, explains Henri Barkey, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, violence can erupt “anywhere, at any time”.

Despite some reforms – the launch of a Kurdish TV channel, a measure allowing the use of the Kurdish language at political rallies, and the repeal of a law that sent thousands of children to prison for participating in anti-government demonstrations – the AKP has put the Kurdish initiative in the deep freeze. Even its name has become taboo. Caught off guard by the nationalist backlash, AKP politicians no longer speak of a “Kurdish opening”, but of a “democratic” one.

According to experts, the implosion of the Kurdish initiative threatens to undo the recent trade-fuelled rapprochement between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. With many PKK fighters operating out of the mountains of northern Iraq, warns Barkey, Ankara is expected to place renewed pressure on the KRG to deliver the militants. Should that fail, it may launch new incursions. This would spell trouble for the Americans. As Barkey recently explained in Foreign Policy: “Washington cannot afford… for Turkish military action in Iraq to undermine that country’s stability.” With the looming US withdrawal, a major eruption of hostilities between Turkey and the KRG would weaken the region’s defences against sectarian violence, bringing it one step closer to civil war after the US withdrawal.


The night of last spring’s municipal elections, I found myself sitting opposite Ahmet Turk, then the DTP’s leader, in a crowded office on the second floor of the party’s headquarters in Diyarbakir. Sitting at his desk, Turk peered calmly into a TV placed on the other side of the room, tracking the vote tally. Every now and then, elderly women – invariably dressed in puffy overcoats, puffy trousers and green, yellow and red DTP flags – would pour into the room to heap blessings on the grand old man of Kurdish politics. They were received with a generous grin, accentuated by Turk’s equally generous grey moustache.

At times, taking a break from the TV and the Kurdish grannies, Turk would approach the window. Two storeys below, a crowd of several thousand people had gathered to celebrate the DTP’s landslide victory in the Diyarbakir mayoral race. Men and women were dancing in circles. The mood oscillated between jubilation and menace. “This is Amed,” the crowds chanted, referring to Diyarbakir by its ancient Kurdish name, “Turks go home!” “Hang Erdogan!” shouted one group. A masked teenager raised himself up on the shoulders of two of his friends and, maintaining an uneasy balance, began to wave the outlawed flag of the PKK. A banner featuring Ocalan’s face unfurled from a window of one of the DTP offices. “PKK is the people!” shouted the crowd, “And the people are here to stay!”

When I asked Turk over a year later why the crowd didn’t chant his name, or Baydermir’s, or that of any other DTP candidates, Turk was guarded. “This is a 30-year process,” he said. “There is still a lot of sentiment towards the PKK. You cannot change this overnight. The PKK was founded 30 years ago, and the parties only came much later.”

Osman Ocalan, Abdullah’s younger brother, was more straightforward. “The [Kurdish parties] act on a foundation that the PKK has set,” he said earlier this summer, inside his home in Koy Sanjak, a town in northern Iraq. Ocalan, who briefly led the PKK after his brother’s capture, he says, split from the group in 2004. Despite having faced at least one assassination attempt by his former comrades, he remains adamant – like most Kurds – that a solution to the Kurdish issue must involve the PKK and, as such, Abdullah Ocalan. “The state’s approach to put the leader in jail and to dismiss him as an interlocutor is not going to produce a solution,” he says. “I think 95 per cent [of PKK fighters] would prefer a political struggle to a military one. But because Turkey has not talked to the PKK, because it did not open the road for a solution, these 95 per cent... have not laid down their arms.”

In Osman Ocalan’s view, the solution, wherever it might lie, must include a general amnesty for all PKK members, including his brother. The PKK leadership itself has proposed that Ocalan be released and placed under house arrest.

It is, however, unlikely that the government will free a man viewed by most Turks as a terrorist mastermind. “Turks are not ready,” says Kemal Kirisci. No government, even one as powerful as the AKP’s, can hope to free Ocalan without risking a massive outcry and a subsequent drubbing in the polls.

Moderates like Turk are careful not to include Ocalan’s release among their key demands. “Cultural rights, more freedoms, and more decentralisation” is what they want most, says Turk


There is some reason for optimism, however. In a referendum held on September 12, Turkish voters backed a government-sponsored package of constitutional amendments that, among other things, will give politicians greater oversight of the secularist judiciary. By handing the AKP a fresh vote of confidence, the referendum may yet breathe new life into the EU process, pave the way for a wholly new democratic constitution to replace the one written by a military junta in 1982 and, just as importantly, resuscitate the Kurdish initiative.

Despite the ongoing violence, moderates on both sides are now trying to recover lost ground. The government is said to be in secret talks with Abdullah Ocalan. Ahmet Turk, meanwhile, has called for armed PKK units to leave Turkey so as to avoid provocation and clashes with the military. “For a political solution, that has to be done through democratic means,” he explains over the phone. “You cannot do this with weapons. That’s what the state sees, and that’s what the Kurds see.”

But not all of them. On October 31, a day before the PKK extended its ceasefire until next spring, a 24- year-old named Vedat Acar walked up to a row of police vehicles parked in Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul, and blew himself up. Fifteen policemen and 17 civilians were wounded. Acar was the only fatality.

Even if Osman Ocalan is right, claiming that 95 per cent of PKK members are willing to forsake violent struggle, what of the remaining five per cent? It is they who might be behind the Taksim attack. And it is they who might yet turn out to be the last – and the most difficult – obstacle to peace.

And then there is Osman’s ­brother. Accustomed to being seen as nothing less than the embodiment of the Kurdish cause, Abdullah Ocalan insists, from his jail cell, that it is he, not people like Turk or Baydemir, who should call the shots. “Some say that armed struggle is no longer valid,” the pro-Kurdish Firat News Agency quoted him as saying last week. “How do they decide such a thing on their own? Some decisions, including the decision to withdraw, are vital issues. And these decisions can’t be made by anyone other than me.”

Back in Iraq, inside a dark SUV headed for the bus terminal in Koy Sanjak, the conversation turns to the subject of family and home. The driver, a former PKK fighter, has not seen his – they are in Urfa, across the border in Turkey – for more than a decade. But it is only a matter of time before he does, he assures me. “For certain,” he says, “I will return.”

Piotr Zalewski is a freelance journalist living in Istanbul