Turkey and the Kurds: A Chance for Peace?

Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
A Kurdish militant aligned with the PKK under a banner honoring a fallen comrade in the Sur district of Diyarbakır, Turkey, November 2015

In the months following last July’s failed coup against him, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has mounted the biggest purge of public officials in a century. As has been widely reported, over 100,000 civil servants, teachers, prosecutors, judges, journalists, army officers, and police have been suspended or dismissed. At least 52,000 are now in prison. Most of these are accused of links with the movement of Fethullah Gülen, the self-exiled Islamist who used to be Erdoğan’s ally in curbing the political power of the military in Turkey’s secular “deep state” but broke with him in 2013 and is accused of masterminding the coup.

Yet amid the crackdown, the plight of one major group has been far less in view: the country’s 14 million Kurds. In Turkey’s southeast, a half-million Kurds have been uprooted from their homes since July 2015 in Turkish military operations. According to a report issued on March 10 by the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, these actions have been brutal, leading to widespread human rights violations, destruction of property, and the killing of hundreds of Kurds.

Recent actions by the government have also clamped down on every sector of the Kurdish movement, including journalists, aid groups, and politicians. A particular target has been the main Kurdish political party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which has held fifty-nine seats in Parliament since elections in November 2015 and whose support comes from other minorities and left-wing Turks as well as Kurds.

There is no basis for suspecting collaboration between Gülen and the Kurds, particularly on as sensitive an issue as planning the overthrow of the leader of Turkey. In fact, the Gülen movement has long been more in favor of using military force against the Kurds than has Erdoğan. But Erdoğan is using the post-coup clampdown as a cover for undermining the HDP, claiming the party is a security threat. Twenty-nine HDP MPs have been arrested and fourteen are still in jail, along with dozens of elected local officials accused of links with the PKK, the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party that has been in conflict with the government for almost forty years.

The HDP and PKK are certainly both part of a broad-based Kurdish freedom movement, but the HDP cochair, Selahattin Demirtaş (now also in jail awaiting trial), has denied that his party has structural connections with the PKK or is its political arm. Nor has there been any evidence that the HDP has supported violence against the government.

In Diyarbakır, the unofficial capital of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, I recently witnessed a court appearance by Çağlar Demirel, one of the town’s HDP MPs. Accused of insulting the president and taking actions that amount to being a member of a terrorist organization, she was forced to address a three-judge panel by video link from Kandira prison near Istanbul, almost a thousand miles away. Defiant and uncontrite, she told the judges:

I’ve not been shown any evidence. I reject the accusations. There is nothing lawful about detaining MPs. We were all arrested on November 4, 2016, even though we face different charges. This shows the case is the result of political decisions.

The hearing was to decide if Demirel could be released before trial in April. The court ruled against it, the main judge declaring bizarrely that being in jail for two more months would not interfere with Demirel’s parliamentary duties.

In the public gallery Demirel’s mother, in a headscarf, wept when the judgement was announced. Demirel looked unfazed. Like most female Kurdish activists she wears her hair uncovered. Gender equality is a core principle of the movement, which has introduced the concept of parity in most public positions. The HDP is led by cochairs, a man and a woman. Kurdish towns have comayors.

Demirel belongs to a cohort of secular Kurdish women in their thirties and forties who have shown extraordinary toughness and determination. One of the most remarkable is Fatima Kasan, a spokesperson for the Free Women’s Congress, an organization that fights for equal rights and was banned by Erdoğan last November. Kasan spent twelve years in prison from the age of eighteen. She told me in February: “We’re trying to institutionalize gender equality. We struggle against the patriarchal system, bias against women, and the mechanisms which reproduce discrimination against women, since women were the first group to be colonized.” She continued,

Until the 1990s we were socialists. We saw the collapse of real [Soviet] socialism and decided it was because the emancipation of workers doesn’t mean others were also emancipated. Freedom is not equated with seizing a state structure and having a nation-state.

Part of the problem for Turkey’s Kurds is that their aspirations continue to be colored by the long-running conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government. Thirty-three years have passed since the PKK fired its first shots against Turkish police and troops. At that time the PKK was a classic national liberation movement with a Marxist-Leninist orientation that drew comparisons with counterparts elsewhere such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the New People’s Army in the Philippines.

The PKK’s philosophy has since changed but the organization continues to engage in violent confrontations with Turkish security forces. It is exactly a year since the end of the latest clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants, which took an estimated 2,300 lives in nineteen towns and districts in the southeast. Dr. Mehmet Müezzinoğlu, then minister of health, said last year that some 355,000 people were displaced, though the true figure is likely higher. (In its report, the UN human rights office said that up to 500,00 people had been displaced.) Most are still unable to return to their homes because security forces are blocking access to their ruined towns. They are forced to rent apartments or live with relatives elsewhere in Turkey.

Foreign journalists rarely report on these uprooted Kurds, while Western politicians—even those who have been critical of the recent purges—have said little. This has been particularly glaring since Turkey has been praised for hosting two million Syrian refugees. The hypocrisy upsets Kurdish aid organizations as they try to collect donations from private citizens in the absence of funding from Ankara.

The last eighteen months have taught the Kurdish freedom movement some hard lessons. At first, activists in Turkey were inspired by what was happening next door in northern Syria. Syrian Kurds had declared autonomy and renamed their region Rojava after President Bashar al-Assad withdrew his overstretched forces to Syria’s central heartland in 2012. Seeking to copy the Rojava model, Kurds in southeast Turkey started to build barricades and dig trenches in their towns after the ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government broke down in July 2015. The aim was to create areas that Turkish security forces could not enter. Starting with the town of Cizre, on the eastern end of Turkey’s border with Syria, several places declared autonomy.

Unlike the embattled Syrian military, Turkey has a powerful army and reacted to the Kurds’ challenge with enormous force. Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, called on the Cizre militants to stand down and they did, briefly. But the uprising took on a dynamic of its own and, helped by PKK commanders, the trench-digging resumed. The Turkish state imposed curfews and pounded besieged towns with artillery and tank fire. PKK fighters ambushed Turkish forces, killing almost one hundred police and soldiers within three months. In some ways, this was a departure in Turkey’s long conflict with the PKK. In the 1980s and the 1990s the Turkish-Kurdish conflict centered on mountain villages in the southeast. Over 36,000 people were killed, including some 6,700 civilians, according to Turkish security sources. By contrast, the new clashes amounted to urban warfare in densely populated areas. Although far fewer people were killed, the cities involved were devastated.

A year later, the damage can still be seen in Sur, the old city of Diyarbakır, which used to have some 30,000 inhabitants. In 2015, UNESCO declared the old city a world heritage site because of its four miles of eleventh-century walls, including four gates and eighty-two towers. Ten-foot-tall concrete walls block the alleys that lead into about a third of the city. Only the top of the pre-Ottoman, sixteenth-century square minaret, set on four basalt pillars and known as the four-legged minaret, is visible. Armed police patrol throughout Sur and none of the residents can go back into the closed area. Bulldozers are at work, removing the rubble. Large sections of other towns in the region have been similarly leveled.

Kurdish politicians accuse the Turkish government of committing atrocities, a view that is supported by the findings of the March UN report. But as Emma Sinclair-Webb, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Turkey Office, put it to me, “There is a lot of resentment among ordinary people over the trench-digging and the fact that the PKK embedded themselves in towns and brought the fight there.” The government is clearing large areas of several Kurdish towns to try to prevent similar urban uprisings in the future. As Sinclair-Webb explained:

It claims buildings are unsafe and booby-trapped but it goes far beyond that. We can speculate that they want to replace narrow alleys and small winding roads with wide streets and high-rise blocks which are much easier to cordon off and control access to. It looks like a form of social engineering.

In the actions in the southeast and the repression of Kurdish politicians, the president’s short-term aim seems to be to weaken his opponents in the national referendum set for April 16, in which voters are being asked to approve the establishment of what is being called a super-presidency. If the referendum is successful, the post of prime minister will be abolished; Erdoğan will be able to appoint ministers and dismiss parliament at will, control the budget, and nominate senior judges; and he will be eligible to stay in power until 2029. This is the culmination of a drive toward one-man rule that Erdoğan started some five years ago.

Along with the secular Kemalists in the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the HDP is firmly against these sweeping changes. In order to ensure that he wins the referendum, Erdoğan appears to be trying to silence the HDP since it represents at least 10 percent of the electorate. But questions remain about the president’s long-term objectives. Does he need to suppress the Kurds because he wants a powerful presidency? Or does he need a powerful presidency in order to suppress the Kurds? If his campaign against the Kurds is a strategic shift rather than a mere tactical maneuver, then the Kurdish conflict may be one of those struggles that can never be resolved.

There are countervailing indications. The Kurdish movement’s aims in Turkey are less ambitious, territorially and politically, than those of the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has, ironically, good relations with Turkey, in part because it is seen as an effective counterweight to the PKK. Turkey also enjoys economic and political leverage over Erbil since the oil pipelines from Iraqi Kurdistan go through Turkey. In Erbil, the seat of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)—against the advice of its US government allies and to the consternation of Baghdad—Massoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, has called for independence and threatened to hold a referendum to break away from the larger Arab-majority areas of Iraq. The issue has been postponed by the battle to liberate Mosul from ISIS control, because the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi national army need each other to defeat the jihadists. But once ISIS is driven out of Mosul a major conflict may arise between Erbil and Baghdad. Control of much of the land in Iraq’s northwest has been disputed between Kurds and Arabs for decades. In the early months of resistance to ISIS the Kurds seized these lands as a useful buffer. It will not be easy for the Iraqi government to get them back.

By contrast the Kurds of Turkey no longer talk much about secession and independence. In the years since his 1999 capture and imprisonment on Imralı island in the Sea of Marmara, the thinking of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has undergone a profound shift. He has long since abandoned his Marxism-Leninism as well as his aspiration for a breakaway Kurdish republic. The Kurds are now an anomaly among liberation movements. They want to be a nation without a nation-state.

In Öcalan’s prison writings, published in 2013 under the title War and Peace in Kurdistan by a group of his sympathizers called International Initiative (available at www.freedom-for-ocalan.com), the PKK leader criticized the classic nation-state as hierarchical and authoritarian. “There should be a lean state as a political institution, which only observes functions in the fields of internal and external security and in the provision of social security,” he wrote. The ideal system of government, he argued, would be “democratic confederalism” or “democratic autonomy,” based on collective cultural rights enshrined in the Turkish constitution, bilingual public administration with education in Kurdish, the devolution of political and administrative powers to town councils, and the sharing of sovereignty between the central government and a Kurdish regional authority. It sounds no more radical than, say, the “asymmetric federalism” that Quebec enjoys in Canada.

Thus, the PKK’s initial goal of a “national democratic revolution,” leading later to socialism, across all the Kurdish lands in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, has been replaced by the aim of a “solution within Turkey” that could be a model for Kurdish areas in neighboring countries. As Öcalan put it in War and Peace in Kurdistan: “It is possible to build confederate structures across all parts of Kurdistan without the need to question the existing borders.”

Some may argue that Öcalan’s position is a smokescreen, forced on him by his life sentence in prison and by new geopolitical realities. Against that view one has to place the fact that his opinions are echoed by his adherents across Turkey as well as in northern Syria, where the largest political grouping, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), began as an offshoot of the PKK. The display of Öcalan’s picture is illegal in Turkey, but it hangs in offices across Syrian Kurdistan.*

Ulas Tosun/Getty Images
Turkish Kurds with a flag picturing imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, Diyarbakır, March 2015

This leads to a second reason why a solution to the Kurdish conflict in Turkey may be less remote than it seems. Making the initial contact is often the hardest part in any peace process. In Northern Ireland, the British government followed years of reluctance to talk to the Irish Republican Army with years of denying that any talks had started. But the Turkish government has already broken the taboo and held peace talks with the Kurds. Turkey describes the PKK as a terrorist group and has persuaded its European neighbors as well as the United States to issue the same designation. But in 2013 Erdoğan authorized Turkish officials to start a dialogue with Öcalan, along with representatives of the HDP.

In Istanbul I spoke to Pervin Buldan, the HDP MP who was a member of the delegation that made the initial two-hour boat trip to Imralı island to meet government officials and Öcalan in 2013. She and other Kurdish activists like to compare Öcalan with Nelson Mandela as a leader of a major liberation movement who was detained on a prison island. There are differences of treatment. While Mandela was forced to do hard physical labor in Robben Island’s quarry and was denied writing material except to send occasional letters, Öcalan was not required to work. He was allowed pen and paper and the right to transmit his manuscripts (censored, of course) to the mainland via his lawyers. But while Mandela had the companionship of fellow African political inmates, Öcalan was kept in isolation for ten years. Five other PKK prisoners with life sentences were then sent there. Three are still in the island prison but it is not clear how much contact, if any, they have had with Öcalan. He has had no visits from outsiders since his brother was allowed in briefly last September.

“I attended every one of the thirty-two sessions that the process lasted,” Buldan told me.

I would also go to talk to the PKK at its headquarters in the Qandil mountains [in Iraq] and also go to Ankara. There was a ceasefire. Öcalan presented us with a perspective of a peaceful solution and democratization, not only in Turkey but throughout the Middle East. An official record was kept. It resulted in a road-map of ten points. Öcalan gave great importance to having a team of monitors to watch implementation. He said that the day the team arrived would be the day when negotiations would begin. He would call on the PKK to lay down its arms.

At the culmination of these talks, Buldan and two HDP colleagues were invited to attend a joint press conference with the Turkish deputy prime minister, Yalçin Akdoğan, and the interior minister, Muammer Dervişoğlu, in the prime minister’s office in Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace on February 28, 2015. Though the plan was to read a joint statement, the two sides each read their own statement. Only the Kurdish one mentioned Öcalan’s road map as a way forward, and did not go into detail. The government statement made no mention of a monitoring committee or the start of negotiations. Erdoğan made his own position known a few days later. He denied there was any monitoring committee or agreement on negotiations.

Why did Erdoğan turn away from the peace talks? It seems to have been largely a matter of malign opportunism. Cuma Çiçek offers a clear analysis of Erdoğan’s shift in The Kurds of Turkey. It began, he argues, with the attack by ISIS on the largely Kurdish city of Kobane on the northern Syrian border in July 2014. The battle captured world attention and drove Kurds across the region to mobilize in solidarity with the besieged city while Turkish forces watched idly by from across the border. Kurds fought desperately to defend Kobane until the US-led coalition in Iraq started bombing ISIS positions and forced the jihadists to retreat.

The victory gave a new boost to the Kurds’ drive for autonomy throughout northern Syria. Erdoğan saw the contagion spreading into Turkey. He felt he could not afford to let the HDP take credit for ending the Turkish-Kurdish conflict in advance of the June 2015 parliamentary elections, especially since the HDP was vowing to thwart his ambitions to change the constitution and establish a super-presidency. Çiçek writes: “The open, sincere, reassuring and stable role of the HDP in the ongoing peace process increased the party’s credibility throughout society.” In the election, the HDP won 13 percent of the vote, with support from many progressive non-Kurds, and took eighty of parliament’s 550 seats even with the peace process on hold (the HDP vote fell back slightly in the next elections). A month later this détente collapsed when a clash between the PKK and Turkish security forces prompted Erdoğan to launch multiple air strikes on PKK bases in Iraq, effectively ending the ceasefire.

Could the Turkish government resume peace talks with Öcalan and the Kurds after the April referendum? The latest polls about the vote are contradictory, with several showing victory for the “No” side and others for the “Yes” side. If Erdoğan loses, his mood will not favor any kind of reconciliation with those who opposed him in the referendum. If he wins, there might be more of a chance. In an intriguing recent article in Daily Sabah, a strongly pro-government paper, Meryem İlayda Atlas, its opinion editor, described the resumption of peace talks as “inevitable.” “The question now is not when, but how they restart and who will the state talk to,” she wrote.

If the Turkish majority can be persuaded that Kurdish demands relate mainly to cultural rights and local power, then the basis for peace need not be hard to find. Atlas went on to say, correctly, that “a majority of Kurds now live in urban centers, enjoying a higher standard of living and traveling more than ever.” In his book, Çiçek makes a similar point, arguing that in Turkey’s traditional Kurdish heartland in the underdeveloped southeast the HDP and PKK rely on poor and lower-middle-class supporters who favor cooperative arrangements for the economy. This is the antithesis of the neoliberal policies of Erdoğan’s party as well as of the new Kurdish urban middle class in Istanbul and western Turkey. Yet regardless of their economic views or social status, neither Kurdish group seeks territorial sovereignty, a point that Öcalan made more than a decade ago. He needs to be freed so as to resume talks with the government on a fair basis. There is no better way to restore peace.

—March 21, 2017

  1. *

    See my piece “The Syrian Kurds are Winning!,” The New York Review, December 3, 2015.