Since the Turkish Republic was set up in 1923, no Turkish statesman has shown the necessary combination of courage and imagination to resolve the question of how the country’s ethnic Kurds, who are now estimated to number fifteen million people, should be treated. Turkey’s leaders have tried variously to isolate the Kurds, integrate them, and repress them, hoping that they might agree to live unobtrusively in a state that was set up on the premise that all its inhabitants, except for a small number of non-Muslim minorities, are Turks.

During the past twenty years, several million Kurds have moved from their homes in southeastern Turkey to towns and cities further west, many to Istanbul—some to escape the state’s pitiless treatment of Kurds, others in the hope of becoming a bit less poor. Some of these Kurds have done what the state wanted them to. They have married Turks, or they have decided not to teach their children to speak Kurmanji, the Kurdish language that is most widespread in Turkey. They have taken their place in the mainstream Turkish economy and learned to enjoy Turkish food, pop music, and soap operas. In short, they have become the Turks that the state always insisted they were.

But there is another group, perhaps as large, who have remained in the southeast and in the Kurdish neighborhoods of cities in western Turkey. These people, recalling the humiliations to which they, as Kurds, have for years been subject, or because members of their families have fought against the Turkish state, retain a strong sense of Kurdish identity that has not been weakened by the military defeat that the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) sustained in the late 1990s, when it was forced to scale down its long guerrilla war against the Turkish army; and that has survived the capture, in 1999, of the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is serving a life sentence on a prison island near Istanbul.

The pride of such Kurds in their identity has been sharpened by two unexpected developments. First, since the American invasion of Iraq, the Kurds of northern Iraq have established a federal region that enjoys nearly complete autonomy. It runs its own armed forces, decides how to spend its revenues, and maintains independent (if unofficial) foreign relations. This nearly sovereign Kurdistan—inhabited by more than five million people—is a source of pride to Kurdish nationalists everywhere. Second, under pressure from the European Union, a club that the Turkish government has long wanted to join, Turkey passed a series of laws, mostly between 2002 and 2004, which have increased freedom of expression and relaxed slightly the monopoly held by the official Turkish culture. Under these laws, Kurds now have the right to broadcast in Kurdish and to set up private Kurdish-language schools. They are able to articulate their grievances more bluntly and they are physically safer. Following the passage of anti-torture legislation, reports of torture in police stations and jails have dropped markedly.

In August 2005, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, whose mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party has been in power since 2002, acknowledged during a visit to Diyarbakir, the main city of the largely Kurdish region in the southeast, that the state had made mistakes in its dealings with the Kurds, and that the answer to the problem was “more democracy.” Coming at a time when the PKK was stepping up its attacks, ostensibly in reaction to Turkey’s refusal to offer amnesties to PKK militants and to end Ocalan’s solitary confinement, the prime minister seemed to be making a brave effort to soften the policies of repression that have contributed to the Kurds’ discontent for so long. But this rapprochement did not last long.

Three months after Erdogan’s trip to Diyarbakir, the new mood was changed by Turkish actions so cynical and deliberate that they illustrated how hard it is to control military power once it has become embedded in a civilian state. On November 9, 2005, a bookshop owned by a Kurdish nationalist in Semdinli—a town in the extreme southeastern corner of Turkey near the border with Iraq and Iran—was bombed, killing one man and injuring others. The bombers, who were caught soon after the act by local people, turned out to be two agents of the Turkish gendarmerie and a PKK guerrilla-turned-informer. Their identities seemed to confirm the long-held conviction of many in Turkey that some members of the armed forces, afraid of losing the prestige, political autonomy, and big budgets that they have enjoyed since the PKK rebellion gained momentum in the late 1980s, do not want peace at all.

The attack at Semdinli may have been the moment when Erdogan’s democratically elected, moderately pro-European government lost ground to the chauvinist representatives—only partially visible—of what Turks call the “deep state,” and to their supporters in the armed forces. The generals, many of them secular-minded in the tradition of Kemal Ataturk, get on badly with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which they believe is trying to introduce an Islamic republic by stealth. Shortly after the bombing at Semdinli, Yasar Buyukanit, then the commander of Turkey’s army, who had been tipped to become the next chief of the General Staff, the country’s highest-ranking military post, described one of the bombers as a “good fellow,” and this remark was mentioned in the charge sheet that a prosecutor prepared in connection with the bombing. Put under public pressure from the General Staff and its allies in the pliant mainstream press, Turkey’s judicial authorities fired the prosecutor. The bombers received heavy prison sentences and Buyukanit was duly appointed chief of the General Staff. And so the Semdinli bombing, whose instigators Erdogan had promised to punish, “no matter who they are,” was swept out of sight.


After the explosion at Semdinli, the violence continued, not with the intensity of the war that engulfed the region in the early 1990s, but sharply enough to affect Turkey’s internal politics and damage its international standing. Between January and October of 2006, 299 people, the great majority of them militants, were killed in clashes between the PKK and the armed forces—the highest such figure since 1999. In the spring of 2006, at least ten people died in riots that broke out during a funeral in Diyarbakir for PKK guerrillas killed by government forces. For three days, Diyarbakir was ungovernable, as thousands of unemployed young men, many of whom live in the streets and survive by begging and shining shoes, trashed banks, police stations, and shops. In the summer, a group that is an offshoot of the PKK claimed responsibility for planting a series of deadly bombs in tourist resorts. In September, a Turkish nationalist organization set off a bomb in a crowded park in Diyarbakir, killing ten civilians—all of them presumably Kurds.

To many officials of the European Union, the Semdinli bombing and its aftermath showed that such principles as the subordination of the armed forces to civilian authority and the independence of judges were still being violated in Turkey. In June, the Turkish parliament added what the European Commission described as “restrictions on freedom of expression” to the country’s anti-terror law. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Denmark’s conservative prime minister, described as “shocking” a trial, which is still going on, of more than fifty pro-PKK mayors who had urged him to resist pressure from the Turkish government to close the PKK’s unofficial TV channel, Roj, which broadcasts from Copenhagen.

General Buyukanit, as the new chief of staff, looks the part of head of state, and the mainstream Turkish press, which covered in fawning detail his recent official visit to Greece, treats him almost as if he is one. In October, Buyukanit had a sharp exchange with a Turkish party leader who suggested that PKK guerrillas should be encouraged to come down from the mountains—whether in Turkey or Iraq—and take part in politics. “This is a call for a general amnesty,” Buyukanit said, “and I strongly deplore it.” When he publicly criticized the impunity with which Turkey’s main pro-PKK newspaper propagandizes for the organization, a court then ordered the paper to close down temporarily. As the European Commission’s report lamented, Turkey’s armed forces continue to exercise “significant political influence.”

In November, Finland, holder of the rotating presidency of the European Union, announced that it had failed in its efforts to persuade Turkey to accede to the EU’s demands that it open its ports to Greek Cypriot ships, a step that Turkey is prepared to take only if the EU lifts its embargo on the Turkish-run northern third of the divided island.1 On December 11, European Union foreign ministers punished Turkey by slowing down accession negotiations, pending a settlement of the issue, which may still be possible through diplomacy. But as the commission’s November appraisal showed, Cyprus is not the only big impediment to progress in the negotiations, although it is the most urgent.

The European Commission’s report also criticized Turkey for the influence of its armed forces on “Cyprus, secularism, the Kurdish issue, and the indictment concerning the Semdinli bombing.” Reading these criticisms, I thought of two servants of the Turkish state I met during several visits to eastern Turkey over the past two years. One was an army captain; the other was a policeman, or so he told me.

My visits have coincided with a hardening of European public opinion, especially in Germany and France, against Turkish membership in the union; a reaction has been felt in Turkey, where support for joining has greatly diminished. (According to a recent poll conducted in fifteen Turkish towns and cities, 32 percent of people now believe that Turkey “must certainly enter the European Union”; in 2004, that figure was 67 percent.)


Some European governments and parliaments, led by France, regard Turkey’s refusal to accept moral responsibility on behalf of the Ottoman Empire for the massacre of a million or more Armenians during World War I, or to accept that the massacres amount to genocide, as another serious obstacle to membership, even if the European Commission does not officially regard it as one. Turkish nationalist lawyers have become notorious by bringing suits against dozens of writers, journalists, and academics, Orhan Pamuk among them, on charges of “insulting Turkishness.” (Hrant Dink, the Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor who was shot dead by a Turkish nationalist in January, was one of the few Turkish citizens whose trial on these charges led to a conviction and, in Dink’s case, a suspended sentence.)

In Istanbul and other places, visiting European politicians deplore Turkey’s reluctance to resolve legal ambiguities surrounding the ownership of scores of Christian places of worship. And in the southeast, where the EU has long supported enhanced Kurdish rights—although not the PKK, which it considers a terrorist organization—European officials have on occasion recommended legislation that would make it easier for Kurdish parties that renounce violence to gain admittance to parliament, and would oblige state schools in Kurdish areas to offer instruction in the local language.

As the top soldier in a district with an overwhelming Kurdish majority, the captain I spoke to had more authority than any other official, but he was little liked by local people. One day in 2005, as we stood on a hill overlooking the shell of a police station that had been bombed by the PKK some years ago, he told me that Turkey should not take part in an admissions process whose aim was to emasculate the country. In the guise of the EU process and its “civilizing” reforms, he said, the ground was being laid for the creation of an independent Kurdistan in eastern Anatolia. Mustafa Kemal’s government had acted decisively in 1920 when it persuaded the allies to abandon their effort to set up a Kurdish state. In the face of the new threat, the captain assured me, the armed forces and other patriotic Turks would prevent such a state from coming into being.

The young provincial police officer I spoke to last autumn had a surprisingly impressive grasp of Middle Eastern issues and international politics. We met shortly after the lower house of the French parliament had approved a bill that would make it a criminal offense to “deny” the Armenian genocide,2 and the Nobel committee had announced that this year’s prize for literature would go to Orhan Pamuk, a decision that most Turks of my acquaintance connect with Pamuk’s earlier comments about the Armenian massacres. During a two-hour conversation, the police officer dwelt on European hypocrisy—the record of France in Algeria, for example—and on the discrimination that many Muslim immigrants meet with in Europe. He, like the army captain, felt much nostalgia for the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, when Turks had run the Balkans, North Africa, and much of the Middle East. He jovially said he couldn’t trust me. “In fact,” he went on, “I feel no trust for any Westerner whatsoever. I’m obliged to proceed according to the policies set by my government, but personally I think we have no need for the EU.”

Neither of these Turks, the products of academies with thousands of graduates annually, was saying anything exceptional. Some in Turkey, notably in the private sector and at some universities and among the Westernized middle class, continue to believe fervently that Turkey must be part of Europe, but most Turks no longer do so. This change of heart, feeding off Europe’s hostility and exacerbating it in turn, lies behind the text of the European Commission’s recent report, and explains why the Turks, despite the reforms of the past few years, once again seem a long way from joining the European Union.


Seemingly anxious about its authority, the Turkish state has branded the land. The words “Above all, the Homeland” have been written in huge letters by conscripts on a chalky hillside between Mus and Diyarbakir. Further along the same road, there is a large sign with a Turkish star and crescent. Each time I visit Turkey, it seems that the portraits of Ataturk, painted onto canvas and flapping down the side of big public buildings, or digitally reproduced in the window of a department store, have got bigger; they are now overwhelming features on façades and walls. The portraits and the Turkish flags that fly everywhere, the biggest flags that I have ever seen, make a whipping, cracking sound on a windy day. From what I know of Ataturk, a republican and a rationalist, he would have abhorred the cult that has been posthumously built around him. The ideals he promoted were those of Turkishness and modernism. Finding them hard to realize, or perhaps even to define, his successors have filled the country with his handsome face and his spiky, blood-red flag.

On the other side of Turkey’s southern border, in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq, the man prominently portrayed is Abdullah Ocalan. After a drive into the mountains northeast of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish federal region, you round a bend and see his face, painted black and blue on white concrete that has been poured onto the flint-strewn hillside. It is an ordinary face, rough and slightly startled—the face, we now know, of a survivor.

Eight years ago, when he was seized as a fugitive in Africa and brought back to Turkey to stand trial for his life, Ocalan’s future looked bleak. In the words of Nizamettin Tas, a prominent PKK defector who was then a high-ranking commander, “we expected him to resist and then to be executed.” Ocalan did not resist. After he surrendered, he called the rebellion a “mistake” and renounced his former demands for Kurdish independence and even autonomy. He ordered his men to observe a cease-fire, which lasted until 2004, and all but a few PKK militants withdrew from Turkish territory into northern Iraq. The Turkish authorities may have calculated that a compromised, captive Ocalan would serve their interests better than a martyr whose execution would provoke more violence and strain relations with the European Union. In the end, Ocalan’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after Turkey’s parliament outlawed capital punishment in 2001.

Since then, the PKK and the political parties that have acted as PKK fronts in Turkish politics before being closed down by court order—the Democratic Society Party is the latest—have confounded many predictions and survived. The relative freedom with which Ocalan’s lawyers have been able to pass on his messages has led some to suspect that he is cooperating with his captors—that he has defected, in effect, to the “deep state.” Ocalan has praised Ataturk and criticized the Erdogan government’s undermining of secularism and also the “feudal nature” of the two Kurdish parties that, between them, run the Kurdish federal region of northern Iraq. On some subjects, his positions do not seem far from those of the Turkish establishment; but he remains the symbol of the Turkish cause.

Several books written by former PKK members portray the organization as a personality cult whose members must subordinate their own identities to the official ideology, and where two “crimes,” in particular criticism of Ocalan and romantic relationships between male and female guerrillas, are punishable by death. The young militants, many of them women, that I spoke to in Iraq’s Kandil Mountains described Ocalan as a visionary and a genius. (There are few signs of brilliance in his many books and published speeches, which contain a lot of vague philosophizing and hardly any self-doubt.) Some of these young women seem to have joined the PKK, where they are taught to fight and given the same duties as male militants, because it offers them an escape from patriarchal Kurdish society. One I spoke to said that she had arrived at Kandil from southeastern Turkey as an illiterate and that the organization had taught her to read. Now, in timber schoolrooms in camps scattered across Kandil, she and her comrades study Ocalan’s “Democratic, Ecological Paradigm,” the latest of his many treatises for ordering the world; much of it could have come from the program of any Green Party in Europe.

The unquestioning obedience of these militants to Ocalan, and their conviction that he is a great historical figure, explain why they do not seem bothered by the ambiguities that make it hard, from the outside, to find out what the PKK now stands for. The PKK is a guerrilla army estimated to be five thousand strong, but it says it wants peace and it announced a new cease-fire, the fifth in its history, on October 1. The militants who once aimed to set up an independent, socialist Kurdistan in the southeast of Turkey now disavow that aim; they would, they say, be content with guaranteed rights to political activity and free expression.

One point that senior PKK men like to make is that the organization acts as a brake on radical Islamist groups that are gaining influence across the Kurdish southeast, alarming secularists in Turkey’s civilian and military establishment. “If we are eliminated,” Murat Karayilan, the PKK’s acting leader, told me, “those religious movements will develop.”

After more than two decades of struggle, in which at least 30,000 guerrillas and sympathizers were killed and an unknown number were imprisoned, tortured, and harassed, the PKK’s emotional hold over millions of Kurds remains strong. Even now, in Diyarbakir and other places in the southeast, it is hard to find people who openly criticize the PKK, apart from the “loyalist” Kurds who have been armed and funded by the state. Many would-be critics have been silenced by the PKK’s vengeful attitude toward those it considers traitors. In 2005, a Kurdish politician opposed to the PKK was gunned down in Diyarbakir. Of the seventeen commanders who quit the organization in 2003 and set up a rival group, no fewer than seven have been assassinated, Nizamettin Tas told me in November. According to Karayilan, “rogue” militants acting without PKK sanction may have carried out some of these killings. He dismisses suggestions that it might be in the PKK’s interest to select a new leader. “It was Abdullah Ocalan who gave the Kurds their spirit and their voice,” he told me. “To abandon Abdullah Ocalan is to abandon Kurdishness.”

The PKK is the most widespread and resilient of the many Kurdish groups that have fought against the Turkish Republic. This opposition, and the sympathy that Kurdish nationalism now receives in Europe, have forced the state to acknowledge the existence of its large Kurdish population. In other ways, however, the rebellion has been a curse on the Kurds. The state’s tactic of destroying entire villages has made much of the rural southeast uninhabitable.3 By the mid-1990s, according to Human Rights Watch, more than three thousand villages had been “virtually wiped from the map.” Moreover, as a consequence of internal migration, the old dream of Turkey’s Kurds, to set up an independent or autonomous Kurdistan with its capital at Diyarbakir, now seems unfeasible. It is hard to imagine such a territory emerging without widespread ethnic cleansing by Turkish nationalists intent on “purifying” Kurdish-inhabited parts of western Turkey, while the Kurds fight back.

From the point of view of the Turkish Republic, the decision not to execute Ocalan now seems fortuitous. From his prison cell, he exercises a generally restraining influence on an organization whose fanatical members are capable of extreme violence. The latest cease-fire has not held, amid assertions by Murat Karayilan that the militants are obliged to defend themselves against Turkish attacks, but few expect a return to the total war of the early 1990s, which cost so many lives on both sides. From Ocalan’s conciliatory messages it is possible to infer that he wants the Turks to recognize him as the leader of his people, and that he will cooperate more if they do. With Buyukanit in charge of the armed forces, Turkish nationalist feeling running high, and two elections—parliamentary and presidential—due in 2007, Turkey is unlikely to give Ocalan his wish soon.


Turkey’s longstanding fear, that the Kurdish federal region in Iraq will declare independence, adding to nationalist passions among its own Kurds, is shared by Iran and Syria, the other countries that have divided up the ancient region of Kurdistan.4 Shortly before the US invaded Iraq, Iran started to change its former policy of helping PKK militants as a means of exerting pressure on Turkey. Murat Karayilan complains that the Iranians and the Syrians—who, under Turkish pressure, had already reversed their own pro-PKK policy—frequently now capture PKK militants and hand them over to Turkey. Last summer, Iran and Turkey bombed camps in the Kandil Mountains belonging to the PKK and the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), a PKK affiliate dominated by Kurds from Iran, which started launching attacks in 2004 on Iran’s security forces. Turkey’s army massed menacingly on the Iraqi border. In fear of a land invasion of their territory, and encouraged, perhaps, by the US, the northern Iraqi Kurds persuaded the PKK to announce its current ceasefire, which is only partially observed.

The Turkish government’s decision not to enter Iraq shows how constrained it feels in comparison with the final years of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, when it mounted large-scale annual operations in the Kandil Mountains. Turkey is still feeling the effects of its parliament’s decision in 2003 to refuse a US request to use Turkey as a launch pad for the Iraq invasion. This decision infuriated the Bush administration and limited Turkey’s ability to influence postwar Iraq. America’s occupation of Iraq has curtailed Turkey’s freedom to move forces in and out of Iraq when it likes; but the Americans have not themselves taken action against the PKK in Iraq, as Turkey has demanded.

It is not surprising that the US, engaged in a demoralizing struggle against insurgents in Iraq’s Arab regions, has balked at starting a new offensive in Kurdistan, the calmest part of the country, against an organization that has never attacked it and at the behest of a country that refused its request for help three years ago. Turkey suspects that Bush’s appointment of Joseph Ralston, a retired general, to come up with an anti-PKK policy acceptable to the Iraqi and Turkish governments is a smokescreen. More than four months have passed since Ralston was named to his post, but a specially formed contact group, with Turkish and Iraqi representatives, has yet to meet.

If you visit the Kurdish federal region in Iraq, with its own president, parliament, and flag, you may come away, as I did, with the impression that it is on the way to independence. “At this stage,” Massoud Barzani, the region’s president, told The Wall Street Journal recently, “the parliament of Kurdistan has decided to remain within a federal, democratic Iraq.”5 How long will that decision last? Most Iraqis, and many outsiders, are suspicious of the Kurds’ determination to gain ownership of the oil-rich governorate of Kirkuk—a territory with a mixed population of Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, and Christians—whose status, according to the constitution, is to be decided by a referendum before the end of 2007. In the words of a recent report by the International Crisis Group, “Kirkuk’s oil wealth would enable Kurdish independence…. [The Kurds] know that without Kirkuk, they would govern at most a rump state profoundly dependent on neighbours.”6

Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish president of Iraq, and a longtime sparring partner of Barzani, is regarded as a restraining influence on the Kurds’ irredentist ambitions. In a recent profile of him in The New Yorker, he described the suggestion of Peter Galbraith, a former State Department official, that Iraq should be partitioned, as “wishful thinking…. There is not, I think, a realistic Kurdish leader who would say, ‘We want independence.’ Why? Because it is impossible.”7

Some Turkish officials believe that the American government might be protecting the PKK, in order to give its Iranian affiliate, the PJAK, a better chance of destabilizing the Iranian government in the Kurd-dominated areas of northwest Iran. Since the election last year of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad it has become harder to discern what is happening in Iranian Kurdistan. According to Murat Karayilan, the PJAK has slowed its attacks on Iran since the Iranian bombardments this summer, but he says that the attacks are still taking place. It is harder still to gauge the support that the PJAK has, though, in the words of one recent visitor to the region, Iran’s Kurds are “transfixed by what is happening in northern Iraq, and the local newspapers report on Barzani as much as they do on Ahmadinejad.” Several towns in Iraqi Kurdistan have growing populations of migrants from the Kurdish regions of Iran.

An independent Kurdistan, even if it includes Kirkuk, would still need the goodwill of its neighbors. The Kurds of northern Iraq are already economically dependent on Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Iran. The head of Diyarbakir’s chamber of commerce predicts that by the end of this year, Turkey’s exports to the Kurdish federal region in Iraq, particularly of food and building supplies, may total as much as $5 billion. Kirkuk’s oil flows to the Mediterranean via Turkey—when the pipeline, which has been repeatedly sabotaged, is able to carry it. Once the US starts withdrawing from Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds will once again feel vulnerable to pressures from Turkey and Iran. Barzani told The Wall Street Journal that he would welcome a deployment of American troops to Iraqi Kurdistan—there are none at present. “It would,” he said, “be a “deterrent to intervention by the neighbouring countries.”

The US remains officially committed to Iraq’s unity, but that could change even before George Bush leaves office. From an American perspective, a new Kurdish state would have much to recommend it. It would be friendly to the US, and as much of a democracy as you are likely to find in the Middle East. But an independent Kurdistan would probably cause Turkey to be even more repressive of its own Kurds, and as a result its chances of entering Europe, which the US has encouraged, will become dimmer. Iran would feel more threatened if there is an independent Kurdistan and would be more likely to intervene secretly and openly in Kurdish affairs. Even if they get hold of Kirkuk, the Iraqi Kurds may find that they have much to gain by putting off their dream of statehood for more than a few years to come.

—January 31, 2007

This Issue

March 1, 2007