The Kurdish Question warrants a more comprehensive examination
Seemingly intractable, positively complex – the question of the Kurds has been an area of contention in Middle-East politics, dating back to the Kurds’ frequent rebellions against the Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s decision to launch ‘Operation Peace-Spring’ (the third major Turkish military operation in to Syria since 2016) in Syria on October 9, 2019 has been subject to polarising reception. Amid the volatility and added layers of developments, it is imperative to be familiarized with the roots of the conflict in a bid to get to the heart of the dilemma. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, new states such as Turkey and Iraq, as well as Iran and Syria inherited the unresolved issues of Kurdish quests for autonomy. Notably, according to a TRT report, “almost 10 per cent of the Syrian population, 15-20 per cent of the Turkish, 20 per cent of the Iraqi, and 10 per cent of the Iranian populations are Kurdish.” With respect to Turkey, the modern roots of the conflict resurfaced after the 1919–1923 Turkish War of Independence but took a more violent turn after the establishment of the Kurdish militant and political organization, the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê).
Clashes between state forces and the PKK piqued in 1984 and the 1990s amid the organizations’ declared goals of establishing an independent state in south-eastern Turkey through armed-struggle. The Turkish state’s enactment of more unitary and assimilationist policies – with the endeavour to promote and cultivate a unifying, national identity – have often been at the centre of the debate pertaining to ‘reactionary’ and ‘radicalized’ Kurdish nationalism and militancy. What often goes amiss in discussions focusing on a clash of competing nationalisms in Turkey is the considerable integration of Kurdish communities in Turkish society. Those communities adamant on their rejection of social-integration and assimilation gave way to militancy, with the rise of the PKK.
It is pertinent to mention that incumbent Turkish President (prime-minister at the time) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambitious goals towards resolving the dilemma of the Kurds, namely his ‘democratic opening’ in 2002 – which entailed “easing restrictions on the Kurdish language, providing economic investment and holding back the army” – hinted at a change in state-policy. Erdoğan’s public apology over the military campaign which killed thousands of Kurds in Dersim, south-east Turkey in the 1930s’ was another bold statement. In 2013 PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan also sought to revive prospects for a peaceful-settlement by publicly stating: “Let guns be silenced and politics dominate… a new door is being opened from the process of armed conflict to democratization and democratic politics. It’s not the end. It’s the start of a new era.” This statement appeared to be a stepping-stone towards a ceasefire and a possible peace-process after decades of bloody clashes.
The Syrian crisis, however, changed the course of action with regard to the conflict. At first, Erdoğan’s attempts towards accommodating the Syrian Kurds appeared promising as the Syrian-Kurdish PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat) leader Saleh Muslim arrived in Ankara on July 25, 2013, for talks. However, in 2014, following Turkey’s stance on the siege of Kobani – Kobani being one of three Kurdish cantons in the Rojava region in northern Syria – tensions flared between the PKK (in addition to other Kurdish separatist groups) and Turkish state once again. Escalations heightened after the July 20, 2015 Suruç bombing and the 24-25 July Turkish military operation against ISIL and PKK positions in Syria and Northern-Iraq, respectively. These developments ultimately led to the abandonment of the ceasefire as “PKK worried the government [Turkey] was using the group’s partial withdrawal to build new military bases, and the government accused the PKK of stockpiling weapons and planting explosives on roads around the region.”
Following the November 2015 snap Turkish General Elections – with Erdoğan’s AKP party winning 49.5 percent of the vote and rival contender CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi) securing 25.32 percent – violence remained in place with 2360 people killed between 2015-2016 as state forces and Kurdish separatist militias engaged in intensified clashes.
In 2017, in a local administrators meeting Erdoğan emphasized that “We regard the Kurds in Iraq and Syria the same as we regard Turkmen and Arabs… no ethnicity is superior to the others… our only concern when fighting against PKK and Daesh is whether somebody is a member of those terror groups.” He stressed that the PKK/PYD organization and other Kurdish separatist, militant groups were “exploiting Kurdish brothers.”
Taking this historical backdrop of the modern conflict and Erdoğan’s endeavours towards reaching a peaceful-settlement with the Kurds into consideration, one may notice that the overly simplistic narrative of nationalism versus nationalism does not offer a sufficient explanation for the build-up in tensions This narrative, which sees bombastic nationalism as the cause of the recent flare in tensions, does not do justice to the Kurds who accepted assimilation into Turkish society, nor does it allow one to understand anti-PKK/YPG Syrian Kurds’ grievances against Kurdish militancy – it is narrow and inherently problematic. President of the Independent Syrian Kurdish Association Abdulaziz Tammo’s statement “The PKK terrorists pit Kurds against Kurds, Arabs against Arabs” makes one think. Tammo’s criticism of what he describes as ‘YPG (the armed-wing of the PYD) persecution’ stands in stark contrast to the mainstream narrative concerning Syrian-Kurdish objection to ‘Operation Peace-Spring.’
With Turkey’s stated goals of quashing the Syrian-Democratic-Forces (an ally of the PKK) presence from the border region, in addition to establishing a ‘safe-zone’ in Northern-Syria for the re-settlement of Syrian refugees (amid the United States’ decision to withdraw its troops from north-eastern Syria,) the operation has come under intense scrutiny. As the United States and Turkey reached a cease-fire where Turkey agreed to “pause its offensive…for 120 hours in order to allow the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG) to pull 30km back from the Turkey-Syria border,” Erdoğan has maintained that if the ceasefire agreements are not upheld by all parties involved, the operation would resume.
The Kurdish Question warrants a more comprehensive examination – its multi-layered factors (in addition to the range of international actors involved in this conflict) and continuously evolving dynamics adding to the complexity. One thing is certain and that is this conflict can no longer be ignored or rebuffed as all eyes are fixed on north-eastern Syria to see how this further plays out.
Ana Tawfiq Husain is a student at Habib University.