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Kobane, and the failure of Turkey’s Kurdish policy

by Arman Baisuanov
Kurds along the Turkish-Syrian border watch airstrikes on Kobane (Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurds along the Turkish-Syrian border watch airstrikes on Kobane (Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

The stateless Kurdish people have attracted increased international attention recently as the media spotlight focusses on their peshmerga forces fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

However, while the Kurds are enjoying the sympathy and military support of the west, not everyone in their neighbourhood shares these positive sentiments. Turkey has dragged its heels in responding to international calls and domestic pressure to allow Kurdish fighters to cross its territory and help their brethren in the town of Kobane, Syria, which has been under siege by Islamic State since September 2014. The reasons for such a reluctant attitude are tied up with Turkey’s troubled past with its own Kurdish population and its apparent unwillingness to encourage Kurds to play a greater role in the Middle East.

Turkish sensitivities towards Kurds in general, and the Syrian Kurds in particular, are linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party’s (PKK) violent, 30-year self-determination campaign against the Turkish state. However, the fact that the only regional ally that has survived Ankara’s adventurous and largely-unsuccessful attempts to reformulate its Middle East policy is the Kurdish regional government in Iraq speaks volumes and reveals some of the complexity of the situation. An alliance with the United States and the silent encouragement of Iran places the Kurdish communities in Iraq and Syria in a pivotal position to shape the future of the region. Turkey cannot afford to be indifferent to these developments.

The greatest obstacles to Turkey’s active engagement with the Kurds lie in the complexities of domestic politics in Turkey. Old fears of territorial disintegration, the inability of the current government to see the benefits of Kurdish empowerment both inside and outside Turkey, and the persistence of domestic social models based on inequality seem to be the main reasons for Ankara’s fragmented and inflexible policy towards the Kurds. As long as Turkish officials and the public struggle to accommodate Kurdish demands, any foreign action involving the Kurdish question is doomed to fall victim to indecisive and short-sighted attitudes.

Uneven and reversible liberalisation has been the main feature of Turkey’s domestic evolution over the last two decades. The strictly nationalist ideology of the founders of the Turkish republic, designed to hold the post-Ottoman society together and deny ethnic differences, has been challenged by the apparently more inclusive vision of moderate Islamists from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The record of AKP-led reforms since 2002 does demonstrate that Turkey’s Kurds have largely benefitted from the initially progressive impetus at democratisation. However, the AKP cannot claim credit alone, as such factors as the competition between traditional and new elites, EU-inspired reforms, and the emergence of privately-owned independent media have contributed to the recognition of the rights of Kurds. As a result, Kurdish access to the political scene in Turkey has prompted the redefinition of their claims in favour of greater democracy and human rights, and a toning down of their demands for independence.

Despite this, the AKP represents the views of the mostly-conservative segments of Turkish society, and as such appears to have inherited the cultural biases and xenophobic attitude of its predecessors. The new leaders have so far been unable to introduce a fresh definition of what it means to be a Turkish citizen–irrespective of ethnic background–and are still relying on an exclusive interpretation of the Turkish identity formulated more than 90 years ago. Moreover, attempts to distance themselves from the legacy of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, resulted in the idea of a ‘new Turkey’– a neo-Ottoman paradigm with a substantial, if not dominant, sectarian element, which risks polarising Turkish society. The legacy of secular nationalists, who perceived the Kurdish question as a conspiracy to weaken Turkey, is comfortably accommodated in the AKP mindset: the claim that the west uses Kurds to sow dissent among Muslims and undermine their solidarity is too attractive to be dismissed for those resisting any western influence.

On the other side, more than three decades of sustained efforts by Ankara to solve the Kurdish question by military means led to the elimination of moderate elements in the Kurdish opposition. In contrast to its less liberal neighbours, coercion was the principal instrument of Turkish authorities; Syria, Iraq and Iran opted for their versions of ‘carrot and stick’ policies, which resulted in a greater range of political opinion among Kurdish communities in those countries. As a result, the PKK, with its tendency towards violence and authoritarian governance, emerged as the most vocal representative of the Turkish Kurds.

It is little wonder that the 2009 and 2013 attempts by then prime minister and current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to formulate the terms of a peace deal with the PKK achieved only tactical results–mostly designed to lure Kurdish voters to support the ruling party. At the same time, the deals prompted the political legitimation of the PKK and its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who remains the symbol and principal voice of Kurdish resistance. But the continued inability of Turkey’s Kurds to transform what has been a resistance movement (or terrorist organisation, as officials continue to label it) into a representative political force, and demonstrate commitment to peace, serves as a motivation for hardliners in Ankara to view any sign of Kurdish empowerment as a threat.

The Turkish public generally sees little prospect for a military solution to the Kurdish question and recognises the need for a political settlement. However, the decades of denial and virtually non-existent collective memory make Turkey’s rediscovery of its Kurds painful. Once Kurds became visible and recognisable in the public sphere–mainly as a result of large-scale labour migration to more prosperous areas in the west of the country–social and cultural distance between the two communities started growing. Conversely, while in public perception a strongly nationalist view is sidelined by a more moderate line seeking to delink the identity issue and security aspects of the conflict with the PKK, most Turks appear unprepared for a discussion of a separate Kurdish identity and the prevailing mindset sticks to the notion of a uniform society. Many, including liberals and the left-wing opposition, prefer to view the Kurdish issue through the lens of democracy and human rights, and thus see no need for the constitutional recognition of Kurds’ rights.

The ruling party is unlikely to live up to its commitment to the emancipation of the Kurds either. The AKP represents the views of a largely-conservative majority, and the notion of individual rights and the rights of minorities is dismissed by its many followers as an unnecessary invention of the west.

Turkey’s lack of a consistent and long-term strategy to deal with the Kurdish question results in a tactical and fragile alliance: a nearly personal deal between Erdoğan and Öcalan. The prevailing viewpoint portraying Erdoğan as the sole architect of Ankara’s Kurdish policy could have negative consequences for Turkey’s Kurds, as the public shows signs of dissatisfaction with the AKP’s performance. For his part, Öcalan has radically changed his position since his capture in 1999, and now advocates a peaceful solution and ‘democratic confederalism’ (a confederation of the Kurdish regions of eastern Turkey, eastern Syria, northern Iraq and western Iran). Although he abandoned dialogue with the Turkish state in 2010, he declared a ceasefire in 2013, and the PKK began withdrawing its fighters from Turkey. The danger remains that too much hangs on the personalities of Erdoğan and Öcalan.

The menace of the PKK appears to cast a long shadow over Turkey’s foreign policy calculations, particularly in relation to Syria. While there are several potential motivations for Ankara’s decision to cut friendly ties with Damascus and support the Syrian opposition, it may have been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s move to rekindle relationships with PKK-affiliated elements of the two million-strong Syrian Kurdish community that contributed to the policy shift.

Geographically dispersed and politically fragmented, Syrian Kurds, unlike their kin in other states, kept a low profile and remained one of country’s many underprivileged minorities until the Arab Spring and the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011. This development gave them an opportunity to emerge as a distinct ethnic group with political, cultural and economic claims. Although the government’s decision to leave the Kurdish populated areas of northeastern Syria in 2012 and allow the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) to step in can be seen as confirmation of a deal between Syrian Kurds and Assad, there is no evidence to suggest anything more than a temporary and tactical collaboration.

Turkey’s policy toward Syrian Kurds has been and remains dominated by the history of its struggle with the PKK and the illicit support that Syria, until 1998, provided the group in the form of weapon supplies, safe havens and training. The sudden rise to prominence of Syria’s Kurds seems to have reignited old fears and suspicions, forcing decision-makers in Ankara to perceive the situation in northeast Syria purely in security terms. It appears little effort has been made to draw Syria’s Kurds into Turkey’s sphere of influence and economic cooperation (as occurred in Iraq). Moreover, Turkey appears to be more concerned with isolating Syrian Kurds, rather than with their integration into the Kurdish National Council, an umbrella organisation led by Mahmoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan and a crucial ally of Turkey. Despite its partnership with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, Ankara is opposed to Kurdish autonomy in Syria, as two autonomous Kurdish regions bordering Turkey would give new impetus to those campaigning for Kurdish autonomy within the country.

Turkey may have missed the opportunity to replicate the Iraqi Kurdish model and form a friendly enclave across its border with Syria. Heavily influenced by the memories and legacies of the past, Turkish leaders did not demonstrate the required degree of flexibility and imagination in dealing with the issue of Syria’s Kurds. A biased and indecisive attitude towards Kurds at home has left Turkey in a vulnerable position abroad. Kobani was, until recently, an innocent victim of this situation.

This article is co-published with openDemocracy.