Turkey's Kurdish dilemma

By bne IntelliNews October 10, 2014

David O'Byrne in Istanbul -


The riots that erupted in cities across Turkey October 7-9 have left as many as 24 dead and presented a serious challenge for the just one-month-old government of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, which is paying the price for Turkey's decades-long failure to address the needs and aspirations of the country's estimated 11m-14m ethnic Kurds.

Worst affected have been cities in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish-populated southeast regions, much of which has been placed under emergency dusk to dawn curfew, with serious clashes also reported in Turkey's main western cities of Istanbul and Ankara.

The immediate trigger for the unrest has been the siege of the predominantly Kurdish Syrian town of Kobani by forces of the Islamic State (IS) movement, which has caused around 150,000 Kurds from northern Syria to flee across the border to Turkey, prompting fears of an impending massacre of those remaining.

These fears have been lent greater magnitude by the growing perception that while Turkey has significant numbers of troops and heavy weaponry deployed just a few kilometres away on the border, Ankara will not intervene because it perceives the existing Kurdish-controlled enclave to be a greater threat than one controlled by the non-Kurdish Sunni Islamist extremists of IS.

"They are opposed to the creation of a de-facto Kurdish state in Syria and they are happy that IS is taking on the Kurds," claims Cengiz Aktar, professor of Political Science and senior scholar at Istanbul Policy Centre, pointing out that the Kurdish-controlled region in north Syria has acted as beacon for Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

Turkey has issued an open call to the West to help establish a buffer zone within Syria to help protect the Kurds there. However, with the Western powers committed to not sending in ground troops and the Syrian Kurds opposed to Turkish troops entering Syrian territory, it is far from clear how such a safe haven could be created.

What is clear is that Turkey is opposed to acting alone. "It's unrealistic to expect Turkey to launch a cross-border operation single handed," said Turkish Foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu following a meeting with Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on October 9.

Roots of conflict

While the situation in Kobani is the trigger for the unrest in Turkey, the root cause is  Turkey's continuing failure to address the needs and aspirations of the country's estimated 11m-14m ethnic Kurds, many of whom openly support the militant group PKK. Proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the US and EU, as well as in Turkey itself, the PKK has been for the past 30 years fighting for the creation of a Kurdish state in southeast Turkey, launching attacks from the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, and more recently northern Syria.

Those attacks ended 18 months ago with the brokering of a ceasefire between Ankara and the PKK, on the back of the Kurdish militant group moderating its demands to more cultural and linguistic rights for Turkey's Kurds and promises by then Turkish prime minister, now president, Tayyip Erdogan of a "new deal" for Turkey's Kurds.

Since then, though, no progress has been reported, with PKK field commander Cemil Bayik warning in a media interview in September that the group might resume its armed struggle, pointing to both Ankara's failure to deliver on its promises, and its failure to address the rise of IS in Syria.

Clearly Ankara faces a dilemma: Giving support and arms to the Kurds in northern Syria to defend themselves against IS risks strengthening the PKK, which could then recommence its attacks in Turkey, destroying what remains of the peace process. But not supporting them risks further civil unrest in Turkey, which would also risk destroying the peace process.

Clearly too it's a dilemma that Ankara has so far failed to grasp the implications of, apparently viewing the possible fall of Kobani as an opportunity for the removal of the PYD, and by extension the PKK, from Turkey's southern border, rather than an opportunity to further enhance the peace process. "If the Kurdish enclaves in Syria collapse, then the peace process in Turkey will not be able to continue," warns Cengiz Aktar, explaining that the effect of IS seizing Kobani could spell the end of hopes for any lasting agreement with Turkey's Kurds.

A risk apparently not lost on Turkey's own Kurdish politicians, with Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of Turkey's main Kurdish political party the Democratic Peoples' Party (HDP), warning protestors in Turkey of the dangers of provoking further conflict.

President Erdogan, however, in his first public statement on the riots took a less conciliatory line, choosing to blame the protests on groups aimed at undermining the peace process. “Our state will combat violence, vandalism and plundering," he warned, in a comment hardly calculated to convince protesters that his government is committed to a peace process that he himself instigated.

Nor one to offer much comfort to the estimated 150,000 plus Kurdish refugees from Syria camped on the Turkish-Syrian border within earshot of gunfire from Kobani.


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