Challenges to Kurdish Nationalism

by Robert Olson

Several times during the last week of April, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)— and its political arm, the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK)—had been defeated and that the state was winning. He stated that there would be no more negotiations until the PKK had not only laid down its arms but also had “buried them under concrete.” Until that time Turkey would continue to fight the PKK “until the end.”

On April 19, when Ertugrul Kurkcu, a member of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), asked Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in parliament if the government “foresees any mechanisms other than war to solve the Kurdish issue and clashes in Syria,” the prime minister upbraided him for referring to the PKK fighters as “guerrillas.” Davutoglu responded,

If Mr. Kurkcu had lived in Cizre or Silopi, if his children had gone to school through mine-ridden streets, if one of his relatives worked at hospitals in Cizre or Silopi where 10 terrorists fired rockets, or if one of his relatives was among those whose lives were taken while walking in Kizilay, he would not say “guerrilla” but rather “vile terrorist organization”

In this exchange, the prime minister neatly laid the blame on the PKK/KCK for the latest 10-month war in which an estimated 350,000 people, mostly Kurds, were displaced, and 350 soldiers, 250 civilians, and, by government figures, 3,000 PKK killed.

As far as the state was concerned, the PKK/KCK was largely responsible for the carnage, destruction, and expropriation of an estimated 8,000 properties in the southeast provinces.

The assault of the armed forces and national police—in which up to 100,000 or more armed forces were deployed to the 15 heavily Kurdish-populated provinces of southeast Turkey—was a severe blow to the PKK/KCK that underestimated the disproportionate force that Ankara would wield.

There are a number of reasons for this failure. The PKK/KCK and their supporters seem not to have assessed properly the strength of the coalition of forces that the state could bring to bear in the form of the armed forces, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ultra-Turkish nationalists, the state-backed Hanefi religious directorate (Diyanet), and assorted salafists. Many Village Guards (Kurdish), sheikhs, and Kurds, especially of the southeast, are disenchanted with the PKK/KCK and also backed the state and the AKP.

Moreover, the PKK/KCK leadership probably underestimated how strongly the KDP, especially Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), is tied to Turkey economically. Even as the war was being waged, Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechivan Barzani visited Istanbul for talks with Erdogan and Davutoglu. A major goal of the talks was to coordinate Ankara and Erbil’s response to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) announcement in March that it would establish a federal democratic system in the three cantons under its control.

Turkey’s assault on southeast Turkey made it incumbent upon the PYD to distance itself to some extent from the PKK/KCK. The announcement that the PYD favored a federal state indicated that it would concentrate on the evolving situation in Syria, at least for the time being. The declaration would also supply a measure of protection for the PYD and its armed force, the People’s Protective Units (YPG), in case Turkey did decide at some point to enter the war in Syria with armed forces if the Islamic State (IS), Jabhat al-Nusra, or other militias attacked, bombed, or supported terrorist attacks in Turkey.

Both the PKK/KCK and PYD also must take into account the close relation between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Turkey. To further emphasize that cooperation, Nechivan Barzani and Davutoglu agreed on April 11 that the two major entry ports between Turkey and the KRG—Semelka and Mursitpinar—would be closed in order to prevent the PKK from using them to transfer fighters and weapons. Turkey granted $200 million to the KRG to compensate for closing the two ports.

The strategic, economic, and political relations between Ankara and Erbil make it clear to the PKK/KCK that they will receive no help from the KRG, at least not from the KDP. The same could be said for the PYD/YPG. Despite their valiant fight against IS and other jihadist groups, because of their relationship with the PKK/KCK they will receive little support from the KRG even as both of them are fighting against IS and other jihadist groups.

Turkey is aligned strongly with the KRG/KDP, and both are aligned with the U.S. and EU. In another irony, the PYD/YPG are limited in what they can do to help the PKK/KCK because of its cooperation with the U.S. and EU in the “war on terrorism.”

The limitations of the KRG/KDP and of the PYD/YPG present major challenges to the PKK/KCK and allow Turkey a freer hand in managing the Kurds of Turkey—whether by war, destruction of house and property, urban transformation, or ethnic cleansing now taking place along the Turkish-Kurdish (Alevi) ethnic fault-line in the provinces of Maras, Malatya, Elazig, and Dersim.

The PKK/KCK must decide on their response. More terrorism in Turkey’s western cities, especially in Istanbul or Ankara, would result in more ferocious responses on the part of Turkey’s security forces. Attacks on the dams and gas and oil pipelines emanating from the KRG, Iran, and Azerbaijan threaten Turkey’s vital economic infrastructure and elicit even stronger attacks by the armed forces.

Photo: Kurdish army (peshmerga)

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.


One Comment

  1. The KRG leadership is shaky. Barzani is illegally in power as his term is over and he is holding on ppwer.The stability of the economy is an illusion as the KRG is poisoned by corruption. Sooner or later it will collapse.
    The end of the Barzani family may be the end of the KRG-Turkey honeymoon.
    It won’t be a surprise if the Syrian and the Russian intelligence are nor slowly undermining the Barzani illegitimate regime.

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