Turkey and the Kurds: The Question Mark at the Heart of the Region

by Graham E. Fuller

Predictions among Turkey-watchers about the outcome of Turkey’s 1 November elections were mostly wrong—including my own— as Erdogan managed to regain majority control of Parliament. Anxiety over potential political and social chaos played a significant role in voters’ decisions not to change leadership, particularly when no other party offered convincing leadership qualities (except possibly the new Kurdish party.)

The country is now left with a leader who over the past few years has distinguished himself by a list of negatives: his single-minded pursuit of executive power far in excess of constitutional provisions, his intimidation and harassment of political rivals, the muzzling of the media and the judiciary, and the tightening of the narrowing circle of often corrupt yes-men around him. In the eyes of many the country would have been better served by a coalition government that could have delimited Erdogan’s often arbitrary, paranoid and erratic use of power.

But the voters have spoken and supported him for a fourth time. Turkey now faces the uncertain consequences of continuing and controversial single-party (read Erdogan) rule.

Turkey faces many burning questions, but I’d like to focus here on the most central one—the overarching Kurdish question and its direct links to the fate of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey itself.

Turkey’s Syrian policy under Erdogan has done more to damage the country than any other issue. While it was reasonable during the height of the Arab Spring  to expect that Asad, too, might soon join the other fallen dictators, he proved remarkably resilient (and increasingly brutal) in crushing all opposition. We need to remember that Asad had been a virtual protege of Erdogan for over a decade, but when Asad rejected outright Erdogan’s fatherly advice to handle the early opposition in Syria with moderation Erdogan turned on him and decided to arm Asad’s enemies.  But as the main armed opposition to the regime fell increasingly into the hands of the more effective ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, the western anti-Asad coalition began to back off from further support to it, reasoning that even an Asad regime would be far less damaging (for nearly everyone) than a seizure of Damascus by jihadi forces.

Erdogan long resisted this analysis of the extremist threat and continued his dalliance with jihadi groups, until finally, reluctantly, yielding in part to western demands, and then suffering the worst terrorist attack in modern Turkish history in October led by an ISIS-led group in Ankara. Many argue that this terrorist outrage, in which Turkish security forces were strangely remote from the scene, actually helped shape the national mood of fear that facilitated Erdogan’s victory on 1 November.

But the grander issue of Kurds spills across the region. The international conflict surrounding ISIS rages in part around the Kurdish regions of northern Syria along the Turkish border, and contributed to reigniting the Kurdish armed struggle (PKK) within Turkey itself. Erdogan who had made major strides in the past decade in working towards political reconciliation with the Kurds, finally reversed course and sought cynical political gain in allowing negotiations with the PKK to deteriorate. The result was a return over the past year or so to mutual armed confrontations with the PKK and a heightened fear among the electorate of  growing domestic violence.

Blame for this serious deterioration and backsliding in the Kurdish issue, however, lies on both sides:  the PKK too was ready to burnish its image through selected guerrilla operations against Turkish forces and officials. The PKK has particularly felt threatened by the successful emergence of a moderate left-of-center Kurdish party (HDP) in Turkey that offers a rival leadership to Turkey’s Kurds. In November the HDP gained a vital ten percent swing vote presence in Parliament, despite Erdogan’s major efforts to defame and suppress the party.

The upshot is that the Kurdish issue now represents probably the single most burning issue in both domestic and foreign policy of the country. Non-resolution of this issue is part of the cancer eating at the region in several of the following ways.

-Domestically Turkish Kurds need to be better politically integrated into the country and their calls for greater political and cultural autonomy need to be acknowledged. Ankara may be uncomfortable with the process but failure to do so can only accelerate demands among Kurds for more radical solutions including potential outright separatism—something not now seriously on their agenda.

Having secured his political position for the next four years, will Erdogan now seek to tone down the harshness of his recent rhetoric and try to work with the various Kurdish elements inside and outside the country? (The Kurds even within Turkey are hardly a monolithic group. They are united in seeking to secure greater Kurdish rights within the country, but are physically scattered all over the country—Istanbul is the biggest Kurdish city in the world. They differ linguistically and disagree on political tactics. Can Kurds unite behind the new moderate HDP and assist in bringing PKK operations inside Turkey to an end? Or will some Kurds value violence as a pressure point against Ankara?

-While Erdogan has sought to use any and all means to overthrow Asad, he rejected cooperation with the very effective leftist anti-ISIS Syrian Kurdish group, the PYD. Because the PYD is aligned with the PKK, Erdogan was shockingly even willing to throw the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani to the ISIS wolves last summer had it not been for US intervention. Washington in fact admires the PYD—to Ankara’s consternation—as one of the most effective non-jihadi forces against ISIS.

-Some degree of political and cultural autonomy of Syrian Kurds in the north is essential to any future political structure in Syria. Ankara now resists that eventuality, but it is almost inevitable. At that point the Syrian Kurds would then join Turkish and Iraqi Kurds as working toward significant elements of local autonomy.

-The handwriting is now on the wall for Iran, the last of the four major Middle Eastern states with a large Kurdish population—possibly the second biggest Kurdish population in the  region. Iran—a highly multiethnic country— will face mounting pressure from their own Kurdish population whose aspirations Tehran has quite failed to address, except through violence and repression and has shown far less flexibility than either Ankara or Baghdad now show. Contacts between Iraqi and Iranian Kurds are intimate. Iran’s Kurds will increasingly affect Tehran’s dealings with its neighbours.

-The ongoing dilemma of the Kurds are emblematic of the overall failure of most Middle Eastern states to deal successfully with ethnic and religious minority populations. Handling of the Kurdish issue writ large is central to handling the broader conflicts of this region. The Kurds have ended up gaining political ground in almost every one of the regional wars in the Middle East since 1990 in bringing the once obscure Kurdish issue into international prominence. The Kurdish profile in all regional countries continues to grow and is central to solutions to domestic Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian and, soon, Iranian problems.

Will Erdogan now continue to exploit Kurdish problems to strengthen his own hand? Or will he possibly “turn statesman” again, having now secured his political future for some years to come? His present operating style is not reassuring—but then politics can bring surprises.

Photo: Kurdish fighters in Syria

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). This article is reprinted, with permission, from grahamefuller.com

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One Comment

  1. I doubt very much that Erdogan will act as “statesman”. He has got the megalomania disease as well as the persecution complex: The best combination to make him a real dictator. He will get the Turks approval rate as long as he courts the religious establishment and the economy goes well.
    The religious establishment is well engrained in the system and will stay on Erdogan’s side even in time of economical trouble.
    What may affect the economy on the short term is mainly the security that Erdogan has promised. The Kurds, ISIS, Syrian, Iranian and Israeli intelligence are not going to allow Erdogan to have it the easy way. They know very well that any terrorist attacks in the main cities or a touristic center like Antalya would have a direct impact on tourism and investments.
    Therefore despite the draconian security apparatus, with the presence of so many terrorists within the country and Turkey’s recent crackdown on ISIS, it is inevitable that some sort of violent acts similar to the tragedy that happened in Beirut, will occur. That may shake the trust Turks have put in the AKP by voting for it.
    Let’s wait and see if the AKP would be able to prevent that.

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