Tensions between the government and the country’s Kurdish minority are threatening to explode like never before. And the collateral damage may include the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
- By Henri J. BarkeyHenri J. Barkey is the director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.
As he sat down to have coffee on a sweltering August day in Istanbul, the first words my interlocutor, a well-known Kurdish intellectual named Orhan Miroglu, uttered were about the death of his three cousins in his ancestral village in Batman, a province in the heart of the Kurdish region of Turkey. The previous night, his cousins and a fourth villager had gone to investigate a suspicious fire on the outskirts of their village. As they approached, a mine destroyed their vehicle, killing them all. All of them had been members of Kurdish political parties or human rights groups. They were the latest casualties in a war between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group that enjoys a great deal of support among Kurds.
Turkey is in the grip of a summer of senseless violence. A little over a week before the attacks in Batman, on July 25, a clash erupted in the western town of Inegol when an ordinary quarrel between a Turk and a Kurd quickly spread after assuming a racial undertone. Just a few days later, four police officers were murdered in the southern province of Hatay. This was a mirror image of the Batman event; it appears as if rogue elements in the security forces had set up an ambush to blame the other side. This killing, however, was followed by intense interethnic clashes as local Turks took to the streets to exact revenge on their Kurdish neighbors.
These are some of the events that made headlines; there were other cases that were averted by local authorities working with the Kurdish political party. And the atmosphere is thick with stories of daily humiliations, minor taunts, and discrimination in housing and employment.
Turkey is slowly and inexorably moving toward a crisis point. Unlike in the 1990s, when the PKK was far stronger militarily and the insurgency was primarily concentrated in the majority Kurdish southeastern provinces, today Kurds are everywhere. That period’s counterinsurgency campaign caused a massive outflow of refugees that dispersed throughout the country. Istanbul, home to an estimated 3 million to 5 million Kurds, is now the world’s largest Kurdish city. This fact means that the Kurdish issue reverberates far beyond the traditional Kurdish strongholds in Turkey’s southeast and eastern regions, increasing the chance that violence could erupt anywhere, at any time.
The children of Kurdish refugees, who have grown up in shantytowns outside Turkey’s urban centers, represent a combustible addition to the country’s fragile ethnic mix. Young, alienated, and angry, they are easily prone to violence. Even Kurdish political party leaders admitted to me that they are afraid of these youths, over whom they have no control. This is why the interethnic clashes in Inegol and Hatay are harbingers of larger and more serious future clashes. Complicating matters, of course, are equally mobilized and agitated Turkish youths — often egged on by the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — who are prepared to confront the Kurds on the streets.
The United States, preoccupied with Turkey’s unhelpful role in resolving the nuclear impasse with Iran and its war of words with Israel, has been oblivious to this brewing crisis. But these developments are in some ways far more consequential to U.S. interests in the region and in Turkey itself, a critical NATO member. The Kurdish issue, after all, transcends the Middle East’s borders. The tiniest of accidents could unleash an orgy of interethnic violence that would be devastating for Turkey and also have severe repercussions for Washington’s attempts to extricate itself from Iraq. Moreover, an unstable Turkey is likely to become even more nationalist and hostile to U.S. interests in Iraq, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. A Turkey at war with itself is also unlikely to make the reforms necessary for the European Union accession process and would increasingly wreak havoc within NATO.
Kurdish rebellions in Turkey are nothing new; they have occurred with some regularity since the inception of the Turkish republic. Since 1984, the PKK has engaged in a violent struggle for the rights of the Kurdish minority, estimated to be as much as 20 percent of the population — exact figures are impossible to obtain. But after 26 years, 40,000 deaths (the vast majority of which have been Kurds), and billions of dollars, and despite the capture of the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the Turkish state has been unable to contain this latest insurrection.
The Turkish army, the second-largest force in NATO, has little chance of defeating the insurrection through force of arms alone. Kurdish leaders are becoming increasingly more assertive and are furiously organizing their constituencies. Their demands include official recognition of their ethnicity, the freedom to use their language and culture — which includes freedom to broadcast, publish, and teach in Kurdish — and a greater devolution of powers in what is one of the world’s most centralized states.
The Turkish state is aware of the political aspect to the Kurdish issue and is doing everything in its power to contain the growing political challenge. It has launched a war of attrition against Kurdish activists, employing mass arrests, never-ending court cases, and long prison sentences even for the most innocuous verbal or written critiques of the status quo. However, these methods are not serving as a deterrent to political activism, but in fact are deepening the alienation of Kurds and increasing their determination to carry on.
To its credit, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to initiate in 2009 a "Kurdish opening," an attempt to acknowledge that the Kurdish problem is one that defies military solutions and requires political, cultural, and economic remedies. Unfortunately, it also mismanaged the effort: It did not prepare the public for the initiative, did not consult any Kurdish leaders, and was thoroughly ill-equipped to respond to the reaction of the Kurds and the Turkish public. Faced with a backlash and the prospect of impending elections, the AKP backtracked, and the opening was shut down in everything but name. Both the party and the prime minister have retreated behind the safety of a combative nationalist discourse that has only served to further aggravate tensions.
The end of the Kurdish opening has also served to consolidate Kurdish attitudes toward the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the primary legal Kurdish political organization. The BDP has close ties to the PKK and increasingly sees itself as the Turkish equivalent of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.
In the absence of political progress with the government, the BDP and Kurds in general are also beginning to put together the rudimentary institutional structures of self-governance in the southeastern provinces. The prosecution’s 7,500-page indictment against members of the BDP, largely resting on conjecture and unsubstantiated allegations, nevertheless manages to sketch the contours of a parallel self-governance structure the Kurds have been attempting to put into place — independent of Ankara.
For most activist Kurds, the PKK’s armed insurrection is of secondary importance. The PKK, and especially its imprisoned leader Ocalan, is a symbolic force that they admire for raising the Kurdish issue to the forefront of Turkish politics. "Without the PKK, no one would be talking of Kurdish rights today," goes the refrain. At least in the southeastern provinces, Kurds now have an important advantage: control of the municipalities. This provides them with organizational capabilities to deepen their political struggle for recognition. Psychologically, the Turkish state may have already lost these provinces.
Washington cannot afford to see hostilities erupt between Ankara and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, or for Turkish military action in Iraq to u
ndermine that country’s stability. Ankara’s relationship with the KRG has improved significantly over the last 18 months, but the PKK still has a significant number of its fighters ensconced in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Qandil Mountains.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration does not have easy policy choices when it comes to Turkey’s domestic Kurdish problem. It is too big, too complex, and too difficult, and the United States is loath to be seen as meddling in one of its ally’s most sensitive internal problems. Perhaps understandably, the administration has therefore simply chosen to ignore the issue. But this path is also not in the United States’ best interests. The Kurdish question remains Turkey’s Achilles’ heel, influencing all aspects of political and cultural life, from civil-military relations to democratic reforms to foreign policy. By ignoring the Kurdish issue today, the United States is increasing the chance of a nasty surprise tomorrow.