On 25 April 2013, fighters of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), after having signed a ceasefire with the Turkish government in late March, announced that they would soon begin to withdraw from Turkey into the autonomous Kurdish regions of Iraq, while not disarming. This marked the potential end of a century-old struggle between Turkey and its large Kurdish minority. The Kurds, a distinct ethnic group in the mountainous regions of eastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia, were initially supportive of the nascent Turkish republic in 1921, having faced ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Ottoman Empire due to their rising nationalist agitation. However, they recoiled once it was clear that the new state would be structured around Turkish ethnic identity. These frustrations soon spilled over, with terrible acts committed by both sides in a brutal cycle of revolt and repression.
This protracted conflict created a systemic relationship of distrust and often hatred. For years, Turkey banned the use of the Kurdish language, ruthlessly suppressed Kurdish political activism and cultural expression, and sought to assimilate the Kurds, whom they called “Mountain Turks”, through sheer coercive force. The Kurds considered this an attempt at cultural genocide. While some Kurds became integrated, assimilating and abandoning their culture, most Kurds remained marginalized and hostile towards Turkey, looking across borders to their ethnic compatriots in Iraq, Iran and Syria.
By the 1970s, dominance of the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey shifted from traditionalist tribal leaders to urban intellectuals, who embraced Marxism and revolutionary war. Their most prominent organization, founded in 1978, was the PKK. The PKK with the active support of segments of the Turkish Kurdish population launched a campaign of terror in Turkey. This included guerilla attacks on civilian and military targets, the bombing of public places and the radicalization of Kurdish political movements through repression of more moderate groups. Using safe havens in Syria, the PKK financed its activities through organized crime, including significant smuggling and drug trafficking.
The PKK’s campaign, based on Maoist principles of revolutionary war, subsided with the capture of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan by Turkey. Without his charismatic leadership, the movement continued to degenerate, changing its name multiple times while oscillating between unilateral ceasefires and renewed attacks. Turkey’s steady democratization and the rise of the mild Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which appealed to many Kurds with moderate, inclusive rhetoric, also undermined the PKK. However, insurgency continued on and off until the past March.
The perceived end of the conflict in Turkey though does not necessarily spell good things for the broader region, nor does it mean that the conflict is well and truly over. Iraq, where the political system is slowly unraveling due to escalating Sunni-Shi’a sectarian conflict, is the intended destination of thousands of heavily armed, still radicalized Kurdish fighters. Iraqi Kurdistan’s ruling elite, led by Iraqi President Jalal Talibani and Massoud Barzani, is moderate, but may not be able to control the activities of the PKK’s fighters. Thus, the Iraqi government has ineffectually denounced this move. Meanwhile, the Democratic Union Party, an offshoot of the PKK, currently rules northeastern Syria. As the Syrian civil war appears to have no end in sight, a pro-PKK para-state seems to be developing, which might embolden the PKK to try to “play hardball” with the Turks.
Finally, domestic Turkish politics could throw the whole peace deal into jeopardy. The AKP, which has now governed for over a decade, is still very popular. The government has also shown authoritarian tendencies, especially after having crushed its main political opposition in the self-appointed “guardians of the republic”, the Turkish military elite. Still, the government has lost some of its key support, both from Kurds disillusioned with slow progress in the areas of cultural rights and legalization of Kurdish-language schooling and from some of the affluent Westernized elite who supported the AKP’s pro-business policies. Turkish nationalist voters have increasingly replaced this support, as made clear by the AKP’s tilt towards nationalist rhetoric and policy. If their power was threatened in a close election, the PKK and the Kurds make a temptingly easy and ready-made target for the government to rally the nation against.
Meanwhile, many Kurds, while optimistic about this deal, are perfectly happy to turn back towards separatism and potentially violence if the Turks backslide on their promises of autonomy, rights and an end to the perpetual military campaigns in their home regions. While the movement of still-armed PKK fighters out of Turkey and the promises of the Turkish government to truly include the Kurds may turn out well, there are a number of roadblocks in the way. Turkey and the Kurds have a number of mountain chasms to cross before the conflict is truly over.
– Alex Langer