Abdullah Ocalan was a member of a Marxist Kurdish movement. Initially, he disseminated opinions of social injustice within Kurdish identity and used the grievances to foment military operations against Kurds as a means to recruit many young Kurds to his cause. His statements flourished in the economically undeveloped eastern part of Turkey. Ultimately, Ocalan wrote “The Way of Kurdistan’s Revolution – Manifesto (Kurdistan Devriminin Yolu-Manifesto)” and established the PKK on 27 November 1978 in the village of Fis in Diyarbakir.
The primary aim of the PKK as an ethnic insurgent group is to create a separate state or to elevate the social status of the Kurds (Byman 1998). The main argument of PKK is that historic grievances over the last century under both the Ottoman Empire and then the Republic of Turkey left no option other than strategic violence. Harsh counter policies by the Turkish government were subsequently used by the PKK to further legitimate its existence, not just locally but internationally (Ekici, Ozkan and Demir 2007). The group placed a great deal of emphasis on language as it is a powerful trait of national identity (Weber 1978). Through language the PKK attempted to strengthen the idea that ‘to be a Kurd’ meant ‘to not be a Turk’ as envisioned and promulgated by the Turkish government. Distinguishing and psychologically pushing an ethnic identity that is separate from the dominant secular Turk identity promotes great sympathy if not outright allegiance to the PKK as an ethnic insurgent group. The PKK, for example, forces the Kurds to use Kurdish language in both social and official life.
The PKK has employed psychological operations (psy-ops) to force non-compliant or rival groups to emigrate from the southeast region. Ultimately, it wants to strengthen ethnic identity by literally changing the demographic makeup and character of surrounding regions. The PKK is effectively using this method in East Anatolia. In order to obtain a more expansive population advantage, PKK operatives force Kurds to migrate from heavily-populated Kurdish areas to less-populated ones. With this tactic, the aim is to win mayoralty elections and ultimately achieve extended autonomy for radical Kurdish politics.
Thus, political activities are also very important for the PKK. A formal political party serves as a legal home-base for urban militants. Through this legal structure, new members are recruited to more radical insurgent operations. During the mayoralty elections in 2009 in Van, members of the Peace and Democracy Party (Baris ve Demokrasi partisi – BDP) created great fear amongst the public to force a heavy voter turnout for BDP. In this manner, the PKK becomes institutionalized under the legal structure of the Turkish state and organizes a second front of political struggle against the government.
The fog of war between the PKK and Turkish government resulted in the victimization of non-aligned Kurdish civilians. On 20 June 1987, PKK killed 30 villagers – 16 of them children – in Mardin (Ergil 2000). After this attack, the government decided to employ several methods in retaliation. First, the government deployed military troops in the southeast region. The army initiated counter-operations, conducting routine patrols and providing convoy protection. Additionally, two elite Special Forces units were created to counter PKK terrorism: Special Teams working as a unit of gendarmerie in rural areas and Special Operation Teams working as a unit of police in urban areas. Finally, the government also deployed air forces and conducted air attacks against PKK camps in mountainous regions.
Perhaps more controversially, the government organized an armed village guard system from Kurdish villages. Tribal leaders were assigned as the head of the village guard system. By using this system, the government was aiming to create local opposition against PKK militants. This system, however, brought about the misuse of power by tribal leaders and antagonism between Kurdish villagers and PKK militants. Beginning in 1985, PKK threats and attacks dramatically increased against Kurdish civilians who were suspected of supporting the village guard system. Allegedly, Abdullah Ocalan even ordered to kill families of village guards as they were seen as ‘state collaborators’ (Imset 1993). This violent polarization forced people to pick sides. Due to societal deficiencies in education and a lack of communication technologies such as internet and TV broadcasting to Kurdish areas, many young Kurds were convinced by the PKK to fight against the Turkish government. With this increased number of militants, the PKK created new units of fighters.
The government could not establish an effective way to prevent the enlarging popularity of the PKK. It declared a regional “State of Emergency” (Olaganustu Hal Yonetimi – OHAL) in Kurdish-inhabited zones, including the cities of Bingol, Diyarbakir, Elazig , Hakkari, Mardin, Siirt, Tunceli, and Van in 1987. A short time after this declaration, the region of “emergency management” was expanded and continued for an almost inexplicable 20 years. After the declaration of the OHAL, severe armed fighting with PKK militants became more common. Turkish military authorities had outlawed Kurdish organizations and banned all forms of ethnic and leftist movements with the coups of 1971 and 1980. Many people, including Kurdish nationalists, were jailed, the use of Kurdish language was forbidden, Kurdish village names were changed to Turkish ones, and Kurdish families were coerced to give Turkish names to their children (Ergil 2000). These military coups, aimed to ensure the ‘integrity’ of Turkish society, instead created the perception of deliberate discrimination and assimilation by the Turkish government, trying to annihilate Kurdish nationalism.
These maneuvers and counter-maneuvers are what started the truly destructive war with the PKK. The primary victims of this war were civilians who were stuck between Turkish security forces and PKK fighters. They had to endure dual atrocities: suppression and execution by the PKK when suspected of collaborating with the state and the evacuation and destruction of Kurdish villages by the Turkish military when suspected of helping the PKK. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 1996 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2297 villages had been evacuated or destroyed and 2 million Kurds had been forced to leave their homes or villages (Ergil 2000). From 1996 the OHAL was gradually softened and in 2002 it was finally lifted. The policies implemented during the OHAL process, however, continued to restrict daily social life and caused bitter grievances within the Kurdish population.
Thus, restrictions on social practices and cultural freedom, police discrimination, and oppressive regime operations, all intensified by the military coups, strengthened Kurdish separatism/nationalism. These things not only helped spur the creation of the PKK, they unintentionally helped foment its deepening ties within Kurdish society. Turkish counter-policies stirred up the Kurdish problem; ruthlessly suppressing demands for cultural, linguistic, and political rights ironically caused the solidifying of Kurdish extremism (Olson, 1996).
The devolution of the Kurdish question in Turkey represents the destructive effects of poorly thought state actions trying to force a uniform national identity. All of this chaos between the PKK and Turkish government has forced tens of thousands of families to migrate to other cities. This migration consequently increased the poverty level and street crime in various regions, stressing the already weak welfare state in Turkey (Durna and Hancerli 2007). In addition, as this crisis became a globalized phenomenon, supporters of the Kurds living in Iran and Syria, as well as the strategic involvement of European countries, made the Kurdish question far more complicated than just labeling the PKK a terrorist organization. With the new millennium, the Turkish government started to develop more moderate policies by trying to develop improved economic and social conditions in Kurdish regions. This effort to strengthen the ‘loyalty’ of Kurds to the state is called the “democratic opening” in Ankara. However, the trends seen so far in the “democratic opening” movement indicates a lack of optimism based on the non-transparent and non-inclusive nature of the project. Both sides accuse each other of being insincere and having secret, hidden agendas.
In sum, the Kurdish question is the product of a negative blending of social, economic, cultural, and political factors in an environment in which both sides have been unwilling to empathize with each other. Misperception and prejudice prevents them reaching the roots of the problem. The authorities’ unwillingness to understand the concerns of the Kurds is perceived as humiliation and discrimination. This perception brings about hate, loss of identity, and an increased risk for fanaticism and terrorism. The Kurds argue that the government’s approach left them no choice but to resort to collective violence and terrorism. The Turkish government may need to accede to the idea that addressing different perceptions about identity does not necessarily entail accepting them as reality; but taking them into account can provide a true progressive first step to solving what has up to now been an intractable social problem throughout an important part of the Turkish state.
* This piece is partially excerpted from a larger article from Springer International Publishing AG 2016, A. Farazmand (ed.), Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_2977-1
The Turkish Gambit
The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon. One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.
The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria. Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps. The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.
Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian. After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families. About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.
How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question. Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently? For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.
There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter. Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes.
Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability. If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point. Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal: access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.
Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon. It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke. It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood. The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.
A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power. The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson. So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006. Now they are feared by Israeli troops.
To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump. Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past. It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving. If you go in, you will have to police the area. Don’t ask us to help you.” Is that subject to misinterpretation? It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office.
For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions. Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included. Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire. On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May. Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith. The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can. Where are they headed? Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.
Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences.
Author’s Note: This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org
Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?
On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.
It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.
Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.
Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.
Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.
It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.
Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around
Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.
Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.
But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.
The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.
The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.
It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.
The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.
It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.
Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK
Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.
Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.
The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.
If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.
The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.
The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.
The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”
The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.
Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”
Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.
The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.
A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.
The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.
In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.
Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.
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