As Turkiye votes again, the Kurdish issue isn’t going away
Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has only a slim chance of winning Sunday’s presidential election runoff in Turkiye. He was almost 5 percentage points behind Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the first round, and the candidate who came third with 5 percent of the vote is endorsing the incumbent.
The Kurdish issue has been a point of contention. Kilicdaroglu promised to resolve it, without really giving a clear road map. Many in Turkiye interpreted that to mean he would allow the Kurds autonomy, which is something the Turks will not accept. Nationalist leader Sinan Ogan did not support Kilicdaroglu because Ogan wanted a guarantee that there would be no concessions to the HDP, the pro-Kurdish party. The HDP is not part of the six-party opposition alliance, but nevertheless supported Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy.
The Kurds are a stateless group scattered across Syria, Turkiye, Iran and Iraq. In each of those countries they are a minority, but they have a strong sense of cultural and national identity that makes different regimes wary of them. The Turks are suspicious of Western intentions: in the Treaty of Sevres in 2020, which began the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious powers from the First World War wanted to partition Turkiye and cede some Turkish territory to the Kurds to establish their state. This sparked the rise of the Turkish nationalist movement led by Kemal Ataturk, and led to the Turkish War of Independence. Finally, in 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne superseded the Treaty of Sevres and the modern Republic of Turkiye was established.
The Turks remain suspicious, and Kurdish national aspirations are perceived as a security threat endangering the integrity of the Turkish state.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
But the Turks remain suspicious, and Kurdish national aspirations are perceived as a security threat endangering the integrity of the Turkish state. The main threat comes from the PKK, a militant Kurdish separatist group that has been conducting terrorist attacks in Turkiye for 40 years. Successive Turkish governments have therefore sought non-democratic solutions to the Kurdish issue. The Kurds constitute 19 percent of the population but they were called the “Turks of the mountain” until 1991. The use of their language and the expression of their culture was severely restricted. However, the AKP, who rose to power in Turkiye in 2002, had a different political philosophy. The centrist party, or “conservative democrats” as they like to describe themselves, had a more inclusive worldview. Restriction on the Kurdish language were eased and a peace process started in 2013. It was making good process until events in Syria created distrust again.
When Daesh emerged in Syria and started expanding, the US had to fight them. The correct way would have been to address the root cause of extremism, which was the threat created by Bashar Assad and the pro-Iran militias: Sunni Muslims felt targeted, and were thus receptive to the fundamentalist siren calls. Instead, the US chose a quick solution. The went to the Kurds, the one group guaranteed not to have Islamist leanings and not to turn their weapons against the US.
The establishment in 2012 of Rojava, an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern and eastern Syria, rang alarm bells in Turkiye and created fears that a Kurdish state in its neighborhood would embolden the Turkish Kurds to seek independence. As the Kurds in Syria were empowered, the Kurds in Turkiye were encouraged, further increasing the mistrust of the Turkish government. It did not help that the Syrian Democratic Forces, the backbone of the pro-US fighters in Syria, are mainly from the Kurdish PYD. Turkey sees no distinction between the YPG, the military wing of the PYD, and the PKK. In Diyarbakir — the largest Kurdish-majority city in Turkiye, and the proposed capital of an independent Kurdistan under the Treaty of Sevres — there was a major Turkish military crackdown in late 2015 and early 2016. The historic Sur district was destroyed in clashes with the PKK, and an estimated 300,000 Kurds were displaced. The Turks justified their campaign by claiming that the Kurds were building trenches in preparation for rebellion. The peace process stopped and Erdogan shifted from being the Kurds’ ally to their foe.
Now that the Turks are coming close to choosing their president for the next five years, whoever is elected should give up the populist rhetoric from the campaign.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Sunday’s election is crucial for Turkiye’s future, but the Kurds are a fifth of the population and the Kurdish question cannot remain unanswered. Kilicdaroglu, facing defeat, has played the nationalist card. He attacked Erdogan over the pre-2015 peace process, and said the president had “sat at the table with terrorist organizations.”
In fact, the new government should resume the peace talks that faltered in 2015. For that to happen, there needs to be trust, and guarantees that in any future settlement there is no place for a Kurdish statelet in Syria that would be a threat to Turkiye’s security and integrity. The US and Russia should give Turkiye a guarantee on the territorial integrity of Syria. The US should use such a security guarantee to entice Turkey back into peace talks with the Kurds.
The Kurdish issue has been used as currency in a polarized election campaign for the past year. The Kurds are worried that if Erdogan is re-elected he will crack down on them, especially since Ogan endorsed Erdogan based on a hardline stance against the Kurds, which he referred to as a “non-stop struggle against terrorism.”
Now that the Turks are coming close to choosing their president for the next five years, whoever is elected should give up the populist rhetoric from the campaign. The Kurdish issue should be given priority, and worked out in a rational and realistic manner. This will be of great importance to Turkiye’s future as well stability in the wider region.
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is president of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.