Turkey’s clumsy politics and the Kurdish question

Inconsistent Turkish policies and fear of the birth of a Kurdish nation-state are bungling regional

Female members of the PKK near the frontline of the fight against ISIL in Makhmur [Reuters]

As the US-led war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) gathers steam, there has been a great deal of speculation over the role Turkey might play in the campaign. Ankara kept a low profile while 49 of its nationals were held hostage by ISIL in Mosul. Since their release on September 20, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made statements affirming Turkey’s commitment to take part in the campaign.

Yet Ankara’s ISIL policy is not only ambiguous in the eyes of many but appears at odds with its regional Kurdish policy. Conflicting statements made by various Turkish officials do not help either. For instance on September 28, deputy prime minister Yalcin Akdogan declared that he thought the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), an armed Kurdish group from Turkey, should fight ISIL instead of resting in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan where they are currently based.

“If you have the power to do anything at all, go do it to ISIL. Why do you ask for Turkey’s help if you have any power?” Akdogan said in an interview on Turkey’s Kanal 7. “They just sit back in Kandil and ramble on about Kobane. Instead of talking, go and fight in Kobane.”

Well, it so happens that the PKK has been engaged in this fight for some time, supporting the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds in their battles against ISIL. Not to mention, the irony of a Turkish deputy prime minister calling for assistance from a group still designated as “terrorist” by the government – especially when on that same day, the president makes a statement comparing PKK to ISIL. This, despite the “peace talks” Erdogan himself inaugurated in January 2013 to resolve the festering decades-long conflict with the PKK.

Fears and obsessions

Obsessed with its security and territorial integrity, Ankara has been engaged in a protracted war with Kurds since the early 1980s. In January 2013, the government realised that the conflict could not be resolved by military means and initiated talks with the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. This process is still ongoing and so far, with the exception of a mutual ceasefire or a “neither war nor peace” status quo, nothing has been achieved in terms of post conflict peace-building. The Turkish state apparatus simply does not possess the knowledge and experience to design a policy that can initiate negotiations and lay the foundations of a peace-building process. One must bear in mind that the leader of the PKK Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999 – that was 15 years ago.

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Turkish fears transcend geographic borders. Following the second Gulf War when the Iraqi Kurds obtained a measure of autonomy thanks to the new Iraqi Constitution and created the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Ankara immediately assumed a defensive posture by refusing to acknowledge the term KRG in fear of the word “Kurdistan”. US government efforts were required to persuade Turkey to establish normal ties with the KRG. In the end, Turkey became one of the top economic partners of Iraqi Kurdistan and its main ally in the region. This continued until the arrival of ISIL on the scene.

As for Kurds in Syria, the same “normalisation” never occurred. Ankara, together with Iraqi Kurdish leaders, never approved of the de facto situation which unfolded following the disintegration of the Syrian state and the unilateral declaration of autonomy by Syrian Kurds. This is partly due to the kinship between the Kurds of Syria and Turkey. The Turkish-Syrian border has no natural demarcation, and arbitrarily divides Kurdish villages.

Turkey opted to ignore and eradicate what it considers as a dangerous development capable of setting an example for Turkish Kurds. For this reason, some Kurdish authorities have claimed that Ankara is providing support to some jihadist groups. One of those groups, ISIL, is eager to consolidate its grip on the border areas with Turkey stretching from the Mediterranean to the Iranian border and in so doing, will wipe out the Kurdish stronghold.

Friends like these?

But ISIL’s recent attack on Syria’s Kurdistan region and the town of Kobane in particular, has very likely changed Turkey’s game plan – if it ever had one. Ankara’s ambiguous ISIL policy has irritated not only Turkey’s allies but all three major components of the region’s Kurdish community – those in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. The Iraqi Kurds, normally Turkey’s best allies, expressed both astonishment and anger when Turkey didn’t budge and preferred to watch ISIL’s encroachment over parts of northern Iraq abutting Kurdish territory.

Iraqi Kurds have been disappointed to find that Turkey was interested only in business and absent when they needed military assistance to defend Kurdish territory.

As for Turkish Kurds, they have openly declared that the attack and possible fall of Syria’s Kurdish stronghold will be considered as an assault on them too. Thus they made it clear that Turkey’s ambiguous position on ISIL will have negative consequences on the ailing “peace talks” with Ankara.  

At the end of the day, Turkey’s clumsy politicians, fearing the birth of a Kurdish nation-state more than anything but eager on the other hand to assert their regional supremacy, are ending up by alienating all three Kurdish communities. No surprise really when one recalls the other spectacular “achievement” of having no ambassador in three key regional countries – Egypt, Israel and Syria.

Cengiz Aktar is Senior Scholar at Istanbul Policy Center. As a former director at the United Nations where he spent 22 years of his professional life, Aktar is one of the leading advocates of Turkey’s integration into the EU.