Turkey’s policy on the Kurdish problem and regional developments

Turkey’s policy on the Kurdish problem and regional developments


Turkey’s Kurdish policy is about how to approach an issue inappropriately called the “Kurdish problem” instead of the “Kurds’ demands and struggle for their rights and liberties.” Thus, this has to do with the definition of the issue. It’s no secret that there are different definitions and, therefore, different perspectives on this issue in the state organization and public sphere.

I address this issue primarily as the Kurds’ demands and struggle for their rights and liberties since the mid-1980’s, when I was involved in the struggle for human rights by civil society, working for the Human Rights Association, Human Rights Foundation and Diyarbakir Bar Association.

Such a perspective has direct bearing on how Turkey’s Kurdish policy is interpreted. Therefore, I need to address the issue in detail by first offering some brief facts.

In reports I prepared in the early 1990’s, I explained that the Kurdish issue was contemporaneous with the Republic of Turkey and could essentially be described in terms of the disregard for the Kurds’ most fundamental human rights and liberties, denial of their existence and identity, banning of their language and, in connection, the constant attempts to keep them under control by means of persecution and oppressive regimes throughout the history of the Republic. Such a description of the situation naturally entails clues to the interpretation of the Kurdish policy/policies pursued by the state.

In this light, I view the Kurdish policies of the state as having been laid on the basis of assimilation driven by denial, oppression and security concerns of the Republic.

Denial and assimilation or self-deception

It can be said that the policy targeting the Kurdish issue has been in place for almost the entire lifespan of the Republic. The first steps were taken in 1925 with reports by Minister of the Interior Cemil Uybadin and Speaker of the Turkish Grand National Assembly Mustafa Abdulhalik Renda, in search of identification of the issue, its content matter and possible solutions to be recommended have continued until today, with hundreds of subsequent reports drafted by civil society and the state in the meantime.

 The same dilemma continues to arise: a policy centering on security or centering on civil society?

The outcome of policies centering on security are plain to see.

A terrifying human tragedy has unfolded over the last 30 years, with a death toll of more than 50,000 caused by 45,000 acts of violence. Nearly 2 million people were displaced and reduced to refugees in their homeland according to data published by Human Rights Watch.

This shows that the Kurdish policy/policies pursued by Turkey have served no purpose but self-deception and aggravation of the problem, inflicting great pain, injury, loss and expense.

This is also the conclusion reached by Turkey’s key opinion leaders, writers and journalists who have given thought to the dimensions the issue assumed in the last quarter of a century. The most convincing proof of this is the increasingly frequent and widespread comments by despairing columnists such as “Everything worth saying has been said and written. Are we going back to square one?”.

“Turkey’s on the Skids,” “Turkey’s Breakaway Paranoia,” “Sentimental Rift Moves Toward Political and Social Rift,” “Last Exit Before the Bridge,” “Old Concept Restored,” “Turkey’s First ‘Civil’ War,” and “Praise for the ’93 Concept” are titles of some of my recent essays and presentations. These titles alone suffice to show the content matter of and direction taken by Turkey’s policy on the Kurdish issue.

These policies still remain unchanged although they exhibited certain differences over time depending on the domestic and international conjuncture such as internal and external conditions, different governments, coups, memorandums and the like. Yes, I’m using the word “still” on purpose because the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in ten years of uninterrupted political tenure backed by a powerful majority, has often cited certain steps, such as TRT6 television channel, as the end of the policy of denial and assimilation.

If the policy of denial and assimilation had been abandoned, however, the TRT6 that began broadcasting in the AKP’s seventh year of incumbency with the mission of government propaganda would not have been touted as a favor to the Kurds at a time when they already had dozens of TV channels. The policy of denial and assimilation is still strong and, consequently, the security-centered policy of a “solution built on persecution and intimidation,” although waxing and waning, is still rampant.

PKK and the climate of violence and terror are not the cause of the issue but only one of its effects

Turkey’s traditional security-centered policies to deal with the Kurdish problem became stuck during the rule of the AKP governments that enjoyed a powerful majority in parliament for ten years. Instead of laying groundwork for a peaceful solution along the lines of social consensus, democracy and liberties, the AKP governments chose to raise false hopes by means of so-called “reforms” and “initiatives” and to rely on policies which, in essence, were security-centered in spite of strong support they had in parliament and international circumstances that were favorable to democratization and liberties such as the process of full membership in the EU, not to mention possibilities served up by political developments in the Middle East.

Consequences of this policy are increasingly causing irreparable damage. When it comes to the Kurds’ demands for rights and liberties, AKP’s top officers, foremost among them Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, do not desist from referring to these as “the demands of the PKK” on the grounds of the climate of violence, conflict and terror although they claim at every opportunity that Kurdish citizens are represented by the AKP. This ultimately means that they themselves bind the steps that must be taken in this most important issue for Turkey, for possible solutions and goals for the discourse and action of the PKK. And, in doing so, palliative measures such as relative freedom to use the Kurdish language are presented as a favor to the Kurds. In reality, they are looking down on the Kurds by saying, “Haven’t we given enough?” or “What more can you possibly want?”

As mentioned before, the so-called “Kurdish issue” is actually not a PKK issue. On the contrary, the PKK reality is only one of the consequences of this issue in the areas of domestic and foreign politics and security in the last thirty years. The issue was there before the PKK came along and it will remain on Turkey’s agenda as the most pressing issue awaiting a solution even if the PKK is removed from the picture.

 What needs to be done is find a solution to the Kurds’ demands for rights and liberties and basic human rights complying with international law and conventions. A plan to meet these needs must be presented to the public and brought before parliament with accompanying mechanisms, calendar and genuine and credible provisions.

The antidote against the relative legitimacy that the PKK’s actions and discourses enjoy among the Kurdish public and the remedy to their being taken for granted lies in such a road map being laid down by Turkey’s political machine through consensus.

The means to a solution is more democracy and freedom; the place for a solution is the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA)

In the past 25 years, I have published many articles, studies, reports, etc. All expressed views that had been put forward on public platforms and presented to public opinion.

As early as 1989, in an article in the daily Cumhuriyet, I argued that the ban against using Kurdish names, based on laws passed in the 1930’s, was inadmissible from a legal and human rights viewpoint.

I explained that the way to a peaceful solution required more democracy and freedom.

A deadlock in the Kurdish issue not only prolongs and deepens the plight of the Kurds, but also holds Turkey back from democratization.

There’s nothing new that can be said 

In a nutshell, as I stated many times, the issue referred to as the “Kurdish issue” basically consists of the demands for rights and liberties by citizens of the Republic of Turkey of Kurdish origins.

Therefore, I view this not as the “Kurdish issue”, but as a demand and quest by citizens of Turkey of Kurdish origins for basic human rights and liberties that are stated in international and supranational treaties that Turkey is a party to and a cardinal requirement for accession to the EU.

The Kurds demand and claim the right to exercise their fundamental human rights and liberties both prescribed by universal human rights and legal norms and necessitated by social reality. Associating these demands with any particular political party is not right.

This outlook stems from a misunderstanding of demands for rudimentary rights and liberties and the topic of democracy and freedom in Turkey.

There are hundreds of examples of this situation

Since 1951, 26 out of 28 political parties were closed or banned for putting and/or wanting to put in their bills the fundamental human rights of the Kurds, referred to as the “Kurdish issue.”

The rationale for closing of the Turkish Labor Party (TIP) following the military coup in 1971 is the most concrete and clear example of this situation in recent political history. With the exception of the Welfare Party, which was closed in the 1990’s, reasons for the closure of other parties are not much different than the TIP’s.

Elevating freedom of association, including political organization, to EU standards together with freedom of thought and expression would not only ensure the Kurds’ demands for rights and liberties were met in a manner in which the will for “peace, democracy, freedom, equality, citizenship law, Turkey’s integrity, fraternity, and coexistence” would prevail, but also set Turkey’s perspective in the right direction for democracy, freedom, and social justice.

As I pointed out in Law Today (Guncel Hukuk) magazine in 2010, “there are steps the government should take for this purpose,” and, as I pointed out in another article, steps to be taken by the government “would eliminate political, legal, and social conditions lending legitimacy to the use of violence in the Kurdish issue and, thereby, public support granted to it”. Under such circumstances, as I have declared, affirming my belief that the Kurds’ resorting to violence to secure their rights and liberties is neither right nor necessary, the armed organization should discontinue use of violence by its own will and in accordance with its rules. This is the most feasible way.

When circumstances are ultimately created, there will be four main topics, other than the armed conflict aspect of the Kurdish issue, which is the hottest, that will require much debate, will be a challenge to solve, and will require constitutional amendments. In my opinion, these topics are:

1. Redefinition of citizenship;

2. Introducing provisions to the Constitution, particularly Political Parties Law, allowing Kurds to organize freely for their political goals under their own identity and in keeping with their demands, provided such organization does not include, use, or incite violence;

3. Learning mother tongue/education in mother tongue;

4. Restructuring of the administrative structure in Turkey in terms of strengthening local governments or rebuilding of decentralized models.

Having this policy reflected in Turkey’s foreign policy

In order to defend itself, Turkey’s traditional security-centered Kurdish policy has turned the Kurdish issue into one purportedly instigated by foreign enemies, a material and means for foreign politicking, an issue exposed to “foreign provocation” and “meddling by foreign powers” throughout the history of the Republic. The weight of this policy is still felt in the determination and evaluation of the PKK.

It’s no secret that in international and intergovernmental relations, some states or international powers cultivate a keen interest in internal issues of others and prod issues into channels from which they can derive benefits for themselves. This is true for Turkey in regards to the Kurdish issue. Turkey has been, and still is, pursuing similar policies in some of its international relations and foreign policy. The recent example of this are developments in Syria.

However, the pivotal fact here is Turkey’s stubbornness in viewing the Kurdish issue as a “provocation and intervention by foreign powers” and turning a deaf ear to the Kurds’ demands for rights and liberties.

This misjudgment of Turkey has sometimes driven it to make concessions to certain states and sometimes (e.g., in the 1980’s and the 1990’s) plunged it into serious tensions and brought it to the brink of war as the case with Syria. It’s possible to see versions of the same picture in relations with Greece, Armenia, Iran, and some European countries. One of the satirical examples of this was in 1984 when Turkey sent a diplomatic letter to Sweden protesting the opening of its first kindergarten offering education in Kurdish, only to be harshly rebuked by Sweden in response.

The policies of Turkey on the Kurdish issue, which I describe as “denial and self-deception”, took center stage not only in relations with individual countries but in joining international organizations such as the Baghdad Pact and CENTO.

What tensed relations with the EU in recent history was the Kurdish issue and Cyprus dispute. Turkey went so far in its unrealistic policies in these areas that at one point it was engaged in a futile effort and foreign policy vision (or lack of) bent on persuading the world that the EU had been founded to divide Turkey and save the Kurds.

More examples can be provided to illustrate this. As for relations with our neighbors Iran, Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish issue was always in the spotlight due to Kurdish populations and struggles in these countries.

Briefly, Turkey’s policies on the Kurdish issue brought Turkey into confrontation with problems not only in domestic politics but also in foreign policy and international relations.

A peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue is a must if Turkey is to be able to freely and resolutely pursue a stable and credible foreign policy vision that would advance its cause. The absence of a solution to the Kurdish issue appears to remain a burden on Turkey’s back in international affairs.

Rather than serving a purpose in Turkey’s current Kurdish policy, developments in Syria and the region are rendering it dysfunctional. Underlying this is the no-solution policy Turkey has been pursuing about its Kurds.

This has been proven by experience. Just as the policy pursued about the Kurds in Iraq since the 1990’s became dysfunctional, current developments will lead to Turkey’s existing policy becoming dysfunctional and collapsing. It’s up to the government to play the right cards.

The Syrian crisis gets deeper with the risk of civil war mounting each day. Turkey is top of the list of countries feeling the impact of this crisis acutely due to geographical location and political, social, cultural and historical reasons.

Syrian Kurds are on the agenda more often in the process of defusing the Syrian crisis and reshaping the Middle East. Recent events have put the position, power and possible role of the Syrian Kurds among Syrian dissidents in greater focus. These are as follows:

1. Turkey’s relations with Syria, raised almost to the level of joint cabinet meetings by the AKP and “brotherly” rhetoric between Erdogan and Assad, quickly deteriorated into loggerheads and “dictator” epithets. The Syrian policy of the government, key portions of which contradict international initiatives, rapidly assumed dimensions of a civil war; and we are facing risk of spillover into Turkey.

2. Certain characteristics of Syria distinguish it from other countries in the Arab Spring. Therefore, the relatively quick settlement in Libya and Egypt has not occurred in Syria.

3. Turkey is blundering about Syria as it pursues the AKP government’s narrow-minded, nationalistic policy devoid of foresight and partly built around religious sectoral considerations. The AKP’s false and unrealistic appraisal and outlook on the Syrian Kurds play a major role in this.

4. Syrian Kurds are the best-organized segment of Syrian dissidents. The National Assembly of Syrian Kurds (ENKS) comprises a total of eight political parties, including the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria, dating back to the  early 1950’s, and the Leftist Party of the Syrian Kurds, founded in 1969.

 5. In recent years this number has grown to nine with the addition of the Kurdish Union Party (PYD), founded with backing of the PKK. Relations between the ENKS and PYD were normalized at the behest of Massoud Barzani and the parties have conducted an integrated opposition for a month, based on a signed joint declaration.

6. Political demands of the Syrian Kurds have been fielded with a strategy based on cultural rights and autonomy. In view of developments in Syria, “cultural rights, human rights, and the principle of self-determination” were adopted as tenets of a common strategy during the founding of the ENKS.

7. Abdul Basit Seyda, a Kurdish asylum-seeker in Sweden, was voted chairman of the Syrian National Council. Kurdish organizations signed a unification protocol upon the initiatives of Barzani. The PYD, initially supporting the Assad regime and known for its closeness to the PKK, joined the ranks of the ENKS.

8. The joint political platform and will of the Syrian Kurds has widespread, effective relations in the international sphere, mainly Europe. A number (approximately 30,000) of Kurds in this country receive strong political and moral support abroad for their demands for cultural and political rights and liberties as well as citizenship privileges.

9. Militia forces affiliated with Kurdish political parties have recently gained control over some Kurdish cities and towns. This is played up by certain media organizations and political actors in Turkey with the aim of fomenting fears of impending war and fragmentation of the country, fanning flames of nationalistic sentiment.

10. These developments made clear that the AKP government miscalculated the true strength of Syrian dissidents out of nationalistic concerns. They brought the AKP’s policy to the brink of failure by proving that, in reality, the Syrian Kurds are the best-organized dissident power.

11. In its Syrian policies, the AKP mis-estimated leverage afforded Turkey’s geographical location that would entail a more active role in the situation. It worked itself into a quandary in terms of support it gave dissident powers in Syria, alliances between these powers and the stance it took against the Assad regime. Its support of the Syrian dissidents, its stance vis-à-vis Kurdish organizations in Syria during the alliance of dissident powers and attempts to isolate the latter met with failure.

12. The AKP’s Syrian policy inconvenienced Turkey in regards to regional equilibrium. The support Turkey is providing to opposition in this Sunni Islam centered country is translating into greater tension in relations with Iran and Iraq.

13. During the inception of the Syrian policy, though, development of direct relations with the Syrian Kurds held potential that could make significant contributions to the process of peace and fraternity and goals of democracy, freedom, justice, stability and security.

 Considering these developments and the violence and terror that intensified in recent weeks, the only way for Turkey to overcome this impasse in domestic and foreign policy is the formation of a Wise Men’s Committee and Consensus Commission to prepare a map for a solution to the Kurdish issue, as proposed in a parliamentary motion by our party, and the urgent convening of the TBMM as the central entity where all internal and external political matters are to be solved.

This is an emergency – not concession as the Prime Minister mentioned in an effort to reap short-term gains by polemicizing and blocking the political process. It is a moral duty for individuals to be directly engaged in politics. The TBMM’s striving for a solution is important to demonstrate its being the legitimate address for a solution.

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