Turkey’s incursion into Northeastern Syria, officially dubbed “Operation Peace Spring”, represents the lowest point so far in the already much-troubled saga of Turkish-Kurdish relations. While President Erdoğan has reasoned his military operation as a means to fight terrorism, the true intentions behind the operation are barely veiled – to divide Turks and Kurds and to eject and subsequently resettle the millions of Syrian Arab refugees who have been living in Turkey since the Civil War began in 2011. With the Turkish-PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) conflict nearing its 50th anniversary and costing over 40,000 lives and countless resources, it is truly perplexing how anyone could truly believe that warfare will bring a just and definitive end to the so-called “Kurdish Question”.
It is easy to forget that it does not have to be this way, and until very recently, Turkish-Kurdish relations had a much different tone. In the first half of the decade, the Turkish State launched a series of secret peace talks with the PKK that culminated in the March 21, 2013 declaration of a ceasefire between the states and the insurgency. Parallel with the peace talks were a series of sweeping cultural and political reforms in Turkey that eased severe restrictions on Kurdish citizens. The ban on the Kurdish language was lifted, Kurdish cultural expression was permitted (to a certain degree), and “Kurdishness” itself was essentially legalized. As unbelievable as it may seem now, it was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who gave many of these reforms a green light – so what went wrong?
Hindsight has given us the ability to understand that Erdoğan’s Kurdish reforms had nothing to do with a love of Kurds and a genuine desire to see to it that they were granted their political rights – rather, his reforms were aimed at attracting Kurdish votes. Indeed, from 2003 to 2015, Kurdish votes were one of the most essential components of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) coalition – many Kurds voted for Erdoğan and in return were granted limited cultural concessions. These years were among some of Turkey’s best; the economy was expanding, repressive measures were rolled back, and Turkey seemed destined to take its rightful place as one of the key players in the global scene – Turkey’s serious bid to join the European Union was seen as the crown jewel of these efforts. Perhaps better than any other case study, Turkey under Erdoğan shows that political reforms are destined to fail and backfire when they are undertaken in bad faith.
Following the June 2013 Gezi Park protests, a movement that represented the environmental, economic, and political anxieties of Turkey’s youth across the entire socioeconomic spectrum, Turkey’s ruling party underwent a dramatic shift as they sought to suppress dissent against their supposedly golden touch. A paranoid AKP watched as the Kurdish-led HDP (People’s Democratic Party) ignited a wave of excitement across Turkey’s progressive circles, enticing votes with a platform of racial and economic justice, environmentalism, and religious freedom. In June of 2015, the HDP made Turkish history when it broke the 10% threshold required of political parties to enter the parliament and effectively ended Erdoğan’s until-then unchecked political supremacy. Perhaps it was on that beautiful early summer evening that Erdoğan realized that peace was not expedient for his political career.
By the end of 2015, the peace process between Turkey and the PKK had collapsed, ethnic tensions were stoked, the economy was in a tailspin, and hundreds of Turkish civilians were killed by ISIS bombings of HDP events (the majority of those killed were ethnic Kurds, and many of them students). To top it all off, Erdoğan’s gamble to reignite ethnic tensions and restart the war with the PKK had paid off – he had his parliamentary majority back. It is easy to take a pessimistic view of Turkey’s future when you also consider the events following the July 2016 coup attempt and the subsequent imprisonment of tens of thousands of Turkish civilians on dubious charges, including the mass incarceration of journalists (no country has more journalists in prison than Turkey) and the indefinite detention of Erdoğan’s most significant political opponents, such as Selahattin Demirtaş and Osman Kavala. And now Turkey is at war with Syria’s Kurds. What is to be done?
The only way forward for Turkey is peace and solidarity between Turks and Kurds and full democratization of the state. Those looking for peace would do well to take inspiration from Spain – another Southern European country that has suffered from an immense amount of ethnic and political strife as a result of too little democracy and too much chauvinistic nationalism. In the decades following Francisco Franco’s authoritarian rule, increasing democratization and intercommunal dialogue brought an end to the deadly conflict between the Spanish State and the ETA (Basque Homeland and Liberty, a militant Basque insurgency group). The existence of a stable and healthy democracy in Spain meant that no one single individual dominated the peace process, so the rise and fall of individual political fortunes had no real bearing on the eventual outcome of peace. As of May 2018, the ETA has entirely disbanded on its own accord, and Basques enjoy full rights both legally socially. It is reciprocity and not tolerance that is a truly lasting recipe for peace. If Spain can have peace, Turkey can too, but first democracy and dialogue must see the light of day.
This blog post was contributed by Philip Kowalski, who is a Program Associate at HasNa Inc.