What’s the Deal With Turkey and the PKK?

Hello all!

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Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”, the blog that has seen a 200% increase in readership since July. [citation needed].

In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss the recent violence on the border between Turkey and Northern Iraq involving a militant Kurdish group and the Turkish armed forces.  The conflict has a large background that has far reaching effects into the present, most importantly on Turkey’s attempt to join the EU, as well as collaboration with other Middle Eastern countries in a regional coalition.

Last Wednesday, Oct. 19th, armed insurgents of the Kurdish militant group the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or the P.K.K. crossed the remote mountainous border of Turkey and Iraq and opened fire on Turkish security forces, killing 24 soldiers in the town of Cukurca.  The guerrilla attack prompted a quick and forceful response from Ankara and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who sent a force of 10,000 well armed soldiers to the border region in pursuit of the attackers.  A week later, dozens of Kurdish rebels have been killed, and the crackdown has expanded, with Turkish tanks crossing the border to escalate the hunt.  This week’s violence is part of an increased  level of violence that has left 111 Turkish security forces (TSK), 80 PKK members, and 23 civillians dead since June.  As the violence between the the PKK and the Turkish army has increased over the year, it conjures several questions:  Who are the PKK, how did they come about, and why have they created an armed insurgency?    Also, what does Turkey’s response mean for its quest to join the EU and for establishing constitutional rights and easing tensions with a population that makes up 20% of the Turkish population?

A great place to live life on the "lamb."

The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) is a radical nationalist movement vocally representing the Kurdish people, a distinct ethnic group that has no political state and that resides mainly within and between the countries of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.  Kurds are a non-arabic people with a distinct language who for many centuries lived as a nomadic sheep-herding people in the mountainous region between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey.  The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but there are some Alevi followers (an extreme form of Shiite Islam).  Around 14 million of the 25-30 million Kurds live in Turkey where they live predominantly in the Southeast of the country.  The origins of the modern PKK can be traced  from the creation of the Turkish state in 1919 out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.  The idea of nationalism for the Kurds came as the Ottoman Empire was divided up into separate regional states.  A potential state of Kurdistan was included in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, but when the Turkish monarchy was overthrown by Kemal Ataturk, the new states of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran did not implement the treaty and the nation of Kurdistan was never created.

Forbidden is in: this tribal wear is all the rage now on the Kurdish runway

Instead of recognizing the nomadic, but numerous Kurds in Turkey, the fledgling Turkish government outlawed the Kurdish language, designated the people as “mountain Turks”, and forbid traditional costume wear in urban areas.  Essentially, the Turkish government’s initial approach was to deprive the Kurds of their identity within Turkey.  In response, between 1919 and 1978, there were 29 rebellions (some were Soviet influenced Nationalist/Communist movements) by Kurds against the ruling regime.

These uprisings along with the continued suppression of the Kurds in Turkey by successive governments influenced Abdullah Ocalan to form the PKK in 1978, to initially advocate for Kurdish independence.  He fled for Syria in 1979, but operated an armed insurgence against the Turkish army beginning in 1984 that to this day has resulted in more than 38,000 deaths, including many civilians. Most of the casualties of the conflict occurred in the 1990’s when some of the heaviest fighting took place.  His capture in 1999 created a schism in the group, and many thought the group would cease to exist because of his heavy Maoist ideology that permeated the group, but it did not.

Many ceasefires have been declared by the PKK in the last decade, but none of them have held for very long.  The 2003 Iraqi invasion created a vacuum for operation in Northern Iraq for the group (as well as available weapons), and the U.S. is often the recipient of blame for continued PKK operations.  Iran and the EU are blamed as well for creating “safe havens” for escaped PKK members, so the conflict has had far reaching diplomatic effects for Turkey.  This year has seen a renewed violence in the conflict that has turned the fighters into martyrs of Kurdish autonomy, as seen in this documentary.  The rise in activity this year may be attributed to the common cause of democracy and human rights that have been championed by the masses across the Arab region this year.

So, the PKK is:

  • An insurgent group whose aims are to create an autonomous state for the Kurdish people recognized by the Turkish government, by force if necessary, though the PKK would prefer to negotiate diplomatically.
  • Created in 1978, but has its roots back to the first waves of nationalism from the splitting of the Ottoman Empire back in 1919.
  • Motivated by this year’s Arab Spring movement.
  • A group that is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the E.U. for its human rights violations: not following war protocol, killing captives and unarmed civilians, etc.
  • A group that is considered heroic by a great deal of Kurdish people residing in Eastern Turkey, but terrorists and radical insurgents by the majority of Turks residing in Western Turkey.

    Really?... Are you sure you want to join the EU? Have you read the news at all this year?

In 1999, Turkey completed the candidacy to become an official member of the European Union, after having been an “associate member” of the EU and its predecessors since 1963.  The negotiation process to join the EU started in 2005 and takes about a decade (with the earliest possible date being 2013) but considering the human rights troubles and violence Turkey is facing with Kurds, accession to the EU looks dim for the immediate future.  The Turkish government has taken several steps to begin to recognize the Kurdish people within the country, but it is far from enough to satisfy the PKK, let alone the 14 million Kurds in Turkey.  To address the “Kurdish Question”, Turkey started broadcasting media in Kurdish, restoring names to Kurdish towns and streets, assembling a team to counter discrimination, and allowing  local elections.   Most importantly, Turkey briefly outlawed capital punishment (to satisfy EU officials) so that they did not kill captured PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.  The media broadcasts however, are in a dialect that many in Turkey do not speak, and the programming is limited to news broadcasts.  The anti-discrimination team has done little to address the problem with many reports of corruption and lack of cooperation.   The pro-Kurdish party in parliament was disbanded in 2009 when it was accused of backing the PKK.   So for many, the steps Turkey has taken to address the “Turkish Question” have done little to recognize and respect the Kurds within the country.

Like the Cherokee, the Kurds are an assimilated people; Will the answer to the Kurdish Question be a Kurdish state, or a forced relocation?

The real underlying problem for Turkey seems to be one of continuing ethnic discrimination at some level,  based on the origin of Kurds from a nomadic peoples.  This is a ringing comparison with the U.S. and its dealings with different Native American populations, such as the Cherokee.  It is worth noting that Turkey has not pursued to the same extent the practice of forceful removal of an assimilated people, but the same idea of discrimination exists.

A very warranted fear of attacks persists within Turkey, with the violence from the PKK; this is the major limiting factor in granting Kurds autonomy in Turkey.  Another interesting twist is this: Turkey has been a major supporter of autonomy and creation of a Palestinian state, yet it remains distant on the Kurdish question.   Is it a question of violence and safety? (though, Palestinian group Hamas has performed acts of terror) Or is it a problem of discrimination against the non-Arab Kurds?

Within the borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, the ethnic Kurds have created essentially everything necessary to run their own nation: its own army, intelligence service, parliament, government and judiciary and its own separate elections.  20 countries including Turkey have established diplomatic relations with the region, and due to its relatively safe outlook at the moment, investment has risen significantly.  A state of Kurdistan would give the PKK something that the Turkish government can’t do within its own borders: recognize an autonomous state of Kurdish people.  Creation of this state would create big problems as it would change borders with 4 countries and run into troubles with land that is still claimed by Armenians and others.

The guerrilla fighters of the Turkish PKK, and the Iranian PJAK (an Iranian arm of the PKK) continue to attack the government forces of Iran and Turkey, despite saying their goal is to not use violence to achieve their means.  Clearly, they have a mindset to gain independence and autonomy even if they do not represent/match the Kurdish population ideology.

Men with guns ironically almost never have "zero problems" You got a problem with that?

Iran and Turkey have collaborated to fight the insurgent forces, and their massive response will be a big blow to many fighters, or peshmerga.  This collaborative effort is part of Turkey’s “Zero Problem” policy, a strategy to work with other Middle Eastern countries in curbing rebel insurgency groups.  This strategy has run into a wall though, with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad having his hands full with the Syrian uprising, and the other Arab Spring  movements.  This foreign policy strategy seems to be short sighted in light of this years democratic movements.  The bigger problems with blaming the U.S., E.U., and Iran for helping the PKK in certain ways has also hampered their fight.

So let’s “jump” to some conclusions about this conflict:

  • The Turkish-PKK conflict is based on the Kurdish quest for autonomy and statehood within several countries in the Middle East.
  • The PKK is group of guerrilla fighters who aim to use violence(if necessary) and terror tactics to achieve the goal of Kurdish autonomy (perhaps for their own political gains).
  • Turkey in the past has been very harsh on the Kurdish minority creating a discontented minority who relate more to being Kurdish than Turkish.
  • With its crushing response to the insurgent violence in 2011, Turkey has effectively extended its time to being accepted into the EU.

    Has the Kurdish question been bottled up for too long? Or is it just past its expiration date?

The violent response to last Wednesdays guerrilla attacks will only strengthen the resolve of the PKK though, especially if the push for recognition and autonomy in Turkey remains stagnant.  Without other strong leaders (besides Iran) to push for the zero problems policy, Turkey’s strong armed response is falling on deaf ears.   Turkey’s consistent approach to Kurds is a stark contrast to its approach to the stateless Arab people, the Palestinians.  Many are quick to ask why they support Mahmoud Abbas and the formation of the Palestinian state, but not an autonomous Kurdistan (this is a subject for another blog/paper/book).  Considering recent events, it is safe to say that Turkey’s foreign policy has effectively “Kurdled”.

Well, another week, another blog.  This issue is difficult to explain in one blog entry, so hopefully I made a decent attempt at explaining both sides without regurgitating the headlines.  Until next time, Happy Halloween from all of us here at “What’s the Deal?”

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson


International Crisis Group

Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight For Independence, by Eliza Marcus.

A Modern History of the Kurds, 3rd Edition, by David McDowall.

Invisible Nation: How the Kurds’ Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East, by Quil Lawrence.







About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
This entry was posted in International Affairs, Radical Movements, Revolution/Political Uprising and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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