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Turkey’s Kurdish problem—predicting Ankara’s next steps

Posted By on July 31, 2019 @ 13:48

Since the renewal of hostilities between the Turkish government and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) forces in mid-2015, following a two-year ceasefire, the conflict has claimed around 4,500 lives [1], adding to approximately 40,000 casualties since the 1980s. Although the PKK bears responsibility for breaking the ceasefire, Turkey has since pursued an escalating campaign of offensive military operations against Kurdish groups in Turkey and neighbouring Iraq and Syria. Ankara has also re-instituted oppressive security controls targeting Kurds and renewed repression of Kurdish language, culture and identity.

Turkey’s approach to the thorny question of Kurdish rights to autonomy or self-determination has acquired a new sense of urgency, which seems to be driven by a number of factors.

In recent months, the Turkish military has launched two phases of ‘Operation Claw [2]’ into northern Iraq, deploying jets, helicopters, drones and armoured fighting vehicles against PKK strongholds. And while Ankara is mainly targeting the PKK—listed [3] as a terrorist organisation—it’s also targeting the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a key US ally that contributed significantly to successes against Islamic State.

Washington’s decision to arm the YPG in 2017 outraged Turkey. Ankara argues [4] that the YPG is an affiliate of the banned PKK, and there do appear to be indisputable [5] links between the two groups. In early 2018 [6], Turkish forces and their Turkmen and Arab proxies conducted ‘Operation Olive Branch’ in the predominantly Kurdish district of Afrin in northern Syria, displacing more than 5,000 Kurdish civilians and leading to widespread human rights abuses [7] against the Kurdish population and the desecration and destruction [8] of Kurdish and Yazidi cultural sites. Ankara also initiated a strategy of resettlement [9] of Arab Syrian refugees in Afrin, prompting claims [10] that it was engaging in ethnic cleansing.

Ankara has complemented its recent kinetic operations against the PKK with a reinvigorated and expanded network [11] of 73 security checkpoints across southern Turkey. This has been assessed as part of a new strategy [12] to undertake continual antiterrorist security and military operations, not only in city centres where PKK-affiliated people might live but also in rural areas.

Washington’s support for the YPG has fuelled two fears [13] that have obsessed Turkish nationalists since the short-lived 1920 Treaty of Sevres first established grounds for Kurdish statehood: the threat posed by Kurdish separatism, and the idea that external forces, particularly in the West, are conspiring to threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity.

Turkey also sees the void resulting from the collapse of Islamic State as both a threat and an opportunity. It provides space for Kurdish groups to consolidate autonomy, but it also allows Ankara to definitively assert its strategic intent across the Kurdish-majority regions in neighbouring states that provide support and sanctuary to Turkish Kurds. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already stoked speculation that Turkey has territorial designs [14] on parts of northern Iraq and Syria.

Given that both Iraq and Syria are now arguably categorisable as failed states [15], the question of Turkish irredentist ambitions is a valid one. Turkey has proved susceptible to irredentism [14] at times of disruption to the status quo. In this context, it’s significant that over the past 18 months Ankara has doubled [16] the military foothold in northern Iraq that it has maintained since the early 1990s [17], despite there being a considerable reduction in the threat posed by Islamic State.

Significantly, Turkey’s ‘Kurdish problem’ is also becoming an electoral issue for Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). AKP had originally been palatable for Kurds because it largely avoided the virulent anti-Kurdish nationalism that had long characterised Turkish politics. However, following the attempted coup against Erdogan in 2016, Kurdish groups found themselves caught up in the government’s backlash. In one night, Ankara closed down [18] nearly 100 Kurdish cultural institutions and associations, media organisations, and language institutes.

Ankara also clamped down [19] on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, the third largest political party in the Turkish parliament, further marginalising Turkey’s 15 million Kurds. The defeat of AKP’s candidate in the June mayoral elections in Istanbul provided the clearest example of how a Kurdish voter backlash [20] may impact directly on the party. The risk now is that Erdogan will retaliate by clamping down further on Kurdish rights.

The 2017 Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government–sponsored independence referendum—which resulted in an overwhelming vote [21] for independence—has also likely made Ankara intolerant of any Kurdish claims to autonomy or self-determination in neighbouring countries. Ankara knows that the 25–30 million Kurds [22] that are dispersed across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia have historically been divided [23] along tribal, linguistic, political and religious lines, and successive governments in Ankara been very adept at playing different Kurdish groups against each other.

Turkey will also be alert to signs that Kurdish groups across the region are now starting to collaborate [24] in ways that they haven’t in the past. The growing sense of Kurdish solidarity poses a direct threat to Turkish security by challenging the territorial integrity of the Turkish state.

All of these issues are coalescing into a wicked security problem for Ankara, and recent military actions undertaken by Turkey across both Syria and Iraq and the broad suppression of Kurdish rights suggest that Ankara is determined to seize the initiative and impose its will on the question of Kurdish autonomy.

Ankara’s estrangement from Washington may also mean that it may be increasingly emboldened to pursue its own narrow strategic interests across the Middle East, even if those interests clearly undercut the interests of its neighbours. Turkey’s armed forces, which have benefited from an increase [25] in defence expenditure of 24% over 2018 alone, clearly have the capability to enforce Ankara’s will across both Syria and Iraq.

Turkey’s procurement [26] of Russia’s S-400 air defence system, which provides significant anti-access/area-denial capability, also gives Turkish forces wider scope to act with relative impunity across the region. Turkey’s next steps may potentially determine the future make-up of the Middle East, particularly if Ankara sees the redrawing of its borders with Syria and Iraq as an enduring solution to its Kurdish problem.

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URLs in this post:

[1] around 4,500 lives: https://www.crisisgroup.org/content/turkeys-pkk-conflict-visual-explainer

[2] Operation Claw: https://www.dailysabah.com/war-on-terror/2019/07/13/turkey-launches-anti-terror-operation-claw-2-in-northern-iraq

[3] listed: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-20971100

[4] argues: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/10/ankara-calls-us-arming-of-kurds-fighting-isis-in-syria-a-threat-to-turkey

[5] indisputable: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/the-ypg-pkk-connection

[6] early 2018: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-42788054

[7] human rights abuses: https://stockholmcf.org/un-report-details-large-scale-human-rights-abuses-in-afrin-under-turkish-military-control/

[8] desecration and destruction: https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2019/07/11/afrin-incidents-of-desecration-and-destruction-of-cultural-sites/

[9] resettlement: https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/turkey-eyes-refugees-returning-afrin-syria

[10] claims: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey-populatio/syrian-sdf-accuses-ankara-of-ethnic-cleansing-in-afrin-turkey-denies-idUSKCN1GP13F

[11] reinvigorated and expanded network: https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2019/07/03/roadblocks-in-turkeys-new-southeast-strategy-an-analysis/

[12] new strategy: https://thenewturkey.org/opinion/making-sense-of-turkeys-new-counter-terrorism-strategy

[13] two fears: https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/08/10/sykes-picot-treaty-of-sevres-modern-turkey-middle-east-borders-turkey/

[14] territorial designs: https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/10/23/turkeys-religious-nationalists-want-ottoman-borders-iraq-erdogan/

[15] failed states: https://www.nationalreview.com/2016/03/iraq-syria-nation-states-sykes-picot-yugoslavia-democracy/

[16] doubled: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-has-11-regional-bases-in-northern-iraq-pm-yildirim-132762

[17] since the early 1990s: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/turkeys-military-presence-in-iraq-a-complex-strategic-deterrent

[18] closed down: https://www.thenation.com/article/in-turkey-repression-of-the-kurdish-language-is-back-with-no-end-in-sight/

[19] clamped down: https://stockholmcf.org/kurdish-political-movement-under-crackdown-in-turkey-the-case-of-the-hdp/

[20] Kurdish voter backlash: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/turkey-mayor-election-istanbul-erdogan-party-kurdish-vote-akp-imamoglu-a8967611.html

[21] overwhelming vote: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_Iraqi_Kurdistan_independence_referendum#Iraqi–Kurdish_conflict_and_Barzani_steps_down

[22] 25–30 million Kurds: https://edition.cnn.com/2014/08/18/world/kurdish-people-fast-facts/index.html

[23] divided: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329173575_A_Century_of_the_Kurdish_Question_Organizational_Rivalries_Diplomacy_and_Cross-Ethnic_Coalitions

[24] collaborate: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2019-02-12/kurdish-awakening

[25] increase: https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/turkey-spending-record-numbers-defence-new-figures-show

[26] procurement: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/turkey-takes-first-shipment-of-russian-s-400-air-defense-system-in-defiance-of-us-and-nato-warnings/2019/07/12/d9f446c2-a00b-11e9-83e3-45fded8e8d2e_story.html

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