TURKISH NATIONALISM, THE KURDISH FIGHT FOR FREEDOM, AND THE COMPLICATIONS OF U.S. INVOLVEMENT: IS RECONCILIATION POSSIBLE? by Katherine Bennett '21
INST 111: Introduction to International Relations
May 14, 2019
The Turkish-Kurdish conflict is one of the longest-lasting violent conflicts of the post-World War II era and spans across multiple nations and geographical areas. What ensued from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was the creation of a powerful form of nationalism introduced by the burgeoning Turkish state that smothered the majority of ethnic diversity in an attempt to “Turkify” its citizens. This nationalism ended any hope of an independent Kurdish state - what the Kurds of the region had been promised during the Ottoman Empire - and led to the creation of Kurdish retaliatory parties across national boundaries. These parties - at once allies and terrorist groups - have been warring with Turkey since the early 1900s to restore their cultural and ethnic rights. In recent decades, the United States has also been a critical player in the dispute, blurring the divisions between factions and leading both Turkish and Kurdish blocs to lose trust in U.S. policymakers. Due to the complex relations between Turkish and Kurdish stakeholders, reaching a peace agreement is difficult but possible as long as both sides disarm and encourage democratic, diplomatic negotiations. However, previous failures and a recent increase in militarization on both sides suggest that reconciliation is unlikely in the near future.
Conflicts between ethnic groups have been a staple of human existence for centuries, from the Battle of Carthage in 149 B. C. E. to the genocides of the modern era, including the Holocaust and Rwandan Genocide. While the majority of the globe is familiar with the atrocities of World War II, little can be said of one of the longest-lasting violent conflicts of the post-World War II era: The Turkish-Kurdish conflict (Tezcür and Gurses 2017, 213).
With a population of over 30 million people spread across parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and ex-Soviet Caucasus republics, the Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group in the world (Jocić 2018, 49-50). They are by no means a homogenous group, and there are wide differences in political opinion, worldview, and relationships to the state in which they live (Cook 2016). Over the course of several decades, Kurds have faced many hardships regarding their cultural expression; in Turkey in particular, the Kurds have been the subject of oppression and persecution for the duration of the nation’s history, even though the ethnic group comprises one-fifth of Turkey’s population (Protner 2018, 672).
While they have enjoyed periods of relative peace among Turkish governance, these moments have been fairly brief for Kurdish individuals and communities. At the end of World War I, the Treaty of Sevres provided the Kurds living in Ottoman Kurdistan with broad autonomy and the potential for complete independence in the future; following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish war of independence, however, this statute was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne, which included none of the rights and privileges that the Kurds had enjoyed in the years prior (Jocić 2018, 50; Barkey 2019, 109). Instead, a division emerged between the Kurds living in and around the new Turkish nation and those who considered themselves true Turks. These divisions allowed for the systematic oppression of the Kurdish way of life, from language to tradition, with the ultimate goal of full assimilation of the Kurdish identity into that of a Turkish one (Jocić 2018, 50).
Over time, these divisions have become entrenched in the politics and consciousness of Turkish and Kurdish people, with the two sides viewing the issue in disparate lighting: on one hand, Turks view this “Kurdish conflict” as an issue of underdevelopment and terrorism, while Kurdish movements of the 1990s saw the conflict as an issue of exploitation or independence (Uluğ et. al. 2017, 487). Various factions of Kurdish freedom movements have blurred the lines between resistance and terrorism, and caused the Turkish nation to forcefully retaliate. Over the last several decades, these identity politics have played a key role in furthering the separation between Turks and Kurds, creating a multitude of difficulties in solving this unending conflict. The involvement of the United States, whether directly or indirectly, in this region has also had a potent impact on the conflict, not only for those living in the region, but also for those trying to understand the conflict from an outside perspective. Thus, the complexities of politics and identity beg the question: Is reconciliation possible when nationalism and historical trauma are so deeply rooted in the psyches of the stakeholders?
The Beginnings of Turkish Nationalism
From its creation in 1923, the Turkish Republic has been a nationalist one. In fact, Turkey’s nationalist perspective reaches back to the end of the Ottoman Empire and before it gained its independence. In 1908, the creation of the nationalist Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) marked a change in the politics of the region and a centralization of power unlike that seen during most of the Ottoman Empire (Yeğen 2007, 122). Though the CUP encouraged a more diverse set of leaders and politicians, it also called for the creation of the Turkish people, who were already considered the unsuri asli (main ethnic group) of the region, into that of the milleti hakime (dominant/ruling nation) (Yeğen 2007, 123).
Following World War I and the war for independence, the driving doctrine of Kemalism, alongside the zealous political program of the reformist-nationalist movement, spread through the newly-formed Republic (Yeğen 2007, 125; Tunçay). Named after founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Kemalism called for sweeping social, political, and religious reforms to create a new Turkish nationalist identity to replace that from the collapsed Ottoman Empire (Tunçay). The latter had created a unified body of people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds by deeming each of them an Ottoman citizen; the new Turkish regime directly opposed this measure, asserting that adopting “Turkishness” was the only true path to unity on Ottoman territory (Yeğen 2007, 122). Likewise, this doctrine left no room for ethnic minorities, including the Kurds, whose identity was denied and cultural expressions prohibited (Uluğ et. al. 2017, 486).
The effects of Kemalism were confounded by the fact that the early Republic invested heavily in the Aegean Region and similar areas, leaving the regions in the Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia regions - those with high Kurdish populations - largely without resources, development, or economic opportunities (Uluğ et. al. 2017, 486). The new nationalist political force of the Republic viewed the Kurdish issue in two ways: as both an impediment to the establishment of the Turkish people as the milleti hakime and as an obstacle to the creation of a modern state and society (Yeğen 2007, 124). Poverty and dissatisfaction with the new regime among Turkish-Kurdish communities in these regions led to 18 Kurdish revolts against the Turkish republic between 1923 and 1938, all of which were suppressed by the Turkish state, and which presented the beginnings of a conflict that is still happening today (Uluğ et. al. 2017, 486-487).
It is important to note that, although Turkishness and nationalism were widespread throughout the region, prior to Turkey’s independence, the Kurds were viewed as an indispensable part of society; The Amasya Protocol proclaimed the Turks and Kurds as the two main Muslim communities residing on Ottoman land and stressed that the ethnic and social rights of the Kurds must be acknowledged (Yeğen 2007, 127). As the founder of the Republic himself said:
[…] various Muslim elements living in the country […] are genuine brothers who respect each other’s ethnic, local, and moral norms [laws]. […] Kurds, Turks, Lazs, Circassians, all these Muslim elements living within national borders have shared interests (Yeğen 2007, 126).
Yet with time, this recognition would fall to the wayside as nationalist extremists gained the foreground in Turkish politics, and the promises of a Kurdish state and Kurdish recognition would vanish.
Kurdish Factions Across National Boundaries
In an effort to formulate a stronger ethnic and cultural identity, and to create a stronger presence in national and world politics, several Kurdish-specific groups have developed over the course of the last several decades. Arguably the most prominent and controversial of these groups is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a far-left militant and political organization developed and led by Abdullah Öcalan. It was not until the latter half of the twentieth century, when the PKK declared war against the Republic in 1984 for an independent Kurdish state, that the Kurdish identity became a visible component in mainstream political discourse, and rising group consciousness and politicization appeared among the Kurds (Bocheńska 2018, 2; Somer 2004, 235). Simultaneously, Turkish nationalism led many Turks to view the Kurdish rebel movement, the PKK, and Kurdish nationalism as major threats to Turkish values and governance (Somer 2004, 235). The group has since been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and its allies since 1997 for its controversial tactics, both in warfare and in recruitment strategies (“Conflict Between Turkey”).
Not only did Turkey engage in armed struggles with the PKK, but they also worked to sabotage public opinion of the Kurdish struggle by penalizing any expression of sympathy with Kurdish actions (Jocić 2018, 52). For example, Article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code imposed prison sentences of up to three years for “incitement to commit an offense and incitement to religious and racial hatred,” of which current Turkish president, Recep Erdoğan, was imprisoned for 10 months in 1999 for reading a poem authorized by the Ministry of Education for use in schools and had to forfeit his then-position as mayor of Istanbul; Akin Birdal, a human rights activist, was imprisoned under that same article for encouraging peace and cross-cultural understanding between Turks and Kurds (“Questions and Answers” 2002). This criminalization of expression led to the denial of any Kurdish issue and created a taboo on the subject in general public life (Yildiz 2012, 153). The assimilation policy that the Turkish state is built upon worsened matters and led to state-designed violence against the Kurds in an attempt to force them to integrate into Turkish culture and submit to Turkish nationalism (Bocheńska 2018, 2).
Across the border of Turkey and into Iraq, the Kurdish Region of Iraq, or Iraqi Kurdistan among certain circles, is the region of northern Iraq designated for the Kurds. This is the only area in the entire region where Kurds have autonomy, though it is still under the federal state of Iraq (“Iraqi Kurdistan Profile”). Though the region has existed since 1970, it was not until 2005 that Iraq’s Constitution recognized the autonomy of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) (“Iraqi Kurdistan Profile”). The KRG is mainly run by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), headed by the Kurdish region’s former president Massoud Barzani (Cook 2016). Until a few years ago, Turkey, its Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the KRG maintained good relations; the Turkish port of Ceyhan played a major role in the Kurdish region’s oil exports, and the KRG also had positive relations with U.S. policymakers in Washington (Cook 2016). However, with the looming threat of the Islamic State bearing down on the region in the mid 2010s, relations between the Turkish state and KRG soured when the former failed to help protect the Kurdish provinces of Duhok and Erbil (Cook 2016).
As additional Kurdish rebel and political factions develop, matters become more convoluted regarding the relationship between the Kurds, Turks, and their allies. In Sulaymaniyah, the third major city in the current Kurdish region of Iraq, another political party has emerged: The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is known to be less tribal than other parties, more globalist, and more willing to negotiate with Baghdad and the Iraqi state than the KDP (Cook 2016). Despite the fact that the KDP and PUK should have better relationships following their brief civil war in the mid-1990s, the PUK and its offshoot Gorran are resistant to the idea of the KDP dominating Iraqi Kurdistan and other Kurdish areas nearby (Cook 2016). This is especially interesting given that Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP and former president of the KRG, aspires to be the king of the Kurds and also wants to maintain close ties with policymakers in Ankara, Turkey (Cook 2016).
The situation becomes all the more complex once the Syrian and Iranian aspects of the Kurdish community are involved. In order to protect against the domination of the KDP, the PKK helped develop the People’s Protection Units (YPG) for Syria’s Kurdish population through the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is also allied with the PUK (Cook 2016). The YPG has played a major role in defending the area against the Islamic State and has become an ally of the United States (Cook 2016). The implications of this are discussed in more detail in the following section.
The Complications of United States Involvement
While the Turkish-Kurdish conflict is largely a regional concern stemming from a shared and inharmonious history, the United States also plays a key role in the continuing dialogue of the conflict - and severely complicates the issue on all sides. Barkey (2019, 118) asserts that the United States continues to be the single most important factor for the future of the Kurds and their subsequent independence movements. Washington has become so involved, in fact, with the intricate and unstable Kurdish conflict that it is finding it difficult to take a step away from the matter (Barkey 2019, 118).
The beginnings of U.S. involvement in the region concerning the Kurds began toward the latter portion of the 20th century, following the end of the Iran-Iraq war when the then-leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, launched his “Anfal Campaign” against the Kurds (“Iraqi Kurdistan Profile” 2018). This came as a punishment to the Kurdish fighters who had joined forces across tribes to form the Peshmerga - a potent guerilla fighting force - and partner with Iranian troops in order to bring more areas of Iraqi Kurdistan under their control (“Profile” 2014). Tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians and rebel forces were killed while hundreds of thousands more were forced into exile. During this time, Turkey closed its borders, forcing Kurdish refugees to seek shelter in the mountains of Iraq (“Iraqi Kurdistan Profile” 2018). A few years later, after the invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces, the PKK ended a five-year-long ceasefire with Turkish forces, making the Kurdish situation all the more awkward, particularly for the U.S., who did not want to be caught in the center of a conflict between Turkish and PKK forces.
More recently, the U.S. has also caused a stir regarding Syrian Kurds. Until recently, approximately 2,000 troops were stationed in Syria, providing resistance to the Islamic State and also protection for the Kurdish communities and resistance movements located in the northern part of the country (Barkey 2019, 107). These YPG militia fighters, allied with U.S. troops, were key components to defeating ISIS in the region and were set to play a major role in negotiating the end of the civil war (Barkey 2019, 107). The presence of U.S. troops in the region has also prevented Turkey from initiating large-scale attacks on the YPG - at least, until the Trump administration decided to withdraw its troops from Syrian soil in December 2018 (Wilks 2019; Barkey 2019, 107). The move has left the Syrian Kurds open to assault from Turkish and other opposing forces, leading many Kurds to view the U.S. as a traitor to the Kurdish cause (Barkey 2019, 107). This is not helped by the fact that the U.S. has made it unclear as to what lengths it will go to protect the Syrian Kurds in the event of a Turkish onslaught, leading the Kurds to strengthen their ties between the PKK and YPG (Barnard and Hubbard 2018).
During the Obama administration, Washington went to great lengths to create a distinction between the PKK and the YPG. This attempt has failed miserably, even after promises from the U.S. government that the two would remain separated. YPG fighters have raised flags of Öcalan in Syrian towns following the defeat of the Islamic State in those areas, which comes as a major embarrassment to the U.S. (Barnard and Hubbard 2018). As American diplomats tried to defend the YPG and convince its Turkish allies of their importance, the Turkish nation began bombing YPG bases in Syria, and Erdoğan declared that the Republic would never acknowledge “Western Kurdistan” or Rojava, the Kurdish-populated regions of northern Syria (Cook 2016). At the same time, the U.S. and Russia are continuing their discussions with the YPG, leading Turkey to assert that the two are colluding against the Republic and to request that the U.S. choose between them or the YPG, and tangentially the PKK (Cook 2016). At the same time, Turkish and Russian forces continue to grow closer despite discrepancies in opinion of the YPG, and U.S. and Turkish relations continue to crumble amidst the Trump administration’s policies (“Conflict Between Turkey”).
Also during the Obama administration, the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan fell into a financial crisis; in order to alleviate the effects of this crisis and the pay cuts that ensued, the U.S. began paying the salaries of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters that were involved in the anti-Islamic State battles, and soon after, the U.S. also supplied additional weapons and military aid to the Peshmerga forces (“Iraq Kurdistan Profile”). This move angered Baghdad as well as Turkey, which soon after carried out deadly airstrikes on Peshmerga positions in Iraq and Syrian Kurdish fighters across the Syrian border (“Iraq Kurdistan Profile”). It should be noted that even the U.S. relation to Peshmerga forces is a complex one. In 1998, the Washington Agreement reconciled the two opposing factions of Iraqi Kurdistan - the aforementioned KDP and PUK (“Profile” 2014). Following this agreement, U.S. CIA operatives were sent to the Kurdish region to establish a cooperative relationship between the Peshmerga and the U.S., who at the time were both fighting against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government; during this time and afterwards, the U.S. provided training to Peshmerga fighters and deployed joint missions in the area (“Profile” 2014).
Erdoğan maintains a strong stance on these matters. In a 2019 opinion article for the New York Times entitled “Erdoğan: Trump is Right on Syria. Turkey Can Get the Job Done,” the Turkish president states that he supports U.S. withdrawal from Syria and boasts that his army - NATO’s second largest - is the only one capable of completing the task. Later in the piece, he states:
“Militarily speaking, the so-called Islamic State has been defeated in Syria. Yet we are deeply concerned that some outside powers may use the organizations remnants as an excuse to meddle in Syria’s internal affairs” (Erdoğan 2019).
While outwardly the Turkish president is talking about the remnants of the Islamic State, his use of “outside powers” and the known turbulence between Turkey and Kurdish rebel organizations suggest that this is really about the YPG. Later in the piece, Erdoğan confirms this by contending that:
“[…] many young Syrians had no choice but to join the PYD/YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, that Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist organization. According to Human Rights Watch, the YPG militants have violated international law by recruiting children.”
Erdoğan follows this by concluding that Turkey will ensure that “adequate” political representation is a priority among Syrian communities, that Turkey will cooperate closely with its allies, and that, because “Turkey is volunteering to shoulder this heavy burden at a critical time in history,” Turkey is counting on the support of the international community (Erdoğan). He does not elaborate on what “adequate” political representation entails, but given the history of Turks and Kurds, it seems unlikely that the Kurds will enjoy fair representation among Syrian government. Additionally, while Erdoğan is portraying Turkey’s involvement as a volunteer duty in which the nation is rising to the occasion and is hopeful of international support, the reality of the situation seems to suggest that Turkey is all too eager to have greater control of the region. The nation has been at war with Kurdish forces and those they deem as terrorists among the rebellion for decades; this new insurgency into Syria following the withdrawal of U.S. troops is nothing new. Turkey’s acceptance of this duty is nothing more than a power grab for the nation, which is desperate to maintain their place in regional politics and fearful of the mounting power of Kurdish political and rebel forces.
Failed Attempts at Peace
Beginning in the early 2000s with the rising power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkey, a peace process began that was meant to end the decades-long conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels. Erdoğan gave a speech in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in which he introduced the “democratic açılım” or “democratic opening” initiative (Bocheńska 2018, 2; Jojić 2018, 56). This democratic opening paved the way for the start of more peaceful negotiations in 2013, when the PKK-affiliated group People’s Congress of Kurdistan (Kongra-Gel) in conjunction with jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan determined that the first stage of the peace process must be to withdraw their PKK forces from Turkey (Gunter 2014, 20; Bocheńska 2018, 2). This step was meant to be followed by a Turkish action step, in which the Turkish government would take the necessary legal steps to create a “democratization package” of legal reforms. Instead, the Turkish government continued constructing new military posts and dams, increased guard numbers in villages, and failed to ensure a connection between Öcalan and democratic circles (Gunter 2014, 20). The peace process disintegrated when it became clear that Turkey had no intention of following through with the proposed reforms, and the two-year cease-fire between Turkish and PKK forces abruptly ended (“Iraqi Kurdistan Profile” 2018).
Additional attempts at reconciliation between the two entities has been further convoluted by two factors: the fragmentation of Kurdish interests and the continued denial of a Kurdish issue by President Erdoğan. Öcalan’s PKK and Barzani’s KDP and KRG have become the two main rivals in the struggle for pan-Kurdish leadership. When negotiating with Kurdish interests, Erdoğan has encouraged Barzani to create a “more moderate” and Islamic Kurdish party than the PKK, which is primarily secular and nationalist, indicating that he is mainly concerned with his own political agenda rather than a reconciliation process between Turkey and the Kurds and further dividing Kurdish interest groups (Gunter 2014, 23). It is not surprising that Turkey prefers to work with the KDP given that Öcalan is viewed for Turkey in the same light as the U.S. viewed Osama bin Laden (Barnard and Hubbard 2018). Additionally, the Barzani family which rules the KRG are Iranian Kurds, and creating a stronger relationship between them and Turkey would also elevate Turkey and Iran’s relationship. However, Erdoğan’s attempt to marginalize the PKK might ultimately fail given that the PKK is the most popular Kurdish party in Turkey, rather than the KDP which rules Iraqi Kurds (Gunter 2014, 23). Additionally, in June 2018, Erdoğan went so far as to say that the “Kurdish problem has already been solved” (Bocheńska 2018, 2). This denial of an ongoing conflict seems shortsighted and tactless, given the bombings of cities in the Kurdish region of Iraq and in Syria by Turkish forces following his claim, the most recent of which occurred in the Amadiya (Amedi) district of Duhok in April of 2019 (Kurdistan24 2019).
Matters have not improved and in fact, in the last few years, have actually worsened for those involved in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Following the attempted coup of the Turkish government in 2016, Erdoğan tightened security measures in the region. The Turkish military increased airstrikes against PKK bases in Iraq, and Edoğan declared in 2018 that Turkey will continue to target PKK holdings there (“Conflict Between Turkey”; “Turkey Will Keep” 2018). Additionally, despite threats from President Trump to stay away from Syrian Kurdish forces, the Turkish nation bluntly announced an imminent military operation against the YPG, which poses a significant threat to Turkey due to its ties with the PKK (“Turkey Will Keep” 2018). In a joint effort with Turkish-backed Syrian militias, Turkey recaptured several Kurdish-held Syrian cities and expelled a significant number of Kurds, and their airstrikes continue to target these Kurdish communities more than the common enemy, the Islamic State (“Conflict Between Turkey”).
It also appears that Iran and Turkey have joined forces against the PKK on the eastern border of Turkey, though this must be viewed with caution as many leaders in Ankara believe that Iran is actually still involved with the PKK and its affiliate Iranian branch, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) (Wilkes 2019). However, if Iranian and Turkish forces have joined together to fight the PKK, then the rebel group could face difficulties in the coming months as they stretch their resources to fight those two powers as well as Iraqi forces in the region (Wilk 2019).
In 2017, the KRG held an independence referendum in which they called for a solidified Kurdish state. Though an overwhelming majority of Iraqi Kurds voted in favor of independence, the movement faced opposition from all but one other international party - Israel - and generated severe backlash (“Iraq Kurdistan Profile”). The Iraqi government, backed by Turkey and Iran, invaded the Kurdistan region and captured nearly half of its land, including the prominent cities of Mosul and Kirkuk (Barkey 2019, 108). Following this depressing loss on behalf of the Kurds, Turkey then invaded the Kurdish-held town of Afrin, Syria in March 2018, displacing 200,000 people and leaving the town a bloody mess (Barkey 2019, 108).
The support the Iraqi Kurds have received from Israel has not necessarily helped the Kurdish situation. The two regions, both with their own complex ethnic and political conflicts, have a deeply shared connection to one another. During the “Farhud” period of violence and looting against Iraq’s Jewish population, Kurds - including the KDP’s own Barzani - helped Jews escape across the mountains; in turn Jewish Kurds have made a home in Israel while maintaining close connections to their Kurdistan roots (El-Ghobashy and Morris 2017). The Kurdish region has received aid in the form of military, financial, and moral support from Israel, as well. However, this ongoing support has led to other regional powers - most of whom are against Israel - to retaliate. The Turkish press has taken the relationship between Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan and constructed a multitude of conspiracy theories suggesting that Barzani agreed to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Jews to the region, though Barzani and other Kurdish officials have adamantly refused the idea of Iraqi Kurdistan becoming a “second Israel” (El-Ghobashy and Morris 2017).
The history of this long-standing conflict and the increasing tensions between stakeholders suggest that reconciliation may be a whimsical dream, particularly when there is so much fragmentation and deep-seated resentment among the people and policymakers. Many sources indicate a bias toward Turkish forces, while others appear to side more with the Kurdish endeavor. On one hand, it seems that the creation of a Kurdish state is the only way to appease the Kurdish people after a long history of subjugation carried out by the hands of the nations in which they currently are forced to reside, including Turkey. Freedom has been within arms’ reach of the Kurds for almost a century now, and the initial promise of an independent state by the Treaty of Sevres appeared to launch this bloody conflict. After decades of civil and international battles, the Kurds seem justified in wanting a state to call their own, especially considering the oppression of even the basic elements of their cultural expression.
Yet it also appears that creating an independent Kurdish state would result in intense backlash from the surrounding community and lead to increased instability in a region that already struggles to maintain its complex political, social, and cultural structures. The sheer force of opposition that Turkey has shown toward the Kurdish independence movement since the 1920s is a clear demonstration of just how fearful that nation is of the fragmentation that could result from a Kurdish state. Since Kurds make up the majority of the population in Eastern and Southeastern Turkey, as well neighboring areas of Syria and Iran, both of which border Turkey, a Kurdish state would likely take a significant portion of Turkey’s Eastern and Southeastern regions, leaving the nation with less land and fewer natural resources, including access to vital sources of water like the Tigris River.
The fact that the U.S. is so deeply entrenched in the conflict is at once a positive and a negative. Due to the power that the U.S. holds in world affairs, it has a great sphere of influence over the politics and activities of the Turkish and Kurdish regions. However, U.S. actions have proven to be lukewarm at best in their stance on Kurdish independence and their partnership with Turkey as a NATO ally. In fact, the U.S. has damaged its partnerships on both fronts; the Turks view the U.S. as fickle and an obstacle to their dominance over Kurdish rebel groups, while the Kurds view the U.S. as unreliable and a traitor to their cause. At this point in the conflict, it is far past the time for the U.S. to withdraw safely. Instead, American diplomats and politicians should seek to create more concrete opinions on the conflict and its stakeholders, which requires extensive research and great care. Uluğ et. al. addresses the way the Kurdish conflict and its role in world affairs have changed over the course of several decades, pointing to the fact that the issue is now considered a political one, rather than solely a security threat (2017, 488). For scholars, this means that an examination of the historical background of the Kurdish conflict and its emerging themes is of utmost importance to gaining a deeper understanding of the deeply-rooted priorities, concerns, and changing contexts of the conflict (Uluğ et. al. 2017, 488).
Regardless of personal or national stance, the more one looks into the conflict, the more complex it becomes. This applies to the international, regional, domestic, and individual levels. Even with a political leader such as Barzani, there are seemingly endless intricacies - his leadership of the KDP and its opposition to other Kurdish factions like the PUK and PKK; his ties with Iran and their involvement with the PKK and PJAK; the KDP ties to Ankara and Erdoğan and its dominance over the KRG; positive U.S. relationships with the KRG and the Kurds in general; Barzani’s ties with Jews, Jewish Kurds, and thus Israel; the intense opposition to Israel held by Turkey; and an endless number of other relationships.
True efforts put toward peace talks with Kurdish and Turkish parties could resolve the conflict once and for all, allowing the Kurds to finally have the space and freedom to express their identity while also giving Turkish military forces rest from this conflict. These peace negotiations should first include the recognition of a Kurdish issue by the Turkish government. If the issue is acknowledged as a truth, then it can be publicly discussed and open the doors for earnest peace talks. Secondly, it seems that a vital component of the ongoing conflict stems from a lack of freedom and rights experienced by the Kurds. Whether Kurds on an individual level agree or disagree with various groups like the PKK, the fact is that the vast majority of them feel justified in having their own state, as evidenced by the 2017 referendum. Thus, the next step is to not only acknowledge that an issue exists, but also that the Kurdish people are justified in wanting, and requiring, rights and the freedom to exist and express their cultural, ethnic, and social identity. This might prove more difficult than expected, given the lack of motivation and resistance of Turks in supporting concrete steps toward reconciliation (Baysu 2018, 762-64). Thirdly, the centralization of government and the inherent nationalism of the Turkish system has inhibited peace talks for decades. Decentralizing the politics and government of Turkey may be an important step in ending the conflict, though with the strength of Turkish nationalism still abounding, this may prove more challenging than it is worth. Lastly, the Kurdish conflict has been marked by decades of violence and has cost the lives of tens of thousands of people. Unless both sides agree to disarm and resort to more peaceful methods of resolution, then reconciliation will be impossible - rather, it would simply lead to more deaths and subjugation.
Despite Turkish military resistance and open hostility toward, as well as suppression of, the Kurdish issue, Kurdish rebel forces only continue to multiply and strengthen. It seems that, with time, a Kurdish state is inevitable. Given the intensity and costs, both in finances and in lives, it would benefit all parties involved to end the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. The complexity of the issue makes peace-building exceedingly difficult, but still possible with enough effort. With that being said, a reconciliation appears to be a far-off dream as Turkey continues to ramp up its violent efforts to subdue Kurdish rebels and Kurds become more unified across national boundaries and less willing or able to relate to their close neighbors.
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