Oct. 14, 2014 by Darius
Earlier today, the Turkish military conducted two airstrikes against Kurdish guerrilla forces near the Turkey-Iraq border. The strikes, which were the Turkish military’s first in two years, have sent tensions between Turkey and the Kurds to new heights, greatly complicating the effort against ISIS. It seems a good time for a bit of a refresher on Turkish-Kurdish politics.
The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group that speaks a language that is neither Arabic nor Turkic but instead belongs in the family of Iranian languages. Although the Kurds had been promised their own country during WWI, when the Ottoman Empire was divvied up after the war, the Kurds were left out, and the Kurds instead found their region now within the borders of four countries: Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. Kurdish nationalist groups emerged in all four countries and were generally suppressed, sometimes brutally.
In Turkey, where the plurality (and perhaps the outright majority) of the world’s Kurds live, until fairly recently the Turkish government fought a decades-long counterinsurgency campaign against the People’s Party of Kurdistan, known as the PKK. The PKK demanded greater Kurdish autonomy and even territorial independence. Two years ago, Turkey and the PKK finally signed a ceasefire and opened peace talks, which are now in grave danger.
Most of the current anger between Turkey and the PKK comes from Syria. Syrian Kurds have been battling ISIS fighters around the town of Kobani for several weeks now. Crucially, the main Kurdish party in Syria, known as the PYD, is aligned with the PKK. Since the start of the Syrian conflict, the Turkish government has tried to marginalize the PYD in Syria for fear of strengthening the PKK. As part of this policy, the Turkish government refused to let Kurdish fighters from either Turkey or Iraq bring reinforcements and weapons to the Syrian Kurds in Kobani, which has been under assault by ISIS on and off since March and in earnest for about two weeks. This week, many Kurds in Turkey protested and rioted over the Turkish government’s refusal to allow help for the Kurds in Kobani. The protests turned deadly, and dozens were killed.
To further complicate the story, an entirely separate group of Kurds has been fighting ISIS in Iraq. Iraqi Kurds are not aligned with the PKK and have very good relations with Turkey. In fact, the president of the Iraqi Kurds, Massoud Barzani, has actively undermined the PYD in Syria by supporting a separate Kurdish group in Syria that just happens to be an offshoot of his own political party. At critical moments in battle, though, the Kurds have supported each other, with PKK militias recently aiding the Iraqi Kurds against ISIS.
Turkey doesn’t like ISIS, but it also doesn’t like Syria’s Assad government or Syria’s Kurds, which have been allied with the PKK insurgents they have fought at home for decades. Turkey isn’t inclined to want to do anything that might either strengthen the hand of the Assad government or end up in weapons being funneled back to the PKK. While perhaps understandable, this seems to be a very narrow view of the problem at hand. Coming to the aid of the Kurds in Syria would bring goodwill at home and abroad, and strengthening the Kurds in Syria still weakens the Assad government’s hold on Kurdish parts of Syria. For Turkey to finally launch airstrikes and have those airstrikes be against Turkish Kurds, of all actors in this messy drama, seems a very short-sighted decision.
For more about the tangle of Kurdish and Turkish politics, see https://notwhatyoumightthink.wordpress.com/2014/06/18/thinking-aloud-fifth-annual-conference-on-turkey-part-i/.