Dec 7th 2011

The Kurdish Conflict: The Real Challenge to Turkey's Democracy

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

In the wake of the Arab Spring and Prime Minister Erdogan's championing of political reforms throughout the Arab world, it has now become more urgent than ever before to find an equitable solution to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Short of finding an immediate resolution to this debilitating struggle will not only severely compromise Turkey's suggested model of successfully combining Islam and democracy, but it will additionally bankrupt its moral standing as it willfully continues to discriminate against 15 million Kurds who represent one-fifth of its population.

The latest cycle of violence between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Turkish military in October meant the failure of a historical attempt to put an end to this three decade-long conflict. It began when the PKK took up arms against the Turkish government in 1984 demanding the secession of Turkey's southeast region. Turkey's successive governments chose throughout much of this period to ignore the existence of the Kurds as a separate ethnicity, banned their language and culture, and inadvertently degraded their standard of living, making them one of the country's poorest populations.

This persistent Turkish position was only adjusted in 2002 when Erdogan's party (AK) took office armed with a reformist agenda, which was not only an electoral card but also a stark reflection of the multi-variable shift in the relationship between the AK and the PKK in the last two decades. The PKK had, by this time, managed to establish its message in the minds of the larger Turkish population through years of armed struggle that had cost 40,000 Turkish lives and billions of dollars. Moreover, the political establishment in Ankara feared a repetition of the Iraq/Kurdistan scenario arising through persistent struggle or by outside interference such as the United States' enforcement of a no-fly zone aimed at protecting Iraq's civilians from Saddam Hussein's forces, and was eager to win Turkey's accession to the European Union. Finally, the PKK started moderating its position after the capture in 1999 of Abdullah Ocalan, its leader who made an appeal from prison to end the violence and actively seek equal civil and political rights within Turkey instead of pursuing secession.

Erdogan's AK governments had a real opportunity - and an opportune time - to find an equitable solution to the country's Kurdish problem. Though many reforms have been instituted since 2002, including writing a new Turkish constitution allowing decentralization of authority, changing laws regarding human rights violations and permission of the local use of Kurdish language in schools and broadcasting, few tangible results have been achieved. Despite Erdogan's "Democratic Opening" initiative in 2009, recent years have witnessed a reversal within the political process, inviting Turkey back to the bloodshed of the 1990s.

The AK government refuses to recognize the PKK as a negotiating partner in any official talks and continues to alienate the Kurdish community even further. In 2009, the Constitutional Court banned the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party because it is considered to be the political wing of the PKK. The judiciary later stripped a Kurdish MP from his seat and allocated it to the AK party. As a result, other Kurdish MPs boycotted the parliament and began a campaign aimed at achieving greater powers for the local government. In the run-up to parliamentary elections in June 2011, Erdogan openly sought the ultra-nationalist votes, stating that had Ocalan been captured while the AK was in power, he would have been hanged. Meanwhile, many Turkish observers suggest that the arrest of Kurdish notables and intellectuals for links with the PKK has become a routine government action.

Why has the apparently reformist Erdogan government failed thus far to keep its promises and offer a solution consistent with the presumed democratic nature of the state? The answer perhaps lies in the concurrence of developments that have taken the AK and its leadership away from focusing on the Kurdish problem. Erdogan and his AK party feel more secure and less obliged to make concessions: AK has set a historical precedent in winning three consecutive national elections. Besides, the Erdogan government has also managed to de-emasculate the military (which has always been its main rival) while the country has had one of the world's fastest-growing economies. Equally, at a time when several years of relative calm has dominated southeast Turkey, Erdogan changed direction from seeking EU membership (which for him only proved to be a mirage) to focus more on a regional hegemony in the Middle East, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring.

However, as the recently-renewed violence has demonstrated, superficial reforms and un-kept promises can only mean the perpetuation of the dangerously deteriorating status-quo. In fact, Erdogan and his government have every reason to seek a solution to the Kurdish problem now more than any time before. First, the Arab Spring has been employed by Erdogan to promote the so-called Turkish model for leadership in the Middle East and this could turn against him as it may very well empower the Kurds to seek their own "Spring". Questions will likely arise as to Erdogan's credibility as a leader when he feels it apt to export abroad the same values he oppresses at home: freedom, human rights and democracy. According to Mehmet Emin Yak, a civil servant, "it is nice to see Erdogan working for peace in the Middle East, but there is bloodshed here in this region." It is important to note that President Bashar Assad of Syria has reportedly begun to support the Kurdish movement in Syrian's north in an attempt to punish Erdogan for objecting to his government's crackdown on protesters.

Second, the increased cycle of violence by the PKK could play into the hands of the de-emasculated Turkish army as it may re-establish its credentials through the continuation of conflict. Erdogan faces the grave prospect of the military reestablishing its power base, which would erase his decade-long effort to lessen the army's political influence and destroy any chances of pursuing his reformist agenda. Finally, as Erdogan said, "If this is about politics, the place is Parliament". Drafting a new constitution is already on the agenda of the current parliament, which presents a serious opportunity to push for lasting reforms that provide the Kurds with their basic human rights as a minority, while fully committing them to the nation's unity and constitutional laws. A prerequisite, however, should be that the government agrees to engage the PKK as a partner, requiring it to then forgo (at this juncture) its demand that the PKK lays down its arms. The focus would then fall on the cessation of violence which would better match Erdogan's promises that, "The era of denying the existence of the Kurdish nation is over."

There is a great need and prospect to end this conflict now, particularly because of the fact that both sides seem to favor such a peaceful and lasting solution. Amir Aktar, a pro-Turkish head of the Bar Association in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in the southeast, said it was, "time to break the cycle of violence on both sides and engage in dialogue." Instead of exporting the Turkish model of democracy, the Erdogan government should take a keener and deeper look at its own Kurdish community. A community whose members deserve, like all citizens, an equal opportunity and the freedom to practice their culture, language and education as they see fit which can only strengthen the socio-political fabric of the Turkish society.

The Kurdish problem will otherwise remain a serious handicap for the Turkish model of democracy and a persistent obstacle to the stability of the geo-strategically important Middle East, where Kurdish communities live not only in Turkey but Syria, Iraq, and Iran as well.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."