Turkey’s two-pronged strategy against the Kurds

Turkey’s Kurdish problem is deeply complex, and greatly influences both domestic and foreign policy. 

Domestically, a critical aspect of the Kurdish issue is the ability of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), as proven earlier this year, to align with other opposition parties to deliver electoral losses to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Such pacts have enabled Kurdish voters to effectively check Erdoğan’s power in recent years.

Outside Turkey, Kurds have created a de facto political authority in northeast Syria that is able to conduct its own international relations with powers such as the United States, the European Union and Russia.

Turkey has a two-pronged approach to tackling the Kurdish issue: weakening the Kurds in Syria while destroying the HDP’s ability to form electoral alliances.

In Syria, Turkey is pressing for the establishment of a safe zone along its border inside Syria. But given the experience of the safe zone set up in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, which led to Iraqi Kurdish rule of the region, it is not easy to see why Turkey would want to create a similar entity in Syria.

Safe zones can dramatically alter the political status quo and create new realities on the ground. In a journal article last year, Stefano Recchia, a lecturer in international relations at Cambridge University, argued that safe zones tend to decrease the incentives for protected groups to compromise and resolve a conflict. Instead, he said the safe zone may be used by these groups as a base from which to launch offensives, or “embolden protected groups to seek unilateral secession, further increasing the risk of conflict escalation”.

Turkey’s desire to create a safe zone in Syria appears to be mostly a tactic for the time being; the government needs a success story and a safe zone could be portrayed as a foreign policy victory for Erdoğan.

At home, it is clear the government’s ultimate aim is to dissolve the loose electoral pact between the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the opposition nationalist Good Party and the HDP by putting pressure on the Kurds. 

Responding to this tactic, Ekrem İmamoğlu, the CHP mayor of Istanbul, travelled to the mainly Kurdish southeast last month to express his solidarity with the three HDP mayors removed from office by the government the previous week. 

But it is not yet clear whether CHP policy on the Kurds will follow the party’s social democratic or nationalist views.

Erdoğan will keep putting more pressure on the Kurds in order to split the loose coalition between the CHP, the Good Party and the HDP. One terrible outcome of this strategy is the demonisation of Kurds in central and western Turkey. There is an alarming tendency in these areas to see all Kurds as terrorists, mostly as a result of the government discourse.

One dynamic that might change the game are the soon-to-launch political parties led by former AKP figures Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan, which could moderate the tone of debate on the Kurdish issue.

Such new parties would also weaken Erdoğan’s ability to play the Kurdish card against nationalist parties like the Good Party or nationalist CHP voters. 


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.