Catastrophe as opportunity for Turkey’s Kurds

Kurds in Turkey and Syria have suffered the wrath of the Turkish government this year, yet the global attention Turkey’s offensive in Syria has brought to their cause may offer a chance for revival, particularly for Kurds in Turkey.  

In Syria, a Kurdish militia has been under assault from Turkish forces while local Kurds have faced a series of reported war crimes from Turkey-backed rebels, including roadside executions, targeting of civilians and homes marked for demolition according to ethnicity. 

In Turkey, Kurds are facing political evisceration. Last Wednesday, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said that, of the 94 mayors from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) that the government dismissed between 2015 and 2016, 42 had been sent to prison for an average of 7 years each. 

Former HDP co-leaders Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksedağ have been in prison for more than three years, along with dozens of other Kurdish politicians. In the past few months the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has dismissed 24 more HDP mayors across Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast. 

“This is a well thought out and well prepared policy by the regime, and they just want to get rid of the Kurdish political movement,” veteran columnist Cengiz Aktar told Ahval in a podcast. “The HDP is really cornered and ostracised to the point that regime officials don’t even shake hands with elected HDP officials.” 

When the HDP organized a press event in Ankara last week, some observers thought the party might announce a plan to pull its lawmakers from Turkish parliament to protest the government clampdown. Instead, the party called for early elections.

“In my opinion, it’s not serious,” said Aktar. He pointed out that Erdoğan’s popularity had increased since the launch of the Syria offensive and saw little chance Turkey’s parliament would approve an early vote so soon after the March local elections.  

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which many pegged in recent months as a possible HDP partner, immediately responded that it had no interest in early elections.

Abdulla Hawez, an independent Kurdish affairs analyst, pointed out that nationalist sentiment had taken hold in Turkey since the launch of its Syria offensive, and part of that energy targets Kurds. “There’s a serious anti-Kurdish feeling in Turkey,” he said. 

As a result, even the CHP, which the HDP helped to key electoral victories earlier this year, had not changed much when it came to Turkey’s Kurds. “For now, all the Turkish parties are seeing the Kurdish question in a very similar lens.” 

The Kurdish military struggle in Turkey, spearheaded by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is labelled a terrorist group by the United States and European Union as well as Turkey, is on the back foot, with the PKK facing regular Turkish attacks on its mountain headquarters in northern Iraq. “Right now they are focusing on just surviving,” said Hawez. 

Meanwhile, the HDP has been marginalised and Kurdish activists have no voice. “They are not allowed to hold a simple demonstration in support of their people,” said Hawez. 

Aktar described the situation in grave terms: “We have reached the limits of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey.”

This comes so soon after their cause was filled with hope. In early 2015, a peace process between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the PKK was going strong. That June, the HDP crossed the 10-percent threshold to enter Turkey’s parliament and in doing so erased the AKP’s majority.  

“There was a genuine and serious opening toward Kurds and Kurdish rights,” said Hawez.  “But since then things have gone downward.”

Violence resumed between Ankara and the PKK in mid-2015, followed by a broad crackdown on Kurdish activists and politicians. Yet now Turkey may have gone too far in the other direction. 

Thanks to its Syria offensive, in recent weeks the Kurds’ struggle against Turkey has received more global attention than perhaps at any time in its history. Syrian Kurdish Commander Mazlum Kobani is now known around the world, and top Western officials, analysts and rights groups have condemned Turkey for its treatment of Kurds. 

“This is a perfect opportunity for Kurds to try to enhance their cause globally,” said Hawez. “This global solidarity with Kurds is not only with the YPG, it’s with all Kurds in the region, also with Kurds in Turkey.”

The Kurdish political movement has a chance to take advantage of a leader who continues to generate global sympathy for their cause. “In a way, having Erdoğan is positive for Kurds, if they know how to exploit it,” he said. “They need to find a way to revive or re-energise their base.” 

Aktar thinks the HDP’s call for early elections was a mistake, because an early vote is unlikely and because even if early elections were approved the HDP would face the very real possibility of failing to cross the 10-percent threshold and crashing out of parliament. 

“They are cornered, they are rejected, they are ostracized,” he said. “For the regime, they don’t exist. So, what’s the point of playing this game?” 

Aktar thinks they would have done better to pull out of parliament and organize protest actions, such as boycotts and other acts of passive resistance. 

“It’s called civil disobedience. They are not disobeying, they are obeying the regime, actually,” he said. “They should be more imaginative and find new ways of transmitting the very bad feelings of their constituents.”