If made into a blockbuster drama, the history of the Kurds in Turkey would make a killing at the box office. It is a tale of betrayal and bloodshed, repression and revolution. Turkish Kurds have experienced a turbulent past of subjugation, violence, economic assistance, violence, peace talks, and more violence. Turkey’s uncertainty in how to manage its headstrong Kurdish population has plagued the state since its inception, coming to be infamously known as the “Kurdish Question.” Now, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) menaces Turkey’s southern border from predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Syria. Having forced nearly 200,000 Syrian-Kurdish refugees to flee into Turkey and enraged Turkish Kurds at what they perceive as an inadequate response from their government, the threat of ISIS has added an unprecedented twist to the Turkey-Kurd dynamic: Turkey and the Kurds now face a common enemy and, consequently, the century-old “Kurdish Question” is receiving novel attention from the international community.
Thus far, these sudden developments have had mixed impacts on the Turkey-Kurd relationship—in some ways serving to further alienate the two groups and highlight the mistrust and difference between them; in others, engendering collaboration and creating human connection on the most basic level. Although ISIS’s threat to Kobani and Turkey’s paltry response has reinvigorated Kurdish resistance within Turkey, the international spotlight now cast upon the Turkish-Kurdish relationship must ultimately force Turkey to turn the tides towards reconciliation with the Kurds. If not, the Middle East’s only secular democracy risks both losing the friendship of the West and sacrificing what little progress has been made in the last five years towards peace with their rebellious Kurds.
Promised their own independent state in the Treaty of Sevres, the Kurds found themselves betrayed as the post-WWI status quo split Kurdish-majority territory among northern Syria, Iraq, and southeastern Turkey. Within the borders of the infant, nationalistic Turkish state, the Kurds were severely repressed as Turkey tried to homogenize its population. Forbidden to speak their own language and deprived of full citizenship rights, the Kurds’ tragic plight turned violent. In the 1980s the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) emerged, using guerilla tactics to fight against the Turkish government for an independent Kurdistan, and causing Turkey, the US, and the EU to label the PKK a terrorist organization. Years of small-scale civil war ensued in Turkey’s southeast, claiming more than 50,000 lives and damaging both Turkey’s economy and the country’s EU aspirations. After PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured and jailed in 1999, the 21st century was heralded as a more conciliatory era. Though outbursts of violence were not uncommon in the early 2000s, there was more widespread recognition of the necessity for mutual cultural understanding and respect. In need of the Kurdish voter base to win the presidency in 2014, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan engaged in peace talks with the jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in early 2013. Leading up to the Kobani crisis, the peace talks were promising—with Erdoğan assuring constitutional reform and advocating for more freedom of Kurdish cultural expression in return for a retreat of PKK forces out of southeast Turkey into their strongholds in Kurdish northern Iraq.
Despite this progress, Turkey’s approach to the Kobani crisis better reflects old views and fears of the Kurds as a potential weakness of, and security threat to, the Turkish state than the more recent rhetoric of reconciliation. Turkey has refused to send its own fighters into Syria to defend Kobani and, despite the close kinship ties between the Syrian Kurds of Kobani and the Turkish Kurds of villages just inside the Turkish border, is continuing to prevent civilian Turkish and Syrian Kurds and sympathizers from crossing to join the fight against ISIS. The Turks were also remarkably slow to sign on to a US-led coalition to fight against ISIS and only very recently began permitting US attacks against ISIS to come from bases inside Turkey.
Turkey’s reluctance to take a more hardline stance towards ISIS stems largely from a fear that outside help, or Turkey’s own support for the Kurds fighting against ISIS, in Kobani will bolster Kurdish identity in the region and strengthen the PKK’s push for an independent Kurdish state. This outcome appears particularly threatening to Turkey as Kurdish populations in both Iraq and Syria have been operating with more autonomy in recent years. Adding to Turkey’s apprehension is the fact that the group currently defending Kobani from ISIS, the Kurdish Peoples Protection Unit (YPG), has loose ties to the PKK. Underlying it all are ancient ethnic animosities and resentment of the pressure the hundreds of thousands of Syrian-Kurdish refugees are putting on Turkey’s economy and resources.
Although some Turkish actions, such as providing Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers passage across the border to fight ISIS, have been commended by the Kurdish community, Turkey’s overall approach to the crisis has lost the country much of what little progress its peace process made with the Kurds. President Erdoğan recently equated the PKK with ISIS, provoking Kurdish solidarity riots throughout Turkey and as far away as London. Some Kurds have even accused the Turkish state of clandestinely creating and supporting ISIS in order to undermine Kurdish resistance in the region. While there is no hard evidence to back up such claims, Turkey’s motivations in the conflict are indeed muddled. The majority of Turkish Muslims, including President Erdoğan himself, are Sunni, belonging to the same Muslim sect as ISIS. Though these sectoral ties certainly do not equate to Turkish support for ISIS, the Turkish state’s ambivalent stance toward the group may stem from a perceived need to temper its response to ISIS so as to avoid alienating moderate, or awakening more extreme, Sunni elements within its own population. Similarly (and likely more importantly), supporting armed Kurds, or standing on the same side of the battlefield with the PKK in any respect, goes against deeply ingrained Turkish instinct.
However, facing both internal and external pressure, Turkey will ultimately have to put its balancing act to an end and throw its full weight behind the Kurds in Kobani. The international stakes are simply too high. While Turkey’s reluctance to fight alongside the Kurds, combined with concern for its internal Sunni popultion, may have kept Turkey’s reaction towards the terrorist group fairly subdued so far, ISIS is far too demonized by the international community at large for Turkey to continue to get away with such a neutral stance. Whispers of Turkey’s expulsion have already begun to reverberate throughout the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Turkey’s continued lack of commitment to the fight against ISIS also puts in peril its precious alliance with the United States and threatens its bid to the EU. Within Turkey’s border, PKK leaders have clearly articulated that the fall of Kobani is equivalent to a declaration of war by Turkey against the Kurds. If Turkey continues its flaky opposition to ISIS, it risks a full-scale civil war within its borders. With the Kobani crisis having granted the Kurdish plight substantial international sympathy, this would not be an appealing outcome for Turkey.
Thus, at the risk of losing its hard-won friends both inside and outside its borders, Turkey must find a way to put the history of the Kurdish question aside and embrace a new era in which the two groups are united against a common enemy. If they are able to do so, the blight ISIS leaves on history’s landscape will be lightened ever so slightly by its role in bringing the Turks and Kurds together to finally answer the century-old “Kurdish Question” in Turkey.