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Turkey and the Kurdish question

President Trump’s unconventional decision to withdraw US troops out of north-eastern Syria to pave the way for Turkey’s military operation ‘Peace Spring’, has been described by domestic American politicians as a “bloodstain” on US history.

While the Trump Administration has not explicitly expressed support or endorsement for the Turkish military operation in Syria, the decision to withdraw American troops confirms Trump’s increasingly isolationist foreign policy in the Middle East, which is purported to end “endless wars”

There has been widespread criticisms from Republicans and Democrats alike, as Congress voted 354-60 in resounding condemnation of Trump’s decision. In response to domestic backlash, President Trump imposed sanctions of up to 50 per cent on Turkish steel exports, reminiscent of the tariffs imposed during the imprisonment of pastor Andrew Brunson in 2016, destabilising Turkey’s economy. However, the sanctions were recently lifted once a ceasefire deal was signed between Turkey and Kurdish forces, ensuring a “safe zone” where Kurds vacate northern Syria, halting the dire warnings of a humanitarian crisis.

Turkey’s relations with the United States has been strained since American support for Kurdish forces in the Syrian civil war. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been declared a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, Australia and the European Union, however this did not inhibit US support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) - with its strong ties to the PKK - in its fight against ISIS and the Syrian regime, a military alliance that was destined to strain relations with Turkey. 

The United States’ contribution to the YPG and other Kurdish forces has been the source of a fluctuating diplomatic relationship with Ankara, as some supporters of Trump’s decision argue Turkey has legitimate security concerns. President Trump ended the CIA’s covert program to train moderate rebel groups in the Syrian civil war in 2017, highlighting the Administration’s reluctance to engage in foreign conflicts that do not serve American interests. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) has predominant control of north-eastern parts of Syria, including imprisoning ISIS fighters who have reportedly escaped, as fears of ISIS regaining strength in the region increase amid the chaos.

An analysis of the history of Turkish-Kurdish relations is relevant to grasp the complexity of the situation. Turkey claims Kurdish separatist groups such as the PKK and YPG intend to utilise their controlled territory in north-eastern Syria to create an independent Kurdish state between two sovereign borders. While it was recently espoused by President Trump that Turks and Kurds are natural enemies who have been “fighting for hundreds of years”, the historical record of these two indigenous Anatolian peoples highlights the flaw of such claims, indicating recent hostility that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Kurdish people have lived in Anatolia’s mountainous regions for centuries, reaching the zenith of Kurdish power under the leadership Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, Kurds lived during the “most religiously diverse empire in Europe and Asia”, largely integrated, until its demise at the brink of World War I. 

Despite being promised a national homeland in the Treaty of Sevres after the partitioning of the fallen Empire, the creation of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk foreclosed the potential for an independent Kurdistan. This gave rise to Turkey’s nationalist vision of one homogenous culture, through the process of Turkification, repressing Kurdish culture as evident in the Dersim massacre, of which 13,800 Kurds were killed. Repressive measures against the Kurds intensified during the twentieth century, which was an exception to the strong cultural and military connection between Turks and Kurds, during the Ottoman era. 

The prohibition of Kurdish language, newspapers and names increased grievances that were exhibited in a Kurdish revolt set off by the PKK in the early 1970’s. Since then, Ankara has engaged in military conflict with the PKK, YPG and other Kurdish separatist movements, resulting in the death of an estimated 40,000 people since 1984.

Attempts of negotiation with the PKK were made in the 1990s and repressive measures were loosened when Recep TayyipErdogan, who was then Prime Minister, allowed Kurdish culture and language to enter Turkey’s public space. This reflected the ruling AKP Party’s neo-ottomanism which sought to unite the Turkic ethnic groups, as opposed to Kemalist nationalism predicated on a secular Turkish identity

However, the right wing coalition between the ultra-nationalist MHP and ruling AKP party has compromised the democratic, pluralist culture for many of Turkey’s ethnic minorities. The Kurdish problem remains a political conflict between the Turkish state and the aspirations of Kurdish separatist movement that envisage a homeland, once promised at the start of the twentieth century. There are approximately 30 million Kurdish people living in the Middle East, over half of whom reside in Turkey and many of whom have intercultural marriages.

While the rhetoric deployed by the Turkish Government surrounding the recent military operation exacerbates collective fear in Turkish society of national security threats from Kurdish forces, the portrayal of Turks and Kurds as natural enemies by President Trump is wrong. 

Turkey’s military operation will increase nationalist support for President Erdogan, whose political future remains dubious, however the Kurdish question is one not to be resolved by military action. The Kurdish issue will remain with Turkey into the future and finding a way to enfranchise ethnic minorities through the democratic process in legitimate political representation would be more sustainable than military conflict that risks a tragic humanitarian crisis. 

Ibrahim Taha is the Middle East and North African Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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