In the days
just before Turkey’s military incursion into Syria, for which the stated aim
includes purging a Kurdish militia that has been allied with the United States
in the fight against Daesh [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the
Levant], President Donald Trump made a comment on the history of the two
conflicting sides. He defined Kurds as Turkey’s “natural enemy,” adding, “one
historian said they’ve been fighting for hundreds of years.”
I am not
sure who that historian was, but as someone who has studied this particular
history, I can assure you that the tension between Turks and Kurds is not
centuries old. It is actually about one century old, and it’s the result of a
very modern force: nationalism.
does begin in the early 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire, founded in
western Anatolia by Turks, began to expand eastward, only to conflict with the
Safavid Empire in Persia. The Kurds, a tribal people, most of whom were Sunni
Muslims, were caught in the middle; soon they willingly joined the Ottomans.
Through the next four centuries, they lived under the same state with Turks,
Arabs, Bosnians, Armenians, Greeks and Jews — because the Ottoman Empire, like
the neighbouring Hapsburg Empire, was a multiethnic and multireligious mosaic.
elite was mostly Turkish, but not Turkish nationalist. So Kurds never faced any
denial of their identity. Their ancestral homeland was often called
“Kurdistan,” which even briefly became the name of an administrative region in
the 19th century. In the same era, there were a few revolts by Kurdish
chieftains, but only as a reaction to the centralisation of the state and the
new taxes and obligations it entailed.
watershed event was the proclamation of the Turkish republic in 1923 by Mustafa
Kemal Ataturk. Unlike the multiethnic Ottoman Empire, Turkey became a
nation-state that did not honour any identity other than Turkishness. Ataturk
famously declared, “Happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk’” — a motto still
carved on public buildings and even mountaintops all across Turkey. But many
Kurds didn’t feel happy with this dictate. One revolt followed another, only to
be suppressed brutally.
republic, in other words, is guilty of disrespecting its Kurdish citizens,
banning their language — even outlawing their music — and crushing their
political movements, for decades and decades. And with this mindless authoritarianism,
it consolidated its worst fear: Kurdish nationalism.
force exploded in 1984 with the rise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as
the PKK — a terrorist army that combined Kurdish nationalism with
Marxist-Leninist ideology and Maoist guerrilla tactics. To some Kurds, this
made them freedom fighters. But other Kurds, who opposed the organisation, paid
with their lives. As is typical with national liberation movements, the PKK
defined itself as the only vanguard for the people, showing no mercy to
“traitors.” The brutal war between the PKK and the Turkish republic has
continued to this day, leaving behind more than 50,000 casualties.
Turkish republic corrected some of its mistakes. The senseless bans on the
Kurdish language were lifted first in the early 1990s by the great liberator
Turgut Ozal and then in the 2000s by Turkey’s current leader, President Recep
Tayyip Erdogan. In 2009, Erdogan even initiated peace talks with the PKK. Yet
during those negotiations it became clear that the PKK wanted not just more
rights for Kurds, but also a territory to rule — single-handedly and
hierarchically, with its party commissars and “village communes.”
peace talks collapsed in the summer of 2015. This is partly because Erdogan
couldn’t gain much from them politically. But also the PKK never said it would
put down its arms and instead threatened to extend what it called its
“revolution” in Syria into Turkey. Since then, with his new ultranationalist
allies, Erdogan has reverted back to all the hawkishness of the “Old Turkey”
that he used to oppose — including jailing or ousting elected Kurdish
At the same
time, the United States had entered the scene by deciding that the best asset
against Daesh in Syria would be the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, a
militia of the YPG, which, according to the CIA World Factbook, is the Syrian
wing of the PKK. Turkey strongly objected to this plan to “defeat terrorists
with other terrorists,” but the Obama administration didn’t mind. Soon “the
Kurds,” without any nuance, become heroes in the West. Americans looked at
Kurdish female fighters, and saw them as brave emancipated women. Turks, by
contrast, saw them as comrades of Seher Cagla Demir, the Kurdish female suicide
bomber who killed 37 people in downtown Ankara, and whose posters were put up
in YPG-controlled locations in Syria.
That is why
anti-Americanism has skyrocketed in Turkey in the past four years. And
President Vladimir Putin has used it cleverly to lure Turkey’s leaders to his
No “Military Solution”
Turkish army is marching into northern Syria, to create a “buffer zone” between
Turkey and the YPG. While Turkey is indeed right to be concerned by a
“PKK-istan” beyond its longest border, it is unclear what this operation may
really achieve — other than stoking nationalist sentiment at home, which may
help Erdogan’s declining popularity. The idea of relocating more than a million
Syrian refugees to this barren buffer zone is simply frightening.
States should help, not by unilaterally siding with “the Kurds” against Turkey,
which will only further infuriate the latter, but by doing what the Obama
administration should have done four years ago: Understand Ankara’s concerns
mediate between the two sides and broker a peaceful deal, an option President
longer run, both Turks and Kurds should finally grasp the century-old lesson:
There is no “military solution” to this problem. Kurdish nationalists will not
be able to carve out a Kurdistan from Turkish territory, nor will Turkish
nationalists be able to “wipe out all terrorists.”
solution is to liberalise Turkey, to make it more respectful to its Kurdish
citizens — in fact, to all its citizens — while curbing the totalitarian
ambitions of the PKK. And while this seems far away from the current reality,
there are saner forces in Turkey that may turn the tide.
himself once spearheaded this idea during the peace talks, with a beautiful
slogan that then became popular: “Let the mothers not cry.” Yes, let the
mothers not cry anymore — neither Turkish nor Kurdish ones, neither in Turkey
nor in Syria.
Mustafa Akyol is a senior fellow at the Cato
Institute, a contributing opinion writer, and author.
Headline: Kurds and Turks once got along
— they are not ‘natural enemies’
Source: The Gulf News