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Story Publication logo November 10, 2014

What Kobani Means for Turkey’s Kurds

Image by Sebastian Meyer. Iraq, 2014.

Today Iraq is consumed by sectarian fighting, but in the north the legacy of the US-led war is...

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Image by Sebastian Meyer. Iraq, 2014

On the Kurdish new year in March, 2013, a letter was hand-delivered to political representatives of Turkey's Kurds in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. It had been sent from the prison on the island of Imrali where Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (P.K.K.), was being held. Ocalan's letter told the Kurds that their thirty-year war with the Turkish state had come to an end. At a new year's celebration held just outside the city, politicians read the document aloud as though it were a manifesto. People wept and rushed the stage.

Ocalan's announcement marked the official start of a long-anticipated peace process, which Turkey's Kurds hoped would end decades of violence and grant them the rights to language, education, and self-governance for which they had been fighting. About forty thousand people—soldiers and civilians—have died in the conflict, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then the Prime Minister and now the President, saw peace with the Kurds as a cornerstone of his legacy. But the country's decision to treat the P.K.K. as a political party was a thorny one. For decades, Turkish officials had been portraying Ocalan as the leader of a terrorist organization, and, by negotiating with him, the ruling Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) was asking for a nationwide change in attitude: if Turks wanted peace, they would have to compromise with people they'd long regarded as the country's biggest security threat. Nevertheless, for close to two years—through anti-government protests in Istanbul, a corruption scandal affecting Erdoğan, and the passing of more than a few brazenly oppressive laws—the peace process remained largely intact.

At the same time, though, across the border in Syria, a more radical Kurdish experiment was unfolding, courting Turkey's ire and exposing the limits of its commitment to negotiating with the Kurds at home. As popular uprisings against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gradually morphed into a civil war, Syria's Kurds, who were oppressed by Assad's government but did not trust the opposition forces fighting the war, began carving out some autonomy for themselves in a northeastern strip of Syria that they refer to as Rojava. There, they established three self-governing cantons, protected by the People's Protection Unit (P.Y.G.), the Syrian affiliate of the P.K.K., and led, mostly, by the People's Democratic Party (P.Y.D.). Rojava has excited the Kurds, but it worries Turkey. "If it survives, it will be on a smaller scale what Kurds in Turkey want for themselves," Abbas Vali, a sociologist at Istanbul's Bogaziçi University who focuses on Kurdish issues, told me.

When militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) surrounded the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, which lies inside Rojava, during the first week of October, the tensions between Turkey and the Kurds resurfaced. For weeks, Turkish tanks sat on the other side of the border, preventing Kurdish fighters and supplies from crossing into Syria. Protests erupted across the country, leading to forty deaths. But the Turkish reaction wasn't surprising; despite its commitment to peace at home and its partnership with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq (an autonomous region, bordering Turkey, that Dexter Filkins wrote about for the magazine in September), the A.K.P. rejects Kurdish autonomy in Turkey and Syria. "The canton system is anathema to the Turks," Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University, told me. "You can have one Kurdish autonomous region on your border, but two is a disaster, because then Turkish Kurds are going to basically say, 'Hey, what about us?' " Turkey's position was also rational with respect to the country's internal politics—a recent poll showed that Turks fear the P.K.K. at least as much as they do ISIS; a small majority thought that the Kurdish group actually posed the bigger threat.

Amid an international outcry over its inaction in Kobani, the Turkish government resorted to what has in the past been a reliable tactic: it raised the specter of the P.K.K., and began calling it (and, by extension, the Y.P.G.) terrorists. Then, on October 14th, Turkish forces hit P.K.K. targets in Hakkari, close to the border with Iraq, the first such strikes since peace talks began. "I see it as Erdoğan sending a message to the international community, reminding everybody that the P.K.K. is a terrorist group," Aliza Marcus, the Washington-based author of "Blood and Belief: The P.K.K. and the Kurdish Fight for Independence," told me. Marcus had traveled recently to Hakkari for research, and she came away believing that the P.K.K. posed no military threat. "It's Erdoğan lashing out. He's under pressure and the Kurds are gaining sympathy. … He's angry. His style of leadership these days is taking revenge."

Marcus also observed a shift in the coverage by the international media, and by some Turkish outlets, following the airstrikes. "It's not, 'Turkey attacked the P.K.K.,' " she said. "It's 'Turkey attacked the Kurds.' " This change in perception drew on months of good press that had been showered on the Iraqi Kurds and the peshmerga fighting on the front lines against ISIS, as well as on the media's presence along the border, where cameras had captured footage of the blockade set up by the Turkish Army and the fighting in Kobani. Kurds across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, too, rallied around the battle. A town in Iraqi Kurdistan known for being a source of rebellion against Saddam Hussein renamed a street "Kobani."

"Kobani today is for Syrian Kurds and Turkish Kurds what Halabja was for Iraqi Kurds," Barkey told me, referring to the site of Hussein's chemical-weapons attacks in 1988 against the Kurds. "It's a stepping stone for national mobilization and nation-building. … Even if Kobani falls, it will strengthen Kurdishness. This was a Turkish miscalculation."

When Turkey finally relented to allow a force of about a hundred and fifty Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga to enter Kobani, Turkish Kurds were relieved. But this relief seemed to relate more to their sense of solidarity with their fellow Kurds than to any expectation that the peshmerga could win the fight—"Let's face it, the fiercest Kurdish fighters are already there," a friend in Erbil told me—or that Turkey's stance on Kurdish autonomy was softening. Erdoğan had called the pressure on Turkey a "psychological war," and he was not wrong—sending the peshmerga, who in Iraq were at odds with the P.K.K., would help to soothe public opinion abroad, as well as among Kurds and their supporters at home. But it was a half measure, and not helpful to the peace process.

Over the years, even as it has negotiated with Ocalan and courted the Kurdish vote, the A.K.P. has continued with some forms of repression. In the absence of armed fighting, the conflict plays out at organized protests, in parliament, and in the courts—all arenas where the Turkish government retains far more authority than the Kurdish minority. This authority comes, in large part, from the designation of the P.K.K. as a terrorist organization, and the tendency on the part of the government to conflate all aspects of Kurdish life with the P.K.K. (despite the fact that many Kurds reject the P.K.K.'s rigid hierarchy and its willingness to resort to violence). Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the A.K.P. has frequently cracked down on Kurdish institutions, protesters, and political leaders. A mass court case, opened in 2007 against a group called the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (K.C.K.), which the government considers the urban arm of the P.K.K., has led to the detention of thousands of Kurdish and Turkish activists, journalists, academics, and politicians.

So when Erdoğan called the P.K.K. terrorists as it fought in Kobani, it was more than political maneuvering; it was foreshadowing. Soon after the Kobani protests, the Turkish parliament proposed a bill that expands the powers of the Turkish police to allow it to arrest protesters suspected of carrying stones or Molotov cocktails, or who cover their faces. It increases the amount of time those protesters can be detained, and the severity of the sentence if they are convicted. These measures inspire little outrage in the foreign media, but their impact on Turkey's Kurds could be immense.

"People believe that when the question is Kurds, Erdoğan doesn't care about anything," Ramazan Tunç, a Diyarbakır-based economist, told me. Tunç spent the past two years trying to establish a university in Diyarbakır that would have Kurdish as one of three primary languages, a project that would have been impossible before 1991, during the post-coup years when any language other than Turkish was banned. "In Kurdistan, in two days, forty-six people have lost their lives," Tunç said, referring to the violent protests over Kobani. "Are we going back to the nineties?"

Tunç professed solidarity with Kurds in Kobani, but he was not alone in his concern about the fallout from Kobani at home. In late October, three Turkish soldiers were killed in the southeast, and many media reports assumed that the gunmen were members of the P.K.K. On Tuesday morning, a politician with the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (H.D.P.) was stabbed in Ankara, outside party headquarters. The next day, youth associated with the P.K.K. reportedly set up barricades around a Kurdish border town and declared its autonomy. Reports that the government was secretly planning to shut down the H.D.P. were quickly refuted by officials, but both sides engaged in a fiery exchange of words. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu accused the H.D.P. of "thuggery," while Kurdish officials said that the attacks were part of a "lynching campaign." A mainstream newspaper launched a splashy new graphic that asked if terrorism was returning to Turkey.

Perhaps prompted by the pile-up of events, the International Crisis Group published a report on Thursday that aimed to remind both sides of the importance of the ceasefire. The group has long stressed peace between Turks and Kurds, but this time it offered a graver message: Turkey's war with the Kurds had crossed borders, and they were no longer each other's worst enemies. "Without first achieving peace at home," Hugh Pope, the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia program, wrote, "both will remain highly vulnerable to what is in fact their common enemy, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria."






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