Dances with Wolves: Turkey and the Kurds

Issue: 145

Ron Margulies

Republic Day is celebrated with great pomp and outpourings of state-sponsored nationalism in Turkey every 29 October. Moscow-style military parades, boy scouts and girl guides and school delegations carrying huge Turkish flags used to roam through all the country’s cities until recent years. These do not happen with quite the same military splendour any more, but the visits to the mausoleum of Kemal Atatürk, founder of the republic, florid ceremonies in schools, and newspaper front pages declaring, “The day was celebrated with great jubilation across the land”, still do.

This year something else also happened on Republic Day: a convoy of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas crossed the border into Turkey and travelled west, escorted by Turkish forces. They were then joined by further peshmerga who flew in from Iraqi Kurdistan, and moved into the Kurdish enclave of Kobanê in Northern Syria to help the Kurds there fight against Islamic State (ISIS) forces.

The Kurdish national question

What an astonishing turn of events it was that Kurdish guerrillas armed with heavy weapons travelled through Turkey with official, albeit reluctant, Turkish support, and what a wonderful revenge of history it is that this happened on Republic Day cannot easily be grasped by anyone not brought up to believe that “Turkey belongs to Turks”, that only Turks live in Turkey, and that it is the greatest happiness for one to be able to say, “I am a Turk”. This ceaseless and nauseating emphasis on Turkishness in official ideology has always been meant to stress not that Norwegians or Paraguayans can have no claim on Turkey, but that there is no such thing as a Kurd or a Kurdish language (and, less importantly, that all the other non-Turkish minorities are also Turkish). Ever since the foundation of the Turkish nation-state in 1923, which Republic Day celebrates, the official story in Turkey has been that people who misguidedly “think” they are Kurdish are in fact “mountain Turks”, and that Kurdish is a primitive dialect of Turkish.

Until recently speaking Kurdish was a crime punishable by law; use of the letters x, q and w, which exist in the Kurdish alphabet but not the Turkish, could be deemed a crime should a judge choose to do so; the very use of the word “Kurd” would be reason enough for a publication to be banned. Kurds spoke Kurdish in their villages, of course, and many Kurds, especially women, knew no Turkish, but they were not allowed to publish, broadcast, or record in the language, or indeed to teach it. Kurdish boys, except perhaps those from the bigger cities, would come across Turkish for the first time in their lives when they started primary school and stared blankly at teachers speaking a foreign language—and were punished for it.

Those Kurds who chose to remain “misguided” have, for 80 years, suffered brutal oppression, prison, torture and death by shadowy hit squads. Several Kurdish uprisings were suppressed with great violence in the early years of the Republic, and a large part of the Turkish army has since been stationed in the Kurdish provinces in the south east of the country. These provinces are home to something in the region of 15 to 20 million Kurds—making up one fifth or more of the population of Turkey—though the exact number is not known as the population censuses pose no such question. The Kurdish provinces have also always been the poorest and economically least developed in the country, even before the past 30 years of guerrilla struggle. There can be no doubt that this was partly a result of state policy. Field Marshal Çakmak, chief of staff of the armed forces from 1921 to 1944, for instance, was opposed to the building of roads, industry and schools in the region, as roads would facilitate things for any invading forces, while industry and schools would “awaken” the Kurds and lead to the emergence of separatist movements.

This feared emergence was delayed for 50-odd years, not just by the withholding of investment and education, of course, but by iron-fisted policies of oppression and assimilation. Recep Peker, chairman of the People’s Republican Party (CHP), who ruled the country from 1923 to 1950, said in the 1920s: “We consider every citizen who has been indoctrinated with the idea that they are Kurdish, Circassian or even Laz or Pomak to be one of us. It is our duty sincerely to correct these mistaken ideas which are the legacy of the dark ages of despotism and products of the long years of autocracy.”

Kurdish school children sang out every morning, with all others in the country: “I am Turkish. I am honest. I am dilligent”, reciting “Our Pledge” to uphold the Turkish Republic and the principles of Kemal Atatürk. Kurdish towns, like all others in the country, were awash with Turkish flags, statues and busts of Atatürk, and other symbols of Turkish national unity. There stand to this day in the centre of Diyarbakır, the de facto capital of Kurdistan in Turkey, the words: “How happy is he who says I’m a Turk” painted on the side of an overpass. Many Kurds, particularly the sons and daughters of families which moved to the cities of western Turkey in search of work, were brought up as patriotic, Atatürk-loving Turks, some to discover their Kurdish identity, happily or otherwise, later in life.

The policies of oppression and assimilation appeared to be working until the great wave of politicisation of the late 1960s. Young Kurds made up a significant part of the membership of the many left wing organisations that emerged out of the student movement of 1968. Others set up Kurdish cultural associations which began to gain mass membership. It was not all plain sailing, however. The associations had to be called “Eastern”, a euphemism well understood by all, rather than “Kurdish”, in order to avoid the immediate wrath of the state. Things were also not easy for self-conscious Kurds within the organisations of the left either. All of these organisations were under the influence of Kemalism and Turkish nationalism to a greater or lesser extent, all were much more concerned with American imperialism than with Turkish capitalism, and none considered the Kurdish question to be of any immediate importance. It was either not an issue at all as Turks and Kurds had to be united in the fight against the common imperialist enemy, or it was one that would automatically be resolved in some socialist future.


Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurdish student at Ankara University and one of the founders of the Democratic Higher Education Association—one of the many left wing student organisations that emerged in the mid-1970s as the effects of the 1971 military takeover wore off—became increasingly disillusioned with the Turkish left’s outlook on the Kurdish national question and moved, with a handful of friends, to the south east to launch the armed struggle. Their politics were not unlike those of other armed liberation movements of the period: Stalinism and national politics couched in Marxist terminology. The group, then known as the National Liberation Army or, more commonly, the Apoists (“Apo” being the diminutive form of Abdullah), began to undertake small-scale armed actions, and took the name Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (Kurdish Workers Party, PKK) in 1978.

What turned the PKK into a serious force, ironically, was the military takeover of 1980 and the violent repression that followed it. The junta launched a reign of terror that spared no political or working class organisation or opposition anywhere in the country, but was perhaps especially vicious in the Kurdish areas. Diyarbakır prison in particular became a byword for brutality, torture and death. It also became a recruitment and political training ground for the PKK, with prisoners joining the guerrillas in the Kurdish mountains as soon as they were released. Öcalan himself had moved to Syria shortly before the coup, running the organisation from there and, later, from a base in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. Negotiations with Syrian president Hafez al-Assad (founder of the sectarian Ba’athist regime) and Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani ensured that PKK fighters could use northern Iraqi territory as a base from which to launch attacks into Turkey. They are still based there, on the Qandil Mountains, about 50 km from the Turkish border, just south of the point where Iran, Iraq and Turkey meet.

In 1984 the PKK carried out its first major operation, attacking military posts and briefly taking control of two small Kurdish towns. If the Turkish state was aware that it now had a serious problem on its hands, it did not publicly say so. The official rhetoric identifying the problem as one of “a handful of bandits” was used way past its sell-by date, as the PKK grew to become the unquestioned leadership of a growing movement. As often happens, every attempt by Turkish security forces brutally to clamp down on the movement only served to increase the PKK’s popularity and their position as the representatives of the Kurds. Successive governments simply failed to understand—rulers rarely do—that even Kurds who had no particular beef with the Turkish state and no affection for the PKK did not like to see young Kurdish men and women killed, and they certainly did not like living under an effective state of siege. As the war heated up through the 1990s, about 4,000 Kurdish villages were evacuated and burnt down by the military both to flush out the guerrillas and to punish the peasants.

In the final decade of the last century and the first of this around 40,000 people are estimated to have died in the fighting. The Turkish army behaved like an occupying force throughout this period, barricaded in and only making occasional sorties in the rural areas, but able to make life hell for ordinary Kurds in the cities, particularly Diyarbakır. The PKK eschewed a policy of carrying the guerrilla war into Turkish cities, however, and one could live perfectly comfortably in Istanbul or Ankara and have no inkling of either the intensity of the war or the atrocities visited upon the Kurds. In the mid and late 1990s, as the state attempted to deal with the PKK’s civilian support, nearly 20,000 Kurds were victims of “unsolved murders” that are now known to have been committed by shadowy groups within the security forces.

Over the same period the PKK succeeded in turning itself into more than a guerrilla organisation. It set up countless organisations and became influential in all walks of Kurdish life, including the large Kurdish diaspora in Western Europe. In 1989 the first legal, parliamentary Kurdish party, the People’s Labour Party (HEP), was founded, starting a game of cat and mouse whereby the Kurds’ party would be closed down by the courts only to reopen under a different name. The current one, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which has 30-plus members of parliament and controls more than 100 municipalities, is the seventh.

In 1999 Abdullah Öcalan was captured. He had had to leave Syria in 1998 after Turkish and international pressure was put on Hafez al-Assad to expel him, and was finally caught in Kenya, probably by American agents, and flown to Turkey, handcuffed and blindfolded. The Turkish media went into a frenzy of celebration, while grown Kurdish men wept in front of their televisions. Öcalan was put, and remains, in a prison that contains only him, on the island of Imralı in the Marmara Sea. He was tried and, not surprisingly given that he had been routinely referred to as “terrorist in chief” and “baby killer” by officials, politicians and the media, condemned to death. What was surprising was that he was not executed. A law abolishing capital punishment was hurriedly passed through parliament by a coalition government that included the fascist National Action Party, all of whose members voted in favour of abolition.

The peace process

How and why and at what stage the Turkish state decided there could be no military solution to the Kurdish problem and that it had better look into other options is not public knowledge. But the Kurdish response to Öcalan’s capture would certainly have been a factor. If any officials thought that taking Öcalan out of the picture would deal a serious blow to the Kurdish movement, they were soon proved to be grossly mistaken. Having their figurehead in the hands of the state and seeing Turkish officialdom crowing about it galvanised the movement and attracted to it even those Kurds who had not been particularly sympathetic to the PKK. The 2000s saw the organisation become a truly popular mass movement, frequently able to mobilise more than a million people in Diyarbakır, a city with a population of less than 2 million.

There had clearly long been a section of the Turkish ruling class that had had enough of the war and wished to have the problem resolved. A number of leading bourgeois politicians had, in the past, spoken of the need for peace with the Kurds, though rather cautiously and not too loudly. President Turgut Özal (1989-93) is known to have sent feelers out to the PKK, which were well received, before he died in circumstances which are now thought to be suspicious. Prime minister Tansu Çiller (1993-96) spoke of a possible solution along the lines of the “Spanish model”, meaning semi-autonomous regional administrations, before suddenly going quiet on the issue for no apparent reason and leaving the matter completely in the hands of the security forces—what followed was a period of the highest number of “unsolved murders” of leading Kurdish public figures. A particularly shadowy arm of the state, Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism (JITEM), the existence of which was officially denied until recently, is now known to have been responsible for thousands of extra-judicial murders of PKK members and supporters.

For his part, Öcalan had also been writing and talking about a peaceful solution for some years before his capture, and the PKK had announced the first of several unilateral temporary ceasefires in 1993. From then on Öcalan’s declarations shed much of the Marxist language of the 1970s, and he stopped referring to secession and independence. He argued and theorised that the age of liberation through armed struggle was over, and that the solution to the Kurdish problem was peaceful and democratic coexistence for Turks and Kurds, and “democratic autonomy” for all the regions of the country.

Neither Öcalan’s evolving stance nor the occasional (though rare)conciliatory pronouncements from Turkish politicians led to any tangible results for nearly two decades, during which the intensity of the war ebbed and flowed, at an enormous cost, both in human lives and in economic terms. There were two related reasons for this. First, the period from the mid-1980s to 2002 was one of weak and unstable coalition governments. No such government was in a position to take any daring steps on an issue as hairy and sensitive as the Kurdish problem, even if it wished to do so. Secondly, any such step would necessarily mean the recognition of a Kurdish identity, separate and different from Turkish; it would bring, at least potentially, a discussion of the unity and indivisibility of the “Turkish nation” onto the agenda; and it would be an implicit admission of failure to defeat “a handful of bandits”. None of these things were even remotely acceptable to the Kemalist state, and the armed forces in particular. And no government would want to incur their wrath in a country that had seen three military takeovers in the post-war period in 1960, 1971 and 1980.

The election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 changed every political equation in the country. We need to take a brief look at this party and its election in order to see why it was able, unlike all its predecessors, to initiate a peace process.

This was a party that came from an Islamist tradition, a recent breakaway from the Welfare Party (WP), the leader of which was prime minister at the head of a coalition government in 1996-97. In power for slightly more than a year, the Islamist WP government had done little that was Islamic, even signing agreements with Israel, but the very fact that it was Islamist and tended to use the language of Islam was like a red rag to a bull for the military and the secular ruling class, and it was overthrown bloodlessly by a military memorandum that effectively said: “Resign, or else.”

While the leading cadres of the AKP, and especially Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were firebrand Islamic fundamentalists fighting for a sharia state in their youth, their new party’s was a very moderate brand of Islam and it advocated no policies that were particularly Islamic. Within months of its foundation it won the general election, reducing the three parties of the outgoing coalition government to single figure percentages of the vote.

This should have been no surprise. Turkey’s electorate has always voted for whichever party the military has not favoured. In some ways the AKP’s victory was the people’s revenge, their response to the overthrow and subsequent closure of the WP. At the time of the election that brought his party to power, Erdogan was in jail for reciting some poetry at a public rally. Reciting poetry is not normally a crime in Turkey, and the stanza he had quoted was from a poem called “Soldier’s Prayer”, by the poet who had written the words to the Turkish National Anthem! However, the poem included the lines “The minarets are our bayonets/the domes our helmets/The mosques are our barracks/the believers our troops”, and this was too much for the guardians of the secular state.

From day one the AKP government knew that, in one way or another, it would have to deal with attempts to overthrow it by the military, the semi-clandestine “deep state”, and the not so deep judiciary and bureaucracy, all supported by the urban, Westernised, educated, secular middle class section of the population. Writing in this journal 18 months ago, I explained this as follows:

Long accustomed to believing that they are the masters of the country, this section of the population feel that their European lifestyle is under threat, that they will be dragged back from their “enlightened modernity” into Islam’s “obscurantism and medieval darkness” and forced to live in an alcohol-free country, wearing headscarves, with their children herded into religious schools. They pore over images of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under Taliban rule, and claim that Turkey has been inching its way in that direction, while government protestations that it has no intention of imposing any such measures are explained away as an example of taqiyya, an Islamic practice whereby dissimulation may be used for a greater good.

It is not simply a matter of lifestyle. The “alarmed modernists”, as one commentator has called them, are also consumed by a class hatred of the more recently urbanised, shantytown-dwelling, less well-off, Allah-fearing Erdogan voters. Occasionally this is expressed explicitly, as it was by a fashion model who publicly asked: “How can a shepherd’s vote mean the same as mine?” or by a journalist who complained that on her way to Istanbul airport the grassy verge by the sea was full of “half-naked hairy men with their wives wearing black chadoors or headscarves, fanning their primitive barbecues, scratching their bellies and belching”, referring to the Istanbul poor enjoying picnics by the sea.

Headscarves give rise to no complaints when worn by servants and house-cleaners or women in the poorer districts of the big cities or the countryside. That is expected, given that between 60 and 70 percent of Turkish women cover their heads in one way or another. The hatred is only aroused when headscarves appear in public spaces that the wealthy consider to be their own. The flag and Atatürk have become symbols of this hatred. They have come to represent a class-based Islamophobia, somewhat different from the essentially racist Western version but sharing with it the view that Islam is inherently backward and anti-democratic.1

In retrospect, the AKP dealt with this problem with consummate skill, whittling away at the power of the military, placating them when necessary, never pushing too far too fast, knowing when to pull back. In 2007, after five years in power and a second general election victory, which saw it increase its vote, it went on the offensive. Dozens of generals, lower-ranking officers and a network of their civilian supporters were put on trial in several high profile court cases, for plotting to overthrow the government. They were nearly all found guilty and sentenced. In addition, many laws and 20-odd articles of the constitution were amended to curb the military’s ability to interfere in politics. While all of this sent the aforementioned “alarmed modernists” into paroxysms of fear and resistance, it increased the AKP’s popularity and pushed its vote up at every local and general election.

Having consolidated its position and clipped the military’s wings, the AKP government then tackled the Kurdish question. In 2009 Erdogan, president Abdullah Gül and interior minister Besir Atalay all began to indicate that steps were about to be taken on many of the main Kurdish grievances. “Good things will happen this year,” said Gül. Atalay spoke of “positive developments” in his meetings with Kurdish leaders. Erdogan met for the first time with the leader of the Kurdish party in parliament. The PKK, for its part, announced the extension of an already existing ceasefire. Öcalan issued a call for a small group of 34 guerrillas to return to Turkey through the Habur border crossing with Iraq and lay down their arms as a gesture of goodwill. They did, and, after brief questioning by specially appointed prosecutors, they were released.

Thus did the Turkish public become aware of what came to be called the “Kurdish opening”, though the government insisted on calling it the “National Democracy and Brotherhood” project. Clearly, the process had, in fact, started earlier. We now know that government and PKK representatives began meetings in Oslo, with Swedish and possibly British participation, in 2008. Lower level talks must, therefore, have started even earlier. Clearly, also, the process was not, and is not going to be, plain sailing.

The defence of Kobanê

The very fact that there is a peace process is a crushing victory for the Kurdish movement and a historic defeat for the Turkish state, regardless of the details of the process itself. The fundamental demand of the movement has always been the recognition of Kurdish identity, in the face of a Turkish nation-state that has denied it for nearly a century. This is now won, in no uncertain terms.

This victory is so complete that every move, concession and reform by the state—and there have been very many of these, as we shall see below—now goes through with hardly any comment or controversy and seems minor, insufficient and too little, too late to the rank and file of the Kurdish movement. In less than a decade we have seen the legalisation of the Kurdish language, a Kurdish-language channel on state television, education in Kurdish (though so far only in the form of optional courses, rather than as an alternative to Turkish), the release of several thousand Kurdish politicians from prison, the return of their original Kurdish names to villages which had been renamed in Turkish, and much more. Most strikingly of all, the Turkish state is officially and publicly sitting at the negotiating table with the leader of a guerrilla organisation and a mass movement, a man representing a people they have denied the existence of for 90 years, a man they have demonised as a terrorist murderer for 30 years. It takes a moment’s quiet thought to grasp the enormity of this.

The logistics of the negotiating process make it even more striking. Representatives of the Kurdish party in parliament visit Öcalan in prison, then hold press conferences to share his views with the public and occasionally travel to the Qandil Mountains to relay his messages to the guerrilla leadership—all with the permission and help of the government! As I write, they have just returned from Öcalan’s island prison and announced that he said “he has largely completed the ‘Draft on Peace and Democratic Negotiations’ he has been working on, that he and representatives of the state have discussed this in detail and have agreed that it constitutes a framework on the basis of which negotiations can proceed”.

None of this means that there has been a smooth and happy march towards peace. The five or more years between the time when feelers and talks first started and the beginning of 2013 saw the fighting continue, at times very intensely, and even when it abated fighting talk was not abandoned by either side. In 2013 Öcalan called for a ceasefire—obviously after some agreement with the state that we do not know the details of—and this has basically held, with no significant fighting since. A number of potential disasters were averted, with both sides immediately pulling back from the brink, for instance when three PKK members, including a founding member, were murdered in mysterious circumstances in Paris.

Quite apart from the ups and downs that arise from both sides’ attempts to get the upper hand, from the government’s need to keep an eye on the nationalistic and conservative instincts of its voter base, and the Kurdish movement’s need to keep its mass support mobilised, the peace process also suffers from a more fundamental problem.

The AKP is not, by instinct and tradition, a reforming party. Its leadership and cadres are deeply conservative and religious. They are children of the Islamist movement, imbued with its worldview and values, meaning that the concept of the ummah—the transnational community of believers—competes in their intellectual and emotional make-up with those of the Turkish nation and the nation-state. This, in theory, should make them less enamoured of Turkish nationalism than any other bourgeois party, including the social democrats and, to a certain degree, that is indeed the case—it is hard to imagine any other party taking the steps the AKP has done on the Kurdish issue. However, the Islamic tradition in Turkey is very far from being exempt from nationalism and glorifies—not to say sanctifies—the Turkish state no less than its Kemalist founders did. Erdogan and his lieutenants therefore behave and speak from the belief that the peace process is an operation of the Turkish state, rather than a process of negotiation between two warring parties. They see the process as one whereby the Turkish state is magnanimously granting the Kurds certain rights that it may choose to withhold should the recipients misbehave. The government therefore utterly fails to understand why the Kurds frequently feel they are being led up the garden path, why they get irritated and impatient, and how decades of oppression and resentment can explode into rage when expectations are not met.

A perfect example of this was provided by the ISIS attack on Kobanê. All along south eastern Turkey, Kurds live on both sides of the border with Syria and Iraq. The border means little to them and is very porous, with families living in neighbouring villages which happen to be in two different countries—they do not see each other as Turk or Syrian, but as relatives. For the Kurds, therefore, the murderous attack by ISIS in Syria was not a distant event, but a threat to their kith and kin.

Moreover, as Bashar al-Assad’s army retreated from northern Syria in 2012, forces affiliated with the PKK took control of the Kurdish areas to set up three self-declared autonomous regional governments, collectively known as Rojava (Western Kurdistan). Understandably, given that this was the first land under its administration, Rojava was a source of great pride and kudos for the PKK, which claimed, with great fanfare and no little exaggeration, to be building socialism in the area. There was an effort made to involve representatives of the non-Kurdish residents of the area in government, women played an active role at all levels of society, and officials certainly spoke the language of democracy and equality, but several hundred people known to be close to Barzani’s northern Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) were expelled, indicating the limits of the PKK’s understanding of socialism.

As the ISIS attack started, the only way to escape or send reinforcements into Kobanê was through the Turkish border. About 200,000 people fled and were allowed into Turkey, although the government refused to open the border crossing for a few hours on the first day, enraging the Kurds in the north. Kurds in Turkey expected the government to help not only the refugees, but also the fighters in Kobanê. The government had no such intention. Indeed, it would have been quietly happy to see Rojava overrun, ridding Turkey of the prospect of having a second unwelcome Kurdish neighbour, in addition to the Barzani-run Kurdish statelet in northern Iraq, which it has reluctantly had to establish relatively good relations with. It took two days of widespread and violent rioting by Kurds, and arm-twisting by Washington, for the government sheepishly to allow the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga into Kobanê. Erdogan now has egg on his face and Turkish foreign policy is in tatters. Not only does Kobanê seem to have survived, but the PKK—listed both by the US and the EU as a terrorist organisation—is suddenly in the West’s good books, closely and actively cooperating with the US in fighting ISIS in Northern Syria.

The besieged fighters in Kobanê now appear to be on the verge of beating ISIS back. Without belittling the courage and heroism of the town’s defenders, this is largely due to the American bombing of ISIS positions. The Kurdish movement was adamant in its calls for military involvement by the United States. As always when people are dying on the ground, the argument about American imperialism was an extremely difficult one to have. No amount of factual information about the aftermath of American bombs across the world, and particularly in the Middle East, could sway Kurdish opinion. The fact that 1.5 million have died in Iraq since American intervention, or the fate of Libya, cut no ice. This is understandable for ordinary Kurds whose relatives face ISIS barbarity, but less so for a movement which claims to be building socialism. It is difficult to see how this can be done under the protection of the US Air Force. There can be no doubt that large numbers of Syrians and Iraqis resent the fact that Arabs are being bombed for the sake of Kurds. Many Syrian Arabs also feel that the Kurds did not pull their weight in the fight against the Assad dictatorship, preferring instead to consolidate their own patch once Assad had retreated from it. The seeds of ethnic hatred are being sown. Already there is evidence that the bombs are pushing more people into sympathising with ISIS.

The future of the Middle East lies in the unity and action of ordinary working people, Arab and Kurdish, Muslim and others, Sunni and Shia. American bombs make such unity and action all the more difficult, just as they did in Iraq after 2003. It is to be hoped that the Kurds are not made to pay the price for American support.


1: Margulies, Ron, 2013, “Turkey: Between Islamic Neoliberalism and Kemalist Nationalism”, International Socialism 139 (summer),, pp18-19.