The History of the Kurdish Struggle in Turkey
Baris Karaagac gives an overview of the Kurdish movement, from its centuries of rebellions against the Turkish-controlled state to becoming the only credible opposition today against Erdogan’s authoritarianism
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
As Turkey becomes more entangled in the war on Syria, and now managing the refugee crisis for Europe, less-talked-about situation in Turkey is the intensifying war on its own Kurdish population. This war against the Kurds has been going on for about a century, but recent developments in the region have enabled the Turkish state to take advantage of it and intensify the war against the Kurds.
Joining us now to discuss the Kurdish question in Turkey and the region is Baris Karaagac. He’s a lecturer in international development studies at Trent University in Ontario. He’s also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crises, and Struggles: Capital and Labor in Contemporary Capitalism. Thank you so much for joining us, Baris.
BARIS KARAAGAC: Hello, Sharmini.
PERIES: So, Baris, let’s start with, first, explaining the current moment. There’s been some intensification of attacks against the Kurdish PKK. What are they, and why is this happening now?
KARAAGAC: A week ago President Erdogan gave a speech in which he said this struggle or war against terror will continue until doomsday. This indicates that there will be a significant intensification of tension and violence between the security, Turkish security forces, and Kurdish militants, both in Turkey and outside of Turkey.
And the interesting thing is that this, the already ongoing conflict, and the clashes that had actually intensified in the last year, came in the aftermath of a so-called peace process. Between 2013-2015 there was a ceasefire between the Turkish state and the Kurdish militants, the PKK. And in this period, there were many attempts to find a peaceful solution, a political solution, to this conflict that has cost the lives of more than 40,000 people.
But that peace process, or the solution process, so-called, came to an abrupt end following the elections in June 2015 when the pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, they gained about 80 seats in Turkish parliament. Since then we’ve seen a lot of violence, both in the predominantly Kurdish-populated regions within Turkey, but also in major urban centers such as Ankara and Istanbul.
Part of this process, of this conflict, was destruction of entire cities and neighborhoods in the Kurdish region within Turkey. The Turkish military had laid siege to towns, and there were curfews that are still in effect, which led to the death of hundreds of people, as well as emigration from these areas to others of thousands of people. And this process is going on.
And Erdogan’s recent speech indicates that it won’t come to an end in the near future. Because President Tayyip Erdogan sees the Kurdish movement and its political representative the HDP, as the greatest obstacle to realizing his goal of bringing an executive presidency to term.
PERIES: And at this political moment, with the crisis in Syria, the Kurds have been playing a very important role in the region in the fight back against ISIS. Give us a sense of what that role is, and why is that threatening to Erdogan?
KARAAGAC: Well, recently there’s been an offensive by the Syrian democratic forces that are led by Kurds in northern Syria on the town of [Manjeb] that has been controlled by ISIS fighters. And these forces have captured many villages around the town, and it is quite likely that in the near future they will be able to capture Manjeb in order to cut off ISIS at the supply route, ISIS’s root to the outside world.
When we look at the Turkish state’s stance towards what has been unfolding over there, Turkey has basically turned a blind eye by this operation that has been supported since the beginning by the United States, as well, in addition to France. The greatest concern of the Turkish state is that Kurds, along with other ethnicities, but above all, Kurds consolidate their political power in northern Syria. And Turkey sees this as an existential threat to its own being. Turkey has been quite clear since the beginning that it considers the [inaud.] the political Kurdish party that are [is] military forces, YPG, as an offshoot of the PKK that it has been fighting for about 40 years. And it’s considered them as terrorists.
So Turkey wants to have nothing to do with them. And it has not supported the operations or even the negotiations that have included the northern Syrian Kurds.
PERIES: All right, Baris. This is a good place to pause. And if you’re interested in the history of the Kurds in Turkey and their struggle, we’re going to continue this discussion in the next segment. Thanks for joining us, Baris.
KARAAGAC: Thank you, Sharmini.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network, and we’re talking about the Kurdish question in Turkey and the region with Baris Karaagac. He is a lecturer in international development studies at Trent University in Ontario. He’s also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crises, and Struggles: Capital and Labor in Contemporary Capitalism. Thanks for joining us again, Baris.
BARIS KARAAGAC: Hello.
PERIES: So, Baris, when we left off we were talking, or beginning to talk, about the struggle, the Kurdish struggle in Turkey, and we were talking about the contemporary situation, but this is a historical war against the Kurds launched by the Turkish state. Give us some context, the history here.
KARAAGAC: Well, Kurds have lived first under Ottoman rule in the region, and then under the rule of the Republic of Turkey since 1923. And when we look at the last two centuries on, there have been [tens] of rebellions against the Turkish-controlled state by various Kurdish groups. But the most important of them all is the insurgency that was started by the PKK in the early 1980s. To be more specific, in 1984.
When we look at the PKK, what do they want? Well, the most important issue–actually, this dates back to the founding days of the Turkish Republic–is the status of Kurds in the state. Although Kurds were one of the two main founding groups of the new Republic, the Republic was established as a Turkish republic. And minority groups were not recognized. At least linguistic or cultural minority groups were not recognized. The only minority groups that were recognized were the religious ones, such as Jews, Christians, et cetera. So Kurds were not considered a minority within the Turkish republic.
So this Kurdish conflict is about the status of Kurds. When we look at the PKK, and its insurgency since the early 1980s, the PKK [say] starts as a Marxist-Leninist group. But this–and it started attacking Turkish officials in, mostly in southeastern and eastern parts of Turkey in the 1980s. But it also attacked Kurds who collaborated with the Turkish state. Among them we see some of the big landowners in the area that have historically cooperated, collaborated with the state, dating back to the Ottoman times.
And in the 1990s, at the peak of its power, the PKK got into a very dirty war with the Turkish state. But the dirtiness came mostly from the Turkish state. And when we discuss what has been going on in the last [couple of] years, many references are made to the 1990s, when the Turkish state, all kinds of dirty means to counter the PKK, both in the southeastern and eastern parts of Turkey, but also in major cities.
A turning point came in 1999, when the leader of the Kurdish movement and the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured by the Turkish security forces. Abdullah Ocalan, who is still the undisputed leader of the Kurdish movement, has been in jail, in Turkish jail, for 16 years, on an island jail in the Marmara Sea. And this date is very important, not because it is the year when Ocalan was imprisoned, but there was a significant ideological shift in, within the PKK. Since then, Ocalan has developed this notion of a democratic confederalism. Before that, the goal of the Kurdish insurgency was to attain, achieve independence for Kurds and other ethnic groups in the country or within the Middle East. In the Middle East, we don’t have exact numbers, but there are between 30-40 million Kurds.
But since 1999, he’s been talking about this democratic confederalism, which has been influenced significantly by Murray Bookchin. So–.
PERIES: Who is he?
KARAAGAC: Communalism. Murray Bookchin is a very–he died in 2006, if I remember correctly. He’s a famous social theorist that produced many works focusing on social ecology, and his Communalism influenced significantly Abdullah Ocalan, and then the entire leadership of the movement.
So now, Kurds–or until now–Kurds have not asked for or struggled for independence. But they wanted to attain autonomy. And what they want is not to found another state. They want to found a number of autonomous units which will determine how they will live within those spaces themselves without the interference of state control, be it a Kurdish state or a Turkish state.
PERIES: Baris, one of the things that I remember so well is the front page of the Globe and Mail in Canada the day after President Erdogan was elected to power for the first time, that he was going to be the new secular savior of Turkey. And it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Why?
KARAAGAC: Well, I’m glad that you emphasize that for a long time, maybe people thought Erdogan was a democratic figure who could emancipate, in a way, Turkey. Who would take Turkey into a new level, democratize Turkey. Actually, when the AKP came to power, about 15 years ago, many good liberals in Turkey, and many, even people on the socialist Left, thought Erdogan could change, or effect really positive change in the country. It’s turned out that Erdogan’s goal was to become a dictator. And he acts like a dictator today.
PERIES: And why is it so important at this moment, politically, is because of the Western alliance with Turkey, and more and more dependent on Turkey for the war in Syria, for managing the refugees and playing their surrogate in the region. But that’s all falling apart, because of the Turkish state’s attacks on the Kurds. Particularly given that the Kurds are needed in this fight against ISIS. Give us a sense of what your analysis about all of this.
KARAAGAC: Well, this has led to a lot of tension, actually, between the United states and the Turkish state, the United States and President Erdogan. Actually, during his last visit to the United States he was not welcome by the United States officials, and it was a really cold, unfriendly welcome. The United States sees Kurds as allies in its war against ISIS, whereas Turkey sees those people as terrorists.
So, but of course, as I said earlier, that this–Erdogan’s attitude stems toward the Kurdish question changed quite rapidly following the electoral victory of the pro-Kurdish HDP last summer. Because that party, during the electoral campaign, made it very clear that the party said we will not let Tayyip Erdogan become or consolidate and concentrate his power through an executive presidency. And this really angered Erdogan, and after the Kurdish electoral victory, Erdogan re-initiated or resumed Turkish offensives against both the PKK and the Kurdish civil society in general, and also political society.
So, again, Erdogan sees the Kurds as the most important obstacle to his planned executive presidency. When we look at Turkey today, the only opposition, credible opposition, we can speak of is Kurds. I don’t think there’s any question, any doubt about this.
PERIES: And who are Erdogan’s allies in this assertion of the Turkish state?
KARAAGAC: Ironically, when nationalism comes into the picture, and Erdogan has been able to use, exploit it so masterfully, many people from the other opposition parties had jumped on board. So when it comes to the Kurdish issue, and in terms of taking a hawkish stance towards the Kurds, of course the neofascist or the ultra-far Right, or whatever you want to call them, I would call them neofascists, are MHP, Nationalist Action Party, has become actually a loyal ally for Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. But also, a significant number of deputies from the Republican People’s Party are supporting this war against the Kurds.
But I need to be, we need to be careful. Within the Republican People’s Party there are also people who have really opposed this hawkish stance, and this violence directed at Kurds.
PERIES: All right, Baris. It’s an ongoing discussion, and I hope to have you back very soon, because I think we need to expose more of this, and understand a lot more in order to figure out what’s going on in Turkey, one of the greatest allies of the West in the region.
KARAAGAC: I would really appreciate this, because the Kurds are rarely discussed in the media, and particularly in North America. we’re talking about people, about 30-35 million, without a state, and who have been persecuted for centuries. But particularly recently. And I really appreciate you and the Real News Network bringing this to tens of thousands of people in North America and elsewhere.
PERIES; All right. Baris, I thank you so much for your analysis today. And as I said, we’ll continue the conversation. Thank you.
KARAAGAC: Thank you so much.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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