Two routes to an impasse: Understanding Turkey’s Kurdish policy

Pro-Kurdish politicians of Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) Sirri Sureyya Onder (C), Pervin Buldan (L) and Idris Baluken attend a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, June 12, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo

Kurdish groups in the Middle East are once again occupying global headlines today. While the Western media typically labels them as trustworthy friends in a region rife with enemies and shifting alliances, many regional actors see the Kurds as problematic, and contributors to the Middle East’s chaos. For the U.S. led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), the Kurds are considered the most reliable and effective “boots on the ground” in the battle; yet, Kurdish ambitions for state-building and autonomy are a source of vexation for Turkey and other states in the region. The Turkish leadership is now bent on curbing the Kurds’ territorial ambitions, which undermines the cohesion of the international coalition. In return, these competing interests hamper Turkey’s relations with the U.S. and those with the international community at large.

Only a few years ago, it seemed as if some sort of reconciliation between the Turkish state and Kurds was feasible. With the launch of the “Kurdish opening” in 2009, the Turkish leadership re-engaged the Kurdish communities after decades of estrangement and hostility. For perhaps the first time in its history, the Turkish government was willing to listen to Kurdish cultural and political demands and try to incorporate them into the political system, rather than to confront them militarily.

However, the optimism bred by the dialogue and outreach to the Kurds was short-lived. By the summer of 2014, as ISIS made advances and the Turkish government appeared unwilling to offer the Kurds further concessions necessary to ensure Kurdish support in the political process, both sides reconsidered the values of the “Kurdish opening”. The AKP government relied on an instrumentalist approach to the Kurdish issue, relegating it to their electoral ambitions; meanwhile, the Kurdish political actors speak from a maximalist position, emphasizing self-rule and freedom for the leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), Abdullah Öcalan.

The report explores these issues in depth, and the authors argue that politics of moderation offers the best chance to bring this conflict to an end. The Turkish government needs to improve the Kurds’ standing in society, and the Kurds should moderate their demands to garner public support for their cause. As the authors conclude, regional cooperation requires a watchful peace that cannot be sustained without the commitment of all stakeholder.