Washington Kurdish Institute
By: Himan Hosseini March 8, 2016
In an exclusive interview with the German DPA News Agency in February, Salih Muslim the co-leader of Syria’s leading Kurdish political party, the People’s Democratic Union (PYD), lashed out at Turkey’s Kurdish policy, accusing Ankara of being “Kurdophobic.” During his interview, Muslim claimed, “Kurds in Syria have no dream of independence.”
Muslim is not the first Kurdish politician resorting to the diplomatic rhetoric of denying Kurds’ efforts to establish an independent Kurdish state. Indeed, the special geography of Kurdistan encircled by hostile regimes in Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus can explain why Muslim is saying what Abdurrahman Qasimlou, Jalal Talabani, and Abdullah Ocalan have all repeatedly said previously. His accusation that Erdogan-led Turkey is suffering from “Kurdophobia”, however, is not a repetition of other Kurdish leaders’ statements.
After the unprecedented openings introduced by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to address the Kurdish issue in Turkey, many started to believe that the Kurdish issue in Turkey was finally on its way to resolution. Lifting the ban on Kurdish education, establishing extensive relationships with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, beginning talks with Syrian Kurdish leaders, the revelations of the secret meetings of 2009 between Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and PKK leaders in Oslo, and Ocalan’s historic message given at the 2013 Newroz celebration in Diyarbakir were all seen by many Kurds as signs of a new Turkish Kurdish policy.
While the most optimistic Kurds could have not believed in the realization of all those unprecedented accomplishments, the most pessimistic Kurds might have not believed that they could disappear in such a short time. As of now, Kurdish education has not developed as expected, Turkish-KRG relations are facing serious threats, the peace process is entirely stalled, Ocalan has been isolated since April 2015, Turkish-Kurdish violence is escalating, and Turkey has begun shelling Kurdish-held territory in Syria.
What went wrong? Has Erdogan been inflicted with “Kurdophobia”? If yes, what are its symptoms and how can it be cured? These questions cannot be answered unless one looks at the bigger picture of the ongoing developments in the neighboring countries and their implications for Turkey, the country with the largest Kurdish population in the neighborhood.
After a streak of failures with regard to regional policies (e.g., in Egypt, Syria, and Israel-Palestine), the AKP experienced the most alarming failure in domestic political arena in the general elections of June 2015, seeing its votes decrease from 49.83% in 2011 general election to just 40.87%. Who were the “backstabbers”? They were hundreds of thousands of Kurds who switched their votes from AKP to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a party which rallied voters with the slogan, “We won’t let you [Erdogan] become [executive] president!”
Simultaneously, the outlawed nemesis of Erdogan, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was gaining an unprecedented popularity in the world due to its indispensable role in the fight the ISIS terrorist organization in both Iraq and Syria. Not surprisingly, Erdogan put an end to the ongoing talks with Ocalan and claimed Turkey had no Kurdish problem, but only a terrorism problem. Calling for a snap election, Erdogan, raised the flag of Turkish nationalism to attract the votes of millions of nationalist Turks. In pursuit of this policy, Turkey started bombing the “treacherous PKK terrorists” who had proven to be one of most effective ground forces against ISIS. Simultaneously, the AKP initiated an unprecedented crackdown on Kurds, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. This plan paid off splendidly, with AKP garnering 49.50% of votes, including those of approximately 2 million who switched their votes from the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to the AKP.
The biggest strategic threat to Erdogan’s regional ambitions are posted not by the Kurds of Turkey, but rather by their sisters and brothers in northern Syria. Despite Prime Minister Davutoglu’s claim that Turkey’s problem is with the “terrorist PYD” in Syria and not Kurds, there are 4 major questions which show that Ankara’s problem is with the Kurds as a whole not only the PKK-affiliated PYD: (1) Why does Erdogan not let pro-Barzani Syrian Kurdish Peshmerga take on ISIS in Jarablus when it would clearly improve their status versus the PYD/YPG? (2) If Ankara rejected PYD’s involvement in the Geneva III Peace Conference due to its affiliation with the PKK, why did Turkey not let Barzani-backed Syrian Kurdish groups attend? (3) Both Erdogan and Davutoglu have clearly said that they will not tolerate the presence of another Kurdish entity on their southern borders; and, (5) Despite its highly controversial silence on the ISIS presence within its borders, Turkey has not hesitated to shell the Kurdish fighters whenever they have crossed the “redline” imposed by Turkey and move closer to Jarablus.
With international recognition of Iraqi Kurdistan on the one hand and the establishment of a de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria existing partially due to a convergence in US-Russian policies in Syria on the other, Erdogan’s Turkey should be terrified. Indeed, Kurdish successes in both Iraq and Syria may result in a nightmare for Erdogan: the emergence of a unified Kurdish entity that may geographically sever Turkey from the entire energy-rich Muslim Arab World forever, just as the emergence of Armenia cut Turkey’s geographic links with natural-resource-rich mainland Azerbaijan and the Turkic states of Central Asia forever. More salt is rubbed on Erdogan’s wound whenever he remembers the emboldened new generation of young Kurds in Turkey who have already established “self-rule” in many Kurdish-inhabited cities inside Turkey.
Yes, Erdogan is badly haunted by a new specter; the specter of Kurdish nationalism. Unlike his misunderstanding, though, the brutal campaign of massacring Kurds in Turkey, the indiscriminate shelling of Kurds in Syria, and the refusal to let Iraqi Kurdish oil through Turkish pipelines in recent days are all symptoms of his “Kurdophobia” and not medicines to cure it.
Unfortunately for Erdogan is there is no exorcist for this new specter. The good news for him is if he wants to get along with this new specter, he can ask for a prescription from someone on Imrali Island.