President Trump is wrong. Kurds have not been natural enemies of Turks, fighting for hundreds of years. In fact, Kurdish lords were allied with the Ottoman rulers against Iran in the early 16th century, and that military and cultural connection stayed strong for centuries. Said Nursi, the most influential Muslim modernist thinker of Turkey, for example, was Kurdish.
Yet it’s no secret that the history of Turkey in the 20th century is also a history of oppression of the Kurds. The creation of modern Turkey after World War I foreclosed a potential Kurdistan. Crucially, Turkish citizenship in the new republic, while not legally based on ethnicity, in political practice became grounded on a religiously Sunni Muslim and ethnically Turkish identity. Kurds, Turkey’s largest ethnic minority, were then marginalized and rendered politically powerless.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Kurdish citizens of Turkey were brutally massacred in military responses to rebellions. Those uprisings were also conveniently used by the ruling regime to suppress political opposition and further consolidate the single-party system. In the most savage case, Turkish security forces used aerial bombings and mass executions, and in some instances poisonous gas, against Kurdish civilians in the 1937-38 rebellion in the Dersim region. Many of the survivors were moved to other parts of Turkey and Kurdish girls were given to urban Turkish families for adoption.
Repressive measures against Kurds intensified after the 1980 military coup in Turkey, with the government actively denying Kurdish identity and calling Kurds “mountain Turks.”
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, an underground organization that was founded in the late 1970s by Kurdish college students and representing a mixture of socialist ideas and Kurdish nationalism, started an armed conflict with the Turkish state in 1984 that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Turkish citizens over the years, the majority of whom were Kurdish. The PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey as well as the U.S. and the European Union.
Although there were some attempts by the government to negotiate with the PKK in the early 1990s, it was not until the 2000s that Kurdish culture and language were allowed in Turkey’s public space under reforms by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time. In 2011, Erdogan even publicly apologized for the Dersim massacres.
Turkey justifies its recent invasion of northern Syria by claiming that the Kurdish party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is a threat. There are close ties between the PKK and the PYD, but it is important to remember that as late as the summer of 2015, Salih Muslim, the co-chair of the PYD at the time, was allowed to enter Turkey freely for diplomatic relations that could well have resulted in the opening of an office of representation for the PYD in Ankara. The end of the peace process between Turkey and the PKK that summer led to a dramatic turn in the course of relations between Turkey and the PYD as well.
President Erdogan’s change of course in the peace process came after the June 2015 elections in which his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, suffered a loss for the first time since it came to power in 2002. The peace process had benefited the opposite ends of the political spectrum: the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, which is a pluralist leftist movement, and the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, a Turkish nationalist party with fascist roots.
The AKP had to find a coalition partner to remain in power. The still-unsolved murder of two police officers in July 2015 under suspicious circumstances led to a military crackdown against the PKK that summer, raising nationalist fervor. Erdogan stalled coalition negotiations and called for new elections. The AKP then rode the nationalist tide and emerged victorious in November 2015, forming a single-party government once again.
The last four years have seen an increasing authoritarianism in all spheres of life in Turkey. But it is most severe in the repression of politicians, activists, journalists and academics who support Kurdish civil rights and a peaceful solution to Turkey’s military conflict with the PKK. Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-leader of the HDP and a presidential contender in two elections who claimed almost 10% of the national vote, has been in jail since 2016.
Hundreds of my colleagues have lost their jobs and were charged with engaging in terrorism propaganda for signing the online petition of the Academics for Peace in 2016 that criticized the government’s actions against the Kurds and demanded peace. As a signatory of this petition, I consider myself lucky to have only experienced a brief detention in Turkey this summer when I traveled there for research and to visit family members. I had to make two appearances in a high criminal court and my trial will continue in absentia. My colleague Fusun Ustel spent 2½ months in prison for her signature.
Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria this month follows electoral defeats for the AKP in local elections earlier this year, losing even Istanbul, where Erdogan was once mayor. The AKP’s economic success, which was a major factor in its past victories, has vanished with the recent downturn in the economy. The Syrian invasion provides Erdogan with an opportunity to galvanize political support. And indeed, all political parties except the HDP voted to extend his authority to engage in military operations in Iraq and Syria earlier this month.
Through the last century, the so-called Kurdish question is really a question of Turkish democracy, and it won’t be solved with military action. Blaming foreign powers like Syria or the U.S. for supporting the PKK won’t bring a lasting peace but will strengthen Erdogan’s rule. Forcing Syria to oust Abdullah Ocalan, the founding leader of the PKK, in 1998 did not bring an end to the PKK, though Ocalan has been in a Turkish jail for the last 20 years.
The real question is how to create a democratic Turkey in which Kurds would see their legitimate representatives in the parliament, not in prison, so that the expression of their political will need not come through an organization like the PKK. Turkey’s announcement on Thursday of a five-day cease-fire in Syria will definitely not be enough for that.
Baki Tezcan is an associate professor of history at UC Davis. He expects to be acquitted in a trial in Istanbul later this month.