How Turkey's government abuses - and uses - Kurdish groups

There is a long history of Kurds being respected only when they have something Erdogan's government wants
A woman reacts as Turkish anti-riot police officers arrest her during a demonstration called by Halklarin Demokratik Partisi (Peoples' Democratic Party - HDP) members to protest against Turkey's "Olive Branch" operation in Syria on January 21, 2018 at the Kadikoy district, in Istanbul. - Turkey launched operation "Olive Branch" on January 20, 2018 seeking to oust from the Afrin region of northern Syria the Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) which Ankara considers a terror group. Operation "Olive Branch" is Turkey's second major incursion into Syria during the seven-year civil war. (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP)

Despite near-constant change, the resurrection of Turkey’s primary political battles is never far away.

A dozen years ago this month, long-frosty relations between the Turkish government and the country’s Kurdish nationalist movement enjoyed an early spring thaw. The pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) won the majority of seats in local elections in the country’s southeast, just weeks after Turkish state broadcaster TRT launched its first Kurdish-language channel.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group considered a terrorist organisation in Turkey as well as the US and EU, called a ceasefire that April, its sixth since it launched its insurgency in 1984. Months later, then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his Kurdish initiative, with plans to revert village names to Kurdish, increase free expression and extend a partial amnesty to PKK fighters.

But all that warmth evaporated in December 2009, when Turkey’s top court banned the DTP.

Ankara had long accused the DTP of links to the PKK, even though such ties had never been a secret and the government had little problem benefitting from them. In late 2007, for instance, a DTP delegation visited PKK headquarters in northern Iraq to help secure the release of 8 Turkish soldiers, generating considerable relief in Ankara.

Today that cycle is on repeat, as President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ramp up their crackdown on the DTP’s successor, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), following the deaths last month of 13 Turkish civilians held by the PKK in northern Iraq. For years, Mr Erdogan’s coalition partner, Devlet Bahceli, head of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has called for the HDP to be banned, and many believe he will soon get his wish.

Last Wednesday, Turkey’s Parliament received a proposal calling for the lifting of immunity for 25 MPs, including 20 from the HDP. This came days after a court upheld the prison sentence of HDP MP Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, who has pressed the government on human rights abuses and may now lose his parliamentary post. Many other HDP figures are facing investigations, and hundreds of the party’s members have been detained in recent weeks. Dozens of its leaders remain in jail, including former presidential candidate and HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas.

Supporters of imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas, presidential candidate of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), react during an election campaign rally in Diyarbakir on June 20, 2018. - The Turkish President announced on April 18, 2018 that Turkey will hold snap elections on June 24, 2018. (Photo by - / AFP)

In nearly all cases, the charge is propaganda for a terrorist outfit – namely, the PKK. But as with the DTP, ties between HPD and the PKK are no secret. Throughout the 2013-2015 peace process between the government and Kurdish militants, HDP figures visited PKK leaders in Iraq’s Qandil mountains at the AKP’s urging, even delivering a disarmament letter from jailed PKK founder and leader Abdullah Ocalan in early 2015. Pro-government outlets regularly reported such meetings at the time.

But in the June 2015 elections, the HDP cleared the 10 per cent hurdle required to enter Parliament, helping erase the ruling party’s parliamentary majority for the first and only time since it came to power in 2002. The AKP soon called for a re-vote, which it won, and quickly forgot all about peace talks, as state vs Kurds violence resumed and dozens of HDP mayors were forced out of their posts.

In good times and bad, Ankara has seen fit to leverage pro-Kurdish parties’ links to Kurdish militants. When peace is in the air, such links are diplomatically advantageous, used for peace talks and rescue operations. When violence ticks up, however, such ties are perfect for demonising and destroying a political foe. In either case, the ruling party comes out on top.

What is confounding is how Mr Erdogan and Mr Bahceli fail to appreciate the darkness of the path they walk down today. There’s little question that taking away Kurds’ political voice yet again will drive many into militancy, and some may well end up with the PKK-linked Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-allied, Kurdish-led militants fighting ISIS in northeast Syria. SDF leader Mazlum Abdi, who is reportedly seeking a meeting with US President Joe Biden, previously served with the PKK.

A member of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) (C) stands guard while accompanying US soldiers on a stop in the western countryside of the northeastern Syrian town of al-Malikiyah (Derik), during a patrol in Kurdish towns near the border with Turkey, on June 7, 2020. (Photo by Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP)

Consider how the insurgency began. In the mid-1970s, during the MHP’s first stint as part of a governing coalition, Turkey lurched into one of its most unstable periods. The 1977 election failed to produce a government, leading to a spike in street violence as ultra-nationalist groups battled Marxist-leftist groups, largely made up of Kurds.

Forty people were killed in the 1977 Taksim Square Massacre, when far-right groups attacked leftists honoring May Day. After the militant MHP youth group the Grey Wolves led the massacre of more than 100 Alevis in Maras in late 1978, martial law was declared in more than a dozen provinces.

The Marxist-Leninist PKK was created in 1978, at the peak of the violence. Still the oppression of Kurds increased after Turkey’s 1980 military coup: their language was banned and many who spoke, published or sang in Kurdish were imprisoned. This drove more Kurds into militancy and the PKK launched its insurgency in August 1984. Three years later, Mr Bahceli joined the MHP amid a groundswell of nationalism driven by the conflict.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY  
Demonstrators clash with riot police in the Beikta neighborhood of Istanbul on Thursday May 1.

Demonstrators clashed with Turkish police in several neighborhoods of Istanbul on Thursday as security forces fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and water canons in an effort to fend off the protesters.

The gathering crowds, defying Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's warnings that they would not be allowed to reach Taksim square attempted to push through the security lines. In anticipation to the mass gatherings the government shut large sections of the city's public transportation and erected barricades around Taksim square. Thousands of riot and plain-clothed police were deployed across many parts of the city 

The prime minister warned labor unions last week that they would not be allowed to march on Taksim and offered a space on the city outskirts for the protests to be held. These warnings were largely ignored as demonstrators repeatedly attempted to breach the riot police lines - according to the Progressive Lawyers Association, around 40 people had been hospitalized and around 160 detained.

May Day protests refer to "The Taksim Square massacre"  on 1 May, 1977. The international Labour Day celebrations in Istanbul were first celebrated in 1912. Between 1928 and 1975 these celebrations had been largely banned by the state. On 1 May, 1976 the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey organized a rally on Taksim Square with a massive turnout. The next year around 500,000 citizens participated  - security forces intervened with armoured vehicles and water hoses. Most of the casualties were caused by a stampede which killed between 34 and 42 persons and 126 to 220 protestors were injured.
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In good times and bad, Ankara has seen fit to leverage pro-Kurdish parties' links to Kurdish militants

Now, with Mr Erdogan leaning more heavily on his coalition partner in the face of sagging poll numbers, Mr Bahceli and his ultra-nationalist backers appear to be driving policy decisions. Opposition politicians and lawyers have suffered physical attacks in recent weeks, as the mood in Turkey seems to hint at a return to the chaos of the 70s and 80s.

"It's becoming clear for the AKP that embracing the MHP's hard nationalist stance, at the very least, doesn't harm their political project. It may even help," Ryan Gingeras, author of Heroin, Organised Crime and the Making of Modern Turkey, told The Guardian newspaper last week.

Let us also not forget what happened after Ankara banned the DTP, back in 2009. Thousands of DTP members were detained or arrested, sparking massive riots and street clashes between police and pro-Kurdish demonstrators. Within months, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict had returned with a vengeance, with dozens killed every few weeks.

Such an escalation may be precisely what Mr Erdogan is hoping for today, despite the threat a renewed conflict would pose to some voters. Recent Turkish incursions into Syria, aggression in the eastern Mediterranean and Ankara’s military intervention in Libya have all been seen, at least in part, as attempts to whip up nationalist sentiment as the president’s approval numbers have slipped. And little encourages patriotic support for a sitting government like a war with separatist insurgents.

This, therefore, seems like a good time to wish Turkey’s Kurds some strength, and express sincere hope that current developments do not augur a return to those dark days of years past.

David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National

David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National