Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Turkey's Kurdish Question: Critical Turning Points and Missed Opportunities

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Turkey's Kurdish Question: Critical Turning Points and Missed Opportunities

Article excerpt

The deteriorating Kurdish problem in Turkey is neither new nor is it beyond resolution. This article focuses on two sets of occasions that help us understand the dynamics and chances for the resolution of the conflict.' The first set includes critical turning points which refer to periods of broad societal change often involving the institutionalization of new political arrangements that have had a direct or indirect impact on the evolution of the conflict itself. The second set is composed of opportunities that were missed to resolve the conflict.

The violent struggle that pits the Turkish state against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the southeast, east and other parts of the country since 1984 has caused more than 20,000 dead. The insurrection continues to develop as more and more Kurds, in and outside Turkey, are politicized and mobilized by the spiralling violence. The Turkish military has devoted a third of its not so insignificant capabilities to the defeat of the PKK2 and, increasingly, the ramifications of this Kurdish revolt are being felt in Turkey's foreign relations, economic well-being, and domestic political stability. The Turkish military has conducted two large-scale military operations and numerous raids in northern Iraq since 1992, and the yearly direct cost of the insurrection can be estimated at anywhere between two and three percent of GDP.3 The PKK, at one point, was estimated to have some 10,000 well-armed insurgents and could command the loyalty of 50,000 militia and, according to government estimates, 375,000 sympathizers.4

The impact of the PKK-led insurgency has been devastating for the Kurdish populations of Turkey. Over 2,000 villages and hamlets have been destroyed by the security forces (and some by the PKK) causing some two million Kurdish refugees to be displaced in the last seven years.5 The resulting refugee flow has found its way to some of the main cities of the region, such as Diyarbakir, or to Mediterranean cities, such as Mersin and Adana, or to the main western cities of Istanbul and Izmir where large Kurdish populations already existed. None of these cities is equipped to absorb the flow of refugees whose skills are not adaptable to city life. In Adana, for instance, 80 percent of the youth among the migrants are unemployed.6 Militaristic policies, designed to reduce the insurgents' ability to resupply themselves with the help of the local population, have had some impact but may also have contributed to the PKK's recruitment among the displaced youth.


How then is the "Kurdish problem" defined and addressed by the Turkish state? The answer to this question has varied over time according to circumstances. When the problem is seen as one of external terrorism, then the state increases vigilance at its borders with military and security forces; when the problem is defined as one of internal terrorism, it becomes a question of security and police work to identify the sources of criminal activity; when the problem appears to be primarily economic in nature, then the response is increased state attention to economic development in that region. It is only when the problem is perceived as specifically Kurdish in character, based on Kurdish aspirations for an independent state, that no response can meet what the state considers to be an unacceptable demand. At that point the problem assumes the character of a zero-sum game between Kurds and Turks.

Turkish policy is driven by the fear that any major concession to Kurdish demands, whether political, economic, or cultural will ultimately lead to greater demands at a future date that could culminate in the break-up of Turkey. The often invoked precedent for such an eventuality is the 1920 Sevres Treaty signed between the victorious allied powers and the Ottoman government that called, among other things, for interim autonomy for Kurdish areas of eastern and southeastern Anatolia with a view to independence. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.