Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Turkey's Kurdish Conflict: Changing Context, and Domestic and Regional Implications

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Turkey's Kurdish Conflict: Changing Context, and Domestic and Regional Implications

Article excerpt

This article develops new analytical categories that are necessary to analyze Turkey's Kurdish conflict in its changed domestic and international environments and to evaluate the policy options. If Turkish state policies and discourse, and that of the other regional and international actors, signal to Kurds that the Turkish and Kurdish identities are mutually exclusive categories with rival interests, radical shifts may occur in Turkish Kurds' social and political identities and preferences. If state policies promote these identities as complements with compatible interests, radical shifts are unlikely and Turkey can play a more constructive regional role.

During the 1990s, Turkey witnessed the rising consciousness and politicization of the Kurdish identity, the surging visibility of the Kurdish category within the mainstream public-political discourse, and the ascent of Turkish nationalism that viewed the Kurdish rebel movement, the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), and Kurdish nationalism in general, as the major antagonists.1 After Ocalan, the PKK's leader, was captured in 1999, the diminishing threat to state security by Kurdish separatism and the pull of the EU in a context of democratization further changed the domestic environment of Turkey's Kurdish conflict.2 The PKK renamed itself the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK), and armed clashes between the state forces and Kurdish rebels, which had continued since 1984 except for brief intervals, practically ceased.3

From 1998 to 2002, the percentage of Turkish citizens who viewed "terror and security" as the greatest threats to the country dropped from 39.3 to 5.5%.4 For the first time since the PKK revolt began in 1984, dynamics other than violence and considerations other than state security got a chance to play a significant role in determining the parameters of the conflict. The Parliament passed a series of laws granting significant cultural-linguistic rights to ethnic Kurds, such as broadcasting in and teaching Kurdish. These rights, whose implementation has so far been slow, were modest by world standards and fell short of politically conscious ethnic Kurds' expectations for change. Nevertheless, they were unprecedented steps forward for Turkey in the direction of the normalization of the Kurdish conflict via demilitarization and liberal democracy.

In 2003, the US-led war in Iraq and the ensuing uncertainties in that country drastically altered the external environment of the conflict. Iraqi Kurds represented by the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) emerged as major US-allies and actors, while groups such as the PKK and Ansar alIslam, which the US government viewed as terrorists, remained active in the region. Northern Iraq borders Turkey's predominantly ethnic Kurdish Southeast. The possibilities of anti-Turkish or irredentist statehood for Kurds and of rising PKK activity in Northern Iraq refueled Turkish policy-makers' security concerns. New clashes occurred between the PKK fighters and the Turkish security forces inside Turkey; DEHAP, the Turkish-Kurdish party widely seen to be the PKK's political arm, organized mass protests that demanded, among other things, Ocalan's release.5 These circumstances increase the risk of renewed armed conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish nationalists. Such a conflict would strain Turkey's efforts to resolve its domestic Kurdish conflict through democratization and to build cooperative relations with Iraqi Kurds. These political and security risks have long been understood and expressed.6

Less understood are the ramifications for, first, the self-conceptions and political beliefs of large portions of Turkish Kurds, and, second, the mainstream Turkish society's perception of Kurds. These are certainly being affected, and will continue to be reshaped, by the developments in this new era, and will bear important implications for Turkey's domestic and external politics. …

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