Turkey's Kurdish Conflict: Pathways to Progress

By Yildiz, Kerim | Insight Turkey, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Turkey's Kurdish Conflict: Pathways to Progress


Yildiz, Kerim, Insight Turkey


The Kurdish conflict in Turkey, what has become known as the "Kurdish Question", has deep historical and cultural roots which can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire and its demise. Efforts by the Kurds in the broader region, which encompasses the Kurdish populations in Syria, Iran and Iraq, to move towards self-determination, political representation, freedom from discrimination, and recognition of their identity as an ethnic group, have continuously been marred by oppression and violence. (1) Undoubtedly, the complex and divergent attitudes towards the Kurds, their demands and their situation have all delayed progress and impeded the achievement of a satisfactory solution. Attempts to meet calls for Kurdish autonomy and self-determination within existing states and political structures have differed and changed over time, further hindering the possibility for any real and sustained positive outcomes. (2)

This paper will examine the various factors at play in the Kurdish conflict in Turkey, and will consider the reasons for the failure to achieve a long-term solution, despite major opportunities presenting themselves in recent years in the form of elections, leaked records of secret talks between the state and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and the beginnings of a new, widely supported, initiative for change. Part one provides an overview of what can be termed the "classic approach" to the conflict by successive Turkish administrations, part two considers the initiative currently underway as well as the remaining obstacles, and part three presents some options that should be explored if the resolution of the increasingly violent Kurdish conflict in Turkey is to be a real and feasible possibility. The paper proposes that addressing the conflict by military means will not lead to a sustainable resolution and advocates that a political solution to this complex and political problem must therefore be found in order to lay the foundation for long-lasting peace and democracy in Turkey.

The "Classic Approach" to the Kurdish Question: Old Limitations and New Signs of Change

The Turkish state's "classic approach" to the Kurdish Question has historically been one of military intervention, resulting in serious human rights abuses, violent conduct and killings, and leading to an ongoing conflict between the state and the PKK. (3) Since the 1920s, the political and social attitudes of Turkey's successive governments towards Kurdish demands and interests have been marked by denial, intolerance and marginalization. The Kurds, as Turkey's largest minority group, (4) have presented what is perceived as the greatest threat to the creation of a homogenous Turkish nation-state. The successive strategies and approaches of the state, although in variance with international law on the issue, (5) have thus denied the existence of the Kurds as a distinct ethnic group within the country's diverse population, and the pursuit of an official policy of "Turkification" and assimilation (6) has resulted in a protracted armed conflict.

Policies pursued since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, which draw on the Kemalist ideology in their attempts to build a national Turkish identity and society, have clearly failed in resolving the Kurdish Question. Calls for an acknowledgement of Kurdish human rights, and in particular civil and political interests, have been dismissed and attempts to ethnically, culturally and linguistically unify all groups within Turkey have continued while the denial of basic human rights to the Kurds has exacerbated the conflict. Over recent decades Turkey's approach, in the repression, violence and human rights violations experienced, has been mirrored in other Kurdish-inhabited regions, including Syria, Iran and Iraq (under Saddam Hussein). (7) In Turkey, the suppression of revolts, forcible displacement, the criminalization of language and culture, and the arbitrary imprisonment of Kurds have amounted to a blanket denial of the Kurdish Question, and have furthermore established a distinct taboo around the Kurdish minority in both Turkish politics and within society as a whole. …

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