Turkish Government’s Approach to Kurds following July 15 Coup Attempt

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Mohammad Ali Dastmali
Expert on Turkey Affairs

The recent coup attempt against the Turkish government failed due to a host of factors and reasons, including theoretical and practical weakness of coup plotters, wide support for the ruling Justice and Development Party’s government from people, valiant encounter between people and putschists’ tanks, charismatic figure of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and of course, very serious and important impact of private news channels and social networks. As was predicted, following the failed coup attempt, the Turkish government embarked on sweeping score settlement and purges across the country and during the days that followed the coup attempt, more than 60,000 civil servants of various Turkish ministries were laid off and many others were arrested on charges of following the US-based opposition cleric, Fethullah Gulen. In other words, now everybody’s fate is clear and we all know what measures are going to be taken and how various opposition groups and suspects are going to be treated by the ruling Justice and Development Party – which is known as the AK Party by its Turkish name – in this period of time, especially during three months of the state of emergency. However, one of the points about which ambiguity exists and whose news has been mostly overshadowed by coverage of the coup itself is the issue of the Turkish Kurds, especially the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its most important satellite party, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). Will the war between the Kurds and the government continue and will Erdogan continue to insist on putting the HDP’s leader, Selahattin Demirtas, and his aides behind the bars for supporting terrorism?

The answer is that, basically speaking, nothing has changed in the case of the Turkish Kurds in order to cause a parallel change in the government’s approach to this case. It is true that like two other opposition parties, that is, the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the HDP also supported the government and condemned the coup attempt. In reality, however, even under very critical conditions, those Kurds who are close to the PKK do not consider themselves as part of the Turkish nation in order to want to take sides with the Turkish government and nation. On the other hand, the government of Turkey also considers them as the “other.”

Although some analysts maintain that Turkey’s army and the armed forces, in general, were humiliated during recent developments and would not be able to fight against the PKK as good as before, let’s not forget that only a small section of the armed forces of Turkey, that is, about 1.5 percent, took part in the coup and if there is humiliation, it mostly includes the same 8,700 people. Also, in terms of military and defense psychology, the country’s armed forces are now in a position in which they would probably fight better than before in order to regain the trust of the government and the nation. It must be also noted that the main war that is raging between Turkey and the PKK is in the fields of intelligence and reconnaissance as well as aerial and security protection of borders and rural regions where Kurds live. Basically speaking, the PKK is currently much weaker than to want to stand up to the army and gendarmerie, and all the PKK forces can do under their current conditions is to carry out insignificant attacks on the police force; mostly blind, semi-successful, and awkward bomb attacks; and some terrorist measures, which would not be very serious.

During this period, the Peoples' Democratic Party has become so weak and lost so much credit that it cannot even organize a few thousand people for demonstrations and protest rallies. As a result, the PKK has no special trump card to play and has no other weapon to use against the government apart from possibly ordering 15,000 PKK prisoners to go on hunger strike and highlighting the health condition of its jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan in European media and courts. But what about the PKK’s situation abroad? Outside Turkey, the PKK has three major means of influence to use and mount pressure on the government in Turkey:

1. European countries, especially Germany, France and Sweden: In view of the fact that during the past year, the PKK’s warmongering policies have caused profound discontent among Turkish Kurds and the PKK’s organizational influence among Kurds living in Europe has been greatly reduced, the group cannot accomplish much through this means.

2. In the Iraqi Kurdistan Region there are more than 7,000 military and nonmilitary members of the PKK, who reside urban, rural and mountainous areas and they can pose a serious threat to the interests of Turkey. For example, they can explode pipelines, which transfer oil from the Iraqi Kurdistan Region to Turkey and also block transfer of gas from the Kurdish region to Turkey, thus, causing trouble for Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the main Kurdish ally of Erdogan.

3. Another satellite group of the PKK, namely the Democratic Union Party (PYD), sways full power in three Kurdish regions of Jazira, Kobani, and Afrin in northern Syria. At present, this group is totally coordinated and cooperating with the United States. Of course, Turkey, as the most important US ally in the Middle East, has urged Washington to prevent Syrian Kurds from taking positions on the west of the Euphrates, but the United States currently needs Kurds in order to fight the Daesh terrorist group and unlike Turkey, the United States does not consider PYD forces as terrorists. Perhaps, this card can be considered as the PKK’s most important card against Turkey, though it cannot necessarily save the PKK and guarantee achievement of a final agreement between Erdogan and Ocalan’s followers.

Kurds and Gulen

Before being a Kurdish group, the PKK is a leftist ideological institution of the Stalinist type and, naturally, such a group cannot reconcile with Islam and religious beliefs. During the last decade of the 20th century, bloody conflicts took place between the supporters of the PKK and Turkey’s Hezbollah forces as a result of which thousands of people lost their lives and the possibility of repetition of those conflicts is still in place in such cities as Diyarbakir, Batman and Istanbul. However, there is evidence to show that the Gulen current has established relations with the satellite groups of the PKK in order to pave the way for toppling the AK Party’s government and this issue has been a factor behind conflicts between the two sides in the past months. This issue, along with some cases of open support from Demirtas and his aides for the PKK and the fact that they take orders from the group, has made Erdogan and other leaders of the AK Party distrustful of the Kurdish current, which is affiliated with the PKK. There is no doubt that the Peoples' Democratic Party has made great mistakes in past months one of the smallest of which, perhaps, was participation of the party’s representatives in the funeral of a PKK member, who had been introduced as the perpetrator of a terrorist attack in Istanbul.

Apart from this, moderate and pacifist members of this party like Ahmet Turk, Leyla Zana, Altan Tan, Osman Baydemir, Seri Sakik, Khatib Dijla, Hasip Kaplan and many others have largely remained silent. On the other hand, the government has also made mistakes and by killing time, it has practically paved the way for the warmongering faction of the PKK to marginalize the other faction, which supports negotiation. Despite all these conditions, Turkey cannot find any way, option and intermediary better than the HDP and the most logical measure for the Turkish government is to restart negotiations with the party, while criticizing its mistakes, and provide ground for a final reconciliation and putting an end to the current conflicts. This is the best course of action, because at any rate and at any juncture, the issue of Kurds and threats posed by the PKK are still among the most important social and legal problems in Turkey. At the same time, they pose the greatest threat against the country’s security and development and this is why the current situation of discord between the government and Kurds must come to an end.

Key WordsTurkey, Government, Kurds, Coup Attempt, Justice and Development Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Fethullah Gulen, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, Republican People's Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Army, Gendarmerie, Abdullah Ocalan, Europe, Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, Democratic Union Party (PYD), Terrorists, Dastmali

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*Photo Credit: Kurd