Kurdish protest in Brussels
In its attempt to de-legitimise the Kurdish national movement, the Turkish state has always tried to represent the Kurdish question as “something other than what it is”. In the first half of the twentieth century when national Kurdish rebellions challenged the very foundations of the Turkish Republic, it represented them to the outside world as “reactionary” and “religious” measures, intending to unravel Ataturk’s nation building projects. The latter had involved a forceful campaign of assimilation of the Kurdish population into mainstream Turkish society and culture. Illuminating in this respect is the then Turkish premier’s speech, which speaks volumes of the very character of this enterprise:
We are frankly Nationalist... and Nationalism is our only factor of cohesion. Before the Turkish majority other elements have no kind of influence. At any price, we must turkify the inhabitants of our land, and we will annihilate those who oppose Turks or “le turquisme”. (my italic)
Not only did the Turkish government wipe out all references to the Kurds and Kurdistan from official materials, but they also shut down all Kurdish schools and associations, while prohibiting the very use of the Kurdish language, at a time when only 3 to 4 per cent of the Kurds spoke Turkish. Those who dared not to adhere to the rule were either put to prison or subject to overt terrorisation.
Concomitant with these measures, and with a view to representing the Kurdish people as something other than what they are, the Turkish government foisted a new appellation on them: “mountain Turks”. Sensing the rising tide of Kurdish nationalism in the early 1960s, the then Turkish President, Gursel, threatened:
If the mountain Turks do not keep quiet, the army will not hesitate to bombard their towns and villages into the ground. There will be such a bloodbath that they and their country will be washed away.
The threat, however, had gone largely unheeded by Kurdish activists in Turkey who persisted on their political activism right to the foundation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in November 1978. When the PKK launched its preliminary armed attack in 1984, in a striking parallel to the previous rebellions, the Turkish state’s initial reaction was the depiction of the organisation as a clique of “unscrupulous bandits”. In the following years, when the PKK proved to be a manifestation of national aspirations hitherto boiling underneath the surface, the state came to reframe the movement as “The 29th Revolt”, to be smashed in a similar way to its preceding 28 Kurdish insurgences.
In parallel with the steady development of the PKK from a political organisation into a mass movement by the early 1990s, during which time the term “terrorism” had gained pejorative international currency, the Turkish government, once again, altered its discourse vis-à-vis the Kurdish movement. From then onwards, it has fervently been portraying the PKK as a cohort of “mindless terrorists” with no ties of conscience or of thought to the Kurdish people whom it claims to represent.
I argue that such a pattern of representation of the Kurdish national movements— “reactionary, banditry, and terrorism”— to the outside world has helped Turkey to delegitimise Kurdish demand for national self-determination, depriving the Kurdish liberationist movements of one of the major political opportunity structures: external aid.
By dint of exploiting diplomatic channels, the Turkish state had finally succeeded in internationalising such depiction when the United States in 2001 put the PKK on the list of foreign terrorist organisations. Taking advantage of post-September 2001 climate of renewed international focus on terrorism, the Turkish government intensified pressure on the European states to follow suit. Consequently, it was in May 2002 that the European Union had finally bowed down to increasing Turkish pressure and designated the PKK as a terrorist organisation.
This classification, however, occurred at a point a couple of years before which, in 1999, the PKK ended its armed struggle and withdrew its guerrilla forces out of Turkey to northern Iraq. What is of particular notice, moreover, are the attitudes of the Western states towards the Kurdish national movements in Turkey and Iraq. While the West had officially recognised the right of the Kurds in Iraq to mount a war of national liberation against a Western foe—Saddam Hussein—and regarded Kurdish guerrillas as freedom fighters, they came to depict the same Kurds in Turkey who demand the same right to national recognition and employ the same guerrilla tactic against a Western friend—the Turkish state—as terrorists. The other part of this ideological and diplomatic commitment to Turkey is the West’s persistent refusal to acknowledge as state terrorism the Turkish state’s use of extreme forms of violence against the Kurdish population and environment which unequivocally falls into this category.
It was not until April 2008 that the European Court of Justice annulled the EU decision on procedural grounds to the effect that the PKK was not given “adequate statement of reason as to why they are on the list”. Eight years later, furthermore, came another knockback to the designation when on 3 November 2016, the Belgian Court ruled that an armed conflict was going in Turkey, not ethnic terrorism. What is more, the court verdict pointed to the PKK’s ceasefire and withdrawal of its guerrilla forces to northern Iraq in 2013, a process that was accompanied by a peace negotiation the Turkish state conducted with the Kurdish movement. “It is unimaginable”, the court judgement reads, “that the Turkish state would have peace negotiations with a pure …. terrorist organization”.
Obviously, the Belgium court’s conclusion is of paramount importance, because this is the first time which a neutral and prestigious European institution is belatedly revealing a fact about the Kurdish conflict, the European states have tenaciously been unwilling to acknowledge. Even though the EU has so far unheeded the European Court of Justice’s verdict of 2008, this is time to reconsider its biased and destructive policy vis-à-vis the Kurdish question. The EU played a very constructive role in the success of “peace process” in Northern Ireland. In the absence of EU pressure, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 would probably not have been accepted, particularly by the pro-British Unionists.
Notwithstanding, the EU has chiefly remained reluctant either to identify the Kurdish conflict or get involved in the process of its resolution. For instance, the Council of Europe has only been ready to remind Turkey that it is time to “think about reconciliation”. The OSCE, moreover, which played a very constructive role in both Nagorno-Karabakh and the Balkans, has curiously remained insouciant to the Kurdish conflict. As a matter of fact, by the designation of the PKK as a terrorist organisation, the EU has emboldened the Turkish state to press on its militaristic approach, whose consequences have been quite obvious in recent years, and its brief sketch even would go far beyond the scope of this article.
Besides, the Kurdish population in Turkey proper has not been the sole target of the Turkish state. For instance, the Turkish army had launched attacks deep inside Iraq’s territories in 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1995, 1997, 2007, and 2008. Even though in each cross-border incursion, which had been in direct violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, its declared objective was “the eradication of the PKK”, part of its aim since 1992 has been to prevent the formation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq—South Kurdistan.
Above and beyond, in the hope of eliminating Kurdish achievements in Rojava—West Kurdistan—the Turkish state has since 2014 overtly supported the jihadist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Confirming this, a former ISIS communication technician who escaped the group, asserted in an interview with Newsweek, the following:
ISIS saw the Turkish army as its ally especially when it came to attacking the Kurds in Syria. The Kurds were the common enemy for both ISIS and Turkey. Also, ISIS had to be a Turkish ally because only through Turkey they were able to deploy ISIS fighters to northern parts of the Kurdish cities and towns in Syria... ISIS and Turkey cooperate together on the ground... that they have a common enemy to destroy, the Kurds.
The Turkish state’s continuous support for the ISIS sparked protest not only from pro-Kurdish and democratic establishments, but also from its patron, the United States, when the American Vice-President Joe Biden delivered a speech in Harvard University.
To conclude, the following proposals can be put forward to European institutions and policy makers: Firstly, they should stop bowing down to a despotic state which has explicitly been sponsoring and arming terrorist groups such as ISIS, proving much detrimental not only to the Kurdish case but to regional democracy, rule of law, and in fact Western interests. Secondly, they should reconsider EU’s destructive approach towards the Kurdish issue and recognise, as did the Belgian court, that an armed conflict of national ethos has been going on in Turkey for the past few decades. Thirdly, if they seek a peaceful solution to the Kurdish case, or repeat what the EU did in the Northern Irish case, they should facilitate a negotiation process between the Kurdish movement and the Turkish state, which has always been requested by the former.
Fourthly, as the Turkish state has capitalised on the terrorist designation to press on its warmongering approach, which has served as an insurmountable obstacle to peace and democracy, the EU should deprive Turkey of this fallacious argument and remove the PKK from the list. Fifthly, the EU should facilitate the exhumation of the truth via the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as implemented in South Africa, among other countries. And finally, the EU can arrange for a hearing in the International Court of Justice where all of what had happened during the conflict can be investigated with a view to examining the verdict of the Belgian court. The Kurdish side has always requested for such an occasion. As a matter of fact, by flying to the Netherlands in 1999, the Kurdish national leader—Abdullah Ocalan—wanted to be tried by the International Court of Justice, hoping this would disclose all the facts about the PKK and the Turkish state’s conducts in Kurdistan. Unfortunately, and inquisitively, the Dutch authorities did not even grant Ocalan’s aeroplane permission to land.
On the other hand, if the EU keeps failing to play its role in the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, it should not either embolden the violent Turkish state in its militaristic approach via its spurious blacklisting of the PKK.
- Kardo Bokani
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