Historically, the Kurds have suffered greatly at the hands of the Turkish government as Ataturk and his successors suppressed Kurdish identity and language in their pursuit to create a ‘Turk’ identity, encompassing all ethnicities. This led to resistance and the emergence of groups such as the PKK which fought for the survival of their culture and identity. Successive Turkish governments waged war against the group on the basis of protecting the Turkish state, driving the Kurdish community towards a desire for independence.
However the AK Party under Erdogan brought about much hope concerning the status of Kurds in Turkey. As Erdogan propagated an Islamist ideology, referencing Islamic history in which Kurds played a major role (Saladdin who led the Muslim army that restored Jerusalem was Kurdish, and reportedly of the Zazai’ branch), many Kurds found resonance in the AK Party message, severely weakening independence groups including the PKK as well as the mainstream Kurdish parties. There is no greater evidence of this than in the fact that the AKP majority was sustained by the Kurdish vote, and destroyed after the Kurds deserted him at the last election. Erdogan restored the Kurdish language in schools, television stations, media outlets, and instigated a peace process with the PKK, seeking to establish a lasting legacy as the man who reconciled the Kurds and the Turkish state.
The peace process began and proceeded faster than expected. However optimism began to falter on the issue of disarmament of the PKK. At the time of discussion of this particular issue, ISIS had attacked Kobane, a predominantly Kurdish town, and the YPG were engaged in battle. Kobane has little military value and is a difficult place to defend. Nevertheless, the town held greater importance in the wider context of the region. With Syria in the midst of a civil war and large swathes of Northern Iraq under ISIS control, the borders were in disarray. The lack of order in these areas provided a perfect opportunity to lay the foundations for a Kurdish state.
The PKK began to stall on the peace process, drawing out the discussions as they awaited the outcome of Kobane. More so, they sought not to be outdone by the YPG in the battle for the leadership of the Kurds and sent their own fighters across to assist in the defence of Kobane. An outright victory in Kobane would provide momentum for the Kurds to cement their control on northern Syria, laying the framework for a subsequent Kurdish state.
The sudden stalling of negotiations irked the Turkish government and Erdogan, realising what the PKK intended, resisted calls to intervene in Kobane. The Turkish government concluded that the longer the fight in Kobane continued, the weaker the Kurds would become. This would then render independence unattainable in the near future and force them back to the negotiating table. Moreover, Erdogan began to lobby the US to permit the Kurdish Peshmerga to cross over from Iraq and assist Kobane. The aim behind this was to split the Kurdish group. The PKK argued against the intervention of the Peshmerga, believing their participation would undermine their influence over the Kurdish community, and also because of the Turkish government’s warm relations with them. The US resisted Erdogan’s call for the Peshmerga to intervene, insisting that Turkey allow the US to use the Incirlik air base and commit more resources in the fight against ISIS.
However as the media began to turn on the US, the position became untenable and the US permitted the Peshmerga to cross over and relieve Kobane. By the end of the battle, the YPG and PKK had been severely weakened.
The Turkish government, believing it had achieved its intentions, sought to restore the peace process. However it failed to realise that the Kurds had become disillusioned with Erdogan’s politics following his antics over Kobane. They refused to forgive him and deserted him in the elections in favour of the HDP, destroying the AKP majority.
For Erdogan, this was, and remains, a betrayal. After seeking to heal the relationship between the government and the Kurds, granting rights to promote language, culture and heritage, the Kurds abandoned the peace process to pursue once more the dream of independence. As a result, the Turkish government has now taken steps to further destroy Kurdish aspirations for independence by agreeing with the US to establish a 67-mile long buffer zone, ostensibly to protect Syrian refugees, but mainly to restrict the YPG and PKK in Northern Syria to prevent them laying the groundwork for a Kurdish state.
Also, the mood within the Kurdish community appears to be split, with sources stating to the International Interest that three camps have emerged; those who feel that alienating the most pro-Kurdish President in modern Turkey’s history was a mistake; those who feel that the intense campaign by the Turkish government is not worth abandoning the peace process; and those intent on increasing efforts in Syria to form a Kurdish state. The ferocity with which the Turkish government has attacked the HDP and the PKK is indicative of how imminent the threat is perceived to be. The mainstream Kurdish groups are also split, with the Peshmerga requesting the PKK to leave its territory to avoid irking Turkey, and Ocalan yet to congratulate the HDP on their election success.
Erdogan has also called for those perceived to have links with ‘terrorist’ groups in Parliament to have their immunity lifted, a clear and direct threat to the HDP. The gamble here is to drive the Kurds into regretting their decision to vote for the HDP and return to the peace process, and this potentially means an early snap election. Whether this leads to a renewal of the peace process is unclear, particularly following Erdogan’s statement that peace is ‘impossible’ with the PKK. Nevertheless, the opportunity for a genuine step towards independence that Kobane opened lured the Kurds away from the peace process, and therefore the blame for the failure of this particular round of peace talks regrettably lies with them.