Turkey and the Kurds: A Chance for Peace?

Jonathan Steele

A Kurdish militant aligned with the PKK under a banner honoring a fallen comrade in the Sur district of Diyarbakır, Turkey, November 2015

In the months following last July’s failed coup against him, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has mounted the biggest purge of public officials in a century. As has been widely reported, over 100,000 civil servants, teachers, prosecutors, judges, journalists, army officers, and police have been suspended or dismissed. Some four thousand are now in prison. Most of these are accused of links with the movement of Fethullah Gülen, the self-exiled Islamist who used to be Erdoğan’s ally in curbing the political power of the military in Turkey’s secular “deep state” but broke with him in 2013 and is accused of masterminding the coup.

 

Yet amid the crackdown, the plight of one major group has been far less in view: the country’s 14 million Kurds. In Turkey’s southeast, a half-million Kurds have been uprooted from their homes since July 2015 in Turkish military operations. According to a report issued on March 10 by the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, these actions have been brutal, leading to widespread human rights violations, destruction of property, and the killing of hundreds of Kurds.

Recent actions by the government have also clamped down on every sector of the Kurdish movement, including journalists, aid groups, and politicians. A particular target has been the main Kurdish political party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which has held fifty-nine seats in Parliament since elections in November 2015 and whose support comes from other minorities and left-wing Turks as well as Kurds.

There is no basis for suspecting collaboration between Gülen and the Kurds, particularly on as sensitive an issue as planning the overthrow of the leader of Turkey. In fact, the Gülen movement has long been more in favor of using military force against the Kurds than has Erdoğan. But Erdoğan is using the post-coup clampdown as a cover for undermining the HDP, claiming the party is a security threat. Twenty-nine HDP MPs have been arrested and fourteen are still in jail, along with dozens of elected local officials accused of links with the PKK, the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party that has been in conflict with the government for almost forty years.

The HDP and PKK are certainly both part of a broad-based Kurdish freedom movement, but the HDP cochair, Selahattin Demirtaş (now also in jail awaiting trial), has denied that his party has structural connections with the PKK or is its political arm. Nor has there been any evidence that the HDP has supported violence against the government.

In Diyarbakır, the unofficial capital of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, I recently witnessed a court appearance by Çağlar Demirel, one of the town’s HDP MPs. Accused of insulting the president and taking actions that amount to being a member…

 

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