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The Kurdish–Turkish conflict

Turkey’s key internal conflict centers on the role of its large Kurdish minority, ethnically and linguistically distinct, in a state that constitutionally consists of Turks. This issue has been with Turkey almost since the foundation of the Turkish State in 1923. The Kurds were promised the creation of an independent state as part of the treaty of Sevres in 1920 but this part of the treaty was never ratified and Turkey has refused to recognize the existence of a separate Kurdish ethnic community within its borders.

Even so, Half of Turkey’s Kurds have moved from the south east to the western cities of Turkey and have increasingly become integrated into the Turkish economy. Fifteen million individuals of Kurdish origin presently live in the republic of Turkey and are striving to achieve legal recognition and to establish legal rights after having been subject to economic disadvantages and human right violations for decades. A large number of Kurds have immigrated to Europe, where they engaged in nationalist activities such as the PKK.

Since 1984, an unofficial war has raged between successive Turkish governments and the Kurdish worker’s party (PKK), An armed group trying to gain autonomy for the country’s 15 million Kurds. This war resulted in something between 20,000 and 30,000 deaths, with innocent villagers, being subject to interrogation, torture, indiscriminate violence and even death. For better understanding the international conflicts and the behavior of states, David Singer introduced the idea of levels of analysis.

He distinguished between two broad levels: the macro level that explains the events from an international and global perspective, and the micro level that explains what happened from an internal point of view. The Turkey-Kurds conflict could be described using various levels of analysis: At the micro-level, influences on decisions is determined by the structure of the Turkish government: Since the foundation of the Turkish state in 1923, the Turkish government has to cope with the policy born with the Turkish republic itself, that the national population has a single identity, that of Turks.

So when Mustafa Kamal (Ataturk) began to form a Turkish nation state, it was not clear what constituted a Turk but soon, Kurds were considered as Turks and a policy aiming at the detribalization and assimilation of the Kurds was adopted The Turkish government’s pursuit of full assimilation has led to the proscription of publications of any book, newspaper, or other material in the Kurdish language. Moreover, there has also been an instance of arrests of entertainers for singing songs or performing in Kurdish.

If we look deeply at the government structure, we can see that historically, Turkey lacks government openness. With the birth of the Turkish republic in 1923, the Turkish government did not satisfy the demands of the Kurds who were seeking independence. And since it is more of an authoritarian and closed system, the public opinion did no have any impact on the government. The non-governmental characteristics of the society as a whole also affect or condition choices. The Turkish society is the most politically advanced Muslim society of the world:

It has deep Muslim roots that affect its perceptions of minority status. Kurds for example, were never considered a minority under the Ottoman Islamic law because they too were Muslims: Islamic law recognizes only non-Muslims as officially constituting “minorities”. Most Turks today do not accept the concept of Kurdish minorities within the country, but Turkey is putting effort to reconcile modern nationalism with traditional Islamic views. As for the Kurds, they are bearers of a long tradition and culture of their own for perhaps two-millenium and have a strong sense of Kurdish identity.

They are strongly attached to their culture and background and refuse to surrender their sense of Kurdish identity. The Ideologies of the Turkish and Kurdish societies contribute towards the better understanding of the origin of the Turkey-Kurds conflict. On the international or macro level, Kurds are distributed between Iraq, Iran, Syria, America and the former U. S. S. R and are minorities in all the countries in which they have been living for years. In Iran, Iraq and Syria Kurds have PKK bases.

A closer analysis of these states indicates, however, that Syria has given the PKK by far the most overt support, while Iraq at least has made the most attempts to cooperate with the Turks, even giving Turkey carte blanche permission to pursue the PKK into northern Iraq on four different occasions since 1983. Iran’s role in this matter has fallen somewhere in between these two extremes. Syria has provided a heaven for Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, since before the Turkish coup of 1980.

After this event the Syrians permitted the remnants of the PKK to reassemble and reconstitute themselves on their territory and in the parts of Lebanon they controlled. The first three PKK “congresses” also took place there. Until his arrest in 1999, Ocalan continued to live in Damascus. This situation of coalition between Syria and the PKK reflects a set of mutual expectations among them. The Kurds are getting security and support from the Syrians while the Syrians are concerned with the waters of the Euphrates River, which first flows through Turkey before reaching Syria.

Finally, acting cooperatively and displaying common behavior and attitudes toward Turkey enabled the PKK, which is relatively less powerful then Turkey, to resist the Turkish government. The three levels of analysis that were presented above are complimentary and all contribute towards simplifying and understanding, from a different perspective, the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds. In my opinion, the most important level of analysis that could be used in understanding the conflict is the one that analyses the origin and first cause of the problem.

As we all know, identifying the roots of any problem solves most of the problem. In the case of Turkey’s Kurdish problem, I think that looking at the origins of the government structure and at the historical ideologies of the societies would be the most efficient way to analyze the conflict. The conflict between Turkey and the Kurds have not been solved. Many solutions have been proposed suggesting that a political solution should replace the military solution.

Major economic improvements and increased democratization in the southwest will help alleviate some symptoms of the crisis but in the end, a solution that addresses the ethnic character of the problem is required. This would imply some degree of regional responsibility that permits Kurds to run many of their own local affairs. The responsibility for a solution lies with the Turkish State rather than with the Kurds as people. The state is fundamentally responsible for the creation of the problem by its fateful decision in the 1920’s, to create a nation state consisting of Turks alone, a decision that could no longer be implemented.

Therefore, the solution lies in the need to reformulate the very concept of the Turkish State as perceived by its citizens. The Kurdish ethnic problem has a spectrum of potential solutions ranging from totally repressing all ethnic expression of Kurds to granting the Kurds total independence. Both of these are undesirable extremes with, with obviously a great range of choice in between. A realistic solution is one that satisfies Kurdish aspiration without truly threatening a modern democratic Turkey. This is a complex but quite achievable goal.

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