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Turkey’s Kurdish Impasse: The View from Diyarbakır
Turkey’s Kurdish Impasse: The View from Diyarbakır
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
Report 222 / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey’s Kurdish Impasse: The View from Diyarbakır

Though battered economically, socially and politically for decades, the city and province of Diyarbakır could offer hope for Turks and Kurds who want to live together, if Ankara can refocus its policies on creating a more equal, democratic Turkey.

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Executive Summary

As Turkey’s biggest Kurdish-majority city and province, Diyarbakır is critical to any examination of the country’s Kurdish problem and of the insurgent PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The armed conflict has deteriorated in the past year and a half to its worst level in over a decade, with increased political friction and violence leading to the deaths of at least 870 people since June 2011. While as many Kurds live in western Turkey, particularly in Istanbul, as in the south east, grievances that underlie support within Kurdish communities for the PKK’s armed struggle are more clearly on display in predominantly Kurdish areas like Diyarbakır: perceived and real discrimination in the local government and economy, alienation from central authorities, anger at mass arrests of political representatives and frustration at the bans on the use of Kur­dish in education and public life. Yet Diyarbakır still offers hope for those who want to live together, if Ankara acts firmly to address these grievances and ensure equality and justice for all.

Across the political spectrum, among Kurds and Turks, rich and poor, Islamic and secular in Diyarbakır, there is a shared desire for a clear government strategy to resolve the chronic issues of Turkey’s Kurdish problem. Official recognition of Kurdish identity and the right to education and justice in mother languages is a priority. The city’s Kurds want fairer political representation, decentralisation and an end to all forms of discrimination in the laws and constitution. They also demand legal reform to end mass arrests and lengthy pre-trial detentions of non-violent activists on terrorism charges.

Control of Diyarbakır is contested on many levels. The state wants to stay in charge, channelling its influence through the Ankara-appointed governor and control over budget, policing, education, health and infrastructure development. The municipality, in the hands of legal pro-PKK parties since 1999, most recently the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), is gathering more power against considerable obstacles. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) that rules nationally has ushered in a more progressive approach to police, but this has not ended confrontations and defused local hostility. Turkey as a whole, and Kurdish-speaking cities like Diyarbakır in particular, need a coherent, informed debate on decentralisation and a strategy to implement it.

The current government has done more than any previous one to permit Kurdish language use in Diyarbakır and elsewhere, but most Kurds want nothing less than a com­mit­ment to education in their mother language. The government’s initiative on optional Kurdish lessons should be fully supported as a stepping-stone in a structured plan to achieve declaration of that goal as a right.

Once Turkey’s third best off economic centre, Diyarbakır and its surrounding province have fallen to 63rd place at last measurement. Investment has long been low due to violence, flawed government policies and PKK sabotage, kidnappings, terrorist attacks and extortion. But residents show their faith in the city’s future through their investment, particularly in marble quarries and the booming real estate sector. Diyarbakır’s location at a regional historic crossroads still makes it an important hub for elements of the service sector, such as courier businesses and hospitals. Thousand-year-old monuments could make it a tourist magnet.

Fighting between the security forces and the PKK, mostly in the south east, is rising. While Diyarbakır has mostly been spared the worst of the recent violence, the civilian population and local politics are nonetheless increasingly stressed and polarised by events. The AKP is losing its appeal, and the BDP, while uncontested as the strongest political force in the city, has yet to prove its political maturity and ability to be more than a front for an increasingly violent PKK. The moderately Islamic Gülen movement is trying to offer another way, and as a negotiated settlement seems less likely, Kurdish Islamic groups are boosting their already substantial influence.

Yet, voices from Diyarbakır insist that common ground exists, as it does throughout the rest of Turkey. Crisis Group, in two previous reports in 2011 and 2012, recommended that the government announce a clear strategy to resolve the conflict, focusing in the first instance on justice and equal rights for Kurds. It suggested that the government work pro-actively with Kurdish representatives on four lines of reform: mother-language rights for Turkey’s Kurds; reducing the threshold for election to the national parliament to 5 per cent from 10 per cent; a new decentralisation strategy; and stripping all discrimination from the constitution and laws. Once these steps have been taken, it could then move to detailed talks on disarmament and demobilisation with the PKK. In short, both sides need to exercise true leadership, by eschewing violence, committing to dialogue and achieving the Kurds’ legitimate aspirations through Turkey’s existing legal structures, especially in the parliamentary commission working on a new constitution.

This companion report additionally offers recommendations specifically for urgent action by the government and legal leadership of the Kurdish movement in Diyarbakır to strengthen Kurds’ trust in the state by working to resolve pressing local problems and to ensure the long-term development of the city and province.

Istanbul/Diyarbakır/Brussels, 30 November 2012

Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory

Originally published in Politico Europe

Turkish leader’s instincts saved him from a coup, but his authoritarian instincts will again threaten his legitimacy.

Paradoxes have always abounded in the relationship between the Turkish military and the country’s politicians. Turkey’s armed forces — or factions within them — have justified their repeated interventions in politics with claims that they are saving the state from corrupt, populist politicians. The political class, for its part, frustrated as its leaders turn rotten, blames its degradation on over-dominant army interventions that keep wrecking the country’s democratic progress.

The recent attempted coup in Turkey was no exception. On Friday night, an email from a Turkish Armed Forces address said, in effect, that the military was breaking the law in order to restore the rule of law. In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on the Turkish people to take to the street in defense of the democracy he has done so much to undermine with attacks on the media and assaults on constitutional checks and balances.

And indeed, the people rushed to secure key points for the government. While some social media postings showed anti-government passers-by cheering on the tanks, a broad social and political alignment emerged against the attempted coup, including rare unison among all the country’s main political parties and media voices. More than 160 people were killed and 1,440 injured in clashes between soldiers sent out to seize power and the pro-government police force and loyalist army factions.

17 July 2016
Either Erdogan utilizes this incident to redesign institutions in Ankara to his own benefit...or he takes the opportunity with the solidarity that was extended to him by the opposition and different segments of society to reciprocate by investing more genuinely in rule of law and legitimate forms of dissent. The New York Times

Nigar Göksel

Senior Analyst, Turkey

In the end, Erdoğan and his supporters won the day, quickly reconsolidating control. And perhaps this is unsurprising. Election after election — scrupulously democratic in form, but dominated by authoritarian political party leaders in practice — have shown that about half the electorate still supports the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

But nobody in Turkey has won in the long-term. The damage to the army — more important than ever, given the turmoil in Turkey’s neighborhood — will be severe. Internationally, Turkey’s already battered reputation has slipped down several more notches.

There are no specific links between the attempted coup and Turkey’s deepening secularist-Islamist divide. The government alleges that it is the work of a rival Islamist group loyal to Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gülen.

But stark divisions remain nonetheless. The half of the country that does not support Erdoğan remains deeply unsettled by his party’s increasingly overt Islamism and his creeping takeover of all arms of the state and economy. The country’s unsolved Kurdish problem is feeding a harsh insurgency, and regional problems abound.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Some commentators were remarkably prescient, drawing attention to unrest in the army well before this weekend’s events. The Turkish armed forces, after all, have been the backbone of the modern Turkish Republic since 1923, as well as the many Turkic states that preceded it during the past millennium. They have famously intervened in politics with full-blooded coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980-83; a bloodless post-modern show of force that ousted a government in 1997; and an abortive attempt by press release to block the election of Erdoğan’s predecessor Abdullah Gül in 2007.

Other commentators, who had previously dismissed chances of a coup, pointed to Erdoğan’s popular base, arguing that no conscript-based army could afford to try to move against it. For now, they seem to have been proved right by scenes of soldiers stripping off their uniforms or surrendering their tanks without a fight. One tank operator told a Turkish television station that he and his fellow soldiers had no prior notice of their mission.

It would be wonderful if the failure to seize power breaks Turkey’s cycle of lurching from coup to autocrat and back to coup again, with bouts of chaotic coalition governments in-between. Liberals and urban youth long for the day when overweening politicians and generals give way to a Turkey that gives primacy to rule of law, respect for legal contract and individual human rights.

The current Turkish context, unfortunately, is not propitious — perhaps one reason that the faction that launched the coup thought it had a chance of success. The gravity of the situation is even recognized by Erdoğan, who has an acute sense for political survival. In recent weeks, he made several changes to begin reversing Turkey’s catastrophic foreign policy mistakes of the past five years. Since 2011, all four pillars of the country’s national security — relations with the Middle East, Russia, the U.S. and the EU — have suffered grave damage.

Erdoğan opened Turkey’s doors to the Middle East, betting big on his Muslim neighbors. Instead, Turkey suffered severe blowback as 2.7 million Syrian refugees arrived and the rest of the region started exporting its conflicts to its territory, including six big attacks apparently by the Islamic State over the past year.

Arguments over Syria have crippled relations with Russia, Turkey’s biggest natural gas supplier and a major trading partner. This is only beginning to change after Turkey’s expression of contrition for shooting down a Russian warplane on its Syrian border in November, and Russia’s recent decision to lift its trade and tourism bans.

Turkey’s key relationship with its NATO ally, the U.S., has been similarly damaged by arguments over Syria. The U.S. backs a Syrian Kurdish faction that Turkey, with some justification, considers as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “Some parts of the Pentagon think they’re actually at war with Turkey,” one U.S. official said privately.

Finally, the recent deal with the EU over refugees, still in progress, has not really reversed Turkey’s loss of momentum since the early 2000s on progressing towards EU norms and solving the problem of divided Cyprus. Though, certainly, hostility from populist EU leaders and the Greek Cypriot rejection of a Cyprus deal played a role in this slowdown.

In one of the country’s gravest challenges, however, there is no sign of change: the mismanagement of the conflict with the PKK after the peace process collapsed nearly a year ago. According to International Crisis Group research, at least 1,700 people have been killed since then, mostly in the Kurdish-populated southeast, one of the bloodiest periods in a 32-year insurgency. After a decade in which a prosperous new era seemed possible, 350,000 Kurds have been displaced and huge swathes of Kurdish towns laid waste.

The paradoxes never end in Turkey: it was actually the Turkish armed forces that in the late 1990s did much behind the scenes to steer Turkey towards the EU candidacy in 1999 and made it easy for Erdoğan’s AKP to make so much progress after its election victory in 2002. And it was that same armed forces’ leadership that found itself in jail for years shortly afterwards, facing treason charges — with Erdoğan brandishing this flagrant injustice as a righting of the military-civilian balance in line with EU norms.

As this weekend’s events play out, the president may once again prove that he is an extraordinary political operator. But even if he uses the attempted coup to continue pushing a change to an executive presidential system, his rule will become even more brittle.

His legitimacy as ruler of all of Turkey is diminished with each drop in Turkey’s cruising altitude. The support he has from the pro-Islamic street is in, large part, because the constituency it represents believes that there is nobody that can take his place or protect their new-won status and interests.

Any visitor to the 1,150-room palace Erdoğan’s built for his ascension to the presidency in 2014 will be still struck by the fact that many of its large rooms and long gilded corridors are empty. For the first time in years, parliamentary parties united on Saturday to condemn the coup attempt — including Kurdish nationalists. As Erdoğan seeks to uncover those behind the attempted coup, he would be wise to build on this outstretched hand, and abide by the rule of law. The lonelier he gets, the harder it will be for him to keep winning. 

This article first appeared in Politico Europe.

Contributors

Director of Communications & Outreach
Hugh_Pope
Senior Analyst, Turkey
nigargoksel