Global Affairs

The Kurds' bloody struggle for a state of their own

In Turkey, a lethal combination of political expediency and strategic shifts is fuelling a new civil war

ISTANBUL • The scenario is, by now, depressingly familiar: another bomb tears into the heart of a Turkish city, destroying precious lives; the gruesome sight of the twisted pram of Asya, a two-year-old girl seriously wounded in this weekend's suicide bomb attack in the centre of Istanbul.

Another defiant show of unity follows as the people of Turkey hang out the national flag from their balconies. The government promises to hunt down the culprits, a task which is often unsuccessful. And then, everyone awaits apprehensively for the next attack. Pity the fate of Turkey, condemned to decades of such violence. But also spare a thought for the Kurds, who have spent centuries failing to create their own state and who are at the core of this seemingly never-ending tragedy.

Numbering around 30 million souls, the Kurds can certainly be counted as one of history's perennial losers. In terms of culture and language, the Kurds are related to the Iranians, but although their ancestry is still hotly disputed, there is no question that they have a separate identity.

And the Kurds have proven their distinct identity in the way most other nations have done: by shedding blood for the ideal of creating their own state.


The first modern Kurdish nationalist uprising dates back to 1880, against the Ottoman Empire which ruled the Middle East at that time. The Kurdish aspiration for a separate identity is, therefore, just as old as that of many European nations which long ago achieved the goal of creating their own states.

Yet the Kurds singularly failed to grab this opportunity because they happened to be weak at the two historic points of the 20th century: at the end of World War I in 1918 when multinational empires collapsed in Europe and their territories were up for grabs, and after World War II, when again the world's borders shifted as the British and French empires melted away.


And at every stage, the fate of at least half of all Kurds remained intertwined with that of Turkey, the country which emerged out of the rubble of the Ottoman Empire; this proved to be one of the modern world's most deadly embraces.

Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey now rightly remembered by history as Ataturk, or "Father of the Turks", was an enlightened leader who embraced ethnic minorities and laid the foundations for his country's transformation from the "sick man of Europe" to a vibrant modern state which today is the world's 17th largest economy. Still, Ataturk's idea of modernity was the concept of a unitary Turkish state, one in which Kurds were denied a separate existence.

Ataturk was not alone in this approach: Barring a few exceptions, most governments around the world still reject demands of autonomy from their own ethnic minorities. But the problem in Turkey is the country's Kurds are numerous, accounting perhaps for a fifth or even a quarter of the total population of about 77 million, and that many of them live in compact concentrations in Turkey's south-eastern provinces, so their claim for autonomy appears more justified - but the dangers of a complete separation and Turkey's territorial carve-up are also much higher.

The result has not only been a spiral of violence which included no fewer than four Kurdish rebellions during Ataturk's rule which ended in 1938, but also a much deadlier game which continues to this day, in which the Kurds are either used or allow themselves to be used as proxies in wider Middle East power games.

For a similar Kurdish problem exists in neighbouring Iraq where about six million Kurds live, in Iran where a further four million reside, and in Syria, where the Kurdish minority numbers around two million. Just about the only thing all these countries agree on is that the Kurds must be denied an independent existence, although that does not prevent the government of each one of these states from playing the "Kurdish card" against each other.


The Kurdish terrorist movement which has killed an estimated 40,000 Turkish citizens since the 1970s was largely fed by weapons supplied by the Soviet Union which wanted to weaken Turkey, a Western ally, and by terrorist training provided by Syria, which hosted the commanders of the so-called Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorist organisation.

The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who first came to power in 2003, initially seemed well-positioned to end this cycle of violence. Representing an Islamic movement not beholden to the old Ataturk secular nationalist ideology, Mr Erdogan was able to offer Turkey's Kurds important concessions. They were allowed to have a political party which competes in general elections, were given the opportunity of running their own local authorities and, for the first time in a century, the very existence of a Kurdish language was publicly acknowledged. That, coupled with a clever policy of accommodation with neighbours, succeeded in reducing violence to a minimum; in 2013, the PKK announced a complete cessation of hostilities.

Sadly, circumstances beyond Turkey's control shattered this brief peace. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave rise to the creation of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, a Kurdish state in everything but name. The Turks also had to contend with the collapse of Syria, which boosted the importance of Kurdish fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG) and raised the spectre of creating another Kurdish quasi-state in Syria. The prospect of "Kurdistan", of a great Kurdish state, suddenly seemed realistic, fuelling violence everywhere.

But the Turkish President also bears a heavy responsibility for its current predicament. For instead of trying to align his country with the United States over the handling of Syria, President Erdogan pursued his own approach, which downplayed the threat emanating from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist organisation, and concentrated instead on identifying Syria's Kurds as the main enemy.

This was a catastrophic error from the otherwise wily Turkish leader. For it not only isolated Turkey, but also put Mr Erdogan on a collision course with the US, which is keen to enlist the Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIS, because they are among the most trained and disciplined fighters in the region. The result is that Turkish planes are bombing the Kurds of Syria, while the US is training and equipping them - one of the Middle East's most pointless and stupid situations, and one which the Turks are likely to lose.


To make matters worse, Mr Erdogan reversed his domestic policies of accommodation. Heavy-handed Turkish military activities over the past few months have reduced to rubble the centre of Diyarbakir, a city in the country's south-east, which used to be home to a million of largely Kurdish inhabitants and which flourished during the past decade.

Meanwhile, Mr Erdogan also appears to be toying with the idea of banning the People's Democratic Party (HDP), a movement which draws most of its political support from the Kurds, and which currently controls 59 seats in Turkey's 550-seat Parliament.

In private, Turkish officials told this writer that they know this will be counterproductive and will only promote further violence. Still, Mr Erdogan may go ahead with the ban, largely because this will remove from the scene the biggest obstacle he has to ramming through Parliament a constitutional amendment which will give him more powers.

Either way, the lethal combination of ineptitude, political expediency and wider Middle Easter strategic shifts is now fuelling a new civil war. And, tragically, none of Turkey's Western allies are prepared to tell Mr Erdogan that the policies he is currently pursuing are doomed to failure. For Europe needs Turkey's support in stopping the flow of migrants, and that trumps all other considerations.

So Turkey seems condemned to endure bloodshed for years to come. The Kurdish terrorists of today are the sons and daughters of Kurdish fighters killed by the Turkish military during the 1980s. And they are prepared to go further than their predecessors, by taking terrorism to Turkey's biggest cities, and by engaging in suicide bombings.

The weekend's terrorist attacks coincided with Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, a period during which, by tradition, Kurds jump across a fire. This year, it seems that both the Kurds and the Turks are determined to jump straight into the fire.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'The Kurds' bloody struggle for a state of their own'. Print Edition | Subscribe