The Kurdish people have been much in the news, mainly because of their alleged involvement in a bombing in Ankara on February 17 and Turkish shelling of the Kobani region of northern Syria where Kurds of the US-supported People’s Protection Units, the YPG, are fighting against Islamic State extremists. The most important news, however, is that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is determined to crush the fifteen million Kurds in Turkey – a fifth of his own population – and is being unashamedly brutal in his campaign.
There is nothing new in Erdogan’s merciless treatment of Turkey’s Kurds. In 2001, for example, a US reporter wrote that «There’s no doubt the Kurds lead a tough life. They’ve basically been told to assimilate or die. They don’t have political rights, freedom of speech or even the right to speak their own language. Nearly 2,000 Kurdish villages have been destroyed… The Kurds have been shot, bombed, gassed, raped, tortured, burned and dismembered, and tens of thousands have been killed. And that’s just what Turkey has done during the past decade».
The Kurds have fought back. The PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is the military wing of Turkey’s Kurdish-nationalist movement, and has battled against repressive governments since 1984 when it called for an independent Kurdish state. There was no international support for its stance, and in the 1990s they acknowledged that self-rule was impossible to achieve, but proposed that there should at least be a measure of autonomy, which the Ankara government will not permit.
In July 2015 the BBC noted that the PKK had «suffered a major blow in 1999 when its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was arrested and jailed for treason. In March 2013 [still in prison], he called a ceasefire and urged PKK forces to withdraw from Turkey, in an announcement he said was ‘historic’. Correspondents said it was potentially an important step towards ending the conflict, but the real test would be in its implementation. That ceasefire appeared to be over in July 2015 when Turkey launched air strikes against PKK camps in northern Iraq».
Since then the situation within Turkey has verged on civil war, with Human Rights Watch reporting that «The government’s erosion of media freedom continued. Readiness to limit freedom of expression, restrictive approach to freedom of assembly, and readiness to prosecute demonstrators while tolerating police violence against them, were among features most damaging to Turkey’s democratic credentials… Trials continued of Kurdish political activists, journalists, students, and lawyers on widely used terrorism charges such as ‘membership of an armed organization.’ The evidence against them in most cases concerned nonviolent political association and protest».
Erdogan’s position is that «For us, the PKK is the same as ISIL [the Islamic State terrorist group]. It is wrong to consider them as different from each other», and his pronouncement was echoed officially by the US when Vice-President Biden said in January 2016 that Islamic State «is not the only existential threat to the people of Turkey, the PKK is equally a threat and we are aware of that. It is a terror group plain and simple and what they continue to do is absolutely outrageous».
Not only was Erdogan given US endorsement in his attempt to link Islamic State and the PKK, he alleged that a suicide bombing in Ankara which killed more than 100 people in October 2015 had been the responsibility of many groups working together, saying that «This incident shows how terror is implemented collectively. This is a completely collective act of terror and it includes ISIS [Islamic State], PKK, the mukhabarat [Syrian secret police], and the terrorist group PYD [Kurdish Democratic Union Party] from north of Syria. They carried out this act all together».
The allegation that these totally unrelated and fundamentally different groups could have combined to carry out any sort of operation was so irrational and absurd that even the western media failed to support it, but to further confuse matters, Washington’s official position concerning the Kurds of the PYD continues to be entirely positive – which has not prevented Erdogan from ordering artillery bombardment of their camps in Syria or from making a speech in Ankara on February 10 «upbraiding the United States for its support of Syrian Kurdish rebels».
Referring specifically to the PYD and the YPG he was reported by the US online journal Veterans Today as saying «Oh America! I told you many times, you are [either] beside us, or all of these terrorist organizations. You haven’t had a good grasp of them, and that is why the region has turned into the sea of blood. We have written proof! We tell the Americans ‘it’s a terror group.’ But the Americans stand up and say ‘no we don’t see them as terror groups.’ Allies don’t tell each other my enemy’s enemy is my friend. You must have principles. But there are no principles here».
The person utterly lacking in principles is the devious and dangerously erratic Mr Erdogan, who I have already noted as having a «most important personal objective, which is to replace his country’s system of parliamentary government with an all-powerful executive presidency». If he manages to achieve his ambition he will have the right to issue executive and legislative decrees and have veto power over the parliament as well as being able to appoint ministers and judges of higher courts.
Most members of the Turkish parliament don’t want an executive president with such enormous power, so, as noted by Stratfor's analysts on February 17, «Without sufficient backing from Turkey’s lawmakers, Erdogan has had to turn to the Turkish people to push his initiative through. To this end, he has begun to court the nationalist vote by capitalizing on Turkish antagonism toward the country’s Kurdish minority».
In a cynical operation that has nothing to do with internal security, the rights of a fifth of Turkey’s citizens, or anything remotely approaching democracy and justice, Erdogan has re-energised his anti-Kurd campaign with a viciousness that would be admired by the barbarians of Islamic State. As recorded by Amnesty International on January 21 «The Turkish government’s onslaught on Kurdish towns and neighbourhoods, which includes round-the-clock curfews and cuts to services, is putting the lives of up to 200,000 people at risk and amounts to collective punishment. Research… reveals the extreme hardships they are currently facing as a result of harsh and arbitrary measures». But there isn’t the slightest rebuke from Washington or Brussels.
Erdogan’s internal repression knows no boundaries. When criticized by the opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for acting like a dictator, Erdogan ordered «an investigation into Kılıçdaroğlu’s comments on charges of ‘openly insulting the president’… a crime punishable by up to four years in jail», and on January 9 a similar criminal investigation began «against a chat show host… for ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organization’ after a caller to the ‘Beyaz’ chat show urged people not to stay silent about the deaths of [Kurdish] women and girls in the south east of the country».
The future for Turkey’s fifteen million Kurds looks bleak. For as long as Erdogan is given unconditional support by Washington and NATO he will continue to ignore basic human rights in his own country as well as across its borders. His savagery will be unchecked and thousands more Kurds will be killed. In January Amnesty International observed that «While the Turkish authorities appear determined to silence internal criticism, they have faced very little from the international community. Strategic considerations relating to the conflict in Syria and determined efforts to enlist Turkey’s help in stemming the flow of refugees to Europe must not overshadow allegations of gross human rights violations. The international community must not look the other way».
But they will.