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Turkey's Kurdish Issue: How Did We Get Here?

Tulin Daloglu reviews the history of Turkey's Kurdish issue.
An Iraqi policeman of Kurdish descent walks between coffins draped with Kurdish flags containing the remains of victims during a burial ceremony in Sulaimaniya, 260km (162 miles) northeast of Baghdad, May 28, 2012. More than 700 Kurds, killed by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, were honoured in a ceremony in northern Iraq on Monday. Kurdish officials gathered at the Police Academy in Suleimaniya province to mourn 730 victims of Iraq's notorious 'Anfal' campaign, whose bodies were discovered in mass grave

While what Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan actually has in mind as a solution to the Kurdish issue remains a mystery, it might be useful to review the history of the conflict.

World War I brought a painful end to the Ottoman Empire, stripping it of its dignity and leaving little in its wake except enmity and hatred among its former subjects. Reflecting on this period, Kurdish nationalists came to believe that they had missed an opportunity to carve out their own homeland. Since that time, the Kurdish issue, according to most of modern Turkey’s governments, has represented a challenge to Turkish unity.

Turgut Ozal was prime minister when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched its first attack on Turkish soil in 1984 in its plan to seize land from Turkey and establish an independent Kurdistan. With the Cold War at a peak, Ozal had good relations with Washington as the leader of a strategic ally and NATO member. US policymakers were quick to condemn PKK attacks and lent assistance to the Turkish military and security forces in their fight against the group. 

In short order, Turkey launched military operations in pursuit of PKK militantsincluding cross-border raids into northern Iraq, where there is a sizeable Kurdish population. This did not concern US leaders or Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In fact, Ankara and Baghdad cooperated against the PKK throughout the 1980s. Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, respectively, complained to no avail. No one trusted them at the time.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War triggered a dramatic shift in US policy toward the Kurds. Despite Ozal having a close friendship with President George H. W. Bush, Turkey’s Kurdish problem fell under the spotlight, as the United States and other coalition members, in their efforts to contain Hussein, established contacts with Iraqi Kurds through private channels. Kurdish voices in Turkey and Iraq were finally being heard and conferred credibility; an international audience was listening. Beginning in the early 1990s, Congress and human rights advocates scrutinized virtually every piece of US military equipment exported to Turkey.

In April 1990, some four months before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Turkish military had issued its strictest decree yet to muzzle the media. The pressure on journalists has never yielded to provide an opportunity to properly report on developments in the region. Foreign media – often with their own agendas – started to cover the anti-terrorism fight in Turkey, and the Turkish media applied its own spin in reporting on issues and events. While fighting against terrorism tends to erode the innocence of all sides to a conflict, for a developing country like Turkey a failed fourth estate only weakens its chances of strengthening national unity and democracy.

While the state aggressively censored coverage of terrorism and the government’s anti-terrorism activities, the media’s sensationalist and prejudiced coverage of events in the Kurdish areas did not help the nation to heal old wounds and become one. Every Kurd was considered to be a PKK supporter. Innocent civilians, caught in the crossfire between the state and the PKK, became the true victims of the conflict. Their voices went unheard.

The Turkish media’s coverage of the Kurdish issue today has not dramatically improved. Yavuz Semerci, a columnist at Haberturk, pleaded on Jan. 14 for Prime Minister Erdogan to stop complaining about the lack of support for his government in the media and his efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue.

“The Turkish media’s coverage of the brutal murders of the three PKK women, one of them a founding member of the movement, bordered on declaring it as a national mourning day. I am not sure whether their true intention is not to damage this new peace process or not to anger the Prime Minister,” complained Semerci. “No one wants to remember that a group of 100 PKK militants attacked a military post after the Imrali talks. They don’t wish to remember the names of the Turkish military servicemen who have fallen martyrs there.” 

The military era is long gone in Turkey, and the Justice and Development Party is the ultimate civilian authority, but the atmosphere of fear and self-censorship is at a new peak. A joint letter from Freedom House, the Foreign Policy Initiative, the Project on Middle East Democracy, and Reporters Without Borders sent on Jan 10. to US President Barack Obama recalls the Turkey of the 1990s, when its media was suppressed by the military: “An October 2012 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists stated that Turkey now has ‘the disreputable distinction of being the world’s worst jailer of the press’—an analysis shared by Reporters Without Borders,” the letter states. “These developments have had a detrimental effect not only upon Turkey internally, but also hinder Turkey's contribution on the world stage.” It concludes, “We urge you to make rule of law and political freedoms a priority in your engagement with Prime Minister Erdogan.”

While this effort is an honorable one, I have grown cautious at best in the prioritization of human rights or freedoms of the press, opinion, and speech when state interests are involved. Turkey’s location makes it inevitable that US interests in the region will affect the country. The West has for decades expected a great deal from Turkey, first as a Cold War frontier state and now as a “model democracy” for the Arab world. As various actors and world powers have played their dangerous games, it has become abundantly clear that the United States only views Turkey geo-strategically — that is, based on what Turkey can do for it in the region.

If there is truly an interest in strengthening the fourth estate in Turkey, one needs to scrutinize not only the Erdogan government but also media management to address the challenges of today. When Erdogan called executive editors to a meeting in 2011 to discuss media coverage of terrorism, almost all of them — according to media reports — were more than willing to accede to his requests. They in fact adhered to them while covering PKK attacks during the past two years. Moreover, while the Turkish media is full of commentary on how best to bring closure to the Kurdish issue and speculation on the recent Paris murders of three PKK women, Turkish television provided minimal coverage of their funerals on Jan. 17 in Diyarbakir. It seems Semerci may have been confused in thinking that there is no rational for Erdogan’s disappointment in the media. “A segment of the media still continue to support terrorism,” the prime minister asserted in Oct. 2012. “It’s the media unfortunately that’s being used to contribute to this propaganda both in print and orally. This support cannot be disregarded.”

A lack of comprehension about the Kurdish issue and an inability or failure to show empathy toward all victims of terror has contributed to exacerbating Turkey’s problems. It is a pity that the Turkish media continues to fail in getting ordinary people on the street, Turks and Kurds alike, to talk about the challenges of the moment and help them start a true dialogue for healing and continuing along their journey together. 

Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York TimesInternational Herald TribuneThe Middle East TimesForeign PolicyThe Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report. She also had a regular column at The Washington Times for almost four years. 

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