Turkey Pulse

Will Turkey’s Kurdish movement renounce violence?

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Article Summary
If Turkey’s Kurdish politicians want more understanding from Turkey, they can help themselves by opposing the violence of their comrades.

On Oct. 25, three Turkish soldiers were shot to death in the back in Yukseova, a predominantly Kurdish town just miles from Turkey’s borders with Iraq and Iran. The killers were two masked men and no one has yet claimed responsibility. Yet the usual suspect for both the government and Turkish society is the PKK, the armed and outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, a group that Turkey identifies as terrorist and has fought for three decades.

This was just one episode in a series of violent acts committed by pro-PKK militants in the past several weeks. In fact, there has been a “peace process” between the PKK and the government since early 2013, and guns had been silent. Yet the Turkish government’s inaction to help Kobani, a Kurdish town on Turkey’s Syrian border, in the face of the onslaught by the Islamic State, frustrated and enraged Turkey’s own Kurds. In early October, Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the HDP, the People's Democracy Party, the implicit, legal arm of the PKK, called for street protests against the government for not helping Kobani. But some of the protesters turned violent, engaging not only in vandalism, but also lynching whomever they perceived as sympathizers of the Islamic State.

In Diyarbakir, for example, three youngsters who were working as volunteers for an Islamic charity were killed. One of them, Yasin Boru, was only 16 and was distributing free meat to poor families as a part of the Muslim rituals for Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice. A post-mortem report stated that all three victims of the incident had been “severely tortured” and Boru’s skull was “severely broken.”

During these antigovernment protests, most of which took place on Oct. 6-7, 42 people were killed, most of them by pro-PKK militants. Fellow Kurds were targeted simply because they had long beards and looked too Islamist. (See a related Al-Monitor article: “In Turkey, it's all about the beard.”) The government declared curfews in several Kurdish-dominated cities, reminiscent of the days of the military junta of the early ’80s.

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In the face of this wave of violence, Demirtas and a few other politicians from the HDP called for restraint. Yet, it was too little, too late. A prominent Kurdish politician, Altan Tan, an HDP deputy from Diyarbakir, also thought so. He spoke out against his own party’s initial call for protests with no precaution against violence. “We [HDP] should have been more careful while calling people to take to the streets,” Altan said. He also pointed out that Devlet Bahceli, the leader of their polar opposite, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the voice of Turkish nationalism, has been more principled when it comes to curbing street violence.

Yet Tan’s self-critical tone did not go unnoticed and prompted response. Another name in the Kurdish nationalist movement, Mustafa Karasu, from the executive committee of the outlawed KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union), criticized Altan in a piece in Ozgur Gundem. According to Karasu, the real blame had to go to the Turkish government and Turkish nationalists, whereas the self-critical Altan had unnecessarily “put his own party in a bad position.”

This is an example of a much-needed yet much-suppressed discussion within Turkey’s Kurdish nationalist movement, which for decades has been dominated by the PKK and its legal representatives such as the HDP and earlier Kurdish political parties. Political violence has naturally been the main strategy of the PKK, since it is an armed group that has used various tactics of guerilla warfare (against Turkish security forces) and terrorism (against civilian targets). Yet since the beginning of the “peace process” in early 2013, the PKK has vowed to end its armed struggle in return for certain reforms and concessions from the government. Yet still, the same PKK keeps armed struggle as an option on the table, with repeated threats by its senior commanders. Moreover, pro-PKK militants have been using low-level violence, such as arson, against Turkish public schools in Kurdish areas. In September, 25 public schools were set on fire by pro-PKK militants in just one week.

Last week, I asked the co-chairwoman of the party, Figen Yuksekdag, on a TV show on CNNTurk, a Turkish news channel, about the stance of the HDP on this matter. Her answer was that her party was against any form of violence, but the “real blame” should go to the Turkish government, which she accused of provoking the Kurds by not hearing their demands. I would have preferred to hear that no matter how legitimate those demands were, violence could never be justified and Kurdish politicians would be eager to curb it.

The bottom line is that Turkey’s Kurdish nationalist movement has not done enough to rule out violence — either by rural guerillas or urban militants. It seems that the movement is rather keeping the option on the table, and using it when deemed necessary. It also has a militant base of supporters, who easily engage in vandalism and lynching, unless they are strictly cautioned by their leaders — such as Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, politicians of the HDP and PKK commanders in Iraq.

The dilemma is that as long as this tendency toward violence continues, it is hard for any Turkish government to move on with the “peace process.” It is also hard to convince Turkish society of the need for more concessions to the PKK, or more leniency for PKK affiliates such as the PYD — the party that spearheads the defense of Kobani. In fact, the argument that Turkey should support the PYD against the Islamic State has become a very hard sell in Turkey, especially after the violent protests of Oct. 6-7.

Thus, if Turkey’s Kurdish politicians want more understanding from Turkey, they can help themselves by facing and opposing the violence committed by their comrades. If they think this is too unfair a demand, they can at least pay more heed to some of their own colleagues, such as Altan Tan.

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Found in: turkish policy on syria, turkey, syrian conflict, peace process, kurds

Mustafa Akyol is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse, a columnist for the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News and a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. He is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for LibertyAkyol is currently a visting senior fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College. On Twitter: @AkyolinEnglish

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