The Kurds are fond of saying they have “no friends but the mountains,” and recent events seem to bear that out. Turkey attacked Kurds in northeastern Syria after the exit of their U.S. allies. The attack also wiped out a fledgling experiment in self-government. University of Illinois political science professor Avital Livny studies Turkish politics and the role of its Kurdish minority. She spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
What explains the unique position of the Kurds in the Middle East? And is it ever likely to change?
While the Kurdish people number close to 30 million in total, their population has been divided among several countries since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. In four of these – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria – the Kurdish people constitute a sizable minority and tend to be clustered in the corner of each country, coinciding with a region known as Greater Kurdistan. The postwar Treaty of Sèvres identified the Kurds as a coherent community, deserving of a sovereign state. But when the terms of this agreement were renegotiated, they found themselves divided and, at times, forcibly assimilated.
Although largely unified under Ottoman rule, the peoples of Kurdistan have always been diverse in language and faith, though the great majority are Sunni Muslims. Now also divided by state boundaries, the Kurds have struggled to establish their autonomy. When civil conflict struck both Syria and Iraq, small autonomous Kurdish enclaves were successfully erected. But in Turkey and Iran, the idea of Kurdish independence is seen as a political threat. As such, geopolitical interference makes it unlikely that Kurdish sovereignty will ever be realized.
Some news reports seem to suggest that a long-held hatred of the Kurds or fears about border security were the only thing motivating Turkey’s actions, but you see something else.
Despite decades of domestic conflict between Turks and Kurds, there is no centuries-old feud. Under Ottoman rule, ethnic Turks and Kurds lived side by side in relative harmony as part of a larger Muslim community. The current conflict, including Turkish incursion into northern Syria, is largely a story about political power.
After the Turkish Republic was established, the nationalist government hoped that its Kurdish-speaking population would choose to see themselves as “mountain Turks” and assimilate into the Turkish majority. When the Kurdish community instead chose to maintain its linguistic and cultural identity, a line was drawn. As long as Turkey’s Kurds push for recognition and autonomy, Turkish nationalists will mobilize against them as a threat.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also now finds himself in need of consistent support from the nationalist party. By targeting Kurdish groups across the border, he has cemented the loyalty of Turkish nationalists as they have rallied ’round the flag.
How do you see Erdoğan’s concerns about Kurdish terrorism?
There is no question that a subset of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey is represented by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a movement that has used violence in its efforts to achieve Kurdish independence. And there is some evidence that the PKK has been somewhat strengthened by the ability to organize and train in northern Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan.
But I would venture to say that the biggest threat to Erdoğan and his vision of Turkey is not the PKK but the mainstream Kurdish political movement, far larger in size and represented by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The party won seats in the Grand National Assembly for the first time in 2015, arguably costing Erdoğan the one-party rule he had enjoyed since 2002. And by supporting the opposition candidate in the 2019 Istanbul mayoral election, the HDP evidently tipped the scales and cost the president control of Turkey’s largest city and political epicenter.
These are the kinds of political losses that undermine Erdoğan’s long-term interests. By fomenting Turkish nationalist anger towards the Kurds, he believes he may just be able to stem the tide that threatens to topple him.
Some news reports have made much of the Kurds’ system of government in the region they controlled in northern Syria. What was actually happening there? And what’s been lost?
Much of the media’s attention has been focused on the loss of life, including the assassination of key Kurdish political officials, but another critical casualty of the Turkish campaign has been the dismantling of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, or Rojava. Governed by a constitution that guaranteed property rights, gender equality and the integration of religious minorities into decision-making processes, the region boasted better security and public goods than those ruled by other militia groups.
Early on, the system was noted for its lack of hierarchy and its reliance on decentralized deliberative meetings, in which average citizens engaged firsthand in making and implementing policy. Now, with key government leaders dead and most of the community driven into Iraqi territory, it is unclear what, if anything, will survive from this remarkable experiment in direct, deliberative democracy.