Erdogan’s war on the Kurds: punishment for electoral success

by Michael Brooks and Djene Rhys Bajalan    


If there is one thing that Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wishes the world to know about his country’s invasion of Syria’s Afrin district it is that it is most definitely not directed at the region’s Kurdish community. Speaking to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesperson of the Erdogan government, made a similar point, emphasizing that Turkey’s assault on the Kurdish controlled-city was “not an operation against the Kurds of Afrin or Syria…” but rather directed against a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ terror network. Indeed, Kalin went so far as to make the dubious claim that Syrian Kurdish forces – lead by the PYD – had been responsible for some 700 instance of cross-border violence, a number that has since been called into question.

In short, the narrative that Turkey’s government is trying to sell is that Turkey’s invasion is part of the struggle against terrorism. Of course, Turkey’s hostility towards the PYD (Democratic Union Party) is understandable. The PYD, which rose to political prominence following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, does possess links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought for Kurdish home-rule in Turkey since the early 1980s. While describing the PYD as the PKK’s ‘Syrian affiliate’ is perhaps an oversimplification of this complex relationship between the two organizations, there is little doubt that the two organizations share both personnel and an ideological perspective. Indeed, in order to justify supporting the PYD within the context of the struggle against the Islamic State, it is the United States - which has designated that the PKK is a terrorist organization - that has had to engage in willful self-delusion with regards to PYD-PKK links.

‘Not All Kurds’

In constructing their ‘struggle against terror’ narrative, Turkish officials are often keen to underline the point that not all Kurds support the PKK or PYD. This is, of course, a truism. No political organization ever represents a ‘nation’ in its entirety. Indeed, although Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development may well be Turkey’s most popular political party, it still only represents 49.5% of the electorate. While neither the PKK nor the PYD can claim to represent all Kurdish voices, there is little doubt that they represent a significant portion of both Turkey’s and Syria’s Kurdish population. Indeed, if it is true - as it seems the Turkish authorities are maintaining - that the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), which secured 10.75% of the national vote in Turkey’s November 2015 elections, is a parliamentary front for the PKK, then the PKK is the most popular Kurdish political organization in large parts of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish-inhabited South East.

The reality is more complex. The HDP is certainly not the ‘parliamentary-wing’ of the PKK. And so, while to a certain degree, the HDP and PKK share a base of support, it would be a mistake to conclude that the two organizations are synonymous.

Moreover, it was not so long ago that Mr. Erdogan was openly in talks with the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan. This process was announced by Erdogan himself in December 2012 and was ongoing throughout 2013 and 2014 (although discussions seem to have predated their public announce). Significantly, a statement from former HDP co-leader Salahattin Demirtas (who is currently on trial), suggests that it was Mr. Erdogan who sought to use Mr. Ocalan to influence the activities of Kurdish parliamentarians. Mr. Demirtas cites three examples. In 2010, a minister produced a handwritten letter from Mr. Ocalan urging the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party - the HDP’s predecessor) to reverse their decision to ‘boycott’ the constitutional referendum held that year. In 2014, Mr. Ocalan again criticized Kurdish parliamentarians, expressing his disappointment at Mr. Demirtas’s run against Erdogan for the presidency. A year later, Mr. Ocalan once more intervened in Kurdish parliamentary politics, calling for the HDP to enter the June 2015 elections as independents rather than a party, a move that would have all but guarantee the AKP’s ability to secure a working majority in the Grand National Assembly. It seems that HDP leadership ignored these interventions, which suggests that far from being a PKK front, the HDP was seeking to strike out an independent path.

Thus, despite the protestations of Erdogan and his approbators, ‘operation olive branch’ (perhaps one of the most Orwellian names bestowed on a military operation in recent memory) cannot be simply viewed as a ‘struggle’ against 'terrorism'. Instead, Turkey’s current military operations against the PYD in Syria ought as part of Mr. Erdogan’s efforts to consolidate his autocratic regime – an imperative that seems to have led him to abandon his earlier (relatively) liberal approach to the Kurdish question.

A Tragic Irony

In this regard, the crucial turning point was the fated elections of June 2015. Despite Ocalan’s intervention, the HDP under the leadership of Ms. Figen Yuksekdag and Mr. Demirtas took a political risk and entered national elections as a political party. Historically, the HDP’s predecessors entered elections as independents, a move which, while allowing Kurdish parties some parliamentary representation, guaranteed that they would be underrepresented. However, running has independents was often seen as necessary. Turkey’s electoral system denies representation to any political party that does not score over 10% of the national vote. Prior to 2015, Kurdish parties generally polled between 5% and 6% of the national electorate (despite having a strong base of support in Turkey’s Kurdish-inhabited South East). This meant that running as a party (rather than independents) was unfeasible. The main beneficiary of this state of affairs was Mr. Erdogan, whose party was able to pick up a significant number of seats in Kurdish populated regions. Nevertheless, following the relative success of Mr. Demirtas in the presidential elections of 2014 (in which he garnered 9.76%), the HDP was emboldened. More importantly, the party’s gamble paid and ultimately it was able to obtain some 13.12% of the national vote (and 80 deputies in parliament). The upshot of this was that the AKP failed to obtain a parliamentary majority and, perhaps more importantly, Mr. Erdogan’s dreams of rewriting the Turkish constitution to his specifications had to be (temporarily) put on ice.  

Yet, the jubilation of HDP supporters at this electoral success was short-lived. Within a matter of months, violence between the PKK (which had declared a ceasefire in 2013) and the Turkish Armed Forces has resumed. By the autumn of 2015, the violence had spread to cities across Turkey’s Kurdish South East and while pro-Erdogan sources are keen to blame the PKK for the resumption of hostilities, there seems to be a more cynical calculus. Unable to lean on Turkey’s Kurds to establish his preeminence, Mr. Erdogan opted to resecuritize Turkey’s Kurdish issue in an effort to gin up support from the more nationalistic elements of the Turkish population (groups that had long opposed the AKP’s engagement with the PKK). However, perhaps the biggest payoff for the AKP for resuming the war with the PKK was to provide cover for the repression of the parliamentary wing of the Kurdish movement. June 2015 was followed by a wave of repression directed against the HDP. This process only accelerated following the failed July 2016 coup d’état, with HDP leaders Yuksekdag and Demirtas being arrested and placed on trial in November 2016.

The Turkish invasion of Afrin is nothing more than a logical continuation of this policy. So long as the peace process with the PKK was alive, there was hope that Turkey and the PYD in Syria could co-exist. However, with Erdogan’s shift to the nationalist right, the persistence of a Kurdish self-rule in Syria became untenable. Thus, the tragic irony on Turkey’s occupation of Afrin is that it was born not out of the growing power of the PKK or the PYD but rather the growing success of the HDP and the parliamentary wing of Turkey’s Kurdish movement. In short, brutally Turkish military and its jihadist allies have meted out Kurds of Afrin is part of a collective ‘lesson’ Mr. Erdogan wishes to impart on the Middle East’s Kurds, a lesson born not out of Kurdish defiance in the mountains, but at the polls.