Turkey: War on the Kurds or a Serious Peace Process?

[From Dave Holmes & Tony Iltis, The Kurdish Freedom Struggle Today (Resistance Books: Sydney, 2015)]

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recip Tayyip Erdogan, is an Islamic-based neoliberal party. It first won office in 2002 and ruled Turkey alone for 13 years. In August 2014, Erdogan became the first popularly elected president; Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly foreign minister, took over as prime minister. The AKP lost its majority in the June 7, 2015 parliamentary elections.

Peace process

In the first period of AKP rule, the government enacted some important reforms affecting the Kurdish community. Limited TV broadcasting in Kurdish was permitted as were Kurdish language courses in private schools. The state of emergency in the southeast was lifted. Later a 24-hour state-owned Kurdish-language TV channel was established.

However, although such measures were generally positive they didn’t address key Kurdish demands such as public school education of students in their mother tongue, disbanding of the pro-government village guard militia, constitutional recognition and some form of self-government.

At the end of 2012 Erdogan revealed that the government was holding discussions with Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Nationalist and far-right circles were not happy. On January 9, 2013 PKK leader Sakine Cansiz and two colleagues were murdered in Paris. The killer had links to the MIT, the Turkish security service. Just what elements in the MIT organised the killings is not clear but the government condemned the assassinations and the talks continued.

Öcalan’s historic March 2013 Newroz message (reprinted in this pamphlet) called for an end to the armed struggle. "This is not abandoning the struggle — we are initiating a different struggle," he said.

On this basis the PKK agreed to support the peace process. In May 2013 it began withdrawing its forces from Turkey to camps in northern Iraq.

On February 28, 2015 a joint press conference of the government and the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) at Istanbul's Dolmabahçe Palace announced a 10-point peace plan. However, the next month Erdogan denied there was any agreement.

In a very revealing July 28, 2015 interview, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas explained that the peace negotiations had been extensive, involving the government, Öcalan, the HDP and the PKK in Kandil. But the government reneged on promises to pass legislation to enable PKK fighters to withdraw from Turkey in safety. And as the fighters vacated their defence zones, the government began building military forts and roads there — clearly a preparation, not for a peaceful future, but for a violent one.

Demirtas explained that Erdogan killed the process because polls showed the AKP was losing electoral support and the HDP was gaining it. Erdogan evidently concluded he needed to veer hard right, towards conflict and the nationalist voters.

Corruption and arrogance

In recent years the Erdogan regime has become ever more synonymous with crackdowns on dissent, arrogance, corruption and hostility to Kurdish claims. The media and the legal system are under constant attack.

In May-June of 2013 Turkey was shaken by large-scale protests over the plans to demolish Taksim Gezi Park, one of central Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces, and replace it with a shopping mall. Several million people were involved in actions across Turkey. The government cracked down hard; 11 people were killed and thousands arrested. Erdogan dismissed the protesters as "looters".

On May 13, 2014, a disaster at the Soma mine in Manisa killed over 300 miners. When Erdogan visited Soma and said callously that mine deaths were "normal", crowds chased him shouting "murderer" and "thief".

In December 2013 a corruption scandal erupted as police investigations became public. It involved cabinet ministers, family members, senior state officials and businessmen. Tapes of phone conversations made at this time were later leaked revealing then-prime minister Erdogan instructing his son Bilal to "zero" (i.e., dispose of) huge sums of money stashed in various relatives' houses — at least tens of millions of dollars! — for fear of raids by prosecutors.

Erdogan's response was to label the whole thing a conspiracy by his former allies in the Islamic Hizmet movement of US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen to topple the government. He launched a crackdown on supposed Gülen supporters, targeting thousands of police, prosecutors and judges across the country. In January 2015 the AKP-dominated parliament voted not to lift the immunity of four ex-ministers implicated in the scandal.


From September 2014 to January 2015 the Rojava canton of Kobanê was besieged by a large IS forces. The city came very close to falling. But the epic resistance and the tremendous worldwide publicity generated by the heavy frontline participation of women in the heroic defence forced the US to step up its air support. Turkey was forced to let limited peshmerga forces with heavy weapons cross the country and enter the city. So Kobanê survived — a tremendous popular victory.

It has long been clear that Turkish support is vital to the IS operations in Syria. Turkey is the main transit country for foreign IS recruits, wounded IS fighters receive medical care in Turkey, IS freely purchases utilities and trucks in Turkey, IS receives covert supplies of arms and ammunition from Turkey, and oil produced in IS-held areas is easily smuggled into Turkey. Furthermore, Turkey enforces a more and more complete blockade of Rojava, preventing people and supplies from entering.

On October 4, 2014 PYD co-chairperson Saleh Muslim held talks with Turkish military intelligence officials in Ankara to plead for aid for Kobanê. He was told this would only be given if the Kurdish forces joined the Free Syrian Army and focused on toppling the Assad dictatorship, distanced themselves from the PKK, abandoned their claim to self-government, and agreed to a Turkish buffer zone inside Syria!

On this same day, Erdogan said that the PKK and the PYD are the same as IS.

With Kobanê’s fate in the balance, Erdogan gloated. On October 7 he announced that the city was on the verge of falling.

In mid-October Kurdish protesters supporting Kobanê poured onto the streets in the Southeast and in Ankara and Istanbul. They were met with teargas, clubs, bullets and military-enforced curfews. Police and Islamists attacked them. Over 30 people were killed.

The drama of Kobanê was a watershed in the decline of Kurdish support for Erdogan and the AKP.

Rise of HDP

Over the years there have been many attempts in Turkey to establish a legal Kurdish-based party. Most of these were shut down by the authorities.

In October 2012, the HDP was founded and has since achieved electoral success unprecedented for a Kurdish organisation.

In June 2014 the HDP elected two new co-chairpersons, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag. A Kurd, Demirtas is a former human rights lawyer. Yüksekdag is Turkish; she co-founded the Socialist Party of the Oppressed which later merged with the HDP.

The charismatic Demirtas stood as the HDP's candidate in the August 2014 presidential elections, achieving 9.8% — almost four million votes — a big increase on the HDP's result in the earlier municipal elections. Demirtas attracted attention with his strong advocacy for women’s and LGBT rights. (See his radical "Call for a New Life" manifesto in this pamphlet.)

June 7 election results

The June 7 parliamentary elections were dominated by two things.

Firstly, Erdogan wanted a two-thirds majority in the 550-seat assembly so that the AKP could unilaterally amend the constitution to provide for a very strong executive presidency.

Secondly, the HDP took the bold decision to run as a party, betting that it could cross the very undemocratic 10% threshold and deny Erdogan his presidential majority. While the HDP’s core support lies in the Kurdish community, it reached out to all those suffering oppression, discrimination and exploitation across the country. Almost half of its 550 candidates were women.

As the elections approached there was a steady drumbeat of attacks on the HDP. Scores of their offices suffered arson and bomb attacks. On June 5 an HDP rally in Diyabakir was bombed killing four people.

Erdogan’s problem

In the event, the HDP smashed the 10% barrier, achieving 13.1% (6.1 million votes) — an increase of 7.5% over its 2011 result — and 80 deputies in the 550-seat Grand National Assembly. The AKP dropped almost 9% (4 million votes) and lost its majority. The big reason was the collapse of its vote in the Kurdish regions due to Kobanê and its failure to pursue the peace process.

Now Erdogan has a major problem. Only a coalition government is possible, or a minority government dependent on external support.

But anything less than total AKP control of parliament means he is vulnerable to the corruption investigation being restarted. Any honest inquiry will quite likely engulf key associates, his family and himself. If that happens Erdogan faces prison; being marooned in the presidency without the powers he wants will be the least of his problems.

War on the Kurds

Erdogan's solution is to create a security crisis by screaming about the terrorist threat from the PKK and the gains of the Kurds across the border in Rojava.

The July 20 Suruç bombing, which killed over 30 young socialists as they prepared to cross over to Kobanê to help rebuild the city, was almost certainly a provocation organised by regime elements.

The regime is bombing PKK bases in northern Iraq. Kurdish towns and districts are being attacked by the security forces. At the same time Öcalan is being held in total isolation so that he cannot use his great authority to urge restraint. Erdogan needs blood to be shed and nothing must be allowed to prevent this.

Erdogan hopes that some conservative Kurds will return to the AKP fold and that he can win back some nationalist Turks as well, enough to give the AKP a majority in fresh elections. The government is also going after the HDP leaders and possibly will target the whole party.

Putting aside the immorality of Erdogan’s plans and the enormous suffering they are generating, the problem is that this is all a very big gamble. Fresh elections might well once more fail to give the AKP the majority it so desperately wants.

Polls show that a majority of people want a coalition government established and don't want fresh elections; they don't want an "enhanced" presidency; they want the government to pursue the peace process; and they don't want deeper involvement in the war in Syria. Moreover, Turkish business is desparate for political stability: it wants a coaltion government and it wants some sort of settlement with the Kurds.

But no matter. Erdogan and the AKP have to keep pushing forward with their plan. Unless they can be stopped, Turkey clearly faces dark and menacing days.