Open Conflict Under Perpetual Wraps

The Kurdish issue is one of the longest-standing conflicts in the Middle East. Türkiye describes Kurds, who are fighting for a homeland, as terrorists. Türkiye’s military operations against the Kurds could be attributed to the growing quest on the part of the ruling party to consolidate its hold on domestic politics. Türkiye’s operations against the Kurds also have a strong undertone of attempting to undermine Israel’s influence in the region

By Niranjan Marjani

Opinion

On May 10, Turkish forces killed 17 members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) across various regions in northern Iraq and northern Syria. Four days earlier, on May 6 as well Türkiye had conducted air strikes in northern Iraq and claimed to have killed 16 members of the PKK. These strikes were carried out in the Hakurk, Metina and Gara regions in northern Iraq.

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In January this year, Türkiye carried out air strikes in Syria and Iraq. In these strikes, Türkiye targeted the bases of the PKK as well as the People’s Protection Group (YPG), which is a Syrian-Kurdish group.

These strikes are part of a continuing operation by Türkiye against the PKK. In its bid to dismantle the PKK’s bases, the Turkish military has been present in northern Iraq since April 2022 and is carrying out Operation Claw-Lock against the PKK.

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The issue of the Kurds is one of the longest-standing conflicts in the Middle East. Türkiye has been engaged in taking military action against this group while countries such as Iran, Iraq and Syria also have discord with the Kurds in varying degrees.

While the Israel-Hamas war and the attack by the Houthis on merchant ships in the Red Sea could be considered as more pronounced happenings that are destabilizing the Middle East, Türkiye’s conflict with the Kurds has been going on in the Middle East for more than three decades but continues to remain mostly neglected. There are two perspectives to the Türkiye-Kurd conflict. First, Türkiye’s conflict with the Kurds has had a strong dimension reflecting Türkiye’s internal dynamics. Second, with the Israel-Hamas war continuing, Türkiye’s actions against the Kurds are also reflective of Türkiye indirectly countering Israel’s influence in the Middle East.

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What is the issue with the Kurds?

The Kurds are one of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East. They are numbered around 25-30 million, which makes them the fourth-largest minority in the region. Mainly followers of Sunni Islam, the Kurds are scattered in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Türkiye. The Kurds are one of the largest groups in the world without a sovereign state. In Türkiye’s population of 79 million, Kurds are around 20 per cent.

While the Kurds have had a long history of being persecuted and marginalised, their conflict with Türkiye, as also with Iraq, has stood out in the entire region and has lasted for more than three decades.

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The Kurds are one of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East. They are numbered around 25-30 million, which makes them the fourth-largest minority in the region. Mainly followers of Sunni Islam, the Kurds are scattered in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Türkiye. The Kurds are one of the largest groups in the world without a sovereign state. In Türkiye’s population of 79 million, Kurds are around 20 per cent

The PKK was established in 1978 and has waged an insurgency against Türkiye since 1984 intending to establish an independent Kurdish state. The PKK is outlawed by Türkiye and has been declared a terrorist organisation by the United States. Along with the PKK, another organisation – the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) – is also involved in the struggle against Türkiye. The YPG is also a target of Türkiye in its operations against the Kurds.

The domestic perspective

On the face of it, Türkiye’s military actions against the Kurds could be interpreted as actions taken by the state against a hostile non-state actor that has been causing instability and security concerns in the country for decades. In part, this narrative could appear justified. However, in the past few years, Türkiye’s actions against the Kurds could also be attributed to the growing quest on the part of the political dispensation in Türkiye to consolidate its hold on domestic politics as well as to project its influence in the region.

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It is pertinent to get a perspective in this regard. Türkiye’s domestic politics has faced turmoil consistently even as the current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sought to strengthen his hold on the power. Under Erdoğan, Türkiye has not only witnessed growing centralisation of power but also increasing radicalisation.

Security concerns have consistently been used as an instrument by Erdoğan to counterbalance the discontent against him. Primarily, the discontent has been in the areas of economy and domestic politics.

In the past few years, Türkiye has struggled on the economic front. Mainly, the soaring inflation rate and a sharp dip in the currency value have been the causes of concern for the Turkish economy. The surge in inflation rates has caused financial strain on ordinary citizens as prices have increased across various sectors such as education, healthcare and transportation. The economic challenges did lead to a decrease in Erdoğan’s popularity. However, these were not enough to dislodge him from power. Erdoğan’s hold on Turkish politics continues although it appears to be shaken at times.

Erdoğan’s grip on power has received popular resistance in the past decade. In 2013, Türkiye was hit with protests known as Gezi Park Protests. The protests started after a violent crackdown by the police on a sit-in by activists who protested against the development project in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. These protests, apparently started over environmental concerns, soon took the shape of opposing Erdoğan’s governance style. In 2016, a faction of the Turkish Army attempted a coup to overthrow Erdoğan’s government. However, this attempt failed as the faction of the army received neither public support nor the backing of the entire army.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has consistently used security concerns to counterbalance the discontent against him, mainly in the areas of economy and domestic politics. Under Erdoğan, Türkiye has not only witnessed growing centralisation of power but also increasing radicalisation. He tried to strengthen his hold on the power with operations against Kurds

Parallel to these events, Türkiye had continued with its offensive against the PKK. The two-year ceasefire between Türkiye’s government and the PKK broke down in 2015. Further, the rise of the Islamic State also facilitated Türkiye to up the ante against the Kurds. Along with targeting the Islamic State, Türkiye carried out attacks against the Kurds as well. It is pertinent to note that the Kurdish groups, otherwise hostile to Türkiye, were among the major partners of Syria in decimating the Islamic State. However, Türkiye’s attacks on the Kurds have continued and Erdoğan uses these attacks as tactics to divert people’s attention away from the domestic challenges.

The regional perspective

The Israel-Hamas war has resulted in resurfacing of discord between Israel and the Muslim world. Israel’s relations with the Muslim world, particularly the Arab countries, which had been on the upswing for the past few years, are experiencing a roadblock though it might only be temporary. Amid the increased friction, Türkiye is positioning itself as a staunch opponent of Israel.

Earlier in May, Türkiye suspended all its trade with Israel citing worsening humanitarian tragedy in Gaza. While the Israel-Hamas war is projected as a reason by Türkiye to justify its actions against Israel, the Türkiye-Israel relations have been complicated.

Support for Palestine and hosting Hamas leaders in the past have been the causes of discord between Türkiye and Israel. Opposing Israel and supporting the Palestinian cause is also an attempt by Türkiye to gain an upper hand over the Arab countries, which have appeared less enthusiastic on the Palestine issue and have been keener to build strong ties with Israel.

Israel and the Kurds have enjoyed cordial relations. Israel has been sympathetic towards the Kurds’ demand for a homeland. Israel identifies the Kurds’ struggle with that of the Jews’ struggle for getting a homeland of their own. Israel is also known to have trained the Kurds in counter-terror operations. In 2017, Israel voiced its support for an independent state for the Kurds

Apart from lending support to Palestine, which is a more visible approach to counter Israel, Türkiye’s offensive against the Kurds is also an indirect way of countering Israel. In the Middle Eastern geopolitical context, Israel and the Kurds have enjoyed cordial relations. Israel has been sympathetic towards the Kurds’ demand for a homeland. Israel identifies the Kurds’ struggle with that of the Jews’ struggle for getting a homeland of their own. While Iraq has been an enemy of Israel, Iraq-based Kurds have had close engagements with Israel.

In 2003, the Kurds joined the United States in its offensive against the Saddam Hussein regime. Following Saddam Hussein’s ouster, the Iraqi Kurds got an autonomous region of their own in northern Iraq. This development led to a greater proximity between the Kurds and Israel. Israel is also known to have trained the Kurds in counter-terror operations. In 2017, Israel voiced its support for an independent state for the Kurds.

Türkiye’s continuing operations against the Kurds, terming them as terrorists, has a strong undertone of attempting to undermine Israel’s influence in the region. The Abraham Accords of 2020 have already thawed ties between Israel and several Arab States. The Israel-Hamas war would only temporarily put brakes on the growing Israel-Arab relations as Arab countries recognise that strong engagements with Israel would benefit them in the future. Offensive against the Kurds is Türkiye’s way of forwarding the narrative of its national interest. Simultaneously, this offensive offers Türkiye an opportunity to challenge Israel’s growing stature among the Muslims in the Middle East.

The writer is an Independent Political Analyst and Researcher based in Vadodara. Follow him on X: @NiranjanMarjani