featured in American Ambassadors Review, Fall 2019
by Gonul Tol
For decades, Turkey’s conflict with its own Kurdish minority has hindered the country’s democratization. But neither Turkey’s democratization nor the Kurdish quest for political rights has occupied an important place in U.S. policy. Turkey’s democratic shortcomings have been ignored by U.S. administrations for the sake of greater geostrategic interests. In a similar fashion, Kurdish rights have been overlooked in the game of power politics. Today’s regional context, however, ties Turkish democracy and the peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question to the U.S. security interests in the region. The United States must therefore pay closer attention to both.
There is no doubt that most freedoms under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been dramatically curtailed. Opposition leaders continue to face arrest and prosecution. Authorities use anti-terror laws broadly against those who are critical of the government. Thousands of people—including minors, journalists, foreign journalists, human rights activists, and social media users—who exercise their right to freedom of expression face criminal prosecutions on trumped-up terrorism charges. The mainstream media are largely controlled by the government and routinely carry identical headlines.
Most concerning of all, however, is the ongoing conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). A string of clashes in the mainly Kurdish region between the PKK and Turkish security forces has killed thousands since the ceasefire broke down in 2015—including 464 civilians, 1,166 Turkish security personnel, and 2,544 PKK militants—and displaced 350,000 people. Both the PKK and the Turkish state played a role in the destruction of major segments of Kurdish cities. The political ramifications of the fighting have been equally disastrous. The Turkish state response has largely criminalized Kurdish political expression. Hundreds of Kurdish news outlets have been shut down. Thousands of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) activists and dozens of Kurdish co-mayors and HDP parliamentarians remain in prison. The Turkish government has removed elected mayors in Kurdish regions and installed government-appointed trustees in all but a few of the 102 HDP-controlled municipalities.
Do Not Give Up on Turkish Democracy Just Yet
Turkey has turned increasingly authoritarian under President Erdogan, but it is not a full-blown dictatorship. Public opinion, elections and civil society still matter in Turkey. The March 31 local elections were a breath of fresh air for those long resigned to the perceptions that the ballot box doesn’t matter anymore and that President Erdogan is invincible.
To the surprise of many, the opposition captured almost all of Turkey’s major cities, including Istanbul, its biggest metropolis and economic powerhouse, as well as the capital, Ankara, boosting hopes that March 31 would mark the beginning of the end of Erdogan’s 17-year rule. But the decision by Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) on May 6th to nullify the results of the Istanbul mayoral election and call for a new vote quickly changed the mood. Giving in to pressure from President Erdogan, who contested the Istanbul election won by the CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu by about 13,000 votes, claiming voter fraud and other irregularities, the YSK ordered a rerun on June 23. Pessimists thought that they were right all along and that Erdogan would do everything not to lose Istanbul a second time. But they were proven wrong. Erdogan lost Istanbul a second time—and this time by a much larger margin of 775,000 votes. The victory was the result of the opposition parties’ unified stance, the support given to the democratic process by Turkey’s Kurds (who voted overwhelmingly for the opposition) and the mobilization of citizens and civil society organizations. In a show of civic strength and popular defiance against Erdogan, elections monitoring groups, lawyers’ associations and political parties mobilized thousands of volunteers and lawyers to observe balloting at Istanbul’s more than 30,000 polling places. The election is a testament to the fact that democracy in Turkey, though ailing, is not dead yet: it just needs help.
U.S. Response to Turkey’s Democratic Backsliding Has Historically Been Muted
U.S. policy has mimicked Turkey’s view of the Kurdish problem and treated it as a domestic security matter. The birth of the PKK as a Marxist-Leninist organization in the 1970s made it easy for the United States to adopt Turkey’s position on the larger Kurdish question. After the Cold War, Turkey remained important for U.S. goals in the Middle East. In an effort not to destabilize a key ally, the U.S. policy remained indifferent to the democratic struggle of Turkey’s Kurds. More recently, the United States allied itself with the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, the YPG, in its fight against the Islamic State. While Kurds died in the thousands in that campaign, the West admired their courage, called them “heroic fighters” but paid little attention to their long history of persecution under oppressive regimes and their struggle for more rights in the countries where they reside.
The Kurdish question, however, is a matter of democratization and human rights. Under repressive Turkish governments since the inception of the modern Turkish Republic, Kurdish identity has been suppressed, the Kurds have been denied basic rights and they have been subjected to repressive and discriminatory measures. Although Turkey has legitimate security concerns emanating from its decades-long conflict with a group considered to be a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union (EU), denial of Kurdish ethnic identity and democratic rights is at the heart of the problem. Thus, the responsibility rests on the Turkish government to acknowledge Kurdish democratic aspirations such as mother-language education, an end to discriminatory laws and fair political representation.
The United States must change its narrative that frames the Kurds as “great fighters.” This narrative only perpetuates the flawed, security-oriented approach to the Kurds. Instead, the United States must recognize the rich history and diverse politics and sociology of the Kurdish people and their common struggle to achieve more rights. Doing so is not just a moral imperative for the United States but also a practical one. Turkey’s failure to resolve its Kurdish problem peacefully has hurt U.S. interests in the region. The steps Turkey has taken in Syria in an effort to contain Kurdish nationalism have hurt the fight against the Islamic State, put the two NATO allies on a collision course and empowered U.S. adversaries such as Russia, Iran and Syria’s Bashar Assad regime.
Only a more democratic Turkey can address the Kurdish question peacefully. The United States should not see Turkey as a lost cause. There is still hope for democracy in Turkey, and the United States has a stake in it. Working with the EU to push Turkey to take steps in the right direction, as well as attaching democratic conditionality to Turkey-United States trade at a time of economic hardship, could not only help a U.S. ally but also could help U.S. goals in a volatile region.
 Max Hoffman, “The State of the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict,” Center for American Progress, August 12, 2019, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2019/08/12/473508/state-turkish-kurdish-conflict/.
GONUL TOL is the founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies and adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies.