It would appear that Turkey is planning a new military operation in northern Syria. President Erdogan claims the action is to deal with PKK/YPG “terrorists” and enable the “voluntary” transfer of Syrian refugees back into Syria. At the same time, Ankara has blocked Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership bids because they alleged these countries provide support to Kurdish “militants”. Whilst Russia is distracted by its incursion in Ukraine and the USA is bogged down by its proxy war with Moscow, Erdogan, is seizing an opportunity to advance what he regards as Turkish interests.
Since World War One, the tension between the Kurdish people and the Turkish Government has continued to worsen. Kurdish people account for one-fifth of Turkey’s population and are regarded as a minority community. In 1984, Abdullah Ocalan, the founding member of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) declared an uprising against the Turkish government. The purpose was to cease repression against Kurds and provide the Kurdish people with their own sovereign state. The Turkish government, on the other hand, has identified the PKK as a terrorist organisation.
As a result, the struggle between the Kurds and the Turkish government has intensified. Since 1984, an estimated 40,000 people have died, the majority of whom are Kurds. Discrimination and violence against Kurds in Turkey have resulted in millions of people being displaced. Kurdish civilians in Turkey have also been subjected to severe economic and political suffering. The Turkish government has justified its attacks on Kurdish civilians by framing them as counter-terrorism operations against the PKK.
What is the PKK?
The PKK was formally created in 1978, the organisation was dedicated to creating an independent Kurdistan. However, in the 1990s the PKK’s primary goal shifted to achieving equal treatment of Kurds in Turkey and the attainment of autonomy. In 1999, Abdullah Ocalan leader of the PKK at the time was sentenced to death and a ceasefire was called. He was alleged to have ordered the murder of many civilians in Turkey. At the time the Turkish government thought the imprisonment of Ocalan would lead to the fall of the PKK. However, in 2004 the attacks continued, and the ceasefire was called off by the PKK. Since then, the PKK and the Turkish government have attempted to reach rapprochement but have failed multiple times.
The Kurdish role in The Syrian Civil war
Kurdish territories in northern Syria are in a precarious situation and have faced difficulties during the Syrian Civil War. In 2019, the US withdrew its soldiers from northern Syria, leaving Kurds to defend themselves against Turkey and other threats, including Islamic extremists. The Kurdish YPG fighters (People’s Protection Units) arose in Syria during the Syrian Civil War as a defence force. The YPG is seen as an extension of the PKK, to establish a federal state in northern Syria. The YPG has had a strong relationship with the US in the past. They became allies against ISIS.
Times have changed, and the United States has stood aside since then. As a result, Turkey was able to move on with Operation Claw-Lock, a plan to combat terrorism while also ensuring the safe return of Syrian refugees. President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey indicated that he has sufficient grounds to deploy the Turkish military in northern Syria. However, some argue Erdogan had ulterior motives and the political agenda behind its plan was more about using tactics against the YPG. President Erdogan may have used the conflicts with Kurdish armed movements to improve his domestic position and better his presidency.
What is happening now?
The struggle between Turkey and the Kurds continues, and it has crossed over into neighbouring Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, Iran, and Iraq. The conflict is no longer a domestic issue; it has intensified, and new actors are becoming involved. Turkey blocked the process of Sweden and Finland joining NATO on May 23, 2022. Turkey stated both countries have a link with the PKK, which they regard to be a terrorist organisation. President Erdogan claims that Sweden backs the PKK and even protects them by providing them with a place of refuge.
Finland and Sweden joined other EU countries in stopping weapon sales to Turkey in 2019 over its military action against Kurdish groups in Syria. Turkey states that if both countries want their membership in NATO, they must publicly deny their support for the PKK and not give refuge to them. NATO may face an obstacle with Turkey’s demands.
What does the future hold?
With 20 million Kurds living in Turkey, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the Middle East. While it’s improbable that Kurds would be able to form their own independent state, the debate over Kurdish statehood is evolving. In the Middle East, the Kurds have gained more political influence. Turkey’s links with Iran, Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, and the country’s economic troubles could all change that.