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Americans Shouldn’t Accept Erdogan’s Cynical Stance on the PKK

Turkey Istanbul Convention

“We are determined to root out this terrorist organization,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared shortly after a bomb exploded on an Istanbul pedestrian mall, calling the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) “enemies of Islam and humanity.”

For NATO leaders, diplomats, and those in Washington prone to accept and amplify Turkish talking points, Erdogan’s concerns were “legitimate.” Many repeated Turkey’s charge that PKK affiliates in Syria were responsible for the attack, something both Syrian Kurds and the PKK deny.

Such deference to Erdogan has a cost.

Turkey today uses the Istanbul bomb both as a reason to conduct a preplanned operation to eradicate Kurdish self-governance across northern and eastern Syria, and to incite the Turkish public against the United States. “We know the identity, location and track record of the terrorists. We also know very well who patronizes, arms and encourages terrorists,” Erdogan declared, trying to incite anger toward the United States, which has supported the Syrian Defense Forces’ fight against the Islamic State.

While there are legitimate arguments for close U.S.-Turkish ties, it is a mistake to both conflate Turkey with Erdogan and to assume principle rather than politics shapes the Turkish position toward the PKK.

From the very formation of modern Turkey, the country’s leaders discriminated against the country’s Kurds. For Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his successor İsmet İnönü, the problem was the Kurds’ religiosity and resistance to laicism. Subsequently, Turks sought to repress Kurdish ethnic and cultural identity. It was against this milieu and outright racism that Abdullah Öcalan broke with Turkish leftists and founded the PKK on ethnic grounds.

At first, the PKK did engage in terrorism against fellow Kurds and Turks, and embraced Marxist ideology. In August 1984 PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan launched an insurgency and terror campaign, seizing towns in southeastern Turkey and using loudspeakers to declare separatist goals. Over the following decade, fighting between the PKK and the Turkish army resulted in perhaps 20,000 deaths. While Turkey engaged in systematic human rights abuses both before and after the PKK insurgency, PKK attacks on civilians were a tactical mistake as the Turkish public began to see the Kurds as an enemy group rather than a victimized minority, a fact that set the Kurdish cause back decades.

With the end of the Cold War, the PKK liberalized its economic philosophy and shed its separatist demands. With time, PKK evolved first into a more traditional insurgency, and then a far more dormant one. This is the major reason why the United States did not initially designate the PKK to be a terror group; it did so only in 1997 not on the merits of the group’s actions but rather because Ankara demanded it as a condition of a multi-billion dollar arms sale.

None other than Turgut Özal, prime minister and then president during the height of the PKK’s violent campaign, recognized the change in the PKK. Özal repeatedly stood up to Turkey’s ossified elite and broke the taboo surrounding liberalization of Turkey’s Kurdish policies to include allowing the Kurdish language, Kurdish education and television broadcasts. Özal also first proposed establishment of the Kurdish safe-haven in Iraq, albeit to avoid a refugee influx into Turkey. As the Turkish military gained the upper hand over the PKK in the early 1990s, Özal even pushed the Turkish government to address the economic discrimination that fueled separatist fire. Had a heart attack not felled Özal in his prime, it is possible if not even likely the PKK and Turkish state would have begun formal negotiations to end the insurgency.

Özal was not the only leader who sought to end the conflict with the PKK, although he was in hindsight the most sincere. Öcalan welcomed talks and shed doctrinaire inflexibility. Indeed, the PKK evolved with time just as Turkey had. Erdogan repeatedly reached out to the group and its proxies in the belief that his brand of Islamism might form a common bond and that Kurds might offer him electoral support. PKK members even agreed to lay down arms and move to Syria, where, with very few resources, they established a successful and progressive government. For Erdogan to complain that PKK members live in northern Syria is disingenuous since he sent them there as part of a peace deal.

Erdogan’s cynicism and dishonesty run deep. He made myriad promises to Turkish Kurds prior to each election, only to renege on them after. Ultimately, Turkey’s Kurds saw through his cynicism. They voted in earnest for the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (or its earlier iteration), breaking through the ten percent threshold to loosen Erdogan’s grip on parliament. Erdogan responded not by respecting the democratic will, but by arresting its leadership.

This brings us back to the present. Diplomats might appease the Turkish government in the mistaken belief they can appease Erdogan. They err in the belief that short-term appeasement will discourage further violence. Academics and think tank analysts should not be constrained by existing government policy, however. To substitute volume and repetition of Erdogan statements for research is both dishonest and poor research methodology. It is also anachronistic given developments in Turkish-Kurdish relations from the 1990s to the present. Here, there is a parallel to South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was both Marxist and engaged in terrorism in its origin, but both Mandela and the group he led evolved to seek compromise and peace.

There is something very wrong when Americans who have never interacted with or confronted the Syrian Kurdish leadership with their concerns, let alone bothered to visit the region to see whether Erdogan’s characterizations are accurate, seek to be more Turkish than the most ardent, intolerant, and extreme Turkish political groupings. The tragedy is that such academic malpractice can lead to very real consequence with the furtherance of conflict and the murder of even more innocents.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).
Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).



  1. David Chang

    December 8, 2022 at 7:51 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Even though socialism scholars call P.K.K. terrorist organization, but P.K.K. is another socialism party. Like Iran and Iraq, they are Islamic socialism party, not Muslims who obey Ten Commandments.

    One month ago, in the United Nations General Assembly, Iran preached to Israel the worship of Muhammad, but did not say that people in Israel and Iran should obey Ten Commandments.

    But people of Kurd should confess Sin, repent to God, and obey Ten Commandments, because they cooperated with Communist Party in the 20th century.

    God bless America.

  2. 403Forbidden

    December 8, 2022 at 7:54 pm

    Tayyip erdogan is the splitting image of pax americana in the middle east OR the man staring back from the mirror when uncle sam decides to take a look at himself.

    Erdogan is exactly like a loose hound or hound fully on the loose when it comes to matters in the middle east.

    He has openly waged war against his neighbors, iraq and syria, in particularly, syria.

    His game or gamble against the government of the day in syria on behalf of NATO & islamofascism didn’t bear fruit, but nonetheless he keeps the fight going, thanks to USA and NATO and UN.

    What is the solution. Solution is for NATO to attack russia so as to spark off ww3 where russia can then drop all pretense and wipe out ankara with a barrage of thermonuclear warheads.

  3. Johan

    December 11, 2022 at 8:43 am

    What are the major corrupt things Erdoğan has done since he became prime minister?
    In my sense of vision, here are some corrupt things he has done. There are a lot more, maybe I’ll keep adding to the list;
    * First, he became prime minister illegally. It was against the law. Erdoğan had two major cases going on in courts before he became PM; One was money stealing case during İstanbul mayorship, “İGDAŞ Yolsuzluğu”. The other one; He was in jail for a while because of islamofascist public poem reading to polarise Turkish people. (muslim vs non muslim)
    * Erdoğan’s son Ahmet Burak Erdoğan hit a pedestrian (famous Turkish singer, “Sevim Tanürek” who badly injured and died 5 days after the accident May 16 1998) Ahmet had no driver’s license because he was under age and he was completely guilty. When he hit Tanürek, she was crossing the road and traffic light was green for her. Ahmet Burak did not even go to jail, because of his father Erdoğan did necessary fixings in the police department….Model Mayor.
    * The Hood Event – July 4 2003 (Çuval Geçirme) The insulting scandal against Turkish military took place in Northern Iraq. American army arrested 11 of our high level army members in Nortern Iraq with an insulting way ( they put sacks on our soldiers heads while they handcuffed). Erdoğan didn’t even move a finger against United States, because it was planned actions against our secular military and Erdoğan was the one who benefitted from the situation.
    * Deniz Feneri Yolsuzluğu – 2008 : Deniz Feneri Trial was a trial launched in Germany in reply to the allegations made against the Deniz Feneri charity. These allegations stated that a part of the 41 million Euros collected by the charity was used outside the charities purpose. The trial was seen to by High Court of Frankfurt on 17 September 2008. Illegally collected cash money is transferred to Turkey in suitcases step by step in months. This money is used by Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen for fighting against Secular Turkish Republic’s institutions.
    * Partnership with Fehullah: As soon as he became PM in 2002 he started working against our secular military aggressively with his partner Fethullah Gülen. This aggressive period extended and finalized with lie propoganda of “Ergenekon” and “Balyoz” 2008. At the end, secular Turkish military was ended. Thousands of innocent military people were imprisoned, lost their jobs and many died in mystery.
    * Mavi Marmara Incident May-31-2010 : Nothing is more insulting Turkey in 100 Years of Turkish History. “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” on 31 May 2010 in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea. Nine activists were killed on one ship during the raid and ten Israeli soldiers were wounded, one seriously. One further Turkish activist died later of his wounds. Three of the six flotilla ships, organized by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İHH), were carrying humanitarian aid and construction materials, with the intention of breaking the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Israel had warned the flotilla to abort their mission, describing it as a provocation. THIS INCIDENT HAPPENED BECAUSE OF ERDOĞAN’S PERSONAL AMBİTİON.
    * Giving up about Cyprus: During his early PM years Erdoğan gave up about Turkey’s rights in the Eastern Mediterranean to stay at power as a good boy of the EU and the US. He destructed our ongoing strategic policies in the name of “so called“ joining the EU. We are suffering today from Erdoğan’s wrong actions. Specially about our rights on Northern Cyprus and natural underground sources in the eastern mediterranean as well. Nobody forgot about his actions against legendary president of Northern Cyprus Rauf Denktaş.
    * 17–25 December 2013 Scandals: The 2013 corruption scandal in Turkey was a criminal investigation that involved several key people in the Turkish government.(Erdoğan included) All of the 52 people detained on 17 December were connected in various ways with the ruling Erdoğan’s party AKP. This is probably the biggest money laundering corruption that Turkey’s prime minister (Erdoğan) involved. According to wiretappings Prime Minister Erdogan allegedly called his son in the early hours of December 17 and gave instructions to transfer huge amount of cash from his house in Istanbul. The leaks show that Erdogan called his son four times that day to find out how much money had been transferred. One of the recorded calls gave clues about the estimated amount of money transferred. When Erdogan asked his son how much money was left in the house, his son said, “We still have 30 million euros that we could not dissolve it.”
    * Illegal Palace: Wasting Turkish taxpayer’s money is another thing. He built a ridiculos palace in Ankara with 1100 rooms. Completely unnecessary (the spot which palace built is illegal. That land was Atatürk’s personal land which he left to remain as gardens, that was his will).
    * Staged Coup d’etat. (fake coup attempt) 2016 – I’ll explain details
    * Man Island and Katar – Money Loundering Scandals 2017 – I’ll explain details
    * New İstanbul Airport: While we have perfectly large enough, well operating Atatürk Airport, it is another way of wasting country’s money. Now another one is on the way, idiotic future project “Kanal İstanbul”.
    * Destructed Parliamentary System
    * Polarising Turkish people.
    * Fake Diploma: His college diploma is fake. He is just a hi school graduate. According to Turkish Constitution, high school graduates can not become president.

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