The Kurds are a Muslim-majority ethnic group located mainly in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. With a total global population of around 30 million, they are the largest ethnic group without a state. Since the rise of the Islamic State, the Kurds have been crucial in the fight against ISIS and have been a reliable US military ally. The Turkish government has had a contentious relationship with the Kurds for decades, as it views the Kurds as a threat to the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK as a terrorist organization. To better understand Turkey’s relations with its Kurdish minority, here are eight facts about Turkey’s Kurds.
8 Facts about Turkey’s Kurds
- There are between 15-20 million Kurdish people in Turkey, most of whom are located in the Kurdish districts of Sivas and Marash and in Eastern and South-Eastern Anatolia, or what the Kurds call Northern Kurdistan. Large Kurdish communities also exist in Turkish cities, such as Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Adana and Mersin. Turkey’s Kurds comprise somewhere between 19-25 percent of its total population.
- After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds’ homeland, Kurdistan, was divided so that it was controlled by the mostly newly-formed states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Many Kurdish people in Turkey are dissatisfied with this arrangement and want their own state. Indeed, since the 1930s the Kurds have resisted rule by the Turkish government, such as the government’s insistence on one national language.
- Since 1984, the PKK, often aided by Iran and Syria, has waged an armed insurgency against the Turkish regime. In the 1990s, the PKK executed several suicide bombings. The Turkish army has suppressed these Kurdish uprisings, and targeted Kurds suspected of supporting the PKK. In the 1990s, the regime depopulated rural Kurdish areas by evacuating or burning 4,000 Kurdish villages to the ground. This destruction displaced millions of Kurds, who received no social assistance or compensation. Furthermore, it is responsible for high unemployment among Turkey’s Kurds and economic inequality between the Kurdish and Turkish populations.
- When the AKP (Justice and Development Party) rose to power in Turkey in 2002, the government adopted a “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy. In accordance with this shift, Turkey sought to cooperate with Syria, Iran and Iraq on the Kurdish issue. However, since the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011, Turkey’s relations with Syria and Iran have deteriorated significantly. Additionally, the Arab Spring reenergized Kurdish hopes of statehood, and the PKK escalated its terrorist attacks.
- Still, the AKP government has increased its efforts to engage with moderate Kurdish groups. For instance, in 2011, then-Prime Minister Erdogan recognized the Dersim massacre that occurred in the late 1930s. Some Kurds participate in Turkey’s political process; the Kurdish separatist party BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) gained three dozen seats in Turkey’s parliament.
- In an effort to quell political unrest among its Kurdish population, the Turkish government has employed a carrot-and-stick approach. In conjunction with the repression of the Kurdish resistance through the army and police, the Turkish regime has taken up a strategy of ‘‘development as counterinsurgency.” According to this plan, the Kurdish rebellion against the Turkish regime is attributable to the chronic poverty and lack of economic development in Southeastern Turkey and, therefore, can be resolved through economic development programs and welfare redistribution. Turkey’s most significant effort to provide economic development to its Kurdish population is the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), a program implemented which has provided more than 30 billion dollars in regional development assistance since the government implemented it in the 1970s. Notably, however, this program has not proven to benefit the Kurds. Between 1996-2003, the socioeconomic status of all but one province supposedly aided by GAP regressed. The construction of dams on the Euphrates and Tigris through the program proved to be disastrous environmentally and demographically.
- The Turkish government has successfully implemented social assistance programs, such as means-tested free health care, for individual impoverished Kurds. Other social assistance programs include the provision of conditional cash transfers, food stamps, housing, education, and disability aid for the poor. These programs have expanded in the 2000s, and from 2003-2009, Turkey’s spending on social expenditures increased 85 percent.
- These government welfare programs disproportionately benefit the Kurds; for instance, poor Kurds are twice as likely to receive a free health care card than non-Kurds in Turkey.
Due to this unequal distribution and Turkey’s historical relationship with the Kurds, critiques of the Turkish government conclude that it is aiding the Kurds not based on their needs, but according to their ethnicity. According to this argument, the Turkish regime provides social assistance to its Kurdish population solely in the hopes of containing the political unrest and weakening the ethnic identity of the Kurds.
The Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Middle East, and Turkey’s Kurds make up a substantial minority of its population. Thus, Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds has huge implications for the entire Middle East. As these eight facts about Turkey’s Kurds show, this fraught relationship spans decades and will not be easy to resolve, as it concerns the sovereignty of the Turkish state and the rights of the Kurdish people.
– Sarah Frazer