There’s only 1 solution to Turkey’s ‘Kurdish problem’

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The foundation of Turkey’s difficult relationship with its Kurdish minority was laid after World War I, when the Ottoman Empire was partitioned into various nation-states. The area where the Kurds, a nomadic tribe, used to roam freely was divided into what is today known as Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. There has been friction with the Kurdish minority in all four countries since. 

Deconstructing myths

In Turkey, the frictions are mainly based on two factors. First is that Kurds feel betrayed. They claim that the Treaty of Sèvres promised them an independent Kurdish state. However, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, allegedly “tricked” them into fighting against the allies, either by promising Kurds their own territory or a common state. Since neither materialized, proponents to date feel that they have a right to create an independent or autonomous Kurdish state within Turkey’s borders.

{mosads}The allegations against the Turkish state, however, are not entirely true. Even though the treaty included a provision for a Kurdish state, according to Article 64, the provision had many conditions, one of which would have required Turkey’s consent for a Kurdish state to materialize. Moreover, such a Kurdish state would have been put under British control. A majority of Kurds rejected this due to religious concerns. When the Turkish Nationalist Movement decided to fight the allies and the conditions of the Treaty of Sèvres, the majority of Kurds chose to fight alongside Atatürk. Three years later, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed and Turkey’s current borders were legally established. 


Since the Republic of Turkey was legally established, any form of Kurdish state in Turkey — independent or otherwise — is obviously less than feasible. Yet, proponents of a Kurdish state incorrectly refer to the Treaty of Sèvres to make their case. This brings us to the second challenge: the lack of human rights in Turkey.

No one can change history. What can be changed is how minorities are treated — regardless of who they are, when people are treated with respect and dignity, and are granted full-fledged human rights, concerns about ethnicity or race become secondary, or may even vanish. After all, the purpose of constructs such as race or ethnicity is unequal treatment. 

In this regard, Turkey has failed miserably — however, not only her minorities but her entire population. A constant crack-down on free speech has been on the political agenda since the establishment of the country and only continues to intensify with the increasingly autocratic direction of the current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime.

Erdoğan’s opening

After President Turgut Özal, who suddenly became ill and died in 1993, Erdoğan became in 2005 the first Turkish president to show interest in dealing with the Kurdish problem more openly. However, any signs of progress were short-lived. Although the ban on broadcasting in Kurdish was lifted in 2009 and Kurdish was finally allowed to be taught in public schools in 2012, even the attempts to grant Kurds the most basic rights have been inconsistent, as the recent crack-down on Kurdish schools and news outlets illustrates.

Avoiding a civil war

Kurds and Turks have to remember that both sides have contributed to the status quo. Kurdish nationalists have refused to identify with Turkey, in spite of their Turkish citizenship, signaling that they want to partition the country. Turkey, on the other hand, has contributed to the problem by denying Kurds many basic rights, attempting to assimilate them, and oppressing their cultural identity and language.

From the Kurdish perspective, it must be noted that autonomy does not necessarily guarantee human rights, as the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq prominently illustrates. Moreover, the linguistic divide and other tribal and cultural differences would make a stable Kurdistan very unlikely. That may explain why even the proponents cannot agree on a common vision. 

As to Turkey’s role in solving the “Kurdish problem,” Turkey has to remember that most Kurds have built lives in Turkey that they would be unlikely to give up for a bloody conflict, if they could only exercise their basic rights freely. Turkey also needs to consider that Kurds are not the only minority that the country has been having problems with. The nation has recently been struggling more than ever with a substantial portion of its citizens: Kurds, Alevis, intellectuals, secular citizens, and all others who demand more freedom and democracy.

Improving human rights is the only way to securing a peaceful future for Turkey. Otherwise, a civil war is going to be the most likely outcome of the continuous frictions and crack-downs — to the detriment of the entire region.


Alev Dudek, a recipient of The National Security Education Program (NSEP) award, is a German-American analyst and author of Turkish descent. As an established scholar in diversity, she served on the executive board of the International Society for Diversity Management in Berlin.


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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