Turkey’s Palestinians

After 70 years of repression by Israel, Palestinians continue to struggle for freedom and continue to constitute Israel’s core problem, Israeli repression warping Israeli social values, endangering its security, undermining its economy. Is this stellar example of self-defeating behavior the future for Turkey? Is Erdogan really following Israel’s lead?

The landmark U.S.-Iranian nuclear compromise has hardly been shown the light of day, offering the potential of a saner Mideast, and already the old cycle of warfare is heating up again. By lumping ISIS jihadis with the PKK, Erdogan has intentionally confused many issues that need to be made clear and has established a prima facie case for being accused of launching sectarian warfare.

Whether or not sectarian war is Erdogan’s goal, the appearance is dangerous and tragic for everyone, not least a Turkey that is 15-25% Kurdish. Erdogan’s tactical moves over the past year have undercut his earlier claims that he aspired to resolve the domestic Kurdish issue, an issue quite simply the result of a long tradition of discrimination and marginalization by Ankara. It is not practical, much less moral, to “resolve” an ethnic issue by repression when a quarter of the country belongs to the minority ethnicity; resolution, especially in the modern world, should take the road of accommodation, i.e., resolving the minority’s grievances rather than trying to obliterate its challenge, be the result equal treatment, temporary preferential treatment in compensation, or separate treatment (confessional politics, autonomy, or independence). No country has a moral right to compel a minority to submit and, indeed, why should any society want to incorporate a group united in hostility?

The sordid history of the post-Civil War U.S., all the way up to a series of ethnic problems during this summer of 2015, illustrate the difficulty of truly resolving ethnic conflict. Real solutions must be bottom-up, neighbor-to-neighbor, but without visionary leadership from the top, creating a peaceful multi-ethnic society is virtually impossible, especially when discrimination is rooted in the legal system, as with the post-Civil War laws of the U.S. South. There is much opportunity in Ankara to demonstrate that it is not standing in the way of Kurdish integration into Turkish society, just as there was much opportunity in Washington in the 1950s with education, in the 1960s with city buses, and still is today with police bias.

By choosing to attack the PKK outside of Turkey, rather than emphasizing support for more moderate Kurdish fighters defending Syrian Kurds, Erdogan risks alienating and radicalizing a quarter of the population of Turkey. This might indeed enhance his electoral chances this fall, but it will also split Turkey and make Erdogan responsible for whatever violence follows.

The onus is now on Erdogan to demonstrate with action that sectarian war is not his goal. He can only do this by taking true initiative to 1) eliminate anti-Kurdish discrimination within Turkey, 2) facilitate the full political integration of Turkish Kurds into the Turkish political system, and 3) vigorously supporting justice (be it independence or autonomy) for regional Kurds. The latter is hardly imaginable without including some sort of international recognition for Rojava, perhaps along the lines of the Lebanese confessional state.

A no-fly zone is all well and good. Indeed, it ought to be a “no shoot zone.” The issue does not concern the creation of such a zone. The issue concerns how the various ethnic communities within that zone are treated. A no-fly zone in Syria enforced by Turkey could demonstrate to the world Turkey’s commitment to democracy and civil rights. Alternatively, it could demonstrate to the world a racist regime in Ankara intent upon suppressing Kurdish aspirations for freedom. But one thing it surely demonstrates is a politician once again taking the easy road – just bomb everyone. The PKK only exists because Turks in Turkey made Kurds in Turkey feel unwanted. ISIS and the PKK are entirely distinct issues for Turkey, not two identical  cases of “terrorism,” as Erdogan portrayed it: the PKK is the extremist fringe of an entirely justified Kurdish insistence upon justice, a situation caused by Ankara, a situation in which Ankara is the guilty party, while the Islamic State is a foreign threat.  [Or, is that in fact not the real story? Should we in fact interpret Erdogan’s charge that ISIS and the PKK are two peas in a pod as an admission that, by funding anyone who would fight against Assad, Ankara is also guilty of helping to create ISIS? Food for thought.]

Is it really so hard to figure out that anti-regime extremists are created by oppressive regimes?  Turkey should not follow the path of Israel. The way for Turkey to remain a powerful country is to become an inclusive one. But Erdogan is looking at reelection, not history, it seems. In any case, since he has decided to jump from the Mideast ethnic frying pan into the fire, it is now up to Erdogan to make the choice between democracy and ethnic war, and it is up to Obama to make sure that he makes the right one.

The sun shone briefly upon the Mideast last week, but now the thunderheads are once again blackening the political horizons.


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