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Turkey's Kurdish Question: Discourse and Politics Since 1990



The Kurdish question is one of the most complicated and protracted conficts of the Middle East and will never be resolved unless it is fnally defned. The majority of the Kurdish people live in Turkey, which gives the country a unique position in the larger Kurdish conundrum. Society in Turkey is deeply divided over the defnition and even existence of the Kurdish question, and this uncertainty has long manifested itself in its complete denial, or in accusations of political rivals of ‘separatism’ and even ‘treason.’ Turkey’s Kurdish Question explores how these denial and acknowledgement dynamics often reveal preexisting political ideology and agenda priorities, themselves becoming political actions. While the very term “Kurdish question” is discussed in the academic literature as a given, a new and systemic study is required to deconstruct and analyze the constitutive parts of this discursive construct. This book provides the frst comprehensive study and analysis of the discursive constructions and perceptions of what is broadly defned as the “Kurdish question” in Turkish, European and American political cultures. Furthermore, its new methodological approach to the study of discourse and politics of secessionist conficts can be applied to many similar intrastate confict cases. Turkey’s Kurdish Question would suit students and scholars of Middle East studies, Confict studies and Comparative Politics, as well as Turkish or Kurdish studies.
Turkey’s Kurdish Question
The Kurdish question is one of the most complicated and protracted conicts of
the Middle East and will never be resolved unless it is nally dened. The majority
of the Kurdish people live in Turkey, which gives the country a unique position in
the larger Kurdish conundrum.
Society in Turkey is deeply divided over the denition and even existence of the
Kurdish question, and this uncertainty has long manifested itself in its complete
denial, or in accusations of political rivals of ‘separatism’ and even ‘treason.’
Turkey’s Kurdish Question explores how these denial and acknowledgement
dynamics often reveal preexisting political ideology and agenda priorities, them-
selves becoming political actions. While the very term “Kurdish question” is dis-
cussed in the academic literature as a given, a new and systemic study is required
to deconstruct and analyze the constitutive parts of this discursive construct. This
book provides the rst comprehensive study and analysis of the discursive con-
structions and perceptions of what is broadly dened as the “Kurdish question” in
Turkish, European and American political cultures. Furthermore, its new method-
ological approach to the study of discourse and politics of secessionist conicts
can be applied to many similar intrastate conict cases.
Turkey’s Kurdish Question would suit students and scholars of Middle East
studies, Conict studies and Comparative Politics, as well as Turkish or Kurdish
H. Akin Ünver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has
University. This book is based on his dissertation Dening Turkey’s Kurdish Ques-
tion, which has won the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) 2010 Malcolm
H. Kerr award for the best dissertation in the eld of social sciences.
8329-010-0FM.indd 1 3/17/2015 9:32:27 AM
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Henrietta Wilkins
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Edited by Noureddine Jebnoun,
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Antonio Avaloz, Hakan Yilmaz and
Ana I. Planet
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Mubarak to Morsi
Nael Shama
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Management in Saudi Arabia
Afshin Shahi
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Rights in Morocco
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Toni Alaranta
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Nurhan Abujidi
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Edited by Moha Ennaji
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H. Akin Ünver
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8329-010-0FM.indd 6 3/17/2015 9:32:28 AM
Turkey’s Kurdish Question
Discourse and politics since 1990
H. Akin Ünver
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First published 2015
by Routledge
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN
and by Routledge
711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group,
an informa business
© 2015 Hamid Akin Ünver
The right of Hamid Akin Ünver to be identied as author of this work has
been asserted by him/her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or
utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now
known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in
any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing
from the publishers.
Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or
registered trademarks, and are used only for identication and explanation
without intent to infringe.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
[CIP data]
ISBN: 978-1-138-85856-5 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-1-315-71788-3 (ebk)
Typeset in Times New Roman
by Apex CoVantage, LLC
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This book is dedicated to the hope that the children and
grandchildren of those who died in the war-torn valleys and
mountains of Turkey can one day play and thrive in the same
valleys and mountains – together.
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List of illustrations xiii
List of acronyms xv
Acknowledgements xvii
Introduction 1
Why study discourse on the Kurdish question? 3
Political language and the study of the Kurdish question 5
Why post–Cold War conicts aren’t ‘internal’ anymore: State sovereignty,
parliaments and secession 10
Organization of the book 17
1 ThetransnationalKantandthesearchforaDiyarbakırsocial
contract: Emancipation discourses in the European Parliament
and US Congress 23
Human rights: Or, how to shoot yourself in the head
with an infantry rie 26
Was ‘Turkish democracy’ an oxymoron in the 1990s? 37
Scorched earth: Excessive force and security misconduct
criticisms 45
Conclusion 53
Notes 60
2 HobbesinWashingtonandBrussels:DeningKurdishchaos
and Turkish order 63
How power thinks: Deconstructing the logic of states
in conict 64
European priorities of Turkish statecraft: Strategic utility
and secularism 67
US Congress: Betwixt selling cluster bombs and ling war crimes
case against Turkey 78
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xii Contents
Transnational Locke meets transnational Hobbes: Self-critique
in the European Parliament and US Congress 83
Conclusion 92
Notes 93
3 Schrödinger’s Kurd: Can the Kurdish question both exist
and not exist in Turkey? 97
Dening the Kurdish question in Turkish political discourse 100
Human rights 100
Democracy and democratization 106
Excessive force and disproportionate use of weaponry 110
Security and terrorism 114
Economic–developmental discourses 116
Legalistic discourses 118
Autonomy–ethnicity–culturalism 121
Self-criticism in the TGNA 123
Foreign Dark Powers: How Turkey understood the international
relations of the Kurdish question 127
Conclusion 131
Notes 136
4 Concluding comparative analysis 140
Notes 151
Epilogue: Justice and Development Party (AKP) discourse
on the Kurdish question 152
Welfare Party and Erdoğan’s political formation
on the Kurdish question 153
Erdoğan in power: AKP’s Kurdish discourse, 2002–2009 156
After 2009: Kurdish opening, Arab spring and the Syrian
civil war 159
Notes 166
Index 171
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4.1 Overall discursive preferences in the TGNA,
European Parliament and US Congress 141
4.2 Radar graph comparing discursive priorities of
emancipatory parties 147
4.3 Radar graph showing statist parties’ discursive focus 148
1.1 European Parliament national breakdown of discursive preferences
(emancipatory consciousness) 54
1.2 Both Houses of the US Congress in their discursive trends
on the Kurdish question 56
1.3 Three most active senators on the Kurdish question
and their supportive/critical record towards Turkey 57
1.4 Top four most active House Representatives on the Kurdish
question and their supportive/critical record towards Turkey 58
2.1 Comparing EP political groups’ discourse preferences with
Council–Commission 77
2.2 US executive branch discursive preferences on the Kurdish question 83
2.3 Intra-EU criticism on the Kurdish question – sorted by countries and
political party groups 88
2.4 Both houses in the Congress and both parties’ criticism record 92
3.1 Turkish governments: 1989–2002 and corresponding ideology
designations 99
3.2 Aggregate discursive output in the TGNA:
January 1990–December 1999 132
3.3 Discursive choices of emergency-region MPs and other MPs 132
3.4 Percentage of education–developmental discourses within
parties’ aggregate discourses 134
3.5 Percentage of security discourses within parties’
aggregate discourses 136
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xiv Illustrations
3.6 Percentage of ‘foreign powers’ discourse within parties’
aggregate discourses 136
4.1 Consciousness of the state versus emancipation
across three legislatures 146
4.2 Parties with the highest percentage of emancipatory discourses 146
4.3 Parties with higher percentage of statist discourses 148
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This book is a product of my doctoral studies at the University of Essex, Depart-
ment of Government. I would like to thank the anonymous committee, which
awarded my dissertation Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA) 2010 Mal-
colm H. Kerr Best Dissertation in the eld of Social Sciences. This award was the
main encouragement that convinced me to convert the study into this book.
I am also grateful to Dr. Soner Cagaptay (Washington Institute for Near Eastern
Studies), Associate Professor Muge Gocek (University of Michigan, Sociology),
Professor Sukru Hanioglu, Professor Michael Cook and Associate Professor
Michael Reynolds (Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies), for their valuable
comments and directions that helped me re-think my dissertation into manuscript
form. I am also thankful to Kadir Has University, Faculty of Economic and Admin-
istrative Sciences, for providing me with a great work environment that helped me
complete this manuscript on time. I am forever thankful to Professor Hasan Bulent
Kahraman for his guidance, mentoring and vision that has set the tone of my intel-
lectual life.
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Early September 2012 – right before noon. As I rush through the lobby of Istan-
bul’s famous Conrad Hotel, my eyes scan through the brunch crowd to locate my
interviewee. At a time when new Turkish foreign policy was witnessing the epit-
ome of its ‘soft power’ prestige, I am about to speak to a high-level foreign policy
maker about some questions related to this book. Perhaps the most highly in
demand interviewee for many foreign policy and political science analysts – not
to mention journalists or foreign politicians – he is unexpectedly calm and low key
for one of the central gures of new Turkish foreign policy’s golden age.
Siting down at his brunch table, I notice how the hotel’s restaurant is, in fact, a
hub of diplomacy; Egyptian opposition, Syrian resistance, Libyan notables all sit
scattered in the hall, discussing their countries’ politics and future in Istanbul, orbit-
ing my interviewee’s table. Turkey’s reach for its Ottoman legacy seemed complete
and justied from where I was sitting; foreign dignitaries scrambling to sit closer
to an inuential modern-day Re’is ül-Küttab, diligently rening their cases, pre-
pared for weeks in advance, before trying to get Turkey’s support for their country’s
future within a brief allocated time. But now it was my turn; I was going to ask him
about the regional implications of the new ‘Kurdish initiative’a peace plan rened
after the failure of its 2009 predecessor. After making a brief introduction of my
book and its main arguments, he speaks with an uncommonly low volume, forcing
the listener to move in closer to be able to hear his reply. “So you are writing a book
on the Kurdish question?” After several seconds’ pause, he adds “It may be too late
to write such a thing. There won’t be [a Kurdish question] soon.”
Nine months later – mid-May 2013. After months of shuttle diplomacy between
the Turkish government and the long-imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’
Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, the latter agrees to order his organization to move
out of Turkish soil and retreat back into northern Iraq. This would be the second
‘Kurdish initiative,’ an attempt at the resolution of the Kurdish question after the
failed rst attempt in 2009. The overall spirit in Turkey was one of cautious opti-
mism; would the PKK also disarm? Would Öcalan be put on house arrest, improv-
ing his captivity conditions? Would the PKK evolve into a political party and enter
the Turkish Parliament?
Amidst such debate and PKK’s unilateral decision to withdraw, Turkey’s prom-
inent journalist Hasan Cemal embeds himself into the retreating PKK ranks and
8329-0010_Intro.indd 1 3/17/2015 9:36:17 AM
2 Introduction
writes a series of columns titled “Withdrawal Diaries,” charting the PKK’s with-
drawal journey from the southeastern Turkish mountains to northern Iraqi hills.
One PKK member interviewed by Hasan Cemal, called Fuat, says the 2013 with-
drawal is different than the group’s major withdrawal in 1999, which was caused
by the arrest of the group’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan: “We were new, we didn’t
know [and caused the Turkish military many casualties during the withdrawal].
This time the withdrawal is led directly by [Öcalan].” Yet, he adds cautiously:
“But this is the Middle East. Balances may change at anytime; anything can hap-
pen. Why did we go up in the mountains in the rst place? Why are we coming
down now?”
Fourteen years earlier – late May 1999. After Turkey’s then President Süley-
man Demirel’s ultimatum to Syria, in which PKK leader Öcalan was provided
shelter, Turkish tanks breach the border and begin rolling into Syrian territory.
After several hours of simultaneous diplomacy, Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad
agrees to oust Öcalan from Syrian territory. Öcalan then travels to Russia, and the
Russians forward him to Italy, and nally he goes to the Greek embassy in Nairobi,
Kenya. With signicant American intel aid, Turkish special ops capture Öcalan,
dealing a major blow to a top-down organization. Weeks after the capture of their
founder/leader, PKK enters a period of interregnum and leadership crisis, with-
drawing from Turkish territory into northern Iraq to regroup and settle succession
issues. In a documentary of the withdrawal aired in 2013 on the Kurdish Nüçe TV,
an unidentied PKK militant recalls the spirit of the retreat. Under heavy Turkish
re, militants pass through a rugged terrain, falling into ambush repeatedly. “We
were uncertain; the leadership was gone. But we believed we would ultimately
prevail.” As his group left their mountain defenses, the same militant recalls:
A comrade tol d us: “Be not afra id. We will one day retu rn bac k to these moun-
tains, for these mountains are ours.” He was right; that was the spirit that kept
us all alive: [A situation] that separates the Kurd from his mountain can not
be permanent. Then we understood we would some day return back.
Four years earlier – mid-March 1995. Operation Steel, the second major cross-
border operation carried out by the Turkish Armed Forces against PKK camps in
northern Iraqi is going at full speed. The Gulf War of 1990–1991 and Operation
Provide Comfort – the no-y zone imposed by NATO – had unintentionally but
signicantly strengthened PKK activities in northern Iraq. Without Saddam’s
troops or jets, all Kurdish factions in the north went through a fundamental reor-
ganization and rearmament period. PKK specically had conscated arms and
ammunition caches left by Saddam’s retreating army, stepping up the pressure on
Turkish military targets and intensifying attacks against Turkish military outposts
on the border. An earlier 1992 cross-border operation had resulted in military vic-
tory, but the PKK could regroup quickly with its supply and recruitment base in
Iraq. This time, in 1995, with around thirty-ve thousand troops and ten thousand
village guard irregulars, Turkey was trying to destroy PKK’s recruitment, training
and base operations in Iraqi territory. Hasan Kundakçı, lieutenant-general in
8329-0010_Intro.indd 2 3/17/2015 9:36:17 AM
Introduction 3
command of the operation conducted a successful sweep of the camps in about a
month and a half. Upon meeting the operational objectives, he speaks to an army
cameraman for the military’s archival records: “Mehmetçik is in full command of
almost all operational areas and [PKK camps]. I believe in the next 24 hours all
camps will be neutralized. They will either surrender, or die. The PKK is no more.
Terrorism is no more.”
Why study discourse on the Kurdish question?
The Kurdish question, without doubt, is one of the most complicated and pro-
tracted issues affecting the Middle East and the Caucasus. Although Kurdish
people span across three other neighboring countries – Iran, Syria and Iraq – the
great majority of the Kurds live in Turkey,1 which gives the country a unique posi-
tion in the larger Kurdish conundrum. The real difculty in Turkey in addressing
this question comes from the existence of competing and mutually exclusive de-
nitions of this problem, each associated with a corresponding belief on how this
issue can be solved. Ironically, however, even calling the Kurdish question the
“Kurdish question” is regarded as an ideological position by the Turkish state.2 For
example, if a person says that there is a “Kurdish problem” in Turkey, it is – often
inaccurately – inferred that the speaker believes in the cultural and ethnic separate-
ness of the Kurds which is – mostly misleadingly – inferred to be ‘supporting’
Kurdish separatism. On the other hand, saying “there is no Kurdish problem” is
regarded as an ultra-nationalist, aiming to oppress the cultural identity of the
Kurds. Predictably, this sensitivity surrounding the very denition of the Kurdish
question has made it a taboo topic in Turkey for many years, often with a govern-
mental check on the terms and words used to discuss this topic. This uncertainty
and vagueness surrounding the denition (not to mention the perspectives on the
very existence) of the Kurdish issue has been manifesting itself either as the com-
plete denial of the Kurdish question, or ‘separatism’ and even ‘treason.’ Even
today, an opinion survey in Turkey as to ‘what the Kurdish question is’ would
reveal many different interpretations and denitions of the issue, ranging from ‘a
problem of democracy’3 to ‘a threat to territorial integrity.’4 Society in Turkey is
deeply divided over what the Kurdish question means, and even over whether such
a question exists in the rst place. Denial and acknowledgement dynamics often
reveal political ideology and agenda and therefore are political actions in and of
themselves. While the very term ‘Kurdish question’ is discussed in the academic
literature as a given, a new and systemic study is required to deconstruct and ana-
lyze the constitutive parts of this discursive construct.
This book, therefore, is the rst comprehensive study and analysis of the dis-
cursive constructions and perceptions of what is broadly dened as the ‘Kurdish
question’; more importantly, it presents a study of the political motives and factors
behind differing interpretations of the problem. Using the Kurdish conundrum in
Turkey as a case, this study also seeks to provide an analytical framework for the
analysis of the factors behind domestic and foreign discursive constructions of
other intrastate conicts.
8329-0010_Intro.indd 3 3/17/2015 9:36:17 AM
... From 2016 onwards, the Turkish foreign policy also shifted and deprecated any Kurdish political achievements in Syria and Iraq. Kirisci and Winrow, 1997;Barkey and Fuller, 1998;Ahmed and Gunter, 2007;Gunes and Zeydanlioglu, 2014;Gambetti and Jongerden, 2015;Unver, 2015;Stanford and Shareef, 2017;Yadirgi, 2018. 1 Primarily, the ruling elites comprised, on the one hand, the sultan's household, the military segment (seyfiye), and religious institutions (Sheikh ul-Islam), and on the other hand, they comprised middle power actors, scientists (ilmiye and kalemiye), and dönme/devshirme (converters), a civil-and military-oriented elite, formally defined as kapıkullu, who were respectively trained at the madrasas (religious schools) and Enderun (palace schools) as scribal officers for their professional education. 2 The economic privileges were given by the Empire to other states, such as Britain and France, in commercial activity and trade which was granted by law. 1 As British Commander J. F. Jones (1998Jones ( /1857 Major Noel (1919: 11), indicates that "it was very noticeable that every British traveller refers to the friendliness, hospitality and kindliness of the Kurds" (1919: 11). ...
Full-text available
After decades of marking the Kurds as an existential threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity and ontological security, a new peacetime period is coming, accompanied by peace initiatives and the conflict’s de-escalation. Taking into account the fact that the Turkish-Kurdish peace process failed during the most significant migrant crisis of the modern age, the paper seeks to examine the causality of these processes, i.e. to answer the question of whether and how the securitisation of the migration affected the failure of peace process. Using the analysis of verbal and non-verbal acts of securitising actors, but also a descriptive method of internal and external processes of Turkish politics in the period from 2009 to 2015, the paper will explain that securitisation without the use of verbal acts of Kurdish refugees contributed to mutual mistrust which would lead to the collapse of peace talks.
O presente artigo pretende apontar caminhos alternativos para se observar o confronto civil na Síria (2011-presente), indicando que a materialização do discurso sobre guerras por procuração representa uma simplificação demasiada do que ocorre em campo. Diferente de um confronto de dois lados fixos, liderado por Estados, reforçamos que se trata de um conflito fluido, com alianças e objetivos se modificando ao longo do tempo e do espaço. Para isso, fazemos um estudo de caso dos grupos Curdos e suas múltiplas afiliações no teatro operacional.
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