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US and European acquiescence in Turkey’s long-standing refusal to honour Kurdish ethnic, cultural, and political rights has come home to roost with Turkish opposition to Finnish and Swedish NATO membership.
The opposition has sparked debates about Turkey’s controversial place in the North Atlantic defense alliance.
Turkey’s detractors point to its problematic military intervention in Syria, relations with Russia, refusal to sanction Moscow, and alleged fuelling of tension in the eastern Mediterranean, calling the country’s NATO membership into question.
Its defenders note that Turkey, NATO’s second-largest standing military, is key to maintaining the alliance’s southern flank. Also, Turkey’s geography, population size, economy, military power, and cultural links to a Turkic world make it a critical link between Europe and Asia. In addition, Turkish drones have been vital in Ukraine’s war with Russia, while Turkey has been a mediator in the conflict, albeit with limited success.
Kurdish rights hardly figure in the debates, and if they do, only as a prop for taking Turkey to task for its slide into authoritarianism.
An ethnic group spread across southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northern Syria, and western Iran, Kurds are seen at best as assets in the fight against the Islamic State and at worst a threat to Turkish security and territorial integrity. Turkey’s estimated 16 million Kurds account for up to 20 per cent of the country’s population.
Turkey, or Turkiye as it wants to be known going forward, has used the security argument to make its agreement to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership dependent on the two Nordic countries effectively accepting its definition of terrorism as including any national expression of Kurdish identity.
Turkey has demanded that Sweden and Finland extradite 33 people, some of whom are Swedish or Finnish nationals, because of their alleged support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) or exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds responsible for a failed military coup in 2016.
Turkey accuses the two Nordic countries of allowing the PKK to organize on their territory. Alongside the United States and the European Union, Turkey has designated the PKK as a terrorist organisation. The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey in which tens of thousands have been killed.
Turkey also wants Sweden and Finland to support its military operation against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a US-backed Syrian Kurdish group that played a crucial role in defeating the Islamic State. Turkey asserts that the YPG is an extension of the PKK.
Mr. Erdogan recently announced that Turkey would launch a new military operation to extend the Turkish armed forces’ areas of control in Syria to a 30-kilometer swath of land along the two countries shared border. The offensive would target the YPG in the towns of Tel Rifaat and Manbij and possibly Kobani, Ain Issa, and Tell Tamer.
Past US and European failure to stand up for Kurdish rights, as part of Turkey’s need to meet the criteria for NATO membership that include “fair treatment of minority populations,” has complicated the fight against the Islamic State, stymied Kurdish aspirations beyond Turkey’s borders and enabled repression of Kurdish rights in Turkey.
More immediately, the failure to hold Turkey accountable for its repression of Kurdish ethnic and political rights within the framework of the Turkish state has enabled Ankara to establish Turkish policies as a condition for NATO membership even if they violate NATO membership criteria.
Those policies include defining the peaceful expression of Kurdish identity as terrorism and the rolling back of Kurdish language and cultural rights since the collapse in 2015 of peace talks with the PKK. Turkey lifted the ban on Kurdish languages and the word Kurd in 1991. Until then, Kurds were referred to as ‘mountain Turks.’
The governor of the southeastern Turkish province of Diyarbakir, widely seen as a hub of Kurdish cultural and political activity, forced this writer under treat of death to leave the region for using the word Kurd rather than mountain Turk in interviews in the 1980s.
Kurdish language programs in universities have dwindled in recent years amid administrative hurdles, while Kurdish parents complain of pressure not to enroll their children in elective Kurdish courses.
Most Kurdish-language services and activities created by local administrations were terminated by government-appointed trustees who replaced dozens of Kurdish mayors ousted by Ankara for alleged links to the PKK. Many of the ousted mayors and other leading Kurdish politicians remain behind bars.
The failure to take Turkey to task early on takes on added significance at a time when NATO casts the war in Ukraine as a battle of values and of democracy versus autocracy that will shape the contours of a 21st-century world order.
For his part, US President Joe Biden has sought to regain the moral high ground in the wake of the Trump presidency that broke with American liberalism by declaring “America is back” in the struggle for democratic and human rights.
Mr. Biden and Europe’s problem is that their credibility rides on cleaning up at home and ensuring that they are seen as sincere rather than hypocritical.
That’s a tall order amid assertions of structural racism on both sides of the Atlantic; controversy over gun ownership in the United States; preferential arrangements for Ukrainian refugees as opposed to non-Europeans and non-whites fleeing war, persecution, and destruction; and foreign policies that treat violations of human and political rights differently depending on who commits them.
The obvious place to start is at home. Kurds could be another starting point, with Finnish and Swedish NATO membership on the front burner. Meeting Turkish demands regarding perpetrators of political violence is one thing; acquiescing in the criminalization of legitimate Kurdish political and cultural expression is another.
That may be a tough bargain to drive home in Ankara. However, it would offer a compromise formula that could serve everyone’s interest and help Turkey solve a problem that promises to be one of the Middle East’s multiple exploding powder kegs.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.