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The Kurdish Knot

Cuma Cicek*

Turkey is tightening the ‘Kurdish knot,’ which has turned into a Gordian knot. With each passing day, with each passing year, the resolution of the knot becomes more difficult.

The ‘last rebellion,’ described as the ’29th rebellion’ by former President Süleyman Demirel, has left 45 years behind. It has been 40 years since the first cross-border operations. The Iraqi Kurdistan Region was established 20 years ago. It’s been nearly 13 years since the Syrian civil war started.

First raising the issue of laying down arms in the late 1980s and intermittently silencing weapons in the 1990s, the PKK has not closed its chapter of violence over the past 35 years. Today, the political tradition represented by the DEM Party has not been able to untangle the knot of politics and weapons, despite 34 years passing since its start in 1990.

The establishment of legal Kurdish political parties in the 1990s, initiatives by then-President Turgut Özal, and the first contacts and ceasefires initiated through intermediaries did not solve the Kurdish knot. The surrender of Öcalan to Turkey in 1999 and the subsequent five-year period of non-conflict, which saw almost all of PKK’s armed forces withdrawn beyond the border, had created a great opportunity for solving the problem through political means. However, these opportunities were not utilized, and although the knot loosened a bit until 2015, it was not resolved.

From Knot to Gordian Knot

Since the collapse of the 2013-2015 Peace Process following the June 7 elections, the knot has turned into a Gordian knot.

We can underline at least five dynamics that turned the knot into a Gordian knot. Firstly, the scale of the problem is growing every day. The framework of the Peace Process was to solve the problem within the borders and to transfer the horizon and dynamic of this solution beyond the borders. Now, the scope of the problem has spread almost throughout the entire Kurdish geography, extending from Turkey’s borders to Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the problem transferred beyond the border is also tightening the internal knot.

Secondly, related to the growing scale of the problem, the set of actors involved in the problem is expanding. Until 2015, there was a chance for Turkey’s political institution to make progress even through the mediation of opinion leaders and wise people, but now there are “big” actors like the USA, Russia, Israel, and Iran at the table. Moreover, the new doctrine of solving the problem beyond the borders, focused on “security” and “terrorism,” does not narrow the field of these “external” actors but expands it. It shapes not only the international relations of actors like PKK, PYD, KDP, YNK but also widens the maneuvering space of regional and global powers.

Thirdly, as the area expands and the number of actors increases, the number of problem areas associated with the issue also increases. In other words, the context in which the problem is embedded becomes more complex. For example, we now have to think about the trajectory of the Kurdish issue not only in terms of internal dynamics but also in conjunction with the Gaza war, Israeli foreign policy, the positions, and interests of actors positioned around this issue. Clearly, this does not facilitate the solution, but complicates it.

Fourthly, as the Kurdish knot turns into a Gordian knot, Turkey becomes blind, and a blinding Turkey loses its potential to solve the Gordian knot. The Kurdish conflict is condemning the entire country to authoritarianism in the political field and inequality in the economic field. A country losing its vision of the future is buried either in the past or in tried and exhausted unlit paths. This state of burial also buries the country’s problem-solving ability.

Fifthly and lastly, the social energy directed towards a political solution to the problem is being depleted day by day. The depletion of hope for change, not only for major politics but also for minor politics; the collapse of trust in both local and central institutions, is rotting the social potential to untangle the knot.

Seeing the Loss

The lives lost in conflicts are irreplaceable losses. The Kurdish issue, which spans over two centuries, and the last Kurdish conflict, which is almost 40 years old, have directly affected millions of people, and healing the wounds it has left will take generations.

In addition, it’s beneficial to remember the dimensions of the economic loss caused by the conflicts. In his detailed study titled “The Economic Cost of 40 Years of Conflict in Turkey” written for the Democratic Development Institute in 2022, İzzet Akyol argues that the conflicts between 1985-2021 cost approximately 3 trillion dollars.

This figure can be compared with many things. But let’s suffice to say how many houses this loss corresponds to, especially these days when housing has become a major problem: About 30 million.

According to the Central Bank’s November 2023 Housing Price Index data, the approximate value of a 100 square meter house in Turkey is about 3 million TL. Considering that this is approximately equivalent to 100 thousand dollars, the resulting figure is about 30 million.

Yes! The losses caused by the Kurdish conflict to date correspond to approximately 30 million houses. Considering that, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK) data, there were 26.9 million households in Turkey as of 2022, we could have built a house for every household if we had achieved Kurdish peace and not experienced the losses of the last 40 years.

Breaking the Cycle, Cutting the Knot

How many more generations will walk on these conflict-ridden dead-end roads? When will the last cross-border operation end? In 10 years? In 20 years? Where will Syria be in 20-30 years, where will Iraq be? Where will Iran be? And most importantly, where will Turkey be, and will there be a place for Kurds in this future? Is there no option other than conflict and shared losses?

Isn’t this repetition enough?

To untangle a Gordian knot, you first drizzle some olive oil to soften the knot. Then you untangle it with the help of a needle or a pin. Of course, you also need skilled hands to hold that needle.

What is the olive oil for the Kurdish Gordian knot? What kind of needle is needed? And most importantly, where are the skilled hands, our hands?

When we talk about these, maybe we can open a new path to build not just houses but “homes” where our children feel secure.”

This article was originally published in Birikim Magazine and translated into English by Politurco.

Cuma Cicek is assistant professor in the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences at Mardin Artuklu University, Turkey. He received his PhD from Sciences Po in Paris and has published several books in Turkish.

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