Kurdish insurgents and the Turkish state

Kurdish insurgents and the Turkish state

William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr
Kurdish insurgents and the Turkish state

AFP photo

‘Zones of Rebellion: Kurdish Insurgents and the Turkish State’ by Ayşegül Aydın and Cem Emrence (Cornell University Press, 208 pages, $39) 

Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi always rejected the separation of means and ends. He said it was means, rather than ends, that provide the standard of morality. Although we can choose our ends, the only thing that is completely within our control is the means with which we approach those ends. What’s more, exclusive focus on the purity of ends is delusional because the means adopted inevitably vary and shape the ends.

Kurdish insurgents and the Turkish state I kept thinking back to this while reading “Zones of Rebellion,” co-written by Turkish scholars Ayşegül Aydın and Cem Emrence, on the conflict between the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish military. The book constantly emphasizes the importance of decisions taken years before in determining the course of the insurgency. The war was an intricate, evolving organism that defies narrow definitions of “rights struggle” on the one hand or “anti-terrorism struggle” on the other. “Scholarly studies typically have approached the Kurdish issue as a function of pre-conflict grievances,” the authors write, criticizing this view for “almost ignor[ing] the transformative role of violence.” 

“Zones of Rebellion” is a slim book, but it manages to fit plenty in. It is determinedly wonkish and non-ideological, divided into sections examining the origins and tactics of both the PKK and the Turkish military. It shows how decisions taken in response to particular circumstances set the future direction of the conflict and limited the options of both players. Ultimately, this path dependence led to political stalemate. At critical junctures each side pursued policies that might seem inefficient to an outside observer. 


The organizational roots of the PKK were planted in the late 1970s. Founded by Abdullah Öcalan during his time as a student at Ankara University, at first it was just one of many competing militant left-wing factions in Turkey’s cities. It survived due to a combination of Öcalan’s ruthlessness, its formulation of a bold plan of action centered in Turkey’s southeast, and the state’s elimination of its rivals after the 1980 military coup.

However, the revolutionary blueprint that allowed the PKK to survive ended up becoming a major obstacle to its later success. It insisted on a narrow, rigid, secular, socialist ideology that had limited potential to expand in traditional Kurdish society. Unlike earlier Kurdish rebel movements, the PKK largely ignored intra-community dynamics and left confessional and religious groups out of the project, failing to win the loyalty of many in the Kurdish community. This is a common problem for rebel groups everywhere. “Insurgencies do not necessarily fight for identities that already exist,” the authors write. “Instead, they spend most of their time building new ones. In that respect, civil wars can be viewed as incomplete group-making projects. Eventually rebels are forced to realize that the master identity they claim to represent has multiple forms and operates with divided loyalties.”

The PKK was also hindered by the personality cult that Öcalan cultivated. He ruthlessly liquidated hundreds of potential rivals through the 1980s, turning the PKK into a one-man show in which he made all key decisions. This gutted the group of its organizational potential and limited its ability to institutionalize in areas it controlled. Although the PKK was able to eliminate state bureaucracy around parts of Turkey’s southeastern borders, it failed to replace it with an effective system of governance. “Locals were trapped in their area with almost no access to public services such as health and education. The justice system also failed, as locals had a hard time finding a credible authority to resolve their disagreements.” Once again, we see how the “organizational strategies that turned a small student group into a mass guerilla organization became major obstacles to success in later stages.”

For its part, the Turkish state also made less than intelligent political choices. To counter the PKK, it delineated a “state of emergency region” (OHAL) in southeastern Anatolia, where it established a regime of military rule, suspended the rule of law, and punished perceived lawbreakers without mercy. Through the OHAL, however, the Turkish state effectively carved out a de facto Kurdistan, transforming the idea of an ethnic homeland into a visible territory. The state’s decision to co-opt village guards successfully slowed down the PKK insurgents, but it also prevented Ankara from reaching out to all members of the Kurdish community. Rather, it simply “legitimized the power of its allies, provided them with resources, and subcontracted various security functions.” In the long run, this would exacerbate the conflict.

The military also stubbornly relied on historical discourses to define the identity and motivation of insurgents. It rigidly insisted on characterizing the PKK as a rural Kurdish phenomenon with nefarious foreign sponsors. But while various foreign states did support the PKK at different times, the military disregarded the domestic and modern origins of the problem, failing to recognize the political cure that had to accompany the military one. The end result was a relative military victory with no political agenda to back it up.

“Zones of Rebellion” is not without flaws. In particular, it does not pay enough attention to the effect of the regional situation across Turkey’s borders. The origins of the country’s Kurdish issue may be domestic, but the international situation has been critical in shaping it at crucial moments. That has never been truer than it is today, when the PKK’s calculations are directly linked to the situation in Turkey’s neighbors - particularly in northern Syria, where PKK affiliates administer swathes of territory carved out in its fight against ISIL.

But overall there is plenty to learn from this book. At times it is a little heavy on wonky military-strategic jargon, but on the whole it is an intelligent, bracing read with plenty of interest even for the non-specialist.