Hasan Shaaban / Reuters Kurdish children, with their hands chained, march and shout slogans during a demonstration calling for the release of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Beirut, Lebanon February 14, 2016.

Ankara's Fight Against the Kurds

The Logic Behind Erdogan's Escalation

Turkey is poised to escalate its war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) by prosecuting elected Kurdish politicians. Many observers, including some government supporters, fear that the move will prove just as counterproductive as previous efforts to criminalize Kurdish politics over the past three decades. Indeed, since the 1980s, the Turkish government has regularly arrested Kurdish politicians and banned half a dozen Kurdish political parties, without coming any closer to defeating the movement they represent. If anything, these efforts have only helped build support for the PKK and its violent tactics.

So why does the Turkish government now expect better results from a strategy that has repeatedly backfired? The most cynical analysis holds that it is all a short-term tactic aimed at ensuring that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has the votes he needs to enhance his power as president. But the more frightening possibility is that Erdogan and his government actually believe their own rhetoric and imagine that, in part as a result of the real progress they once made on behalf of Kurdish rights, they are finally on the verge of an unprecedented victory: militarily against the PKK and politically against the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP).

Since fighting between the government and the PKK resumed last summer, Turkey’s pro-government press has consistently emphasized the support that the government enjoys among Turkey’s Kurds. The government narrative presents Kurds as angry at the PKK for the suffering it has caused the Kurdish community and grateful to the AKP for all the party has done to advance Kurdish rights. In this case, the propaganda is just plausible enough to be particularly dangerous. But the government has conflated a moral argument about the way it believes Kurds should respond with an objective assessment of the way available evidence suggests they will respond. 

Recently, 16 villagers were killed when the PKK blew up a truck packed with explosives in a Kurdish community outside Diyarbakir, apparently following a conflict with several community members.

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