This week at a televised summit with his generals, Turkey’s president Erdogan stated that “They keep saying [YPG] is not terrorist; that SDF is not made up of Kurds but Arabs. We know the Arabs well, but we know terrorist Kurds as well.” Given several years of his government insisting that it is fighting “terrorists” of the PKK and its sister organizations rather than Kurds, the comment caused many raised eyebrows. Mr. Erdogan quickly sought to correct himself, saying “No need to put divisions between us and my Kurdish brothers. But if there are terrorists among our Kurdish brothers, no offense to them, we will do what is necessary.” He then went on to threaten another invasion of Kurdish parts of northern Syria.
Mr. Erdogan’s gaffe is nonetheless telling. The Turkish president has never, to this columnist’s knowledge, even accidentally referred to “terrorist Arabs” or “terrorist Muslims.” On the contrary, he continually rails against some Western leaders’ habit of using terms such as “Islamic terrorists,” “Muslim terrorists” or “Islamist terrorism.” At the same time that he and his government claim the PKK is not even Kurdish, we hear many Turkish officials speaking about “Kurdish terrorism.”
And just as he did prior to the invasion of Afrin, Mr. Erdogan is claiming that most of northern Syria is not Kurdish but Arab: “Although 80 percent of the region belongs to the Arabs, terrorist groups rule there. We will do what we have to do,” he said, adding that Turkey would help “the rightful owners [of the area] live in peace.” Presumably he feels that just like in Turkish occupied Afrin, where Turkey’s Minister of Agriculture recently admitted to seizing more than 600 tons of the people’s olive harvest, the Kobane and Jazira areas of northern Syria are not “rightfully” populated by Kurds.
Should the Americans acquiesce to Turkey’s threatened invasion of these areas, much the way Russia acquiesced to the invasion of Afrin, we can therefore expect a fair amount of ethnic cleansing by Turkey and its Arab and Turkmen proxy forces. With such discourse, the ruse that Turkey’s wars are not against Kurds would not even deceive a child. Modern Turkey in its entire history has in fact only fought one war that was not against Kurds – the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, which was to protect Cypriot Turks against Greeks and was fought with large numbers of Kurdish conscripts. Every other large military deployment in Turkey’s history — the suppression of the Sheikh Said revolt of 1925, the putting down of the Ararat revolt of 1930, the genocidal campaign against the Alevi Kurdish rebels of Dersim in 1937-38, the internal war against the PKK since 1984, and more recent military incursions into Iraq and Syria – were wars against the Kurds.
So when Turkish leaders such as Erdogan say “We know the Arabs well, but we know terrorist Kurds as well,” they mean it. Turks, Arabs and Persians have an over one hundred year history of Orientalizing the Kurds as the dangerous “other”. Negative stereotypes of Kurds as bandits, rebels, reactionaries, thugs, uncivilized savages and now terrorists are endemic and difficult for Turks to set aside. Such stereotypes remain important in order to justify the endless military campaigns necessary to subdue Turkey’s Kurds, who do not appear overly keen on having their language, culture and representatives continually banned. Such officially encouraged stereotypes help blame the Kurdish regions’ underdevelopment on the victims rather than the ruling powers that exploit their people, dam their rivers to flood historic sites, burn their forests to deny cover to guerrillas and even change their names to approved Turkish ones.
When an outsider such as this columnist points these things out, Ankara’s supporters make accusations of “trying to foment divisions between Turkish and Kurdish brothers.” Still suffering from their Sèvres Complex, these defenders of repression ignore the fact that no outsider is needed to sow such divisions and animosity. Successive regimes in Ankara remain quite capable of doing that all on their own. Before 2014, Turkey was briefly poised to make peace with the PKK and even become the protector of Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Outsiders such as this one cheered the peace process on, and American Kurdologists such as Michael Gunter (“Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War”) wrote about the possibility of Turkey acting as the “big brother” of Kurds in Syria.
This possible future completely collapsed when Mr. Erdogan’s government chose to support Jihadis in Syria instead, practically cheering as Kobane came under assault from ISIS in 2014, right on the Turkish border. When the failure to aid Kobane cost Mr. Erdogan’s party at the polls in the June 2015 election, he responded by resuming the war against the PKK and eventually invading Syria as well. Forming a coalition government with the virulently Turkish nationalist, far-Right National Action Party (MHP), Mr. Erdogan found it much easier to just go back to talking about “terrorist Kurds” than actually treating Kurds as “brothers.”
So it should be no surprise that with local elections scheduled in Turkey in a few months, the ruling parties need another war against their favorite enemy in order to cause a “rally around the incumbent” effect. This is how “terrorist Kurds” crowd out almost everything else on the official Turkish radar.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.