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Borders and (Dis)Orders in Turkey's Kurdish Conflict

Session IX-07, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
This panel seeks to address important but underexplored dynamics of Turkey’s evolving Kurdish conflict by applying a lens of borders and (dis)orders. This approach enables a focus on the recent spillover of Turkey’s fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to Iraq and Syria, while recognizing the important role transnational and cross-border relations have played in various Kurdish groups’ struggles since the founding of the Turkish Republic. Indeed, the panel deliberately adopts a broad temporal and political scope in defining the Kurdish conflict whose border politics its contributors analyze that helps to inform understandings of the militarized conflict initiated in 1984 but also takes account of the societal impacts on, and struggles of, actors other than the PKK and the Turkish state. Exemplary of this scope from a historical perspective, one paper focuses on the Ararat rebellion in Turkey (1930) and Radio Yerevan’s Kurdish broadcasts beginning in the 1950s to explore how oppression has impacted the lives of people on both sides of the Turkey-Armenia border, and how Armenians, Kurds, and others have resisted it. Similarly focusing on lived experiences in borderlands but with a more contemporary focus, our second paper draws from a novel data set to study how borders formally set by national authorities are, in practice, made and remade through everyday interactions. Also focusing on the agency of borderlands inhabitants in defying national governments’ attempts to define their spaces, our third paper uses panel data of 40,000 Turkish villages bordering Syria and Iraq to analyze (lack of) adherence to Turkification efforts. The paper demonstrates how, despite an administrative experiment in name-changing, residents continued using old village names and levels of insurgent violence remained the same. The last two papers focus more directly on the PKK conflict, but analyze the domestic political aims and cross-border dynamics necessary. Addressing the puzzle of the regime’s pendulum-like swings between unprecedented overtures to Kurds to deadly sieges and a hard nationalist line in two years, the fourth paper applies social identity theory to explain the critical role cross-border ties between Turkish and Syrian Kurds played in dissolving Kurd-AKP intergroup trust following the ISIS siege of Kobane. The final paper draws on a novel dataset to analyze the externalization of Turkey’s Kurdish conflict, arguing the regime seeks to deter Kurdish autonomy aspirations abroad as well as at home and uses Arab proxies in its efforts to do so.
Political Science
  • Since 2015, a rhetorical and political pivot by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) both fed and fed on a surge of Turkish “ultranationalism.” This rise witnessed, and arguably facilitated, the removal of democratically-elected Kurdish mayors, a closure case against the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and political violence targeting Kurds. Prior to the devolution of this relationship into crisis, however, the AKP had taken unprecedented steps toward resolving the decades-long conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants with its “Solution Process” (çözüm süreci), an initiative begun in 2012 and made public in 2013. While a solution to the decades-long “Kurdish Question” seemed closer than ever in 2013, by the end of 2015 Turkey seemed on the brink of civil war. How are these dramatic political and societal swings possible? This paper explores the conditions of how the shift in perceptions of Kurds from enemies to allies to enemies again takes place. I employ social identity theory (SIT), an approach ideally suited to grappling with questions of Ingroup-Outgroup relations, to explain both how the ground-breaking overtures by the AKP toward solving the Kurdish Question were possible, as well how Kurds went from partners to traitors in the government’s eyes. In brief, I argue that nothing inherent in the AKP’s understanding of Turkish identity precluded the political expression of Kurdishness. This made outreach, including the 2009 Kurdish Opening and the subsequent solution process, possible through the articulation of an Ingroup that celebrated common religious ties and downplayed ethnic differences. I then identify two sequential developments that made these Ingroup ties impossible to sustain. I argue solidarity with Syrian Kurds fueled outrage at the AKP’s (in)action during September 2014 ISIS siege of Kobane, leading Turkey’s Kurds to revoke their support for then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s vision of a presidential system, making them unreliable Ingroup members. I then argue that the HDP’s crossing of the 10% threshold in June 2015, an electoral success that removed the AKP’s parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002, made them a political threat and thus placed them in the Outgroup. Using intertextual analysis of data collected from party documents, media reports, and interviews, I use the SIT framework to explain the shift in the AKP’s attitude toward Kurds from one of Ingroup pride to one of Outgroup prejudice, sacrificing a prime opportunity to resolve the Kurdish Question on the altar of presidential ambition.
  • An extensive literature on counterinsurgency outlines a variety of measures that target the insurgency’s local support base. Civilians exposed to counterinsurgency repression should change their preferences accordingly by siding with the insurgency (Kocher et al. 2011). We contend that it is not obvious that this is the case. We outline a simple framework that isolates the effect of a heretofore unknown counterinsurgency strategy that systematically represses civilians. We look at roughly 40,000 villages in Turkey with panel data in which names of thousands of villages were changed in the 1957-1968 wave of geographical renaming. Using a two-step estimation procedure, we first show that Kurdish villages close to shared borders with Iraq and Syria carried the burden of the cultural makeover. Despite the widespread implementation of the Turkification policy, name-changing had no effect on levels of insurgent violence at the village level. As villagers continued to use old village names, cultural policies failed to go beyond administrative experiments. These findings present a contrast to the literature by showing that repression neither backfires nor facilitates violence when it fails to redistribute civilian preferences.
  • Scholarly works, think tank reports, and artistic explorations on the Armenia-Turkey border have emerged in fits and bursts—often coinciding with discussions on the normalization of relations between the two countries—ever since Ankara shut its border with the post-Soviet republic three decades ago. And while works on the border’s diplomatic history, civil society initiatives, and exhibits abound, less attention has been paid to how the history of restrictions and oppression has impacted the lives of people on both sides of the border, and how Armenians, Kurds, and others have resisted it. By focusing on the Ararat rebellion in Turkey (1930) and Radio Yerevan’s Kurdish broadcasts beginning in the 1950s, this paper addresses this history of dispossession, erasure, and resilience through newspaper accounts, and interviews, and previously untapped archival records.
  • Borders and borderlands are political spaces that have their own logic and dynamics, that is usually unique to the context. In the literature, borderlands are often known as the zones that may intensify the effects of violence during conflict (Korf and Raeymaekers, 2013; Idler, 2019; Brenner 2019) because, at these remote areas, the porosity of borderlands becomes an enabler for the infiltration of goods and people, including armed militants, letting to the clashes between state and non-state actors. Due to increased security threats, states are likely to increase presence in those contested areas through several practices. Meanwhile, as noted above, state authority is severely challenged in borderlands, particularly as the inhabitants of these areas often have complex self-identities, and recognizably different national or political identities than ethnic majority. Despite the complex dynamics of borderlands, and plurality of policies and experiences, a lack of theoretically sophisticated and empirically rich approach to the study of violence in borderlands continues to be a challenge in political science. Because of that, it is also hard to trace local patterns and variations in terms of state’s border policies from a comparative perspective. All these contradictory factors lead to the following question: why do state’s ‘border work’ contain violence in some cases but may increase it in some others? Based on a novel dataset that includes information about state policies of border control along the Kurdish borderlands between Turkey, Iraq and Iran and people’s lived experiences from semi-structured interviews and archival sources in the last two decades, I argue that borders are drawn at the official/national level but (re)made as a product of everyday interactions between multiple actors at the local level. This study is important given that comparative understanding of border dynamics helps us understand the complex relationship between state, territory and people in war-torn contexts. Thereby, with this research, I aim to fill a gap in the literature and contribute to the scholarship on critical security studies, MENA politics, peace and conflict studies as well as (comparative) territorial and border studies.
  • The borderlands of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran have been a contested terrain since Kurds were rendered stateless during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In recent years, rival Kurdish factions have created distinct models of political autonomy in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Northeastern Syria, known by Kurds as Başûr and Rojava. Utilizing an original longitudinal dataset of 20,044 armed conflict events in all four countries with Kurdish minorities, we analyze how the Turkish-Kurdish conflict has evolved since 1984, when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched its armed struggle against the Turkish state. Engaging the literature on political violence, proxy warfare, and non-state actors, we make three arguments. First, we show how what was once a dyadic civil war concentrated in southeastern Turkey has metastasized into a conflict that now encompasses vast geographical terrain, all ethnic and religious groups indigenous to the borderlands of Iraq and Syria, and an array of state, non-state, and hybrid actors, including the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) whose rank-and-file members are majority Arab. Second, we show that Ankara began to de-prioritize its anti-PKK operations inside Turkey in 2016, in favor of launching large-scale military operations in Syria and Iraq, the two countries where Kurds have gained most autonomy. As a result, hundreds of villages in Iraq have been depopulated, while in Turkish-occupied parts of Syria, Ankara and its proxies engage in Arabization and Turkification policies. Third, the data we present improves our understanding of how Turkey has worked with proxy forces in the Syrian National Army (SNA) to deter Kurdish aspirations for greater political and cultural rights outside its borders. By comparing the 2018 Olive Branch Operation in Efrîn to the 2019 Peace Spring Operation in Ras al-Ayn/Serêkaniyê, we show that coordination increased between the Turkish military and the SNA over time. As Kurds in Iraq and Syria gained more autonomy from their respective central governments in Baghdad and Damascus, Turkey has maneuvered to increase its control over those semi-autonomous regions, while failing to defeat the PKK. Finally, we highlight the need for further research on forms of colonialism indigenous to the Middle East.