Turkey Must Save the Kurds

Turkish soldiers helping Kurdish families fleeing the fighting in Syria. Credit Bulent Kilic/Associated Press
Turkish soldiers helping Kurdish families fleeing the fighting in Syria. Credit Bulent Kilic/Associated Press

My generation of Turks grew up hating Kurdish separatists. Instead of questioning why Kurds weren’t allowed to speak their own language, live in their own villages or sing their own songs, we blamed the Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K., which had been waging a guerrilla war against Turkey since 1984, for all of Turkey’s woes. Kurds were responsible for the death of our soldiers, we said. They were guilty of tearing up the country, draining our resources and siding with our enemies. In the mainstream press, they were simply “baby killers.”

Over the past few decades, that view started to soften as the history of human rights abuses committed in Turkey’s Kurdish regions was revealed. An ongoing peace process with the P.K.K., and the Turkish government’s post-2010 rapprochement with Iraq’s Kurdish region has begun to heal the rift between Turks and Kurds. And Iraqi Kurds, landlocked and alienated in an unstable country, started seeing Turkey as a key ally — reciprocated thanks to Turkey’s commercial appetite in the oil-rich region.

When secular Turks staged mass protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year, Kurds came out in support of the demonstrators. They camped out in Istanbul’s Gezi Park alongside leftists, students and artists — ostensibly to save a bunch of trees from an ugly development project, but in reality to protest Mr. Erdogan’s repressive style of governance.

Today, the Kurds are showing even greater courage. In Iraq and Syria, they are fighting Islamic State terrorists on our borders. Together with Iraqi Kurdish forces, the P.K.K. and its Syrian offshoots, our Kurdish compatriots have effectively formed a buffer zone between modern Turkey and the medieval radicalism propagated by the Islamic State. They are protecting not only our physical well-being but our entire way of life — and for this we must be grateful.

Long derided as backward, Kurds are now increasingly seen as heroic by many secular liberal Turks who are anxious about the march of radical Islam. On battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria, Kurdish men and women fight side by side, resisting and dying together.

Thousands of Turkish Kurds have crossed into Syria to join the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D. — Syria’s powerful Kurdish faction which has already been fighting the Islamic State for over a year. In Iraqi Kurdistan a few weeks ago, I heard a local pesh merga commander wax lyrical about the courage of a group of female P.K.K. guerrillas who refused to flee, even as his own men deserted the battlefield. That unit was commanded by a young Turkish Kurd, a woman who successfully repelled an Islamic state onslaught in the town of Maxmur. One week later, I read about her death on a Kurdish website.

With or without American strikes, the Islamic State and the ideology it represents will not go away anytime soon. Turkey must embrace the Kurdish presence in Iraq and Syria, and help the Kurds in their fight against ISIS. We are much better off protected by a Kurdish buffer zone than facing ISIS alone along our 600-mile border with Syria.

Doing so will require a huge paradigm shift for Turkey: It must abandon its nationalist legacy and reimagine itself as a joint Turkish-Kurdish entity. Turkish Kurds represent about 25 percent of the population, and the government has wisely been pursuing a peace process with the P.K.K. There are ups and downs in the talks between Turkish intelligence and the imprisoned P.K.K. leader, Abdullah Ocalan. But at the end of the day, both sides need each other.

It is therefore a mistake to assume that a weakened Kurdish presence means a stronger Turkey or that Turkey’s own peace process is disconnected from the fate of Kurds outside our borders. The Turkish government cannot sit on the sidelines because it fears an autonomous, P.K.K.-controlled Kurdish zone on the border more than the Islamic State’s gains. When I asked one government official why Turkey was not helping the Kurdish forces in Syria, he replied, “Why must we choose between the P.K.K. and ISIS?”

But we must. We must choose because the Kurds are our only reasonable allies in a region of turmoil. Embracing them — our fellow citizens — would also help to heal our own fractured souls.

As I write, the Syrian town of Kobani, separated from the Turkish town of Suruc by an artificial line drawn a century ago, is being pounded by mortar fire. Over 150,000 people have fled to Turkey over the past two weeks, and thousands more Kurdish youth have crossed from Turkey into Kobani to join the Kurdish forces there. Turkey’s Parliament voted Thursday to authorize military force in Syria and Iraq, but did not commit to aiding the Kurds fighting in Kobani. We cannot allow the Islamic State to take this town, or others.

A few years ago, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was then foreign minister, said “Turkey has two options ahead; we’ll either shrink or expand. We’d rather expand hand in hand with the Kurds.”

He was right. But Turkey cannot be a neutral bystander in this battle. To preserve our borders, as well as our democracy, we must take bold steps now to save the Kurds. At the end of the day, it’s the only way to save ourselves.

Asli Aydintasbas is a columnist for the Turkish daily Milliyet.

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