PKK and Ankara still trapped by decisions taken years ago

In an interview with Hürriyet Daily News, Cem Emrence says that decisions taken by both the Turkish state and the PKK years ago have exacerbated the conflict and limited the options of both sides, leading to long-term stalemate produced by “path dependence.”

The basic idea is that both actors – the government and the insurgency – insisted on the same policies throughout the conflict. That’s what we call path dependence. Once you make a choice in anything, as time goes by it becomes harder to reverse. This is what happened in the Kurdish conflict.

Specifically, we identified two sets of policies for both sides that sustained this path dependent relationship. On the government side, the state tried to contain the ethnic threat by creating special administrative regions while also recruiting local allies such as village guards and connecting to various religious orders. On the PKK side, one of the most important issues is what we can call the leadership cult. In the long run, the central position of Abdullah Öcalan in the PKK hampered its territorial expansion. It became very difficult to manage an organization that was trying to expand territorially through the control of just one man. The other thing was that the PKK came up with a nominal ideology about Kurdish identity that ignored or suppressed intra-group differences. In particular, the Alevi identity, the Zaza identity, and the religious Sunni Kurdish identity all became subsidiary as the PKK insisted on a single, monolithic Kurdish identity.

The outcome was that at the end of the Kurdish conflict neither independence nor integration materialized. The Turkish government hoped for integration, the PKK hoped for independence, but neither scenario ended up happening. The outcome has been a stalemate, where a strong state faces a resilient insurgency and ultimately neither can truly consolidate the Kurdish territory. [Continue reading…]

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1 thought on “PKK and Ankara still trapped by decisions taken years ago

  1. Brian S.

    Thanks very much for a useful link – this looks like a significant work. But I think the Hurriyet article, and its headline a fortiori, misrepresent the argument. “Path dependency” is created when a set of basic strategic decisions are made by a (collective) actor which sets off a chain of interrelated consequences, locking them in to a particular pattern. (To charactersise the Turkish government’s strategy as “integration” seems unhelpfully euphemistic – “denial-repression” would be more accurate). But strategic paths are not interminable – they can be shifted or transcenced by setting a new set of coordinates – although it usually takes some sort of major crisis moment to induce that. That is exactly what the PKK faced in the 1990s and Ocalan’s subsequent writings have been an attempt to forge such a new strategy. As the author says, in the case of Turkey that has born considerable fruit with the HDP entering on a very different path. The PKK in Syria has also been able to exploit a new “opportunity structure” to initiate a parallel exercise. In that sense they aren’t “trapped” by the past any longer (but they may still be haunted by it.) Unfortunately the Turkish government has not been able to develop a corresponding shift of strategic path, and do remain trapped in the old pattern.. The danger is that the Turkish response to the renovation of the PKK in Turkey and Syria will evoke “reflex” reactions that drag the PKK backwards, as we can see at the moment.

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