Several years ago I was sitting in the back of a very small school room on a very small chair in the Kurdish area of Turkey watching an earnest young teacher trying to teach the Turkish language to about 40 Kurdish 10-year-olds. Suddenly the door burst open and another student rushed in with eyes as big as dinner plates. “Obzer,” he yelled, “Run for it. They’re here.” Obzer didn’t need to be told twice. He knew he was just the latest target in a generations-old feud.
In one bound he was out the window and quickly disappeared toward the Euphrates River in a ball of dust. A few minutes later the door crashed open again as two very rough men carrying small, lethal shotguns came into the room demanding to know where Obzer -- the new world record holder in the 400-meter dash -- had gone. No one said a word. One kid in the front row merely nodded his head toward the open window to indicate that their quarry had escaped.
I was told later that this was more or less par for the course in that part of the country. Blood feuds were common. No one bothered calling the police or gendarmes to settle ancient grievances. In another, less lethal example, the farmer I was staying with grew rice near the river, and each night he had to hide his tools in a different location in an effort to keep them from thieves.
Therein lies one of the big problems with the Kurds – the lack of unity, the lack of trust among themselves. Kurds are scattered over at least four countries. And from what I could see each of the several factions, tribes, families has a different agenda. Just when you think that a Kurdish-based political party is making serious, peaceful, headway in Turkey, another group becomes jealous of the newcomer’s power and resorts to violence to assert its own power. The only beneficiary of this mess is Turkey’s aspiring dictator, President Tayyip Erdogan. This intra-Kurdish conflict makes it easy for him to demonize all Kurds and erode the base of the Kurdish political party. This in turn makes it easier for him to get enough members of parliament to change the constitution.
I have no idea who was behind the latest deadly suicide bomb attack in Ankara. The government is saying, predictably, that the Kurds are behind it. Perhaps. But it sounds a little like Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca, telling police to ‘round up the usual suspects.' It is entirely possible that a little-known faction of the militant Kurdish guerrilla group, PKK, that is even more militant than the parent group has resorted to these attacks. If so, it is another nail in the coffin of Kurdish political development – at least in Turkey.
It is not obvious who re-started the military conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state last summer. We know it followed the unexpectedly strong showing of the Kurdish political party in the June elections. Both the PKK and the government each had reasons to re-start the violence at that time. The PKK could well have wanted to demonstrate that it, not the Kurdish political party HDP, controlled negotiations with the Turkish state. The government, for its part, needed to demonize the Kurds to reduce their vote in the next election. That strategy worked like a charm in the November election.
What is obvious now is that Erdoğan has no idea how to stop the violence. His preferred military solution isn’t working any better than similar efforts for the last 30 years. Security officials have so far proven incompetent in stopping the violence spreading from the southeast to big cities. Arial attacks on alleged PKK camps in the mountains of northern Iraq do nothing except make the rocks bounce. The bomb in Ankara on Sunday was the third deadly attack in the Turkish capital since last fall. In January another terrorist attack claimed about 10 lives in the middle of Istanbul’s main tourist area. In most countries, such failure on this scale would at the very least raise questions about the quality of the security services. Not in Erdoğan’s Turkey.
It is also sadly clear that Erdoğan does not have the will, temperament, or imagination to seek any other solution at this time. He can use the violence and instability as an argument for his long-cherished unchecked presidency. He can blame the current parliamentary system for the current chaos in Turkey, and say that only a strong presidency can stop the violence. The fact that Erdoğan, already acting as a strong president, has been unable or unwilling to change course is conveniently forgotten by most AKP voters.
The tragedy of the situation is that at one time he almost succeeded in a negotiated settlement with the PKK. But he must have felt betrayed when that settlement lead to strong Kurdish political gains that put his cherished presidential ambitions at risk. He could, if he wanted, recognize that the military solution won’t work and re-start the political process. He could also, if he wanted, seek the support of the other political parties for such a move. But, given the dangerously polarized state of the nation it is unlikely any of this will happen. And it is the innocent citizens of Turkey who will continue to pay the price for this folly. At what point does he start to question the high cost of his obsessive push for the strong presidency?