Turkey shows what NATO really is

Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds is now center stage — but not because allies have woken up to the injustice of Kurds’ systematic oppression.
Turkey shows what NATO really is
Representative image


In April, as the world was occupied with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a NATO member launched an attack on two of its neighboring territories. In a bombing campaign, Turkey targeted the camps of Kurdish militants in Iraq and Syria, inflicting damage on shelters, ammunition depots and bases. The irony went largely unnoticed. That’s hardly a surprise: For a long time, the Western world has turned a blind eye to Turkey’s heavy-handed treatment of the Kurds. Across decades, the Turkish state has persecuted the Kurdish minority — about 18 percent of the population — with devastating zeal. Thousands have perished and around a million have been displaced in a campaign of severe internal repression. But Western nations, except for a brief spell when Kurdish resistance was holding back an ascendant Islamic State, have rarely seemed to care.

Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds is now center stage — but not because allies have woken up to the injustice of Kurds’ systematic oppression. Instead, it’s because Turkey is effectively threatening to block the admittance of Finland and Sweden to NATO unless they agree to crack down on Kurdish militants. For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, seeing an opportunity to further cement his nationalist agenda, it’s a bold gambit. The tepid response from NATO allies so far suggests he might be successful.

However the situation shakes out, it’s deeply revealing. For Turkey, it underlines once again the vigor with which Erdogan is keen to stamp out the Kurds while asserting the country as a regional power. For the alliance itself, the impasse brings to light facts currently obscured by its makeover as a purely defensive organisation. NATO, which has long acquiesced in the persecution of the Kurds, is far from a force for peace. And Turkey, a member since 1952, proves it.

Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds goes back at least to the late 19th century, when Ottoman centralisation led to tribal uprisings. The initial two decades of the Turkish Republic, founded in 1923, involved the denial of Kurdish identity, autonomy and language, all of which were mainstays of the Ottoman Empire. Rebellions ensued but were forcibly put down. After remaining largely dormant in the 1940s and 1950s, Kurdish militancy then experienced a revival, under revolutionary banners. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., emerged in this atmosphere.

The organisation is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union — and its methods are indeed violent. Across four decades of conflict, the P.K.K. has contributed to the bloodshed and is responsible for the deaths of civilians as well as security officials. Yet Turkey’s militaristic approach to the Kurdish issue has left little room for other, more conciliatory Kurdish organisations.

The country experienced a spring of Kurdish activism in the late 1960s and 1970s, when many left-wing Turkish movements and organisations also expressed solidarity with the Kurds. But a coup d’état in 1980 heavily crushed these forces, with the exception of the P.K.K., most of whose camps were already outside Turkey. In the years after the coup, the heavy torture suffered by Kurdish activists of various organisations swelled the ranks of the P.K.K. More embittered against the Turkish state than ever, many activists saw no other effective home for their struggle.

The truth is that Turkey’s aggression has gone hand in hand with NATO acceptance, even complicity. It’s no use for Western countries to be lecturing Turkey, or Turkey complaining of Western hypocrisy: They are in it together. Whatever happens with the alliance’s expansion — whether the Kurds are sacrificed on the altar of geopolitical expediency or not — this should be a moment of clarity. In a world of war, no country has a monopoly on violence.

Dr. Tugal is a professor of sociology at the University of California

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