Over recent weeks, stories have begun to filter into the public press in the west that the Turkish government and army are increasingly discontented over the seeming haven given to PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) fighters in Northern Iraq. Predictably it’s taken a while, as both the mainstream media and the left wing press in the UK have a tendency to “skip” Turkey on their way to Palestine, Iran and Iraq when covering the area. Which is all the more bizarre seeing as at more than one ethnic and cultural group straddles several of those countries at the same time, but that’s an issue for another post.
Many of you will know that in the 1980s and 1990s the PKK and the Turkish army fought a running civil war in the south-eastern region of Turkey, whose majority population is Kurdish, and whose regional centre is the city of Diyarbakir. At the same time, Kurds were less than second-class citizens in law, their language being barred from most media, and their nationality being generally referred to as “Mountain Turk”. Most of the left in the west (left and centre-left parties in Turkey were more divided) sided with the PKK as a national liberation movement, in spite of some queasiness over their tactics which included attacks on civilian targets. Nevertheless, given the organisation’s at least formally Marxist politics, and the appalling mistreatment by the Turkish government of those who it stood to defend, it is easy to see why the majority of the left took, and still takes, this stance.
However by the late 1990s the Turkish Army had gained the upper hand and the PKK’s influence was radically reduced. The symbolic capture of iconic PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 appeared to mark the beginning of the organisation’s end. Furthermore, the election in 2002 of the nominally Islamist AK party led by current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan led to an unprecedented liberalisation of the laws on language in broadcasts and schools, and to a stream of of public investment in south east Turkey being opened up. This in turn seemed to bleed support further from the PKK.
The PKK went through a couple of transitions, as KADEK (Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress) and Kongra-Gel (Kurdistan People’s Congress) in the early 2000s, in an effort to reverse its decline. In 2004 however it reversed its unilateral ceasefire that had been imposed since Ocalan’s capture, and began operations within Turkey once again. These operations have once again included attacks on civilian targets, which have produced outcry in the mainstream Turkish press, but not a huge amount of comment among the western left. Large numbers of PKK fighters were, and are, based in Northern Iraq where their former rivals in the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, hold sway.
All this brings us up to date. Obviously the Iraq War has in many ways entrenched the positions of KDP leader Massoud Barzani and (even more so) PUK leader Jalal Talabani in their political fiefdoms. Further, it has provided the PKK with an opportunity to regroup militarily, subject to their not-always-easy dealings with Barzani, whose forces control most of the Turkish border area. It has also infuriated generals and politicians in Ankara, who in addition to seeing a revived PKK, are also having to resist ultra-nationalist calls for outright military intervention to safeguard the Turkoman poplulation in Kirkuk. The AK government which as well as having to deal with nationalist tide currently enveloping Turkey is also the main electoral rival of Kurdish nationalist parties in the East of Turkey, is under severe pressure to act. Only days ago, Turkey’s special envoy on the PKK, General Edip Baser said:
“It’s hard to understand why we should not use one of our international rights, as this terrorist organization is still active and coming into my country, and acting in my country, killing people and then going back to northern Iraq… Why I shouldn’t go after them?” 
This came along with similar sabre rattling from Turkish army chief General Yasar Buyukanit and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, amongst others. And let’s face it, it’s quite hard to argue for restraint in Northern Iraq (as western governments have been doing) on Turkey’s part whilst you’re busy razing the rest of the country to the ground. Further it’s hard to talk about the democratic rights of those invaded when the country doing the invading is an electoral democracy claiming to be protecting the rights of an endangered ethnic minority and eradicating terrorism. Again, sound familiar?
Furthermore, Barzani, part of a Kurdish coalition government in Northern Iraq that wants Kirkuk as its capital, appears to be alert to the mood in Turkey. In response, he has threatened to step completely off the fence in the PKK’s war against the Turkish government:
“Turkey is not allowed to intervene in the Kirkuk issue and if it does, we will interfere in Diyarbakır’s issues and other cities in Turkey” 
This carries with it the veiled threat of a call to arms for the majority of people in Turkey’s Kurdish region, for whom Barzani’s father in particular is a folk hero figure. It also marks a potential alliance between the PKK and KDP, whose mutual antipathy has contributed a great deal in the past to Turkey’s ability to manage the region.
So, what happens next? Obviously to anyone such as myself who is basically sympathetic to the Kurdish cause, there is an emotional impulse to hope that the floodgates are lifted, there’s a heroic struggle, and a unified Kurdish national liberation movement sweeps to power across the region on a cry of “Biji Kurdistan!” and the smoke from a peshmerga’s Kalashnikov.
The reality is it won’t work like that. Turkish military intervention in Northern Iraq would massively strengthen the hands of the ultra-nationalist right in Turkey, who are already riding high amid political and legal moves to strangle liberal voices in that country. Pan-Turk sentiment which always bubbles just beneath the surface in parts of Anatolia would have an opportunity to pour out in solidarity with the (genuine) plight of the Turkomans. Turkey is a regional superpower with over 1 million men under arms and modern equipment. Such civil rights as Turkish Kurds have gained in recent years would be washed away under a tide of brutal military repression. The consequences for the Iraqi Kurds of an outright military confrontation with Turkey would be apocalyptic. And the west would be powerless to stop a NATO ally from doing what, after all, is only the same thing that it is doing in the rest of the country.
It is only to be hoped that some kind of solution can be found – and it is far from clear that the PKK is the same organisation that it was in Apo’s day, in order to be able to find the tactical nous to exercise such restraint. Barzani is a master political tactician (whatever one may think of the tribal and conservative KDP’s actual politics), but whether he could put the lid back on Pandora’s box were he to open it with a call for a rising in Diyarbakir, is very much in doubt. Thus far outside interventions in the dispute have been largely limited to toothless criticisms from the Baghdad government and US officials.
And what are we on the left to say about it? I think that we should speak clearly and loudly against Turkish military intervention in Northern Iraq. We also obviously support the Kurdish right to self-determination, which is clearly the wish of a large majority in Northern Iraq and probably a majority of Turkish Kurds as well. Finally, we stand in defence of the rights of the Turkoman minority in Iraq to live free from harrassment and to enjoy the same democratic rights as Kurdish citizens in the Kirkuk region.
I certainly support an independent Kurdish state – it is one of the greatest historical injustices in that region that one of the oldest nations in the world does not control its own borders, and one that is to the abject shame of western imperialists past and present. But for all that, I don’t think that the left should endorse either the PKK’s actions or Barzani’s tactics right now – they strike me as foolhardy and likely to lead to the destruction of liberationist political forces in Kurdistan, which would lead to that nation’s realisation being set back for decades. Of course every person wants to be his own king, but not of a devastated and desolate realm.