Erdoğan’s Mistake Is Worse Than a Crime

The famous quote mistakenly attributed to French Diplomat Talleyrand — “It is worse than a crime, it’s a mistake” — fits Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attack on the Kurds in northeastern Syria perfectly.

The defeat of the Syrian Kurds at the hands of the Turks, including the many casualties and tens of thousands of civilians who have had to flee the region, will serve to strengthen the resolve of those who believe that only terrorism can serve the cause of the Kurds vis-à-vis the Turkish state. One hundred years of Turkish nationalism, which started with the founding of the modern state under Kemal Atatürk, have not put out the fire of Kurdish nationalism despite the heavy repression that the Kurds have suffered periodically during the 20th and early 21st centuries.

The inability of the Turkish state to provide enough cultural freedom and autonomy to the Kurds, who comprise perhaps 20 percent of Turkey’s population, helped radicalize some of the political organizations purporting to speak for them, and to fuel their popular support. That was the case particularly of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), born at the end of the 1970s under the banner not just of Kurdish nationalism but also of communism. This organization’s terrorist activities were not only responsible for causing death and destruction among many innocent victims, but they also gave perfect cover for the brutal Turkish state to repress the Kurds in general and limit their cultural expressions, including banning the very use of the word that identifies their nationality. The Kurds were not able to participate in politics if they declared themselves to be Kurds — they could only identify themselves as Turks.

However, the Turkish juggernaut was not able to suppress Kurdish nationalism, a state of affairs that eventually led in 2012 (ironically under Erdoğan himself when he was prime minister) to political negotiations — something that Ankara had said it would never allow before the PKK renounced violence and its calls for autonomy. Those negotiations seemed to go somewhere when the PKK’s leaders, including Abdullah Öcalan, who was imprisoned at the end of the 1990s and is still in jail, renounced violence. The rise of an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq uncomfortably tolerated by Turkey at first and subsequently supported by Ankara on the condition that militant groups were banned in the area, fueled the hope that a permanent settlement would be reached.

The Syrian war, however, has destroyed everything that had been achieved, particularly in 2015, with the rise of groups considered offshoots of PKK that gained legitimacy by helping the United States and other western liberal democracies combat the Islamic State and other Sunni terrorist organizations. Erdoğan immediately saw his narrow, domestic interests imperiled by the turn of events and made it his aim to stifle the Syrian Kurds as soon as an opportunity arose. Supposedly interested in going after PKK-related groups, the scope of his ongoing military intervention has revealed a wider ambition — namely, setting back the Kurdish cause years, perhaps decades, both at home and in the bordering countries.

Even with the probable defeat of the YPG and other PPK-linked militias, Erdoğan’s military control of northeastern Syria will only strengthen the Kurdish nationalists, both their peaceful and their violent organizations, and give further credence to the notion that any compromise by the Turkish state in terms of granting rights and autonomy to millions of Kurdish people is an illusion. Nothing good will come out of this.

What a tragedy.


Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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