The UN Answer to the Kurdish Question

Kurdistan Workers Party supporters in London, April 2003

The situation today

The current conflict in Southeastern Turkey is rooted in Kurdish revolts protesting the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which amalgamated thousands of Kurds into Turkey and scrapped previous plans to create a Kurdish state. For decades Turkish Kurds were forcibly resettled, their language was restricted, and parts of their culture were banned.

The conflict escalated in 1978 when Abdullah Ocalan founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which would later fight the Turkish government to establish a separatist state. In 1999 Ocalan was imprisoned by the Turkish government and since then the conflict has subdued somewhat, with a ceasefire being agreed upon in 2013.

However this ceasefire broke down in July 2015 due to ISIS bombing the Kurdish town of Suraç, with many Kurds accusing the Turkish government of allowing arms to flow through Turkey to ISIS, in order to indirectly attack the Syrian Kurdish government in Rojava. [i] The PKK retaliated the following day, resulting in Turkey’s government initiating a large-scale military operation against the PKK that continues to this day.

More recently the failed military coup last month has empowered President Erdoğan to crackdown on political opponents. Current estimates indicate that over 60,000 police, military officers, teachers, civil servants, and other officials have been detained, whilst a three-month state of emergency and widespread travel ban are active in Turkey.[ii]

But even more concerning is the long-term impact the failed putsch may have on Turkey’s internal politics, notably the Kurdish conflict. Already the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has been excluded from post-coup talks between the President and Turkey’s political parties, leading some to worry about how a newly empowered Erdoğan may respond to the continued PKK insurgency.[iii]

Even before the coup attempt the United Nations was concerned about the conflict, with UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Raad al-Hussein requesting Turkey grant the UN access to affected areas.[iv] Since then the HDP’s co-leader Selahattin Demirtas has asked the UN to monitor the conflict and requested their help if peace talks recommence.[v] The UN has also condemned the government’s post-coup crackdown on the media, which has already issued arrest warrants for 89 journalists.[vi]

On the other hand however, the Turkish government and military have been very significantly weakened by the coup attempt. As of now 44 per cent of Turkey’s generals and admirals have been detained and this has severely undermined the government’s ability to defend itself.[vii] This may lead to the PKK, or more likely the extremist splinter group the TAK, to seize this opportunity and escalate the conflict since Turkey’s capacity to retaliate is currently hampered.

With the situation in Turkey so fragile it’s imperative that the UN step in now to prevent a brutal government crackdown on Kurds and/or an escalation of the conflict by Kurdish fighters emboldened by Turkey’s temporarily weak military.

What can be done?

The agreement of a ceasefire should be the UN’s first goal, as this will provide the foundations for future talks that can establish a long-term peace and eventual solution to the conflict. Bringing together the two factions will be challenging but it is feasible and we already have the tools to accomplish this task.

Bringing in the HDP will be relatively simple, as the party as already expressed a desire for a ceasefire and peace talks to commence with UN supervision. The PKK will be more challenging, however they have become more moderate over the years, reneging its’ original goal of Kurdish independence in favour of civil rights for Kurds. With this in mind it is not unreasonable for the PKK to agree to a ceasefire like they did in 2013.

Of greater concern are splinter groups of the PKK, notably the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), which has already committed several bombings this year, killing 28 people in February and 37 people in March.[viii] Not only would extremist groups like these be less willing to accept a ceasefire, they are also more likely to commit violent acts that could later jeopardise a future peace agreement.

Tackling this would be challenging, as the Turkish government simply cracking down on them would render the ceasefire inert and threaten spilling over into civilian Kurdish communities. An alternative could be for NATO, with UN supervision, to tackle the TAK and other groups rather than Turkish government itself, as this would allow for greater UN oversight to protect civilians.

An even larger obstacle would be the Turkish government, as an empowered Erdoğan is unlikely to jump at the chance to negotiate out of a conflict when he could instead use the state of emergency and his executive powers to crackdown on the PKK. Such an act could be used by Erdoğan to justify the necessity of having a strong executive to maintain security, and thus this makes a crackdown highly attractive to him.

More frustrating is the UN’s inability to strong-arm the Turkish government to be more open to peace talks. Any such attempts would likely be blocked by the United States, which sees Turkey as a crucial NATO ally in the Middle East. Furthermore if the US did agree to some form of resolution condemning an aggressive Turkish crackdown towards Kurds it may be blocked by Russia, which may try to use the situation to gain favour with Erdoğan, who Putin has been at odds with via their proxy conflict in Syria.

A realistic strategy would be to incentivise not cracking down on Kurdish groups like the PKK and for this the UN would have to work with the European Union. Turkey has wanted to join the EU for years but has been routinely blocked, with EU countries citing Turkey’s political instability and human rights records as problems.[ix] Using the EU and the prospect of membership as a carrot could result in Turkey being more receptive to Kurdish overtures for a ceasefire.

Such a strategy could work however it would require an almost unprecedented level of cooperation between the EU and UN in what would be a delicate diplomatic matter. This would be exacerbated by the many crises within the EU, the most recent of which being the negotiations between the UK and the EU on the terms of Brexit. Despite this, a joint UN-EU strategy towards Turkey is still the strongest option, as it does not rely on the uncertain support of the US or Russia in the Security Council and it plays on Erdoğan’s desire to join the EU.

Looking to the future

This is of course a very simplistic perspective on the Kurdish question as whole. One must account for the quasi-autonomous region of Rojava in Syria, which is currently run by a Kurdish-led government fighting both Assad and ISIS. Thought must also be spared for the Iraqi-Kurdistan regional government and the Kurdish communities in Iran, if a settlement regarding Kurdish nationality and statehood is ever to be found.

Looking forward, the UN can no longer ignore the issue of Kurdish nationality, which was abandoned by European powers when the Ottoman Empire was carved up. What will be done with the Kurdish government in Syria after the war ends? Will Iraqi Kurdistan secede and how will this influence Iraq? And how will Iranian Kurds react to the opening up of Iran following the recent nuclear agreement? The international community must address all of these questions and their possible answers must be considered by all of the Secretary General candidates.

However whilst the plight of Kurds in Syria, Iraq, and Iran are serious matters very much deserving of the UN’s attention, it is Turkey’s Kurds that are most at risk from both a crackdown from an empowered President and escalating violence spurred by Turkey’s weakened military. It is for these reasons that the UN must act quickly and work with its partners in the EU to establish a ceasefire in Turkey, from which peace talks can begin to settle this immensely complex and sensitive issue.



[i] Makhzoomi, K. (2015). The Cost Of Turkey’s Self-Interest. [online] The Huffington Post. Available at: [Accessed 10 Aug. 2016].

[ii] Hakura, F. (2016). Turkey’s Post-Coup Reverberations Are Just Beginning. [online] Chatham House. Available at: [Accessed 10 Aug. 2016].

[iii] Bora, B. (2016). How could failed coup affect Kurdish peace process?. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Aug. 2016].

[iv] BBC News. (2016). UN deplores Turkish military abuses in Kurdish areas. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Aug. 2016].

[v] Goran, B. (2016). HDP co-leader calls UN to monitor ceasefire in Turkey. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Aug. 2016].

[vi] UN News Service. (2016). UN and OSCE experts condemn Turkey’s crackdown on media. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Aug. 2016].

[vii] Bekdil, B. (2016). Turkey’s Failed Coup Leaves Military Weakened. [online] Defense News. Available at: [Accessed 10 Aug. 2016].

[viii] BBC News. (2016). Ankara blast: Kurdish group TAK claims bombing. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Aug. 2016].

[ix] Murphy, F. (2016). Austria threatens to block acceleration of Turkish EU talks. [online] Business Insider. Available at: [Accessed 10 Aug. 2016].