Top 5 Things I learnt at “The PKK, Kurdish Nationalism and Future of Turkey” Conference

Our program hosted this conference which was mostly organized by Tugrul Keskin, a VT graduate now at Portland State University and Kemal Silay, Director of the Turkish Studies program at Indiana University, at 1021 Prince Street, Alexandria yesterday. We received no outside funds to support the conference: all participants paid their own way to get to Alexandria, and split the conference meal at the end of the evening.


The points below are super condensed versions of more elaborate arguments. Any interpretation errors are mine. There were lots of other good papers (though Iran and the Armenian question were not addressed unfortunately by presenters). The best will eventually appear as chapters in an edited volume resulting from the conference.

1. Öcalan’s Ideology and that of the PKK

Ali Kemal Özcan (Tunceli University) made a compelling argument about a gap between Öcalan and his organization based on a close reading of Öcalan’s writings down the years. The argument, in brief, is that Öcalan has a different reading of history, one based on Marxist precepts. A “national liberation movement is not our struggle” for it is a “sect of capitalist modernity.” Becoming a nation-state is the agenda of an aspirant ruling elite not the real agenda of ordinary people.

2. The KRG and Independence

Reporting on more than 30 recent elite interviews with members of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Zheger Hassan (Univ of Western Ontario) outlined a distinction between ‘soft secessionists’ and ‘pragmatists’ that provided insight into subtleties of independence discourse in the undisputed territories. His broader argument was that the KRG case affirms the hypothesis that “de facto states” (that KRG is one is debatable, of course) are more likely to not seek independence if economic and strategic benefits of  outweigh the risks. Of course, if that calculus changes…..


3. The PKK is winning in Syria

This is undoubtedly glib but it was nevertheless Wladimir van Wilgenburg’s (Jamestown Foundation) final summary bullet point after a comprehensive and detailed discussion of the different Kurdish political factions in northern Syria and their embeddedness within the transnational Kurdish networks. After presenting an impressively detailed diagrammatic representation of these linkages he too conceded “its really complicated.” The different political parties on the ground are themselves divided into different parties, factions and distinct armed formations. YPG (People’s Defense Units) is the best know. The situation is also very fluid with fighting ongoing. For further details see his blog Transnational Middle-East Observer, his articles for Jamestown, and his columns for Al Monitor.

4. Explaining the Failure of Erdoğan’s Public Service Provision Charm Offensive in Kurdish Towns.

In a detailed ethnographic account of the compulsory public service of doctors in the Kurdish town of Hakkari (southeast Turkey), Ilker Cörüt (Central European University; second from left above) outlined the material investments the AKP led Turkish state has made in public health in Kurdish regions, a dramatic departure from the past wherein the Turkish state did not value Kurdish lives. He saw this, in effect, as the benevolent face of a persistent assimilationist strategy. He cited an Erdoğan speech to Kurds wherein he enumerated the long list of investments and then asked : “do you vote for the politics of services or of identity?” But these investments are looked upon skeptically by the Kurdish population he argued. Why? Well there is a generation that, after longterm experiences with repression and brutality, hates the state. Also there is a perceptual gap between the AKP (who contrast the situation with the past) and Kurds (who contrast the situation with western Turkey and more modern areas). Distrust runs deep, a point underscored in an interesting presentation by the London-based Irish human rights lawyer Edel Hughes who cited George Mitchell’s observation about Northern Ireland that there needs to be a ‘decommissioning of mindsets not just weapons.’

5. Conditions for recruitment of PKK activists for violence remain.

Presentations by Vera Eccarius-Kelly (Siena College) and Ismail Hakki Yiğit (Mississippi State University, first from left) based on joint work with Tahir Abbas (Fatih University) presented insights into the material conditions and mechanisms by which Kurds are radicalized locally and in the diaspora. Supporting Turkey’s forward movement towards a genuine peace process with significant outcomes for its Kurdish citizens is the best antidote to this.

Finally, after chatting yesterday with Joshua Hendrick’s (Loyola University of Maryland; third from left above), I’m really looking forward to reading his book on the Gülen movement which has just recently been published.

About Dr Gerard Toal

Irish born academic living in Washington DC researching geopolitical competition and territorial conflicts in post-Communist Europe. Author of CRITICAL GEOPOLITICS (1996), BOSNIA REMADE (w C Dahlman) and NEAR ABROAD: PUTIN, THE WEST AND THE CONTEST OVER UKRAINE AND THE CAUCASUS (Oxford University Press, 2017).
This entry was posted in conference, Current affairs, Iraq, Kurdistan, Kurds, Middle East, PKK, Turkey, World political map and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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