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Editorial: Turkey and its Kurds must keep talking


The murder of three Kurdish women activists in Paris is focusing attention on the long struggle of the Turkish Kurds for civil rights and control of their own affairs. It is a conflict often ignored by the rest of the world, but it is central to the politics of Turkey, its neighbours and – increasingly – the whole Middle East.

The dead women were all linked to the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers' Party, which launched a guerrilla war in 1984 aimed at separation and has since moderated its demands to autonomy and civil rights within Turkey. Some 40,000 people have died in the struggle, but there is no end in sight, despite the military superiority of the Turkish army. Although the PKK has, at times, been close to defeat, it has always survived, not least because Ankara has offered Turkey's 14 million Kurds too little to conciliate them.

The existence of so many theories as to who carried out the Paris killings only illustrates the complexity of the conflict. That the perpetrators came from the Turkish intelligence service is not likely, given the ongoing peace talks with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Although it is conceivable that dissident members of the PKK might be involved, the most probable explanation is that the killers came from the shadowy world of the Turkish "deep state" where quasi-fascist ultra-nationalists mix with security men associated with the years of military control. Such groups have a grim record of mysterious killings of dissident Kurds and other opponents.

There have been times in the past decade when it appeared the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his AKP party would offer enough concessions to make peace with the majority of the Kurds and marginalise the PKK. But repression has continued. Any critic of the state is still vulnerable to being detained as "a terrorist", and thousands of Kurdish politicians, journalists, lawyers and activists have been arrested since 2009.

The failure to resolve the Kurdish issue comes at a moment when Turkey's political influence is growing in the Middle East. In the past, Mr Erdogan had to tread carefully in his dealings with the Kurds, walking a fine line in order neither to provoke the Turkish army (which has staged four military coups since 1960), nor risk being denounced as unpatriotic by the far right and the secular opposition.

But Mr Erdogan and his party have now largely de-fanged the once all-powerful army, enabling the government to make meaningful concessions. With the PKK growing stronger thanks to the Syrian civil war – which has enabled it to gain control of Syrian Kurdish districts on the Turkish border – he must now do so. Turkey is increasingly allied to the Iraqi Kurds in opposition to the government in Baghdad. A historic compromise between the Turkish government and the Kurds would strengthen rather than weaken the state. The recent killings in Paris must not be allowed to knock that process off course.