Kurdish protests have been taking place recently in Turkey regarding the country’s inadequate response against ISIS, and the lack of support for Kurdish fighters in the town of Kobane, Syria. The protests were peaceful in contrast with the riots of October, which resulted in the death of more than 30 civilians—most killed by protesters fighting with the “Grey Wolves,” an ultranationalist organization following Kemalist ideals.

The unrest of October was fueled by the release of rather disturbing videos and photographs of what seems to be ISIS activity in Turkey. Images of men with the appearance of Islamic fighters (long beards, shaved mustache) and wearing the ISIS logo onboard public transportation, of people attacking anti-ISIS protesters in Turkish universities, and videos of ISIS fighters alongside Turkish-speaking individuals have been all over the media lately. These, of course, do not necessarily indicate an official alliance between Turkey and ISIS, but it seems that Turkey has, in fact, allowed the Islamist fanatic group to do its “dirty work.”

The Perceived Kurdish Threat

Modern-day Turkey was built from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. The country went through a major reconstruction, spurred on by the rise to prominence of a central figure named Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk.” He was the officer of the Ottoman Army that, after the defeat of the Ottomans during World War I, led the Turkish National Movement in its resistance against the decisions of the Treaty of Sevres.

Ataturk tried to create a secular, modern nation-state. He built schools, granted women equal civil and voting rights, made education free and compulsory, even replaced the use of the Arab alphabet with Latin. Ataturk’s greatest reform was the relative separation of religion and state. A state that, as part of the Ottoman Empire, had been to that point greatly governed by religious laws.

Another of Ataturk’s major reforms was the policy of Turkification, an attempt to assimilate the minorities that were part of the multicultural Ottoman Empire and had remained in the Turkish republic. But not all minorities in Turkey wanted to assimilate. The Kurds, a minority that lost its recognition when the Treaty of Sevres was nullified by the Treaty of Lausanne, lost with it its chance for autonomy. The Kurds did not take the assimilating policy so well, attempting uprisings in 1925, 1930, 1935 and 1937.

In response to these revolts, the Turkish government isolated the Kurdish areas, designated them as military areas, and enforced the divide-and-conquer strategy between the Kurdish clans. In this way, they managed to keep the Kurds under control until the late ’70s. At that time, the social changes that happened in Turkey, the mass migration to urban centers, the poor living conditions of the internal immigrants, combined with the political influence of the era, revived Kurdish nationalism with the formation of groups asking for political, social, and financial reforms.

These were the groups that, in 1978, gave birth to the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK)—a Marxist-Lenninist party, with the objective of creating a communist Kurdistan. The PKK used urban warfare in its attempt to achieve its goals. From 1984 to 2013, it conducted a guerrilla-warfare campaign against the Turkish state, launched from bases in Syria during the early years and from northern Iraq, later. This campaign ended with a ceasefire and talks of peace, in an attempt to find a solution to the problem that had cost about 40,000 dead, both Turks and Kurds.

The PKK withdrew its units to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Unfortunately, the spillovers of the Syrian Civil War turned the area once more to a battlefield, and thus gave the Turkish state the opportunity to settle some old scores with the PKK and YPD (PKK offshoot in Syria). The presence of these parties and their Kurdish nationalistic ideas is an everlasting threat to Turkey, as the Kurds make up approximately 20 percent of its population.