Three Murders in Paris

What Happened?

On January 9 this year, someone murdered three female Kurdish activists in Paris.

The most well-known victim was Sakine Cansiz, who co-founded the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) with Abdullah Ocalan in 1978. The PKK fought an armed struggle against the Turkish government, beginning in 1984, resulting in at least 40,000 deaths. Ocalan eventually was captured in 1999 in Kenya, where he had been sheltered in the Greek embassy, and has been imprisoned in Turkey. (He was originally sentenced to death. But in order to enhance its efforts to join the European Union, Turkey banned the death penalty. Ocalan was re-sentenced to life imprisonment.) Ocalan has since renounced violence and has participated in peace talks with the Turkish government. 

The central issue for Prime Minister Erdogan is the drafting of a new Turkish constitution. The existing document was produced by the Turkish military following its successful 1980 coup and contains many non-democratic features, including a declaration of the “unity of the Turkish nation.” That effectively means that there are no Kurds in Turkey. Ataturk, in fact, referred to them as “mountain Turks,” a deep insult to the 20 million Kurds who live in the country.

Erdogan had authorized another round of talks with Ocalan to fashion provisions in the constitution that would satisfy the Kurds. In turn, that would further enhance Turkey’s push towards EU membership.

Then, the assassinations in Paris. They were meant to stimulate a new war between the outraged Kurds in Turkey and its government. That would end any further talks by Ocalan and prevent the drafting of a new constitution. It would leave Turkey in turmoil. The question, of course, is who did the dirty work.

Three Suspects Have Emerged

The Turkish “deep state.” Turkish ultra-nationalists may have killed the Kurds in Paris in order to abort any future talks with Ocalan. That would prevent the broadening of the definition of “Turkish” to include Kurds.

It is widely believed that an anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist coalition exists within the Turkish military, intelligence services, judiciary and mafia. Since Ottoman times, regarding the prevalence of secret political societies, there have been enough incidents to suggest the reality of the Turkish “state within a state.” That coalition would clearly aim to retain the present constitution and thwart the rise of Kurdish nationalism.  

Dissident Kurds. While Ocalan is the titular head of the PKK, the Kurds within Turkey have never been unified. And there are substantial Kurdish populations living in neighboring Syria, Iraq and Iran. Many of those Kurds never accepted Ocalan’s renunciation of violence and continue to see violence of the only way of achieving their goals, some of which include independence from Turkey and even the establishment of a unified Kurdish state across the four countries.

Anti-Ocalan Kurds may have killed the co-founder of the PKK and her colleagues in an attempt to eliminate the chances for a deal between Ocalan and the government.

Iran. Iran may seem to be the least likely candidate to intervene in Turkish-Kurdish negotiations. But the two countries became enemies when Turkey turned against Syrian President Assad. Along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Turkey has been delivering arms and funds to rebel groups within Syria. Iran would be pleased to disrupt Turkey’s overtures to the Kurds, see a return to Kurdish-Turkish violence and weaken Turkey’s stability.

Iran also has substantial experience with assassinating Kurds. In 1989, the head of Iran’s Kurds and two aides were murdered while negotiating in Vienna with a delegation from the Iranian government. The government of Austria formally accused the Iran of responsibility, although the accused murderers were allowed to return to Tehran.

In 1992, three Turkish leaders were killed in the Mykonos Greek restaurant in Berlin. A Berlin court found two Iranians living in the country guilty and issued an international arrest warrant for the Iranian Minister of Intelligence, found guilty of ordering the murders with the knowledge of the Iranian President, Rafsanjani, and the “Supreme Leader,” Khamene’i.

Iran also has substantial experience in killing dissidents in Paris. In 1979, the son of Princess Ashraf, the Shah’s twin sister, was killed on a Paris street. In 1991, the Shah’s last prime minister was killed in his apartment in Paris. And the list is considerably longer.

So Who Did It?

The Paris police are investigating. The French Minister of the Interior visited the murder scene and declared, “without doubt an execution … a totally intolerable act.” The government has thrown its full weight into an investigation.

What Will Be The Effect of the Murders?

They demonstrate just how complicated are Turkish and Middle Eastern politics. (For illustrations of the complications of Kurdish politics, see the accompanying documents.) But the Turkish government is likely to continue to talk with Ocalan who is likely to continue to try to fashion a new constitution that will broaden Kurdish rights. Prime Minister Erdogan is likely to agree to Kurdish demands to allow the widespread use of the Kurdish language but not to demands for autonomy or even greater federalism.

Prime Minister Erdogan’s dilemma stems from his urge to create a new political order in Turkey. He wants to please the European Union by eliminating the non-democratic features of the military constitution. He also wants to strengthen the role of the president, now largely a figurehead. Then when Erdogan reaches the term limits on his present job he could be elected to a meaningful role as president. But to get a new constitution, he needs to do something about the Kurdish question.

Thus the significance of the assassinations. But they will not derail progress on the new constitution. Erdogan will authorize continued negotiations with Ocalan. A new constitution will be drafted and approved. But, be sure, Turkey’s problems with its Kurds (and Syria and Iraq and Iran) will not be settled.

Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus, Booth School of Business, The University of Chicago. (