Ethnic exclusion and the puzzle of diverging conflict trajectories: a paired comparison of Kurds in Syria and Turkey

by Stefan Lindemann

Working Papers WP 11-10
October 2011
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

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This paper raises the question of why representatives of some politically marginalised ethnic groups resort to armed rebellion, while others remain peaceful. To find answers to this question, the paper first develops a theoretical framework that relates the mobilisational capacity of disgruntled ethnic leaders to the dynamic interplay of three factors, including the repressive capacity of the state, the availability of international support, and group-specific organisational capacity. In a second step, it uses this framework to investigate the diverging conflict trajectories of Kurds in Turkey (1946-2005) and Kurds in Syria (1970-2005). Even though the leadership of both groups suffered political marginalisation, this led to armed rebellion only in Turkey where Abdullah Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) took up arms against the government in 1984. The paired comparison shows that these diverging conflict trajectories mainly reflect differences in the broader political opportunity structure. While the political mobilisation of Syrian Kurds was smothered by the extremely high repressive capacity of the Assad regime and the total lack of international support, the PKK rebellion in Turkey was facilitated by both the state’s weakened repressive capacity during the second half of the 1970s and the availability of ample external support from the early 1980s. Differences in group-specific organisational capacity, by contrast, are clearly less important as an explanatory factor. Even though the PKK displayed higher organisational capacity than Kurdish organisations in Syria, these differences are largely endogenous to the observed variation in political opportunity factors.

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