“Greater Kurdistan” Ambitions Could Spark Regional War

by Sarkis Pogossian

It is now the Sunni insurgency in central and western Iraq that is drawing blood and media attention in Iraq, but the situation in the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, at present the most peaceful part of the country, is waiting to explode–and holds far greater potential to internationalize the conflict. The Kurdish people, numbering some 20 million, were left off the map when the victorious allies carved new states out of the ruins of the Turkish Ottoman Empire after World War I. They are now divided mostly between Iraq and Turkey, with smaller populations in Iran and Syria. The emergence of a highly autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq has re-ignited ambitions for a “Greater Kurdistan” which would unite Kurdish lands across the borders of these four nation-states.

Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani, the two long-ruling rival strongmen of the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq, have arrived at a power-sharing deal at the behest of the US occupation. With the formation of an ostensibly independent Iraqi government earlier this year, Talabani became Iraq’s president while Barzani was elected president of Kurdistan Regional Government, the newly-unified northern autonomous zone. The Kurdish militia armies controlled by these two strongmen, the peshmerga, openly collaborated with US Special Forces units in the campaign against Saddam’s regime in 2003.

Yet these two apparent clients of US imperialism appear to have forged at least a de-facto alliance with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist guerilla organization which for over 20 years has been fighting for the liberation of Eastern Anatolia from the rule of Turkey. The PKK is officially recognized as a “terrorist organization” by the US State Department. The war which ensued after it took up arms in 1984, espousing a Maoist-influenced radical Kurdish nationalism, cost over 30,000 lives. The PKK was thought to be in decline since the arrest of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan (code name “Apo”), in 1999. But it now shows signs of a resurgence–and activity in Iran and Syria as well as Turkey and Iran.

Turkey is one of the United States’ most strategic allies, a NATO member bordering both Iraq and the ex-Soviet Union. It was instrumental in policing and encircling both the Soviets and Saddam, and today protects two key pipelines which deliver the oil resources of the post-Soviet Caspian Basin and post-Saddam Iraq to global markets under Washington-led development initiatves: the Baku-Ceyhan and Kirkuk-Ceyhan lines, both terminating at the Turkish port of Ceyhan and crossing hundreds of miles of Turkish territory. This very territory is where the Turkish state is today repressing the cultural rights and national aspirations of the Kurds and other ethnic minorities, and where the declining Ottomans carried out the genocide of over 1 million Armenians in the World War I. It would be an irony of this region, Eastern Anatolia, proved the key to a wider internationalized war, as an unintended consequence of George Bush’s drive to forge a new order in the Middle East.

Turkish Hegemonism and the PKK Resurgence

One Oct. 6, the PKK announced an end to its “unilateral ceasefire” against the Turkish government. The one-month ceasefire had been extended until Oct. 3, the date Turkey started accession talks into the European Union.

“With the start of the negotiations the Kurdish problem is no longer just Turkey’s problem, it is now a basic problem of the EU,” the PKK statement said. “It is certain that the Kurdish people will use their legitimate right of active defense and democratic resistance to protect themselves and their national honor against the increasing operations of destruction by the Turkish state. The lack of any mention in the EU’s negotiation framework agreement of a solution to the Kurdish problem, or even a single word about the continuing low-intensity war, is an endorsement of the Turkish state’s policy of denial.”

Turkey’s pending entry into the EU could bring a long-simmering ethno-nationalist struggle of the Middle East to the European stage. The PKK is officially recognized as a “terrorist organization” by the EU as well as the US. In September, Germany banned the PKK’s paper, Ozgur Politika, and news agencies, which exiled supporters of the guerilla organization had long maintained there. However, the organization continues to maintain its Denmark-based radio station.

Despite the supposed prohibition on dealing with “official” terrorists, the CIA is apparently seeking contacts with the PKK. On Oct. 2, the French daily Le Monde reported that US Central Intelligence Agency officials had carried out talks with “former” PKK leader Nizamettin Tas to discuss the potential for disarmament of the organization. This certainly indicates awareness in Washington of the organization’s growing power, and the criticality of the Kurdish question for the entire region.

In a speech in the Eastern Anatolian city of Diyarbakir in August, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “People are asking me what we are planning to do about the ‘Kurdish problem.'” His answer was “more democracy”–widely perceived as a significant overture for peace.

But local Kurds are increasingly skeptical. The Washington Post reported Oct. 7 that a newly-forming Kurdish political party, the Democratic Society Movement, “appears intent on associating itself with the PKK and its imprisoned founder, Abdullah Ocalan. The new party’s most prominent organizer, former legislator Leyla Zana, made headlines by publicly kissing the hand of Ocalan’s sister. Political professionals argue that, at the grass roots, Ocalan’s abiding potency as a symbol of resistance counts for more in Kurdish politics than the disdain he inspires even among many who wish the Kurds well.”

“There are a lot of people here who feel not only sympathy with him but blood–their brothers’, their sisters’, their sons’,” Mahmut Simsek, an aide to the mayor of Diyarbakir, told the Post. “When you talk about 35,000 dead, 30,000 of them were from the Kurdish side.”

After his 1999 capture in Nairobi by Turkish elite forces acting on a CIA tip, Ocalan was videotaped telling his captors: “I have a hunch I can be of service to the Turkish people and the Kurdish people. My mother is a Turk.” The insurgency ebbed as the PKK seemed to undergo a series of name-changes and factional splits. At the urging of the EU, Turkey began to rethink its rigid intolerance to Kurdish cultural rights. In 2002 its parliament legalized Kurdish-language education and radio broadcasts.

But human-rights groups say Turkey has a long way to go. Reports of torture continue, and have mounted since the PKK resumed armed activities this year. The guerrillas say they returned to arms out of frustration at receiving no acceptable offer of an amnesty, and at the slow and tentative pace of even limited restoration of cultural rights.

Debate on the history of the Kurdish conflict, as well as the Armenian genocide, remains harshly proscribed. On Oct. 9, EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn met with Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk at his home in Istanbul ahead of the writer’s December trial for “insulting the Turkish identity.” The 301st paragraph of the new Turkish penal code says “a person who insults Turkishness, the Republic or the Turkish parliament will be punished with imprisonment ranging from six months to three years.” A case was opened against Pamuk after he told a Swiss newspaper in February, “30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it.”

This same clause was also used earlier this year to convict an Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, who received a six-month suspended sentence. The EU has pledged to closely watch these cases.

In September, the European Commission also condemned a Turkish court ruling that ordered the cancellation of an academic conference on the World War I-era massacres of Armenians. “We strongly deplore this new attempt to prevent Turkish society from freely discussing its history,” said EU representative Krisztina Nagy. Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan also condemned the court’s decision. But Turkey’s government has fought hard to counter an international Armenian campaign to have the wave of massacres recognized as genocide. Numerous countries around the world have passed resolutions officially recognizing the Armenian genocide–although not the United States.

If the atmosphere remains this intolerant in cosmopolitan Istanbul, it is certainly worse in remote Eastern Anatolia–and the PKK clearly exploits the inevitable backlash. A five-year truce declared by the PKK after Ocalan’s capture officially ended in June 2004, and eastern Turkey has since seen a series of bombings and skirmishes. The truce came in response to Turkish commitments to respect Kurdish language and cultural rights. But there are now signs that recent progress in this area is being reversed. While Kurdish is still not allowed to be taught in state schools (even in Kurdish-majority regions), under the 2002 reform it can be taught in private schools. But in August the directors of Turkey’s eight privately-owned Kurdish-language schools announced that they were closing them due to bureaucratic hurdles, and in response to popular Kurdish demands for the language to be part of the regular curriculum at state schools in the region.

“We took this decision because of…the request for education in the mother tongue at schools,” Suleyman Yilmaz, Kurdish school director in Diyarbakir, told the Kurdish new service Dozame. He said the price of private schools, which receive no government support, put them beyond the means of most students. He also said that while it takes two or three months for most private schools to obtain government permits, it can take up to 18 months for the government to grant permits for Kurdish-language schools. As recently as 1991 it was illegal to even speak Kurdish.

In another sign of growing polarization, Ridvan Kizgin, chairman of the Human Rights Association (IHD) in the province of Bingol, was fined 1,112 lira (US$800) by the Bingol Governorship for using “Cewlik,” the Kurdish name for the province, in an official document. Kizgin had written a letter to the Bingol governor and the Interior Ministry on June 29, discussing the issue of ongoing military operations in the area. He signed it on behalf of “The IHD Bingol (Cewlik) Office.” Kizgin was charged with breaking paragraph 31 of the “Associations Law,” which mandates that all documents from official associations must be written in Turkish. Kizgin is challenging the fine before the courts.

Signs of popular unrest are growing. In May 2003, when a 6.4 earthquake centered in Bingol left thousands homeless, over 125 dead and at least a thousand more missing, hundreds of local Kurds, angered by slow and inadequate aid efforts, took to the streets, hurling stones at army troops, who fired into the air to disperse crowds. In September 2003, over 10,000 Kurds, many chanting “Peace!” rallied in Diyarbakir, urging the Turkish government to make peace with the PKK.

Armed actions are being carried out with greater frequency in both in Eastern Anatolia and western Turkey. This July, a bomb tore apart a minibus in the popular Aegean beach resort town of Kusadasi, killing at least five, although it was uncertain if this was the work of the PKK or Islamic militants. Earlier that month, a bomb hidden in a soda can wounded 21 people, including three foreign tourists, in the resort town Cesme, north of Kusadasi. In April, a bomb in a cassette player killed a police officer and wounded four other people in Kusadasi. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons Organization claimed responsibility for those bombings, warning that it would keep up attacks against tourist areas. The Falcons were said to be a hard-line breakaway faction of the PKK.

When the new one-month PKK ceasefire ended Oct. 6, violence immediately flared again. On Oct. 9, a landmine went off on a road between between Seydibey and Akcagul in Eastern Anatolia, injuring seven passengers of a minibus.

At least 200 Turkish soldiers have been reportedly killed in clashes with the PKK this year.

Northern Iraq: “Southern Kurdistan”?

The July 14 attack in Kusadasi came one day after Erdogan asserted the right to intervene in northern Iraqi, where an estimated 4,500 PKK fighters have taken refuge.

“There are certain things that international law allows. When necessary, one can carry out cross-border operations… This can be done when the conditions require… We hope that such conditions will not emerge,” Erdogan proclaimed.

Erdogan also renewed his criticism of the US for failing to attack PKK camps in Iraq. A rewrite of an AFP account of his speech on Kurdish Media, a website maintained by independent Kurdish activists in England, tellingly refers to northern Iraq as “Southern Kurdistan.” Notes the rewrite: “Recent calls to the U.S. by Turkey to target the PKK have been ignored by Washington which has its hands full in central Iraq with an insurgency. The US is also unlikely to endanger its strong relationship with Kurds of South Kurdistan by opening a new front against hardened PKK guerrillas in a region administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government.”

The PKK is apparently building a visible presence in northern Iraq. Turkish nationalist politicians have reacted angrily to the opening of a PKK office in Kirkuk, which is said to be flying the flag of the guerilla organization. Mehmet Agar of Turkey’s True Path Party (DYP) called nearly explicitly for unilateral Turkish military intervention in Iraq in comments this summer that invoked Kemal Ataturk, father of Turkish nationalism and founder of the modern Turkish state: “In a globalized world, with an expression inspired by the great Ataturk, the field of defense has now become the entire region. No sensible person can abandon the security of the country to the fine-tuning policies of his friends.”

The PKK has reacted to this bellicose rhetoric in kind. In a June statement, the organization threatened to turn northern Iraq into a “quagmire” for the Turkish army if it launches cross-border operations to rout guerrilla camps there. “We are prepared for a possible attack… We will make it fail and turn [northern Iraq] into a quagmire for the forces that will carry it out,” said the statement, published on the Internet site of the Germany-based MHA news agency, said to be close to the guerilla movement.

Iraqi Internal Minister Bayan Jabr, on a visit to Istanbul in July, insisted that any Turkish cross-border operations would have to receive prior approval of the Iraqi Parliament. Jabr told Turkey’s NTV: “We are ready for cooperation against the Kurdish Workers’ Party or any other terrorist organization. We need to help each other on the issue. However, there is a government and parliament elected in Iraq. [Turkey] is bound to the parliament’s decision.” Jabr also noted that Kurdish peshmerga (militia) have control over the Turkish border.

Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous zone emerged in after Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when the imposition of a “no-fly zone” in northern Iraq effectively ended Saddam Hussein’s ability to carry out counter-insurgency operations there. Kurdish leaders were naturally suspicious of US intentions–the White House had been openly “tiliting” to Saddam when he carried out his brutal “Anfal” (plunder) offensive against the Kurds in 1988, which reached its horrific climax in the genocidal gas attack on the city of Halabja, that left 5,000 dead. But the victory over Saddam’s forces was followed by a 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war between the rival factions led by Barzani and Talabani. While the Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has generally assumed a more leftist posture than Barzani’s more “traditionalist” Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the real differences are regional and ethnic. The PUK, with its capital at Sulaymaniya, is made up of speakers of the Surani dialect of Kurdish; the KDP, with its capital at Arbil, claims the loyalty of those who speak the Kurmanji dialect. The civil war was a bitter one, with Barzani even cutting a deal with Saddam at one point for a joint offensive with the Iraqi army against the PUK.

The new PUK-KDP peace and the consolidation of a unified Kurdistan Regional Government may only presage escalated violence between Kurds and other groups in northern Iraq’s ethnic patchwork. Most pivotal are the Turkmen–who are closely related to the Turks, and whose interests Turkey claims to protect. Kirkuk, the center of northern Iraq’s oil industry, is now the center of this struggle.

Kirkuk, where the PKK has established an office, lies outside the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq, but the city’s Arab and Turkmen residents fear the Kurdish parties seek to annex it and establish it as their regional capital. Under Saddam Hussein, both Kurds and Turkmen were forced from Kirkuk, and their lands and homes redistributed to Arabs who were encouraged to settle there. Since Saddam’s fall, many Kurds and Turkmen have started to return and demand their properties back–sparking a tense three-way rivalry between the ethnic groups. In February 2004, when the Kirkuk offices of the Iraqi Turkmen Front were ransacked by a crowd of Kurds said to be led by PUK militants, the Turkmen Front demanded international peacekeepers be sent into the city. In December 2003, three were killed and dozens wounded when Kurdish gunmen–again said to be from the PUK–opened fire on a protest march of Arabs and Turkmen who chanted anti-Kurdish slogans. In August 2003, a clash between Shi’ite Turkmen and Sunni Kurds for control of a shrine at Tuz Khurmatu resulted in the shrine’s dome–recently rebuilt after having been destroyed by the Saddam regime–being destroyed anew by a rocket-propelled grenade. In subsequent days, US helicopters and armored vehicles broke up Kurd-Turkmen riots in Kirkuk, in which shooting broke out and a police station was torched.

Kirkuk had actually been taken by PUK peshmerga forces in April 2003 (presumably with the aid of US Special Forces). Kurdish Media reported that Turkmen militias in Kirkuk killed fifteen Kurds celebrating the downfall of the Saddam Husein regime April 11. Turkmen also reportedly looted Kurdish homes and shops after peshmerga forces withdrew from the city at US behest.

Many Kurds feel that protecting the Turkmen could become Turkey’s rationale for military intervention. Michael Rubin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote this October: “The Turkish government has bankrolled the Iraqi Turkmen Front… As Kurds, long displaced from Kirkuk migrated back to the city, the Turkish military, egged on by the Iraqi Turkmen Front, threatened violence. Many Kurds point to the July 2003 infiltration of a Turkish Special Forces team, allegedly on a mission to assassinate Kurdish politicians in Kirkuk, as a sign of malicious Turkish intentions.”

In April 2003, when US Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FLA), senior member of the House International Relations Committee and co-chair of the Caucus on US-Turkish Relations, met with leading politicians in Istanbul, MP Onur Oymen reportedly protested to him that the sign at the Iraqi border reads “Welcome to Kurdistan” rather than “Welcome to Iraq”–and demanded that US forces change it. Turkish officials also protest that Kurdish authorities in Iraq have issued their own passport stamps reading “Kurdistan.”

Iran: Kurdish Unrest and the Shadow of Mahabad

The PKK also seems to be expanding its operations into Iran, which has seen an outbreak of Kurdish unrest in recent months.

Iran’s Interior Ministry blamed the PKK for a July 26 ambush on an army patrol near the northwestern town of Oshnoviyeh, which left four soldiers dead. A civilian woman caught in the crossfire and one of the assailants were also killed, authorities said. “It was terrorists from the PKK who carried out the ambush,” a ministry spokesman said, adding that the Iranian soldiers who died were “martyred.” Local officials said the attack was carried out the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), said to be the Iranian arm of the PKK.

Tehran and Ankara are linked by an accord calling for cooperation to combat the PKK and the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq Organisation (MKO), an armed Iranian opposition group based in Iraq. But Turkey has accused Iran recently of not doing enough to secure the border.

Provincial deputy governor Abbas Khorshidi said the tensions could be linked to recent events in the nearby Kurdish city of Mahabad, where a young Kurdish man was shot and killed by police in July. Subsequent clashes between residents and police left one police officer dead and resulted in dozens of arrests. “If regional security is upset and there is disorder, we will act very strongly against troublemakers,” Khorshidi warned.

Mahabad has great symbolic significance for the Kurds. Located in northwest Iran’s West Azerbaijan province, it was established in 1946 as the capital of the first and only Kurdish state in history, with Soviet encouragement. However, the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad was put down later the same year. The Mahabad Republic’s military leader was Mustafa Barzani, father of Masoud Barzani, leader of Iraq’s KDP.

The July incident in Mahabad would indeed mean “disorder.” On Aug. 3, the city exploded into rebellion, and the uprising quickly spread to other cities in the region, including Sanandaj, Sardasht, Piranshahr, Marivan, Oshnavieh, Baneh and Divan Darreh. Thousands took to the streets of Saqez, capital of Iran’s Kurdistan province.

The regime dispatched hundreds of special anti-riot units to the region. Backed by helicopter gun-ships, security forces in Saqez fired tear gas into the crowd and began shooting in the air. Young people broke in groups and engaged in hit-and-run skirmishes with the police, building street barricades and burning tires. Chanting “long live freedom,” “death to Khamenei” and “down with the mullahs,” the demonstrators hurled rocks and attacked police stations, government offices and the Revolutionary Guards headquarters, inflicting heavy damage. Several protesters were wounded and at least 30 arrested. Security forces and intelligence agents raided homes in Sanandaj and arrested at least 400.

The MKO’s exiled leader Maryam Rajavi hailed the uprising and urged residents in other areas of Iran to rise in solidarity. “The day is not far when the Iranian nation’s uprising will uproot the religious theocracy under the banner of Islam and herald democracy and popular sovereignty in Iran,” she said.

The uprising was put down within a week. Iranian press reports in the wake of the violence said that authorities had acknowledged 11 dead in the Saqez violence. Iranian authorities said the unrest was not ethnically motivated, but Kurdish leaders disagree. Authorities also said PJAK guerrillas released four police officers they were holding as hostages. But guerilla violence continued.

Turkey’s Zaman Online reported Aug. 23 that dozens of soldiers and guerillas alike had been killed in fighting in Iran in recent days. Zaman charged the US was actually encouraging PKK incursions into Iran from its bases in Iraq, pointing to a supposed PKK statement released in June that said: “As much as the US increases the conflict process against Iran, Kurds will have a much more important position and place in this fight. The US cannot win its struggle against Iran without gaining the support of the Kurds.”

Zaman also cited a quote (not given verbatim) from PJAK leader Haji Ahmadi to the Mesopotamia News Agency (MNA), the press organ of his organization, “that the US operation in Iraq plays an important role in the conflicts in Iran.”

Syria: A Classic Case of “Blowback”

Syria as well is experiencing both Kurdish unrest and signs of PKK activity. This carries a special irony for the Damascus regime, as longtime Syrian strongman Hafez Assad had been a patron of the PKK in a strategy to weaken US ally Turkey. In recent years, the Syrian authorities have clamped down on the group as relations with Turkey have improved. It was outlawed in Syria in 1998, and its leaders expelled. Cooperation with Turkey increased after Hafez Assad died in 2000 and his son Bashar Assad assumed the reins of power. But the cynical strategy of sponsoring the PKK in Turkey while crushing Kurdish ambitions at home in Syria is now resulting in a “blowback” problem for the regime.

In mid-August, just as Iranian Kurdistan was exploding into rebellion, violent clashes between Kurds and police erupted in the north Syrian town of Ein al-Arab. Cars were burned, and stones hurled at police who responded by firing tear gas and making several arrests. Reports said the violence broke out after police halted a march in support of the PKK.

Earlier in the year, the killing of Muhammad Mashouk al-Khaznawi, a Syrian Kurdish leader, provided another occasion for local unrest.

A July account of the case on the website of the Kurdistan Bloggers Union referred to northern Syria as “West Kurdistan”: “A Kurdish Sunni Muslim cleric in Syria who was reported missing last month has died after being tortured… Sheikh Mohammed Maashuq al-Khaznawi had not been heard from since May 10 and was believed to have been detained by Syrian police. The cleric ‘was killed at the hands of Syrian authorities,’ a spokesman for the Kurdish Yakiti party said a statement received by AFP in Beirut. An official from the Kurdish Democratic Party in Syria, Nazir Mustapha, told AFP that doctors in Damascus reported ‘traces of torture’ on Khaznawi’s body. The sheikh was widely popular in Syria and Kurdistan, and was known for teaching that Islam and democracy are compatible. News of his disappearance led to massive demonstrations in Syrian Kurdistan last month. The Kurds in West-Kurdistan and Syria are fighting to have their language, culture and political rights recognised. More news will follow later. Currently the Kurds are getting his body from Damascus.”

A July 2 New York Times account took note of growing tensions in Syrian Kurdistan, and how the tactics the Assad regime has employed there mirror those of Saddam Hussein in their intent if not their brutality.

Tensions “reached new levels” in July after the body of al-Khaznawi was found halfway between Damascus and the Kurdish city of Qamishli, the Times reported. Protesters calling for an international investigation of the killing clashed with security forces, who beat women and fired at demonstrators, Kurdish politicians charged. One police officer was killed, several protesters wounded and dozens more arrested, and Kurdish businesses were looted, they said. Just after the violence, Syria’s governing Baath Party passed on calls to grant Kurds greater rights at its 10th Congress–but the meeting ended with no resolutions on the Kurdish question.

“There is a kind of anxiety and restlessness now,” the Times quoted Hassan Salih, secretary general of the Yekiti Kurdish party based in Qamishli. “We are disappointed with all the unfulfilled promises.”

Syria’s 1.5 million Kurds are the country’s largest ethnic minority, but many have been officially stateless since 1962, when a government census left out tens of thousands of Kurds. They and their children, now hundreds of thousands, were left without citizenship, denied the right to work government jobs or own property. They carry red identification cards labeled “foreigner.”

Syria’s Baath Party is using precisely the same strategy that has resulted in an explosive situation in Iraq’s Kirkuk, according to the Times account: “The government also resettled thousands of Arabs from other parts of the country into areas along the border to build a buffer with Kurdish areas in neighboring Iran, Iraq and Turkey, pitting Kurds against Arabs. A long-running drought has not helped, as many in the farming region, especially Arab sharecroppers, have seen their incomes and tolerance for one another plummet.”

A July 12 analysis of the Baath Party meeting from Lebanon’s Daily Star made clear the dilemma of the Syrian Kurds. The fact that they are disenfranchised by the Damascus regime makes them a convenient football for White House hawks. And their demands for basic political rights are all too likely to be used as a lever for ‘neoliberal’ reform: privatization, austerity and the rest. Or, if tensions finally explode in Syria’s corner of Kurdistan, for actual ‘regime change’ in Damascus. Wrote the Daily Star:

“The regime of President Bashar Assad knows that the Kurds, if they choose to collaborate with the policies of the United States, can seriously threaten the regime’s authority. Under Assad, Syria has seen the introduction of some economic reforms and a modest, though sporadic, loosening of political controls, even as genuine and broad liberalization has yet to materialize. While the Baath conference promised to resolve the issue of the stateless Kurds, estimated at 150,000-200,000 from a total Syrian Kurdish population of some 1.5 million, there remains a possibility that little real change will occur… Free from the grip of Saddam Hussein and thanks to years of self-rule and prosperity, Iraq’s Kurds have gained a new prominence. They became virtual kingmakers after the Iraqi elections in January… Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds continue to face decades-long restrictions, including on the use of their language… Syria had for some time sought to form an ‘Arab belt’ between its Kurds and those in Iraq and Turkey, mindful of the cross-border influence between the communities. However, this desire was considerably undermined by the influence of Kurds from Iraq, so the Syrian Kurds are today increasingly feeling encouraged to demand more rights… If unchecked, the developing situation regarding the Kurds has the potential to provoke a severe backlash. Will Bashar Assad’s regime be able to lower Kurdish expectations and dodge another bullet?”

In addition to the more than 150,000 officially stateless Syrian Kurds, another 75,000 or so are simply unregistered, and are known as maktoumeen, or “concealed,” having almost no civil rights. The article also noted rioting in Qamishli in March 2004 at a football match.

Radical Multiculturalism or Ethnic War?

Even as the organization expands into neighboring states, key to the PKK’s future is whether accommodations can be reached in the organization’s heartland of Eastern Anatolia.

The Economist, writing on Prime Minister Erdogan’s historic visit to Diyarbakir in its Aug. 18-25 issue, noted that he became the first Turkish leader ever to admit that Turkey had mishandled the Kurdish rebellion. Like all great nations, declared Erdogan, Turkey needed to face up to its past.

Erdogan’s visit to the largest city in the Kurdish region followed ground-breaking talks with a group of Turkish intellectuals, seen by some as mouthpieces for the outlawed PKK guerillas (“terrorist group,” said The Economist, accepting the US-EU official designation). In these talks, Erdogan pledged that, despite a renewed wave of PKK attacks, there would be no going back on his reforms. The Kurdish problem, he said, could not be solved through purely military means.

Of course, the opposition is crying treason. “This will inevitably lead to bargaining with the PKK,” fumed Deniz Baykal, leader of the Republican People’s Party. Nationalists within Erdogan’s own Justice and Development party have also responded angrily. The army has so far kept silent, even though some retired generals have called for re-imposing emergency rule in the Kurdish provinces.

Orhan Dogan, another Kurdish leader, fueled the nationalist backlash when he told a newspaper that Turkey would have to negotiate with the PKK and that the group’s imprisoned leader, Ocalan, would walk free one day.

Within hours of returning from Diyarbakir, Erdogan urged media supervisors to allow regional radio and TV stations to broadcast in Kurdish. But the Kurdish provinces remain impoverished, and hundreds of thousands remain displaced by the army’s scorched-earth campaigns against the PKK. The Turkish interior ministry revealed the same week as Erdogan’s Diyarbakir appearance that only 5,239 of a total 104,734 victims who had applied under a new law for compensation had been considered, and only 1,190 were to be paid anything. With the deadline for applications past, the program “is a complete fiasco,” declared Mesut Deger, an opposition Kurdish deputy, who is pressing for an extension.

The Economist warned that “more needs to be done if Turkey’s Kurds are not to be infected by calls for independence by Iraq’s powerful Kurds next door.” The magazine (breaking now with the State Department line) stated that “Mr Erdogan must find a way of giving an amnesty to 5,000 rebels, entrenched in the mountains of south-east Turkey and northern Iraq, that is acceptable to Turks and Kurds alike.”

On Aug. 27, days after Erdogan’s Diyarbakir speech, a clash erupted between Turkish security forces and PKK fighters in rural area of Besiri township of Batman province, leaving three PKK militants dead and another captured. Two days later, one man was killed and five officers were injured during clashes between Kurdish protesters and police in the city of Batman. The violence erupted after some 1,000 Kurds marched to demand the release of the bodies of six men accused of being guerillas killed in recent fighting.

Fighting in Eastern Anatolia this year has at times threatened to spill into Iraq. In mid-April, at least 20 PKK fighters were killed in an assualt by Turkish army troops backed up by US-made Cobra attack helicopters near the Iraq borde. Three Turkish soldiers and a village guardsman were also killed in the fighting in Siirt and Sirnak provinces. Turkish authorities said the guerillas infiltrated Turkish territory from Iraq. It was the largest battle between Turkish forces and the PKK since the five-year truce was called off the previous June.

On April 4, an AFP report on the Kurdish Media website stated that a congress of the guerilla group’s leaders, meeting in “the mountains of Kurdistan,” had officially agreed to change the name of the organization back to PKK after a period of calling themselves KADEK (Congress for Democracy and Freedom in Kurdistan) and KONGRA-GEL (Kurdistan People’s Congress) following the arrest of Ocalan in 1999. The earlier name changes coincided with a retreat from a separatist position. The name change back to PKK, following the expiring of the ceasefire, appears a tilt back in a hard-line direction. April 4 was chosen for the congress because it is the birthday of Ocalan, now serving a life sentence in a top-security Turkish prison.

Official Turkish response to the PKK resurgence points to lingering official intolerance, despite Ankara’s supposed new attitude. Prime Minister Erdogan, speaking in Oslo after the April gun-battle, said: “The PKK cannot speak on behalf of the Kurds, it cannot represent them. The Kurdish problem is imaginary… Turkish citizenship is our common denominator. This is our upper identity.”

The Kurdish problem is by no means imaginary, but it is part of a larger problem of ethnic politics and local autonomy in Eastern Anatolia. The region is home not only to Kurds and Turks, but to an abundance of other smaller groups, including Armenians, Assyrians, Laz, Yazidis and Alevi Sufis (who can be either Kurdish or Turkish, but have a distinct identity by virtue of their spiritual affiliation). Recently, the Zaza (known to the Turks as the Qizilbashi), formerly assumed by ethnographers to be a Kurdish sub-group, are asserting their separate identity and demanding an autonomous homeland in the region of Dersim, to be called Zazaistan.

Many of these smaller groups are equally suspicious of the Turkish state and the PKK, which they feel are both predicated on denying their existence in order to assert the supremacy of their own ethno-nationalist vision. A Kurdish-Armenian alliance against the Ottomans briefly existed in the early days of World War I. But it ended when the Ottoman state successfully played an Islamic card to pit the Kurds against the Christian Armenians, resulting in Kurdish collaboration with the Ottoman army’s massacres. Istanbul played the Kurds and Armenians off against each other–then crushed them both. Despite this shared experience of oppression, the alliance has never been effectively rebuilt.

The stakes in Eastern Anatolia are extremely high. It is one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the world, despite the official fiction that the population is entirely “Turkish.” It borders both the Caucasus and Iraq, as well as Iran, which the US openly seeks to destabilize–and where the CIA doubtless endeavors to exploit local ethnic grievances to make trouble for Tehran. Turkish ethno-nationalist hegemony in Eastern Anatolia is building a backlash–just as a backlash against official Sunni Arab ethno-nationalism has now brought Iraq to the brink of civil war (or perhaps over it). The vying claims of Eastern Anatolia and Greater Kurdistan alike–Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian‚ Iranian, Arab–could help tilt the balance towards a devastating war that would draw in the neighboring powers and potentially engulf both the Middle East and Caucasus. Or, if the various ethnicities of this region can work out some kind of decentralized pluralistic federalism that respects cultural rights and survival for all–and take the radical demand of extending this ethic in defiance of state borders–it could provide a model of autonomous co-existence for a dangerously polarizing, highly geo-strategic part of the world.


PKK ends ‘unilateral’ ceasefire, Journal of Turkish Weekly, Oct. 7

“Le Monde: CIA Contacts with PKK,” Zaman, Oct. 3

“Are Turkish Kurds ready for democracy?” Washington Post, Oct. 7

“EU enlargement chief meets with Orhan Pamuk,” AP, Oct. 9

“UN condemns Turkey’s cancellation of conference on massacre of Armenians
during Ottoman Empire,” AP, Sept. 23

“Iraq: Democracy, Civil War, or Chaos?” by Michael Rubin, The One Republic,
Oct. 30

Previous reports from our weblog:

Turkish government threats halt conference on Armenian genocide

Turkish intolerance fuels PKK resurgence

Terror in Turkey

PKK expands presence in Iraq–and Iran?

Uprisings rock western Iran

More Kurdish unrest in Syria, Iran

Kurdish leader assassinated in Syria

Syria’s Kurds: pawns or actors?

PKK ceasefire in Turkey, new attacks in Iran

Kurds clash with Turkish police, one dead

PKK resurgence in Turkish Kurdistan

Next: Free Zazaistan?


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Nov. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution