The Kurdistan Problem: Part III

Originally posted by midtowng on 01/25/07

Tensions on the Iraq-Turkey border are reaching a boiling point.

16 January 2007: The Turkish army have gathered and intensified its forces on the Kurdistan’s boarder ready for attack, reported local sources on Tuesday.

Meanwhile American forces have belatedly acted to pacify Turkish concerns, by raiding an alleged PKK camp in Iraq’s Kurdistan. At the same time, deadly clashes between Turkish soldiers and the PKK continue.
  While these are alarming developments, the true flashpoint still revolves around Kirkuk. De-arabisation is in full swing as 350,000 Kurds have moved there since 2003. Street signs in Kirkuk have been changed to Kurdish.

Recently, Kurds have arrived at the conclusion that lawful means cannot solve the Arabisation issue.

Anti-Kurdish groups are meeting in Ankara to discuss the Kirkuk situation, while the Iraqi Government has moved (at the urging of the Bush Administration) to remove Kurdish authority over oil under their feet.

Rice predicted what would be in the Iraqi oil law. She was not asked how she knew what is in the law that is not yet written.

All this is happening while two Kurdish brigades are moving towards Baghdad to battle arab insurgents, a development that is deeply unpopular in Kurdistan.

“The public is adamantly against it up here,” said Lt. Col. Dennis Chapman, who commands a small team of American military advisers attached to the Kurdish battalion.
  Chapman says there have been desertions. He expects only several hundred soldiers to show up in Baghdad, out of a battalion of 1,600.
[…]
  At a small roadside gasoline stand, a small crowd watched, but did not cheer as the convoy drove past.
  “Why should we sacrifice ourselves for Arabs who are killing each other?” asked a man named Serdar Ahmad.
  The Arabs, he added, are our enemy.

How did this get to be such a convoluted mess?

  This is the final edition of a three part series on Kurdistan. This series only concerns itself with Kurdistan history outside of Iraq because my 10-part series on the History of Iraq covered Iraqi Kurdistan.

Peace in Kurdistan

“To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname empire; and where they make a wilderness, they call it peace.”
  – Tacitus

  Peace arrived in Kurdistan in the summer of 1947. Iraq had chased Barzani all the way into exile in Azerbajian. He wouldn’t return for a decade. Iran had crushed the Republic of Mahabad, leaving its founder dangling from a noose in the town square. Turkish Kurdistan had been pacified a decade before with mass deportations and massacres. 50 years of martial law in Kurdistan followed these revolts.
  After spilling rivers of blood, peace had finally arrived in Kurdistan. It was a peace that arrived by force of arms alone. No underlying cause was addressed.

“Wherever a Turkish bayonet appears, there is no Kurdish problem.”
  – Turkish newspaper VAKIT, 1925

  In other words, it was a temporary peace.

  The end of WWII brought about economic development in Turkey. While this might seem to be welcome change, for Kurdistan, it brought about economic hardship instead. Militant groups have exploited these class differences. By the mid-1970’s, fewer than 15% of the Kurdish population was still nomadic.

The exploitation of the country’s natural resources and the effects of this type of capitalism, which led to a partial dissolution of feudalism, were devastating. Millions of people became unemployed as machinery was introduced into agriculture and people became separated from their lands due to Turkish industrialization. In order to prevent a reaction to these negative developments, school-aged youths, particularly in Kurdistan, were subjected to a primitive culture and a policy of assimilation.

The Turkish attempts at assimilating young Kurds and wiping out their culture have largely failed.
  Why do the Turkish security forces react this way to minorities? It’s their law.

Article 81: Preventing the Creation of Minorities

Political parties:

a) cannot put forward that minorities exist in the Turkish Republic based

based on national, religious, confessional, racial, or language differences….

c) cannot use a language other than Turkish in writing and printing party statute or program, at congresses, at meetings in open air or indoor gatherings; at meetings, and in propaganda; cannot use or distribute placards, pictures, phonograph records, voice and visual tapes, brochures and statements written in a language other than Turkish; cannot remain indifferent to these actions and acts committed by others;

  In 1983 the military junta passed Law 2932, which specifically outlawed all communication in Kurdish without actually referring to the language explicitly.
In the 1990’s alone, 3,500 Kurdish villages were destroyed, tens of thousands were killed, and hundreds of thousands were made internal refugees.

Members of Kurdish political parties have frequently been arrested for “crimes of opinion”. For instance, scores of Kurds celebrating the traditional New Year of Nevruz have been arrested and tortured.

Kurds are not targeted by the security forces because of their ethnicity per se. Many Kurds who align themselves closely with the Turkish state have been elected to parliament or hold high political office. However, any attempt to assert political or cultural rights based on Kurdish identity is looked upon as treason and as a threat to the very foundations of the Turkish state–and punished accordingly.

I can’t honestly say what the motivations for the Turks to enforce this mono-cultural idea because I am not Turkish. However, if I was to make a guess I would say that the motivation is fear. Fear is a dangerous thing for a group of armed adults.

The Kurds were willing participants for both the Assyrian and Armenian Genocides of the 19th and early 20th century. They didn’t give the orders, but they were part of the lynch mobs.
  Some more spiteful than I might consider it karma than it is now the Kurds that are victims of a slow, grinding genocide of their own, designed to wipe out all trace of the kurdish people.

  In 1991 the world witnessed the pitiful tragedy of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing from Saddam’s armies. Suddenly the world cared about the Kurds and the Turkish government was no exception. The laws that repressed the Kurdish culture were partially gutted. However, actual enforcement of the laws are spotty. Kurdish culture is now in a vague, no-man’s land in between legal and illegal in Turkey.

Old becomes new again

  All through the 1950’s Kurdistan was quiet. Despite cultural repression in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, the Kurds were simply spent from the upheaval of the 1920’s and 1930’s.
  That general peace was broken in 1961 when Mustafa Barzani launched the Great Kurdish-Iraq War that lasted the entire decade. Despite the upheaval in Iraq, none of it spilled over into Turkey and Iran (unlike the previous decades). Maybe the Kurds in Iran and Turkey didn’t believe that Barzani could succeed where so many Kurds have failed before. It is true that the Kurds are divided by class, regional, and sectarian differences. It is also true they speak a variety of closely related dialects, which in Iran are collectively called Kirmanji. The dialects are divided into northern and southern groups, and it is not uncommon for the Kurds living in adjoining mountain valleys to speak different dialects.
  The fact that Barzani managed to fight the Iraqi army to a stalemate and a fair peace must have changed a few minds. So when violence broke out again in the late-1970’s the Kurds were emboldened.

“I used to be someone who would not even tread on an ant. But this is a war for honor and self-defense. A 100 percent elimination policy (by Ankara of the Kurds) has forced me to defense and it has become a glorious defense of a people.”
  – Abdullah Ocalan, 1991

  The first group outside of Iraq to revolt was the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party, also known as KADEK and Kongra-Gel). While almost strictly a Turkish organization, their aim is a Kurdish nation that encompasses all of the Kurdistan homeland. Their ideology is a mix of Marxism-Leninism and Kurdish nationalism.

  Their tactics are more brutal than effective. They attack both military and civilian targets. They’ve killed captured soldiers and unarmed Kurdish civilians that have collaborated with Turkish authorities.
  The creator of this group is Abdullah Ocalan. Many accuse him of being nothing but a terrorist and child-murderer. However, its hard to believe that an insurgency would last for 15 years (and still not be entirely over) against some of the cruelest military crackdowns that Turkey has ever seen if there wasn’t something more to it than that.


Abdullah Ocalan

  Ocalan and the PKK’s other founding members built up the group carefully from 1976 until 1978. Turkish intelligence didn’t even know it existed until late 1977.
  From its founding on October 27, 1978 until it changed its tactics in 1984, the PKK was a violent, but small group in Turkey. It spent its time distributing propaganda, committing acts of sabotage, ambushing Turkish police, and staging riots and protests against the Turkish government. It also spent a great deal of time in a turf war with more mainstream Kurdish political group. Being a communist group, it found its greatest support in the slums, prisons, and labor camps.
  However, things went from bad to worse in Turkish politics. A military coup in 1980 turned a government that was already unsympathetic to Kurdish nationalism, into a government that knew nothing but brute force. Shortly before the coup, Ocalan had to flee Turkey for Syrian-controlled Lebanon. It was here, in the Bekaa valley that Ocalan set up training camps.
  On December 15th, 1984, the PKK ended their turf war with other left-wing revolutionary organizations in Turkey and they all agreed to work together to overthrow the Turkish government.
  Things got ugly very fast.

Meanwhile in Iran

  Things changed dramatically in Iran in 1979.
Many Kurdish organizations had supported the islamic revolution in Iran, but Ayatollah Khomeini proved he was no friend of the Kurds.
  Kurds were denied seats in the assembly of experts that wrote the new constitution in 1979. No protections for minorities, or Sunnis was granted. In early 1979 armed clashes erupted between Kurdish groups and Iranian government forces. Khomeini responded by declaring a holy war against the Kurds on August 17, 1979. Entire Kurdish towns were destroyed in the brutal crackdown. Thousands were executed after predetermined trials. In all, about 10,000 Iranian Kurds died between 1979 and 1981 from this military campaign.

Back in Turkey

  At different times, the PKK found support from Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The PKK had become a paramilitary group and its actions had become more bold as well as more violent. It was now attacking Turkish military installations and military patrols, as well as Turkish police, and killing any Kurdish tribal leader with ties to the government. The insurgency was getting to be a very serious matter.
  Between 1984 and 1991, the Iranian border was the biggest problem for the Turkish government. Turkey stood with the U.S. against Iran, and that was all the motivation the islamic government needed to allow PKK bases to operate from their territory. The Iranian border region was also the area where the PKK’s struggle was most popular. From 1991 on the Iraqi border became Turkey’s biggest problem due to Turkey’s support of the American effort in the Gulf War. In 1986 and 1987 the Turkish military raided deep into Iraqi Kurdistan chasing the PKK.
  Meanwhile the PKK began looking less and less like a revolutionary group. While most of their funding comes from private donations from Kurdish businessmen and governments that are unsympathetic to Turkey (such as Greece, which provides PKK members with Greek passports), the PKK began using kidnapping and ransoms to raise cash. But their biggest private enterprise was drug trafficking. They are currently one of the largest heroin trafficking rings in europe.

  By 1993 the PKK was changing again.
  On March 1993, Ocalan toned down the PKK’s rhetoric and opened a crack for diplomacy. The PKK gave up wanting a separate state, and declared they only wanted an autonomous state. They also declared a cease fire. Unfortunately, the Turkish president Ozal that Ocalan was talking with had a heart attack in April and died shortly afterwards. The window for peace closed. It was at this point that the Turkish government decided to start burning down whole Kurdish villages along the south-east border, 850 villages that year alone.
  With the fall of the Soviet Union they began casting away their communist roots and embracing islam. With that came the introduction of suicide bombers.
  The no-fly zone in northern Iraq after the Gulf War left a political vacuum that has never really closed as far as Turkey is concerned. Turkey was rapidly realizing that they simply couldn’t stop the attacks as long as the PKK could slip over a border. The Turkish government’s spending on PKK activities reached 10% of the their budget. One year the government spent $8 Billion fighting the PKK and didn’t even slow down the violence.

  In 1996 the PKK changed their tactics again. They stopped focusing on Kurdish civilians that cooperated with the government and began targeting foreign tourists.
  Behind the scenes Turkey was courting Syria. Ocalan had been hiding in Syria for almost a decade now. Syria used him to gain concessions on water rights issues with Turkey. In exchange, Syria booted him out of the country.
  Ocalan was on the run. His luck ran out late in 1999 when he was captured by Turkish intelligence. He has since stood trial and been sentenced to life in prison. Ocalan, from his prison cell, has called on a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem and the PKK responded with a cease fire.

All’s not well in Iran

  The arrest of Ocalan in 1999 set off worldwide protests for a people that most of the world didn’t know anything about. Iran was no exception. The protests got violent and the Iranain security forces responded with their usual tact – around 20 people died.

  On July 9, 2005, a Kurdish opposition activist, Shivan Qaderi and two other Kurdish men were murdered in broad daylight in Mahabad. Their bodies were tied to the bumper of a truck and drug through the streets. For the next six weeks towns throughout Iranian Kurdistan erupted in riots and protests. The Iranian security forces responded as expected. An unknown number were killed and wounded. The Iranians shut down Kurdish newspapers, arresting the reporters.

President Bush to the rescue

  In 2004 a new group was founded in Iran called Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistan√™ (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, PJAK). It is said to have links to the PKK. The interesting thing about the group is that half of the members are women, mostly under the age of 25. The PJAK believes that women should have equal leadership roles in society. Their attacks are mainly against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and have managed to kill hundreds of Iranian soldiers. The PJAK is based in Iraq. In November 2006, journalist Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker stated that the US military and the Israelis are giving the group equipment, training, and targeting information for use against Iran.

  Meanwhile in Turkey, the cease fire with the PKK extended for months, and then for years. Eventually the Turkish government began relaxing restrictions on the Kurds. It was beginning to look like peace might actually take hold after 36,000 deaths.
  But the uproar from Bush’s invasion of Iraq had a cascading effect. In 2004 elements of the PKK ended the cease fire. Their reason was the slow pace of Turkey’s reforms. They declared cease fire again in September 2006, but not before another 246 Turkish security forces were killed along with 1,300 PKK members. The Turkish government is now reluctant to return to the bargaining table.

What now?

  There are plenty of other people more qualified than me to answer that question. I am not Kurdish, nor have I lived in Kurdistan.
  The Kurdish people of Turkey and Iran are tired of the violence and have largely given up on gaining an independent state. However, they are also tired of the discrimination and oppression as well. The gains of the Kurds in Iraq are emboldening, but they also scare the Turkish government.
  How much of the Turkish government’s words are bluster and how much are true? I can’t say. I think their fear is true, but I can’t say it is totally rational. It seems unlikely that the government of Turkey would try to occupy Iraqi Kurdistan and topple its government if it declares independence. It also seems unlikely that it would use Kirkuk as a pretext for it. But an Iraqi government that is unable to assert itself leaves Turkey with a lot of leeway.

  And what about Iran? They have their own Kurdish problem, and it is related to Iraq as well. The PJAK is less developed than the PKK, but it took several years for the PKK to blossom. Given a few more years…

  My guess is that none of the Kurdish groups will ever achieve full independence, nor officially claim it. But Iraqi Kurdistan is unofficially independent already. Could Turkish Kurdistan and Iranian Kurdistan achieve autonomy one day? I think that if you want peace in the region that it must eventually happen. I also think that it will happen one day.

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