Their uprisings have been drowned in blood, but the cry “Freedom for Kurdistan” reverberates in the barren, wind-swept mountains where Turkey meets Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The unfulfilled quest of the Kurds for statehood is now emerging as a major barrier in Turkey’s path to the European Union and in Ankara’s relations with the United States.
It risks becoming the dominant issue of this year’s Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections, and a considerable diplomatic irritant involving the United States, Europe and a large portion of the Middle East inhabited by Kurds – an ethnic group deprived of self-rule for centuries.
Hardly a day goes by without Turkish threats to enter northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish rebels waging a 32-year-old guerrilla war that has claimed an estimated 37,000 lives. It is in that part of Iraq that the Kurds have succeeded in establishing a form of limited autonomy which, to the Turkish government, looms as the possible nucleus of a Kurdish state.
And the very concept, Turkish officials say, is dynamite under the foundations of the Turkish republic, where the Kurdish minority is officially labelled “mountain Turks” and where their national aspirations have been constantly thwarted.
The problem emerged with new urgency last month when two senior Turkish officials, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, the chief of general staff, visited the United States in search of joint action to eliminate Kurdish guerrilla bases in Iraq. They returned home unhappy, if one believes the reaction of the Turkish press.
Turkish officials feel that the United States does not want to antagonize Iraqi Kurds, perhaps the only genuinely pro-American faction on the tormented Iraqi battlefield. Turkish and Greek analysts, unusually in agreement on this issue, claim that Washington wants to establish a firm base in Iraq’s Kurdish areas in order to control Middle Eastern oil routes.
And to Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a key U.S. ally in an area where Europe meets Asia, any form of a Kurdish state is anathema.
Hope for freedom
There are no accurate statistics, but the number of Kurds living in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria is estimated at 15 million to 20 million — most of them in Turkey.
Their history is one of broken pledges, useless appeals for international help, murder, the destruction of entire villages, and an unsatisfied clamor for nationhood.
They have been muzzled in Turkey and Syria, betrayed by the last shah of Iran and massacred by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Yet their slogans of freedom persist in their mountain hide-outs and in the shantytowns on the outskirts of Turkish cities.
In recent months, Turkey has made some concessions, including limited use of the Kurdish language on television. But the reforms are far from satisfying to the Kurds, and to the European Union, which constantly urges a change of policy toward a large minority considered to be downtrodden.
Although a number of Kurds in Turkey have been assimilated and have even reached high government positions, according to Jean-Francois Perouse, a French specialist on the Kurdish question, the Turkish Kurds have been “economically and politically marginalized, becoming the republic’s second-class citizens, prone to violence.”
Violence and terror have been the main weapons of the militant Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), the main guerrilla group considered to be terrorists by both Turkey and the United States. Its periodic campaigns have been marked by riots, bomb explosions and threats of more carnage.
Turkey has also rejected several cease-fire proposals from the PKK, instead demanding its unconditional capitulation.
During the past 80 years, 29 Kurdish uprisings have been stifled in Turkey — except for the last one, now in its 33rd year. The last unilateral truce proclaimed by the PKK took place from 1999 to 2004, when the relentless war resumed.
Last year Abdullah Ocalan, a jailed Kurdish leader, appealed from his cell through his lawyer for another truce. He was rebuffed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said that the solution of the Kurdish problem on Turkish terms is more important than Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union.
“The first and foremost principle is to eradicate entirely this terrorist group,” said Edip Baser, coordinator of the struggle against the PKK. “The PKK should lay down its arms unconditionally and surrender.” Some Kurdish leaders deny Turkey’s claim that they would like to join the Iraqi Kurds and their local administration in northern Iraq.
“We don’t want to join a state created by the Iraqi Kurds,” said Ahmet Turk, leader of the Democratic Society Party, which seeks more cultural and political rights. “Our home is in Turkey, we want to build a more free and open society here.”
Such statements are generally ignored by the Turkish government, which insists that permanent links exist between the Iraqi and Turkish Kurds. Some officials in Ankara hint that the United States, although it labels the PKK a “terrorist” organization, has closed its eyes to the flow of weapons from Iraq to rebel bases in Turkey.
“The terrorist organization has access to arms sources that are under the control of the Iraqi government, and this should be prevented,” said Turkish Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu.
The problem has been a constant irritant in U.S.-Turkish relations, and led last summer to Washington’s appointment of a special envoy dealing with Turkey’s claims. He is Joseph Ralston, a retired Air Force general who has served as U.S. chief of staff and NATO supreme commander.
Last September, Gen. Ralston urged Turkey to be patient, saying “There will be a wide range of measures, some of which will be visible, and some behind the scenes.”
Six months later, apparently pressured by the Turks for U.S. military action against the PKK, Gen. Ralston said: “Nothing is off the table, and that’s how we will work with our counterparts in Turkey and Iraq to come up with the best methods.”
Turkish officials think that Gen. Ralston’s activities have centered mainly on preventing a massive Turkish military incursion into Iraq that would further destabilize that country.
So far, the predominantly Kurdish areas have been spared the terrorism plaguing most of Iraq.
Iraqi Kurds assisted the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, while Turkey refused to allow its territory to be used as a U.S. base for attacks from the north. The refusal considerably chilled ties between the two countries while it increased Washington’s commitment to the Iraqi Kurds.
Last month, Iraq’s Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi urged Turkey to stop threatening cross-border military action against Kurdish rebels in Iraq. Ankara claims that about 3,000 PKK guerrillas operate from bases in Iraq’s Kurdish areas and demands for their pursuit intensified in recent months along with Turkish nationalism.
Ankara also accuses Iraqi Kurds of increasing their presence in and around Kirkuk, in anticipation of a referendum on the future of that oil center.
Concern over Kirkuk
Turkish officials say that adding Kirkuk to the area administered by Kurds would give more weight to Kurdish hopes for a separate state.
“Efforts are under way to alter the demographic structure of Kirkuk,” Mr. Erdogan said. “We cannot remain a bystander to such developments.” Against this background, Mr. Gul and Gen. Buyukanit returned home after separate trips to the United States with no tangible results and apparently no change of policy in the offing. Both officials subscribe to the theory that Iraq is on the verge of disintegration, with a potentially contagious effect on Turkish Kurds.
The Turkish Daily News, published in Istanbul, noted that in view of the Kurdish question, the division of Cyprus, and an unsettled situation in the Caucasus, “Turkey has never faced this number of questions during its republican history.”
Mr. Erdogan is thought to be planning his candidacy in this year’s presidential elections. His opponents consider him abrasive, with little charisma and no knowledge of foreign languages. Secularists, army generals, members of academia and big business fear his Islamist credentials.
A number of Turkish analysts feel that the approaching electoral contest will fuel nationalist feelings including the strategy of “hot pursuit” of Kurdish rebels into Iraq.
Archive: The Washington Times (Uncertain date)