Turkey: thwarting Kurdistan

Will the Kurds never achieve independence?

The Turkish airforce has launched another vicious attack on the bases of Kurdish separatists inside Iraqi Kurdistan.  According to the BBC, "Turkish warplanes have hit rebel Kurdish bases in northern Iraq for the second night, the separatists and Turkish media say.  The strikes on the bases used by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) follow an attack by the separatists that killed nine Turkish troops.  A PKK spokesman told the AFP there were no casualties from the raids.  The Turkish military earlier said it would press ahead with strikes until the rebels were "rendered ineffective"".

This follows similar actions taken by the Turks.  For example last January, Aljazeera reported, "Turkish fighter jets have struck nearly 70 Kurdish separatist targets in northern Iraq in the latest in a series of strikes, according to the army general staff."

Turkey must feel justified, supported as it is by the international community including the US which regards the PKK as a terrorist organisation.  It's true this group, founded in 1978 by now-jailed Abdullah Öcalan, has been fighting the Turks since 1984 for an automous Kurdistan.

An estimated 30m Kurds form the majority of residents in certain areas of four countries in southeastern Europe and the Middle East: in the northern region of Syria, northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, eastern Turkey and a tiny bit of southwestern Armenia.  There is also a considerable Kurdish diaspora in neighbouring countries.  Further afield 0.75m live in Germany, 135,000 in France, 90,000 in the UK, and a similar number in Sweden, for example.  Numbers appear difficult to verify as they travel on Turkish, Iranian or Syrian passports in the main, but there are as many as 35m worldwide. 

Kurdistan, that part of the world where Kurds form a majority, consists of an area of up to 390,000 sq km (or 151,000 sq miles).  This is the size of Zimbabwe, making it bigger than Japan, Germany, Finland or Vietnam.  Put another way, Kurdistan is the size of Texas and New Mexico combined. 

Their various political parties disagree over whether full independence or full autonomy within existing national boundaries should be sought.  Yet they all agree on their distinctive cultural and linguistic identity being recognised, respected and maintained.  Kurds have their own distinctive literature, music and dance, architecture.  Ishak Pasha Palace, an Ottoman-era palace complex and administrative centre in the Doğubeyazıt area of Ağrı Province in eastern Turkey being a notable example.

Although there are sizeable numbers of Christian, Jewish, Yârsân and Yazidi Kurds, most follow Sunni, Shia or Sufi Islam. 

On the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 fifteen new nations emerged:  Georgia, Russia, Armenia, Moldava, Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and then in the south and east Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.  The ethnic and linguistic make-up of this latter group is:
  • Azerbaijan:  90.6% of the population is Azeri, the official language is Azeri (spoken by 90.3%)
  • Kazakhstan:  64.4% of the population is Kazakh, the state language is Kazakh (spoken by 64.4%) and official language is Russian (spoken by 95%)
  • Kyrgyzstan:  64.9% of the population is Kyrgyz, the official languages are Kyrgyz (spoken by 64.7%) and Russian (spoken by 12.5%)
  • Tajikistan:  79.9% of the population is Tajik, the official language is Tajik although Russian is widely used when conducting business
  • Turkmenistan:  85% of the population is Turkmen, the official language is Turkmen (spoken by 72%)
  • Uzbekistan:  80% of the population is Uzbek, the official language is Uzbek (spoken by 74.3%)
(Percentages taken from the 2010 World Factbook)

So, why no Kurdistan?  Well, one reason for the ease of ex-Soviet countries to claim independence was that Moscow had run its empire along ethnic lines, each nationality operating its own Soviet Socialist Republic.  Morphing the status of that SSR into an independent entity was a relatively seamless process.  By contrast, Kurdistan is a nation fragmented by existing UN-recognised international borders, and the Iranians, Syrians, Iraqis and Turks have historically used these divisions to exploit political differences between the Kurds to their own national advantages. 

Singularly, Kurds in Iraq have enjoyed autonomy since 1970 but remained at the mercy of Saddam's ruthless and murderous ploys.  De facto independence was achieved in 1991 by a no-fly zone established by the West after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait.  After the fall of the Ba'athist regime in 2003, a Kurdistan Regional Government was established to run Iraqi Kurdistan as an autonomous region from its capital at Arbil.

Despite concerns expressed in a recent issue of The Economist that Islam and Democracy are uneasy bedfellows, the parliamentary democracy in successful, prosperous Iraqi Kurdistan Region is a model free state.  Here, the social democratic PUK and nationalist KDP operate in tandem in spite of past acrimony. 

There is a province called Kurdistan in Iran but it doesn't have self-rule.  In any event, that province encompasses a small proportion of the area inhabited by the Kurdish people in Iran, living as they do in three other provinces, in two of which they constitute a majority.

No such recognition has been awarded to the Kurds in Syria.  Indeed, accusations of racism and even apartheid towards Kurds have been levelled against Syrian Arabs by human rights groups in Austria and elsewhere, according to Wikipedia.

It seems incongruous in the modern world, that these people do not have a country of their own.  They form one of the largest ethnic groups on the planet not to have their own state.  And history has been cruel in dividing them between four powerful neighbours, none of which is likely to adhere to Kurdish aspirations.

While politics is about power and money, with less value accredited to human dignity, this situation is unlikely to change.  But eventually there will likely come a time when the central authorities in Damascus, Tehran and Baghdad are weakened by upheaval.  Then Kurds in Syria, Iran and Iraq will be presented with an opportunity for unity.  Syria is already fragmenting; Iraq may not survive in its present form after Western withdrawal.  And in Iran, a collapse of the theocratic regime could present opportunities.   

But Turkey?  Never, most likely.  As Turkey increases its power, regionally and internationally, it is less - not more - likely to acquiesce to any Kurdish demands.  One key consideration in Ankara would be the size of 'Turkish Kurdistan', a huge expanse of territory where Kurds form the majority.  This area amounts to up to a third of all Turkey.  And no country would willingly contemplate divesting themselves of that amount of land.  It's also the region where much of Turkey's hydro-electric power is generated, and the source of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates which supply Iraq, Syria and much of the otherwise arid Middle East.  The pleateaus and mountains of the Kurdish region thus provide Turkey with substantial clout.

The future for Kurds inside Turkey is uncertain if not bleak, it appears.  Will any influencial global player come to their rescue?

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