Kurds hold a banner with a symbol of the illegal Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) during a demonstration in Duesseldorf, April 26, 1997.
Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Kurdistan: Raised Hopes, Empty Promises

The dilemma of the Kurds in the Middle East can be put off no longer; it has now placed itself high on the agenda of Middle East policy. For the first time in modern history, control over the Kurdish problem has slipped out of the grasp of all regional parties as Kurdish politics has taken on a momentum of its own. The Kurds, the fourth-largest nationality in the Middle East, are now bang-

ing on the door of national recognition and self-determination--with the most serious of consequences for the states in which they live. But the impact of the new Kurdish political momentum has also brought a host of post-Cold War issues to the forefront of Middle East concerns: the challenge of breakaway ethnic movements, human rights, treatment of minorities, democracy, cultural autonomy, federalism and possibly the creation of new states out of the territorial unity of the old. The Middle East is not likely to be the same again.

The Kurds had slipped off the pages of history over the past fifty years: their national aspirations were long suppressed by European imperial powers and later by modern Middle Eastern states. To be sure, various Kurdish guerrilla forces regularly served the external powers as a handy tool with which to weaken local regimes. The British helped foment trouble in Turkish Kurdistan in the 1920s; the Americans and the Israelis supported the Kurds against the Iraqi Baath regime in the 1970s; the Syrians have periodically assisted Kurds against Turkey and Iraq. Iran-under both the shah and the ayatollahs--enlisted the Iraqi Kurds in Tehran's geopolitical struggle against Iraq. And Baghdad in turn has regularly supported the Iranian Kurds against the Islamic Republic. Almost invariably, however, once the Kurds no longer served the immediate political goals of the external powers, they have been abandoned.

The idea of an independent Kurdish state has only once been seriously entertained in modern times. The Kurds are an ancient people in the Middle East who have been divided for centuries between Persian and Ottoman Turkish empires. Only with the collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of World War I-and the international flush of enthusiasm for self-determination at the Versailles Peace Conference--did the Kurds get onto the international agenda. They were promised their own state in the Treaty of S`evres in 1920, which officially carved up the remnants of the Ottoman empire. Mustafa Kemal Atat¨urk turned that treaty into a dead letter when he fought back under a resuscitated Turkish force to establish a modern Turkish state with new borders in the early 1920s. From that point on the Kurds lost hope of further international support and found themselves divided up among not two but three states--Turkey, Iraq and Iran--with much smaller communities left in Syria and the U.S.S.R. Although the Kurds today number over twenty million people--larger than the populations of Norway, Sweden and Finland combined--the concept of an independent Kurdish state of any kind has not been internationally acceptable.

Getting to Statehood

As a major ethnic group the Kurds have long been aware of their own Kurdishness, as distinct from their Arab, Turkish and Persian neighbors. Yet their ethnic and cultural aspirations have been systematically ignored, denied or suppressed within the modern state system in which they live.

Why have the Kurds, with their own distinct culture and ethnicity, been excluded from the ranks of separate nationhood? First, because it has not been convenient. The international system characteristically does not welcome the breakup of existing states and the resulting turmoil and violence, as witnessed by Yugoslavia. But the problem also lies in part with the character of the Kurds themselves, their culture and society. Even if the Kurds possess a strong sense of their own identity in relation to the surrounding nationalities, their sense of ethnic unity is still poorly developed.

The Kurds are not a united people. A system of strongly individualistic tribes, clans and communities has always dominated Kurdish society, regularly poising one clan against another according to the immediate interests of the given group. The Kurds have never in their history united in common cause. Even in national uprisings within one state, Kurdish tribes, clans or elements from another region or state have often fought against one another, usually at the first state's behest. Additionally, the control of tribal or religious leaders has for centuries been very powerful.

Kurds furthermore do not even speak one language. Three major dialects exist with marked differences in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar, compared by some to the differences between German and English, or Italian and French. One could consider them different languages, except that dialects tend to overlap and shade off into each other. But ultimately Kurds are able to accommodate to each other's dialects when required--even in the absence of an officially promoted common dialect.

The Kurds have lacked the national coherence that could have facilitated an effective and successful drive toward some kind of self-determination in the past. To date, nearly all Kurdish rebellions and movements have sought only autonomy, and then only for the Kurds within the state in which they live.

A number of factors have contributed to this weak sense of nationhood. First, their physical dispersion among different states for over a thousand years has sharply impeded the Kurds' ability to develop a unitary vision. The Kurds have been deprived of the opportunity to develop within a single political culture or structure, and have been forced to develop within three utterly diverse state systems and cultures.

Government policies toward the Kurds have also differed sharply in character. Of the three states where Kurds represent a significant minority, Turkey has been by far the most democratic, with the greatest degree of freedom of the press and public debate on most issues--except on the Kurdish issue. In fact, Turkey has been the most repressive in cultural policy toward the Kurds, denying their existence as a separate nationality within Turkey until very recently. Yet Kurds in Turkey can and regularly do rise to the highest positions within the state--on the condition that they ignore their Kurdish heritage and accept assimilation as Turks. President Turgut Özal has Kurdish blood, and Foreign Minister Hikmet Çetin is a Kurd. Millions of Kurds are totally assimilated into Turkish society.

In Iraq, in contrast, the Kurds' existence and linguistic and cultural distinctiveness have been freely accepted, but Kurds have died by the hundreds of thousands from the savage depredations of the Baath Party, which for decades has sought to crush the least degree of separatism or political resistance to its policies. Kurds in Iraq have also been largely excluded from the political process. In Iran the Kurds have been permitted some cultural independence but have been basically isolated from the political process and suppressed militarily upon any attempt at autonomy. Of the three states, life for the Kurds in Iraq has been by far the worst, in Turkey probably the best. Nowhere can it be described as satisfactory.

A further hindrance to national unity is the geographic isolation of the Kurdish regions in all three states; most Kurds live in areas far from the capitals and centers of political activity. These areas have often been deprived of developmental funds relative to other regions of the state, especially in Turkey and Iran, and are neglected and underdeveloped. The mountainous nature of much of greater Kurdistan further physically divides and separates the Kurds. In their isolation, the Kurds have preserved their tribal and clan structures far more than the peoples in the surrounding areas. Retention of a feudal social order has hindered development of pan-Kurdish national impulses and modern political evolution. Only in Turkey, where the reform policies of Ataturk in the 1920s and 1930s destroyed the power of the feudal, tribal and religious leaders, has Kurdish society moved considerably beyond the stage of feudal and tribal ties and obligations--giving a distinct leftist character to Kurdish political movements in Turkey.

But over the longer run, Kurdish political evolution may begin to take on a different complexion. Powerful forces are at work to suggest the transformation of the Kurds' political environment. First, shackles on the evolution of the Kurdish problem have been partially released by the end of the Cold War, enabling national and regional problems to be treated more on their own merits.

Second, with the demise of communism, international trends have now swung over to the ideals of free societies, support for more pluralistic political systems, greater sympathy for national self-determination for peoples subject to totalitarian rule and greater attention to gross violations of human rights. These circumstances are propitious for the Kurds to press their own case. Regional politics, too, have been convulsed, opening further opportunities for the Kurds. The Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, the international consensus against Saddam Hussein and internal change in Turkey have all created fundamental new facts for the Kurds that cannot now be easily reversed. Once isolated in their separate regions and states, Kurds are now traveling widely, studying abroad, meeting Kurds from other countries, exchanging views and developing a more coherent sense of their own ethnicity than ever before. International conferences in Paris in 1989 and in Stockholm in 1991 have brought Kurds together and focused greater international attention on them as a people.

Then the local realities impinge. In Iraq, a brutal political reality is now apparent: the Kurds can probably no longer be contained within a unitary state of Iraq. The Kurds never accepted their original inclusion within the Arab state of Iraq, and their experience within the Iraqi state has not been happy.€ Even during the moderate days of the Iraqi monarchy, Kurdish rights as stipulated by the League of Nations were poorly observed. Under Baath Party rule in 1968 Iraqi politics took a particularly ugly turn; increasing violence was visited upon the Kurds at the least manifestation of resistance to Baath Party policies. In fairness, the Baath Party was not about to preside over the weakening of the Iraqi state, but its ill-conceived policies and unprecedented violence against the Kurds alienated them more than any previous Iraqi government. With the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, the greatest opportunity yet has emerged for the Kurds to assert their aspirations for autonomy as their minimalist goal.‹

Today the international coalition aiming to topple Saddam has created an unprecedented situation in Kurdish annals: the establishment of a de facto zone of autonomy protected by international force. Open elections in Iraqi Kurdistan in the summer of 1991 have created a functioning parliament and lent a legitimacy to the new Kurdish administrative authority there that the Baghdad regime lacks. The guerrilla fighters of the two leading Kurdish movements, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani, and the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, led by Masud Barzani, have merged. Talabani and Barzani have also become key players in the exiled Iraqi opposition movement and have been able to present their grievances and aspirations before the main leaders of the Iraqi Shiite and Sunni opposition movements.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders are now meeting regularly with international leaders, including the U.S. secretary of state, a variety of European leaders and--in a stunning departure in Turkish policy--the president and prime minister of Turkey. The Iraqi opposition movement held its most unified congress yet on Kurdish soil at the end of 1992, at which time the Kurds unilaterally declared themselves a federated region of a future federated Iraq--a position acknowledged but not officially accepted by the broader opposition movement. Turkey has established de facto working agreements with Iraqi Kurdish authorities on the border to maintain border security and stop the infiltration of Turkish Kurdish guerrilla groups into Turkey. The welfare of the Iraqi Kurds has become an international issue, making it difficult for the United States or any other country simply to abandon them to their fate once the goal of toppling Saddam Hussein has been attained. For all of these reasons, the Iraqi Kurds are now well on their way to a de facto autonomy unattainable under past Iraqi political systems. They will unquestionably press for guarantees that will perpetuate this autonomy under some form of federalism.

Changing Landscape of the Middle East

Today Western intervention to force the fall of Saddam Hussein is regarded by many Arabs as a step toward the destruction of Iraq itself. Yet ironically it may now be the only way to save the state. For the maintenance of Saddam Hussein in power can only accelerate the eventual departure of the Kurds from Iraq. Saddam's war against Kuwait and genocide against the Kurds has cost the Iraqi state dearly and has precipitated, faster than anything else could have, the collapse of the deeply flawed traditional Iraqi order.

A second major regional development affecting the Kurds has been the extraordinary evolution of politics in Turkey over the last decade. The Turkish economy has been extensively opened up to the world and liberalized, and democratic practices have deepened their roots. Turkish foreign policy has been revolutionized by the opening up of politics in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia--all closed arenas to Turkey for decades--vastly extending the sphere of Turkish geopolitical interests in the newly liberated Turkic world.

Within the past two years Turkish President Özal has also thrown open the doors to explicit discussion not only of the very existence of the Kurds in Turkey, so long denied, but also of ways to treat Kurdish political demands.› The law against the use of the Kurdish language in public was abrogated in April 1991. Kurdish parliamentarians with scarcely concealed autonomy goals have formed a political party (albeit under legal challenge); parliamentary debate and public political discourse now freely encompass discussion of the Kurdish issue. Özal and the Turkish government regularly and openly confer with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership; Talabani has actually suggested that if the Iraqi Kurds can no longer survive in a non-democratic Iraq, then joining democratic Turkey would be the only serious alternative.

Political democratization, the massive flow of Kurdish refugees from Iraq into camps in Turkey at the end of the Gulf War, and the pressures created by the internationally sanctioned Kurdish safety zone in northern Iraq--all have sharply altered reality for Turkey, placing Ankara in a difficult position. On the one hand, Turkey strongly desires to continue security cooperation with the West, despite the end of the Cold War and nato's dwindling role. It wishes to see an end to Saddam, his aggressive, expansionist party, and his efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Turkey also would not spurn an influential role in oil-bearing Iraqi Kurdistan, a region Turkey claimed until forced to relinquish it to British-mandated Iraq in 1926. Turkey is also concerned over the fate of roughly one million Turkmen in northern Iraq, whose welfare Turkey could seek to protect. Ankara in fact would clearly prefer not to see any kind of autonomous Kurdish region emerge in Iraq because of its direct impact on Turkey's Kurds, but such a region now exists, and Turkey has had to accommodate reality and seek new relationships. The pre-Gulf War status quo can never be restored.

At this stage, Turkey is now face-to-face with its own Kurdish problem. The Gulf War may have precipitated the immediate Kurdish crisis, but ultimately the inexorable evolution of Kurdish dissatisfaction, nationalism and talk of separatism could not have been staved off forever in Iraq, Turkey or Iran. Unlike in Iraq, however, Kurdish separatism in Turkey is not a foregone conclusion. At a minimum Turkey will need to establish some kind of federal system that permits the Kurds broad cultural autonomy. In past decades such an idea in Turkey has been unthinkable and constitutionally treasonous, and the Turkish military is sworn to uphold the Atat¨urkist vision. For this reason the Turkish government is engaged in a harsh military struggle in its Kurdish southeast region to crush the principal separatist Kurdish movement in Turkey, the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).

The PKK is unique among Kurdish movements in that it openly espouses a separatist goal of complete independence--unlike other Kurdish organizations in Iraq and Iran that coyly see only autonomy as realistic. The PKK is also the only major organization with a pan-Kurdish vision, seeking the creation of a greater united Kurdistan. But the PKK is also heavily ideological, with a utopian, Marxist-socialist vision. Because there is no longer any strong local, feudal or tribal leadership in Turkey whose de facto authority must be recognized (unlike in Iraq or Iran), the PKK has had the freedom to develop an independent agenda. For this reason many Kurdish intellectuals from different states see the PKK as the only modern Kurdish political movement, based on ideology rather than tribalism.

But the PKK has also pursued an unabashed policy of violent guerrilla warfare in southeastern Turkey. It is led by an elusive and doctrinaire leader, Abdullah Öcalan ("the Avenger"), operating from exile, who aspires to social revolution across the entire Middle East. The PKK is given to executing moderates and opponents, Viet Cong style, and forcing villagers to choose between it and the Turkish army. Despite the PKK's violent and extremist philosophy and cult of leadership, currently it is the only serious political movement among the Turkish Kurds that speaks for them. Given the rising violence in Turkey's Kurdish zone, harsh Turkish army operations against the local population are rapidly alienating the broader population in what sometimes resembles an intifada-like environment.

Ironically, the creation of a de facto autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Iraq unexpectedly facilitated the greatest blow ever to the PKK. In October 1992 Barzani and Talabani supported a major Turkish military campaign inside the Kurdish zone that delivered a devastating blow to the PKK's infrastructure and personnel. Such cooperation has enabled the Iraqi Kurdish administration to turn a crucial political corner with Turkey in gaining the tacit acquiescence and acceptance of the Turkish military. Turkey now seems to recognize that a moderate, stable, cooperative and autonomous Kurdish administration in northern Iraq--however worrisome--is preferable to the anarchy and rebellions that characterized the last thirty years of Baghdad's leadership there. Ankara has gone so far as to state its willingness to defend the Iraqi Kurds from Saddam.

But the dilemma with Turkey's own Kurds remains. Force and repression clearly cannot be Ankara's sole response to its Kurds' political aspirations--which are not exclusively separatist. Those aspirations must be met by political means within a democratic and pluralistic framework that already exists in other areas of Turkish political life. This more liberal view is resisted by the Turkish military and security apparatus that currently dominates the formulation of Kurdish policy and internal security. Only a moderate but credible alternative Kurdish political movement in Turkey will eventually be able to supplant present sympathy among many Kurds for the violent and radical PKK. Unfortunately, Turkish government and society have not yet reached this stage of acceptance of the Kurdish reality, but may rapidly be forced to do so, in the face of even more unpalatable alternatives.

Persistence in the military option sets a course that will severely damage Turkey's standing in the West. While Ankara's human rights record is high by regional standards, if Turkey wishes to gain entry into the European Community, its human rights must improve to meet European standards.

Liberal thinkers in Turkey recognize that Ankara can draw some benefit from the new realities. Turkey has the largest Kurdish population in the region; approximately half of Turkey's Kurds do not even live in southeastern Turkey but are scattered throughout the country and in its major cities. Whatever kind of Kurdistan eventually emerges in the Middle East, Turkey will exert greater influence over it than any other state. Many Kurds will hesitate to break altogether with the considerable benefits of life in urbanized Turkey once the passions of the military campaign recede, a more civil order takes its place, and some kind of autonomy becomes possible. Turkey's own interests therefore lie in moving immediately toward a more liberal treatment of the Kurdish problem.

Geopolitically, the evolution of the Kurdish situation intensifies other regional tensions as well, especially with Iran. Tehran is already nervous about pan-Turkist ideologies in newly independent Azerbaijan that could threaten to attract Iran's own huge Azeri population. It sees Turkey entering a new phase of geopolitical expansion into Central Asia, the Caucasus and northern Iraq, encircling Iran. If Turkey moves to gain influence over northern Iraq and the Kurdish future as a whole, Iran's Kurdish region will be at risk. Iran is therefore almost certain to develop significant anti-Turkish policies to meet this challenge to its position and influence in the region. Armed conflict between the two cannot be ruled out.

Ideological Crisis in the Arab World

The Arab world is deeply vulnerable to the far-reaching implications of the evolving Kurdish problem; Kurdish aspirations in fact constitute an assault on the concept of pan-Arabism. For most of the Arab world, pan-Arabism has represented a near-sacred belief, transnational in character, emphasizing the unitary nature of the Arab world and denigrating the legitimacy and authority of the individual Arab state. Arab unity has likewise always represented an "ideological bulwark against imperialism" and has claimed to represent the power to confront and stand down the external imperialist threat.

But the Arab world has now moved into a new stage of ideological crisis, challenged by a rival ideology of liberalism. This new and still modest vision turns the problem around: it perceives the sources of Arab weakness and crisis stemming from those very authoritarian mechanisms that have upheld pan-Arab ideology. It believes that only liberal-democratic and reformist philosophies can overcome the dinosaur structures of pan-Arab authoritarianism that have led the Arab world into its worst hours and most disastrous military adventures.

To those still committed to pan-Arabist impulses, Saddam Hussein may be harsh, but he is a cherished pillar of Arab power. The unity of Iraq, representing an indispensable Arab powerhouse against Western threats, must therefore be preserved at all costs. It is on these grounds, goes the reasoning, that the West seeks to destroy Iraq, for it is the state most able to stand up to Western imperial interests. These thinkers therefore view the unity of Iraq as essential; even a move toward autonomy by the Kurds represents the beginning of the dismemberment of Iraqi-Arab power, which cannot be contemplated. In many Arab eyes, Turkey is using the Kurdish issue to expand its power at Arab expense in a new and dangerous stage of "neo-Ottomanism."

In this vision, the ideological threat is not only to Iraq, but to the unity and integrity of the entire Arab world. A democratic Iraq would come to be dominated by the Iraqi Shiite majority (some 55 to 60 percent of the population), which has rarely shared in a pan-Arab vision that is inherently Sunni.

The Arabs have long suffered under external domination- Ottoman and Western colonialism and, later, Western interventionism. Israel, linked intimately to the West, has also dealt repeated military setbacks to Arab military power. The West has sought to dominate the oil pricing structure of the region; indeed, possession by the Arabs of a strategic commodity such as oil represents a de facto loss of sovereignty through the loss of the right freely to dispose of this commodity as they see fit. The region's economy is dominated by powerful Western capital and markets and the reform visions of the International Monetary Fund. Arab nationalism thus is not entirely inventing a chimera in perceiving a persistent threat of external control or intervention extending into the Arab world over several centuries--even if their vision is selective and ignores a multitude of other international factors and causes.

Many Arab nationalists thus view with deep suspicion concepts of democratic reform and minority rights--the latest Western device designed to divest the Arabs of independent power. Indeed, this very article will be seen by many as constituting an act of sabotage and intellectual aggression against the Arab state system. But it is unclear how the Arab world then proposes to deal with problems of a multireligious and multiethnic society. Yet the dilemma is patent: democracy will inevitably bring greater power to formerly oppressed ethnic and religious groups--a shift in the political order unacceptable to old ruling elites.

Potential crises sparked by democracy are numerous in the Arab world: rule by religious minorities in Iraq, Bahrain and Syria; large, politically deprived minorities who are second-class citizens in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Sudan; a large Coptic Christian majority in Egypt; a large Berber population in North Africa. These conflicts will grow more intense as this new era of self-determination influences the international scene, coupled with lessening international tolerance for the absence of democracy, political repression and violations of human rights.

The Kurds: At the Crossroads

the future fate of the Kurds is pregnant with meaning for the region. If the Kurds are to achieve statehood anywhere, the region will then undergo dramatic changes in the borders and geopolitics of Iraq, Turkey and Iran, thus transforming the traditional balance of power in the region.

But if no Kurdish state emerges in the future, the consequences are equally powerful. First, the Middle East could opt for extreme violence and repression designed to crush dissatisfied minorities in every state, almost certainly at the cost of any kind of democratic order and observation of human rights. This option would be extremely costly for the region and for the world, for it preserves unstable, highly volatile, arbitrary and intolerant regimes that are the raw material of conflict, aggression, war and frequent external intervention. A second alternative would require the development of democratic federated states in which the Kurds, among others, could satisfy their ethnic needs--also constituting a massive shift in the character of regional politics.

How should the U.S. policymaker approach this welter of conflicting interests? First, by recognizing that long repressed, deeply needed structural change must come, even at the cost of inevitable instability. In reality, it is far more preferable that the Kurds be able to achieve their ethnic and cultural aspirations without having to take apart three nations to create their own. But if the states involved are unable to make the necessary political and cultural changes, their borders will inevitably face change. American efforts can most fruitfully be devoted to working out with other nations and the United Nations a series of approaches to the generic problem of ethnic separatism. International "marriage counseling" should offer a range of potential mechanisms including international monitoring, international guarantees of human and civil rights, sanctions, cultural autonomy, regionalization, federalism and confederalism. Washington can use its influence, preferably multilaterally, to impress upon afflicted countries the need for early, creative approaches to ethnic and sectarian problems that threaten to explode.

Americans have foreign interests, of course, beyond simple assurance of human rights around the world. But the violation of human rights is nonetheless integrally linked to much larger problems of endemic dictatorship, aggression and internal insurrection. More complex is how America determines the priority accorded to human rights concerns as opposed to other interests and relationships with foreign states. There can be no fixed rule for this--except that human rights and gradual movement toward democratic governance should rank very high in U.S. national priorities. Measures used to encourage movement in this direction will depend on the particular state and circumstances involved; those states most egregiously violating international norms and the international order--such as Iraq and Serbia--deserve the toughest approaches. Levels of repression and the explosiveness of local repression provide additional criteria for action. Choices will be difficult, but the issue is at the forefront of the international agenda in the new post-Cold War era.

In this sense, then, the Kurdish issue is central to the Middle East in the new world order. If the world wishes to avoid the specter of massive redrawing of international borders in the Middle East, then the states of the region have their work cut out for them. The Kurds stand at these crossroads. They will not wait much longer.

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