Turkey : The Kurdish issue awaits new conceptions By Rabee Al-Hafidh
ARTICLE IN BRIEF: While the AK Party initially achieved progress in solving the Kurdish question, it has been unable to sustain the pace of reform. There is a danger that this will lead to the Turkish state’s resorting to past methods, already proved inef
An exploration of the similarities and differences between Iraq and Turkey’s experiences with their Kurdish populations -- and what can be learnt from them.
DDespite its magnitude and heavy costs, in both human and material terms, the Kurdish question remains a mere subtitle under the major headline of the region. Nonetheless, in order to access and tackle these headlines, one has to address this subtitle first to remove the dark cloud it casts over the scene. The major headline being the regional alignment of the peoples of the region, which transformed them from sterile human concentrations to fertile communities capable of producing one of the greatest civilizations in human history. With its disintegration, the region is fragmented today into its primary elements and has retreated to a pre-society stage.
The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government took real steps toward solving the Kurdish question with its “opening” initiative, which initially produced significant results. The government seems intent on taking additional steps. However, the question is, will more steps in the same direction put an end to the problem -- and will the rebels ever lay down their arms?
Two different beginnings, one outcome
The Kurdish question in Turkey takes the same form it does in the rest of the region in terms of perspective, means and purpose. Thus, the Turkish initiative may be viewed as an experiment taking place under similar or even identical laboratory conditions. The achievement of different results in any experiment, whether political or chemical, relates to variations in its conditions, such as temperature, pressure and elements involved. Otherwise the results will remain unchanged. A quarter-century’s evidence supports the validity of this rule.
What the Turkish state has offered regarding the Kurdish question in the last 10 years is significant; it represents a coup against the ideology upon which the state was founded. However, it has not yet reached the level of that offered by the state in Iraq on the same issue four decades earlier, most notably in 1971. That 1971 agreement was also not enough to allow a satisfactory compromise to be reached between the sovereignty of the state and the demands of the rebels.
Leaders of the Kurdish rebellion in Iraq were granted rights that included autonomy of the Kurdish region; a
financial budget; a constitutional text stating that the people of Iraq are of two main ethnic groups, Arabs and Kurds; compulsory teaching of the Kurdish language and the designation of Kurdish as the language of education in the Kurdish region; the adoption of Kurdish as a second language in state schools; radio and television broadcasts, as well as a press, in Kurdish; preservation of the Kurdish militias, who enjoyed the right to be present on the streets of Baghdad in their distinctive uniforms; and the formation of Kurdish political parties (despite their token role in state affairs, in common with other political parties). However, the naming of the Kurdish region Kurdistan or the labeling of its residents Kurds were not among the rights granted by the state, since in Iraq these were never a matter of dispute or denial. In return, the state retained the right to monitor the country’s international borders and the oilfields of Kirkuk.
Kurdish leaders rejected the state’s offer and war erupted in 1974. The Iranian government clearly played a role in the Kurdish decision, a part that eventually secured Iran many concessions in 1975 Algerian Agreement as its price for halting military support for the rebellion.
The political regime in Iraq was a military rather than a democratic one. However, the brutal nature of the regime was not directed solely at Kurds alone but to Iraqis of all ethnicities and sects. Moreover, the world half a century ago and the atmosphere of the Cold War era in which those events took place meant people’s expectations and demands were very different from those of today. The offer seemed generous and exciting to Kurds and Arabs alike. It can still be considered so when compared to the Turkish offering and Kurds’ reception of it.
The irony is that the Iraq state did not choose the same course of action as that chosen by the Turkish state -- initiating a violent, nationalistic ideological clash with the Kurds that stripped them of all rights from day one. Iraqi Arabs and Kurds did not begin their relationship in the modern era with conflict, rather they began with an alliance complementary to their relations under the Ottoman state, and with calculations that made them (along with Iraqi Turkmen) the cornerstone of the new state. This was prompted by their concern over the repercussions of World War I for their historical political positions. Thus, they were receptive to the idea of building a political edifice from the stones of the eroding wall -- the Ottoman state -- which they themselves were part of. This vision coincided with the strategy of the occupier, who found no one to replace the former Ottoman establishment to run the new state institutions. In other words, there were no disputes between Arabs and Kurds that justified the launch of a rebellion. Yet such a rebellion did take place, and the ideology it was sparked by, even in the absence of any pre-existing sources of disagreement, may well reignite it.
Shiite Arabs were the ones who took a backseat in the newborn state. It was a political legacy they attained due to their boycott of the Ottoman state and its educational institutions on sectarian grounds and their loyalty to its enemy Iran. Two decades after the establishment of the state, there were no competent Shiite administrators to assume governmental positions -- things only changed under state intervention. This phenomenon even attracted the attention of contemporary visitors to Baghdad, who documented it in their memoirs.
No ordinary citizen
A Kurd in the Iraqi state was not just a citizen with inviolate rights; he was an extraordinary citizen capable of assuming the highest and most sensitive positions. Thus a Kurd was the first defense minister; the last commander of the Royal Guard and, during the same period, head in 14 of 16 governorates; a multiple-term serving prime minister; and commander of the military forces -- Kurds also held numerous roles in the judiciary, Ifta (religious endowment) positions and deanships at colleges and higher education institutes, as well as performing long stints as minister of the interior. A Kurd felt he had the right to advance toward the most sensitive missions in a state where Arabs constituted the majority. This is what Kurdish officer Gen. Bakr Sidqi did, by leading the first coup in the Arab world in 1936.
The undermining of the reality of such a firm and unique relationship does not require a lapse of judgment or a reckless deliberate political decision from this party or that. Instead, all it needs is a policy lacking focus on the here and now. Iraq’s unique reality did not deter Kurdish leaders from insisting on rebelling and bearing arms against the state, not only during the Saddam Hussein era but also in the time of the monarchy, a regime that everyone agrees was neither violent nor nationalistic. They established early relations with Israel and linked the philosophy of their conflict with Zionist philosophy in terms of its battle against the Arabs surrounding it. They used ideological slogans such as, “The Kurdish and Jewish peoples are victims of a common reality.” They played on emotive images, like the Holocaust, in order to sustain the enthusiasm of Kurdish people -- themselves part of the fabric of the Islamic nation. Kurds’ political and cultural assets represent mechanisms for the avoidance of the loss of cultural identity, something minorities aspire to. The Kurdish rebellion against the state passed through several stages, ending with the downfall of the regime in 2003.
Postulates and requirements
The path of the Kurdish rebellion has had many postulates and requirements. One of its postulates is that it is a rebellion that did not require a basis in discrimination or injustice and would not end with the righting of a wrong even if one had been present. One of its requirements in the Turkish arena is that the government offer will not amount to that previously received from Iraq. Some aspects of the latter represent nonnegotiable issues as far as the Turkish state is concerned, such as the adoption of a second official state language or the transformation of rebel militias into security forces entrusted with responsibility for Kurdish regions -- both of which are declared demands by rebel leaders. This indicates that forthcoming Turkish offers will not lead to a transformation in the strategy of rebellion, and that a recurrence of the previous experiment under the same circumstances with the production of the same results will be witnessed.
This is at the level of the field of confrontation with the rebellion.
At the level of national security, the government initiative -- in terms of a state entering into sovereign negotiations with an organization that has military, political, media and financial arms and enjoys support from international pressure groups -- is a method resorted to by states sensing sufficient domestic political stability and a secure regional setting. It takes place between two parties, a central government and a minority, in which the government cedes strategic powers for the benefit of the minority in return for a political solution with firm assurances of avoiding damage to national interests. Furthermore, this formula is associated with a weaker central government, such as with the London government and Scotland. This mediation formula is the one adopted by modern states, where the concept of citizenship is diminished and loyalty to the homeland is redefined.
The Turkish scene shows signs that the state -undergoing a profound transformation from military tutelage to institutional democracy -- is embarking on a mission to open sensitive files at a fast pace. Possible repercussions were not prepared for with ideological provisions capable of containing a state of chaos that the law and constitutional legislation cannot contain. The rebellious systems could thus affect the state in a number of ways, and these form a focus for discussions in Turkey. They include:
-- The ability to circumvent the state initiative,
disrupting its mechanisms and destroying its gains.
-- Luring the state into a field of confrontation determined by the rebels.
-- Punishing the Kurdish political milieu that is in agreement with the state before revolutionary courts.
-- Disrupting the work of local governmental departments in Kurdish cities by subjecting them to the authority of the civil institutions of the rebellion.
-- Using the media to distort the conduct of the state in Kurdish regions.
-- Targeting official religious institutions in the Kurdish milieu and disabling their role in disseminating Turkish-Kurdish brotherly relations.
-- Organizing civilian Kurdish crowds that raise the slogan “withdraw recognition of the state authority.”
-- Establishing an ethnic sectarian axis that attracts Alevis to the Kurdish side and which is capable of expanding in order to open more than one internal front with the state.
-- Tightening the grip of Kurdish parties on the Kurdish street in most cities (all the way to the territories of the west coast) and improving their ability to mobilize mass demonstrations at will.
-- Adopting the strategy of throwing cannon fodder before the barrel of the security institution’s rifle, with the resulting bloodshed leading to hostility toward the state.
The firmness with which the government dealt with the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), the civil umbrella of the rebellion, and the delay in democratic reforms reflects intense caution and an awareness of undesirable scenarios that may emerge in the midst of disposing of the institutions of the authoritarian regime and the army’s strong grip.
On a third level, Turkey was unable, amidst the cultural environment of the republic, to form an intellectual elite specializing in minority affairs, and did not allow cultural centers and universities to open sections or departments for such studies. This has kept the state and intellectuals at a distance from strategic facts that impact the magnetic field of the national security compass. This is what lies behind the intelligentsia’s inability to counter the ideologies of national and sectarian separatism and their reluctance to engage in their analysis because -- to borrow a phrase from a Turkish writer: “they do not know how, and they are content with emotional headlines.” This deprives the political scene of the intellectual nourishment necessary to anticipate and warn of any potential pitfalls; in the same way an autopilot system might amend a flight plan based on climactic variations even if the plan had been correct at takeoff.
This scene -- with its three aspects at the field, security and cultural levels – stands in stark contrast to that of Europe. There, extensive studies are carried out to monitor sectarian and ethnic rifts, providing advance warnings of earthquakes and allowing mitigating action to be taken.
Opening sensitive files against a background of deep
reforms will eventually unlock Pandora’s Box. This is a formula that forces the state to take refuge in society by mobilizing its institutions in parallel to the state’s in order to achieve popular awareness and thereby contain a potentially chaotic situation. This requires much of the mechanism of confrontation to take place in the mental sphere -- that is in contact with the general public -- rather than in the political milieu, where mechanisms take the form of cold formal decisions. The postulates and purposes of these mechanisms are far removed from the perceptions of the man on the street, and sometimes even from those of the intellectual. Evidence of this comes from the criticism of the government’s management of the Kurdish rebellion by writers considered close to the ruling party.
Current Turkish scene
The current era in Turkey is characterized by deep reforms of a rooted political legacy and fast-paced transformation from a state whose arbiter and decision maker is the military establishment into another in which the institutions of the state control the decision making process and which is subject to media criticism. This is not an easy or speedy operation. On the other hand, the Turkish regional setting is characterized by rapid militarization. It functions in line with the mechanism of the tyrannical pyramid, which provides the shortest means to making decisions and is the method to which states resort during crises, suspending parliament and forming mini ruling elites. The other possibility is for societies in the region to divide along their fundamental ethnic and sectarian lines and move toward civil war.
Neither case produces ideal results, and states are therefore reluctant to open their sensitive files. This scene could be described as follows: A state in search of peace and stability and a region in pursuit of war and crisis management. It is a scene not far removed from that of Europe in the period leading up to World War II, when Germany was militarized -- in intellect and equipment -and Europe became “civilized” in thought and systems, meaning the war caught it by surprise. Europe needed as long as the war lasted to mobilize a military institution influenced by the doctrine that World War I had been the war to end all wars. It also needed an ideological volte-face and popular mobilization against a political regime.
The road the Turkish government took to achieve its economic miracle is a noteworthy one. It has set itself a good example that has led it smoothly to its goal. This was achieved by setting its heading -- an independent economic foundation -- when it was still a party in opposition. Thus, it avoided the century-old economic and bureaucratic environment -- İzmir, İstanbul and Ankara -- set by the Union and Progress government. The AK Party government was no longer held hostage to its environment and so the age of the “Anatolian tigers” began. They changed the established political map of the country and the political powers that had ruled Turkey ever since the establishment of the republic.
It can be said that the biggest success of the AK Party government was its choice of economic environments; somewhere between the micro and the macro. It chose the first only to have success in both spheres later on, directing the country’s economy toward the macro system. What applies to the economic environment also applies to the intellectual environment, whose small systems are driven by local presumptions for local purposes.
Turkey is in need of a secure neighborhood and a unification of strategies between home and the region. She needs to replicate this economic success in other fields for an intellectual harvest that would end decades of cultural drought, a dearth that has deprived her of elements of regional security. The strategic penetration that intellectual society can achieve will be of no less importance than the
Iraqi Kurds wave Kurdish flags during a rally in the disputed Iraqi town of Khanaqin, northeast of Baghdad. Oct. 16, 2011
The government’s “Kurdish opening” initiative proved successful at first, and was welcomed by the nation’s Kurds. Oct. 27, 2009
Northern Iraq is home
to multiple ethnic groups -- but Kurds now predominate.
Nov. 15, 2009