Caught between a Turk and a hard place

The standoff between the Kurds, Turkey and Iraq has brought Turkish military intervention into northern Iraq closer. But Kurdish claims for autonomy are reasonable. By Eoin Ó Broin


On 30 August 2007, twelve people, civilians and military personnel, were ordered from a bus in the Sirnak province of eastern Turkey and shot dead. Politicians and the Turkish media immediately blamed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Five weeks later the PKK were blamed for the deaths of a further 12 soldiers in two separate attacks along the border separating Turkey from Iraq. It is widely believed that the PKK operate from bases within the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq.

 Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is under pressure from opposition parties and the military to respond. He said would support Turkish military operations inside Kurdish Iraq despite opposition from the Iraqi government and US administration. On 17 October the Turkish Parliament formally endorsed military intervention.
Then on 21 October, 17 Turkish soldiers and 23 PKK guerrillas were killed. In response Prime Minister Erdogan called an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the situation. Meanwhile thousands of Turks protested on the streets of Istanbul demanding action.

Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq, has warned that any Turkish incursions would be met with armed resistance. Iraq's foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, also a Kurd, also expressed his concern at the deteriorating situation.

The upsurge of violence has strained the already difficult relations between Ankara, Baghdad and Washington.


The Kurds

The Kurds are the world's largest stateless nation. They live along the borders of northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, Syria and Iran. None of these States recognise the existence of the Kurds as an ethnic minority. These States also keep no records of the size of their Kurdish populations.There may be up to 40 million Kurds in the region, the largest proportion living in Turkey.

In the post World War I carve-up of the Ottoman Empire the Kurds were promised an autonomous state by the Allies. However, objections from Turkey saw the issue disappear from the Allies agenda. Intermittent uprisings in Turkey, Iran and British administered Iraq all failed to secure political recognition for the Kurds.

The Kurds have been permanently consigned to the position of invisible minorities within repressive and undemocratic states. Kurdish cultural and political rights have been denied. In Turkey it was illegal to speak Kurdish, in private or public, until 1991. Today it is illegal to use the Kurdish language during national election campaigns.
In 1984 the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) led by Abdullah Ocalan launched an armed campaign against the Turkish state in an attempt to secure political independence. In 1991, during the first Gulf War, the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Massoud Barzani launched an armed uprising against Sadam Hussein's regime.

In Turkey more than 37,000 people died during 15 years of conflict from 1984, the majority by the Turkish army and its paid militias.

In Iraq, following the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds by Hussein's troops, the UN Security Council installed a ”safe haven” giving greater autonomy to the local population. Following the toppling of Sadam 2004, the Kurdistan Regional Government was formed in northern Iraq, with US and EU support.

For Kurds, the struggles in Iraq and Turkey are the same.  The governments in Washington and London think otherwise. KDP leader Massoud Barzani was installed as president of the new government in northern Iraq. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was put on the international terrorist most wanted list immediately accross the border in Turkey.

Ocalan was arrested in Kenya in 1999, and illegally extradited to Turkey, where he was tried and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment following the abolition of the death penalty in 2002. In 2005 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ocalan did not receive a fair trial. The Turkish government have ignored the European Court's request for a retrial. Ocalan remains in prison in Turkey in solitary confinement.

From jail Ocalan urged the PKK to pursue its aims non-violently. In response they changed their name to KADEK, shifted their demands for political independence to regional autonomy and called a ceasefire.

Basic denials of political and cultural rights by the Turkish government continued. The high profile jailing of Leyla Zana  MP is a case in point. Zana was jailed for 15 years for making “separatist comments” during her maiden speech to the Turkish parliament in 1994. Having taken the oath of alligence to Turkey she went on to say, “I shall struggle so that the Kurdish and Turkish peoples may live together in a democratic framework.” Despite high profile support for her release, from Amnesty International and the EU, she spent 10 years in prison, finally being released in 2004.

Following the jailing of Zana, the Turkish authorities have subsequently banned every Kurdish political party until the formation of the Democracy and Society Party in 2006.

Turkey, the EU and the US

Turkey is an important strategic ally for both the US and EU. Positioned on the border of Europe and the Middle East, it is often praised by politicians in Brussels and Washington as an example of the viability of liberal democracy in a predominantly Muslim country.  This view is not universally shared. Turkey's membership of NATO and close working relationship with the White House is the primary reason why Kurds in the country are viewed by the US State Department as “terrorists” while their Iraqi counterparts are viewed as allies.

The opening of full accession negotiations for membership of the EU in 2005 marked an important milestone in the country's foreign policy. The decision by the EU has increased hopes that progress could be achieved on democratic reform generally and the Kurdish question specifically.

One of the key obstacles to such reform is the Turkish army. Despite successfully making the transition to formal democratic government after a military coup in the 1980s, the army continues to wield significant political power.
The rise of the liberal Muslim, Justice and Peace Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has caused unease within the military. They fear that the AKP wants to undermine Turkey's secular constitution and establish a theocratic state.

Earlier this year the army made veiled threats of a military coup if the AKP nominated former Foreign Minister Abdullah Gull as their presidential candidate. However, following a decisive general election this summer, in which the AKP secured 46 per cent of the vote, Gull was successfully elected, giving the AKP the positions of prime minister and president for the first time.

The battle over the presidency is just the latest episode in an ongoing struggle for political control of the state, between the military and AKP. Membership of the EU, reform of the country's censorship and libel laws, and progress on issues such as Cyprus and the Kurds are the battlefields upon which these forces engage.

The recent stalling of the reforms required for EU membership and the upsurge of violence in the predominantly Kurdish east of the country cannot be understood outside of this context. Erdogan's support for military intervention in northern Iraq is clearly an attempt to assuage the army's fears. Any such intervention could have profound repercussions for the region.

Kurdish commentator Kerim Yilditz said last year that the treatment of the Kurds “inhibits Turkey from developing into a country which respects European standards of human rights”. He lamented the fact that “the lack of recognition [by Turkey and the EU] of the Kurds as a national minority goes against the spirit of tolerance and respect enshrined in the principled of the European Convention of Human Rights”. He gave a dire warning that if “the EU and Turkey fail to confront the Kurdish question and commit to greater democratisation, they threaten the long-term stability and public order of the Middle East and Europe”.