Following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the US and its allies are now openly supporting the armed opposition in Syria. The US is perceived by people in the region to be supporting Sunni regimes, first and foremost Saudi Arabia and Turkey, against Shia Iran and other anti-US forces. This has raised tensions between Sunni and Shia and between the various ethnic groups in the region.
In Syria, the Bashar al-Assad regime, supported by Iran and Russia, appears to be fighting back, re-establishing control in Damascus and Aleppo. While there is no clear answer as to who is “winning” the current civil conflict, one group has undoubtedly made gains — the Syrian Kurds.
As the civil war has intensified they have taken over their districts adjacent to the Turkish border without serious conflict. The Kurdwatch website reported that on July 21 armed members of the PYD (Democratic Union Party) took over police stations and checkpoints, including the only border crossing between Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, after Syrian forces withdrew. On August 14, CNN reported that in Qamisli, on the Turkish border, that neither the FSA (Free Syria Army), nor regime forces were evident, but that Kurdish flags were everywhere. There are about 2 million Kurds in Syria, scattered across northern Syria, and many more live in Damascus and Aleppo.
This development has not gone unnoticed by Turkish prime minister R. Tayyip Erdogan, whose government is providing training to the FSA and permitting the transport of arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Erdogan has now threatening this new Kurdish enclave. This has thrust the spotlight on to the blatant hypocrisy of the Turkish government, which on the one hand claims it is fighting against PKK terrorism, while on the other aiding and training the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has been accused of war crimes.
There is widespread opposition in Turkey to involvement in conflict beyond its borders. However, following Hillary Clinton’s visit to Turkey last weekend, during which the establishment of a “no-fly zone” within Syria was on the agenda, it seems Erdogan is determined to drag Turkey into the conflict, thereby risking a larger conflagration. On August 16, veteran Kurdish MP Ahmet Turk warned against Turkey establishing a “safe haven” inside Syria, emphasising that this would risk the Turkish army coming into confrontation with the Syrian Kurds.
The Kurds are thus continuing their steady march towards becoming a serious player in the Middle East as a whole. In Turkey, the Kurds have stepped up guerilla attacks, with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) launching a major offensive in the Semdinli area of Hakkari province on July 23, since when PKK sources claim to have liberated the area where the Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian borders meet. The Turkish government claimed it had killed 115 PKK militants, while the PKK claimed it had killed dozens of Turkish soldiers in attacks on military posts, but these casualty figures have not been confirmed by independent sources.
The mainstream Turkish media has implemented self-censorship, only quoting official sources since battles in Semdinli began in July. However, in a propaganda coup, on August 12, PKK guerillas abducted main opposition Republican Peoples Party deputy Huseyin Aygun, in Dersim (Tunceli) province, releasing him two days later. Aygun, who is known for bringing the issue of the massacre of Kurds in Dersim in 1938 onto the agenda last year, has been critical of the PKK in the past, but after being released he said he had been well treated and that the guerillas had asked him to help stop military operations so that a peaceful solution could be reached. By abducting Aygun the PKK conveyed a message to the government of Turkey that they could operate with impunity anywhere in the Kurdish regions of Turkey.
It would appear that the PKK wish to emulate their brethren in Syria, by establishing liberated zones. Many of the Kurds in Syria are descendants of Kurds who fled Turkey in the 1920s, following the crushing of the Sheikh Said rebellion of 1925, taking refuge in what was then French mandate Syria. This followed the failure of the Treaty of Sevres of 1920, according to which the Kurds were promised a homeland based on the “Fourteen Points” of US President Woodrow Wilson.
In the east and south-east of Turkey, the population of 6-8 million is overwhelmingly Kurdish, and millions of Kurds live in the major cities of Turkey, in particular in Istanbul, Izmir, Adana and Mersin. The events in Semdinli mark a new phase in the Kurdish struggle in Turkey, as previously the PKK guerillas would mount attacks, then return to their mountain hideouts, or their main bases in the mountains of northern Iraq. It now appears that the PKK is taking over territory and digging in.
Part of the Kurds’ increased clout in the region is expressed through their control of a de facto state in northern Iraq.There the Kurdish region is now negotiating oil deals with multinationals such as Exxon Mobil and Total, ignoring the protests of the Baghdad government, and since last month trucks have begun transporting oil from the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq into Turkey. Tension is increasing between Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government. On August 17, the Kurds announced that the Baghdad government had closed down the office in Baghdad that has co-ordinated relations between the two administrations since it opened in 2006. While the Turkish government has had to grudgingly accept the reality of a Kurdish entity as its neighbour in Iraq, taking advantage of the commercial opportunities it offers, it is less likely to welcome a second Kurdish entity on its southern border.
Hence PM Erdogan’s threat to intervene if the Kurds continue to maintain their autonomy in Syria. This is particularly the case since the largest Kurdish group in Syria, the PYD, is known to have close links to the PKK. On its website, the PYD (Democratic Union Party) states it was founded in 2003, and “supports pluralism … striving for a democratic solution … [for] recognition of cultural, national and political rights”. The reality is that the borders imposed by the British and French after the First World War are disintegrating before our eyes. The states of Iraq and Syria were brought into existence by the French and British after WW1, while the Republic of Turkey inherited the rump of the Ottoman Empire. These borders now seem to be more arbitrary than ever.
Turkey, until recently considered to be in a dominant position in the Middle East, now seems to be on the back foot. Its relations with former ally Israel are at an all-time low following the lethal Israeli intervention to prevent an aid flotilla reaching Gaza, and its good relations with Iran are a thing of the past, as a result of the two countries supporting opposite sides in the current conflict in Syria. It now seems to be making up policy as it goes along. This is in large part down to its refusal to accept that without resolving the Kurdish question Turkey will not be able to progress. Therefore the question is: why have efforts to resolve the Kurdish question stalled?
Until the general elections in June 2011 progress seemed to be being made. However, once Erdogan’s party failed to get the support of the Kurdish provinces in the same overwhelmimg way it had in the Turkish regions, he reacted by reverting to the Turks’ tried and tested means of dealing with the Kurds: denial and repression. The imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been barred from receiving visits from his lawyers for a year. More than 2000 Kurds, including dozens of elected Kurdish politicians from the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), have been arrested and are awaiting trial accused of membership of a PKK front organisation.
The secret talks between the PKK, which has renounced its earlier aspirations for an independent state and stated it now wants regional autonomy, and the Turkish government, which were leaked in August 2011, have been terminated. In an attempt to exploit religious feelings among the Kurds, the Turkish government has announced plans to build the biggest mosque in the Middle East in the Kurds’ “capital”, Diyarbakir. It has accompanied this announcement with plans to build a large new prison to incarcerate rebellious Kurds.
As a sign of the continuing repression being meted out, a demonstration planned for the July 14 was savagely repressed, with several Kurdish MPs being beaten, one receiving a bullet wound to the foot. The Turkish government has demonstrated that it has no intention of offering the Kurds anything substantial, merely cosmetic concessions such as a state TV channel broadcasting in Kurdish and optional Kurdish language classes from year 5 onwards. However, in its nostalgia for a rose-tinted Ottoman past the Erdogan clique that is running Turkey may be undermining the existence of the very state it claims to represent.
As the situation in the region worsens, perhaps a time will come when the 30 million-strong Kurdish population, spread over four countries, is seen as the most stable group in a region riven by sectarian and tribal division, and their right to self-determination is granted?