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Turkey-Iraq: The War Drums Beat Loudly

Turkey-Iraq: The War Drums Beat Loudly

by Rene Wadlow

On 17 October 2007, the Turkish Parliament voted to authorize the government to send troops into northern Iraq against Kurdish rebel camps. This vote of Parliament came to reinforce a 9 October statement of the government allowing its troops to cross the Iraqi border. On Saturday, 20 October, a Kurdish attack killed 10 Turkish soldiers already massed at the frontier. Turkish leaders and military authorities have met on 21 October, Sunday, to plan for action. On the Iraqi side of the frontier, there have been large demonstrations of support for Kurdistan and warnings that the Kurdish population will fight if Turkish troops enter. On both sides of the frontier, the drums of war are beating loudly.

The US Government has called for calm, and no doubt European Ministries of Foreign Affairs have dusted off their files on the PKK ” the Kurdish Workers' Party. However, it is up to non-governmental organizations to see what avenues of communication they have to both Kurds and Turks to see what possibilities of negotiation exist so that violence does not increase.

The Government of Turkey is under pressure from the military and part of the population to do something after a land mine exploded on Sunday 7 October some 25 kilometres inside Turkey from the Iraq border in south-eastern Sirnak Province. The mine killed 13 soldiers, and the Army is frustrated by the fact that PKK fighters can carry out attacks on Turkish soil and then cross the frontier into Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turkish Government is under pressure to please the Army after the Army accepted the election of former Foreign Minister Abdullal Gul as President. Some, especially in the military, felt that Gul's Islamic convictions put the secular nature of the Turkish state in danger. There was even talk of a military coup to prevent Gul's election. While these objections to Gul have calmed, the Turkish military can expect some favours in return for their moderation on the political front. Punitive raids into Iraq might be such a favour.

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On 15 February 1999, Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, was kidnapped on his way from the Greek embassy in Nairobi, Kenya to the airport and flown back to Turkey where he was tried and sentenced to death. The death penalty was commuted into life imprisonment in 2002 following the abolition of the death penalty in Turkey in time of peace. He is kept in solitary confinement on the Turkish prison island of Imrali. During his trial, he called upon the PKK to end armed violence and to take up an organized civil struggle.

Although the PKK was created to bring about equality for Kurds in Turkey, there was always a Pan-Kurd dimension to Ocalan's thinking. As there are Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, there have always been hopes among some Kurds for a united Kurdistan. What to the Kurds is a hope is a fear to the governments of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Current events need to be seen against the background and history of Kurdish movements in all four countries. Governments have played Kurdish factions one against another. While the Kurdish provinces of Iraq are calmer today than other parts of the country, the tensions among Kurdish groups for power, between Kurds and minorities in the Kurdish areas, and between Iraq Kurdistan's Government and the central Government of Iraq are not far below the surface.

Kurdish nationalism is of relatively recent date. During the Ottoman period, religion was the main factor of identification and division. Kurds and Turks were grouped together in the "house of Islam" while others, Christians and Jews, existed in a largely self-governing millet system. The Kurdish question is an element of the break up of the Ottoman Empire into the states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. As Turkey was the heart of the Empire, the transition and ideological elements were strongest in Turkey where personal identity became a key factor in the transformation of traditional society where identities were religiously determined at the communal level to a modern society where the aim was to define an individual's identity at the State level. At the State level, there are only Turkish citizens or citizens of Turkey. The dilemma is whether all citizens are also ethnic Turks or whether a citizen of Turkey can also have another ethnic identity while still having all the rights of a citizen.

During the first period of the Turkish State (1924 to 1945), everyone(residing within Turkey) was regarded as a Turk even if he himself was not conscious of it. The theory was that as the Turks had come from Central Asia, they had absorbed all prior inhabitants, even those, like the Kurds who lived in isolated mountain areas and spoke a non-Turkic language. The State propaganda through history teaching and linguistic studies was to insist that everyone was a Turk, even those who had forgotten the fact. The Kurds were "mountain Turks."

As it often happens, when history and linguistic identities are used for political ends, counter-history and linguistics come to the fore. Thus the intellectual Kurds started studying their history, and little by little, an intellectual structure of Kurdishness developed, basically after the Second World War. Although most Kurds thought of themselves in narrow tribal/clanic terms, among intellectuals and politically-aware individuals, a Pan-Kurdish identity started to grow and stressed the kinship with the Kurds living in Iraq, Iran and Syria. In the 1920s and 1930s, there had been short-lived but violent Kurdish revolts against the centralizing tendencies of the Turkish government. But these revolts were usually led by tribal chiefs or charismatic religious leaders.

It was not until 1984 that the PKK, made up largely of youth, influenced by Marxism, independent of traditional Kurdish tribal leaders, started a program of violence against the Turkish State and against Kurds who were considered allies of the Turkish government. The PKK was strong in the poor mountainous areas where the State authorities had difficulty to penetrate. The PKK had military bases in northern Iraq and training camps in Syria.

The Turkish Government's first reaction was to consider this violence as terrorism and to treat it as a military problem to be solved with military means. This is still the attitude of many political figures and most of the military. But after years of violence, with many dead and villages destroyed, the PKK is still there. However, the PKK does not necessarily represent the majority of the Kurdish people.

Within Turkey, there is a need for further democratization and devolution of decision-making powers, and the development of dialogue. Not all officials, political parties, and military officers are willing to accommodate moves toward further democratization and pluralism in Turkish society. At the same time, there is a tendency among many Kurdish radicals to pursue a policy based on what amounts to exclusive ethnic nationalism. There are no easy solutions, and time will not heal by itself. There must be leadership both among Turks and Kurds to break out of the sterility of violence and build a base for a democratic and liberal society. Events in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran will all influence each other. Preventive measures are needed from the United Nations, national governments and non-governmental organizations.


Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, of the Association of World Citizens, and the editor of the online journal of world politics

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