The Second Gulf War in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are regarded by both the international community and the Western media as the major problems in the Middle East. This has been at the expense of political and public debate on the Kurdish issue, which is unrecognised as a major unresolved problem both regionally and internationally. Without a radical solution for the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and particularly in Turkey, the Middle East will not see peace at all.
The Kurdish people are one of the most oppressed ethnic groups in modern history. Beginning with the defunct Ottoman Empire and its replacement secular state based on Kemalist authoritarian doctrines, the Kurds have been devastated by a series of wars instigated by a string of occupying Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian and Turkish governments throughout the 20th century which continues to this day. “Kurds become the foreigner and foreigners become the owners” is the bitter slogan that Kurds have formulated as testament to their plight.
Since the disastrous creation of Iraq through British colonialism in the 1920s, the Kurdish minority has been isolated, excluded, and marginalised by successive Iraqi governments from any source of power and wealth. The core reason for the desire for control over this region lies with the extensive oil reserves located in and around the Kurdish city of Kirkuk. Successive Iraqi governments have used the Kurds’ oil to fund the military force that suppresses the Kurds and their demands for a better life. Iraqi rulers have refused to recognise the Kurds as anything more than mere interlopers on Arab lands.
In the 1970s and 1980s in particular, the Kurds of southern Kurdistan (the so-called Iraqi Kurds) paid the highest price for their rebellious behaviour when resisting the tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish civilian population obliterated the city of Hallabja and destroyed an entire rural area through soil contamination. During the genocide Anfal campaign almost 200,000 civilian Kurds disappeared. Immediately following the first Gulf War in 1991, the West sympathised with the Kurds and imposed a “no-fly” zone in the north of Iraq to protect them from the Iraqi army and warplanes. But since then, Western countries and the United Nations have become almost blind to the fate of the Iraqi Kurds.
Kurdish life in Turkey has not been much better than in Iraq. Northern Kurdistan is located in the southeast of Turkey and is home to about 20 million Kurds, representing half the entire population of Kurdish people. Northern Kurdistan is therefore central to solving the Kurdish issue. The oppression of Kurds in Turkey by the current Turkish regime, and the lack of diplomatic intervention by the US Government, has resulted in the Iraqi Kurds no longer believing Washington’s rhetoric about protecting Kurds from terrorism or a possible attack by a future Iraqi government. Instead, the US Government has supported the Turkish regime in various ways against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the main opposition party.
The role of the PKK guerillas is to fight for Kurdish cultural and political rights regardless of the geographical location of Kurdish people. How can it therefore be reasonable and rational to implement a policy of friendship toward the Kurds of Iraq, but label PKK guerillas as terrorists? How and by what criteria have they become terrorists? Have they threatened the interest of the US or other Western countries, killed civilians or beheaded any Western people like the Iraqi insurgent militias? Despite the dissimilarities between the PKK and other guerillas, the US Government is now supporting a policy against the PKK due to pressure by Turkey, while also being pressured by Saudi Arabia’s hegemony and the bullets of former terrorist Sunni militias who killed thousands of civilians inside Iraq (nowadays calling them armed groups or insurgents).
The PKK and its leaders have needed to base themselves in the jagged mountains on the triangular border region of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. In addition to losing faith in the policies of the governments involved in the Middle East theatre, the exiling of their leader Abdullah Ocalan and his subsequent abduction and imprisonment following a joint operation with US, Turkish, and Israeli intelligence agents has removed any remnants of trust in the US. The PKK, too, relies on the famous Kurdish saying that Kurds have “no friends but the mountains".
The US alliance with Ankara is fraught with danger. If the PKK tactically withdraws some of their guerrillas from this border area, the vacuum is likely to be filled by Ansar al-Islam militants who have known links to al-Qaeda and are reportedly increasing their activity in the region. The result could be another Tora Bora for both the US military and the Kurdistan Regional Government.
With the exception of the Kurds, Washington has lost the trust of the entire Middle East. However, the support by the US administration of Turkey’s military machine and its junta will jeopardise the remaining trust that Kurds have in the US influence in the Middle East. The Kurds’ adulation of America could instead be replaced by a sense of betrayal and opprobrium.
The American people need to know that it has only been the support of the Kurds and the Shia Arabs, due to their common hatred of Saddam Hussein’s regime, that has allowed the US military to maintain its occupation of Iraq. Without such support, the political, military, and human price to be paid for the occupation would quickly become domestically unsustainable for Washington. However, Kurdish support for the US occupation of Iraq is not inexhaustible. Despite whatever errors or bad policies the PKK may have, Kurds worldwide will not accept US co-operation with the Turkish regime against these Kurdish fighters.
The Turkish military kills Kurdish women and children indiscriminately and has destroyed more than 4,000 Kurdish villages. This significant Kurdish population of 20 million people has also been denied the right to be educated in Kurdish. Ankara is thus implementing a policy of enforced assimilation and ethnic cleansing that prevents the entire Kurdish population in Turkey from practicing their own culture while disallowing the PKK, a secular, moderate and left-wing Kurdish political party, to legitimately represent the Kurds.
The framework for a peaceful solution is not complicated, but the Turkish government and nationalists make it impossible. Ankara must recognise the Kurds as a distinct minority, as culturally and ethnically different to Turks as they are from Arabs and Persians. The attempted imposition of the Turkish identity did not succeed in the last century nor is it working now.