Foreign Affairs: Turkey’s reality check

A decade of Middle Eastern turmoil is gradually producing an improbable winner: Kurdistan.

Kurdish soldier flag 370 (photo credit: Azad Lashkari/Reuters)
Kurdish soldier flag 370
(photo credit: Azad Lashkari/Reuters)
Surveying from afar the masses of Kurds who gathered at the city of Diyarbrakir to hear their jailed leader announce a cease-fire with Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan asked, apparently seriously, “Why weren’t they waving Turkish flags?” The jubilant Kurds didn’t wave their nominal country’s flag because they want to belong to another; a country that is steadily coalescing as the most solid result of the regional transition that began with the US invasion of Iraq, then saw Arab governments collapse and is now generating a new Turkish sobriety that affects Israel as well.
The country those demonstrators had in mind – Kurdistan – is, for now, a geographic concept, like the Alps or the Sahara, rather than a political entity.
However, the Kurdish Rim that sprawls from the Taurus Mountains north of Cyprus to the Zagrus Mountains south of Tehran, an Asian swathe the size of Japan with a population the size of Spain’s, has been inching toward partial self-declaration for the better part of a decade.
The announcement, to which hundreds of thousands of Kurds listened over loudspeakers in their largest city in Turkey, was read from a text written by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan in his jail cell in an island off Istanbul. “The time has come,” he wrote, “for politics to replace guns.”
For now, this means that thousands of Kurdish fighters nesting in Turkey will leave the country, and the violence that has taken some 40,000 lives will finally be halted. For Erdogan, this violates previous vows not to talk with the man Turkey sees the way Israel saw Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin.
Besides reflecting exhaustion in a war it could not win, Turkey’s move is part of a reassessment of its regional priorities following the Arab upheaval.
KURDISTAN’S QUEST for independence harks back to Woodrow Wilson’s promise to establish on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire new states for the Kurds, the Armenians and the Arabs. That was in 1920.
Three years later, the Sultan had given way to Kemal Ataturk, who deleted Kurdistan and Armenia from the international treaty that re-drew regional borders. Since then, rebellions erupted repeatedly along the Kurdish Rim, while a succession of Iraqi, Iranian, Turkish, and Syrian governments united in foiling Kurdish independence.
Still, Kurdish identity was as impossible to ignore as Kurdish violence was impossible to quell. Though they are Sunni Muslim, like most Arabs, the territorially contiguous Kurds speak their own language and are ethnically apart from their Arab, Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Armenian neighbors. In 1988, that ethnic distinctiveness produced Saddam Hussein’s gas-attack on Halabja, the town whose Kurdish population the Iraqi strongman suspected of helping Iran in its war with him.
Fifteen years on, that part of Kurdistan is the cornerstone of a new Kurdish future. The American invasion produced much uncertainty and instability elsewhere in Iraq, but in the Kurdish north it gave rise to a relatively stable, prosperous and democratic autonomy.
Mountainous, pro-Western and ethnically homogeneous, the American-backed Kurdish autonomy has been generally removed from the violence that has taken thousands of lives in the center and south of the country.
The autonomy’s president, Massoud Barazani, has been elected twice in multi-party elections that were declared fair by international observers, and he works opposite a functioning parliament. Average per-capita income, now estimated at $5,500, is more than 10 times the level it was at a decade ago, and the economy of farmers, herdsmen and oil-drillers has been growing in recent years by more than 10% annually.
Dyerbakir, the Kurdish city where hundreds of thousands gathered to hear their leader’s cease-fire announcement, is some 400 kilometers away from Erbil, the K u r d i s h autonomy’s capital.
Moreover, seen from Turkey, where at least 15 million of the country’s 75 million people are believed to be Kurds, the Iraqi autonomy’s population of 5.5 million seems small – as does the territory itself, which is roughly the size of the state of Maryland.
Yet the Kurdish autonomy is a precedent and inspiration for something larger than its own dimensions, a role that became apparent in the wake of the past two years’ events in the Arab world.
THE ARAB upheaval has yet to mature, but its implications for the Kurds cannot be exaggerated.
While no one knows the future of the Arab monarchies, the prospects of Egyptian Islamism or the political aftermath of Lebanon, not to mention Syria, one result seems increasingly likely: A greater Kurdistan.
Syria’s two million Kurds, largely concentrated in its northeast, are territorially contiguous with their brethren in Iraq. Though tribally and politically divided, Syria’s Kurds already have effectively parted with Damascus’s tutelage. Both Assad and the rebel forces are hardly present in Syrian Kurdistan.
An expanded Kurdish autonomy is therefore a very realistic prospect, and chances are high it will become an unannounced Western aim.
This is where Turkey comes in.
Turkey has been consistently hostile to Kurdish autonomy demands, seeing in them a gateway to a separatism that would tear the country asunder. That is why Turkey forbade its Kurds to open schools that would teach in Kurdish, and that is why it opposed any Kurdish self-determination anywhere.
The Erdogan government, however, strayed a bit from this pattern, tolerating the autonomy in Iraq and allowing some Kurdish-language radio broadcasts.
That concession was part of Ankara’s neo-Ottoman outlook, which sought to cultivate Middle East inroads that had been neglected for nearly a century. The diplomatic turn from west to east also produced new dialogues with historic enemies like Armenia and Greece, and also a new mercantilism, including brisk trade with the Kurdish autonomy. Next year, oil will be flowing in a pipeline from autonomous Kurdistan to Turkey.
Turkey’s so-called “zero problems with neighbors” policy quickly floundered, as Ankara proved reluctant to deliver substantive concessions. That is why normalization with Armenia stalled and the occupation of northern Cyprus remained intact. Still, Turkey returned to the Middle East with relish, warming to Damascus with a free-trade agreement and smiling at Iran, whose nuclear designs Ankara defended together with Brazil, to Washington’s alarm. Provoking Israel, which started long before the Mavi Marmara flotilla affair, was part of this quest to ingratiate the rest of the region, including its most notorious despots.
Now this is mostly nostalgia.
Bashar Assad transformed overnight from darling to archenemy and with him the Tehran-Beirut Shi’ite Axis he lynchpins. Facing refugee pressure, occasional cross-border fire and also sprouts of Syrian terror, Ankara has shelved its neo-Ottoman lyrics in order to confront a prosaic Middle East with which it is all too familiar.
It is in this context that the Kurds are suddenly worthy bedmates.
If the enemy is the Shi’ite Axis and the goal is to produce a post-Assad proxy, then the Kurdish irredentism must be neutralized, at least temporarily.
The same logic applies to Israel. The urgent need to reshape Syria and, while at, it contain Iran, demands a measure of harmony with the Jewish state.
This, then, is the rationale behind Turkey’s decision to let Barack Obama broker the phone call between Prime Ministers Erdogan and Netanyahu and to engage Kurdish leader Ocalan.
Chances are that both Netanyahu and Ocalan will soon learn that Erdogan expects not compromise but surrender, as he did from Armenia and Cyprus. Even so, last week he effectively conceded that his much-heralded neo-Ottomanism is in its death throes and that Kurdish self-determination is past its birth pangs.
The writer is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.