THE CRUCIAL ROLE OF THE KURDS IN THE MIDDLE EAST CONFLICTS
The role and status of the various Kurdish groups in Iraq, Iran. Turkey and Syria are shaping the conflicts which continue in these nations. Historically the Kurdish national territory has been split among the four countries and represents the largest ethnic group in the Middle East without a nation state of its own.
The Kurdish demand for a nation state has been resisted over the many centuries and was ignored by the signatories of the Sykes-Picot Agreement which divided up the Ottoman Empire between French and UK control. However, at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919-1920 the Great Powers outlined a procedure for the Kurds to establish a separate state. According the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), the Great Powers carved out an autonomous area for the Kurds east of the Euphrates, south of Armenia and north of the Turkish frontier with Syria. The Kurds prepared for a gradual autonomy and later self-rule but were overtaken by the revolution which rose up in Turkey when Kemal Ataturk installed his new, secular, Turkish state. The Kurds lost their autonomy and hope of independence and even their identity. The Turks now no longer recognised them as Kurds but called them “mountain Turks”. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923) replaced the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Kurds’ demands were not recognised in that treaty.
There are about thirty million Kurds spread out in a region which might have been an independent Kurdistan but which are now enclaves in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. That has meant that the Kurdish political destinies depended on their relations with the governments within whose national borders they have been consigned to exist. In recent years. the relations with these governments has never been anything other than complex and conflicted.
The Kurds In Iran
The Kurds in Iran inhabit mostly north western territories known as Iranian Kurdistan but also the north eastern region of Khorasan, and constitute approximately 10% of Iran’s overall population
The Kurds have been in Iran for many centuries and have always been considered a non-assimilated ethnic group. Periodically they attempted to rebel against the central government in Tehran but their efforts were largely unsuccessful. Their relationship with the Iranians were tempered by the political struggles by Kurds within the greater four-country area of Kurdistan. The majority of the Iranian Kurds are Sunni Muslims although there is a large number of Shia Kurds. The Iranian governments have always opposed Kurdish nationalism but have been far less harsh in their repression of the Kurds than the other areas of Kurdish inhabitation. This is a result of the ethnolinguistical ties between the Kurds and the Persians who consider the Kurds as emerging from similar Persian ethnic roots. As a result there are many Kurds in Iran who have considered themselves Iranians and hostile to the notion of an independent Kurdish state. This is especially true for the Shia Kurds who were hostile to the lure of Kurdish autonomy. This is less true for the Sunni Kurds whose point of view was shaped by the events in the wider, mainly Sunni, Kurdistan periphery
The first concerted effort of the Kurds in Iran to assert their aspirations for autonomy took place in the Simko Shikak revolt of 1918-1922. Simko Shekak was a Kurdish chief (from the Turcophone Shekak tribe) who looted and plundered across the Kurdish areas in Iran. It was more of a search for hegemony and plunder than a search for political autonomy. He attacked Alevi Kurds and massacred large numbers of Assyrians. He was a ruthless in attacking Kurds as well as the government forces. Nonetheless, modern Kurds refer to him as an important figure in the Kurdish nationalist movement and a hero in the struggle for independence. The government put down the rebellion. By 1926 Simko Shekak regained control of his tribe and led them again into revolt against the state. When the government troops attacked Simko half of his troops immediately defected to the tribe’s former leader and Simko Shekak fled into Iraq.
Although Persia was neutral during the Second World War it was, nonetheless, invaded by the Anglo-Soviet forces comprised of Soviet, British and other Commonwealth armed forces. The invasion lasted from 25 August to 17 September 1941, and was codenamed Operation Countenance. The purpose was to secure Iranian oil fields and ensure Allied supply lines for the Soviets, fighting against Axis forces on the Eastern Front and to prevent their falling to the Germans and the Vichy French. Though Iran was officially neutral, according to the Allies its monarch Reza Shah was friendly toward the Axis powers and was deposed during the subsequent occupation and replaced with his young son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
In the confusion and anarchy engendered by the Anglo-Soviet invasion another Kurdish chief embarked on a revolt against the state. The Hama Rashid Revolt erupted in the Kurdish region of Iran. Its main faction was led by Muhammed Rashid, lasting from late 1941 until April 1942 and then re-erupted in 1944, resulting in Rashid’s defeat by the government. While it was unsuccessful it spawned the growth of a Kurdish nationalist political movement which emerged in the immediate postwar Iran 1945-1946.
With the occupation of Iran by British and Soviet troops the key supply line from the Levant to the Soviets was created and expanded. A consequence of the Soviet presence was the takeover of the administration of the Kurdish areas of Iran. The Soviets established the Tudeh (the Iranian Communist Party) who first acts were to pit the local farmers in an uprising against their landlords. In addition, the Soviet authorities announced the creation of an independent Kurdish Peoples’ Republic and a People’s Republic of Azerbaijan under Soviet control. Iranian Kurds were given autonomy. This Soviet Republic of Mahabad , as it was called, was led by the Kurdish Movement (Komeley Jiyanewey Kurd) under the leadership of Qazi Muhammad and his Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (‘KDPI’). Some Kurds were attracted by the promise of autonomy but most Iranian Kurds eschewed contact with it. The Republic of Mahabad lasted less than a year When the Soviet forces withdrew the Iranian government marched in and removed the separatists.
Kurds were relatively neutral when the Iranian revolution of early 1979 ousted the Shah and installed Ayatollah Khomeini. They soon found that the ayatollahs had no tolerance for Kurdish participation in the new Islamic state; especially the Sunni Kurds. In May 1979 the Kurds were willing to support the new government but, as opposition groups in Iran (primarily the Arab, Baluchi, and Turkmen minorities) turned towards open rebellion against the new Iran theocracy, the Kurds (mainly Sunni Kurds) eventually joined in the struggle for autonomy from the new Iranian state. Sunni Kurdish leftist politicians from the Mahabad Region formed guerrilla units against the Iranians. These insurgents from the KDPI and their allies in Tudeh, took over swathes of Kurdish-occupied territory. However, by the beginning of 1980 the Iran-Iraq War had begun and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard turned its strength against the KDPI and captured the rebel territory; some forces kept fighting until 1983. About 10,000 people were killed in the course of the Kurdish rebellion, with 1,200 of them being Kurdish political prisoners, brutally executed in the last phases of the rebellion, mostly by the Shia government in Iran.i
In 1946, while the Soviets were occupying Mahabad they were mobilising the Kurds on both sides of the border to fight against both the Iranian and Iraqi monarchies. Qazi Mohammed of the KDPI was supported and guided by the Soviets before they were forced to leave Iran. Qazi was joined in the Mahabad Republic by Mustapha Barzani (‘Mulla Mustafa’), an Iraqi Kurdish leader and a head chief of the Iraqi Kurdish tribal elders, on the run from Iraq. The Soviets and Qazi demanded that Mulla Mustapha subsume his party into the KDPI and accept Soviet guidance. Barzani was not happy with this and maneuvered to maintained his effective autonomy. He was able to form the Kurdish Democratic Party (‘PDK’) among the Barzani tribes in the Kurdish area of Iraq in 1946 which he led from exile. This party called for autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan. This process created a separate Kurdish movement in Iraq, separate and different than the movement in Iran.
The PDKI continued to grow in Iran and, along with Tudeh, supported the 1979 Revolution against the Shah. When, however, the new theocratic Iranian Government turned against the Kurds, the Kurds expanded their ties with the Left factions in Iran and attempted their own revolution against Khomeini in 1967. It lasted a little over eighteen months when the Revolutionary Guards overwhelmed them and the party and its allies were banned and many fled into exile. The party continued in Iran but primarily underground.
in July 1989 the KDPI rejoined the armed struggle with the Iranians when the leader of the party, Abdul Rahman Qassemlou was assassinated by Iranian government agents. Battles were engaged with the KDPI forces. In the 1990s armed clashes continued between KDPI and government forces, including bombing attacks against Iranian Kurds, both in western Iran and inside Iraqi territory. In an effort to negotiate a peace the Iranians agreed to a discussion with the KDPI. On 18 September 1992, the Iranian Kurdish leader, Sadik Sharafkindi and three others were assassinated in a restaurant in Berlin, where Mr. Sharafkindi had gone to hold secret autonomy talks with Iranian government representatives. That ended peace talks.
The KDPI continues to be subject to attacks by the Iranian regime. In 1992, an Iranian and four Lebanese were accused of killing Iranian Kurdish dissidents, one of which was then Secretary-General of the KDPI. On 28 July 1996, Iranian forces fired shells at the KDPI’s base and at an Iranian Kurdish refugees’ camp. Tehran conducted at least 13 assassinations in 1997, the majority of which targeted members of the KDPI. The fundamental Kurdish problem is that their parties and movements keep splitting and opposing their former allies. The Iranian Kurds have not been able to form any lasting alliances with other Kurdish nationalist parties or parties of the Left with whom they maintain sometimes cordial relations. This includes a split between Shia and Sunni Kurds who find unity a chimera.
The Kurds In Iraq
A major concern of the international community has been the fate of the Kurds of Iraq, especially as related to their role in the war of the international coalition against Saddam Hussein. Moreover, a large part of the Iraqi oil industry is located in Kirkuk, Mosul and Erbil – within what is called the Autonomous Kurdish State. Oil was discovered early there and a substantial oil industry developed in the region. The fate of the Kurds in Iraq has been bound closely with the struggle for power inside the country, first against the monarchy and later against the Baathists.The role of the Kurds in the wider struggle for power in Iraq was not only because of the territorial claims of the Kurds on “Kurdistan” but also the important role played by the Kurdish labour movement in the creation of a coherent pressure from the left on the movements for social justice in Iraq. As those who were among the first to be employed in industry (the oil industry) the Kurds developed an industrial base as well as a political base. Because of the experiences of the Kurds with the Soviets in the Mahabad Republic there had been many Kurds trained by Soviet trainers to participate in social and political movements in Iraq as well as Iran When Mulla Mustafa organised the KDP in Barzani-supervised areas of Iraqi Kurdistan the Kurds played a national as well as a regional role.
When the PDKI moved across the Iranian border to Kurdish controlled Iraqi Kurdistan many of the Kurdish leftist intellectuals and unionists began to take over control of the Iraqi KDP from the Barzani group of tribal leaders who had dominated the party. Ibrahim Ahmad took over the KDP leadership in Iraq and maintained a working relationship with the Iraqi Communist Party (‘ICP’) who were also strong in the Iraqi labour unions. In the late 1940s and early 1950s they fielded joint candidates in several constituencies.
The ICP campaigned directly against the aghas (tribal elders) and won the support of the workers in the cities of Erbil, Duhok, and Sulaymaniyah – while the KDP reassured the aghas that the ICP was ultimately under their control. By 1954 the KDP was advocating the replacement of the Iraqi monarchy with a popular democratic republic – much to the consternation of many of their tribal supporters.ii
The Iraqi revolution of 1958 took place in several stages. The first revolution was triggered on Bastille Day (July 14,1958) when the overthrow of the British-installed monarchy by Iraqi Free Officers touched off the most powerful demonstration of revolutionary ardour in the Near East. Armed and highly organized, the Iraqi underground labour unions, led by the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), stood on the brink of seizing power. Within the ICP the leading role in the revolution was played by Kurdish workers in the oil fields and industries of Kirkuk and Mosul.
Within weeks, a peasant insurrection was sweeping across the agricultural plains of Iraq as peasants burned landlords’ estates, destroyed the account ledgers and seized the land. The ICP controlled the labour unions, peasant organizations, and the union of students. Mammoth rallies, some drawing over a million participants, were staged in Baghdad under ICP leadership. President Eisenhower responded to the revolutionary explosion by sending Marines to Lebanon and preparing for a possible invasion of Iraq. The Wall Street Journal (16 July 1958) candidly declared: “We are fighting for the oil fields of the Middle East.”
The 1958 revolution had an enormous impact throughout the Near East, not only on workers but also on the Kurdish people. One measure of the revolutionary turmoil in Iraq was that the new constitution cited the Kurds as equal partners with Arabs in society (without of course recognizing the Kurds’ right to independence). The Iraqi Communist Party was not only the most proletarian of the Communist parties in the Near East; from its inception it had a large number of members from national and ethnic minorities, including Jews. In the period from 1949 to 1955, every general secretary of the ICP was Kurdish, as was nearly one-third of its central committee.
From the outset of the 1958 upsurge, the ICP (under tight Moscow guidance) threw its support behind the government headed by Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qassim, whom the Stalinists hailed as their “sole leader.” The high point of the revolution came in early 1959 when the ICP mobilized a quarter of a million people in Mosul, many of them armed, to suppress a coup by Nasserites and counterrevolutionary officers. This triggered several days of street fighting in which Communist-led workers and soldiers mopped up the conspirators and their bourgeois backers, arresting many and hanging others from lampposts. Armed militants of the People’s
Resistance Force (PRF), a popular militia that had been set up by Qassim in July 1958 and quickly taken over by the Communists, essentially took power in the city.
At this point, the ICP had more support among military officers than the Free Officers movement had had when it took power on 14 July 1958. The commander of the air force was an ICP supporter, as were almost one-quarter of the pilots. A number of these military commanders demanded that the ICP leadership take power. Above all, the People’s Resistance Force, which had just demonstrated its power in Mosul, numbered, by a conservative estimate, 25,000 in May 1959.
However, the threat of Communist power frightened Qassim. In July, attention was centered on Kirkuk, where an ICP-led demonstration degenerated into a massacre of Turkmens, who were prominent in the city’s commercial elite. Qassim used the Kirkuk events as a pretext to repress the ICP. He ordered the CP-led militia, the Popular Resistance Force, disbanded, arrested hundreds of Communist supporters and sealed the offices of the General Federation of Trade Unions (which had been taken over by the ICP). A plenum of the ICP Central Committee responded with an obsequious self-criticism declaring that its demand for participation in the government had been “a mistake” because it “led to the impairment of the party’s relations with the national government”—in other words, it displeased Qassim. The plenum declared a “freeze” on Communist work in the army, and informed the ranks that it was carrying out an “orderly retreat.” The Russians supported and demanded this. They sent to Baghdad, George Tallu, a member of the Iraqi Politburo, who had been undergoing medical treatment in Moscow, with an urgent request to the Iraqi party to avoid provoking Qassim, and to withdraw its bid to participate in the government.
In February 1963, the Ba’ath Party was able to broker a military coup that brought down Qassim and unleashed the counterrevolutionary furies. Using lists of Communists supplied by the CIA, the Ba’ath Party militia, the National Guard, launched a house-to-house search, rounding up and shooting suspected communists. An estimated 5,000 were killed and thousands more jailed, many of them hideously tortured by Saddam Hussein and others.
The CIA’s role in the 1963 Ba’ath coup has been widely documented. King Hussein of Jordan told the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram shortly after the coup that he knew “for a certainty” that U.S. intelligence services provided names and addresses of Communists to be killed. The State Department has confirmed that Saddam Hussein and other Ba’athists had made contact with the American authorities in the late 1950s and early 1960s; at this stage, the Ba’ath were thought to be the ‘political force of the future,’ and deserving of American support against ‘Qassim and the Communists’.”
Meanwhile, the ICP’s record of betrayal was not forgotten. When Kurds rebelled against the Qassim regime in 1961, the ICP denounced their revolt as “serving imperialist designs.” In 1972, when Saddam Hussein allied for a while with the Soviet Union, two ICP leaders who had not had their eyes gouged out in his prisons joined his government. The Kurds maintained their strong base in the Iraqi labour movement and were especially strong in the Kurdish oil industry.
In 1975 the left factions of the KDP seceded from the PDK and formed their own party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan(‘PUK’) under Jalal. Talebani. Some of the differences between the PDK and the PUK are ideological but there are strong inter-tribal distinctions between them and the PUK members tend to be urban, employed and members of the labour movement.
Mahmud Barzani was able to raise a force of around 5,000 men in Northern Iraq which he used to assist Iran in its war against Iraq in 1980. The PUK had relatively good relations with the Ba’ath but when the Iran-Iraq War dragged on the PUK and the KPD managed to come together in a common purpose to conduct the Kurdish rebellion of 1983. Both the PUK and KDP Kurdish militias of northern Iraq rebelled against Saddam Hussein in an attempt to form their own autonomous country. With the Iraqi occupation of the Iranian front, Kurdish Peshmerga (their military force), combining the forces of KDP and PUK, succeeded in retaining control of some enclaves with Iranian logistics and sometimes military support. The initial rebellion resulted in stalemate by 1985.
The Kurdish rebellion, largely a guerrilla war on the part of the Kurds, was met with the full armed hostility of the Iraqi state. Saddam Hussein expanded his oppression of Iraqi Shia, Kurds, Marsh Arabs and the minorities. In particular, the Ba’athists turned again against the Kurds during the Al-Anfal campaign of 1987–88. Saddam Hussein began an onslaught against the Kurdish people that eventually killed tens of thousands of Kurds and displaced at least one million of the Kurdish population to Iran and Turkey.
He had already shown a long history of a desire to suppress the Kurds with his attack on Halabja in March 1988. The town of Halabja had fallen to the Iranian and Kurdish forces which fought together against the Iraqis. The Iraqi counterattack was brutal and used chemical weapons on a wide scale. The attack killed between 4,000 and 5,000 people and injured 7,000 to 10,000 more, most of them civilians. Thousands more died of complications, diseases, and birth defects in the years after the chemical attack. This Massacre at Halabja was part of the Ba’athist campaign against the Kurds and other minorities which they called the Al-Anfal campaign (also known as the Kurdish Genocide). This was a campaign against the Kurdish people and other non-Arab populations in northern Iraq, led by the Ba’athist Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and headed by Ali Hassan al-Majid (‘Chemical Ali’).
The campaign was a series of systematic attacks against the Kurdish population of northern Iraq, conducted between 1986 and 1989. The campaign also targeted other minority communities in Iraq including Assyrians, Shabaks, Iraqi Turkmen, Yazidis, Jews, Mandeans and others.
Unfortunately for the Kurds they were not a united people. They were deeply divided between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (‘PUK’) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (‘KDP’) – the Talabani vs. the Barzani Kurds. Although autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan had been created in 1970 (as the Kurdish Autonomous Region) the two Kurdish opponents could not agree on a common policy or leadership. There were Kurdish factions in the governorates of Erbil, Dahuk and As-Suleymaniyah which supported the Iraqi government and others who supported a separate autonomous Kurdish state. In the 1992 Kurdish election to the Legislative Assembly power was shared almost equally between the Barzanis and the Talabani. That was unwelcome to both sides and tensions grew.
The Iraqi Kurdish Civil War began in May 1994 when fighting broke out between the two factions. The clashes left around 300 people dead. Over the next year, around 2,000 people were killed on both sides. Members of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provided limited support to the KDP and allowed the KDP to launch attacks from Iranian territory. This fighting among the Kurds and the involvement of the Iranians in supporting the civil war was upsetting to the U.S. as it was then planning on how to confront the challenges Saddam Hussein was creating for Western interests in Iraq.
In January 1995, CIA case officer Robert Baer went to northern Iraq with a five-man team to set up a CIA station. The station in Erbil is still in operation. He made contact with the Kurdish leadership and was able to negotiate a truce between Barzani and Talabani. Together they began a plan to assist those who were planning to remove Saddam Hussein. Baer and his team agreed to support an Iraqi general who was planning an assassination of Saddam Hussein. The assassination attempt in Tikrit was set to occur during a planned surprise attack on the Iraqi Army by the joint Kurdish forces in support of some rebel Iraqi troops. Saddam Hussein was warned about this by his Jihaz Al-Mukhabarat Al-Amma (intelligence service). Once the Mukhabarat became aware of the plot it was leaked to the Turkish Milli Istihbarat Teskilati MIT (the Turkish intelligence service) who passed it on immediately to the US National Security Advisor, Tony Lake, who cabled Baer that the cover was blown. The station in Erbil notified the Barzani who pulled back from the plan but somehow the Talabani were not informed and the PUK carried out the attack on its own. They managed to destroy three divisions and took around 5,000 prisoners before they were forced to withdraw. Baer cabled Washington on four occasions requesting US military assistance to the PUK but no help arrived.
He was later charged with planning the assassination of Saddam Hussein but was cleared. There was still no agreement between the two Kurdish factions. The Barzani KDP gradually took over the control of Kurdistan by allowing the Iraqi Government to establish a smuggling route through Kurdistan for its sanctioned petroleum exports through the Kabur River valley to Turkish port of Ceyhan. The Barzanis allowed and protected this smuggling and imposed a heavy tax on the smuggled oil; earning the KDP over three and a half million dollars a week from the Iraqis. Eventually they agreed to share some of this money with the PUK but thr KDP remained in control.
This was not acceptable to the Talebani who built an alliance with Iran and linked the PUK with the Pasadaran. In early 1996 they launched a joint attack on the KDP to get a bigger share of the revenues.
Massoud Barzani called upon Saddam Hussein to protect him from the PUK. On August 31, 1996 30,000 Iraqi troops, spearheaded by an armoured division of the Republican Guard and the KDP attacked the PUK headquarters in Erbil which was defended by 3,000 PUK Peshmerga led by Korsat Rasul Ali, Erbil was captured, and Iraqi troops executed 700 PUK soldiers in a field outside Erbil while the PDK watched. The loss of Erbil was a blow to the U.S. and the use of Iraqi troops by Saddam Hussein in Kurdistan violated the UN Security Council Resolution 688. In response, the Clinton administration began Operation Desert Strike when American ships and B-52 bombers launched 27 cruise missiles at Iraqi air defence sites in southern Iraq.
The next day, 17 more cruise missiles were launched from American ships against Iraqi air defence sites. The United States also deployed strike aircraft and an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, and the extent of the southern no-fly zone was moved northwards to the 33rd parallel. In September 1988 the U.S. was able to compel the Kurdish factions to stop their strife and sign the Washington Agreement establishing a formal peace treaty between them. They agreed to keep the PKK out of Kurdistan to satisfy the Turks and to share the revenues equally between them.
As the UN’s Oil -for-Food Program had begun the Kurds had a lot more revenue to spend from Iraqi oil exports. Most importantly the U.S, guaranteed the security of Kurdistan. The Kurds assisted the U.S. in the 2003 war with Iraq and took prominent roles in the aftermath. Massoud
Barzani became President of Iraqi Kurdistan and Jalal Talabani became President of Iraq. This guaranteed the continued access of the U.S. to Iraqi oil. That continued access was important because there was a new problem in the region which threatened the U.S. and Western interests.
The U.S. had observed the rise of Islamic fundamentalism which was expanding in the region after the Yemen Hotel Bombings in 1990. A new group had formed under the leadership of Bin Laden, called Al Qaeda, whose influence was spreading through the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In August 1998, Al-Qaeda carried out the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than 5,000 others. In October 2000 Al-Queda succeeded further in attacking U.S. interests with the bombing of the USS Cole. On September 9, 2001, al-Qaeda assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the U.S. – supported Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and led to the takeover of the country by the Taliban. The most momentous act was the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 by Al Qaeda, with almost 3,000 people killed. It was clear that some major response from the U.S. was required.
The Second Gulf War removed Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athists and the Kurdish Peshmerga troops helped in his downfall. Both Barzani and Talabani took positions of great power in the new Iraq and Saddam’s generals and security men moved to Syria where they were welcomed by their fellow Ba’athists in the Syrian government. They went on to establish Al-Qaeda and later Daesh in Syria. The Kurdistan Autonomous Regional Government was formed and KDP leader Massoud Barzani became President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). That gave the Kurds a great deal of control over the oil industry and cemented a strong relationship with Turkey which handled the delivery of Iraqi Kurdish oil at a very hefty premium. The Turkish ties with the Kurds have been through the relationship with th Barzanis. The Talebani were effectively cut out of the financial windfall as Barzani maneiuvered to keep the ‘Kurdish’ oil for the KRG in the sustained conflict with Iraq’s new Shia leaders.
The rise of the Maliki Government in Iraq and the concomitant empowerment of the Shia in the running of Iraq was very deleterious to restoring harmony in the country. This was especially true in the question of Iraqi oil, much of which was in the KRG. The big multinational petroleum giants took over the nation’s oil fields. Between 2009 and 2010, the Maliki government granted contracts for developing existing fields and exploring new ones to 18 companies, including ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, the Italian Eni, Russia’s Gazprom and Lukoil, Malaysia’s Petronas and a partnership between BP and the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation. When they started, the U.S. military provided the initial security umbrella protecting all of their field operations.
The oil companies did not want to deal with Iraqi unionists in the oil industry. It was the oil companies, in particular, who pressed the Ministry of Oil to enforce Saddam’s 1987 labour law which the government resurrected in 2003. As the Oil Ministry spokesman, Assam Jihad, told the Iraq Oil Report in 2010, “Unionists instigate the public against the plans of the oil ministry to develop [Iraq’s] oil riches using foreign development.” Therefore the government had to suppress dissent. This has been a recurrent theme in Iraq’s oil industry. The oil companies get what they want: they get the oil concessions; they get a low rate of compensation for the land they use; they get a subsidised price for the oil to compensate them for the cost of drilling; and they get the social legislation which prevents dissent from spreading. Until recently the U.S military and the Department of Defense contracted private armies have stood behind the oil majors in suppressing this dissent.
This was made even worse when Daesh began its lightning assault on Iraq from its Syrian headquarters. The Maliki government had consistently refused to pay the workers what they were owed and have been conscripting and press-ganging workers into Shia militias to fight the Daesh occupiers. The legitimate unions also fear Daesh which seems to see any autonomous organisation by workers as a threat.
The Iraqi government has for years refused to give up Saddam Hussein’s anti-trade union legislation, and several Iraqi political parties have tried to infiltrate unions or destabilise them for party political interests. Just days before Daesh entered Mosul in Northern Iraq, the Iraqi union leader Mosul, Hussein Darwish, was assassinated on his way to work. Family members of the previous ITU President, Ahmed Jassam Salih, were also assassinated..
The only safe place for unionists in Iraq is in the resurgent Kurdistan and the KRG. There the Barzani-Talibani political accommodation has always included a role for the Kurdish workers and their organisations. They are also taking over the vast oilfields of Mosul and Kirkuk. As the rest of Iraqi descends into Shia-Sunni conflict and the world watches the introduction of Iranian fighters and Russian equipment into the battle, it seems as if Kurdistan will be the last hideout of Iraqi labour. The Al-Abadi election has reduced tensions but little progress has been made.
Complicating even further the politics of the Kurds has been the formation in 1978 of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a party which merged revolutionary socialism with support for Kurdish nationalism. Its leader was Abdullah Öcalan. Its principal enemy was not Iraq or the Barzani KRG. It concentrated on operations in neighbouring Turkey which had been suppressing Kurdish nationalism. The PKK engaged in a large number of what Turkey called ‘terrorist acts’ and were recognised internationally as a terrorist group. When Abdullah Öcalan was captured and jailed in 1999 the PKK began a period of negotiation in search of a truce with Turkey; a process which resulted, in 2013, with a ceasefire with Turkey. This lasted until June 2015 when Turkey unilaterally broke the truce and attacked PKK bases in Iraq with continuous bombing raids. Turkey continues to engage in punitive bombings and terror inside the Kurdish areas of Turkey.
The Kurdish struggle has grown in intensity inside Turkey and is shaping the regional strife which is now confronting Syria by Turkey’s reaction to the growing strength of the Kurds inside Turkey and in the Rojava in Syria.
The Kurds in Turkey
The Kurds have been an oppressed minority in Turkey since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which took away any hopes of recognition of Kurdistan as a separate state as envisioned in the Treaty of Sevres (1920). Kemal Ataturk’s coup and modernisation of Turkey’s institutions had no place for the Kurds. Months after the declaration of a Turkish republic, Ankara, under the pretext of creating an “indivisible nation,” adopted an ideology aimed at eliminating, both physically and culturally, non-Turkish elements within the Republic. These “elements” were primarily Kurdish and Armenian. A 1924 mandate forbade Kurdish schools, organizations and publications. Even the words “Kurd” and “Kurdistan” were outlawed, making any written or spoken acknowledgement of their existence illegal. According to Association France-Kurdistan, between 1925 and 1939, 1.5 million Kurds, a third of the population, were deported and massacred. In 1930 the Turkish Minister of Justice declared, “I won’t hide my feelings. The Turk is the only lord, the only master of this country. Those who are not of pure Turkish origin will have only one right in Turkey: the right to be servants and slaves.”iii
The Kurds have been the victims of Turkish oppression under a wide variety of Turkish governments. For a long period of its post-Ottoman history, Turkey has been ruled by a strong military force which, when it wasn’t governing itself, exerted a powerful influence on any civilian governments which were formed.
After the Second World War, Turkish politics was dominated by a single political party, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP) of national hero Ataturk. Ataturk allowed two other parties to form but soon banned them because of their pro-Islamist tendencies. In 1946, the head of the CHP, Ismet Inönü, introduced democratic elections to Turkey. Due to widespread dissatisfaction with the CHP in the four years after its victory the party lost the second multi-party general elections in 1950, and Celâl Bayar replaced Inönü as President. Bayar was the head of the Democratic Party (Demokrat Parti, DP) but the real power within the DP was Adnan Menderes, the Prime Minister. The DP was a moderate right-wing party but whose policy options were constrained by the Kemalist policies of secularism, nationalism and statism and the 1924 Constitution.
The main differences between the CHP and the DP was in its economic policies; the DP pushed for a privatisation of Turkish industries and was less secular than the CHP. During the ten-year Prime Ministership of Menderes and the DP, Turkish domestic and foreign politics underwent great changes; industrialisation and urbanization accelerated. The Turkish economy grew at an unprecedented rate of 9% per annum. Turkey joined NATO and was the recipient of a great deal of economic support from the Marshall Plan. The economy was modernised; agriculture was mechanized; and there was domestic and foreign investment in transport, energy, education, health care, insurance and banking.
Along with this modernisation of the economy, Menderes restored many of the religious practices removed by Ataturk and the CHP. He reopened and built mosques across Turkey and used religion as a political weapon against his enemies. He expanded Turkey’s ties to Muslim states in the Middle East and conducted a purge of Greeks living in Turkey (the 1955 Istanbul Pogrom). Most importantly, the DP announced that the parliament had the right to restore the Caliphate. He established a Commission of Inquiries (Tahkikat Komisyonu), formed from only DP Members of Parliament, which allowed this Commission to take on judicial powers and to issue verdicts, judgements and punishments – a direct violation of the separation of powers built into the Constitution
As a result, on 27 May 1960, thirty-seven “young officers” made a coup against Menderes and the DP. Despite international protests, Menderes was hanged on 17 September 1961 on the island of Imrali for violating the Constitution and for massacring the Greeks. On 17 September 1990 he was posthumously pardoned.
The military ruled Turkey but was anxious to turn the government back to civilians; civilians they could control. The man who fit that role was Suleyman Gundogdu Demirel (who died in June 2015).
During the 1960s violence and instability plagued Turkey. An economic recession sparked a wave of social unrest marked by street demonstrations, labour strikes and political assassinations. Left-wing workers’ and students’ movements (a large part of which were Kurds) were formed, countered on the right by Islamist and militant nationalist groups. The left carried out bombing attacks, robberies and kidnappings; from the end of 1968, and increasingly during 1969 and 1970, left-wing violence was matched and surpassed by far-right violence, notably from the Grey Wolves.
On the political front, Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel’s centre-right Justice Party government, re-elected in 1969, also experienced trouble. Various factions within his party defected to form splinter groups of their own, gradually reducing his parliamentary majority and bringing the legislative process to a halt. By January 1971, Turkey appeared to be in a state of chaos. The universities had ceased to function. Students emulating Latin American urban guerrillas robbed banks and kidnapped US servicemen, also attacking American targets.
The homes of university professors critical of the government were bombed by neo-fascist militants. Factories were on strike and more workdays were lost between 1 January and 12 March 1971 than during any prior year. The Islamist movement had become more aggressive and its party, the National Order Party, openly rejected Atatürk and Kemalism, infuriating the armed forces. Demirel’s government, weakened by defections, seemed paralyzed, powerless to try to curb the campus and street violence and unable to pass any serious legislation.
The 1971 military coup was a little different. It was known as the “coup by memorandum”, which the military delivered to the government in lieu of sending out tanks, as it had done previously. In a series of military-controlled civil governments the fight against right and left extremism was attempted but with little success. The military put Professor Nihat Erim in power but ruled the country through their control of the National Assembly (the Parliament).iv
In October 1973, Bulent Ecevit, who had won control of the Republican People’s Party from İnönü, won an upset victory, but the factional fights in Turkey didn’t abate. The economy deteriorated, the Grey Wolves escalated and intensified political terrorism as the 1970s progressed, and left-wing groups, too, carried out acts aimed at causing chaos and demoralization. In 1975 Demirel replaced Ecevit but nothing changed. Finally, in 1980, the military made another coup.
On 2 September 1980 the army intervened again when the Chief of the General Staff General Kenan Evren took over direct control of Turkey. For the next three years the Turkish Armed Forces ruled the country through the National Security Council, before democracy was restored. This National Security Council (Milli Güvenlik Kurulu, MGK), headed by Evren declared a coup d’état on the national television channel. The MGK then extended martial law throughout the country, abolished the Parliament and the government, suspended the Constitution and banned all political parties and trade unions. They invoked the Kemalist tradition of state secularism and in the unity of the nation, which had already justified the precedent coups, and presented themselves as opposed to communism, fascism, separatism and religious sectarianism.v
This led to attacks by the army on the Kurdish minority and helped generate a concerted response by the Kurds with the spread of the PKK from Iraq into Turkey in 1978.The emergence of Kurdish nationalism, developed into civil war. The Turkish political parties endorsed the military’s scorched-earth tactics, which included torture of detainees, the assassination of suspected militants and an absolute rejection of Kurdish demands.
Political repression remained strong. The Turks rounded up members of both the left and right for trial with military tribunals. Within a very short time, there were 250,000 to 650,000 people detained. Among the detainees, 230,000 were tried, 14,000 were stripped of citizenship, and 50 were executed. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people were tortured, and thousands are still missing. A total of 1,683,000 people were blacklisted. Among the prosecuted were Ecevit, Demirel, Türkeş, and Erbakan, who were incarcerated and temporarily suspended from politics.
This coup by Evren placed Turkey under martial law. There were several efforts to return the country to civilian rule after 1983 but the excesses which abounded after every liberalisation led to the imposition of states of emergency over many regions of Turkey. It wasn’t until the economic shocks which affected Turkish growth in the new millennium that this unrest led to the victory of the Justice and Development party (AKP) of Istanbul’s Mayor Recip Tayit Erdogan in the 2002 election. Erdogan promised reform but actually pressed forward with the Islamisation of Turkey.
In April 2007, the Turkish military reiterated that they were “the absolute defenders of secularism” in response to the Islamisation of Turkey by the AKP and its former Gulenist allies. The AKP retaliated with a series of show trials designed to crush military and secular opposition. Around 40,000 police officers and 4,000 judges and prosecutors have been reassigned and 4,000 preparatory schools (“dershane”), many of which were managed by the Gülen movement and prepared students for university and civil service exams, have been closed. When the military resisted Erdogan he arrested the military leadership.
The AKP rose to power on the basis of a plan to keep the military from ever taking power again in Turkey. At a trial in 2012 a Turkish court convicted 326 military officers, including the former air force and navy chiefs, of plotting to overthrow the nation’s Islamic-based government in 2003, in a case that has helped curtail the military’s hold on politics. (known as ‘Sledgehammer’ or ‘Bolyuz’). A panel of three judges sentenced former air force chief Ibrahim Firtina, former navy chief Ozden Ornek and former army commander Cetin Dogan to life imprisonment but later reduced the sentence to a 20-year jail term because the plot had been unsuccessful. The court also convicted 323 other active or retired officers, including a former general elected to Parliament of involvement in the conspiracy, sentencing some to as much as 18 years in prison. Thirty-six were acquitted, while the case against three other defendants was postponed.
Prosecutors accused the 365 defendants in the trial of plotting to depose Erdogan by triggering turmoil in the country that would have paved the way for a military takeover. They claimed the plotters, taking part in an army seminar in 2003, drew up plans for a coup which included bombings of mosques, the downing of a Turkish fighter plane and other acts of violence that would have allowed the military to intervene on the pretext of restoring order.
It wasn’t only the military which was repressed by the AKP. More than 400 other people – including journalists, academics, politicians, trades unionists and soldiers faced trial on charges of involvement in a conspiracy by an alleged gang of secular nationalists called “Ergenekon.” Begun in 2007, the Ergenekon proceeding ended in 2013 with the former head of the Turkish military, General Ilker Basbug, ordered to serve life in prison. Basbug, who had served as Chief of General Staff under Erdogan, was arrested in 2012, accused of heading the Ergenekon plot against the AKP leader. Similar punishments were decreed for 18 more of the accused. Several of Basbug’s former subordinates or colleagues additionally received life terms. Hursit Tolon, former First Army commander, was sentenced to life in prison on the same charge as Basbug. Former General Staff Second Chief, General Hasan Igsiz, was also consigned to a life sentence. Retired General Nusret Tasdeler and Retired Colonel Fuat Selvi were similarly sentenced to life in prison. Former Gendarmerie Forces (National Police) Commander Sener Eruygur received an “aggravated life sentence” – a punishment reserved for terrorism cases, in solitary confinement, with limited exercise time and contact with other prisoners or by telephone with family, and no opportunity for parole. Retired general Veli Kucuk saw a double-aggravated life sentence imposed on him, plus 99 years and a month.
Kucuk and retired colonel Arif Dogan were accused of creating and directing a terrorist effort to subvert the current authorities. Dogan was purportedly the mentor of a Gendarmerie Intelligence Anti-Terrorism Unit, as a covert, seditious organization, the existence of which has been questioned by such Turkish media as the daily Hurriyet [Freedom]. In the Ergenekon affair, he was sentenced to 47 years in jail.
Other former Erdogan supporters jailed for life in the Ergenekon trial include Kemal Kerincsiz, a fanatical nationalist attorney. Kerencsiz had persecuted the Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, who edited Agos [The Furrow], a weekly Armenian-language newspaper with sections in Turkish and English. Dink, whom Kerincsiz claimed “insulted Turkishness” – currently redefined as “denigration of the Turkish nation,” and a serious offense – was murdered early in 2007 while awaiting indictment. The law that criminalizes “insulting Turkishness” was introduced under Erdogan and pursued with zeal by Kerincsiz.
Among the political and media victims of Ergenekon “justice,” Mustafa Balbay, a writer for the daily Cumhuriyet [The Republic] and a parliamentary deputy of the long-established secularist Republican People’s Party [CHP], was also sentenced to life in jail, as was his co-defendant, Tuncay Ozkan, another secularist journalist.vi
An array of 33 indictments was consolidated under the Ergenekon rubric in 2011. The list of defendants is as varied as it is long; the single aspect uniting them, however, is association with secular politics. In May 2014 the AKP went after the police force which Erdogan said was full of “Gulenists”, followers of his former ally Gulen (now living in the US). It purged hundreds of Gulenists from the police, army and the civil service.
This rigid control of the Turkish political scene continued unabated until the 2013 mass demonstrations and sit-ins triggered by protests against the rebuilding plans for the Taksim Gezi Park. This soon expanded to a protest about the whole AKP domination of the political scene. Spurred on by social media 3.5 million of Turkey’s 80 million people are estimated to have taken an active part in almost 5,000 demonstrations across Turkey connected with the original Gezi Park protest. 11 people were killed and more than 8,000 were injured, many critically.vii
The protests and the demonstrations of the Taksim Park opposition marked the beginning of Erdogan’s unchallenged control of the political process in Turkey. In the 2015 election the AKP lost its outright majority in the Parliament, putting on hold Erdogan’s plans to gather all executive power into his own hands by amending the Constitution. Erdogan’s nemesis was the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of Selahattin Demirtas; a party whose major strength derives from votes from the Kurdish minority in Turkey. By getting 13.12% (50 seats) the HDP prevented Erdogan from forming a an AKP government. Erdogan demanded a new vote, held in November 2015. In that vote the HDP won 10.75% and retained 550 seats; but this time Erdogan and the AKP were able to claim a majority..
The war between Turkey and the PKK has been going on in some intensity since August 15, 1984 when the PKK announced the Kurdish Uprising seeking autonomy for Turkish Kurdistan.
Amidst heavy fighting between the parties hundreds of thousands died. A truce was agreed on September 1, 1999 when the PKK announce a unilateral cease-fire. This lasted until June 1,2004 when the PKK abandoned its cease-fire in the face of attacks against the Kurdish populations of southeast Turkey. Its leader, Ocalan, was arrested by the Turkish MIT (Intelligence) when the CIA tipped them off that Ocalan was in Nairobi. Ocalan negotiated with the Turkish authorities from his jail cell at the Imrali Island prison and, on 21 March 2013, Öcalan declared a ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish state. That cease-fire lasted until it became clear to Erdogan that the best way to put pressure on the HDP was to start the war again against the PKK. Turkish bombers attacked PKK bases in Iraq and Turkish soldiers and police attacked a large number of Kurdish cities and villages in Turkey, killing and wounding hundreds of civilians. Erdogan restarted the conflict with the Kurds as a means of attacking the HDP.
At the same time, Turkish civil society was outraged by the attacks on the Kurds, the labour unions, the opposition parties, the Gulenists, the lawyers and the journalists. In addition to the scores of journalists already under arrest in the Ergenokan processes several journalists were arrested for writing about Turkish support for Daesh and Al-Nusra. In December 2015 Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of Turkey’s The Daily Cumhuriyet was arrested on November 26 along with Erdem Gul, the paper’s bureau chief in the capital city of Ankara. In March 2016 Erdogan ordered that the government take over Turkey’s largest circulation, Zaman, because of its ties to the Gulenists. The editors of the important moderate news magazine Nokta were imprisoned for “fomenting armed rebellion” – that is, for criticizing Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian approach. The most outspoken columnists in the newspaper Milliyet were fired or silenced.
TV stations have been shut down. More than 1,800 people have been arrested in the past year on charges of “insulting the president” – a law whose very existence is contradictory to democracy. Those imprisoned under it include the editor of the newspaper Birgun, who was found guilty of insulting Mr. Erdogan in an acrostic puzzle. And hundreds of government officials have been arrested or sacked on accusations that they are associated with the Islamist Gulen movement, which had brought Mr. Erdogan to power a decade and a half ago, but which he now opposes as a threat to his power.
Mr. Erdogan won November’s election on a fear campaign aimed at Turkey’s Kurds. The Kurdish-Turkish violence that drove those fears is entirely the creation of Mr. Erdogan, who abandoned his long and successful unity-building efforts in 2013 after Kurdish-led moderate political parties became popular with non-Kurdish Turks seeking a modern and European-
minded alternative. Mr. Erdogan is now bombing his own citizens aggressively: The Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir has become a deadly place of bomb craters, house-to-house searches and seizures and late-night disappearances. Little of it has anything to do with actual threats to the Turkish state.
The Turkish military engaged in long-term sieges of towns such as Yuksekova, Sirnak and Nusaybin to disrupt the logistics lines of the PKK and its newly established youth wing, the Civil Defence Units. The plan was to first clear out the trenches and barricades in the towns and then deploy forces based in permanent outposts to restore state authority over the restive neighbourhoods. The PKK had only one card to play to confront Ankara’s increasing pressure, and that is to carry the battles to western Turkey.viii
The Turks demonstrated to the wider world their continuing hostility towards the Kurds when, in September 2014 Daesh fighters besieged the Kurdish town of Kobani close to the Turkish border, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border into Turkey. The town was defended by Syrian Kurdish militia called the YPG supported by US airstrikes and US-backed Arab units from the Free Syrian Army. Although the Turks allowed Kurds, including wounded Syrian Kurdish fighters of the YPG to cross the border, it would not allow any armed people to go back into Syria to fight against Daesh. The policy – enforced with tear gas and water cannons prevented fellow Kurdish fighters from Iraq and Turkey from helping their Syrian civilians and YPG members go back and fight for their homes after recovering in Turkish hospitals. Turkish tanks were perched on the hilltops around Kobani but they refused to fire at Daesh. Ankara also wouldn’t allow any military resupply of the YPG units and tried to pressure the US to stop airdrops of weapons and ammunition to Kobani.
The tensions which the Turkish actions created were exacerbated further, reaching its peak in June 2015 when a gathering of pro-Kurdish protestors in the Turkish town of Suruc (just ten kilometres across the border from Kobani in Turkey) suffered bomb attack. The Turks blamed the bomb on Daesh but everyone else believed that it was set off by Turkish forces. The bombing of Suruc marked the end of the two-year truce between the PKK and Turkey which the Turks announced as a unilateral decision by Erdogan. This ushered in the third PKK insurgency in Turkey. The rationale for this Turkish policy against the Kurds is because of the long-term covert support by Turkey of Daesh and the Al-Nusra Front and its fear that the Kurds will form an independent Kurdish state on Turkey’s southern border. The root of this Turkish turn towards authoritarianism and war against the Kurds is its failure to deal openly with its role in the Syrian civil war and its fear of the rise of the Syrian Kurds as a force along Turkey’s southern border.
The Kurds In Syria
Turkey is the key to the Syrian crisis and its unique geographic, political, ethnic and military situations are the most important antecedent problems facing the world when trying to adopt a useful and credible policy for dealing with Syria.
Turkey has played and continues to play a very duplicitous role in relation to Syria and has found itself in conflict with enemies both international and domestic. It is bitterly opposed to the Assad regime but hates and attacks the Kurds even more, despite the fact that the Kurds have been doing much of the heavy lifting in the battles against Daesh. Turkey has supported Daesh in Syria; has funded and supplied Al-Nusrah; attacked and bombed the Kurds in the north and south of the country; made a market in Syrian oil; refused until recently for the U.S. to use the Incirlik Air base; attacked and downed a Russian plane which passed through Turkish air space for 17 seconds; and whose MIT intelligence arm has been the main supplier of explosives, ammunition, medicine and free passage to Daesh fighters inside and alongside Turkey.
The Turks have played a major part in the radicalisation of Islam in Central Asia. For over a decade Turkish imams, sponsored by Saudi Wahhabi money, have been running radical madrassas throughout Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the Caucasus). They have been training the young students of the area and Turkish trucking has dominated commerce in the region, often providing the trucks for smuggling oil out and weapons in. The AKP Party in Turkey have been generous in providing support for these as well as offering a home base for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Turkish Government, especially the MIT (intelligence agency) has been an open partner with Daesh in its attacks on Syrian and Iraqi Kurds.
While the US-led coalition continues to drop bombs on Daesh positions across Iraq and Syria in an attempt to stop the jihadist advance, Turkey, as one of the West’s key partners in the region and home to NATO’s second-largest army, has thus far failed to take a firm stance in the conflict, other than to attack the Syrian Kurds and prevent them from forming a unified command in the north of Syria. Moreover, it has actively supported the terrorist forces of Daesh in allowing pro-Daesh volunteers to freely cross the border into Syria, treating their wounded commanders in Turkish hospitals, supplying the Daesh with ammonium nitrate to produce bombs and allowing the jihadists to use Turkish sovereign territory as a base to launch attacks on Kurdish positions across the border. Turkish hospitals are used to treat wounded ISIL commanders. According an article of May 4,2015 in the NY Timesix, daily shipments of ammonium nitrate (the same stuff used by Timothy McVeigh to blow up a building in Oklahoma) cross from Turkey to ISIL in Syria.
Most striking are the confessions by a defected IS communication technician who claimed that he had put his superiors in contact with Turkish officials on numerous occasions, and that at one point he and his fellow fighters were transported in buses across Turkey to attack Sere Kaniye (a Kurdish town) from the Ceylanpinar border crossing after which he surrendered to the Defence Forces. Besides this confession, cases have been documented of Turkish soldiers allowing aspiring jihadists to freely cross the border, of shipments of construction material passing to IS-controlled areas, of Turkey facilitating the smuggling of oil from the occupied territories, and even that it has provided the jihadists with intelligence in the form of satellite images and other data.x
In January 2015 secret official documents about the searching of three trucks belonging to Turkey’s national intelligence service Mille Istihbarat Teskilati (MIT) were leaked online to the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, once again corroborating suspicions that Ankara has not been playing a clean game in Syria. According to the authenticated documents, the trucks were found to be transporting missiles, mortars and anti-aircraft ammunition. The Gendarmerie
General Command, which authored the reports, alleged, “The trucks were carrying weapons and supplies to the al-Qaeda terror organization.” But Turkish readers could not see the documents in the news bulletins and newspapers that shared them, because the government immediately obtained a court injunction banning all reporting about the affair.xi The editor and the publisher were jailed for treason. There have been many additional reports of MIT officers acting as paymasters of both ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front in Syria and many more Turkish journalists put in jail.
The Turkish Government is apparently more afraid of the Kurds than the Syrian terrorists. It fears the creation of Rojava, a united Kurdish state on its border. In recent months the Kurdish Syrian YPD fighters allied to the Syrian Democratic Unity Party (the party of the Syrian Kurds) have made many strides forward in battling Daesh.
The Turks are determined that these two areas (in yellow above) will not be able to join together into a single contiguous large area reaching the other yellow area of Afrin which would be a self-contained Kurdish area in Syria on its border once Daesh (the grey zone) is driven out. Across the northern border are found many of the Turkish Kurds who might be willing to join up in an effort to promote Kurdish autonomy.
This area is known as Rojava or Western Kurdistan. It is a de facto autonomous region which gained its autonomy in November 2013 as part of the Rojava campaign. Rojava consists of the joined-up cantons of (from east to west) Jazira, Kobani and the separated canton of Afrin. Rojava is not officially recognized as autonomous by the governments of Syria or Turkey as yet. Kurds generally consider Rojava to be one of the four parts of a greater Kurdistan, which also includes parts of south eastern Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan) and western Iran (Eastern Kurdistan.
There have been several efforts to get peace talks started in Syria (in Vienna and Geneva) but it was not until the Russians and the U.S. effectively took charge of the negotiations that any sort of cease-fire could be arranged. Most of the fighting and talking groups representing the several factions of Syria were at these talks, except for the Kurds who were not invited. Progress was made and the Russians unilaterally agreed to cut back on their military activities in the country. As faith in a longer and more effective cease-fire grew the Kurds saw their opportunity. On 17 March 2016 the Kurds announced the formation of a new Federation of Northern Syria that would take in Kurdish-majority areas of Jazeera, Kobane and Afrin, knowns as Rojava, plus Arab towns currently under Kurdish control. Salih Muslim Mohammed, the co-leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest Kurdish party in Syria, said the federation should not be seen as an autonomous Kurdistan region, but rather a blueprint for a future decentralised and democratic country, where everyone is represented in government.
“There is no autonomous Kurdish region, so there is no question of recognising it or not,” he said. “It is part of a democratic Syria, and it might expand all over Syria. We want to decentralise Syria, in which everyone has their rights. That same day, two hundred members, delegates and party members including Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Christians from the Kurdish areas of Syria and Syrian towns including Manbij, Aleppo, and al-Shahbaa elected a council of 31 members for the Democratic Federal System for Rojava and Northern Syria.xii
The Turks now have to face the new facts on the ground in Syria. Despite Turkish shelling of the YPG forces in Syria and the civilian population in Kurdish areas of Turkey the Kurds are now fully established in a quasi-autonomous region of Syria which can cut off access to Al-Nusra and Daesh by the Turkish military and MIT, and with the full support of the U.S. The PKK, which had maintained good relations with Russia since the days of the Soviet Union, has opened a new office in Moscow as well as maintained its links with U.S. forces in Syria. Indeed, the U.S. is quite advanced in reconstituting two airbases in Kurdish Syria which will allow them to supply their YPG allies without having to go through the Turkish airbase in Incerlik.
The Turks are faced with a continuing Kurdish dilemma, On the one hand the Turks are adamant that any Kurdish politician, especially those of the domestic HDP party are potential, if not clandestine, members of the PKK and potential leaders who will separate out the Kurdish areas of Turkey from Greater Turkey. It fears the Syrian Kurds and their PYD and YPG groups who separate Turkey from Syria with an ethnic wall of Kurds across its southern border and who maintain good relations with both the U.S. and Russia, On the other hand the Turks are firmly in bed with the Barzani Kurds of Iraq who sell their crude through Turkish pipelines and who can supply petroleum products if the Russians restrict or overcharge Turkey for oil and gas.
The eternal problem for the Kurds is that they are disunited. Kurds don’t need extra enemies; they are happy to provide their own. There have been two major Kurdish Civil Wars, and the fighting between the Barzani and Talebani factions have never ceased in Iraq. The wars between Sunni and Shia Kurds in Iran make no contributions towards intra-Kurd co-operation. So, it seems as though an independent state called Kurdistan is not likely to feature on the political horizon very soon. Whatever happens, though the Turks are left with problems. As the Turkish proverb goes Asabi tükürsen sakal, yukarı tükürsen bıyık. (If you spit downwards, it hits the beard, if you spit upwards, the mustache)
i. Ward, R.S. Immortal: A Military History of Iran and its Armed Forces. 2009. pp.231–233.
ii. McDowall, David (2004). A modern history of the Kurds (3rd ed.). London: I.B. Tauris.
iii. Cultural Survival, “Kurdish Repression in Turkey” Summer 1982
iv. “Turkish Regime Is Ousted By the Military Leaders”, The New York Times, 13 March 1971
v. Gil, Ata. “La Turquie à marche forcée,” Le Monde diplomatique, February 1981
vi. Susan Frazer, “Turkey’s Ergenekon Trial: Alleged 2002 Coup Plotters Convicted, Including Former Military Chief Ilker Basbug”, AP 5/8/13
vii. Patrick Coburn, “Turkey’s Protests and Erdogan’s Brutal Crackdown” Independent 7/6/13
viii. “Erdogan takes authoritarian rule to new heights in war on PKK,” Al-Monitor March 20, 2016
ix. Ben Hubbard and Karam Shoumali, “Fertilizer, Also Suited for Bombs, Flows to ISIS Territory From Turkey” NY Times May 4,2015
x. Joris Leverink, “Turkey’s Support for IS Against the Kurds Exposes Flawed US Strategy”, Truthout, 14 April 2015
xi. Fehim Taştekin, “Turkish military says MIT shipped weapons to al-Qaeda”, Al-Monitor January 15, 2015
xii. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, ‘This is a new Syria, not a new Kurdistan’, Middle East Eye, 20/3/16