Saturday, April 14, 2007

Greater Kurdistan

The Kurds finally seem to be having their day in history. The whole Kurdish question finds a sympathetic audience in the US. Americans are just naturally disposed to support most any nationalistic struggle for self-determination. And with the country desperate for any semblance of good news out of Iraq, the Kurds seems to be the only contenders.

Kurdish independence was briefly considered at the Conference of Versailles. But they never really had a chance. Despite the encouragement of T. E. Lawrence, the Kurdish hopes were crushed under the onslaught of British and French colonial aspirations. So, the Kurds had to settle for long years as the step-children of a cobbled-together Iraq. Muslim, though neither Arab, Turk or Persian, the Kurds comprise perhaps the largest ethnicity without their own country.

Since the First Gulf War, they have become largely self-governing, and today, while technically still a part of the Iraqi Federation, they are independent in everything but name. A controversial (but not in doubt) plebiscite scheduled for November will move the oil-rich and once-again Kurdish city of Kirkuk back under Kurdish control. After that, Kurdistan will exit Iraq whenever the time is right for them. While the front of the house is collapsing in flames, no one will blame the Kurds for fleeing out the back door. And there is no one to stop them from doing so--neither Iraqi nor American troops are capable of preventing it.

If it were only that simple, no one would be terribly concerned about a Kurdistan emerging from the wreckage of Iraq. But it is not that simple. Millions of Kurds are dispersed not only across northern Iraq, but in northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran. Behind the dream of an independent Kurdistan is the corollary that one day all Kurds will be united under one flag.

In fact, PKK guerrillas (or terrorists) have battled Turkish forces in that country off and on for 3 decades now. In recent years, the Turkish army has, by and large, subdued rebel activity. And not only that, the government has sought to address the long-standing grievances of the residents of southeastern Turkey, Kurdish or otherwise. Billions of dollars have been invested in economic development. The results are not hard to see. Cities such as Urfa and Mardin are booming, and the countryside around there is blossoming before your eyes. Admittedly, this progress has not yet penetrated the far reaches of the region, adjoining Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet, much of the pent-up discontent has been diffused.

But with Iraqi Kurdistan a near fait-accompli, PKK activity is picking up again. And Turkey is alarmed, as would be expected. The already heavy Turkish military presence in the region is being beefed up. From my observation and contacts, I believe the Turkish government, the Turkish military and the Turkish people are resolved to disallow a resurgence of the PKK. Nor will they tolerate Kurds across the border in Iraq providing a safe haven.

That is why I went to eastern Turkey last year. On something of a sabbatical, I was seeking the relics of ancient Christianity in the region--primarily the Suriani Orthodox churches and monasteries around Midyat and the few remaining Armenian church ruins left in the region from Van to Kars. I surmised that if I did not go at that time, the Kurdish troubles could re-ignite, cutting off all travel in the area for years to come.

I did not come away with particularly sympathetic feelings for the plight of the Kurds in Turkey; for though a minority, they seemed eager to persecute those minorities underneath them. The situation of the remaining Suriani Christians in the Mardin province has stabilized, and some may even be returning in small numbers. This is primarily for two reasons: Turkey's desire to present a clean human rights record in its EU bid, and considerable monetary support from the successful Suriani diaspora in Europe and Canada. Yet in the 1980s and 1990s, the Suriani were almost swept from the region. While the Turkish government looked the other way, it was the Kurds who invaded Christian villages and appropriated their homes, fields and orchards. It was the Kurds who intimated the Christians and killed those who refused to leave. It was the Kurds who took over the ages-old Christian shops, homes and mansions in Midyat and other cities.

One particularly poignant experience was at the Church of St. Demetrius, east of Midyat. This had been a sizable Christian community until the 1990s. The local Kurds ran off the entire Christian population of the village. The town is now nearly deserted, save for some turkeys and a handful of Kurdish families. Only Fr. Yacob and a Suriani Orthodox nun remained in the compound around the 5th-century Church of St. Demetrius. We could not communicate by language--he knew no English and I knew no Turkish or Aramaic. But as I was leaving, I made the sign of the cross, in the Orthodox manner. As his eyes conveyed understanding, he nodded and slowly, sadly and knowingly returned the sign.

Likewise, the isolated Suriani Church of the Virgin Mary in the center of teeming, swarming, volatile old Kurdish Diyarbakir seems particularly precarious for the 3 remaining families holding out there. Nor were the Kurds particularly good neighbors to the former Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire, being more than willing accomplices to the horrors of 1915-1918. So, all in all, I take a jaundiced view when I read or hear of those waxing eloquent about the glories that will be Kurdistan.

I observed a good bit of the heavy Turkish military presence in the east. Dogubayezit and Kars seemed almost like armed encampments. We attempted to visit the 9th century Armenian cathedral at Mrens, which rivals the great Cathedral of Ani. Though clearly visible from the highway, it was in a "restricted zone." Large areas of the east are off-limits, supposedly for fear of PKK rebels. I wondered whether it was just an excuse to keep up an extensive military presence near the Armenian border, as well as making the border a de-facto no-mans-land. First we appealed directly to the governor of Kars province. After first giving permission, he politely decided "no." Then we went to the army. No again. Then to the police. No once more. Finally, we appealed to the gendarmes. They refused as well. They did give us permission to visit the ruins of another Armenian church that I'm sure they thought we would never try to locate, as it was so inaccessible. (Little did they know. Ha!) Anyway, they warned us that we were on our own and that they could offer no protection from the PKK.

Now things seem to be really heating up. In a February interview only recently released, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani warned Turkey that if they interfered in the issue of Kirkuk, then the Kurds of Iraq would interfere in Diyarbakir. Continuing, he stated "If we are denied our right to settle down and live freely, I swear by God that we will not allow others to live in security or stability." When asked about the PKK, he replied "Frankly speaking, we support their rights."

Of course, Turkey did not take these taunts lying down. Prime Minister Erdogan shot back with an angry retort. And a leader of the Turkish military has called for a military operation into northern Iraq to rout approximately 4,000 guerrillas holed-up there. So, we will see.

Interestingly, even an oil-rich, but land-locked independent Kurdistan is hardly viable without the goodwill and acquiescence of Turkey. Turkey, not any of Kurdistan's other neighbors, would be the dominant party in the exportation of Kurdistan's oil riches, viable transportation by air in and out of the country, and in outside economic investment. For what its worth, it seems to me that Turkey might need to get used to the idea of a rump Kurdistan. But the Kurds, for their own good, better give up any idea of pushing their borders northward.


Hilarius said...


Excellent post, as always. I so enjoy your photos and your insight. One day, God willing, you and I will have a chance to sip a beverage together and have a long visit . . . I'm certain that we'd have much to share with one another.

You hit on the fundamental problem that's been brewing for a long time - neither Turkey nor Iran (nor, as you say, Syria) are interested in a stable and independent Kurdistan in their midst, with each facing significant Kurdish minority populations within their own borders.

Frankly, we (the U.S.) are in a bad position there as we've sheltered the Kurds in Iraq to a degree (Operation Northern Watch, etc.) and leveraged Peshmerga cooperation in initially combatting Iraq regular forces in Northern Iraq; however, Turkey remains a NATO ally and would not take kindly to the US too heavily supporting an independent Kurdistan.

These shifting alliances in the region have been the stuff of wars for countless centuries. I'm currently in the middle of reading Procopius of Caesarea's History of the Wars I-II (Persian Wars). It seems that today's problems are no more and no less complex than the problems of that era.

Great article, again.

I'll try to keep remembering the Suriyani in my prayers.

Steve Hayes said...

Sounds like a rerun of Kosovo :-(

I know that's a gross oversimplification, but thanks for the insights.

Terry (John) said...

hilarius: I too hope to have that chance to sip a beverage (or two) with you one day. You're in northern CA, right? And yes, we have somewhat backed ourselves into a corner with the Kurds. We've supported them for so long, and now they are in fact, all but independent. This puts us at cross purposes with Turkey, our ally of many decades. And Turkey's concerns relative to the Kurds and the PKK are certainly legitimate. One has only to look at the location of Diyarbakir, the main Kurdish city in Turkey, to grasp the scope of the PKK's ambitions.

Ochlophobist said...

John thank you much for this post. I continue to rely on you for setting me straight on these matters. Your observations are very helpful in coming to a right sense of what is truly going on in this region.