Kurtler ve Ortadogu'da Barisin Tesisi
Kurds and Peace Building in the Middle East
by M. Alper Bahadir
Columbia Political Review, December 2005
In 1988, the images of babies dying in their mothers’ arms after Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja appalled the whole world. This terrible event was yet another sad chapter in the lives of a people who have survived for centuries in a region plagued by instability and human suffering. In Turkey and Iraq, the two countries where they live in the largest numbers, Kurds have been drawn into bitter struggles with government forces as well as afflicted by strife within their own community. The last five years, however, have granted Kurds an historic opportunity to play a critical role in building a peaceful Middle East. As the process of implementing a new Iraqi constitution stumbles forward, Kurds could prove to be a pivotal element in mitigating the hostility between the Sunnis and Shiites. In addition, the survival of federalism, on which hangs the Iraqi state itself, is dependent on Kurdish support.
Yet even when the dust in Iraq has settled, the region will remain fundamentally unstable without a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish problem in Turkey. The peaceful coexistence of a Kurdish minority in an aspiring European Union country will not only stop a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives over the past two decades. It will also be an exemplary model for accommodating minorities for other countries in the region.
The Road to Peace in Iraq
It is no secret that without a constitution that placates its three main ethnic groups Iraq will likely tumble into civil war. The Kurds are pivotal because their interests do not coincide fully with either those of the Sunnis or the Shiites. They sympathize with Shiites on securing regional oil rights and keeping the Baathists out the political scene, but they agree with the Sunnis that the Iraqi state should be built on secular principles. So far, the concessions given to the Sunni minority failed to satisfy its political and religious leadership. Although the draft constitution was accepted by 78% of voters last month, it would have failed had just two more states joined Sunni strongholds of Al Anbar and Salahaddin in opposing the constitution.
The parliament that will be elected in December will have the right to make fundamental amendments to the constitution, which means that there will be another chance for the Kurds to play their mediating role. The nebulous web of Kurdish interests makes the negotiations that much more complex, but it also has a kind of depolarizing effect over the whole process. Nevertheless, the actual outcome of these ad hoc alliances will depend on the ability of Kurdish leadership to rise to the occasion. This ability was put to the test in late November at a “peace and reconciliation” conference sponsored by the Arab League. The conference was the last chance to soften the Sunni opposition before the elections, and its consequences remain to be seen.
The Kurdish leadership represents a group that is different from any of the insurgent factions and, most importantly, they are not a party to the central Sunni-Shiite struggle. An initiative to approach the insurgents would look much more sincere if it was voiced by a Kurdish leader, instead of ex-Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafaari or the Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Sistani. The country’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, seems to have finally recognized his potential as a mediator. In his address at the reconciliation conference, Talabani invited the insurgents to come speak to him about the grievances. Taking most of his listeners by surprise, he continued, “If those who describe themselves as the Iraqi resistance want to contact me, they are welcome. I am committed to listen to them, even those who are criminals and on trial.” Of course, for those insurgents who have turned their resistance into a profitable, self-sustaining activity, no political settlement will ever be acceptable. But for a majority of the rebellious groups, the insurgency is just politics by other means. Even the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has shown signs of willingness to negotiate with the Iraqi regime under the right conditions. Talabani’s invitation to the insurgents could prove to be the first step in opening a vital channel of communication.
Even more noteworthy than the Sunnis’ refusal to support the draft constitution is the fact that the Kurdish leadership approved of and campaigned for it. Western observers have assumed for years that Kurds would make good use of any chance to secede from Iraq. The constitution that the Kurds rallied for defines the Iraqi state as an “Islamic federal republic”, a clause which, for a number of reasons, can only become a reality with the active support of the Kurds. Not only are they demographically and geographically separated from the rest of the country, they also have the best argument for claiming an independent state: a distinct ethnic identity and a history of suffering under the Baathist regime. Moreover, the fact that they have practically been an autonomous state since the first Gulf War as a result of a British- and American-enforced no-fly zone means that Kurds already have most of the institutions needed for an independent state. If Kurds agree not to secede, no other group can reasonably make a claim to break up the republic.
Kurds are also an essential building block of the nascent Iraqi national identity. While they will never forget such atrocities as the Halabja massacre, the Kurdish leadership has the power to associate these terrible events with the actions of a past dictator rather than the whole of the Sunni community. As in Germany after the Second World War, the country's horrific past must be addressed before any idea of Iraqi nationhood can start to take root.
But are the Kurds sincere in their commitment to the founding of a federal Iraq? Masoud Barzani, the regional president of Iraqi Kurdistan, said in a recent interview, “All alternatives to a federal, democratic and pluralist Iraq are bound to be disastrous for all parties.” Asked if they would seek to declare independence if Iraq found itself in a civil war, Barzani replied, “God forbid!…But of course if others choose the way of fighting and dividing up the country, it would leave us with no alternative.”
There is no reason to doubt that this is how the Iraqi Kurdish leadership thinks about the prospect of independence—as an emergency plan. Barzani and Talabani have pointed out for years that while Kurds will always have the ideal of an independent state deep in their hearts, seeking that independence actively among neighbors utterly hostile to such an idea would only mean more disaster and suffering for the Kurdish people. If these two leaders can help pave the way towards a functioning federal democracy in Iraq, they will have done much to mitigate the suffering their people have lived through for so many years.
A worrying resurgence of violence in Turkey
Prompted by the fear that civil war could provide the impetus for an independent Kurdistan, the Turkish government has been pressing hard for a stable regime in Iraq and has even switched positions to favoring a federalist system. Yet peace in Iraq will only last if Turkey is honest about its multicultural roots and makes its Kurdish minority equal citizens.
The Kurdish problem in Turkey has a long, complex history. The contemporary situation began with the founding of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) in 1978. In 1984, the PKK transformed itself into a terrorist organization, raiding villages and attacking army posts in the predominantly Kurdish eastern and southeastern regions of Turkey. After initially declaring its goal to be the foundation of an independent Marxist state in the region, the PKK embraced Kurdish nationalism and demanded autonomy and the recognition of Kurds as an ethnic minority. Turkey’s fifteen-year conflict with the PKK, which ended with the capture of the group’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999, claimed almost 40,000 lives and caused enormous human suffering.
In 2002, a new party came to power in Turkey, bringing with it an agenda that prioritizes joining the European Union and eradicating the regional disparities within the country. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, himself a representative of the southeastern city of Siirt made it clear that improving the situation of the Kurds was a priority. Last year, Erdogan gave a historic speech in the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakir. When he proclaimed that “great states are those who learn from their mistakes,” he all but acknowledged that the decades-long policy of suppressing the Kurdish minority had been a grievous error. More impressive has been Erdogan's ability to realize his lofty ambitions. He launched legislative initiatives that a decade ago would have seemed impossible. Within its first year in power, the AKP government passed laws that allowed broadcasting in Kurdish and the opening of Kurdish language schools.
A number of factors created a favorable environment for such drastic changes in Turkey’s policy towards its Kurds. First, Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) has an Islamist past. Islam has always been the one major unifying element among the Kurds and Turks, and the AKP’s self described “conservative democrat” ideology resonates with both ethnic groups. Second, progress towards EU membership is extremely important to Turkey and granting cultural and political rights to the Kurdish minority has been one of the main concerns raised by EU negotiators. Third, until recently, the government had been working in a climate of relative peace; the absence of PKK violence has made it easier for them to sell their reforms to the public. Finally, because of the diminished PKK threat and the pressure from the EU, the military’s influence in Turkish politics has diminished, allowing the government to discuss the Kurdish question without the opposition of the armed forces.
This period of calm ended with the renewal of violence this summer, which irritated many Turks and Kurds alike. In June 2004, the PKK announced an end to its five-year “unilateral ceasefire,” but the organization remained mostly inactive until July of this year, when it carried out deadly suicide attacks in two Western resort towns. The renewal of violence following the government’s reforms was a significant blow to Erdogan’s reformist approach, giving credibility to the nationalist pundits who insist that “Kurds will never be satisfied.”
In fact, the return of the PKK violence shows that the PKK problem and the issue of Kurdish rights are entirely separate issues. The PKK never enjoyed widespread support among the Kurdish population. The group of Kurdish intellectuals that met with the Prime Minister urged the PKK to denounce violent methods altogether and pointed to the efforts of the government in solving the Kurdish issue. The PKK did more than just ignore this advice; the organization assassinated two Kurdish intellectuals who had publicly endorsed the newly forming Demokratik Toplum Hareketi (Democratic Society Movement), an initiative on its way to becoming a political party with the aim of seeking a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish conflict.
Western observers with limited knowledge of the Kurdish issue often see the PKK as fighters for Kurdish freedom and equate their struggle with that of the Kurds in Iraq. The assumption that the PKK’s recent resurgence is a reflection of renewed hopes for Kurdish autonomy or even independence in northern Iraq is ALSO misguided. The Kurdish resistance in the two countries communicated in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, but never really colluded in ideology or action. The Iraqi Kurdish leadership even collaborated with the Turkish government in operations against the PKK in 1995. Barzani compares the PKK’s Ocalan to the Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin, and Jalal Talabani referred to him as “a dog looking for a piece of meat.” Cultural exchange between Kurds in the two countries is also limited. The situation in Iraq influenced the PKK’s recent campaign only in that the poor border control in northern Iraq following the war has allowed PKK militants to hide across the border. The US, despite its rhetoric of “clamping down on the PKK as part of the war on terror,” will not make this issue a priority until it can suppress the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.
A recent wave of violence in the city of Hakkari on the Iraqi border has contributed to the increased tensions in Turkey. The violence began with the bombing of a bookstore that was apparently owned by a PKK sympathizer. The attack appeared to be carried out by a secret unit of the gendarme forces, with the support of other state institutions including the police and intelligence service. The authorities promised a full investigation, but failed to appease the local population. In clashes with the police that lasted four days, five protesters were killed and many more were wounded. In a surprise visit to the town on November 21st, Erdogan delivered a reassuring speech to an indignant crowd, who frequently interrupted him with chantings against the city’s local officials. If the situation in Hakkari remains muddled, the process of pacifying the region will stagnate. On the other hand, if the government pursues a full investigation and succeeds in eliminating the underground network of crime and violence that most assume includes government officials, the peace process might actually end up on a stronger footing than it was before the troubles.
The Turkish government must also remain committed to economic and political reform and continue to stress that the issue of PKK violence and Kurdish rights are separable. The successful implementation of initiatives to compensate people who were forced to evacuate their villages during the fight against the PKK is a critical test to show that the government is serious about improving the living conditions in the region. Responsibility also lies with other Turkish political parties, which in their desire to grab the nationalist vote have blamed the AKP for unleashing violence. But recognition of the civic roots of the Turkish national identity, which includes showing respect to the culture of the sub-groups that form it, needs be endorsed universally. If opposition parties attempt to “outbid” each other by rallying the nationalist vote, the peace process will be badly hurt. A promising political reform that needs yet to be implemented is a change in the electoral law that will allow limited representation for parties that fail to pass the 10% threshold to enter parliament, which means that Kurdish parties (which normally fail to pass the threshold) will find a voice in the parliament.
The greatest opportunity, however, lies in the hands of Kurdish leaders. One key figure is the charismatic mayor of Diyarbakir, Osman Baydemir, who helped mitigate the tension in Hakkari last week. The DTH also includes four members of a previous Kurdish party whose attempt to take their oath of office in Parliament in Kurdish at the height of the war with the PKK in 1991 created a national furor; afterwards, the party was shut down and the four founding members were jailed. Following their release last year, the infamous quartet joined the DTH and announced their commitment to a peaceful campaign for Kurdish rights. If they succeed in carrying the DTH to Parliament without giving too many cards to the hands of Turkish nationalists, the PKK's support will fall even further. Only then can Turkey succeed in becoming a regional model for the peaceful treatment of minorities, creating an enviable environment of peace and prosperity for all countries in the region.
The experience of Kurds in Iraq and Turkey is in some ways just another example from the bloody pages of history to validate George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “peace is not only better than war but infinitely more arduous.” Nevertheless, both the Iraqi and Turkish Kurds have the opportunity to prove that lasting solutions in the region are possible. But only the Kurds’ active involvement can finally end the conflicts that brought them such terrible suffering.