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Hugh Fitzgerald: Erdogan and Kurdish Independence


The Turkish sultan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is furious. The Kurds of Iraq dared to hold a referendum on independence on September 25. 72% of the eligible voters — which included non-Kurds living in Kurdish areas — took part. An astonishing 93% of them voted for independence. Erdogan doesn’t think the Iraqi Kurds, or any Kurds, anywhere have a right to independence. Erdogan now claims — did you really expect him to behave otherwise? — that the whole referendum business has been a “Mossad plot.” His proof? That some Kurds waved Israeli flags during the vote.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own, but as far as Erdogan and all other Muslim rulers are concerned, that counts for nothing. All their sympathies and support for independence are lavished on a group of Muslim Arabs who since 1967 have been re-invented as a distinct people — the “Palestinians” — who, it is claimed by Arabs and Muslims, are deserving of a state, on territory originally allocated by the League of Nations to be part of the Mandate for Palestine, the very territory intended for the Jewish National Home which, in turn, was to lead to the creation of a Jewish state. The Muslims, both Arabs and Turks, see no paradox in fighting for an invented people while they deny, at the same time, political independence for a real people, the 35-45 million Kurds. The “Palestinian people” are, by ethnicity, religion, language, and folklore indistinguishable from the Arabs living in Jordan (and from many other Arabs besides), they have the full backing of the twenty-two existing Muslim Arab states, and their cause is promoted at the U.N. as if they really were  a separate people. Meanwhile the Kurds, who possess their own distinct language, ethnicity, and culture, are denied the right, anywhere, to their own state, no matter what its dimensions.

Erdogan has threatened an “ethnic and sectarian” war in response to the referendum. “Ethnic” one can understand — the Turkish army has been used to suppress the 18-20 million Kurds within Turkey during many decades of low-level insurrection in eastern Anatolia.”Sectarian” implies a Sunni-Shi’a aspect to this insurrection-and-suppression, but since Turks and Kurds are both mainly Sunni, with some Shi’a among both peoples, it’s hard to see what could be straightforwardly “sectarian” about the Turkish campaign against the Kurds.

Erdogan characteristically accuses the Kurds of being responsible for causing a war that he alone has threatened. He deliberately ignores the fact that the referendum called for the use only of “peaceful means” to win independence. If the Kurds dare to insist on a state of their own, they will have “dragged the region into war.” In Erdogan’s topsy-turvy world, if the Turkish army carries out a campaign against the Iraqi Kurds, it’s because the Kurds started it. How could the Kurds “drag” the region into war? By allowing themselves to hold a peaceful referendum on independence, all the while forswearing any use of violence. For Erdogan, enraged, cannot accept Kurds anywhere declaring themselves for Kurdistan: how dare these Kurdish war-mongers hold this vote, who if they follow through on secession from Iraq, would thereby be practically forcing the Turks to go to war? Erdogan is reminiscent of Hitler in 1938, when the furious Fuhrer accused the Czechs: if they continued to repress the “Sudeteners” (the ethnic Germans in the Sudeten lands of Czechoslovakia) instead of letting them join the Third Reich, they would be starting a war.

Erdogan didn’t just threaten war, but announced a campaign intended to cut Iraqi Kurdistan off at the knees. It will be “left in the lurch,” he warned. Kurds are no longer be able to export any oil through Turkey. They would “go hungry,” he warned, because the Turkish trucks that brought food to northern Iraq would stop coming. Iraqi Kurdistan would be under permanent siege. Of course, any such attempts to smother the nascent Kurdish state would only harden the resolve of the Kurds both in Iraqi Kurdistan, where there are six million of them, and even more importantly, in Turkey, where there are twenty million of them. Attempts by the Turkish military to suppress the Kurds through violence will only increase the clamor among  Kurds everywhere for greater rights, and the desire for possible adhesion to the new state, still fighting for its life, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

What Erdogan might have done, if he weren’t Erdogan, and thus a hysterical peddler of conspiracy theories (claiming Mossad was deeply involved in the Kurdish vote because of a handful of Kurds waving Israeli flags), would have been to calmly suggest that Turkey does not object to the referendum’s result, and if the Kurds in Iraq decide to declare an independent state,  Turkey would not oppose this. For Erdogan, were he not his limited self, might understand that the existence of such a state would lessen, rather than heighten, the moral claim of Kurds elsewhere to states of their own which might then unite in a single Kurdistan. He could declare that “of course” the Kurdish people deserve to politically express themselves through an independent state, and that it makes sense to have that state arise in Iraqi Kurdistan, where “the Kurds have suffered the most.” Just imagine the reaction to Recep Tayyip Erdogan if he were to utter those six unexpected words: “where the Kurds have suffered the most.”

And meanwhile, he could add, “we in Turkey value our Kurdish citizens, do not wish them to leave, and will gladly meet with their representatives  to hear any legitimate complaints, and hope to make them even more desirous of remaining in Turkey through legislation that improves their social and economic condition. We need more government aid for both Turks and Kurds, in rural Anatolia, and I intend to supply it. And that period, when the Kurdish culture, language, identity, were insufficiently respected, when Kurds were not even called Kurds, is over. Of course, we want to insure that our Kurdish friends in Iraq will work with us on this, rather than creating unnecessary difficulties. We will not tolerate attempts from outside Iraq to embroil Turkey’s Kurds in adventurism abroad. For our part, we want to ensure that the Irbil-Ceylan oil pipeline continues to operate, and that nothing untoward happens to disrupt that overwhelmingly important source of revenue for Iraqi Kurdistan, nor to force us to end shipments of food and goods of all kinds to the new state of Kurdistan. Finally, if any Kurds in Turkey want to move to that new state, we will of course help them in that effort, though we shall be sorry to see them go. Turkish territory, of course, is non-negotiable.”

This is the kind of thing that no one would expect from Erdogan; it’s completely out of character. But it just might have a chance of decreasing the appeal, for the Kurds in Turkey, of trying to join an independent Kurdistan, either through territorial secession (which would bring on full-scale war with the Turkish military), or by moving from Turkey to the new Kurdish state. The new and unexpected conciliatory tone might dampen enthusiasm for leaving, or seceding. Meanwhile, the interruption or cancellation both of Kurdish oil exports through Turkey, and of Turkish food and goods now exported to Iraqi Kurdistan could be lifted as a goodwill gesture to the new Kurdish state, though those measures could, it will be tacitly understood, at any moment be re-imposed. In choosing to interpret an independent Kurdistan in Iraq not as a threat, but as an option for those Kurds now in Turkey to move to if, despite this new-found Turkish generosity, they insist on living in a Kurdish state, Erdogan will have seized the high ground, and outflanked the Kurdish diehards.

Unfortunately, Erdogan has given no sign of being capable of feline subtlety, of the iron hand in the velvet glove, of being fortiter in re, suaviter in modo.  Still, the Middle East has recently seen some strange sights. It has seen an Egyptian ruler collaborating closely with Israel against Hamas. It has seen Saudi Arabia’s rulers quietly collaborating with Israel on intelligence matters concerning their common enemy, Iran. It has seen the two most ruthless regimes that seemed as if they would remain in power forever, those of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and of the Al-Assads in Syria, disappear (in Iraq) and decompose (in Syria). It has seen the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council turn furiously on one of their own, tiny Qatar. Why can’t Erdogan surprise us by displaying a seeming sweet reasonableness, born of necessity, toward the Kurds?

If Erdogan were to make this offer, designed to placate the Turkish Kurds sufficiently so that they will want to remain in Turkey, while he repeats his willingness to help those who so desire to settle in the new state of Kurdistan, while making clear there will be no surrender of Turkish territory, he is more likely to keep Turkey intact than if he tries to smother in its cradle a nascent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. For if Turkey were for the second time to thwart the Kurdish dream of an independent state (the first time being in 1923, with the Treaty of Lausanne), Erdogan’s troubles with the Kurds, and not only in Anatolia, will be beyond anything that the Turks have yet encountered from their largest, and most restless, minority.

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