Kurds Complicate U.S.-Turkey Cooperation

14 November 2002

By Stentor Danielson

Turkey is often held up by Washington as a model of a democratic, secular nation with a predominantly Muslim population. As Muslim nations go, Turkey is on the progressive end of the spectrum. Last week's election seemed to affirm this, as voters swept the Turkish legislature clean of the three-party coalition that had failed to fix either the nation's economy or its own corruption. Yet Turkey's government is far from ideal. For example, a powerful military watches carefully, ready to stomp out any sign of Islamic activity. Where Saudi women are forced to cover their heads, Turkish women are prohibited from doing so.

While Turkish Muslims may have their freedoms curtailed, the Kurds get an even worse deal. The Kurds are an ethnic group spread across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, having no state of their own and precious few rights in any of the states that claim their land. Turkey prohibits anyone from using the Kurdish language for campaigning, naming a child, or getting an education. The economic problems of Istanbul are nothing compared to the poverty in the Kurdish southeast. The predominantly Kurdish Democratic People's Party made a strong showing in the election, though it fell short of the ten percent vote needed to attain seats in the legislature. Even without parliamentary representation, however, the Kurds are likely to complicate relations between Washington and Ankara -- relations which will be crucial to the war on Iraq.

This summer, Turkey lifted the ban on broadcasting in Kurdish, as well as repealing the death penalty (thus sparing the life of Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan), in an effort to meet the European Union's standards for membership. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the victorious Justice and Development Party (AKP), has made overtures toward Turkey's historic enemy Greece to demonstrate the AKP's commitment to continuing this effort. While Kurdish rights were not a major campaign issue for the AKP, the engagement with Europe that it plans will necessitate easing restrictions further. The military, however, remains more cautious about granting Kurdish rights, a situation that could provoke internal tension over the Kurdish issue.

The Kurds are seen as a threat to the integrity of the state, as many of them would like to join their brethren from Iraq in an independent Kurdistan. Turkey spent fifteen years battling the separatist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), creating a humanitarian crisis in the southeast part of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes and have not yet been able to return, even though the PKK was defeated several years ago.

The PKK has been outlawed and dispersed, but there are fears it may be regrouping in Iraq. A war on Iraq is certain to send a flood of refugees into neighboring countries, as the Gulf War did a decade ago. Among these refugees could be separatist militants. And even if no PKK sympathizers cross the border, the influx of people is likely to destabilize the Kurdish southeast.

Kurdish leaders in Iraq have disavowed any separatist goals. But this promise is suspect, as claiming to desire autonomy within a multi-ethnic Iraq is what both the U.S. and Turkey want to hear, and thus what will gain backing for the Iraqi Kurds once U.S. forces move against Saddam Hussein. When Baghdad falls, some opportunists may declare independence.

The U.S. and Britain use Turkey's Incirlik airfield as a base for patrolling the northern no-fly zone in Iraq. The purpose of this zone is to protect Iraq's Kurds, who could otherwise be squashed by Saddam Hussein. But this protection has created tension between Washington and Ankara.

Turkey's Kurds have benefitted from illicit ties to their neighbors. A brisk cross-border black market grew up as U.S. and British patrols prevented Hussein's forces from cracking down on anyone for any reason. This meant that large volumes of oil were sent over the Turkish border, in contravention of Gulf War sanctions, in exchange for a variety of goods.

Turkey looked the other way, in order to gain prominent Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani's help in battling the PKK. In 1999, when Ocalan was apprehended and the PKK defeated, Barzani ceased to be of use. Fearing that the influx of money could finance a Kurdish rebellion, Turkey cracked down. This, in turn, embittered Kurds who had hoped to make ends meet by trading with Iraq.

Moral outrage over Saddam's treatment of the Kurds is a significant piece of the rationale for the coming war, as it was the Kurdish village of Halabja that Hussein gassed in 1988. This incident is widely used as proof that Hussein has no qualms about unleashing weapons of mass destruction against his defenseless people. The Kurds have also been tapped as part of the triumvirate of opposition forces, along with the Shi'is in the south and a group of eager Iraqi exiles currently living in the U.S., that will play the role of the Northern Alliance in the war on Iraq.

The Kurds are bitter and frustrated by their oppression at the hands of Turkey and Iraq. Turkey fears that easing up could open the door for an independent Kurdistan. The European Union demands reforms. The U.S. needs the Iraqi Kurdish cause for both moral and practical reasons. Washington will have to walk a fine line if it wishes to champion the Kurdish cause in Iraq without spooking Turkey into withdrawing cooperation.

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