THE KURDS: An ancient tragedy

The Economist

THEIR history is full of tales of persecution, betrayal and desperate flight. But few Kurdish fables are as dramatic as the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of Turkey’s Kurdish rebels. Mr Ocalan had been on the run ever since Turkish sabre-rattling forced him from his hideout in Syria last October. First he fled to Russia, then to Italy, where he was arrested. Two court cases and two quashed arrest warrants later, he set off for a new refuge, chased by the press and, it turns out, by the Turkish secret service. With Russia, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany all unwilling to harbour him, he found himself on a plane above Europe with nowhere to land. The Greek authorities allowed him to refuel in Corfu before smuggling him onwards to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. There, on February 16th, as he drove to the airport, apparently under the impression that he would be travelling to the Netherlands, the Turkish government somehow managed to lay its hands on him. He ended up in a prison fortress in Turkey, awaiting trial on charges of treason, and a possible sentence of death. The fact that Mr Ocalan was abducted while supposedly being escorted across Nairobi by Greek diplomats has triggered a wave of Kurdish fury against Greece (where pro-Kurdish sentiment runs high) and cost the jobs of three Greek ministers, plunging the government into crisis.

Protesting, under the eye of their champion

In muddled protest at his arrest, Mr Ocalan’s supporters stormed 21 Greek embassies and consulates, three Kenyan ones and two United Nations buildings. Five protesters set themselves on fire. Three Kurds were killed when they tried to break into the Israeli consulate in Berlin.

Even for Kurds who have nothing to do with Mr Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the demise of anyone struggling so hard for Kurdish political rights was cause for considerable dismay. As one gloomy Syrian Kurd put it, “He is a symbol for Kurds everywhere, not just in Turkey . . . and now he is finished.”

But for most Turks, Mr Ocalan is a symbol of the 15 years of mayhem and the 30,000-odd lives, both civilian and military, that his rebellion has cost. His capture was cause for joy. A special evening edition of Hurriyet trumpeted, “Victory: Turkey showed the world it was a great state by capturing the baby-killer.” Women whose sons had been killed fighting PKK guerrillas handed out festive pastries to passers-by or rushed to cemeteries to celebrate before their children’s graves. In a triumphant televised address, the prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, declared, “We had promised that the state would catch him. We have kept our promise.”

True enough. But for all Mr Ecevit’s delight and the demonstrators’ sorrow, Mr Ocalan’s capture will not put an end to the political aspirations of Turkey’s 15m Kurds. His flight across Europe and Africa, and his subsequent capture, have already attracted more international attention to their plight than the years of bloodthirsty insurrection. The trial promised by Turkey will intensify the scrutiny. Indeed, the spectacle of Mr Ocalan in the dock is likely to galvanise Kurds beyond his own movement and his own country. The more attention he gets, the harder it will be, not just for Turkey, but for Iraq, Iran and Syria too, to continue to deny their Kurdish citizens any form of political or cultural expression.

Turkey’s ever-suppressed minority

However, neither Mr Ecevit, in the middle of an election campaign, nor Turkey’s generals, who have fought so long to defeat the PKK, will be denied the glory of a show-trial. Mr Ecevit told Turks that Mr Ocalan would “pay the price of his actions to the independent Turkish courts”. Those courts, however, have never taken a very independent view of any form of Kurdish self-assertion. In early February, the government began prosecution of the People’s Democratic Party (Hadep), the main party that currently dares to demand some rights for Turkey’s Kurds. Three other pro-Kurdish parties have been banned in the past decade alone, and both education and broadcasting in Kurdish remain illegal. So Mr Ocalan’s non-violent crimes—calling at first for an independent Kurdish state, and more recently for Kurdish autonomy—are almost certain to earn him a guilty verdict.

If Mr Ocalan deserves his fate, it is not for his aims but for his methods. The PKK operates with as little democratic spirit as its Turkish tormentors. Teachers who ignore orders to shut down their schools, or businessmen who refuse to pay “taxes”, are beaten up, or worse. PKK militants have killed many civilians, both during campaigns in the south-east and in bomb attacks in Istanbul. Mr Ocalan has remained the foremost proponent of Kurdish rights simply because the Turkish courts have silenced more moderate voices.

With Mr Ocalan out of the picture and the PKK inevitably in disarray, Mr Ecevit could try to cut a deal with the Kurds from a position of strength. Even before his capture, Mr Ocalan was gearing up for a compromise. He spoke of calling a ceasefire and offered to give up the armed struggle altogether if the Turks conceded certain “minority rights”. This was a far cry from the independent Kurdistan that he used to demand.

Exiled PKK supporters in Europe have been toying with the idea of reinventing themselves as peace makers and bidding for some form of self-rule within Turkey, much as the Palestine Liberation Organisation has done in Palestine. With the army’s ruthless campaign against the guerrillas in south-eastern Turkey paying dividends, and the PKK’s allies in Syria and Iraq keeping their distance in the face of Turkish intimidation, the PKK is probably ready to talk.

But Mr Ecevit’s record as an ardent nationalist suggests he will not rise to the bait. It was he who during a previous stint as prime minister ordered the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Such displays of strength tend to go down well with Turkish voters, many of whom harbour the suspicion that the rest of the world is out to hobble their country.

Turkey’s browbeaten media carry barely any critical discussion of the harsh policy against the Kurds, but give great play to the PKK’s many alleged atrocities, leaving most Turks with nothing but contempt for Kurdish pleas for better treatment. So any candidate proposing a compromise in April’s general election will probably lose votes. Hadep’s travails suggest that the authorities take a dim view of even the mildest form of Kurdish nationalism. And Turkey’s powerful generals abhor the idea of granting concessions, especially when the military tide is running in their favour.

But tides turn. The Turkish army has razed more than 3,000 villages since 1992 in an effort to deprive the PKK of shelter and succour. This tactic, along with the constant patrolling of some 50,000 troops and military expenditure of $8 billion a year, has succeeded in reducing the guerrillas to perhaps 8,000 men and severely restricting their movements. But it has also put pressure on the government’s finances, destroyed the agricultural economy of the south-east, and driven a generation of Kurds, unemployed in the government’s fortified hamlets, into the arms of the PKK.

The army’s incursions into northern Iraq, and its recent deal with the two Iraqi Kurdish militias, have reduced, but not eradicated, the PKK’s presence across the border. The hard-pressed and now leaderless remnants of the PKK could lash out with a new, violent bombing campaign in Turkey’s cities. So long as there are hills for the guerrillas to hide in, and regimes that are willing to offer them occasional shelter, the army is unlikely to succeed in wiping out the PKK.

Turkey is even less likely to silence an increasingly insistent clamour for fair treatment of its Kurds. America, which relies on Turkey as a bulwark against Iraq and Iran, officially brands the PKK a terrorist group and has welcomed Mr Ocalan’s arrest. But European countries, which are home to the bulk of the 1m-strong Kurdish diaspora, have followed a friendlier line towards the Kurds. The European Union put Turkey at the bottom of the league of applicants for membership last year in part because of its dismal record on human rights.

The PKK finances a sophisticated propaganda machine, partly through its profits from the smuggling of drugs and people from Turkey to Europe. Witness the co-ordinated wave of protests across the continent on February 16th. Med-TV, a Kurdish satellite channel sympathetic to the PKK, has helped galvanise Kurdish exiles. The diaspora will doubtless not only continue to give handsomely (London’s 25,000 Kurds provide $800,000 a year, it is said), but also lobby foreign governments for stronger diplomatic support. The furore of the past few days will only win more attention for the Kurds and their complaints.

The wider suffering

The Turks are not the only ones trying to sweep the Kurds under the carpet. The world’s 25m Kurds are often described as the biggest ethnic group without a state, and are certainly one of the longest-standing. Since the allies dropped their pledge of a Kurdish state, made after the first world war, the Kurds have been divided mainly between four inhospitable countries: Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

In Syria, successive governments have been trying to dilute the influence of their Kurdish minority, who number perhaps 1m in a population of 15m. A 1961 census stripped over 100,000 Kurds of their citizenship, on the ground that they were actually refugees from Turkey. The next year, an ambitious resettlement programme set out to hand Kurdish land to Arabs under the guise of land reform. To this day, it is illegal to teach or to publish in Kurdish. The Alawite Muslim minority that rules Syria regards the Sunni Muslim Kurds as natural allies of the repressed Sunni Arab majority, and thus as a potential threat.

Similarly, Iran’s ruling Shia clerics mistrust the country’s 5m largely Sunni Kurds. Kurdish rebels fought against the Revolutionary Guard in the early years of the Iranian revolution; other Kurds fought alongside the Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq war. During both conflicts, when government troops finally secured Kurdish areas, they massacred people suspected of helping the militants. The Iranians, like the Turks, pursue their rebels into Iraqi territory.

Back to the days when Kurd fought Kurd in Iraq

The most zealous Kurd-bashers of all are the Iraqis. Successive regimes ever since the 1940s have refused Kurdish demands for autonomy. Instead they fought guerrilla wars against them. When Saddam Hussein came to power in the late 1960s, he decided to deal with the problem by deporting over 1.5m of Iraq’s 4m Kurds from their inaccessible mountain villages to more easily controlled “collective towns” in the plains. Towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, he decided on a more radical solution, bombing Kurdish villages with poison gas and executing as many as 180,000 Kurds in the notorious anfal campaign. Since the end of the Gulf war, he has tried to ethnically-cleanse the province of Kirkuk, which produces 70% of Iraq’s oil, by deporting a further 250,000 Kurds.

Why have the Kurds suffered so much? It is partly their own fault, since they have never managed to form a united front. During the several Kurdish uprisings against the British colonial regime in Iraq, the shah in Iran and Ataturk in Turkey, their brethren in neighbouring countries for the most part stood idly by. Iran, Iraq and Turkey have at different times all managed to set up pro-government Kurdish militias to fight their more rebellious cousins.

Economic neglect has left the Kurdish regions traditional and tribal, impeding the growth of any national feeling. The mountainous terrain where they live, and the orientation of trade and transport links towards the various national capitals rather than across international borders has also kept them apart. On top of all this, Kurds are divided into at least two mutually unintelligible language groups. Unsurprising, then, that the two main Iraqi Kurdish factions were fighting each other, with Turkish, Iraqi or Iranian support for one side or another, until last year, and stopped only to have a bash at the PKK.

Furthermore, the memory of colonial carve-ups has left the Kurds’ Turkish, Arab and Iranian rulers suspicious of any attempts to divide their populations or decentralise the state. All of them look down on Kurds as a backward peasant or servant class. In Arabic idiom, anyone shabbily turned out is “dressed like a Kurd”. Nobody knows exactly how many Kurds there are in the Middle East because none of the countries concerned wants to acknowledge that the Kurds even exist, let alone count them. Although Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria may all help one another’s Kurdish rebels from time to time out of spite, none of them wants to see an autonomous or independent Kurdish entity for fear of giving ideas to its own Kurdish minorities.

To make matters worse, the Kurds have the misfortune of living not just along an ethnic fault-line, but along a geopolitical one as well. Kurdistan marks the frontier between the countries America considers its foes and its staunchest regional allies, between the weak but rich states of the Gulf and their possibly expansionist neighbours, and, until recently, between the Soviet Union and NATO. Since the first world war, nobody has been willing to take risks to help the Kurds in so sensitive an area.

Even today, America fears that a break-up of Iraq or a weakening of Turkey would favour Iran, still the greatest threat to stability in the Middle East in the eyes of many Pentagon planners. In the face of such grand strategic imperatives, Kurdish self-determination takes a seat far to the back. Even in northern Iraq, where the Kurds have run their own affairs with American support since their uprising in 1991, the United States has made sure that the local authorities end all support for the PKK and religiously reaffirm their respect for the territorial integrity of Iraq.

The Iraqi deal does not fulfil Kurdish dreams, but it leaves the Iraqi Kurds better off than before. Realists in Iraqi Kurdistan’s administration understand that they will never win independence. Instead, under the matronly supervision of the United Nations, the Kurds are trying to patch up both their differences and their ravaged country (see box).

In fact, they have had to come to terms with the regime in Baghdad, since their economy depends on it. They survive on the revenue from Iraqi oil sales, both of the official sort, administered by the UN, and of the illegal kind, smuggled abroad despite the UN embargo. The main road between the two biggest towns in the Kurdish zone passes through Iraqi territory; Kurds and Iraqis rely on one another to maintain the power grid. The erstwhile adversaries also collaborate over trade: the Iraqis send diesel fuel through the autonomous zone to Turkey, and import television sets, building materials and bananas in return. Rice and pirated porn films from Iraq make their way to Iran in exchange for cheap consumer goods. The Syrians are happy to trade food for smuggled cigarettes.

The arrangement is grudging, mistrustful and guaranteed only by the American air force overhead. But both the Kurds and the Iraqis know it is not in their interests to push their luck. Therein lies a stability of sorts. And also, perhaps, a lesson. If Turkey, Syria and Iran can so cheerfully do business with the Kurds in Iraq, surely they can also learn to cut deals with those inside their own borders—especially as most Kurds nowadays seem ready to settle for autonomy, not separation?

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