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Kurds at the Nexus of Global Politics
K urds once again have made a brief, if fleeting, appearance in the news. For Kurds, however, and those who follow Kurdish issues with concern, this revived attention is shallow in both its commitment and in its analytic depth. Colorful pictures of Kurds fleeing in panic from the threat of renewed chemical weapons attacks at the onset of the war showed Kurds as victims, while colorful photos of peshmergah fighters alongside U.S. Marines confirm other aspects of the typical orientalist stereotypes.
The truth is that the story of the Kurds is far too damning of U.S. and Western complicity in one of the 20th century’s worst cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide to ever be a part of mainstream media. The truth of Kurdish history would get in the way of the current U.S. regime’s narrative of justifications for its war against Iraq and its neo-colonial pretensions throughout the Middle East. The Kurds are particularly troublesome now in the post-war articulation of power in the region, especially to the extent that this most deserving of people will again be left out of the super-power politics that determine the region’s fate.
Kurds appear in Western discourse, when they do at all, as seemingly inert pre-historic (or non-historic) objects amidst the world of states and geo-power. The Kurds are the racialized victim of much of the “Middle East,” which is itself the racialized victim of U.S. and Western imperialism. As such, this twice marginalized people, doubly erased and oppressed, remain one of the most enigmatic and obscure communities in the world.
The recent U.S. stand-off with Turkey, and the splitting of NATO and the UN from which this occasioned, are of historic import. The first round of U.S.-Turkish negotiations was revealing. The U.S. promised first $5, then $15, and finally $30 billion in “aid” and military assistance to Turkey, in exchange for using Turkey as a staging ground from which to launch troops into Iraq as a northern front. U.S. military planners saw this as crucial because this is the closest border to the main Iraqi oil fields, which are, after all, the real strategic objective. Also negotiated, but far less discussed, was the issue of Turkish military presence in Iraq, not just in policing border refugee camps, but also their explicitly stated desire to enter deep into Iraqi territory to seize the oil fields.
While it seemed at first that the U.S. wanted to use Turkish forces as shock troops during the campaign and as an administrative buffer afterwards, they balked at Turkey’s greater ambitions. Turkey is caught here between not only the U.S. and the EEC, but also between the West and the Arab world. As Mohammad Noureddine, in Beirut’s Daily Star put it, Turkey is “between an American rock and a European hard place.”
Yet, the driving force in their at times bizarre policy decisions appears to be the stateless Kurds in the southeast of their nation. We repeatedly heard the media mantra, ostensibly true, that Turkey’s primary concern was that if Saddam Hussein fell and Iraqi Kurds achieved an independent Kurdish state, Turkish Kurds might be inspired to attain fuller rights, or even to join such a state. Noureddine was correct when he stated on the eve of war, “It sometimes seems that the keys to war and peace are in Ankara’s hands rather than in those of Washington and Baghdad.” Ankara’s decisions seem to be based on their calculations about the Kurds. Most Western observers thought that the massive protests in Turkey wouldn't alter its support of the U.S. plan, especially with all the money involved. Thus, when the Turkish Parliament failed to give the outright majority needed to authorize the U.S. invasion plans, many were stunned. The Bush administration went into frantic spin control and floated various Plan B scenarios and withdrew its cash offers almost entirely, while an armada of personnel and military equipment languished and was finally transferred out of Turkey’s Mediterranean ports. The planned second vote of Parliament never materialized and as the war began in earnest, Turkey gave, retracted, and then gave again permission only to use its airspace for U.S. military fly-overs. This time around, the U.S. would not even be allowed to use Incirlik airforce base, which was central to its first Gulf War campaign. Last year, the Bush administration tried unsuccessfully to broker a deal to purchase Incirlik for its own private use so that they could avoid just such a problem in the future.
T he U.S. has invested billions of dollars over five decades cultivating Turkey as a key strategic ally in the region, so it is curious that Turkey should diverge so momentously from its senior partner at this particular moment. Along with U.S. military “aid” came strong Israeli support and ties that helped Turkey in its ethnic cleansing campaigns and probably the capture of Ocalan in Kenya. With the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the main guerilla opposition (the PKK) to Turkish domination, perhaps Turkey felt it could do without the U.S. aid package it garnered throughout the 1990s. This theory aside, why was Turkey willing to forsake the U.S.-Israel nexus, with its “valuable” lessons in repressing Palestinians? Perhaps it was throwing in its lot with Europe, now that the latter’s standoff with the U.S. has gone so public, and its EEC membership is in the balance. Or perhaps its single- minded obsession with repressing Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere is driving Turkey to jeopardize both its alliance with the U.S. and Israel and its campaign to enter the European Union. Some flatly suggest that Turkey is no longer vital in the post-Cold War world and is being discarded.
Turkey’s close U.S. ties explain why few media pundits here took note when Turkey openly demanded a military role in northern (i.e., Kurdish) Iraq. Turkey made plain its intention to “disarm Iraqi Kurds,” seize control of the oil fields, and occupy or rule northern Iraq, if not annex it entirely. Recently, Turkey’s leadership could be heard invoking a greatly exaggerated Turkmen presence and imperilment in northern Iraq as a pretext for an impending intervention. Crazy as all this is, it should have caused a strenuous reaction from the U.S. Wasn’t the breach of the supposedly inviolable laws of sovereignty the thin U.S. pretext for the first Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait? How could sovereignty be a sacred principle at one moment and, at the next, simply a pawn to be traded for greater U.S. interests? Yet, it was reported that part of the final fly-over agreement between Turkey and the U.S. included vague provisions for a Turkish invasion of Iraq in the event that Iraqi Kurdish forces seized control of the oil fields around Mosul and Kirkuk.
So, while President Bush states publicly that he warned Turkey to stay clear of this conflict, his Administration has already agreed to plans to the contrary, should Kurds finally achieve a resources base from which to become a viable entity on the world stage of nations.
Denied a country in the post-World War I division of the Ottoman Empire, Kurds were briefly promised a country by President Woodrow Wilson, but then were left out in the cold as the former colonial powers (France and Britain) drew up artificial lines of control for their future neo-colonial predation of the region’s resources and labor. The Kurds remained stateless “minorities” in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia. As such, they have been subjected to horrible repression, countless human rights abuses, and genocide not only in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, but also in Turkey—and the world community has been largely unable to intervene because this was seen as “the sovereign affairs of other nations.” This at least, has been the case when those nations were U.S. allies, such as Iraq in the 1980s, and Turkey all along. So much so, that the U.S. has gone to the extent of denying atrocities and genocide in both countries until, in the case of Iraq, Hussein made the transition from ally to enemy, at which point it not only became possible, but necessary to invoke Kurdish suffering there.
The Oil Fields of Kirkuk and Mosul
I raq’s main oil fields, around the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, are not only among the world’s largest, but are also the world’s most productive. While the biggest fields elsewhere (Saudi Arabia, for example) passed their peak extraction capacity years ago and are currently declining, Iraq’s major oil fields have decades of ascendant productive potential. This, along with the fact that there are still compliant regimes in Saudi Arabia and many other major oil producing nations, explains why Iraq was the target of the moment. The question for more than a year has been: will other Middle East governments be targeted for “regime change” after Iraq and what will be the nature of post-invasion U.S. power and presence?
The key here is the hidden ethnic history of this vital oil producing region. Recently, one could see Peter Jennings or some other anchor nightly discussing an ethnic map of Iraq: Sunni Muslims in the middle, Shi’a Muslims to the south, and Kurds in the far north and northeast. According to these maps, the oil fields are in the Sunni regions in which Hussein’s party is anchored. These maps, however, represent the engineered results of 20th century ethnic cleansing campaigns, begun by the British and continued and intensified under Hussein’s Iraq. The carefully kept secret is that the major oil fields are located in historically Kurdish regions. This, at least, is the case, if the oil fields are to be allocated along linear, majority-rules ethnic lines. Before the 20th century colonial and post-colonial ethnic cleansing of this area, eradicating or relocating its Kurdish majority, the region was one of largely harmonious multi-ethnic coexistence between Kurds, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Turkmen, Jews, and others. Here, as in most of the world, ethnic or national conflicts in their modern sense were occasioned by Western invention and intervention.
As the current war arrived, we saw elements of this cultural coexistence in the fact that Kurdish political parties in northern Iraq were collecting names of defectors from the Iraqi army who wanted to be protected when they surrendered. Many of the surrender plans involved deals cut with rural Kurds, so that Iraqi soldiers and intelligence officers could obtain civilian clothes and shelter by slipping into Kurdish homes until official surrender could be arranged. As much as media pundits love to speak of “primordial tribal hatred,” these actions, as in Gulf War I, speak to the existence of inter-ethnic and inter-denominational alliances that are still the historic norm in the region. Kurds have great reason to hate their tormenters, but they can see the difference between the regime and its elite commanders, on the one hand, and the rank and file soldiers and civilians swept up in the ethnic maelstrom of Iraqi politics and survival, on the other. However, while one might hear brief discussion of potential Kurdish involvement in a post-Hussein Iraqi government, it is close to impossible to hear of Kurdish entitlement to the oil wells of central and northern Iraq.
The Politics of Post-Modern Genocide
T here is a constant fear that the justified resistance of Kurds there will lead to the creation of a state not only for Iraqi Kurds, but also for Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere. This is why Turkey lobbies the U.S. so persistently. This is why the Kurds are only brought out for discussion when it is the case of their victimization at the hands of then U.S. protégé, Saddam Hussein; only then, when it fits the needs of U.S. war-making, in this case the need to make a case for its first strike against Iraq. Ironically, whereas the nation-state status of Kuwait allowed for a thin U.S. pretext in the Gulf War I, it is the lack of Kurdish statehood that makes them a less viable legitimation for U.S. imperial intervention. That, and the fact of U.S. shared responsibility for Kurdish suffering.
Turkey’s history of ethnic cleansing and genocide is rooted in its particular brand of virulent and racially supremacist nationalism. When Mustafa Kemal Attaturk founded the modern nation of Turkey, he did so on the foundation of genocide against Armenians—a genocide that is yet to be recognized by much of global public opinion or the U.S. Congress. In addition to Armenians, almost a millions Kurds were deported or massacred at that time, and more than a million Greeks were also forced from Anatolia, in a broad attempt to create a racially “pure” Turkish society. Nevertheless, Kurdish leaders and fighters were instrumental in securing Turkey’s borders from various would-be usurpers. Their reward for this help was the mass execution of its leadership, reneged promises, and ongoing repression. After the Armenians, Kurds became the primary targets of nationalist terror, as their “stubbornly” held separate identity posed a threat to Turkey’s vision of a monocultural secular society.
The ensuing decades saw dozens of uprisings, all of which were ruthlessly crushed, until guerillas asserted themselves in the mountains and engaged with the Turkish army in the 1980s. This cycle reached its apex in the 1980s and 1990s, when Turkey’s scorched earth policy destroyed more than 3,000 villages, forcing more than 2 million Kurds into internal exile or permanent refugee status. The penalty for returning to villages remains torture or death, as recent killings by Turkish military and paramilitary forces have shown. Kurds are prevented from using their language, naming their children Kurdish names, wearing Kurdish colors— even the traffic lights have been changed to red, yellow, and blue because red, yellow, and green are the Kurdish national colors.
Turkey’s efforts to annihilate Kurdish culture—it refers to Kurds only as “mountain Turks”—has been repudiated by all of the world’s respected human rights organizations, notably Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and even the U.S. State Department Reports on Human Rights, as well as by numerous European Union representatives and bodies. Turkey’s efforts, including the mass transfer of Kurdish children to boarding schools where they are “decultured” and raised as Turks, constitute in the language of the Geneva Conventions Against Genocide acts of cultural genocide aimed at reduction or elimination of a distinct group of people. The U.S. provided more than 80 percent of Turkey’s arms during the height of this repression, and so is directly complicit in this under-reported, but brutal policy of ethnic cleansing.
In 1977, Mehdi Zana, a courageous Kurdish leader who emerged from the grassroots was elected Mayor of Diyarbakir, the largest city and capital of Turkish Kurdistan. He was soon arrested and imprisoned for more than a decade and suffered unspeakable torture and humiliation that will affect him for the rest of his life, now spent in exile from his native land. This is recounted in his testimonial Prison No. 5: Eleven Years in Turkish Jails , with a preface by Elie Wiesel. The main charge was “separatism,” as evidenced according to his “trial” by the fact that he spoke to his aids in the Kurdish tongue, their only language. Even with the support of European presidents and countless influential people, his plight was not alleviated for more than ten years. Even now he is separated from his family, as well as his people and his homeland.
Similarly, Leyla Zani (Mehdi is her husband) became increasingly radicalized and she and five other Kurds were elected to Parliament in 1991, but soon after were stripped of parliamentary immunity and arrested. Their “crimes,” also under the label of “separatism,” consisted of wearing Kurdish colors in their hair, speaking the Kurdish language, and testifying before Europe and the U.S. Congress about human rights abuses in Kurdish areas. They were given 15-year sentences and remain in jail. Leyla Zana has been nominated for the Nobel Peace prize and received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, as well as numerous other awards and honors. Her story is chronicled in her Writings From Prison .
At the back of Mehdi Zana’s blood curdling account of some of the tortures he endured is a powerful essay by Kendal Nezan, a Kurdish activist living in exile in France. This Kurdish history is the single best short scholarly account of Kurdish politics and history and is invaluable for all activists wishing to understand the Kurdish place in world politics. Even more indispensable for U.S.-based activists is the office of AKIN, the American Kurdish Information Network, founded and operated almost single-handedly by Kurdish exile and Gandhian pacifist, Kani Xulam. AKIN is based in Washington, DC and is the only significant Kurdish organization in the U.S. responsible for lobbying on Capital Hill. Xulam organizes protests and rallies—disseminating information, working with Kurdish refugees throughout the country, and traveling widely to give talks on college campuses and at conferences and events.
Whatever happens to the Kurds at this most hopeful and most perilous moment, the history of suffering must eventually be addressed. Kurds often discuss their position in relation to that of the Palestinians, saying things like: “When the Palestinian question is answered, then it will be the Kurdish turn.”
Yet, if the startling Turkish fall from U.S. graces proves in the end not to be a mirage, some are now asking if an emergent Kurdistan might function more like Israel, as a U.S. ally and base in the region. Such comparisons are too loaded and complex to make lightly, but the paradigm questions remain real. Kurds and Palestinians, like other oppressed and stateless people, desire some of the national privileges accorded Jews via Israel in the wake of World War II—a nation-state, a safe haven from persecution, the chance for an economy.
After 80 years of persecution, the present conjuncture does not offer particularly clear paths toward liberation for Kurds, but nevertheless Kurds will undoubtedly engage what opportunities there are to the best of their advantage. Will the people of the world, especially progressives, support them?
Anti-war activists sickened by the war and the genocidal sanctions against the Iraqi people should be horror-struck by the contemptuous use of Kurdish suffering to justify Iraqi torment. We must not accept a world order that justifies one genocide by the use of another—genocides which it alternately covers up, supports, and/or deplores for its own ends. Though it will undoubtedly make our organizing efforts more complex, activists must directly address the Kurdish issue, now more than ever.
Jesse Benjamin is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Relations and Multicultural Education at St. Cloud State University, Minnesota.
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