nthposition online magazine

No friends but the mountains

by James Badcock

[ politics | opinion - august 02 ]

With George Bush's sabre-rattling talk of "unfinished business" with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, other ghosts of the Gulf War drift back onto the radar-screen of western media attention. The enduring image of Kurdish people was that huddled mass of refugees, clinging to the steep slopes of the mountains near the border of Iraq with Turkey.

The Iraqi Kurds were fleeing from another of Saddam's repressive drives as they had endured between 1988 and 1990; the so-called anfal or 'spoils of war' campaign, including the notorious chemical bombing of Halabja. We know that the victorious allies saw their plight and set up a 'No-Fly Zone', over which allied planes patrolled, giving rise to the concept of a 'safe haven'.

What was less publicised was the situation just over that mountainous border in Turkey, a key ally against Saddam Hussein and host to vital air bases. Turkey is home to a significantly larger Kurdish minority than Iraq and a war between Kurdish guerrilla forces and the national army, which has cost the lives of an estimated 30,000 people and displaced over four million since 1984.

The misfortune of the Kurds is that they find themselves divided by ancient mountains and the present-day national borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. A Kurdish saying goes: "We have no friends but the mountains", as they have been forced to subsist on the margins of modern nation states.

Estimates of their population vary, subject to the political sensitivity of the very idea of a Kurdish nation. The more conservative figures suggest that 30 million Kurds are divided into three main populations in Turkey, Iran and Iraq, with 15, six and a half and four million respectively, with the rest forming smaller groups in Syria, Armenia, Azerbaijan and immigrant populations in western Europe. They are Muslims, the majority belonging to the Sunni sect.

Turkey was formed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, destroyed by defeat in WW1. The unratified Sevres Treaty of 1920 provided for an autonomous Kurdistan, but the Kurds were excluded from the later treaty of Lausanne.

Within the new Turkey, Ataturk proceeded to purge non-Turkish elements and the Kurdish language was banned, alongside Kurdish dress, music, dance or any assertion of their history or culture. Kurdish names and place-names became illegal. The reality of a Kurdish presence was denied and until recently they were referred to as "mountain Turks who have forgotten their language".

Having remained neutral in WW2, Turkey allied its strategic future with the West during the Cold War. This position was cemented by their joining NATO in 1952, providing what Samuel Huntington has described as an "intimate organisational tie" with western powers. Turkey was seen as a bulwark against communism and the Russian sphere of influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) was formed in the 1970s by its now-imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan, who started the movement while a student of Political Science at Ankara University. The movement grew in the void left by the suppression of the Turkish Workers' Party after the second of the three military coups which punctuated the half-century of Turkish democracy in !960, 1970 and again in 1980.

"The Military always has a major role in Turkey, politically as well as militarily," according to Dr Magnus Ranstorp, Terrorism and Political Violence Centre, St Andrew's University. The 70s was characterised by a vicious power-struggle between left and right, and Ocalan's straying from political studies into political activism saw him jailed and tortured for seven months in 1973. He left the capital for the Kurdish heartlands of the south-east in 1975 with the twin goals of establishing an independent Kurdistan and the building of a democratic and socialist society.

The radical socialism is what substantially differentiates the PKK from the principal representatives of the Kurds in Iraq. The PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) are based on the old clan system of loyalties, described by Kurdish historian James Ciment as "tribal confederations". The KDP leader Massoud Barzani is the latest in a dynastic line of Kurdish power-brokers. Together with the leader of the PUK, Jalal Talabani, they unleashed a civil war for control of the 'safe haven' in northern Iraq from May 1994 to April 1995.

By the time of the 1980 coup In Turkey, the PKK had become the leading political force in the Kurdish south-east, although it has been alleged that there were armed clashes with its rival for nationalist supremacy in the late 70s, the Socialist Party of Kurdistan (PSK).

In the year following the army take-over, martial law authorities detained 43,000 people on suspicion of terrorist or otherwise illegal political activity. All political groups were dissolved by decree. A third were released within that first year of the new order but the rest remained in custody and there were 282 violent deaths inflicted in the course of the purge.

The PKK accounted for around two thousand of those detained and a mass trial of 447 PKK members began in December 1981, in the central Kurdish city in Turkey of Diyarbakir. They were accused of the political crime of 'separatism', as well as murdering 243 people, including 30 from the security services and 27 of their own members. The authorities had a 'wanted' list of a further thousand names, included among them that of Abdullah Ocalan.

By the time civilian rule was restored under the leadership of the conservative Turgut Ozal in November 1983, Ocalan had decided on a change of course in the PKK's independence struggle. The hostile political situation in Turkey convinced him that a military strategy was necessary. In the sympathetic environment offered by the Bekaa valley in Syria, the PKK's armed wing was training for an offensive.

The People's Liberation Army of Kurdistan (ARGK) launched its first raids on Kurdish towns in Turkey's south-east in the summer of 1984. They fought the korucu or 'village protectors', local men paid and armed by the government since 1982 to protect the villages from 'bandits'. In October of that year the ARGK attacked Turkish troops for the first time. The response was the occupation of a 15-kilometre strip of land across the Iraqi border and official figures of 805 arrests.

The ongoing war between Iran and Iraq had caused increasing lawlessness in the mountainous border regions as smugglers plied their trade. Anxious to limit assistance to the enemy, both sides in the conflict signed agreements with Turkey in 1983, allowing Turkish forces to patrol the area, and, in the case of Iraq, actually conduct operations on the Iraqi side. As would be the case in the aftermath of the Gulf War, not even the borders of other states serve to protect the Kurds from their enemies.

Syria did offer protection to the PKK's militia and, despite agreeing to sign an anti-terrorism agreement with Turkey in 1985, it stopped short of allowing Turkish forces the right of so-called 'hot pursuit' of guerrillas onto Syrian soil. The ARGK continued to launch operations from camps near the Syrian border, such as that on the village of Pinarcik in June, 1987 when they killed 31 korucu. In another instance, 12 civilians were killed having refused to reveal the whereabouts of so-called collaborators wanted for execution.

The events of 1990 were to lead to years of even greater bloodshed, despite the capture of three senior PKK commanders, leading to the arrest of 4,000 activists and suspected guerrillas. Contemporary reports suggested that the AGRK was down to a few hundred troops and had resorted to press-ganging young villagers.

Kurdish resistance was not altogether quashed, however. The funeral of a guerrilla fighter, killed in a clash coinciding with the important Kurdish new year celebration of Newroz, sparked a popular uprising as special army units confronted the crowd of 5,000. One man was shot, a child trampled to death in the resulting stampede and 700 were arrested. The city of Nuseybin went on strike in protest while demonstrators fought with police on the streets. The demonstrations spread across the Kurdish region and even to Ankara and Istanbul, as thousands were rounded up.

Ultimately, it was the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein that provided the context to the Kurdish question in the 90s. Turkish president Ozal immediately sided with the US and allied forces. He also foresaw that Iraqi Kurds could seek to break away from a defeated Iraq and laid plans of his own to prevent this potential Kurdish autonomy spilling over into Turkish territory.

Independent commentator on the Kurds, Vera Beaudin Saeedpour, observed that months before the fighting began, the leaders of the two largest Iraqi Kurdish factions, Talabani and Barzani, were invited to Turkey and "given to understand that Ankara might not look unfavourably on a political entity for Iraqi Kurds [who] would have to secure their borders against incursions of their brethren across the border".

Already the third largest recipient of US foreign aid (after Israel and Egypt), Turkey was rewarded for the use of its NATO air bases with the forgiving of $7 billion of debt and increased access to American markets. While US planes enforced the 'No-Fly Zone' to protect Iraqi Kurds from Saddam, Turkish soldiers began a series of cross-border raids on rebel encampments, culminating in the autumn of 1992 with 20,000 troops supported by tanks and aircraft. They reported having killed 2,000 PKK insurgents in the operation. The new Kurdish assembly in northern Iraq made protests to the UK and US governments at the violation of their territory.

The following years witnessed a recrudescence of the conflict within Turkey. The PKK turned to terror tactics, planting bombs in tourist resorts and even in an Istanbul department store. Seeking a military solution, the government increased the number of troops in the south-east to over 150,000. They began a strategy of moving people from villages and placing them in encampments in areas under government control, reminiscent of the 'strategic hamlets' policy used by the US in Vietnam. According to a recent study, 3,438 settlements were either partially or completely destroyed.

Offers of a ceasefire had twice been made by Ocalan, and ignored in the past. Yet, with his capture in 1999, a definitive break in the fighting began. Now he is in jail, under a death sentence Turkey cannot carry out if they wish to boost their credentials as a candidate for entry to the European Union. He is a symbol of the new political struggle, in which Turkey must try to reconcile its instinct to repress what it sees as 'separatism' with a desire to join an elite global order based on human rights and democracy.

Dr Magnus Ranstorp says that "Turkey is stuck in limbo" about what to do with Ocalan, and how to find a solution to the Kurdish question. Events both within Turkey and in the US and European allies' war on terror will determine the outcome.