The problem with dominant nationalisms is that they often lack nuance. Nationalism sometimes has an antagonistic relationship with truth, because the truth is that nationalisms are invented; and if they can be invented, they can be dismantled. Thus, to preserve itself, a nationalism which feels threatened becomes aggressive, it transforms into jingoism; it becomes authoritarian. In a state where up to 20% of the population does not prescribe to the myth, it might seek to go on the offensive; it might seek to deny the existence of a minority altogether. It might employ all means to forcibly assimilate the minority into its structure.
Such is the case with Turkey and the Kurds. But the Kurds are not Turks, no matter how much the nationalist myth portrays Kurdistan to be an extension of Turkey. The problem with such nationalism is that it, by definition, sees its own claims as being above all others, and holds that its own narrative is the only legitimate source of information. From this position, it is only natural to silence dissenters, whether they be individuals or an entire people, and there are few peoples who have been silenced quite like the Kurds.
It was Winston Churchill who, in 1919, argued in favour of using poison gas against what he deemed to be the “uncivilised tribes” of Kurdistan, claiming that it would “spread a lively terror”. The British government decided against this policy, concluding instead that sustained aerial bombardment would have the desired effect of crushing Kurdish rebelliousness. Within seventy years of Churchill’s pronouncement, the Saddam Hussein regime put his wishes into effect, and for much the same reasons. “A lively terror” indeed; perhaps 100,000 Kurds were murdered, often after exposure to mustard gas and sarin, and their bodies dumped in unmarked mass graves.
The deserts of Iraq, then, are made of more than just sand. They’re also made of human remains, a greyish powder which fills the air whenever a mass grave is uncovered; a common occurrence to this day. In the city of Halabja, the site of a 1988 massacre of Kurdish civilians, the chemicals used by the Iraqi army tainted the air for years after, and the chemical burns they caused never completely healed. It is perhaps important to note, then, given the almost prophetic nature of his words, that one of the rebels Churchill was so adamant about exterminating was a sixteen year old named Mustafa Barzani, whose son, Masoud, is the current President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Britain’s chief ally in the war against ISIS.
This has become a dominant theme in the history of Kurdistan. Time and time again, the West has either been directly responsible for undermining its national aspirations or has abandoned the Kurds in their hour of need. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush encouraged the Kurds and Shia Arabs to rebel against the weakened Ba’athist regime. Yet when these revolutions faltered, and Saddam retaliated with his signature brutality, the United States was hesitant to intervene. As a result, perhaps another 200,000 civilians perished and over a million Kurds were forced from their homes before NATO effectively established no-fly zones.
This slow response to protect a revolution which the US encouraged goes beyond simple negligence; it was an act of betrayal. Yet despite this, Iraqi Kurdistan has flourished. A civil war in the late 90’s threatened to transform it into a failed experiment, but the idea survived. Since then, the region has prospered while to the South, Iraq has withered under the yokes of Saddam, Islamism and sectarianism, proving that left to themselves, the Kurds can succeed. It must be the policy of the West to ensure that Kurdish claims to sovereignty are recognised; a strong Kurdistan is necessary for defeating ISIS and is the key to the future of the Middle East. The West, then, does not have a choice. We must be on the side of the Kurds.
But Iraqi Kurdistan is only one constituent piece in a larger puzzle – one that challenges four of the great nationalisms of the Middle East. The historical repression of the Kurds living within Turkey’s borders mirrors that of Iraq, although in this case, the mass graves were shared with the Armenians. Later, Ankara tried to convince itself and the world that the Kurds simply weren’t there; the words ‘Kurd’ and ‘Kurdistan’ were banned, the Kurdish language was outlawed while officially, the government referred to them as “Mountain Turks”.
Kurdish traditions, dress and even names received a similar fate, and as recently as the 1990s, political parties representing Kurdish interests were illegal. This decades long forced assimilation project amounts to cultural genocide: an explicit attempt to destroy the Kurds as a culturally homogenous group. Such is the legacy of Kemalism, the official ideology which replaced the Ottoman Empire, and which justified its repression of the Kurds under the guise of national unity.
Turkey’s embrace of the Islamist Erdogan means that Kemalism is dead, or at least dormant. Under the new regime, steps were taken to empower the Kurds by reviving their language in the media and restoring Kurdish names to previously “Turkified” cities. PKK guerrillas who surrendered were offered a partial amnesty and in 2011, Erdogan apologised for the Dersim massacre of 1938, in which thousands of ethnic Kurds were butchered.
But ultimately, the Neo-Ottomanism of Erdogan’s AKP is directly opposed to any meaningful autonomy for the Kurds. The reason for Ankara’s refusal to recognise that it shares Anatolia with another people lies deeply embedded in Turkey’s history of empire. The reconstruction of this lost empire remains the single-minded pursuit of the Erdogan regime; the creation of a pan-Turkic harmony and the unity of the Turkic peoples under a single banner, presumably draped around Mr Erdogan himself. Such expansionist tendencies do not sit well with minority rights, especially when the minority views itself as a distinct people with its own banner to fly.
Syria was Erdogan’s great gamble, his chance to recreate Turkish power by controlling the outcome of the civil war from the shadows. From the outset, Turkey took an exceptionally hard stance towards Assad, and found itself supporting unsavoury elements within the revolutionary movement. Its support for the Army of Conquest, a ragtag coalition of assorted Jihadist types with rather ambiguous views on ISIS, raised an eyebrow in Washington, but nothing was done to bring Turkey into line. Emboldened by this false sense of untouchability, Turkey’s involvement in Syria increased, but as much as Erdogan fancies himself as a master strategist, he simply isn’t.
During the Arab Spring, Turkey lent its support to the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East, but the Muslim Brotherhood failed spectacularly in every country. Realising that he had isolated himself and that his proxies had made little progress, Erdogan withdrew back into the shadows. He focused on a problem which had presented itself in the aftermath of the Arab Spring; the successful revolution of the Syrian Kurds and the consequences it had for his control over parts of his own country.
Assad knew that he could not hold Syrian Kurdistan. As a result, the army abandoned large parts of the Kurdish provinces early during the civil war. These cantons quickly came under the control of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia associated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Almost immediately, radical reforms were introduced; women’s councils, direct democracy and a cooperative economy based loosely on libertarian socialist principles.
Despite some problems, notably alleged human rights abuses of Sunni Arabs, Kurdish sovereignty has produced a marked improvement in the lives of the people who live there. The Kurds of Syria have begun the arduous process of building a democratic alternative, but their cause is being undermined by Turkey. The PYD is a sister party of the PKK, the leftist insurgency which forms the backbone of the Kurdish autonomist movement in Turkish Kurdistan and is considered a terrorist organisation by the West.
Despite the PKK’s role in rescuing thousands of Yazidis from ISIS encirclement at Mount Sinjar, the West has been reluctant to change its policy towards them. Given this association between the PKK and the YPG, it is clear why the success of the Kurds in Syria is worrying for the rulers of Turkey. Thus, Erdogan has consistently sought to undermine Syria’s Kurds, even as they fight ISIS, for fear of their revolution spreading.
It was in the little known city of Kobanî that the war cries were sounded once more. Memories of Madrid in 1936 came to the fore as the chant of ‘No Pasaran!’ became the unofficial anthem of Kurdish resistance in the face of Daesh brutality. Comparisons with Stalingrad were common; vicious street fighting, with both sides knowing that surrender was not an option, only victory or death. It was believed that, like Stalingrad, Kobanî would be the turning point in the war. If ISIS could be defeated and its momentum halted, then it would be perpetually on the back foot. The world willed the YPG to succeed, to invoke the spirit of the antifascist partisans of old and defeat Islamist totalitarianism.
In the end, Kobanî did not fall to Daesh, yet Turkey did everything it could to ensure that it did. Instead of intervening against ISIS, Erdogan denounced the mass rallies on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara in support of the Kurds. The blockade of Kobanî, which arguably amounted to tacit collusion with ISIS, demonstrates precisely Erdogan’s fears; so terrified of Kurdish emancipation, that he is willing to collude with the forces of barbarism to crush the democratic aspirations of a people. Soon after, fighting resumed between PKK militants and the Turkish military.
With the success of the Kurds in Syria and the protests denouncing Turkish inaction, Erdogan was forced to take direct measures. Determining who started the fighting inevitably turns into a matter of whose propaganda you believe, but one thing is certain; the high levels of civilian casualties during Turkish bombing raids on the PKK shows that nothing has changed. Erdogan, despite his early rhetoric of rapprochement with the Kurds, turned to indiscriminate violence at the first stirrings of autonomy in Turkish Kurdistan.
What’s more, he has forced the Iraqi Kurds to side with him. The fate of Kurdish national aspirations in Iraq lies on a single pipeline, running from the oil fields to the Mediterranean via Turkey. Erdogan can shut it off at any point, at any time. The result is that the Kurdish Regional Government has failed to condemn the Turkish assault; it has even called for the expulsion of PKK units from Iraqi Kurdistan, while allowing Turkish troops to enter its territory. In this way, Erdogan has purposefully sown the seeds of discord in the Kurdish liberation movement.
Erdogan has managed to combine ultraconservative Islam for the rural peasantry, absolute neoliberalism for the cities, and unrestricted use of state power against the opposition and the Kurds. Far from curing the original sin of Turkey, the AKP has allowed it to re-emerge, and its resolve to demolish the nascent beginnings of a long awaited emancipation will only grow.
By defending themselves against vicious theocracy in Syria, the Kurds are defending us all. By undermining the Kurds at every opportunity, Erdogan is undermining us all. By attacking the Kurds in Turkey, cutting them off in Syria, and tacitly threatening them in Iraq, Turkey is objectively aiding our enemies.
Far from defending the universal principles of democracy and secularism, a NATO member in the 21st century is actively trying to prevent the implementation of these principles. The Kurds remain our principal allies in the war against ISIS, and there can be no doubt that the West owes them its continued support; but what of Turkey? The late Tony Benn once said that we should strive to ask those in power five questions, but in the case of Turkey’s rulers, there is only one question that remains to be answered; whose side are you truly on?