Turkey’s Forgotten War
While news of the war in Afghanistan swims in the main media channels little attention is paid to a forgotten war that has claimed more victims during the past three weeks. This forgotten war is Turkey’s 20-year long campaign to subdue its Kurdish rebels who have found a safe haven in neighboring Iraq.
Over the past three weeks Turkish air force has carried out a series of bombing raids against alleged Kurdish rebel positions while gunfights have continued between he ground forces f the two sides. According to news agencies at least 100 fighters, including 30 Turkish soldiers, have been killed, many more than the casualties reported from the Afghan war for the same period.
This forgotten war needs to be remembered for a number of reasons.
First, there is that little ignored fact which is Iraq’s national sovereignty. The Turks formed the habit of treating Iraq as a war zone in 1991 when Saddam Hussein gave them the green light to enter northern Iraq to kill the Kurds. In exchange, Ankara allowed smuggling rings linked to Saddam’s family to operate through Turkish territory. Such behavior, illegal then, is now unacceptable as well. Today, Iraq has a government that represents is people and thus as a state enjoys the legitimacy that the Takriti set up lacked Bombing a member of he United Nations even in the name of fighting rebels is a step to far by any standards.
Next, there is the fact that the present Turkish government, formed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) built part of its initial good reputation on its condemnation of Ankara’s raids against Kurds in Iraq. When in opposition, AKP leader Recep Tayyib Erdogan, now prime minister said repeatedly that there was no military solution to Turkey’s long standing ‘Kurdish problem.’
In a conversation we had with Erdogan in Davos in 2001 he went out of his way to advertise his party’s ‘creative solution’ for the problem even if that included ‘ thinking the unthinkable.’
To its credit, the AKP government did initiate measures that helped modify Turkish attitudes towards the Kurds. Some Kurdish political prisoners were released and the strict ban on Kurdish language and culture was eased. These measures were in part a result of pressure from the European Union. However, AKP had its own reason for trying to mollify the Kurds. In its second general election victory, AKP collected almost 43 per cent of the votes. A quarter of those votes came from Kurds who thought they were saying thank you the measures taken by AKP. Some Turkish analysts claim that without Kurdish votes the AKP would not have won a straight majority.
Ever since Kemalism emerged as the core ideology of the Turkish republic, the Kurdish minority, believed to be between 17 and 20 per cent of the total population, were either ignored or marginalized in the name of pan-Turkism a creed that belonged to the same family as Italian fascism, German Nazism and Argentine peronism. Erdogan and many other AKP leaders spent years fighting that creed.
It was, therefore, not unexpected that they should reject the pan-Turkist myth that here was no such hinges a Kurdish identity and that the Kurds were simply ‘mountain Turks’. While pan-Turkists emphasized the supposed ‘ blood ‘ link as the cornerstone of nationhood in modern Turkey, the AKP put the emphasis on Islam, the common religious faith of 99 per cent of the population.
In the past few years, however, the AKP has gradually moved away from some of its original positions by falling for what is now known as neo-Ottomanism, the ideological mirror-image of pan-Turkism.
Neo-Ottomanism is designed to unite pan-Turkists and Islamists in a common quest to revive the supposedly glorious days of the Ottoman Empire in which Turkish nationalism and Islam were the ingredients of the ideological cocktail.
Neo-Ottomanism is based on a number of myths. Chief among these is the claim that the Ottoman Empire was a modern construct, some say even the first experiment in globalization, if only because of its diversity.
What is not said is that the Ottoman Empire treated its diverse peoples as subjects not as equal partners in a common enterprise. This is why neo-Ottomanism cannot accept the Kurdish minority as a distinct entity within a democratic pluralist system.
The neo-Ottoman approach to the Kurdish problem is further complicated by the identification of the Kurdish minority with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist outfit with a discourse that belongs to another age.
Like it or not, there is no doubt that the PKK represents a chunk of Kurdish opinion in Turkey and must be brought into the broader picture of Turkish democracy. Most Turkish citizens, including perhaps a majority of ethnic Kurds, do not like the PKK’s ideology or political methods. However, the Turkish political landscape consists of a handful of minority parties that represent a rich spectrum. In that spectrum even the PKK could find a place, provided it abandoned he goal of overthrowing the Turkish republic through armed struggle.
Almost 10 years ago, Erdogan, the most imaginative of Turkish leaders in a generation, spoke of a ‘creative solution” to the Kurdish problem. That ‘ creative solution’ should include efforts to wean the PKK away from violence and terror. The first step in that direction is the establishment of a dialogue, perhaps with the help of the Kurdistan government in Iraq which has already informed Ankara of its readiness to mediate.
Within the past two years Turkey has started reshaping its foreign policy in the hope of finding a greater role in its natural geopolitical habitat which includes the Middle East.
However, Ankara would not be able to play a leadership in the region while it continues bombing Iraqi territory. Nor would Ankara’s profession of anger at the way Israel treats the Gaza population sound sincere when Turkey’s ethnic Kurds continue to be treated with less consideration that a modern democracy should offer its citizens. It is, perhaps, time for Erdogan Pasha to start thinking the unthinkable.