The Real Cost of Turkey’s Kurdish Obsession

Friday, 18 October, 2019 - 05:30 Issue Number [14934]

A classical dictum cited by Clausewitz, the father of war studies as an academic discipline, tells us that starting a war is often easy while ending it is always difficult. Does that dictum apply to the war that Turkey has started against the Kurds by invading Syria? Right now, the answer is that no one knows. What is certain, however, is that the best outcome that Turkey might expect, is to be extricated from that hornet’s nest with a minimum of damage.

While the war could be blamed on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic style of decision-making, the deeper roots of the conflict must be sought in Turkey’s centuries’ old Kurdish obsession.

That obsession was present, albeit in embryonic form, even during the Ottoman era when the Sultan-Caliphs harbored suspicions about their Kurdish subjects on ethnic and religious grounds. Even when drawn into military service, Ottoman Kurds could not, or would not, be assimilated into the dominant Ottoman-Turkish identity. Subscribing to a variety of religious beliefs and traditions, including Alawism, Zoroastrianism, Yazidism and a panoply of Sufi orders stretching from the Balkans to Central Asia, the Kurds would not fit into the official Islamic identity of the empire.

In that context, we had the clash of two identities, one hard, the other soft. The Ottoman identity was soft because the empire consisted of numerous ethnic and religious groups. The ruler used the title of sultan for his ethnic Turks, Qaysar (Caesar) for Christians, Padshah for Iranic and/or Shiites and Caliph for Sunni, mostly Arab, subjects.

During the First World War, the Ottomans concluded a tactical alliance with the Kurds to repress and expel the Sultan’s Armenian subjects from chunks of southeastern Anatolia. The rationale for that campaign, later to be known as the Armenian Holocaust, was that some Armenians, led by the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun (Revolutionary Federation of Aram Manukian) sided with Russia in the war against the Ottomans by launching a series of attacks in Anatolia. With resources stretched in European and Middle Eastern theatres of war, the Ottoman Empire had to enlist Kurdish irregulars to crush the Armenian revolt in several major battles.

However, the end of First World War left the Kurds in an even worse situation than before. President Woodrow Wilson’s promise of “self-determination” was soon forgotten, leaving behind the dream of independence on the Kurdish side and the fear of Kurdish secession in the Ottoman camp as reconstituted as the Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal pasha (Ataturk).

The new identity that Ataturk wished to create was based on what his French advisers named “Turkitude” (Turkish-ness) and thus free of religious (i.e. Islamic) connotations. A new alphabet based on the Latin script signaled the start of a campaign to invent a new Turkish language as well, purged of Arabic and Persian words as much as possible. Ataturk’s “secular” system severed the thin religious bond that existed between the Kurds and the rest of the new republic’s citizens. The trouble was that the Kurds would not adopt the new Turkish language that Ataturk had ordained, preferring to hang on to their own three native Kurdish languages.

In much of history, at least until recently, systems sustained by ultra-nationalist and/or nativist ideologies have always seen “otherness” as a threat rather than an opportunity of cultural and social enrichment.

With the decline of the Ottoman Empire, becoming known as “The sick man of Europe”, the search for a new imperial identity intensified. In the late 1880, a Jewish Hungarian scholar, Arminius (Hermann) Vambery, who had spent years travelling in the empire invented the concept of Pan-Turkism, in later versions Pan-Turanism, and managed to sell it to the “Young Turks” and their political organization known as Union and Progress (Ittihad wa Tarraqi). Western powers, notably Great Britain and France, supported the concept of Pan-Turanism as a counter-balance to pan-Germanism led from Berlin, pan-Slavism led by Russia and pan-Islamism led by Muslim movements opposed to Western colonial domination in North Africa, the Middle East and India.

Once again, the Kurds preferred to remain “the other”, rejecting pan-Turanism as an excuse for ethnic Apartheid at their expense. That made them targets for attacks by pan-Turkist and pan-Turanist thinkers who designated the Kurds as enemies. Pan-Turanists had replaced the word Ummah (Islamic community) with Khalq (People) to designate the nation. The Basmachi terrorist movement led by Enver Pasha, a hero of pan-Turkism and possibly an agent of British Intelligence, even denied the existence of a Kurdish people, inventing the tem “Mountain Turks” instead.

Suspicion and hatred of Kurds led to more and more repression to the point that by the mid-1960s even the use of the word “Kurd” in publications and/or public discourse had become an offense punishable by law. In the 1960s, a new movement, known as “Grey Wolves” (Bozkurtlar in Turkish), later led by Alparsalan Turkesh, was even advocating ethnic cleansing armed at moving large chunks of the Kurdish community out of their ancestral lands in eastern Anatolia to other parts of Asia Minor. One scheme discussed was to replace the expelled Kurds with “Turkic” Muslims, notably ethnic Albanians, from Yugoslavia where the Communist regime was also interested in ethnic cleansing against Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. The scheme died after it was met with strong opposition from a chunk of Turkish political elite in Ankara and Iran under the Shah.

In its current avatar as Islamic Republic, Iran has adopted a sympathetic posture vis-à-vis Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish war. An editorial published by Fars news, an organ of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Tuesday, urges sympathy for Erdogan because of his “anti-Zionist speech at the UN General Assembly and defense of the suffering Palestinian nation”. It praises Erdogan’s “humanitarian efforts to break the siege of Gaza”. More importantly, the IRGC editorial says Erdogan ignored Turkey’s secular system by providing free land and a check of $1 million for the construction of “the huge Zayn al-Abedin Shiite mosque” in Istanbul.

Erdogan’s efforts to ethnic cleanse the Syrian Kurds may not be justifiable but one must appreciate the Turkish leader’s “personal presence in the 500,000 people assembly of mourners for Imam Hussein in Istanbul.”

In other words, one can commit genocide as long as one makes a speech in favor of Palestine and attends a Shi’ite chest-beating ceremony.

This is how some in our region see the world in this bizarre world of the 21st century.