Turkey’s Kurdish Question

April 6, 2003

The sight of American and Kurdish troops marching together towards Kirkuk and Mosul will only worsen Turkish nightmares about western manipulation and Kurdish independence. This may become a self-fulfilling prophecy if Turkey continues to index all its strategic decisions to the Kurdish question.

The rift over Iraq in the traditionally very strong US-Turkish strategic partnership came as a major surprise to most foreign policy analysts. Now, as the war in Iraq enters its third week and US forces face stiff resistance in the south, the Turkish Parliament’s refusal in early March to allow 62,000 US troops on Turkish soil for opening the northern front against Iraq is increasingly being perceived as a major setback for Washington’s military planning.

The northern front would have allowed the US to spread Iraqi defences thin through a north-south pincer, preventing a concentration of Iraqi forces along one axis of advance and making rapid progress for the US forces possible. Turkey’s refusal thus made execution of the US plan more difficult.

How can one explain such unexpected Turkish reluctance to fully cooperate with the United States? If nothing else, the vote in the Turkish parliament illustrated that Ankara’s concerns about this war went beyond potential economic instability and the need for monetary compensation. Turkish lawmakers were in fact highly irritated and humiliated by the depiction of Ankara as a greedy carpetbagger seeking to exploit American war plans for extra cash. By turning their back on a financial package of direct aid and loans totalling US$24 billion, the naysayers in parliament became heroes in the eyes of the Turkish public. Polls show 94 percent Turks are opposed to the ongoing war in Iraq.

The overwhelming majority of Turks may justify their opposition to this war on grounds ranging from religious solidarity with a Muslim neighbour, to scepticism about American regional hegemony. But when it comes to the Turkish military and civilian bureaucracy there is no doubt that the Kurdish question is the most troubling issue. This security dimension of the Kurdish question has indeed very deep historical roots in the Turkish national psyche.

Ever since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the spatial distribution of the Kurds, stretching across four states in the region, (12 to 15 million in Turkey, 4-5 million in Iraq, 5-6 million in Iran and 1 million in Syria) has had important implications for Turkish foreign policy. Within Turkey, a series of 16 Kurdish rebellions between 1925 and 1938 sought to destabilise the fledgling Turkish Republic. These Kurdish uprisings during its first 13 years seriously tempered Kemalist territorial ambitions and set a very cautious tone in foreign policy.

Most tellingly, the rebellions played a major role in curbing Ankara’s enthusiasm in pursuing territorial claims over the oil-rich Mosul and Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Kemal Ataturk was very eager to have this oil-rich area as part of Turkey. It did not take very long for the British Foreign Office to conveniently determine that these diplomatically disputed territories should become part of modern Iraq, administered under British Mandate.

In retrospect, the loss of Mosul and Kirkuk has left a deep mark on Turkish collective memory. To this day, the majority of Turks believe the Kurdish rebellions were instigated by British forces. The British Foreign Office, it is argued, wanted to demonstrate the difficulties involved in ruling over a large Kurdish area and thus deter the Turks from pursuing their claim on Mosul.

Interestingly, more than resentment over the loss of an oil-rich region, it is this British role in inciting Kurdish uprisings that still resonates among Turkish nationalists. As a result, the idea that imperialist forces are supporting Kurdish nationalism and separatism became conventional wisdom in Turkey. Imbued with the painful memory of Western powers partitioning Ottoman-Turkish lands, the Kurdish question came to be seen as the last chapter of a conspiracy written in Western capitals.

When the Cold War interlude came to an end and a new wave of Kurdish uprisings began the familiar Turkish reflex looking for foreign instigation re-emerged. Ankara’s suspicions were compounded as the European Union blamed Turkey for suppressing the Kurds and saw Kurdish activists as freedom fighters. Making things worse was the American decision to incite the Iraqi Kurds to rebel against Baghdad in the wake of the 1991 first Gulf War. Unprotected, the Kurds were brutally suppressed by Saddam Hussein’s partially defeated, yet still very effective war machine. More than a million-and-half Kurds had to flee towards their only sanctuary: the mountains. Neither Turkey nor Iran was willing to absorb such a magnitude of potentially troublesome refugees.

In the absence of a better alternative, Turkey reluctantly accepted to house an American and British initiative that enforced a no-fly zone in northern Iraq for protecting Iraqi Kurds. At the same time, throughout the 1990s, Ankara complained that northern Iraq had become a safe-haven for the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) the separatist guerrilla organisation engaged in a bloody war against the Turkish military. Making things worse was the formation of a quasi-independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq under a Western umbrella housed by Turkey. This strategy ran totally counter to Turkey’s traditional Iraq policy, which favours a strong Baghdad that can control its Kurdish population.

Today, after spending more than a decade in finally suppressing its restive Kurds, Ankara fears that the ongoing American invasion of Iraq will revive the Kurdish question, which could either result in massive refugee inflows or, worse, renewed Kurdish aspirations for independence. Such domestic and foreign security concerns over the Kurdish question have managed to shadow Turkey’s cooperation with its most important strategic ally.

Unfortunately, the sight of American and Kurdish troops marching together towards Kirkuk and Mosul will only worsen Turkish nightmares about western manipulation and Kurdish independence. This may become a self-fulfilling prophecy if Turkey continues to index all its strategic decisions to the Kurdish question. Turkey should stop being so insecure and learn to co-opt rather than confront the Kurds, both at home and in Iraq.