Counter-Terrorism: Kurds And The Lost Province

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May 21, 2014: The latest ceasefire effort between Turkey and PKK (Kurdish separatist rebels) has not worked as well as everyone hoped. On May 16th PKK gunmen attacked an army outpost in eastern Turkey, wounding two soldiers. This followed a bombing incident in March that killed a soldier. That was the first incident since the ceasefire was declared in March 2013. That deal involved PKK moving all its armed members to northern Iraq (an area Iraqi Kurds have controlled since the early 1990s) and Turkey passing laws to give the 15 million Turkism Kurds (most of them in southeast Turkey) more autonomy and freedom from laws restricting the open use of the Kurdish language and customs.

The PKK believes the Turks are reluctant to the pass the laws. The recent violence is believed to be the result of factionalism within PKK. This has long been a problem with the Kurds and, despite constant efforts to impose discipline, in PKK as well. Many PKK members want to continue fighting until southeastern Turkey is an independent state. This is something most Turks refuse to consider and even getting most Turks to agree to more Kurdish autonomy is a major achievement.

The leader of the autonomous Kurds of northern Turkey recently admitted that in 2006 he resisted pressure from the United States and Iraq to cooperate in an attack on PKK bases in northern Iraq and refused to cooperate. The Iraqi Kurds now see this gesture as unappreciated by the PKK because PKK has insisted on taking control of a long planned (since 2013) and delayed Kurdish National Congress in northern Iraq. This meeting was to bring in representatives from Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria and all the non-Turkey Kurds resisted PKK efforts to take control of the meeting. This lack of unity has, for centuries, cursed Kurdish efforts to establish an independent Kurdistan.

Armed Kurdish resistance has been going on, and off, for centuries. When the Turks first entered what is now eastern Turkey some of the first people they encountered and fought were Kurds. The unrest among Turkish Kurds turns comes from genuine Kurdish nationalism and an ancient Kurdish dreams of an independent Kurdistan. This Kurdish state was supposed to be established after World War I but got aborted by a Greek invasion of western Turkey and a massive Turkish military response to that, and any separatist movements. During the Cold War (1947-91) Russia supported and encouraged Kurdish radicals as a way to destabilize Turkey, an important member of NATO. That led to Kurdish separatist activity in Iran, Iraq, and Syria as well. During the Cold War Turkey gave refuge to Kurdish refugees fleeing Iraqi oppression. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-89) both sides made use of Kurdish nationalists to weaken the other side. That was followed by a brutal Iraqi offensive against their own Kurds in 1988, including dousing Kurdish villages with poison gas. This led to even more Kurdish refugees inside Turkey.

The PKK got organized in the 1970s and declared war on Turkey in 1984. Since then over 40,000 people have died (73 percent PKK members, 14 percent security forces and 13 percent civilians, most of them Kurds). Not only are most Kurds eager to see an end to the violence, but also to the PKK custom of kidnapping teenage boys and taking them to remote camps where they are persuaded to become full time PKK fighters. Most of the kidnapped kids decide to stay and fight and in the last decade a quarter or more of them get killed or die from something else while with the PKK. Many teenage Kurds will join PKK voluntarily, so the kidnapping program causes a lot of anger among the Kurds of southeast Turkey and they want more action by Turkey to stop the practice and find their lost children.  For the PKK, such kidnappings are the only way to maintain their combat strength, which is currently about 5,000 full time fighters and over 10,000 part timers.

Kurds are encouraged at Turkish tolerance, and trade relations with, the autonomous Kurds in northern Iraq. Yet the Turks have made it known that there are limits to this tolerance. Moreover, Kurds remember that Kurdish northern Iraq was part of the Turkish homeland, not a conquered province like the rest of Iraq. The victorious Allies took northern Iraq away from Turkey in 1918 to deprive Turkey of the oil known to exist in that area. The Allies feared the Turks would use the oil wealth to rebuild their armed forces. The Turks rebuilt their armed forces without the oil and after World War II because a staunch member of the NATO alliance (meant to defend Europe from Soviet aggression). Kurds are aware that many Turks would like their lost province back. The Kurds also appreciate that the Turks are shrewd and know how to play a long game and many Kurds see the Turks maneuvering to get their lost province back eventually, no matter how long it takes.

 


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