Kurds at the Nexus of Global Politics




K

urds
once again have made a brief, if fleeting, appearance in the news.
For Kurds, however, and those who follow Kurdish issues with concern,
this revived attention is shallow in both its commitment and in
its analytic depth. Colorful pictures of Kurds fleeing in panic
from the threat of renewed chemical weapons attacks at the onset
of the war showed Kurds as victims, while colorful photos of peshmergah
fighters alongside U.S. Marines confirm other aspects of the typical
orientalist stereotypes. 


The
truth is that the story of the Kurds is far too damning of U.S.
and Western complicity in one of the 20th century’s worst cases
of ethnic cleansing and genocide to ever be a part of mainstream
media. The truth of Kurdish history would get in the way of the
current U.S. regime’s narrative of justifications for its war
against Iraq and its neo-colonial pretensions throughout the Middle
East. The Kurds are particularly troublesome now in the post-war
articulation of power in the region, especially to the extent that
this most deserving of people will again be left out of the super-power
politics that determine the region’s fate. 


Kurds
appear in Western discourse, when they do at all, as seemingly inert
pre-historic (or non-historic) objects amidst the world of states
and geo-power. The Kurds are the racialized victim of much of the
“Middle East,” which is itself the racialized victim of
U.S. and Western imperialism. As such, this twice marginalized people,
doubly erased and oppressed, remain one of the most enigmatic and
obscure communities in the world. 


The
recent U.S. stand-off with Turkey, and the splitting of NATO and
the UN from which this occasioned, are of historic import. The first
round of U.S.-Turkish negotiations was revealing. The U.S. promised
first $5, then $15, and finally $30 billion in “aid” and
military assistance to Turkey, in exchange for using Turkey as a
staging ground from which to launch troops into Iraq as a northern
front. U.S. military planners saw this as crucial because this is
the closest border to the main Iraqi oil fields, which are, after
all, the real strategic objective. Also negotiated, but far less
discussed, was the issue of Turkish military presence in Iraq, not
just in policing border refugee camps, but also their explicitly
stated desire to enter deep into Iraqi territory to seize the oil
fields. 


While
it seemed at first that the U.S. wanted to use Turkish forces as
shock troops during the campaign and as an administrative buffer
afterwards, they balked at Turkey’s greater ambitions. Turkey
is caught here between not only the U.S. and the EEC, but also between
the West and the Arab world. As Mohammad Noureddine, in Beirut’s

Daily Star

put it, Turkey is “between an American rock
and a European hard place.” 


Yet,
the driving force in their at times bizarre policy decisions appears
to be the stateless Kurds in the southeast of their nation. We repeatedly
heard the media mantra, ostensibly true, that Turkey’s primary
concern was that if Saddam Hussein fell and Iraqi Kurds achieved
an independent Kurdish state, Turkish Kurds might be inspired to
attain fuller rights, or even to join such a state. Noureddine was
correct when he stated on the eve of war, “It sometimes seems
that the keys to war and peace are in Ankara’s hands rather
than in those of Washington and Baghdad.” Ankara’s decisions
seem to be based on their calculations about the Kurds. 


Most
Western observers thought that the massive protests in Turkey wouldn’t
alter its support of the U.S. plan, especially with all the money
involved. Thus, when the Turkish Parliament failed to give the outright
majority needed to authorize the U.S. invasion plans, many were
stunned. The Bush administration went into frantic spin control
and floated various Plan B scenarios and withdrew its cash offers
almost entirely, while an armada of personnel and military equipment
languished and was finally transferred out of Turkey’s Mediterranean
ports. The planned second vote of Parliament never materialized
and as the war began in earnest, Turkey gave, retracted, and then
gave again permission only to use its airspace for U.S. military
fly-overs. This time around, the U.S. would not even be allowed
to use Incirlik airforce base, which was central to its first Gulf
War campaign. Last year, the Bush administration tried unsuccessfully
to broker a deal to purchase Incirlik for its own private use so
that they could avoid just such a problem in the future. 



T

he
U.S. has invested billions of dollars over five decades cultivating
Turkey as a key strategic ally in the region, so it is curious that
Turkey should diverge so momentously from its senior partner at
this particular moment. Along with U.S. military “aid”
came strong Israeli support and ties that helped Turkey in its ethnic
cleansing campaigns and probably the capture of Ocalan in Kenya.
With the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the main guerilla
opposition (the PKK) to Turkish domination, perhaps Turkey felt
it could do without the U.S. aid package it garnered throughout
the 1990s. This theory aside, why was Turkey willing to forsake
the U.S.-Israel nexus, with its “valuable” lessons in
repressing Palestinians? Perhaps it was throwing in its lot with
Europe, now that the latter’s standoff with the U.S. has gone
so public, and its EEC membership is in the balance. Or perhaps
its single- minded obsession with repressing Kurds in Turkey and
elsewhere is driving Turkey to jeopardize both its alliance with
the U.S. and Israel and its campaign to enter the European Union.
Some flatly suggest that Turkey is no longer vital in the post-Cold
War world and is being discarded. 


Turkey’s
close U.S. ties explain why few media pundits here took note when
Turkey openly demanded a military role in northern (i.e., Kurdish)
Iraq. Turkey made plain its intention to “disarm Iraqi Kurds,”
seize control of the oil fields, and occupy or rule northern Iraq,
if not annex it entirely. Recently, Turkey’s leadership could
be heard invoking a greatly exaggerated Turkmen presence and imperilment
in northern Iraq as a pretext for an impending intervention. Crazy
as all this is, it should have caused a strenuous reaction from
the U.S. Wasn’t the breach of the supposedly inviolable laws
of sovereignty the thin U.S. pretext for the first Gulf War, when
Iraq invaded Kuwait? How could sovereignty be a sacred principle
at one moment and, at the next, simply a pawn to be traded for greater
U.S. interests? Yet, it was reported that part of the final fly-over
agreement between Turkey and the U.S. included vague provisions
for a Turkish invasion of Iraq in the event that Iraqi Kurdish forces
seized control of the oil fields around Mosul and Kirkuk.  


So,
while President Bush states publicly that he warned Turkey to stay
clear of this conflict, his Administration has already agreed to
plans to the contrary, should Kurds finally achieve a resources
base from which to become a viable entity on the world stage of
nations. 


Denied
a country in the post-World War I division of the Ottoman Empire,
Kurds were briefly promised a country by President Woodrow Wilson,
but then were left out in the cold as the former colonial powers
(France and Britain) drew up artificial lines of control for their
future neo-colonial predation of the region’s resources and
labor. The Kurds remained stateless “minorities” in Turkey,
Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia. As such, they have been subjected
to horrible repression, countless human rights abuses, and genocide
not only in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, but also in Turkey—and the
world community has been largely unable to intervene because this
was seen as “the sovereign affairs of other nations.”
This at least, has been the case when those nations were U.S. allies,
such as Iraq in the 1980s, and Turkey all along. So much so, that
the U.S. has gone to the extent of denying atrocities and genocide
in both countries until, in the case of Iraq, Hussein made the transition
from ally to enemy, at which point it not only became possible,
but necessary to invoke Kurdish suffering there. 



The
Oil Fields of Kirkuk and Mosul 



I

raq’s
main oil fields, around the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, are not
only among the world’s largest, but are also the world’s
most productive. While the biggest fields elsewhere (Saudi Arabia,
for example) passed their peak extraction capacity years ago and
are currently declining, Iraq’s major oil fields have decades
of ascendant productive potential. This, along with the fact that
there are still compliant regimes in Saudi Arabia and many other
major oil producing nations, explains why Iraq was the target of
the moment. The question for more than a year has been: will other
Middle East governments be targeted for “regime change”
after Iraq and what will be the nature of post-invasion U.S. power
and presence? 


The
key here is the hidden ethnic history of this vital oil producing
region. Recently, one could see Peter Jennings or some other anchor
nightly discussing an ethnic map of Iraq: Sunni Muslims in the middle,
Shi’a Muslims to the south, and Kurds in the far north and
northeast. According to these maps, the oil fields are in the Sunni
regions in which Hussein’s party is anchored. These maps, however,
represent the engineered results of 20th century ethnic cleansing
campaigns, begun by the British and continued and intensified under
Hussein’s Iraq. The carefully kept secret is that the major
oil fields are located in historically Kurdish regions. This, at
least, is the case, if the oil fields are to be allocated along
linear, majority-rules ethnic lines. Before the 20th century colonial
and post-colonial ethnic cleansing of this area, eradicating or
relocating its Kurdish majority, the region was one of largely harmonious
multi-ethnic coexistence between Kurds, Sunni and Shi’a Muslims,
Turkmen, Jews, and others. Here, as in most of the world, ethnic
or national conflicts in their modern sense were occasioned by Western
invention and intervention. 


As
the current war arrived, we saw elements of this cultural coexistence
in the fact that Kurdish political parties in northern Iraq were
collecting names of defectors from the Iraqi army who wanted to
be protected when they surrendered. Many of the surrender plans
involved deals cut with rural Kurds, so that Iraqi soldiers and
intelligence officers could obtain civilian clothes and shelter
by slipping into Kurdish homes until official surrender could be
arranged. As much as media pundits love to speak of “primordial
tribal hatred,” these actions, as in Gulf War I, speak to the
existence of inter-ethnic and inter-denominational alliances that
are still the historic norm in the region. Kurds have great reason
to hate their tormenters, but they can see the difference between
the regime and its elite commanders, on the one hand, and the rank
and file soldiers and civilians swept up in the ethnic maelstrom
of Iraqi politics and survival, on the other. However, while one
might hear brief discussion of potential Kurdish involvement in
a post-Hussein Iraqi government, it is close to impossible to hear
of Kurdish entitlement to the oil wells of central and northern
Iraq. 



The Politics of Post-Modern Genocide 



T

here
is a constant fear that the justified resistance of Kurds there
will lead to the creation of a state not only for Iraqi Kurds, but
also for Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere. This is why Turkey lobbies
the U.S. so persistently. This is why the Kurds are only brought
out for discussion when it is the case of their victimization at
the hands of then U.S. protégé, Saddam Hussein; only then,
when it fits the needs of U.S. war-making, in this case the need
to make a case for its first strike against Iraq. Ironically, whereas
the nation-state status of Kuwait allowed for a thin U.S. pretext
in the Gulf War I, it is the lack of Kurdish statehood that makes
them a less viable legitimation for U.S. imperial intervention.
That, and the fact of U.S. shared responsibility for Kurdish suffering. 


Turkey’s
history of ethnic cleansing and genocide is rooted in its particular
brand of virulent and racially supremacist nationalism. When Mustafa
Kemal Attaturk founded the modern nation of Turkey, he did so on
the foundation of genocide against Armenians—a genocide that
is yet to be recognized by much of global public opinion or the
U.S. Congress. In addition to Armenians, almost a millions Kurds
were deported or massacred at that time, and more than a million
Greeks were also forced from Anatolia, in a broad attempt to create
a racially “pure” Turkish society. Nevertheless, Kurdish
leaders and fighters were instrumental in securing Turkey’s
borders from various would-be usurpers. Their reward for this help
was the mass execution of its leadership, reneged promises, and
ongoing repression. After the Armenians, Kurds became the primary
targets of nationalist terror, as their “stubbornly” held
separate identity posed a threat to Turkey’s vision of a monocultural
secular society. 


The
ensuing decades saw dozens of uprisings, all of which were ruthlessly
crushed, until guerillas asserted themselves in the mountains and
engaged with the Turkish army in the 1980s. This cycle reached its
apex in the 1980s and 1990s, when Turkey’s scorched earth policy
destroyed more than 3,000 villages, forcing more than 2 million
Kurds into internal exile or permanent refugee status. The penalty
for returning to villages remains torture or death, as recent killings
by Turkish military and paramilitary forces have shown. Kurds are
prevented from using their language, naming their children Kurdish
names, wearing Kurdish colors— even the traffic lights have
been changed to red, yellow, and blue because red, yellow, and green
are the Kurdish national colors. 


Turkey’s
efforts to annihilate Kurdish culture—it refers to Kurds only
as “mountain Turks”—has been repudiated by all of
the world’s respected human rights organizations, notably Amnesty
International, Human Rights Watch, and even the U.S. State Department
Reports on Human Rights, as well as by numerous European Union representatives
and bodies. Turkey’s efforts, including the mass transfer of
Kurdish children to boarding schools where they are “decultured”
and raised as Turks, constitute in the language of the Geneva Conventions
Against Genocide acts of cultural genocide aimed at reduction or
elimination of a distinct group of people. The U.S. provided more
than 80 percent of Turkey’s arms during the height of this
repression, and so is directly complicit in this under-reported,
but brutal policy of ethnic cleansing. 


In
1977, Mehdi Zana, a courageous Kurdish leader who emerged from the
grassroots was elected Mayor of Diyarbakir, the largest city and
capital of Turkish Kurdistan. He was soon arrested and imprisoned
for more than a decade and suffered unspeakable torture and humiliation
that will affect him for the rest of his life, now spent in exile
from his native land. This is recounted in his testimonial

Prison
No. 5: Eleven Years in Turkish Jails

, with a preface by Elie
Wiesel. The main charge was “separatism,” as evidenced
according to his “trial” by the fact that he spoke to
his aids in the Kurdish tongue, their only language. Even with the
support of European presidents and countless influential people,
his plight was not alleviated for more than ten years. Even now
he is separated from his family, as well as his people and his homeland. 


Similarly,
Leyla Zani (Mehdi is her husband) became increasingly radicalized
and she and five other Kurds were elected to Parliament in 1991,
but soon after were stripped of parliamentary immunity and arrested.
Their “crimes,” also under the label of “separatism,”
consisted of wearing Kurdish colors in their hair, speaking the
Kurdish language, and testifying before Europe and the U.S. Congress
about human rights abuses in Kurdish areas. They were given 15-year
sentences and remain in jail. Leyla Zana has been nominated for
the Nobel Peace prize and received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom
of Thought, as well as numerous other awards and honors. Her story
is chronicled in her

Writings From Prison



At
the back of Mehdi Zana’s blood curdling account of some of
the tortures he endured is a powerful essay by Kendal Nezan, a Kurdish
activist living in exile in France. This Kurdish history is the
single best short scholarly account of Kurdish politics and history
and is invaluable for all activists wishing to understand the Kurdish
place in world politics. Even more indispensable for U.S.-based
activists is the office of AKIN, the American Kurdish Information
Network, founded and operated almost single-handedly by Kurdish
exile and Gandhian pacifist, Kani Xulam. AKIN is based in Washington,
DC and is the only significant Kurdish organization in the U.S.
responsible for lobbying on Capital Hill. Xulam organizes protests
and rallies—disseminating information, working with Kurdish
refugees throughout the country, and traveling widely to give talks
on college campuses and at conferences and events. 


Whatever
happens to the Kurds at this most hopeful and most perilous moment,
the history of suffering must eventually be addressed. Kurds often
discuss their position in relation to that of the Palestinians,
saying things like: “When the Palestinian question is answered,
then it will be the Kurdish turn.” 


Yet,
if the startling Turkish fall from U.S. graces proves in the end
not to be a mirage, some are now asking if an emergent Kurdistan
might function more like Israel, as a U.S. ally and base in the
region. Such comparisons are too loaded and complex to make lightly,
but the paradigm questions remain real. Kurds and Palestinians,
like other oppressed and stateless people, desire some of the national
privileges accorded Jews via Israel in the wake of World War II—a
nation-state, a safe haven from persecution, the chance for an economy. 


After
80 years of persecution, the present conjuncture does not offer
particularly clear paths toward liberation for Kurds, but nevertheless
Kurds will undoubtedly engage what opportunities there are to the
best of their advantage. Will the people of the world, especially
progressives, support them? 


Anti-war
activists sickened by the war and the genocidal sanctions against
the Iraqi people should be horror-struck by the contemptuous use
of Kurdish suffering to justify Iraqi torment. We must not accept
a world order that justifies one genocide by the use of another—genocides
which it alternately covers up, supports, and/or deplores for its
own ends. Though it will undoubtedly make our organizing efforts
more complex, activists must directly address the Kurdish issue,
now more than ever.







 





Jesse Benjamin
is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Relations and
Multicultural Education at St. Cloud State University, Minnesota.