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Referendum Blues Redux: Kurdistan, Catalonia and Israel

BFFs: Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani making plans with Israeli leader Bibi Netanyahu.

Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

Identity Politics and the Spectre of Micro-Nations

The recent referenda that have taken place in Spain (1 October 2017) and Iraq (25 September 2017) have managed to upset the status quo considerably. The first referendum did not trigger, but greatly augmented the momentum carried by the votes cast in Italy’s Lombardy and Veneto subsequently (23 October 2017), votes cast in favour of “greater autonomy.”

One of the most vocal proponents of these Italy-based movements towards self-reliance and particularly fiscal probity, the political scientist Professor Marco Bassani, recently said that “the disintegration of this kind of European order,” as encapsulated in the EU as a supposedly happy union of nations and states, is now on the cards. instead, Bassani argued that “[t]here will be a confederation in Europe . . . in like 10-15 years from now, but not based on the nation-states that we know” now, even predicting that “[t]here might be easily 35 to 45 new countries coming up” in Europe – micro-nations and independent regions and/or domains, arguably. And the theoretical basis of such Europe-wide splinter entities is furnished by an 18-page tract published in 1992 by the Dutch beer tycoon Freddy Heineken (1923-2002): The United States of Europe (a Eurotopia?). The journalist and map-expert Frank Jacobs puts it like this: “[t]he theory behind Heineken’s idea is that a larger number of smaller member-states would be easier to govern within a single European framework than a combination of larger states competing for dominance. [And, in turn,] Heineken might [himself] have been inspired by the work of Leopold Kohr [1909-94],” an Austrian philosopher whose most influential work is a book entitled The Breakdown of Nations (1957) –  a text arguing that the whole of Europe should be “cantonized,” into small-scale political units as supposedly common in the pre-nation state era. But these cantonization efforts would not really serve the common people or regular citizens of Europe. They would rather benefit the large corporations running the show behind the scenes in true post-democratic fashion, employing the concept coined by Professor Colin Crouch in the year 2000. Still, the ubiquity of identity politics in the contemporary world as well as a universal love of the underdog leads many to support separatist movements and other forms of micro-nationalism, and the formation of micro-nation states.

The Paris-based Irish journalist and political analyst Gearóid Ó Colmáin correctly points out that the “rule by the dictatorship of [a] financial oligarchy” constitutes “fascism” and hence his contention that “[t]rans-national financial elites want to make the European Union into the political representation of their power.” And hapless Euro-citizens all around pledge their support for ever smaller and ever more minute identities longing for freedom and independence, not realising that a “return to Europe’s medieval micro-states” basically constitutes “the best way of creating a supranational European federation,” ruled by moneyed puppet-masters operating ‘behind the curtain.’

From Catalonia to Kurdistan

One should not forget, however, that the nation-state is but a relatively recent phenomenon, appearing in the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789) and subsequently dominating first Europe and then the rest of the world till today. But a nation-state is nothing but a political and social construct, corresponding to a ‘imagined community,’ to use Benedict Anderson’s 1983 coinage, inscribed upon a ‘geo-body.’ The latter phrase was, in turn, coined by Thongchai Winichakul to denote the ‘most concrete identification’ of nation’s dreams and aspirations, effectively tangible on the ground and plainly visible on a map. In the 21st century, previously seemingly unitary nations seem to splinter easily into its component micro-ethnicities and other socio-cultural identities and/or communities. In this context, John Feffer‘s words that “[f]rom Catalonia to Kurdistan, long simmering regions are clamoring for their own state” appear significant though somewhat misleading. As a distinct ethnic group the Kurds (c. 30 million) at present live dispersed over about four different states in the region (from Turkey over Syria to Iraq and Iran), with additionally a sizeable portion of Kurds (c. 11 million) actually inhabiting the West (Canada, U.S. and Europe).

Originally, ‘Kurdistan’ was but an ethnic geo-body embedded in larger state structures (basically, the Ottoman and Safavid/Qajar states in early modern times), a geo-body lacking its own sovereign administrative organisation though. In the aftermath of the Great War (or World War I, 1914-18) and the Ottomans’ surrender, the Treaty of Sèvres (10 August 1920), in line with Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points‘ (8 January 1918), contains a “Section” which stipulates the creation of a “Committee” to “draft . . . a scheme of local autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish areas lying east of the Euphrates, south of the southern boundary of Armenia . . . and north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia” (Section III, Article 62). And moreover, the next article even holds that the “Turkish Government hereby agrees to accept and execute the decision . . . within three months” (Section III, Article 63).

Kurdish populations and settlements in the Middle East (Source: Medya Magazine)

From Minority to Micro-Nation: Kurdistan

The emergence of an Anatolian resistance movement led by Mustafa Kemal (to be known as Atatürk, 1881-1938) and the Turkish victory over the Greek invaders in 1922 was to usher in peace negotiations leading to the signature of the Treaty of Lausanne (20 November 1922-24 July 1923) – a treaty which made the earlier agreement null and void, quashing Kurdish hopes for an independent state.

On the other hand, Lausanne sanctioned the formation of the Republic of Turkey as a Turkish nation-state (29 October 1923), a nation-state that effectively employed social engineering and official propaganda to absorb any and all ethnic groups and sub-groups into the Turkish mainstream. Within this wider framework, the Kurds, however, constituted the one major exception and remained steadfastly beholden to their own ethnic and linguistic identity. As a result, though Turkey still houses the largest Kurdish minority on its soil, state repression and persecution of Kurds remained a constant throughout the Kemalist era (1923-2002), and from 1984 onwards the Kurdish Workers’ Party (or PKK) commenced an armed struggle against the Ankara government. The eminent Kurdish specialist Mesut Yeğen opines that the “Turkish state’s engagement with the Kurdish question [traditionally] stood on three pillars: assimilation, repression and containment.”

In the 21st century the advent of the overtly Islamic Justice and Development Party (or AKP), founded and led by the charismatic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (aka the Prez since August 2014), seemed to offer a glimmer of hope. On 12 August 2005, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan gave a memorable speech in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakır (known as Amed in Kurdish), where his words signalled a veritable paradigm shift with regards to Turco-Kurdish relations. In fact. Tayyip Erdoğan became the first Turkish politician ever to speak of a “Kurdish problem,“ whereras previously politicians and public figures alike had shied away from using the term or even acknowledging the existence of the Kurds as a separate ethnic group in Turkey. In fact, the AKP leader went a whole lot further, as he declared that “[p]roblems do not have partial owners. All problems, be they Turkish, be they Kurdish, be they Circassian, be they Abkhaz, be they Laz, are the common problems of the citizens of the Republic of Turkey . . . For everyone is the creation of the same soil, [everyone is] a human being [created by the same soil], this is what it means to be a [nation of] people.“

These words spoken by Tayyip Erdoğan early in his career on the national stage contained a first hint at what I have termed the AKP ‘Policy of Sunnification,’ as a programme containing every Turkish Islamist’s dream of expunging Atatürk’s legacy and returning the one true religion (or din-i mübin, in Turkish) to its supposedly rightful place in Turkish society and politics – a policy that really came into its own after the year 2010, I would suggest. The main goal of this policy was (and still is) to transform the Turkish citizenry into homogenous body of Hanafi Sunni Muslim believers, united in their faith ordained by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (or Diyanet, in Turkish) and living happily together within the spatial boundaries of the geo-body of the Republic of Turkey. In this way, the noun ‘Turk’ as a short-hand for Turkish citizen (as explained in the Turkish Constitution, Article 66) would become synonymous with ‘Muslim.’ In the context of this particular AKP programme the Kurds play an important role. Public opinion in the West, hyper-sensitivised by the higher-mentioned ubiquity of identity politics in the contemporary world, is well-acquainted with the plight of the Kurds in Turkey, and regards them as a persecuted ethnic ‘minority,’ deserving of support and sympathy. In reality, though, Turkey is home to a great many ethnicities and sub-ethnicities or ‘minorities,’ if you will, as I explained at length in 2013. I would argue that the AKP leadership regarded solving the  ‘Kurdish problem’ as containing the key to unlocking the whole of Turkey’s citizenry’s Islamic identity. The AKP leadership’s preoccupation with Turkey’s Kurds also led to a rapprochement with the Kurdish Regional Government (or KRG) in Northern Iraq, with the National Security Council (or Milli Guvenlik Kurulu/MGK), convening in 24 April 2008, to suggest enhancing relations with “all Iraqi groups” and subsequently, Murat Özçelik (then-Turkey’s Special Envoy to Iraq) and the future wily FM Ahmet Davutoğlu (at the time acting as the PM’s chief advisor for foreign affairs) meeting the KRG President Masoud Barzani in October.

Some ten months later, on 11 August 2009, Tayyip Erdoğan gave yet another speech – a speech that inititated the National Unity and Brotherhood Project and the so-called Democratic Overture, which carried the formulation of a bona fide Peace Process in its wake. The AKP MP Aydın Ünal, who has acted as Erdoğan’s speech writer for the duration of eight years, has compared this particular speech to Mustafa Kemal’s address to mark the opening of the nation’s parliament on 23 April 1920. Whereas the latter’s words gave rise to the establishment of the Republic in three years’ time, Tayyip Erdoğan’s were meant to usher in peace and security as well as a happy co-habitation of Kurds and Turks within the confines of the state established by Mustafa Kemal.

Less than three years later, on 21 March 2013, during the Nowruz (or traditional new year’s festival, spelt Nevruz, in Turkish) celebrations in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakır (known as Amed in Kurdish) “the imprisoned terrorist [PKK] leader Abdullah Öcalan (Apo)“ had a “written message, a letter, broadcast publicly to a crowd of hundreds of thousands“ gathered there. Apo’s words were unequivocal: “Let guns be silenced and politics dominate . . . The stage has been reached where our armed forces should withdraw beyond the borders . . . It’s not the end. It’s the start of a new era.” And, two days later the PKK announced its ceasefire. The following two years were marked by a conspicuous absence of terror attacks in Turkey. At the time, the KRG President Massoud Barzani was also highly supportive of these developments, calling the Peace Process a “vindication of our long-standing policy that the Kurdish question is a political issue and that this question cannot be resolved through armed or military means.” As a result, cosy relations between Ankara and Erbil ensued, with “hundreds of Turkish companies present in Northern Iraq” and the flow of “billions of dollars in trade.” And more importantly, with AKP-led Ankara benefitting greatly from the KRG’s underground oil and gas wealth, much to the Baghdad government’s chagrin and even Washingon’s objections. Back in April 2013, I wrote that the KRG’s “lucrative oil exports seem to have persuaded [AKP-led] Ankara that peace at home can only lead to peace abroad, paraphrasing Atatürk’s well-known dictum.”

As a corollary, on 26 June 2014, the AKP government submitted a six-article bill, entitled “Draft Law to End Terror and Strengthen Social Integration.” At the time, the then-Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay stated publicly that the Peace “[P]rocess is approaching a stage where problems will be solved, violence will end, people will leave their arms and come down from the mountains and live a normal social life with rehabilitation.”

Sacrificing the Peace Process

But all good things come to an end, and due to political circumstances and, arguably,  electoral misfortunes, in the summer of 2015, the Prez and his AKP henchmen anew unleashed Turkey’s military might: “as if by happy coincidence, the terror threat posed by Kurdish nationalism and the PKK once again reared its ugly head forcing Turkey to take retaliatory military measures, inside the country as well as across the border on the grounds of the KRG in Northern Iraq. At the same time, next door’s not so civil war in Syria managed to insert itself into Turkey’s frame as well, targeting the local Kurds and their political party the HDP [or The Peoples’ Democratic Party]. The terror attacks in Suruç (20 July 2015) and Ankara (10 October 2015) were quickly blamed on the Islamic State (IS) and led to a concerted government crackdown on sleeper cells in such diverse locations as Diyarbakır and Pendik. Even though the country’s Kurds and the HDP had been the primary targets of the IS attacks on Turkish soil, the main beneficiary was nevertheless the AKP. Over and again, Tayyip Erdogan spoke publicly about the fact that the PKK and its Syrian ally the PYD [or Democratic Union Party, active in Syria] were the same as the Caliph and his IS. The Prez convincingly equated ‘Kurdish terrorists’ with ‘Islamist freedom fighters’ in the minds of his many listeners at home as well as abroad so that they saw no option but to vote for stability over insecurity, thereby assuring a landslide return to power of the AKP” on 1 November 2015.

Turkey’s Kurds vis-à-vis Iraq’s Kurds

I would argue that the real reason behind the failure of the much-vaunted Peace Process is to be found in the outcome of the arguably inconclusive elections of 7 June 2015, necessitating a re-run five months later. Following the June elections, the AKP did not possess a large enough mandate to form a government on its own, yet coalition talks failed to get underway, with the mainly Kurdish HDP gaining access to parliament, much to the chagrin of nationalists and Islamists alike. As a result, on 20 August, Turkey’s Supreme Election Commission (or YSK) suggested that an election re-run be held on November, 1st.

At the time, many Kurds and their sympathisers as well as critics of Erdoğan regarded the recent IS attacks as somehow orchestrated by the AKP government, claiming the existence of close ties uniting both enemies of Bashar al-Assad, “ties that could very well go beyond a mere tactical alliance and instead be based on ideological commonalities.“ Following the Suruç suicide attack, the HDP issued a statement imploring its supporters to ‘constitute a peace block opposed to ISIS [or the IS]. It is the [AKP-led] government that is responsible for any kind of security breach,’ allowing the suicide bomber to enter the Amara Cultural Centre in the small Turkish town of Suruç and kill more than 30 innocents. The HDP declaration next minces no words: “[t]oday we have witnessed once more what this army of rapists and barbarians that has lost its human dignity is capable of . . . All the countries and regimes supplying ISIS [or the IS] and other armies of rapists with support are accessories to this barbarity. The leaders in Ankara who are stroking the head of ISIS [ or the IS, as we speak and who] have even flung threats at the HDP, who remain silent in the face of ISIS [or the IS], [and] who are even afraid to raise their voices, [they] are accomplices to this barbarity’.“ In fact, two days prior to polling day on June, 7th, “[t]wo blasts ripped through a Kurdish rally” in Diyarbakır, “killing two people and injuring more than 100.” In the aftermath of the blasts “armored police vehicles arrived with a fusillade of tear gas before a single ambulance was in sight,” according to witness as reported by Caroline McKusick. The perpetrators of the attack were never apprehended, and at the time, the news agency Reuters reported that “Demirtas has said his party has been the target of more than 70 violent attacks during the campaign.” A little more than a month after the June elections,  the Suruç terror attack occurred (20 July 2015) and two days later (22 July 2015), two police officers were shot dead in the town of Ceylanpınar – the attack was claimed by the PKK, stating that  the killings were “retaliation” for the Suruç bombing. It seems possible to detect a certain pattern in this succession of provocations and counter-provocations, which could lead one to conclude that Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP henchmen willingly sabotaged the Peace Process in order to gain electoral success, leaving Turkey’s Kurds high and dry as a result.

But south of the border, in the KRG, President Barzani had already announced in 2014 that a referendum on Kurdish independence in northern Iraq would be held. At that stage, Barzani told the press that he “can’t fix a date right now but definitely it’s a question of months. But of course it must be decided by parliament.” And now, three years later, that day has finally come and gone: 25 September 2017. The Baghdad government vehemently opposed the referendum, and was joined by Ankara and Tehran. And last month, a serious crisis seemed imminent with military conflict a distinct possibility – I even wrote that “all-out ethnic war could just be around the corner now.” Particularly, as the Kurds had occupied the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the wake of the Islamic State’s dramatic appearance on the scene, effectively annulling the Sykes-Picot-ordained reality on the ground. But, contrary to expectations, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters abandoned the city without a fight. So that in the end, it seems that outside pressure exerted behind the scenes must have prevailed, and on Wednesday, 25 October 2017, the KRG released a statement offering “to freeze the results of [the] earlier referendum on independence as part of an offer to defuse the crisis with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, as reported by Reuters. The news agency added that the “statement also called for an immediate ceasefire and a halt to all military operations in the northern region [of Iraq’s territories]. The KRG called for an open dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad based on the country’s constitution.”

In response, Iraq’s PM Haider al-Abadi (image, left) declared that his government “won’t accept anything but its cancellation and the respect of the constitution.” This probably means that a protracted war of words lies ahead and its outcome is as yet uncertain. In the midst of this turmoil, President Barzani’s term of 12 years had been extended for another two, but in the aftermath of the failed referendum, Barzani indicated that he would (eventually) step down as KRG president. As a result, it seems that the Baghdad government has prevailed, preserving the state’s territorial integrity while re-acquiring the lands occupied by the Caliph and his IS.

In a similar vein, Spain’s government is now cracking down on the Catalan independence movement, with Madrid imposig direct rule over the breakaway region and the Catalan parliament unilaterally declaring independence on Friday, 27 October 2017. But rather than resigning like his Kurdish counterpart, the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont remained defiant, flying to Brussels yet indicating that he is not seeking political asylum while remaining vocal in his opposition to the Madrid government.

A Second and Third Israel?!??

The KRG’s neighbours have together formed a united front against the formation of an independent Kurdistan, that could have had a possible domino effect in its wake affecting Turkey and Iran, as well as Syria, and thus potentially lead to the emergence of a Greater Kurdistan.

Other regional players, though, seem more favourably inclined towards such a development – or, rather one player, namely the state of Israel. Prior to the referendum, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (or Bibi) stating unequivocally that “the Kurds have been and will continue to be reliable and long-term allies of Israel since they are, like us, a minority group in the region.” As worded by the always knowledgeable Seymour Hersh in 2004, “[t]hroughout the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Israel actively supported a Kurdish rebellion against Iraq, as part of its strategic policy of seeking alliances with non-Arabs in the Middle East.”

And more recently, following the ill-fated Bush invasion of Iraq in 2003, Israel has been actively supporting the Kurds in the north, in order to attain strategic leverage regarding Iran in the east and, at the same time, giving in to the attraction exerted by the KRG’s underground oil and gas wealth. In view of these dangerous-yet-largely-unseen links, Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki has recently unambiguously declared that Iraq “will not allow the creation of a second Israel in the north” of the country. At the same time, though, the State of Israel is also very much in favour of other secessionist movements: The writer and geopolitical analyst Manuel Galiana Ros, for instance, indicates that there has been a long-standing link between Israel and Catalonia, adding that the Catalan “local police are trained in Israel by the Mossad.” Back in 2012, the Haaretz English editor Adar Primor declared categorically that “Catalonia will soon be the state of the Catalan people, [just as] Israel is first and foremost the state of the Jewish people.”

Does this now mean that Israel, as a state founded to house the Jewish people from across the globe in the midst of the Arab world, is actively looking for and supporting other minority nations close by and farther afield?!?  And how would the people of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Spain feel about such unseen machinations liable to upset their daily lives and the continuation of peaceful relations?!??  Or, is Israel merely following the tide of the times, advocating the emergence of micro-nations and independent regions and/or domains, and in doing so lending credence to its own ethno-religious claim to a homeland – while corresponding to ever more minute identities propagated for the benefit of some unseen interests trying to divide and rule the world?

Yet, in both cases the timing seemed off, and the requirements of nation states prevailed over micro-aspirations and Zionist  machinations behind the scenes . . . for now.

***
21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar who was living in Istanbul for some time, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In the period 2010-11, he wrote op-eds for Today’s Zaman and in the further course of 2011 he also published a number of pieces in Hürriyet Daily News. In 2013, he was the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. He is on Twitter at @theerimtanangle

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