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‘What about the Kurds?!’ Getting a Proper Grip on Turks, Americans & Kurds in Syria

Most Americans have no idea who ‘The Kurds’ are and how they rose to prominence in the US foreign policy matrix. Understanding their politics and history is essential in understanding Turkey’s deeper motivations in Syria.

Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

Donald Trump did it again, and he did it via his smart phone, tweeting the world awake with the news that the U.S. Forces will leave Syria (19 December 2018), actually referring to himself in the third person. Rather than universal joy and happiness, subsequently fear and dread arose around the world – what about the Kurds?!? was the refrain reverberating across the airwaves.

Eventually, Trump saw reason, some would argue, as reported by the well-known and trusted purveyor of #FakeNews CNN, “President Donald Trump will give the Pentagon about four months to withdraw the nearly 2,000 military personnel stationed in Syria, the New York Times reported Monday, citing administration officials.”

Championing the Kurds: George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton

The Twitter storm unleashed by Trump was very enlightening albeit confusing, perplexing and disorienting in the utmost. The one message to emerge was that ‘the Kurds,’ having been American and French troops’ “most effective battlefield partner against Isis in northern and eastern Syria,” and “America’s most important defense against ISIS” as a whole, had suddenly become defenseless lambs facing imminent slaughter at the hands of dastardly Turkish butchers led by their evil Prez himself – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the founder and leader of the AKP (or Justice and Development Party) and Turkey’s first popularly elected president (2014).

The West’s love affair with ‘the Kurds’ has been going strong for many decades now. In the previous century, Saddam Hussein (1937-2006) initiated the so-called Al-Anfal campaign (23 February-6 September 1988) in the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), to “systematically terrorize and exterminate the Kurdish population in northern Iraq . . . and to test the effects of his chemical and biological weapons,” as worded by a one-page leaflet published by the U.S. State Department on 13 March 2003. Colin Powell’s State Department alleged that a total of 40 Kurdish villages had been subjected to chemical attacks at the time, focusing primarily on the now infamous case of Halabja (16 March 1988). The quoted propaganda leaflet cited the Professor for the Medical Genetics of the University of Liverpool Christine Gosden as saying that subsequent to the attacks, Iraqi soldiers with “chem-bio suits on” entered the village to ascertain “how many people were dead . . . and how many survived.” In August 1988, many hapless Iraqi Kurds fled into Turkey, escaping “certain death” at the hands of the Iraqi strongman and his armed forces – “nearly 70,000 of them fled for their lives and were parked in three widely separated camps in southeast Turkey.” In this way the Kurds were beginning to be transformed into a household name in the West. A few years later, in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm (17 January–28 February 1991), unleashed by George H. W. Bush (1924-2018, term 1989-93), more “than one million Kurdish refugees swamped the borders with Turkey and Iran,” as recounted by the professional photographer Richard Wayman for the BBC. These Iraqi Kurds had risen up against Baghdad following Bush, Senior’s vain words of encouragement – “the Iraqi people should put Saddam aside,” he had said two days after the liberation of Kuwait (29 February 1991). Rather than providing armed or any other assistance to either Shiíte insurgents in the south or Kurdish rebels in the north, President Bush’s words proved empty and hollow. The Kurds in the north were again forced to flee in the direction of Turkey and Iran, with many dying in the mountains “before the setting-up of safe havens by coalition forces on the Iraqi side of the border brought some respite for their plight.” Saddam Hussein’s forces suppressed the uprising, killing about 30,000 people in the process. As a result, “more than 70,000 Iraqi Shiites” ended up in the neighbouring Islamic Republic of Iran. The UNHCR gauged that by mid-April 1991, an “estimated 1 million Iraqi refugees [had] arrived in Iran.” Whereas in the north, hordes of Iraqi Kurds, more than 500,000, ended up huddling on the snow-covered slopes on either side of the border with Turkey.

As a result, George H. W. Bush and the First Gulf War succeeded in really placing the Iraqi  Kurds at the forefront of many news broadcast, little by little transforming the “Kurds” into veritable “champions” of the West – particularly, “[g]iven the international attention the Iraqi Kurds received after their tragic exodus before a vengeful Saddam in April 1991,” as expressed by the eminent specialist Prof. Dr. Michael M. Gunter. Eventually, the Baghdad government’s suppression of its Kurdish population in the north was only to lead to the establishment of a de facto state and government under the protection of the Allied Poised Hammer forces stationed in south-eastern Turkey and U.N. Security Council resolution 688 (5 April 1991) – a de facto state that officially came alive on 4 October 1992, when the Kurdish parliament (formed after elections held on 19 May) called for “the creation of a Federated State of Kurdistan in the liberated part of the country,” however simultaneously adding a commitment to the territorial integrity of the Iraqi Republic (or Ba’athist Iraq led by Saddam and his cronies). And many years later, this hesitant Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) attempted to go all the way, calling for a popular referendum on the issue of independence (25 September 2017). Alas, in spite of the (Iraqi) Kurds’ international standing, regional and other geo-political considerations nipped the effort in the bud.

Kurds all around: The Case of Turkey

In a roundabout way the world had become aware of ‘the Kurds’ via Saddam and his dastardly deeds, turning them into the darlings of the wider public and its leadership alike.

US President Bill Clinton (1992-2000)

For instance, in January 1993, the then-newly inaugurated U.S. President Clinton (1993-2001) wrote Senator Harry Reid the following lines: “I can assure that my Administration will not turn its back on the Kurds,” indicating that championing the Kurds is a bipartisan issue in American politics. This international support for the Kurds of northern Iraq, did not mean that the Kurds themselves at the time unreservedly supported one another: on 4 October 1992, the day that the KRG became a de facto state, the Iraqi Kurds began military operations against the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party that had been battling the Turkish state next door since 1984.

For, the Kurds, as a ‘nation’ or ethnic population group sharing a “rich legacy of memories,” inhabit the territories of a variety of other nation states – Kurds live “spread out across Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.” And that really is the crux of the Kurdish issue, possibly in conjunction with the fact that they “speak an Indo-European language,” as added by the AP. Like the Palestinians, the Kashmiris, or the Tamils, the Kurds constitute a nation without its own nation-state. In this context, the AP’s Bassem Mroue insightfully remarks that, in the aftermath of World War II (1940-45), a “Kurdish state was briefly established with support from the Soviet Union in Mahabad, northern Iran, in January 1947, but it collapsed 11 months later.” Ever since the 19th century, the international order has been a happy concert of nation states – with Turkey and Israel arguably being the two explicitly 20th-century representatives of its kind in the region. But unlike the other stateless entities, the Kurds are assured of the West’s public as well as state-sponsored support, though the recent referendum débâcle in northern Iraq shows that open support will only go that far.

In the context of Kurdish yearnings for a proper homeland and cultural expression, the case of Turkey is all but emblematic.

A Policy of Sunnification: Sultan Selim the Grim and the Kurds

For this reason, Turks and Kurds are names oftentimes mentioned in the same breath – with the latter playing the role of the underdog and suppressed and the first that of the brutal oppressor and cruel tyrant. But Turkish and Kurdish populations have been sharing space the same in the same locality for centuries – for “four hundred years of more,” as verbalised by Dr Christopher Houston. And the word doing the rounds in Turkey is that Sultan Selim I (1512-20, commonly referred to as Yavuz, in Turkish, and the Grim, in English) was the one to have physically sealed an alliance between Kurds and Turks, an alliance many see as equally vibrant and valid today as then. Selim ascended the throne in 1512, and straightaway began campaigning “against ‘hererodox’ Shi’i Muslims in eastern Anatolia.” For, at that stage, a new enemy had emerged in the east – the Safavid dynasty (1501-1722), officially established by Shah Ismail who was crowned in the city of Tabriz. The Safavids emerged out of a Sufi movement or brotherhood known as the Safaviyya, in reference to its founder, the mystic Safi-ad-din Ardabili (1252–1334). Shah Ismail managed to solidify his rule over the whole of Iran within a decade and was renowned as an “intolerant Shi’i ruler,” transforming the lands to the east of the Ottomans into a genuine bastion of Shi’a Islam, a policy that has led to the fact that even today more than a third of the world’s Shi’a Muslims live in Iran. As a result, in the early 16th century, the Safavids constituted a direct religious as well as political threat to the Ottomans in the west. In reaction, Sultan Selim turned his polity into the ultimate champion of Sunni Islam, as convincingly argued by Irène Beldiceanu-Steinherr in her now classic 1975 article. As a result, the Ottomans showed no mercy and upon ascending the throne Selim began a campaign against non-Sunni believers in his realm (who could constitute a fifth column) , leading to the deaths of 70,000 aherents of ‘heterrodox’ (now uniformly called Alevi) beliefs among the Turkmen and Kurdish tribes present in eastern and southeastern Anatolia.

In fact, a little more than five years ago, this just recounted episode of bloody carnage, though happening about 500 years ago, vividly occupied public opinion and public discourse in Turkey. On Wednesday, 29 May 2013, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus in Istanbul, a bridge that would be known as ‘Yavuz Sultan Selim,’ after the 9th Ottoman sultan (1512-20). Then-President of the Republic Abdullah Gül (2007-14) made the public announcement on the same day. At the time, Turkey’s Alevi community (a nominally Muslim group adhering to a heterodox belief-system not to be confused with the creed of Syria’s Alawites, known as Nusayrilik, in Turkish), consisting of an estimated 15 to 20 million, was outraged. In addition, the opposition CHP MP from Tunceli (previously known as Dersim and primarily inhabited by Kurds calling themselves Zaza who are primarily practitioners of the Alevi faith) Hüseyin Aygün, for his part, declared that “[g]iving Sultan Selim’s name to such a big bridge is nothing but laying dynamite [underneath the structure of] solidarity, [and] brotherhood between Sunnis and Alevis in Turkey.” And once again, Turkey’s AKP-led government employed the past to mould the present – in this case, drive home its continued adherence to what I have described as Tayyip Erdoğan’s ‘policy of Sunnification.’ And the Prez and his AKP henchmen are doing the same thing with regards to the Kurds as well. Their point of reference is again Sultan Selim, for obvious reasons one of Erdoğan’s favourite Ottoman sultans whose tomb he even visited on the day that Turkey’s Constitutional referendum was held and he became Turkey’s first Absolute President: 16 April 2017. When Sultan Selim was still alive, following his suppression of Shi’a-minded individuals within his own fold, he set out to confront Shah Ismail. The Ottoman and Safavid armies met at the battle of Çaldıran on 23 August 1514 – located halfway between Erzincan and Tabriz. Shah Ismail tasted defeat and Sultan Selim subsequently entered Tabriz on 6 September but was forced to leave on the 15th. In the aftermath of Çaldıran, Selim annexed territories stretching from Erzurum in the north to Diyar Bakr (as the city was known since its conquest by an Arab tribe known as Banu Bakr, renamed as Diyarbakır by Atatürk himself, in 1937) in the south, thereby bringing the Ottomans face-to-face with the Kurds. Sultan Selim, using the scholar and notable, İdris of Bitlis (c. 1455-1520) as an intermediary, entered into “treaty agreements” with various tribal lords, in order “to secure the allegiance of the Kurdish chieftains of [what is now known as] south-eastern Anatolian and northern Iraq,” as worded by the eminent Ottoman historian Dr Colin Imber. As a result of the Kurdo-Ottoman entente, the Kurds were able to retain de facto control of their lands (with some tribal chiefs continuing to mint their own coins). Christopher Houston characterizes the situation as follows: “the Kurdish provinces were exception to the much more typical and highly centralized administrative pattern” practiced by the Ottomans.

This ‘legend’ of the compact between Selim the Grim (as a stand-in for the ‘Turks’) and the ‘Kurds’ through the intermediary of İdris-i Bidlîsî continues to enjoy great currency in Turkey today. Bidlîsî as an “informal Ottoman representative” was a deft negotiator who was able to wrest the best of deals for both parties: he was able to persuade the “Kurdish notables to join the Ottoman ranks and conversely . . . he tried to reassure the Ottoman court of the reliability of the Kurds as allies,” as put by Ebru Sönmez, a graduate student who is well-versed on the topic of İdris-i Bidlîsî. Important in this context is the fact that the figure of Bidlîsî also posessed considerable religious standing, who referred to himself as a ‘poor dervish weeping for the love of God’ and even as a ‘messenger’ (or ‘proselytizer’) of Islam (dâ‘î). As a result, it seems certain that the religious argument, or rather appeals to Sunni solidarity in the face of Shi’a heresy, played a major part in the negotiating process.

The Ottomans as Sunni champions were joined by Sunni Kurdish tribes living in the border lands located between the Ottoman and Safavid spheres. Opposition to the Shi’a threat to the east consolidated the Ottoman resolve to take up the mantle of the Prophet’s cause, and following the resolution of the Safavid danger, Sultan Selim turned his attention to the Mamluks to the south. A power contest which was to lead to an even greater strengthening of the Ottomans’ Islamic legitimacy: in the process, conquering the whole of the Arab Middle East during his short reign, defeating the Mamluks and thus also securing Ottoman control over the Haramayn or Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Madinah. Selim’s patronage of the last descendant of the Abbasid Caliphs eventually led to the Ottoman claim to the Khilāfa (or Hilafet, in Turkish) or Caliphate (succession to the Prophet as the nominal head of the world of Islam). Fast forwarding to the 21st century, where the Prez and his AKP henchmen have been implementing their policy of Sunnification, alotted an important role to the Kurds in their overall scheme for the country. Back in the Ottoman days, the Kurdish regions of Anatolia constituted “vital frontier provinces of the empire,” far removed from İstanbul and the centre of Ottoman gravity. This situation continued into the Republican era as well: in “the early 20th century, Anatolia was thus home to ethnically heterogeneous Muslim groups . . . in addition to a large majority of Turkish Muslims, there were Kurds, Arabs, Lazes, Muslim Georgians, Greek-speaking Muslims, Albanians, Macedonian Muslims, Pomaks, Serbian Muslims, Bosnian Muslims, Tatars, Circassians, Abkhazians and Dagestanis among others.” And, a “policy of ‘Turkification’ carried out in the first decades of the republican existence has meant that these various ethnic subgroups have in time merged with the Turkish mainstream.” And in a twist of fate that seems doubly ironic, Turkish Kemalists and left-leaning Kurds alike appealed to ancient history to down-play any Islamic roots. As I have explained at length elswhere, Kemalists employed the Hittites who had built up a state structure in 2nd millennium BCE Anatolia to contruct an acceptable historical precursor for the Anatolian Turk, employing an obscure propaganda tract written in 1922 by Ahmed Ağaoğlu (1869-1939). In the same vein, left-leaning Kurds utilised a 1927 entry in the first edition of the venerable Encyclopaedia of Islam (1913-1936). Vladimir ‘Victor’ Minorsky (1877-1966)’s entries on “Kurdistan” and “Kurds” are the first mention of the “Medes or Aryans . . . as the real ancestors of the Kurds in the seventh century BCE.”

What’s in a name? Kurdistan, the South-East and ‘Rojava’

The Kurds, living in the remote ‘South-East’ (which is the Turkish way of denoting ‘Kurdistan’ without actually using the noun itself) of Turkey, constituted the single one exception in the above-mentioned ‘Turkification‘ effort, the one single ethnic group not to have been subsumed into the Turkish mainstream, and, most ominously, still primarily using its own language with many Kurds even unable to speak or understand Turkish. The great majority of the Kurds living in Turkey are pious Sunni Muslims, whose allegiance to the Prophet seems beyond doubt. This is important as the Republic of Turkey’s 21st-century leadership is “taking the country down a distinctly Islamic path.” In May 2015, for instance, Tayyip Erdoğan addressed an adoring crowd in the south-eastern city of Şanlıurfa, a place with a mixed population consisting primarily of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens. He told his captive audience that his fondest wish is that “[o]ur Lord would make our unity, our togetherness last forever.” Early in January 2016, “while addressing a meeting of municipal headman (known as muhtar, in Turkish) in the capital Ankara,” the Prez elaborated on the sentiment expressed as follows: “[m]ay our Lord make our unity, our togetherness last forever. What are we saying then? We will be one, [we] will be strong, we will be brothers, all together we will be Turkey.” At that time, I put forward that “the AKP leadership is . . . trying to re-define the concept of Turkish unity (or Turkish citizenship, if you will) as a God-given quality, as a state of unity and togetherness that is grounded in a common faith. This means that the citizens of the New Turkey will be held together by means of their common allegiance to the religion of Islam and the tenets of the Prophet.” In this context, AKP-led Ankara aims to integrate the Kurdish minority fully into the mainstream of the country, and the fact tha the vast majority of Kurds living in Turkey are apparently pious Muslims, this scheme really seems like a no-brainer. Were it not that a number of Kurds, a number of apparently non-believing Kurds espousing Marxism and  belonging to the Kurdish Workers Party (or PKK), has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984. Particularly in the 1990s, this fight was very bloody and intense, at the time commentators kept on repeating that this “war-on-terror” (terörle mücadele, in Turkish) had already claimed 30,000 lives (a figure that has now become 40,000). At the outset of its rule, the AKP government attempted a peaceful resolution, but following its electoral misfortune in the summer of 2015, the fight against the PKK has returned full-scale. And now, the “war-on-terror” has become an outright fight against unbelievers.

Apo and the Kurds: From Marxist-Leninism to Libertarian Municipalism

The organic links between the PKK in Turkey and the PYD (Democratic Union Party) in Syria mean that the Prez’s wrath against disbelieving Kurds in Turkey is easily transposed to their brethren south of the border: as “Turkey insists [that] the PKK, PYD, and Iranian affiliate, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) and its East Kurdistan Defense Units (YRK) military wing, are one in the same, claiming differences in names are a semantical attempt to obscure the PKK’s role in Syria and Iran,” as related by Andrew Self and Jared Ferris in their in-depth 2016 piece: “Dead Men Tell No Lies.” Many supporters of ‘the Kurds’ dispute these claims, but the fact remains that the PKK as well as the PYD both subsribe to the “ideas of ‘libertarian municipalism’ developed by the libertarian socialist thinker Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) in an attempt to create a society based on liberty, equality and true democracy — an ‘ideology, a world view, a vision’ that unites the Kurds in opposition to either autocratic or Islamist reaction, as expressed by the Kurdish activist and Ph.D. student Dilar Dirik,” as I summarised back in January 2015. And these admittedly pretty obscure ideas were popularised amongst disbelieving Kurds in Syria and Turkey by none other that Abdullah Öcalan (popularly known as Apo), the imprisoned PKK leader enjoying the hospitality of the Turkish state on the island-prison of İmralı since 1999.

Last summer, Murray Bookchin’s daugher Debbie wrote a long piece about her father and his legacy. In it she recalls a conversation of theirs held in April 2004. Bookchin then told his daughter the following: “Apparently, the Kurds have been reading my work and are trying to implement my ideas.” Debbie Bookchin goes on to explain that her father had at that stage received a letter from an intermediary writing on behalf of the jailed terrorist leader Abdullah Öcalan, whom she describes as the PKK’s “co-founder, sole theoretician, and undisputed leader.” Apo and his movement started out as a strict Marxist-Leninist outfit, intent on opposing Turkish imperialist oppression while fighting for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan (or ‘Land of the Kurds’), which is the primary reason that the noun used to be off-limits in Turkey. During the heyday of Kemalism, a mere mention of the word Kürdistan was tantamount to an act of sedition oftentimes leading to a jail sentence and worse. In its current post-Kemalist phase, the use of the noun in Turkish has not been totally normalised but the erstwhile stigma has been removed. In great part as a result of its Islamic roots and connotations, I would say. Dr Houston explains that the denomination’s pedigree is “the Seljuk empire’s creation of a province named Kurdistan . . . in the mid-twelfth century.” The outspoken Kurdish specialist and “CEO of [the] Democratic Progress Institute” Kerim Yıldız then elucidates that it “was [, however,] not until the sixteenth century . . . that the phrase ‘Kurdistan’ came into common usage to denote a system of Kurdish fiefs,” adding that the “range of land which Kurdistan encompasses has fluctuated historically, but it was and remains predominantly the geographical region that spreads across the mountainous area where the borders of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey meet.” And the Syrian Kurds of the PYD (and their military affiliates, the YPG or People’s Protection Units, and the YPJ or Women’s Protection Units) have cunningly used Syria’s not-so civil war to carve out their own homeland, which they sensibly did not name Kurdistan sufficing to use the Kurdish moniker Rojava (meaning West in the Kurmanji dialect of the Kurdish language).

The PYD set out to implement Bookchin’s ideas in  three so-called ‘cantons’ in northern Syria on the Turkish border – Jazira, Kobane, and Afrin – after Syria’s central government was forced to abandon the area to concentrate on the fight against jihadi insurgents, or rather terrorists, in other parts of the country. These cantons are home to an estimated 4.6 million people all together – including 2 million Syrian Kurds, as well as smaller population groups of Arabs, Turkmen, Syriacs, and other ethnic minorities. Debbie Bookchin remarks that “the Kurds officially dropped the name [Rojava] in 2016, in recognition of the multi-ethnic nature of the region and of their commitment to freedom for all, not just the Kurdish people.”

The Prez: Neo-Sultanism in modern Turkey and beyond.

Situated on the Turco-Syrian border, Rojava (or whichever name might be in vogue) is a constant thorn in the Prez’s flesh. As such, the presence of a potentially independent or autonomous Kurdish-dominated enclave espousing not Muslim but rather ‘libertarian municipalist’ aims and ideals, is not just anathema to the AKP policy of Sunnification but could also potentially unhinge AKP-led Turkey’s move towards an “Anatolian federation of Muslim ethnicities, possibly linked to a revived caliphate” and beholden to the God-given Sharia, as I suggested in 2013. As a result, Turkey is fully determined to intervene in northern Syria and nip any ‘heretic’ or unIslamic enterprise in the bud. Trump’s sudden announcement took the world by surprise and the issue of U.S. involvement in Syria and the fate of ‘the Kurds’ still seems up in the air. The U.S. President, his National Security Advisor and the Secretary of State have all come out with contradictory and confusing statements. But, in the end, on Friday, 11 January 2019, the U.S.-led coalition released the following statement: the U.S. forces have “begun the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria. Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements.” On the same day, the estwhile Turkish diplomat and politician Yaşar Yakış has presciently written that the “YPG is known to have 20,000 to 30,000 armed personnel, including the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). Is Turkey going to ‘neutralise’ all of those 30,000 people? What does it mean to ‘neutralise’?” In Turkish military parlance ‘neutralise’ (or etkisiz hale getirmek, in Turkish) means kill or execute. Yakış, for his part, asks whether this is “a realistic goal?” . . . It seems reasonable to assume that the coming weeks will bring clarity and will also show what kind of outcomes the ongoing interplay between the U.S., Russia, Israel and Turkey will deliver.

But the Prez as the self-style leader of Sunni Islam is bound to act in Syria . . . and what will happen next is as yet an open question.

21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans. the greater Middle East, and the world beyond.. 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 revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in the English language Turkish press, culminating in him becoming the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @TheErimtanAngle. Read Can’s archive here.

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