Oh What A Tangled Web!

Whilst noting that the EU Commission is trying to gently nudge Turkey on the criminalisation of adultery issue – European Commission spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori told a Brussels news conference that the proposed law “could trigger confusion and damage the perception in the European Union of Turkey’s reform efforts” – this post is not an attempt to re-open the useful and interesting exchange of views that took place around a previous post.

What I would like to do today is focus on another dimension of the same problem – the Turkish state’s relations with its own Kurdish minority – and how this relationship could become increasingly complicated depending on how the internal stability of Iraq evolves.

The pretext for this post is a very interesting guest editorial on Juan Cole’s Informed Comment earlier today. The topic of the editorial (by specialist writer Eden Naby): the plight of Iraq’s Assyrian Christians.

Now this might seem fairly orthogonal to the question of Turkey accession, were it not for the fact that this minority is only one of several in the region in question, and the region in question is – of course – the Kurdish zone of Iraq.

It is unusual for information from Christian villages to filter outside the area currently under military and political pressure from the Kurdish Democratic Party. Kurds are barring Western journalists from entering villages like Dayrabun (“Monastary of the Bishop”) which are not in any danger zone, but are being denied resettlement by their Christian inhabitants (reported by Thiry August, a Belgian who tried to visit the Faysh Khabour area this summer). The KDP is determined to expand its control as far to the west and south as possible into areas now inhabited by ChaldoAssyrians. Under the Transitional Administrative Law, so favorable to Kurds, the objects of Western sympathy and funds, any territory in the three provinces adjoining Dohuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniya (Ninawa, Tamim [Kirkuk] and Diyala) that Kurds can show they controlled on March 19, 2003 (prior to the invasion), may become part of the Kurdish controlled region in northern Iraq (TAL, Article 53A).

This provision allows Kurds to create “facts on the ground” in the Mosul and Kirkuk areas in particular, at the expense of unarmed ethnic and religious minorities – to wit – the Christians of Iraq, the Yezidis, the Shabat, and the Turkomens. The advantages of controlling Kirkuk are well known. But the Mosul area, now the scene of fierce attacks on Christians and Turkomens, are less well recognized.

The whole editorial is interesting and illuminating, and is well worth reading in its entirety. But two points seem to spring from the page: firstly, the details of the hurriedly-agreed-to Transitional Administrative Law turn out to be pretty damn important (more on this in another post perhaps), and, secondly, the mentioning of one minority in particular, the Turkomens, something which should set off alarm bells somewhere.

Now it is impossible to draw up any credible definitive scenario for the future evolution of Iraq post January’s elections. Yesterday’s events among others should clearly underline that the situation is far from stable and under control (as indeed should Allawi’s admission in interviews today that there are places where voting may well not be possible for security reasons, just how many these will actually turn out to be remains to be seen). However it is clear that there are a number of possible scenarios, and one amongst these whose possibility has to be seriously taken into account in any forward planning would be that of a disintegration of the state along ethnic/religious lines. This is of course only one among several (none of them looking especially appetising) alternatives. But the possibility exists (and with it the equally awesome possibility of Baghdad, incorporating as it does the Shiite Sadr city, being turned into a grotesque rerun of Beirut or Sarajevo).

The question is, what would Turkey do in the event of this nightmare becoming reality? Well one strong possibility would seem to be to send troops into the Kurdish zone. And what, you may well ask, would be the explanation offered for any such intevention – perhaps now you see where I am going with all this – well certainly not the supression of the elemental democratic rights of the Kurds. No, a far more likely explanation would be the the protection of the Turkomen population from some sort of ethnic cleansing.

The troubling problem is that this might be more than just a pretext. The danger, at least if we accept the kind of information which Eden Naby and others are offering, is that this threat could become a real one. Hence I arrive, by a rather circuitous route, to the conclusion that, apart from the human rights element which is obvious, the EU has a direct pragmatic reason for getting itself involved now – by informing itself, voicing its opinions, putting pressure – concerning what may, or may not, be going on in the Kurdish zone.

In conclusion I would like to point out that it is not my purpose here to single out for condemnation the long-suffering Kurds. What I think we should by now be well able to see, whether it be from evidence in Bosnia, Chechenya, Kosovo or Afghanistan, is that being the victim of oppression doesn’t turn you into a Saint. More likely it precipitates desires for revenge and retaliatory action which, in an exploding circle of violence, have the potential to get seriously out of hand. This much at least we should have been able to learn.

Update: Following up on the links in Eden Naby’s article I found this piece from Patrick Cockburn in the Independent about the recent fighting in Tal Afar, which seems to illustrate my point perfectly:

The Americans claim that Tal Afar is a hub for militants smuggling fighters and arms into Iraq from nearby Syria. Turkish officials make clear in private they believe that the Kurds, the main ally of the US in northern Iraq, have managed to get US troops involved on their side in the simmering ethnic conflict between Kurds and Turkmen.

“The Iraqi government forces with the Americans are mainly Kurdish,” complained one Turkmen source. A Turkish official simply referred to the Iraqi military units involved in the attack on Tal Afar as “peshmerga”, the name traditionally given to Kurdish fighters.

10 thoughts on “Oh What A Tangled Web!

  1. “In conclusion I would like to point out that it is not my purpose here to single out for condemnation the long-suffering Kurds.”

    That can be awoided easily: by not talking about ‘the Kurds’, but about ‘the Peshmergas’, or ‘armed members of PUK, KDP, and some smaller groups’, or some similar formulation.

    As for your main issue, I have to admit Iraq is an explosive issue for Turkey’s domestic developments. AFAIK Turkey is already in Iraq, against a marginalised Kongra-Gel (ex PKK) that thought this is the time to stir the pot again, but fighting the main Iraqi Kurdish militias might just be what gets support for the Kongra-Gel up in Turkey – and given the role played by the Turkish military in the Cyprus issue, I can’t dismiss the possibility of willful [domestic] escalation by that side either.

    So maybe the EU can have (and definitely should try to have) a tempering effect, but the main problem is beyond its influence – and Iraq’s American overlords show a frightening pattern of doing wrong everything that can be done wrong, with Najaf and Tal Afar the latest examples. I wonder, could a President Kerry be explained what’s the problem? (I’m not optimistic.)

  2. There was a great program on PBS about the oil pipeline set to run through Turkey and how the Kurds might through a “spanner” in the works (it also dealt generally with the problems faced by Georgia and Azerbaijan as well).

    Here’s the


    I was reminded of how Baku played a central role at the close of WWI and through Russian Civil War as a point of interest for many parties who wanted to control its oil wealth.

    Given how bad the Soviets were at exploiting oil, I’m curious how well preserved the oil fields in the Caspian, etc. are.

  3. “That can be awoided easily: by not talking about ‘the Kurds’, but about ‘the Peshmergas’, or ‘armed members of PUK, KDP, and some smaller groups’, or some similar formulation.”

    Point taken. But doesn’t this simply illustrate the problem. Just what role will these groups have in the Kurdish zone in even a ‘most positive outcome’ federal Iraq state, or the Sadr militias in the South, or extremist terrorists (as opposed to moderate nationalists) in Chechenya, or the UCK in Kossovo etc etc.

    I am suggesting that there is a pretty delicate dynamic involved here, and that this seems to be a problem which needs addressing, and solutions need to be found. As you suggest, to date we are not going about this in a way which suggests we are learning any lessons.

  4. A Turkomen representative was pleading on Turkish NTV, a few days ago, for the US government to stop attacks on Tal Afar and that no one in Tal Afar were harboring terrorists. The next day he said he felt vindicated because after the bombings, US forces and Iraqi police came into the town and did door to door searches, found nothing and received no enemy fire in the process. He said “its clear whoever told the Americans had a different agenda.”

    Meanwhile, foreign minister Gul said that the situation makes Turkish position in Iraq difficult. By the “Turkish position” he was referring to the hundreds of Turkish companies working in Iraq and the US’ Incirilik air base which is currently providing logistic support. He said if unwarranted attacks on the Turkomen continue, Turkey would have to pull out its companies and restrict US’ ability to use Incirlik. He said he got word from Powell that such operations would in fact stop.

    I think the Turkish government knows any military action into Iraq would be a fiasco, and it knows the consternation it would recieve from the international community. Most are wary of Turkey using minorities as an excuse for strategic military action (ie Cyprus)…

  5. I think the most important thing the EU could do would be to put out a unanimous statement that lack of a deal on Cyprus and/or Turkish occupation or troops in Iraq would scupper any chances of Turkish accession to the EU.

    I, however, have no confidence that the EU has the backbone to make such a statement. It is far more likely that they will mutter about Islam and adultery and dither, solving none of the problems.

  6. I would also want to make a comparitive statement.

    The reason the Kurdish political class is getting more hardline is that they are feeling pressure from Kurdish society. That pressure is arising because the average Kurdish man on the street has no confidence that the US and UK won’t turn over Iraq to another murderous autocrat (possibly Iyad Alawi) or to a bunch of religious fundamentalists (Moktada Al-Sadr and even Al-Sistani on a bad day), either of which would be very bad for the Kurdish people. And let’s not fool ourselves – bad for the Kurdish people means mass graves and massacres. Meanwhile, Turkey is threatening to invade should the Kurds even keep their substantial autonomy, and might impose an economic blockade like the one it is using to strangle Armenia, who they seem to feel hasn’t suffered enough at the hands of the Turks.

    The longer the uncertainty remains, the more the hardliners will gain power, especially since the moderates have nothing to show for their moderation.

    A similar dynamic is occuring in Kosovo, where the only people to materially improve the situation of the Albanian supermajority are the hardliners. Rugova did civil disobedience for eight years, and nobody cared, while the Serbs systematically purged Albanians from all the institutions and good jobs. But a little rebellion, and suddenly Kosovo is de facto independent.

    Then of course, the good bureaucrats in the EU and UN begin to stall, saying there needs to be a development of structures and local self-government, but meanwhile let’s leave the status of independence because it could upset people. But this limbo means that there is no economic investment and no international recognition, so everything is in limbo. Of course, if the hardliners burn down a few homes of Serbs, then suddenly the EU, US, and UN start paying attention again.

    The only way to give moderate political forces power is to give them something for their moderation. That’s what we need to do for the Kurds, by enforcing the TAL or giving them their own regional government enshrined in the law, and we need to do the same thing for Kosovo, because there is no chance of the 90% Albanian majority living under Serbia again.

    Frankly, we don’t need the Turks nearly as much as they need us, and it is probably about time we started acting that way.

  7. This reminds me of someting. One of the conditions for the various Baltic states to join the EU was the signing of peace treaties with other countries and provision of minority rights.

    Since Turkey is occupying Cyprus, blockading the border with Armenia, threatening to invade Iraq, and has recently threatened to go to war with both Greece and Syria, is this provision going to be used with Turkey?

  8. The provision on the Baltics went the way of numerous EU directives, promulgated but not enforced. It’s one of the more rarified Brussels arts, I’m led to understand. In this case, however, there was a good reason. Requiring signed and ratified peace treaties before accession made the accession process hostage to the hardliners in the Russian Duma. Giving Moscow a veto on EU decisions was not what anyone in Brussels had in mind, and the thing was quietly dropped.

    And to the extent that anyone on the outside pays attention to Cyprus, the last thing they will have heard is that the Greek Cypriots scuppered the last deal; it’s hard to hold that against Turkey.

    Anyway, effective EU involvement in any internal Iraqi matter will require politicians to pull their heads out of the sand, where EU policy on Iraq seems still to be made. Public interest wouldn’t hurt, but with the only thing on Iraq I see in German media is “the Americans are screwing the pooch,” I wouldn’t hold out hope for a policy that articulates, let alone pursues, European interests.

    Europe hasn’t had an Iraq policy for the better part of a decade, why start now?

  9. But the Americans are screwing the pooch and there is not much we can do about it until they leave. And there was an Iraq policy for the better part of a decade. Do nothing. Something which is a very sensable

  10. Early Saturday morning (10/16) the ChaldoAssyrians of Iraq awoke to another set of coordinated bombings of churches – five – all in Baghdad. With the Kurds pressuring towns like Alqosh to accept inclusion into KDP territory, families being given the choice of converting to Sunni or Shi’a but to Islam none-the-less or suffer the consequences, and Christian teenaged boys being pulled off their bikes and beheaded in Mosul, it is easy to see why Ramadan is a time of fear for non-Muslims. What has become of the holy and the sacred in the Muslim dominant countries is a threat not just to Christians but to moderate, secular and tolerant Muslims as well. As ChaldoAssyrians search for safe areas where they might live in Iraq, they are faced with forced conversion – seems like a bad Hollywood B movie – or moving back into the villages in the north from which they were driven by the Baathists. But Kurdish population expansion, whether coming in from neighboring countries or from Iraq itself, continues to be a real barrier to such sanctuary in ChaldoAssyrian ancestral villages. And now, as we see the much maligned and unprotected Yezidis being jailed for resisting the closing of the door to Arabic at universities within Kurdish control, the face of victims making victims becomes more real than ever.
    The large and often divided Christian diaspora from Middle Eastern countries sees the situation in Iraq as the bellweather for what could happen in the entire region, and is beginning to raise its voice to stem the ethnic cleansing of the last viable Aramaic speaking people of the world.
    This oldest continuously spoken and written language of the Middle East, now endangered through the threat to ChaldoAssyrians, deserves support from all, including Muslim intellectuals and spiritual leaders. Sane voices need to be raised to protect the ChaldoAssyrians. No people should be faced with the choice of denying their faith or being exterminated. Not in the 21st century. They must have a safe haven, as the Transitional Administrative Law has promised, in the Nineveh Plains. Those who are stranded in Athens, Damascus, Qamishly and Amman must be enabled to return to their ancestral villages in northern Iraq. ChaldoAssyrians cannot be punished to be forever scattered because they are Christian.

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