When Condoleezza Rice was talking about a new world order and suggesting that borders reminiscent of the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement were doomed to change and civilian and military pundits were penning down articles about new states would be carved out from existing states in the Middle East and North Africa, no one perhaps was envisioning what a dangerous Pandora’s Box was opening up… Worse, were the Arab Spring engineers aware what great challenges nourishing democracy in the Middle East and North Africa would entail?
Naivety, ignorance or both?
After decades of strong American involvement, manipulation or engineering – however it might be perceived – in the Middle East and Northern Africa, the strong dictators of yesterday were all replaced with structures difficult to be described either as nation or state. Libya is still trying to forge some sort of an effective governance years after the brutal murder of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. After the removal of Hosni Mobarak, Egypt initially was taken over by Muslim Brotherhood, the sole organized power apart the National Democratic Party. Within a year Muslim Brotherhood regime and President Mohammad Morsi was removed from power with a military coup – believed to be engineered and supported by the Israelis and the USA. The invasion of Iraq was supposedly aimed at finding and liquidating the weapons of mass destruction dictator Saddam Hussein possessed. Iraq was levelled, entire government setup was destroyed and the country was left with an acute inefficient governance… Weapons of mass destruction the evidence of which were proudly declared by American secretary of state at the UN Security Council turned to be nothing further than fabrication. Yet, Iraq was transformed into an uneasy federation, with Kurds enjoying advanced autonomy. Repeated efforts to destabilize and “democraticise” Iran so far failed, even the Azeri minority could not be convinced to rebel against the Mullahs.
The decision of American President Donald Trump to pack up and leave Syria within several months was of course an alarming development for the Kurds who despite being betrayed by foreign abettors each and every time all along the past many decades believed once again they could carve out from Syria a state if not an autonomous self-administering zone. If the Kurds of Iraq, with the help of Americans achieved it, why would not Syrian Kurds succeed? One factor was largely ignored. Iraqi Kurds developed into a self-governing autonomous region because of Turkish collaboration – despite occasional differences of approach – with the United States from 1993 onwards. Yet, no one can turn a blind eye to the threat posed by the development of an autonomous northern Iraqi Kurdish region to Turkey’s own national and territorial integrity. If a Kurdish autonomous, or independent region is to be carved out of Syria Turkey might end up having an over 900 kilometer-long border with a belt of Kurdish entities, if not a full-fledged state with territorial demands from Turkey.
Therefore, it is rather absurd to assume that with Americans withdrawing from Northern Syria – if they indeed eventually withdraw – Turkey might engage in a merciless war of annihilation. While Ankara cannot allow creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq particularly while the Kurdish groups there continue maintaining organic relations with the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) gang, it cannot either undertake any move without considering domestic repercussions being the country with highest Kurdish population. Thus, it is rather difficult to talk about Turkey’s preparedness to engage in a military operation towards the east of River Euphrates without touching on the terms of national security, existential threats and similar things. Equally, the issue cannot be discussed if the Kurdish issue is to be ignored or not visited with a realistic approach.
The Kurdish population is divided, segmented and dispersed. Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, among many other smaller nations, have Kurdish groups whose presence cannot be described adequately with the West’s minority-majority notion. Each country has its own uniqueness and ethnic groups, forming modern nations which have developed a sense of togetherness spanning centuries. Except the religious-ethnic divide, which unfortunately was made all the more blatant with the sad events of the 19th century, various ethnic, linguistic and cultural elements have become flesh and blood, an integrated one with the amalgam effect of the centuries spent together. Of course, no one can claim the decades of “nation-building” succeeded in full and all the differences have vanished, but particularly in central and western parts of Turkey, it is rather difficult to identify who is a Turk and who is a Kurd. In eastern and southeastern Anatolia, very much like the northern parts of Iraq, Syria and Iran, however, “assimilation” could not progress for various geographic, social and historical factors and what ought to have become the sub-identity remained as the first identity.
Put aside exaggerated or downsized estimations about the percentage of Kurds in the Turkish society it is a fact that Turkey has the largest number of Kurds. Their size or what percentage they constitute in the modern Turkish society are irrelevant, as Kurds are Turks and Turks are Kurds; they have largely become an integrated one. Some portions of the Kurdish population, particularly those in eastern and southeastern parts, have difficulties living like the first-class citizens of this country. The linguistic, cultural and, to some degree, the political problems the Kurdish people of this country are indeed a part of the overall democratization problem of Turkey which must be urgently addressed without compromising national and territorial integrity.
Is there any difference between the Kurd of Ankara and the Kurd of any small town in the eastern part of Euphrates in Syria? Apart from one being a Turkish citizen and the other a Syrian citizen, they are almost the same and proudly share the same ethnic and cultural background. Like ethnic Turkish or ethnic Arab groups living outside of Turkey, they are the relatives of this country that belongs to the Turks, Kurds and Arabs, as well as of course the Christian Greek, Armenian and Assyrian people. Losing this conviction would deprive Turkey of its rich cultural heritage and condemn it to a petty and desolate nation status.
Before Trump’s force withdrawal statement it was often stressed by Turks that “Americans, Israel or Turkey’s Western allies, seeking a belt of independent Kurdish statelets along Turkey’s eastern and southeastern borders cannot conform to the notion of alliance or concept of building a common better and secure future. If a handful of people in northern Syria are to be used by the Americans to advance their and the Israeli campaign against Iran under the disguise of fighting ISIL, and if such a formation might pose a threat for the national and territorial integrity of Turkey, should Turkey abide by the notion of alliance and turn the other cheek? What would the Americans, French, British or the Israelis do if they faced a similar threat?”
Now, if the US eventually withdraws from Northern Iraq Turkey may decide to make best use of the advantage and engage in an all-out operation towards the region. Russian-backed Assad administration of Syria might attempt to make best use of the situation and enhance its area of control. But, the eventual determining factor will be the fate of the American arms and ammunition provided to the Syria Kurds in full ignorance of Turkey’s repeated warnings of organic relations between those groups and the PKK gang. If the US withdraws and laves heavy weaponry and ammunition it provided with the Kurds, no one should expect Turkey to sit idle and allow such a capability unleash deadly attacks on Turkish targets.