Adrienne McPhail, Special to Arab News
The war in Iraq is changing the complexion of this region and when it is finally over we may find a different Middle East. Where the Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian borders touch, south of the Black Sea and north of what was once Mesopotamia, is a largely mountainous region that was once known as Kurdistan.
Thirty million Kurdish people live here. A people descended from predominantly Mediterranean stock, they resemble more southern Europeans than their Arab brothers. They speak their own language, hold tightly onto their ancient customs and are nominally Sunni Muslims of the Shafiite rite. At the end of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled by the West, they were offered a choice of independence by the Treaty of Sevres. However, three years later that treaty was overturned by the Treaty of Lausanne, and the majority of the Kurds were divided among Turkey and the newly formed country of Iraq.
It is the history of their 80 years of open persecution that may now create a new dimension in this part of the world.
There are 15 million Kurds living in southeastern Turkey, approximately seven million in Iran, six million in Iraq and 1.5 million in Syria. This week, Kurdish men are fighting with American soldiers against Saddam Hussein's army in northern Iraq.
Kurds represent 25 percent of the current Iraqi population. Sunni Arabs represent 20 percent and Shiite Arabs 55 percent. The abuse of the Iraqi Kurdish at the hands of Saddam Hussein is well known, particularly his gas attacks on their villages in the north. At the end of the first Gulf War promised US support ‹ they rose up against Saddam's regime and were defeated. The United States did reneged on their promise but they did ensure a secure buffer zone using their planes to patrol the northern skies.
This has given the Kurds of Iraq an autonomy that has allowed them to build their own civil and political infrastructure. Just across the border is the largest group of Kurdish people, living in Turkey. The Turkish government has carried out a political and military campaign against the Kurds of their country for over 15 years that has resulted in the destruction of 2,000 villages and the loss of 30,000 lives.
The concept that the Kurdish people are, in fact, another type of Turk has denied them their own ethnic identity, culture and language.
Only in the past year, since Turkey began its appeal to join the European Union, have the Kurds gained minor freedoms. Their political parties remain banned, academics and journalists jailed for supporting their cause. The Turkish government spends seven billion dollars a year on this pursuit.
Turkey's publicly voiced concerns regarding a possible influx of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees from Iraq are a smoke screen for the opposite. In a new Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds will have a direct and important say in their own destinies as equal partners in a newly formed democracy.
If even half of the 15 million Kurds of Turkey migrated into Iraq the balance of power between the Arab Muslims and the Kurds would suddenly be close to even.
If more than half the Kurds emigrate from Turkey, and perhaps from Iran and Syria as well, the profile of the new Iraq could suddenly become Kurdish. The network that exists among the entire spread-out Kurdish population is very impressive. Already, unofficially headquartered in northern Iraq, it consists of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
In Turkey there is the outlawed PUK. In Syria there is the Democratic Party-Syria and in Iran there is the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan. This political party is not recognized in Iran, as the Kurdish are not free to form a pro-Kurdish party. Yet, recognized or not, there is a strong network and a close working relationship between the Kurds of all four countries. While the Kurdish leaders of Iraq have continually proclaimed that their only interest is in having a democratic voice in the new Iraq, it does not follow that other Kurds will be willing to continue to live under oppressive governments while their brethren speak their own thoughts without fear of reprisal, in their own language, in their own country.
The Turks need to consider legislation that will elevate the Kurdish population within their country to an equal and valued part of society. If they fail to do this, the Kurds of Turkey will cross over into Iraq and become absorbed within that new society. It would not be the first time that the Kurds have found a way to overcome adversity.
(Adrienne McPhail is a freelance journalist based in Riyadh.)
Arab News Features 30 March 2003