Turkey's fear of Kurdish separatism


Until Saddam Hussein’s use of gas attacks against the Kurds during the Anfal campaign, the Turkish Kurds of eastern Anatolia were the most abused and mistreated of all the Kurdish ethic groups.

This is largely because since the fall of the Ottoman Empire following World War I the Turkish state has been based on a very strong and often infringing sense of unity. This unity crosses political and religious lines and of course extends to cultural separatism.

Some 13 million Kurds currently live within eastern Turkey, close to the border with Iraq. A further four million live in Iraq with approximately six million living in the Iraq-Iran border and throughout western Iran.

Since the Treaty of Lausanne, the treatise drawn up after the fall of the Ottoman Empire by the British and League of Nations, Turkey has been extraordinarily strict on a cultural uniformity within it’s borders. Turkish law currently forbids the blandest expressions of Kurdish identity and any possibility of a pro-Kurdish state political party is unimaginable within Turkey. Until 1991 all forms of the Kurdish language were illegal within Turkey.

Has Turkey always been fearful of the Kurds?

Simply put, no. Between 1991 and 1992 Turkey’s PM, Turgut Ozal, himself of Kurdish decent tried to open negotiations for some degree of autonomy for the Kurds or at least a relaxing of the stringent laws. However, preceding the Gulf War in 1991 the Iraqi regime launched a stern crackdown on the Kurds living in the North. This made around 5000 additional Kurds flee to Turkish lands. This new influx and the election of a new right wing administration in 1994 led to further crackdowns on the Kurds.

In 1994 the Kurdish Democratic Party was banned, followed closely by the Marxist Kurdish People’s Party, the only party to advocate a separate Kurdish state. Since then the MKPP has turned to guerrilla activities to push its point, leading to further crackdowns by the Turks. Since the capture and imprisonment of the MKPP’s leader Abdullah Ocalan these guerrilla activities have largely fizzled out.

Does anyone else want an independent Kurdish state?

While there are always some Kurds who want an independent Kurdistan in Eastern Turkey and Northern Iraq, the majority of Kurdish political leaders realise that a small, landlocked state with no oil reserves is not viable. The tribal nature and language differences between different Kurdish groups have led most to simply long for a degree of autonomy in northern Iraq.

So why is Turkey scared in 2003?

Any form of autonomy for Kurds within northern Iraq would undoubtedly lead to calls for a similar region within Turkey. This would not fit with the Turkish obsession with uniformity and is unpopular with both Turkish political leaders and the general populous of the country. There are also fears that a Kurdish state could try to acquire land from Turkey’s vast borders with Iraq and fragment Turkey even further.

  • www.reuters.co.uk
  • The Week, news digest, issue 402
  • The Daily Telegraph
  • E2 Node: Kurd