Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Neither Loyalty, Nor Morality
The Coming Partition of Turkey

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 15, 2003 --  

The Turkish government's stunning refusal to allow American troops to open a northern front in the Second Gulf War was an incredible blunder that will expedite the partition of modern Turkey. Last month, parliamentarians in Ankara listened to strongly negative public opinion and turned away American military transport ships, thereby infuriating the world's lone superpower.

It is against this backdrop that Turkey has dared to further irritate Washington by threatening to invade northern Iraq if Kurdish militias seize the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. This seizure is exactly what happened last week, leading Secretary of State Colin Powell to engage in rapid-fire diplomacy to negotiate a Kurdish withdrawal in exchange for a Turkish promise to keep out of Iraq.1

Turkey's Kurdish problem began nearly a century ago. After the Western Allies divided the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, the Kurds were the largest nationality not to get their own state. Britain and France divided the territory of the Kurdish people, who now number over 20 million, between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. The secular nationalist government in Turkey -- which remains in power to this day -- proceeded to severely repress the minorities on its territory, slaughtering Armenians and Kurds with such brutality that Armenian activists compare it to the Jewish Holocaust.

This repression by Turkey continues. Amnesty International condemns Turkey for outlawing the use of the Kurdish language in schools, banning Kurdish political parties, and extra-judicially killing Kurdish independence activists.2 Officially, the Turkish government denies the very existence of the ethnic group, referring to Kurds as "Eastern Anatolians."

The Turkish government is terrified -- and rightly so -- that if the Kurds living on the Iraqi side of the border get their own state, it will inspire the 12 million plus3 Kurds in Turkey to join them. A proposed Turkish invasion of Iraq is intended to repress Kurds across the border as a means of further repressing Turkey's own Kurdish citizens. That the Turkish government thinks it should expect American complicity in its evil designs is unbelievable, given the humiliating rebuke the Turkish government gave to Washington in the days before the start of the war.

Officially, Washington remains opposed to an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. But unofficial independence has existed for the 12 years since the First Gulf War. Two armed groups, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, have run northeastern Iraq outside the control of Saddam Hussein, with relative prosperity. After signing a peace deal in Washington in 1998, the bitterly rival groups have shared power with a surprising degree of cooperation.4

Privately, the Kurdish groups insist that they want not independence, but a federation to give them broad autonomy in Iraq. They are well aware, however, that other recent examples of federations -- Bosnia, Serbian Kosovo, and the Commonwealth of Independent States -- are little more than paper constructions meant to disguise defacto independence. In a post-Saddam Iraq, the borders of an "autonomous" Kurdistan will likely include the city and oil fields of Kirkuk, giving the Kurds immense resources with which they can jumpstart a modern nation.

It is this nearly inevitable prospect that terrifies Turkish generals to the north. But what is terrifying to the Turkish military is not to the Americans. The people of Kurdistan have lived without self-determination and the most basic human rights for nearly a century of partition. There is no reason that the American government should not help them achieve their aspirations.

Turkey's status as an important American ally has been severely undercut by its refusal to host American troops. Any moral authority Turkey gained for opposing the American invasion was instantly lost when it requested permission to enter Iraq to repress the Kurds. Thus, Turkey has shown neither loyalty to America, nor moral courage. If events in Iraqi Kurdistan eventually lead to Turkey's loss of its Kurdish-populated regions, so be it. The United States doesn't owe Turkey favors, anymore.


1. The Washington Post, As Most Militias Leave Kirkuk, Kurd-Arab Tensions Rise, April 14, 2003

2. Amnesty International, Background On the PKK and Human Rights Abuses, August 1, 1999

3. Ibid.

4. Freedom House, Iraqi Kurdistan, 2002