One picture dominated the world’s TV and press on September 4 – a Turkish coastguard bearing the lifeless body of a little boy, drowned with his mother and elder brother in a doomed attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos. The dead child epitomized the humanitarian catastrophe that is overwhelming the world in general and Europe in particular. Like literally millions before them, the family were fleeing from a war-ravaged region of the Middle East.
Virtually every report about the incident described the youngster and his family as Syrians. Few mentioned the fact that Aylan, his 5-year-old brother Galip, and their mother Rehan were Kurds (indeed their family name is Kurdi). The home they were abandoning was situated in Kobane, the town captured by Islamic State (IS) in October 2014, fought over for months, and finally recaptured in January by the gallant Kurdish Peshmerga fighting force. Their personal tragedy brings the Kurds and their problems into the forefront of the unfolding disaster.
The Kurds are not Arabs but an ethnic group who historically inhabited a distinct geographical area referred to as Kurdistan. No such location is depicted on current maps, for after the first world war the old Kurdistan, together with its 30-plus million inhabitants, was divided between four states – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Modern Kurdish history is replete with uprisings against one or other of them in a continuous battle for independence. The near-century of struggle has not been in vain. The Kurds have slowly but surely been gaining political clout.
With Kurds forming some 20 percent of its population, Turkey has always been intolerant of the Kurdish independence movement, regarding it as a threat to national unity. In 2014, prior to national elections, then-prime minister – soon to be president – Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking the Kurdish vote, promised some relaxation of the restrictions placed on them. The result was a dramatic reversal in Kurdish political fortunes. In the June 2015 elections, much to Erdogan’s chagrin, his Justice and Progress Party (AKP) lost its overall majority, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won 13 percent of the vote and gained parliamentary representation for the first time.
For one reason or another, the Turkish electoral system failed to deliver an effective government out of this result, and Erdogan doubtless hopes that new elections, to be held in November, will enable his AKP to regain a majority, thus ensuring the sweeping constitutional changes he is seeking in order to transform the Turkish presidency into an autocracy.
Erdogan’s policy towards the Kurds is contradictory. Domestically, he is opposed root and branch to any hint of separatism, autonomy, or independence, and in this he has the support of the majority of Turkey’s establishment. Kurdish demands run counter to the national unification achieved by Kemal Ataturk’s revolution in the 1920s. Repeated offensives by successive Turkish governments, aimed at crushing the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have however left the so-called “Kurdish problem” unresolved.
The PKK are strong in the Kurdish area just across Turkey’s border with Syria. If anything like Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan were to be established in Syria, it would feed demands by Turkey’s Kurds to be linked to it in some way. “We will never allow a state to be formed in northern Syria, south of our border,” declared Erdogan in Istanbul on June 26. “We will maintain our struggle whatever the cost. They are trying to…change the demographics of the region. We will not condone it.”
This explains why Erdogan, on joining the US-led anti-IS coalition in Syria in July, began air-strikes against IS and the Kurds indiscriminately, tarring both with the terrorist brush. But wherever they are sited the PKK remain prime targets for Turkey. On September 6 Turkish warplanes bombed PKK targets in Iraq, in retaliation for an assault on the army in which dozens of Turkish troops were killed.
The PKK is one thing, oil revenues are another. Take Erdogan’s policy in respect of the Kurdish autonomous administration in Iraq – to say nothing of his duplicitous stance towards Israel. The authoritative Financial Times reported on August 23 that roughly 77 percent of Israel’s oil is currently being imported from Kurdistan via the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. In short, while Turkey maintains its strong anti-Israel stance for public consumption, it is daily providing Israel with thousands of barrels of oil and reaping the consequential rewards. “Diplomatic hypocrisy at its finest,” was the verdict of the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Arabiya on August 30.
This oil traffic reflects a weakening of the Iraqi government’s authority over its Kurdish component, which it certainly suspects of eventually planning to bid for complete independence. Meanwhile the oil sales to Israel have provided a revenue lifeline for the Kurdistan authorities, strapped as they are for the cash required to fund the Peshmerga military operations against IS. The emergence of Israel as one of the biggest buyers of Kurdish oil, comments the Financial Times, illustrates the widening gap between Kurdistan and the Iraqi government on fundamental policy. Baghdad, like many Middle Eastern capitals, refuses to recognise Israel and has no official ties with the country. On the other hand, relations between the Kurds and Israel, both small non-Arab entities battling against discrimination, have historically been close.
A recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan left two Israeli journalists with no doubt of the genuine empathy felt by many Kurds towards Israel: “Old Peshmerga fighters cradling AK-47s reminisced about the 1960s, when Israel helped them in the war against Saddam Hussein.” Bookshops in the capital, Erbil, sold history books about the Jews of Kurdistan with a Star of David on them – an impossibility in much of the Middle East.
What they found accords with statements by Kurdish leaders reported in June 2014. In a letter to Israel’s then President-elect Reuven Rivlin, the leader of the Kurdish Left, Mahsum Simo said plainly: “Israel isn’t our enemy.” Amir Abdi, the head of foreign relations for the Kurdish Party, when asked what kind of relationship his party envisages with Israel, responded: “We share a strong relationship with the friendly State of Israel.”
It seems clear that if Iraqi Kurdistan eventually emerges as a sovereign state, Israel will be among the first to recognize it. And if any sort of united or autonomous Kurdistan straddling Syria, Iraq and Iran emanates from the current turmoil, Israel might find itself with a valuable friend and ally within the very heartland of the Middle East.