Turkey and the Kurds: A Possible Agreement

There seems now to be a real possibility of an agreement between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that would end the fierce struggle that dates at the least from the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

The issue has been quite straightforward from the beginning. In the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a group of Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) seized power and established a secular republic, whose boundaries included essentially the areas known as Anatolia and Thrace. Like most nationalists newly-arrived in power, this group was Jacobin in its ideology. It had established a republic of the Turks and basically only for the Turks.

The ethnic struggles with the Armenians are well known and of course subject to endless debate about what in fact happened. Today, most analysts worldwide accept the Armenian version of this history as more correct and consider that there was in effect an ethnic cleansing.

Kurdish-speaking populations are to be found today in four different states – Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Kurdish nationalists have long sought to achieve some kind of Kurdish state combining the groups in all four countries. Thus far, this attempt has not been successful and Kurdish nationalists in all four countries have reoriented their objectives to meaningful autonomy within each of the four states.

In the case of Turkey, the Kurdish speakers are concentrated in the southeastern corner of the Turkish state. In 1976, the banner of Kurdish nationalism was assumed by the PKK, which presented itself as a Marxist-Leninist movement ready to engage in insurrection against a Turkish government that was unwilling to accord any political, cultural, or linguistic rights to Kurdish speakers. Indeed, the Turkish government refused to recognize the very existence of Kurds, calling them Mountain Turks. An ongoing military struggle between the Turkish government and the PKK ensued.

In 1999, the leader of the PKK, Abdallah Ocalan, was captured by the Turkish government with the assistance of the CIA. He was tried for treason and terrorism and condemned to death. The sentence was then commuted to life imprisonment in total isolation in an island prison. Meanwhile, Ocalan’s worldview was evolving, and he ceased to believe that Marxism-Leninism should be the organizing ideology of the PKK. At the same time, various PKK groups continued the armed struggle.

In 2002, an Islamist political party, now called the AKP, came to power in Turkey, ousting the secular nationalists that had long dominated the parliament, and upsetting military leaders who were committed to strict secularism. The leader of the AKP, Recep Erdogan, has managed to win three successive elections and the AKP now seems securely in political control of the state.

To widespread surprise, in 2012 Erdogan began negotiations, which were initially secret, with the PKK and therefore with Ocalan. Both sides have been debating what might be an acceptable resolution of the conflict and the long-standing differences over Kurdish rights and autonomy. What seems to have impelled this attempt at a political settlement is the sense that both sides had begun to have that neither is capable of winning the military struggle outright. Like other civil wars, an element of exhaustion began to play a role leading rival forces to consider some kind of compromise.

Compromises are always painful and there are always militants on each side who find them unacceptable. The standard questions are what each side is actually getting in the prospective accord and the degree to which they can get the support of their political base.

In order to move forward, Turkey must adopt a new constitution. The AKP is anxious to expand considerably the power of the president, to which other parties are opposed. The PKK is anxious to include in such a new constitution various clauses that would recognize the Kurds as a people with rights equal to those of the Turks. The PKK wants some language in the constitution that would recognize the Kurds as a co-founding people of modern Turkey.

One difficult issue to resolve in detail is the cessation of hostilities. The Turkish government and the PKK have agreed to the withdrawal of PKK armed forces to the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. This withdrawal has already begun. But there has been no disarmament, and the PKK units do not intend to disarm until more concrete progress is made. Whether Ocalan will be permitted to have his custody remitted to his own home in Turkey is one matter that is in discussion and seems likely.

The urgency for the PKK and the major achievement would be the recognition of Kurdish rights, although the term, autonomy, may not be included. The urgency for the AKP is that, in order to get the 75% in the Turkish parliament needed to adopt a new constitution, they may need the votes of Kurdish members of parliament.

So, amidst much caution and continuing mutual suspicion, the two sides are moving significantly closer to a deal. With some difficulty, Ocalan will probably be able to bring his base in line with the prospective arrangements. He remains a Kurdish hero. If the deal goes through, the Kurds will have achieved linguistic and cultural rights. It remains to be seen how much the economic situation of the ordinary Kurds will improve.

Combating the Islamic State: The Real Options

Commentary No. 396, March 1, 2015

The Islamic State (IS) is pursuing its clearly stated objective of a greatly expanded caliphate by using extreme brutality deliberately. It expects that the extreme brutality will force others either to accede to their demands or to withdraw from the scene. Just about everyone in the Middle East and beyond are both horrified and deeply frightened by the successes thus far of the IS.

What has made it so difficult for opponents of the IS to make headway is their unwillingness to understand that it has been the follies and misplaced priorities of the opponents of the IS that have made it possible for IS to emerge and to pose such a threat.

The IS claims that it is acting out of religious motives ordained by the Koran. And most probably their adherents believe this, which of course makes it almost impossible to negotiate with them in any manner. This is what makes them different from previous so-called Salafist movements that have been around for some time. Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Taliban were all movements that combined militancy with pragmatism.

Today, the mainstream Arab Muslim movements, the governments of the Arab states, as well as the outside powers involved in the region (United States, western Europe, Russia, Turkey, Iran) all denounce the IS. However, it is widely believed that the IS has the support, or at least the benevolent neutrality, of the ordinary Sunni Muslims in the Islamic world, at least that of younger persons. These ordinary persons are streaming into zones controlled by the IS in great numbers. Persons involved in other Salafist movements are shifting allegiances to the IS.

What is it that is impelling this new attitude? It is not shar’ia law. That was after all there before. Shar’ia law is merely the covering to justify the brutal actions. Of course, once it gets a religious covering like this, it hardens the commitment. But the prime factor that underlies this impulse is a sense of hopelessness. Other movements and states – both secularist and Salafist – have failed to relieve significantly the oppression that these young Muslims feel. The IS offers hope. Perhaps one day the converts will be disillusioned, but that moment is not yet arrived.

Why then cannot there be a coalition of those who are opposed to the IS and its expansionary threats? The answer is very simple. They all have other priorities. The Egyptian government is fighting first of all the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudi government is fighting first of all Iran and anyone who threatens their claim to leadership of Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. The Qataris are fighting first of all the Saudi government. The government of Bahrain gives priority to suppressing the Shias who are numerically the vast majority. The Iranian government is fighting first of all Sunni forces in Iraq. The Turkish government is fighting first of all Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The Kurdish movements are fighting not only for their autonomy (or independence) but also each other. The Russian and the U.S. governments are both giving priority to their mutual quarrels. And the Israelis are fighting primarily Iran and the Palestinians. Name one that puts fighting the IS at the top of its list.

This is absolutely crazy. Can anything break through this irrational schema of false priorities? Obviously, there is a dire need to create conditions in which the Sunni-Shia schism is superseded by one in which whichever is the social minority in a given state has rights to reasonable participation in governance and reasonable social autonomy. Were an accord to be achieved between the United States and Iran, they could in fact do a lot militarily and politically together to retake northwest Iraq from the IS. But will their respective hardliners really permit this?

What, you may ask, about existing dictatorships? Should we not be struggling against them? The efforts to do so as the great priority has actually reinforced them. The fears created by the IS have actually reduced in major ways the civil rights of citizens and residents in the United States and western Europe. There is massive hypocrisy concerning which tyrants are being opposed. In effect, everyone protects the tyrants that are their geopolitical ally and denounces the tyrants that are not.

It is long past time to revise radically our priorities. The likelihood of doing this, I admit, seems small at the moment. But the fact is, there is no other choice.

Multiculturalism and Its Dilemmas

Commentary No. 395, February 15, 2015

Debate about something called multiculturalism is very widespread and passionate these days throughout the world. Both its advocates and those who denounce it seem to be under the illusion that multiculturalism is something very new. But it isn’t new at all. Multiculturalism is as old as human cultures have existed. And it has always been the subject of passionate debate.

Wherever humans resided, there have always been groups that consider themselves somehow more indigenous to the region than others. The “indigenous” have tended to use a rhetoric of cultural purity, which they see as being defiled, or threatened, by others who are marginal or newly-arrived in the region, and who have therefore fewer rights than the indigenous groups (or no rights whatsoever). The response of this latter group has always been to claim some version or other of multiculturalism. That is, they have argued in favor of according equal rights to all (or most) residents, whether or not they share some of the cultural practices of the self-styled “indigenous” population.

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Panic About Panic: Russia and the World-System Today

Commentary No. 394, February 1, 2015

Visiting Russia, which I recently did, is a strange experience for someone coming from the Global North. As we know, most Russians have an entirely different reading of recent world history from most persons in the Global North. In addition, however, they are concerned about things other than what visitors expect them to be concerned about.

The one common assumption that transcends these differences is the fact that the occurrence of a sharp drop in world oil and gas prices combined with the embargo imposed by some countries on Russia has created an economic squeeze on Russian state expenditures and individual consumption.

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It is Painful to Live Amidst Chaos

Commentary No. 393, Jan. 15, 2015

The world-system is in serious trouble and it is causing pain to the vast majority of the world’s population. Pundits and politicians grasp at straws. They magnify every momentary, and usually transitory, occurrence of slight improvements in the various measures we are accustomed to using.

In the last month or so, we were suddenly being told as the calendar year ended that the market looked much better in the United States, even if it looked worse in Europe, Russia, China, Brazil and many other places. But as the New Year began, there was a serious decline in both stocks and bond prices in the United States. It was a quick and sharp turnaround. Of course, the pundits immediately had explanations, but they offered a wide gamut of explanations.

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Cuba and the United States Resume Relations: Happy New Year!

Commentary No. 392, January 1, 2015

On Dec. 17, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro simultaneously announced that the two countries would resume normal diplomatic relations, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower had ended in January, 1961. The mutual decision was the outcome of 18 months of quite secret negotiations, sufficiently secret so that the announcements were a surprise.

It quickly became common knowledge that Pope Francis had actively encouraged this resumption. Emissaries of the two countries met at the Vatican, and Pope Francis along with the Cuban Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, had played a key role in brokering the deal. Both presidents expressed open appreciation for the Vatican’s assistance. This meeting was the last step before the 45-minute telephone call between the two presidents.

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The Paradoxical Strength of Germany’s Merkel

Commentary No. 391, December 15, 2014

Today, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany feels free to criticize openly and even harshly all the powerful nations with which she deals. They all continue to try to court her. She has incredibly high support in German polls, and seemingly in world public opinion. Yet nothing in her background would lead anyone to expect this remarkable show of strength for herself personally and through her for Germany as a nation. This is a paradox that needs to be explained.

She started life as a physical chemist with a Ph.D. from a university in the German Democratic Republic (DDR). She navigated the political scene as a non-participant. She joined the government-approved Free German Youth but did not participate in its coming of age ceremony, preferring to follow a Protestant ceremony. Her father was a Protestant pastor.

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U.S. Standing in the Middle East

Commentary No. 390, Dec. 1, 2014

On November 27, The New York Times headlined an article “Conflicting Policies on Syria and Islamic State Erode U.S. Standing in Mideast.” But this is not new. U.S. standing in the Middle East (and elsewhere) has been eroding for almost 50 years. The reality is far larger than the immediate dispute between anti-Assad forces in Syria and their supporters elsewhere on the one hand and the Obama regime in the United States on the other.

The fact is that the United States has become in the expression derived from onetime nautical practice a “loose cannon,” that is, a power whose actions are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and dangerous to itself and to others. As a result, it is trusted by almost no-one, even when many countries and political groups call upon it for assistance in specific ways in the short run.

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