Rising Kurdistan: Potential Friend or Potential Rival?

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

The Middle East and the Caucasus are in political flux; events are moving at a dizzying pace and those left behind these developments stand to be losers. Major powers certainly have their role in this calculated whirlwind, but regional powers are also in constant chase of events to use opportunities and not to be left out.

Recently a map was published in the New York Times whereby the remote strategic planners of the Middle East advocated further fragmentations of the region’s countries along ethnic and religious lines, arguing that the countries in question had come into being artificially after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, mainly through the arbitrary decision of colonial powers.

If that logic were used universally, the maps of many countries need to be redrawn, beginning with the US. But the real purpose of this drive is to reduce the Middle Eastern countries to mini states to forestall the rise of any popular leaders like Mossadegh, Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi and Assad, all of whom have caused or in Bashar al-Assad’s case are still causing major headaches to the world powers in their drive to emancipate and civilize their respective nations.

Partitioning plans aside, the indigenous peoples of the region have been seizing the opportunity to assert themselves and carve territories that are identified with their ethnic entitlement.

The most aggressive group is certainly the Kurdish people, who have been divided, subjugated, massacred, used and abused throughout history. They seem to be on the verge of having most of their dreams and aspirations come true, which have cost so much blood, tears and sweat.

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The Kurds themselves have been divided and constantly used against each other by their respective rulers. For example, even at this moment, Turkey’s Erdogan is using the Kurdistan Workers’ Party against the Iraqi Kurdistan’s leadership, especially Massoud Barzani, or vice versa.

The Kurds have been a restive minority, a thorn in the sides of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. The rulers of those countries have persecuted the Kurds relentlessly, and they continue to do so in many parts of the Middle East. The only country where the Kurds have been accepted and treated as equals was Soviet Armenia, despite their bloody and rancorous history together. They have been used by the Ottoman Sultans and the Ittihadist Turks against Armenians.

The Kurds realized their erroneous alignment in history when Mustafa Kemal, founder of the Republic of Turkey, began his demographic engineering to homogenize Turkey’s diverse ethnic groups, assigning a new label to the Kurds as “Mountain Turks.” He denied their identity and tried through ferocious repression to prove that Kurds do not exist as distinct ethnic group. Even recently, the name “Kurdistan” was deleted from the minutes of Turkey’s parliament, where ironically, many Kurdish members serve.

The Treaty of Sevres (August 10, 1920), which gave Armenians a territory of 160,000 square kilometers, also provided a homeland to the Kurds. At that stage there was a give-and-take between the Kurds and Armenians especially about Van, Mush and Ararat regions. But all those discussions were to be rendered academic when Ataturk negotiated with his former enemies the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which reduced all nationalities in the former empire to the status of minorities, whose rights could be easily trampled on the way of the dictator’s unitary state.

While Armenians were wiped out through historic Armenia (or they went into hiding, as history has come to prove), the Kurds remained on their (and our) ancestral territory. And those who continue inhabiting the territory win 95 percent of the argument. It is true that the Kurds paid a heavy price in blood and suffering throughout the history of the Turkish Republic. Their struggle extended all the way to the Erdogan era. In the process they gave up 40,000 victims and lost 3,000 villages in the mountains which were destroyed to force the Kurds to live in the more manageable lowlands, as they had relied on their mountain habitat saying that “Kurds have no friends in the world, except their mountains.”

At this juncture of history, the tides are turning in Armenian-Kurdish relations. Certainly some political considerations have to be factored in as well.

On the one hand, Erdogan’s administration has begun a peace process with the Kurds, taking a bold initiative to negotiate with the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Oçalan. While that initiative was cheered throughout the political world, it met stiff opposition from the military and secularist rivals at home. The use of the Kurdish language was finally permitted and its instruction in private schools was tolerated. As far as the public schools are concerned, there is no language instruction to the Kurdish students yet.

Many of the promises by the Erdogan administration remain unfulfilled. Cemil Bayik, the co-president of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the umbrella organization which includes the PKK and its affiliates, says that “the peace process in Turkey is over unless the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) moves from preliminary talks to a roadmap for a genuine solution to the Kurdish problem.” While Erdogan is playing a double- or triple-pronged policy by arming the al Qaeda units in Syria against the nascent Kurdish autonomous region in that beleaguered country, and flirting with Iraqi Kurdistan (through oil deals) and pitting the leader of that region, Massoud Barzani, against the PKK.

We have to remember that Foreign Minister Davutoglu visited Syria and hugged and kissed Bashar al-Assad before he called for his overthrow. Therefore, Turkey is capable of using the same tactics against the Kurds as well.

But the Kurds are gaining more clout and at this time Erdogan needs their cooperation to win forthcoming elections in Turkey.

Where does that leave the Armenians?

Dyarbakir (Dikranagerd) has become a hub of Kurdish autonomy. As reported in Al-Monitor by Amberin Zaman, Turkey’s largest pro-Kurdish party’s leader (Peace and Democracy) Abdullah Demirbas, has been making amends to the Armenians. He said, “As Kurds, we also bear responsibility for the suffering of the Armenians. We are sorry and we need to prove it.” In 2009, Demirbas and Osman Baydemir, a fellow BDP politician, have helped to restore St. Giragos Church in that city. They have also begun offering Armenian language classes to lure the “hidden” Armenians to come forward.

Incidentally, five Armenian members have been elected to the 111-member Iraqi Kurdistan parliament. The Armenians are being elected, along with other minorities, such as Assyrians and Turkomans.

We cannot gauge at this time how much of that goodwill can be translated into political capital, but Armenians need to respond in kind. Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) Archbishop Khajag Barsamian led a delegation to the reopening of the St. Giragos Church in Diyarbekir. A monument has also been erected with the inscription in six languages, including Armenian, and at its dedication, the region’s top cleric, Zahit Çiftkuran, announced: “Today, we have to pay for what our grandparents have done.”

In October, a Kurdish delegation including Demirbas visited Washington and officials from the Armenian National Committee of America and its parent organization, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, met with the visiting delegation. ARF Bureau member Hagop Der Khatchadourian stated on that occasion: “This meeting presented an opportunity for a useful dialogue about the possibilities of Armenian-Kurdish cooperation, Western Armenia and Kurdistan as well as the national and democratic aspirations of Armenia and the Kurdish nation.”

These are essential initiatives and contacts, but we hope they will not prove to be too little, too late. While Kurds were waging bloody battles against the common enemy, Armenians have no record of helping them. We hope that will not hamper the present positive trends between the two groups.

When the time arrives to settle our claims against Turkey, we will face once again the Kurds as we did in 1920 during the negotiations of the Sevres Treaty. Currently the Kurds populate the land and the Armenians are outsiders.

At best, for the foreseeable future we can negotiate the preservation of our religious and cultural heritage in the territory of historic Armenia until we find out whether the Kurds will prove to be our friends or rivals.