All Writings
September 27, 1999

The United States Must Seek A Solution To The Kurdish Plight

The United States should develop a long-term strategy to solve the overall Kurdish problem not only because it is the right thing to do, but also to prevent an otherwise inevitable Middle East ethnic explosion.

The capture and sentencing of Abdullah Ocalan offers an unprecedented opportunity to solve the Kurdish problem through political dialogue and human rights reform in the four main countries in which the Kurds mainly live–Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. A solution to the Kurdish crisis in Turkey can open the door to an overall solution of the Kurdish problem.

Since World War l the Kurds have struggled unsuccessfully for self-determination or independence. It is time that we restore faith to the more than 38 million Kurds who have continuously suffered indignities and the gross violation of their basic human rights at the hands of their host governments. Among these human rights violations were the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussien against his Kurdish minority in Iraq, especially the gas poisoning of entire villages. Turkish authorities have not behaved much better. Human rights abuses, including severe restrictions on free expression, excessive use of force during arrest, and torture and death in detention constitute business as usual in Turkey.

The United States, therefore, must use all the means at its disposal to press Turkey to change course and respond favorably to the principles enunciated in Ocalan's opening statement to the Turkish court: "We want to give up armed struggle and have full democracy so that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) can enter the political system. . . . From this moment on, I do not want a single soldier or PKK militant to die." The main reason for pressing the Turks is simple: The Kurdish problem throughout what used to be called Kurdistan is not going to die a natural death. If we wish to avoid a major ethnic explosion in the Middle East, we need to take the following critical steps:

I. Persuade Turkey not to carry out Ochalan's death sentence. The fate of Ochalan is probably the most critical and immediate issue affecting the prospects of settling the Kurdish crisis in Turkey. His execution simply cannot improve Turkey's position. It will, in fact, diminish, if not eradicate, any goodwill on the part of the PKK to search for a mutually acceptable formula for peaceful settlement. Executing Ocalan will create a martyr, with his followers more determined than ever to fight the injustices of the state. Ocalan alive and in jail can influence his people to give up arms for peace, whereas his death will pave the way for the rise of a new Kurdish leader who will in all likelihood will resort to more extreme methods to press his people¹s cause.

2. Exert pressure on Turkey to abolish laws curbing civil liberties. As Muslims, Turkey's 12 million Kurds have been denied the same cultural rights granted to other minorities, including the Jews, Armenians, and Greeks. The Turkish government needs to recognize that paying lip service to human rights is not enough. Its Islamic affiliation notwithstanding, Turkey, if it wants be admitted to the European Union, must demonstrate in words and deeds a commitment to human rights, a cause the European community takes very seriously. Moreover, Turkey must begin to understand how a policy of inclusion that acknowledges the rights of its Kurdish minority strengthens, rather than weakens, the state.

3. Take a public position on the Kurdish problem. The United States has usually voiced its criticism of Turkey in private. This strategy, we need to admit, has proved ineffective. True, Turkey is a key ally, not only because it is a NATO member, but because of its strategic location and its role in regional security. The United States, nevertheless, must not hesitate to speak out loud and clear about the need for Turkey to start a new era of reconciliation with its Kurdish minorities wherever they reside. What other options are available? If we do not resort to public diplomacy to exert pressure, no other country will step in to replace us. Although quiet diplomacy through official channels has its uses, we need to create international awareness of the plight of the Kurdish people for the last seventy-five years.

4. The states-plus-nations framework solution. Expanded autonomous rule for the Kurds in Turkey must be fashioned with the view that the Turkish Kurds are part of the larger Kurdish nation extending across the borders of five other states. Notwithstanding Kurdish infighting and political rivalry, no political borders will prevent the Kurds, as history has shown, from pursuing close cultural ties, kinship, economic relations, and showing an affinity for their historic land of Kurdistan. Once Kurdish autonomous rule has been established in Turkey, a similar arrangement can be created, as time and circumstances permit, in the neighboring states, leading to the establishment of a states-plus-nations framework. This framework as a concept to solve ethnic conflict (Gottlieb) offers Kurds freedom of movement across borders while preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each state.

The Kurds in all five states would be granted the right to establish a special regime in their historical homeland that lies across the international borders — a regime one that would permit them a soft exercise of national rights. Under the present circumstances and the existing constellation of forces, such a regime appears to offer the most viable option for the Kurds to obtain the majority of their demands. We cannot expect the Kurdish nation which has suffered decades of persecution and repression to abandon functional territorial arrangements to meet its cultural, social, and traditional needs. But the Kurds must understand that such a regime within a states-plus-nations framework can be realized only if it does not undermine the authority of the governments involved, or prejudice or modify their internationally recognized borders. A change of government in Iraq, a more moderate clergy in Iran, a Syria at peace with Israel, and a Turkey at peace with itself will contribute significantly to this end.

The establishment of an autonomous Kurdish entity in Iraq following the Gulf War owes its continuing existence primarily on Turkish goodwill. A similar arrangement of a soft functional space for the Iraqi Kurds based on the states-plus-nations framework is consistent with their special relations with Turkey. Once the allied protection comes to an end, this arrangement is more likely to be accepted by current or future Iraqi regimes. In addition, offering expanded self-rule to the Kurds frees the Turkish government to focus on its economic and political problems as well as to curb the growth of the Islamic fundamentalist groups. Otherwise, the government will continue to fight an aimless war against the Kurds which only strengthens the Islamists to the detriment of both Turkey and its allies.

For these reasons, the Clinton Administration must not hesitate to try to moderate Turkey's behavior and make clear the risks should the Kurdish problem explode That Turkey is a frontline state for American and Western security interests and a member of NATO situated in this most volatile region make it particularly critical for the United States to be more directly involve itself in ending the Kurdish problem.