Eye Candy: Kurdistan

NOL map Kurdistan.png
Click here to zoom (courtesy of the excellent Decolonial Atlas)

Countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East that the United States has bombed or put boots on the ground in: Iraq and Syria.

Countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East that the United States has threatened to bomb and possibly invade: Iran.

Countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East that the United States is allied with: Turkey.

Three of the four countries with significant Kurdish populations in the Near East are (or was, in the case of Iraq) considered hostile to the US government, so the use of Kurds to further American Realpolitik in the region is almost obvious, until you consider that Turkey has been a longtime ally of Washington.

Suppose you’re a big-time Washington foreign policy player. Do you arm Kurdish militias in Syria, encourage continued political autonomy in Kurdish Iraq, finance Kurdish discontent in Iran, and shrug your shoulders at Istanbul? Seriously, what do you do in this situation?

Coup and Counter Coup V: Jacobins and Grey Wolves in Turkey

Previous posts here, here, here and here. The post coup atmosphere created the impression of an invincible block of the AKP and the MHP, backed by some parts of Kemalist (Jacobinism alla turca) opinion, which would provide a massive majority for the Presidential republic desired by Erdoğan. The MHP did provide the votes in the National Assembly, for the super majority necessary to trigger a constitutional referendum. This was a complete turn about from the MHP’s previous position.

The background to this turn is partly in the state-PKK polarisation, but also in an internal female challenge to the MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli from Meral Aksaner. She is very popular with the Grey Wolf community and would have probably won a leadership election if a special party congress had been called. This became an issue in the courts, which did not in the end force the MHP leadership to act in accordance with an interpretation of laws on political parties (which are very prescriptive in Turkey), which in turn would require a congress. That Bahçeli was so resistant to calling a special congress tells its own story. He lost support within the MHP after their votes went down in the second general election of 2015, presumably also reflecting some previous accumulating weariness with his leadership. The whole story has raised suspicion of AKP supporting judges who twist the law in order to promote a MHP-AKP partnership, but there is no proof of this.

It can at least be said that Bahçeli hopes for some kind of deal in which the AKP-dominated media (that is a very large majority of the media, though not necessarily reflecting the inner views of journalists) treats the MHP gently, the AKP does not campaign against it, and the MHP can continue to get the minimum ten percent of votes necessary for a party list to have deputies in the National Assembly. He may also be hoping that in the Presidential system which Turks are voting on in the 16th April referendum, he or one of his surrogates will get one of the two vice-presidential positions and that the MHP has cabinet seats (which will all be appointed by the President, like the Vice-Presidential positions, with no parliamentary vote or scrutiny).

Meanwhile there is less of a story to tell about the Kemalists, who anyway do not have a clear leader or party. The CHP is their natural home but may be perceived as not pure enough. The bizarre character Doğu Perinçek provides a point of reference, but used to be pro-PKK and is generally just too strange and marginal. In any case, Perinçek has now recently and very publicly withdrawn his support from Erdoğan in reaction to Turkish support for the missile attack on a Syrian air force base. In general, the hardcore Kemalists have drifted back to opposing Erdoğan and supporting the CHP’s ‘No’ campaign. In at least some cases, there may have been second thoughts about how far exactly the government has gone in persecuting Gülenists, real and imagined, along with Kurdish movement politicians and activists; and a feeling that defending the Republic might also mean defending proper legal standards. Perinçek is at a vanguardist extreme where this is not an issue, but for those more influenced by foreign centre left parties and the wish for robust international standard rule of law, there has been a reaction, and a recollection of earlier objections to Erdoğan and his ambitions.

The Kurdish autonomy movement, the Grey Wolves, and the Kemalists will not disappear in Turkey. Positive developments in rule of law, constitutional democracy, individual liberties, and tolerant political culture require evolution in these movements. No government can come to power in Turkey which does not appeal to the concerns of at least one of these groups, and probably two. Erdoğan has never managed to completely absorb or eliminate any of them, though he has to some degree succeeded in keeping some appeal to both nationalist Turks and identity-oriented Kurds, particularly religious and socially conservative Kurds who may regard both CHP and HDP with suspicion. When the MHP and the Kemalist hardcore seemed to be behind Erdoğan after the coup, it seemed he might get more than 60% in the referendum. The MHP has now split in practice, and may well formally split after the referendum. Aksaner is the most popular MHP politician in Turkey and is campaigning for now. The CHP, and those most motivated by the CHP’s Kemalist roots, is solidly behind ‘No’. Right now, though ‘Yes’ may well win, it seems highly unlikely it will win with 60% plus and most expect a very tight vote. (to be continued)

Coup and Counter Coup IV The Kurdish issue in Turkey

Previous parts here, here and here. As mentioned in the last post, in the immediate post coup atmosphere President Erdoğan appeared to have the support of some significant part of Kemalist (as in Kemal Atatürk who shaped the Turkish republic with reference to secularism, modernisation, national sovereignty and statism) opinion, the more hard core part, seeing shared enemies in both violent Kurdish separatists and Gülenist (members of a religious community, see previous posts) infiltrators into the state apparatus. The return of PKK (the Kurdish acronym for Workers’ Party of Kurdistan) violence against state forces and civilians (the latter largely undertaken by the Freedom Falcons of Kurdistan, TAK in the Kurdish acronym, a product of the PKK) in the summer of 2015 already placed the AKP, hardcore Kemalists, and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP, rooted in a ‘Grey Wolf’ or ‘Idealist’ ideology of absolutist state nationalism and Pan-Turkism) on the same side advocating a militant response including support for the army-led destruction of whole urban areas in PKK strongholds in the southeast. Previously the latter two groups had regarded the AKP as treasonous for holding talks with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned founder-leader of the PKK, fearing a federalised Turkey with a southeast federal region under strong PKK influence. The talks were not at all public, no attempt was made to prepare public opinion for possible evolution in the Turkish state tradition, or to hold any kind of open discussion on the issues at stake.

The talks collapsed with Öcalan returned to strict prison conditions. Despite the MHP and hardcore Kemalist fears about federalisation on PKK terms, it seems likely that Erdoğan never intended more than token concessions to Kurdish identity and autonomy for the southeast, in exchange for operating for the PKK and a party with a common origin as an external support of the AKP. The party which has a common origin with the PKK is DBP (Turkish acronym for Democratic Regions Party) and the umbrella party it formed to accommodate small leftist groups (which don’t have specific Kurdish origins). It appears that the DBP hardcore does not like accommodating non-Kurds so the survival of HDP is not guaranteed. It poses a very happy image to leftist educated Turks, of interest in social liberalism, minority rights and left socialist policies. This reflects a historical feeling of marginalisation, because the CHP (Republican People’s Party: Kemalist/social democratic something like the French Socialist Party in merging Jacobin, social democratic and socialist traditions) is seen as too nationalist and not ‘really’ leftwing.

It tells you something about Turkish politics that there are people who insist that HDP is not leftwing despite its obvious leftwing policies and roots in the Maoist orientation of the PKK. This insistence is rooted in the belief that all left polices must be non-ethnic, that raising ethnic issues is inherently divisive and chauvinistic, reflecting of course a blindness to how some people experience the Turkish state as unaccommodating of, and even hostile to, expressions of identity by those people in Turkey who have a first language, and associated culture, other than Turkish. The Maoist and terrorist origins of the main expressions of Kurdish autonomy politics supports that majoritarian blindness and even chauvinism. Clearly they feed off each other.

The HDP has been turned into an effectively semi-legal party since the summer of 2015, which is not the right state reaction from the point of view of constitutional democracy and individual liberty. However, the HDP has to some degree brought this on itself, because while condemning the acts of terror directed from mountains in Iraq by the current PKK leader Cemil Bayık, it has never rejected the PKK as such, treating Öcalan as the symbolic leader of Kurds in Turkey, and adhering to a political rhetoric of ‘autonomy’ shared with the PKK.

The government has now used the state of emergency to take over the administration of all HDP led local government, that is local government throughout the southeast, appointing ‘trustees’ to run these municipalities. All media with an HDP orientation has been closed down and blocked online if based abroad.

Accusations have been made of the HDP using local government as infrastructure and a source of money for the PKK. This has yet to be proven in court. If it was, we would certainly have to consider the HDP to have taken a very bad path. As things stand, this has not been proven and the persecution of HDP politicians along with the takeover of HDP municipalities is highly premature, serving political power goals and grossly overriding any idea that guilt only exists if and when proven in court, preferably with judges under less political pressure than is the case at present in Turkey.

U.S. Should Follow Nonintervention in Iraq

Now that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has conquered territory in both states, the US policy response is up for debate. We should, first of all, heed one of the major axioms of economics: in making a decision, ignore sunk costs, and consider only the future costs and benefits. The USA has spent huge amounts of treasure and sacrificed many lives, and also cost the lives and health of its allies and the people of Iraq. That is all in the past, and the US and other players should not make the mistake of being slaves to history.

One of the problems of US foreign policy has been that there is no unifying vision. The US seeks to defend itself from enemies, but it also claims to promote human rights and democracy, and it seeks to protect the status quo, current boundaries and governments. The US is also pursuing an aggressive foreign war on drug makers and users. Another policy goal is greater trade and economic development.

Another economic principle is that it is often less costly to prevent problems than to have to remedy them. The best foreign policy for the US is to, first, prevent the generation of enemies, and secondly, to defend against them when the enemies insist on that status. That proposition implies that US policy should avoid automatically protecting the status quo, and deal with the reality that exists.

The US has been fighting al-Qaeda because that organization has declared war against the US along with other countries, but we should not assume that all self-proclaimed Islamic regimes are necessarily at war with the USA. The problem in Iraq is that there are two clashing Islamic sects, Shiite and Sunni, and the US occupation set up a veneer of mass democracy that established a Shiite domination over the Sunni. That domination fuels an insurgency which now has been captured by ISIS.

It is probably now too late to restructure the governance of Iraq. Exhortations for greater inclusiveness are useless. Aiding the current government of Iraq would amount to taking sides in a civil war. The US should instead seek contact with the chiefs of ISIS and find out what they ultimately want. If they seek the destruction of the USA, then the US should defend itself now, before the ISIS becomes more powerful. But if they only seek to govern territory and re-establish a caliphate, and do not threaten other countries such as Jordan, then the US should monitor their activities but not become an ally of the Iraqi and Iranian Shiite governments in a religious war against ISIS. The US and its allies would then accept the fact that Iraq is no longer a unified country, but has split into three governments, the Kurdish region, the Sunni region, and the remaining Shiite-dominated land governed from Baghdad with the help of Iran.

The human-rights angle should still remain, as when the rulers become vicious, committing mass murder, then if that can be stopped, action would be warranted. But many regimes around the world are repressive and corrupt, and the US can do little about it other than to stop aiding them. The USA has its own violations of natural rights, and reform should start at home.