The Invisible Land Of Kurdistan: Iraq Oil, Turkish EU Membership, Could Lead To Official Recognition

on January 10 2014 1:46 PM

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey -- The sound of Turkish military jets taking off to unknown destinations no longer disturbs the sleep of Abdullah Demirbaş. Four years ago, at the age of 16, his son joined the PKK, the acronym of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, a guerrilla group that has been fighting against the Turkish state since the late 1970s.  For decades, the planes were headed to target PKK positions in the mountains. These days, the fighters carry out surveillance missions, patrolling Turkey’s air space near the Syria and Iraq borders. They are no longer attacking the guerrillas as a peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdish independence movement slowly unfolds.

Demirbaş, the mayor of the Sur district of Diyarbakır -- the second-largest city in southeast Turkey’s Anatolia region and the unofficial Kurdish capital -- hasn't seen his son since he “went to the mountains,” as the locals euphemistically say when referring to someone who takes up arms for Kurdistan.

A few months ago, Demirbaş’ other son was called to compulsory Turkish military service, which means that if fighting between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish army resumes, his family will be among many who could find themselves with sons in opposing camps. 

For now, Demirbaş and other Kurds who have no appetite for war take comfort in the dialogue under way since 2012 between the Turkish government and the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, even if the government’s overtures are an effort to make the country more attractive for membership in the European Union. Nonetheless, the Kurdish issue remains volatile, in Turkey and in neighboring countries with sizeable Kurdish populations, and is complicated by changing economics, including urban migrations of rural Kurds and the increasing extraction of oil and gas reserves in Kurdish Iraq.

Kurdistan PKK Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters stand in formation in northern Iraq, May 14, 2013. The first group of Kurdish militants to withdraw from Turkey under a peace process were greeted in northern Iraq by comrades from the PKK, in a symbolic step toward ending a three-decades-old insurgency.  Reuters/Umit Bektas

Kurds have long been described as the biggest nation of the world without a state. Though they claim as one of their sons legendary Muslim leader Saladin, who fought the Crusaders and reconquered Palestine from the Europeans in the 12th century, Kurds have never had a country of their own.  An estimated 20 million to 25 million Kurds live in Turkey, making up about one-quarter of the country’s population. What percentage they comprise of the total population of the geopolitical region of Kurdistan isn't precisely known. Kurdistan is a mountainous region spreading over sections of five nations -- Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and a small portion of Armenia. Kurd separatists, including the PKK, want their own country, or at the least an autonomous sub-state. For centuries, Kurdish uprisings and attempts to create such a state have been brutally suppressed, especially by the Turkish government as well as the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, which carried out a massacre with chemical weapons in the northern Iraq city of Halabja in 1988, estimated to have caused up to 5,000 deaths.

In 1983, Kurdish provinces in Turkey were placed under martial law in response to PKK activity, which prompted a guerrilla war that continued into the 1990s. Thousands of Kurdish-populated villages were destroyed and numerous assassinations, kidnappings and executions were reportedly carried out by both sides. More than 37,000 people died and hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave their homes. In those days, Turkish security operatives drove white Renault 12 sedans, the mere sight of which caused locals to scatter, and there are still dozens of “disappeared” whose fates are unknown. “Nobody knows their number and what happened to them,” observed Raci Bilici, president of Diyarbakır’s Human Rights Association.

War and its aftermath always carry unintended consequences, and one  outcome of the Iraq war was the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq along the border with Turkey, which now functions as a semi-independent state under the leadership of Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. For now, it's unclear how the massive exodus of Kurdish refugees from the Syrian war will influence politics there, or elsewhere. 

Syrian Kurds in Iraq A view of the new refugee camp on the outskirts of the city of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region, Aug. 20, 2013.  Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani

Meanwhile, in an unexpected turn of events, the concept of Kurdistan found an ally of convenience in the form of its erstwhile enemy -- the Turkish government and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A harsh populist on the outside -- Erdoğan can also be a canny pragmatist, and at the risk of alienating nationalist Turks -- who resent Kurdish demands and whose suspicions of foreign and domestic conspiracies to break the country apart date back to the fading days of the Ottoman Empire. Erdoğan in November joined Barzani in Diyarbakır for an unprecedented summit meeting, to discuss energy cooperation as well as to resume a faltering dialogue that the PKK and its political branch, the Peace and Democracy Party, described as in a "coma.’’

The prime minister even broke a taboo by referring to Iraq’s Kurdish region as “Kurdistan.” In the words of Al Monitor’s columnist Cengiz Çandar, “If a Turkish nationalist had seen this in a dream, he would not have recovered from this nightmare for a long time.” And in a land where the government for a long time dismissed Kurds as being “mountain Turks” -- not recognizing their separate identity -- Erdoğan extended an olive branch, saying that “rejection, denial and assimilation have ended with our government.” He made clear, however, that his notion of Kurdistan stopped at the border: “We have a unitary nation, a unitary flag, a unitary land and a unitary state,” Erdoğan said at his speech in Diyarbakır. “We don't have any toleration to the people who want to divide Turkey.”

Turkey’s overtures toward the Kurds are in part driven by the thriving country’s thirst for energy. With almost no energy resources of its own, Turkey must purchase all of its oil and gas from outside sources -- the country’s energy imports hit $60 billion last year. Oil imports make up between 7 and 12 percent of Turkey’s GDP, comparable to South Korea’s outlays in energy imports. That makes both countries especially vulnerable to spikes in oil prices. But whereas every $10 increase in oil barrel prices would cut South Korea’s GDP by 0.8 percent, or about a $1 billion increase in its account deficit, according to Morgan Stanley, in the case of Turkey the same price increase would add another $4 billion to its current account deficit of $51.9 billion.

During a visit to Japan on Tuesday, Erdoğan blamed the trade gap on oil and gas imports. Consequently, Turkey is desperate to gain access  to  the Iraqi Kurds’ oil reserves, estimated at 45 billion barrels, and natural gas holdings of at least 106 trillion cubic feet.  After the Erdoğan-Barzani meeting, there were reports that oil would start flowing from Iraqi Kurdistan into Turkey “before the end of the year,” though for now the pipelines remain unused.

The reason: The Kurdish regional government’s moves toward an independent oil policy triggered a warning not only from Baghdad but also from the U.S. government urging the Kurdish regional government not to exceed its autonomy powers. But with Iraq now battling al-Qaeda-linked groups and Sunni Muslims growing increasingly restive in the country’s West, Iraqi Kurdistan, which is prosperous and relatively safe, has the upper hand. The regional capital, Erbil, was described as a “mini-Dubai”  by Mehmet Taniş, a Kurdish businessman based in the Turkish city of Şırnak, near the Iraqi border -- not due to magnificent skyscrapers (which the city doesn’t have) but because of its newfound wealth.

Some say the Kurdish regional government plans to use oil money to pave the way for a sovereign state, and ironically, many Turkish Kurds are apprehensive about such a possibility, whether due to their own great expectations or fears of resumed conflict. Still, Şeyhmus Diken, a Diyarbakır-based Kurdish writer and civil rights activist, says the political thinking of Kurds has evolved into a more realistic model for a freer union in Turkey.

“The goal in the beginning was the union of the four parts of Kurdistan [Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria] into a single, independent state, based on a Marxist conception of people’s liberation,” Diken said. “What we are pursuing now is a federal state model that grants more freedoms and autonomous rights to every citizen of this country, from the Marmara region to Southeastern Anatolia.”

One PKK  insider, who spoke with International Business Times in Diyarbakir on condition of anonymity, concurred with Diken’s analysis. “The PKK is not nationalist,” he said, pointing out that the region of Kurdistan is itself less contained than it once was.  “Kurds are all over Turkey -- in Istanbul, in Ankara, in Bursa, everywhere,” he said. “What would be the borders of such a country?” He said the dispersal was largely the result of the war of the 1990s and the exodus of Kurds to larger Turkish cities for economic opportunities.

And he noted that Turkey has made strides toward accommodating Kurds, especially since the peace talks with Öcalan began.  Kurdish  language news is now broadcast freely over the airwaves and the language is used alongside Turkish in local agencies and municipalities in the southeast -- no small feat considering that both were illegal only a few years ago. Kurdish music blares from stores in the streets of Diyarbakır, where the pictures of militant icons and, to a lesser extent, Kurdish flags, are conspicuously displayed.

Contrast that with the experience of Ebre Deniz (not her real name) who in the late 1980s, at age 19, overheard her grandparents whispering in a strange language in their kitchen one evening at the home they shared in Istanbul. Deniz was stunned to later find that they were speaking in Kurmanji, the most commonly spoken Kurdish language, and that her family was Kurdish yet had not told her so out of fear.

Soon after, she fell in love with a Kurdish militant at her university and took up arms for the PKK in the mountains not far from Diyarbakır. She stayed for two years until one winter morning when the guerilla group’s mountain camp came under attack from Turkish gunships and she saw two teenagers blown to pieces by artillery. Shell-shocked, she was allowed to return home to Istanbul, but guilt ate away at her, so two years later she got back in touch with other militants by telephone. As she was walking toward their re-encounter, not far from Gezi Park, she claims undercover agents grabbed her and forced her into a van, covered her head with a cloth bag and beat her. She spent the next 10 years at Istanbul’s notorious Bayrampaşa prison, where she claims she was repeatedly tortured.

Now based in Istanbul, Deniz dreams of an autonomous Kurdistan -- part of a reformed, federative state, “one that is free and equal for everyone, Turks, Kurds, Armenians.”

But even that limited Kurdish state seems unrealistic to another Diyarbakır resident, a musician who gave only his first name, Engin. He says that ethnic hatred of the Kurds isn't easing as quickly as some would believe.

“Just the colors are changing,” he said. “The state structure remains the same, and it’s still repressive.”

Turkish Kurds Riot police use tear gas to disperse pro-Kurdish demonstrators in the southeastern Turkish town of Nusaybin who are upset over plans to build a wall along the Turkish-Syrian border, Nov. 7, 2013.  Reuters

The day Engin spoke with IBTimes, on Jan. 7, military prosecutors decided not to press charges for what is known as the Roboski Massacre, an attack by Turkish jets on a group of civilians that left 34 dead in the Kurdish Şırnak province, across the border from Iraq. The decision was met with outrage in Diyarbakır and other Kurdish-majority cities. Turkish authorities claimed they mistook the villagers -- most of them teenagers -- for PKK guerrillas, when in fact they were smuggling cigarettes and other items into Turkey from northern Iraq. That begged the question: What if they had, in fact, been PKK guerillas? In that case, what would the military’s actions indicate about the government’s peaceful overtures toward the Kurds?

Fehim Işık, an Istanbul-based Kurdish author and analyst, said Turkey must develop a comprehensive approach to meeting Kurdish demands for equal rights as a nation, which have been held in check for centuries. “Unless there is a permanent solution for the Kurdish-inhabited parts in Turkey and the region, all solutions will be temporary in nature,” Işık said.

Syrian Kurds People sit in the back of a truck as they celebrate what they said was the liberation of villages from Islamist rebels near the city of Ras al-Ain in the Syrian province of Hasakah, after capturing it from Islamist rebels, Nov. 6, 2013.  Reuters

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