To address civil unrest, violent conflict, and the notion of civil war now facing Turkey and its controversial President Recep Erdogan by way of Kurdish separatist forces and military-secularist desires within the Middle East country, one must be aware that internal divisions are nothing new to Turkey in the 20th and 21st centuries and can find roots of the turmoil in the post-WWI, failed “Treaty of Sevres.”
After the fall of the Ottoman empire in WWI, according to a report by Nick Danforth of foreignpolicy.com, in August 1920, “European diplomats gathered at a porcelain factory in the Paris suburb of Sèvres and signed a treaty to remake the Middle East from the ashes of the Ottoman empire. The plan collapsed so quickly we barely remember it anymore, but….had consequences that can still be seen today.”
One of the provisions of the treaty made possible the creation of an independent “Kurdistan” in the region, a state intended to legitimize the Kurdish indigenous population of the Middle East who, in a BBC news report from March of this year were defined as a people “between 25 and 35 million (that) inhabit a mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. They make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they have never obtained a permanent nation state.”
The Kurds also inhabit the surrounding plains of the Mesopotamia and have been a people widely overlooked by Western foreign policy, a nagging leftover from the redrawn borders of the Middle East for almost a century now.
The Treaty of Sevres was preceded by the controversial Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 which, detailed by the Washington Post’s F. Gregory Gause III, “made a preliminary division of the Arab (and some Turkish and Kurdish) territories of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France” and was supplanted by the efforts of Turkish military legend Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s push to reorganize the Ottoman forces and expel colonial occupation, resulting in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and the drawing of what is modern-day Turkey’s borders.
Many Kurds aligned with Ataturk at the expense of sacrificing Kurdish autonomy, with the assumption that an inclusive Turkish state would be better suited for their people than independence under the guise of British Colonial rule. Much to their dismay, they were not given a region of their own and were defined by the new Turkish state as “mountain Turks,” not Kurds. The Lausanne treaty and its terms are set to expire in 2023, but with the current state of affairs, it seems unlikely that date will carry any significance.
Many of the Middle East’s post-war border definitions have been as much disavowed by the communities living across them and Western involvement in the region as they have been by their own governments. People like the Kurds and the Palestinians, for instance, are the largest groups in the region currently without a recognized statehood and have been embroiled for decades in a struggle to be legitimized. The Palestinians hope still to gain control of their sovereignty in Israel, and the Kurds are fighting now seemingly disconnected against governments in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
From the governments’ angles, Israel captured territory promised to Palestine after WWII with its victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, and continually has pushed back against its own word about settlements in the West Bank. Iraq has invaded Kuwait in defiance of United Nations warnings in 1991, been embroiled in civil war since the United States’ 2003 toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime, and of late has granted autonomy to its Kurdish population in the north, now known as the Kurdish Regional Government or KRG. Iran has clashed with separatists in its Kurdistan province known as the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), who share the goal of an autonomous region within Iran, much like the KRG in Iraq and Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is classified by the United States, Turkey, and Europe as a terrorist organization and has been responsible for numerous terror attacks against the Erdogan government.
Syria has fallen victim to many outside forces since the fall of Saddam’s Iraq, the subsequent vacuum of Middle East power, the wake of the Arab spring uprisings, and the creation of the Islamic State (ISIL), an extremist Sunni faction fighting for control of Iraq, Syria, Libya, and beyond. ISIL has proven to be especially threatening to Bashar Al-Assad, totalitarian ruler of Syria’s Ba’ath Party who assumed the office after his father Hafez Al-Assad died in 2000. ISIL captured many Syrian cities in the northern and eastern areas of the country in the last two to three years and before Assad-led Syrian forces have taken back territory recently, once controlled Raqqa, Palmyra, and Aleppo. The UN estimates over 400,000 people have been killed during the five-year conflict.
Although the borders of Iraq and Syria seem to be fading, President Erdogan seems more determined than ever to maintain Turkey as it has been since WWI. During the Syrian Civil War, he has aligned with anti-ISIL militias, both U.S. and Russian military intervention, and even Kurdish separatists. By that series of events Turkey had benefited the Assad regime, but on November 29, Erdogan announced a dramatic shift in policy. In an article from RT last month, Erdogan said that “the Turkish Army entered Syria to end the rule of President Bashar Assad, whom he accused of terrorism and causing the deaths of thousands.”
On another front, Erdogan just this year survived the second coup attempt by Turkey’s secular military since he came to power in 2002. Fearing that the ruler’s pro-Islam Justice and Development Party (AKP) will weaken the secular security Ataturk fought so hard to achieve, the most recent coup attempt this past summer left at least 265 dead. Erdogan emerged, seemingly more powerful than ever, and since accusing the United States of organizing the failed coup with exiled Turkish Cleric Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish president has arrested or relieved over 10,000 members of the military, enabled overreaching executive powers, silenced nearly any media opposition, and jailed over 120 journalists. Many worry that the moderate Islamic opposition behind the coup attempt was the same group behind the December 18 assassination of Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara. A lone gunman was killed by authorities at the scene, but not before being heard saying, “God is Greatest” in Arabic, and in Turkish, “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria.”
As the multi-state war against the Islamic State rages on in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, now spilling over into Yemen and ISIL terrorist acts continue in Europe, the United States, and Turkey, nearly the entire world seems to have a vested interest. Turkey’s recent incursion into Syria is widely regarded as not an attempt to oust Assad, as Erdogan claims, but a desire to prevent Kurdish control along its southern border to stretch towards western Iraq. Although its allegiance to longtime ally NATO and desire for peace with its own Kurdish population make for a tightrope walk of balance, Turkey seems more and more the next flash point of conflict. The larger pro-Kurdish opposition party within Turkey, People’s Democracy (HDP), described in a BBC News report as “a broad coalition of groups including liberal and left-wing ethnic Turks” has long been accused of affiliation with the PKK, an allegation which HDP vehemently denies.
As a part of Erdogan’s massive crackdown against opposition of any kind, the joint leaders of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, were arrested by government forces on November 4. Perhaps as retaliation for the years-long imprisonment of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s radical urban terror organization Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) claimed responsibility for a December 10 twin bombing in Istanbul that claimed the lives of at least 67. Despite denouncing the act through a statement from his lawyer, Demirtas was unable to quell suspicions of HDP involvement in the attacks, and many HDP parliament politicians were stripped of immunity and jailed. As is also customary after a Kurdish attack on Turkish soil, pro-Kurd controlled areas of northern Iraq were bombed with retaliatory airstrikes.
As Iraq and the US move towards arming the KRG forces in the fight against the IS, thus strengthening of pro-Kurdish, U.S.-backed Syrian rebels along the northern border of Syria, the paranoid stability of Erdogan’s fragile government and increased homegrown violence from Kurdish separatists in Turkey are pointing towards the next conflict simmering in the Middle East, just as advances against ISIL in Iraq and Syria appear to be weakening the group. The Kurds have won a symbolic if not total autonomy in northern Iraq and have captured territory along the Turkish border with Syria. This appears to be pushing Turkey into an already murky proxy war in Syria, this time with ground forces. Surely the failures of the Treaty of Sevres, the waning expiration of the Sykes-Picot agreement, and the turmoil of upheaval and violence in the region has cast a spotlight on the plight of the Kurds. The question that may lead us to another war in the Middle East: Is there room for a free Kurdish state?
[Featured Image by Chris McGrath/cropped and resized/Getty Images]