David Morgan – Turkey and the Kurds – ISIS Challenge

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Turkey and the Kurds – Prospects for Peace and the ISIS Challenge – David Morgan 

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his discourses on inequality reflects on the conflict over land in human affairs and concludes that the effects have been almost always negative:

“The first man who, having fenced off a plot of land thought of saying, ‘this is mine’, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, how many miseries and horrors might the human race have been spared by the one who, upon pulling up the stakes or filling in the ditch, had shouted to his kind: ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are lost if you forget the fruits of the earth belong to all and that the Earth belongs to no one.”

I start by alluding to this commentary because here Rousseau perfectly encapsulates the underlying complexities of the issues and fundamental principles that are at stake in the history of the Kurds and the common interests that we all share. The quote might help to contextualise the conflicts that are currently being waged in the wider Middle East and in the struggle of the Kurds. The issues are about territory and conflicting interpretations of rights; who owns what and the kind of society that can be constructed. A consensus can only emerge once all the issues are impartially addressed and all voices are heard. The Kurds have suffered more than many peoples in this continuing struggle for territory, which is about power, wealth, security and the clash of interests as much as it is about justice and rights.

The protracted conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish population has claimed many thousands of lives over the past four decades and continues to inflict misery on millions adding to the toll of terrible suffering. Families still suffer grief as their children are embroiled in conflict; loved ones are detained, injured in clashes with the police or fleeing to an uncertain fate the mountains to join the Kurdish guerrillas. The criminalisation of Kurdish communities by Turkish anti-terrorism legislation imposes severe restrictions on behaviour and there is a similar criminalisation of Kurdish refugee communities across Europe living under the threat of punitive European anti-terrorism laws, in particular there is the impact of the proscription of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in circumscribing normal behaviour such as travelling, reading, speaking out, meeting up with people and even thinking in a certain way. This enormous human suffering of countless daily injustices underlines the urgent need to reach a solution whereby Turkey and the Kurds can create a shared space where they can re-establish a degree of normal living.

The peace talks between Abdullah Ocalan and the Turkish state have a very long way to go, in fact they have hardly really started; the talks are really at the stage of what in the Irish and South African scenarios was described as “talks about talks”.

At first they were secret talks until exposed in the Turkish media, then they were unilaterally called off by the Turkish side but now following the election the prospects for talks have probably improved ever so slightly as the opposition parties, opposed to talks, were defeated.

Erdogan has a mandate to pursue talks and if as is assumed, he wins the forthcoming presidential election he will be in a very strong position to move things forward should he really wish to do so. Whether he can be trusted or not is another matter however.

Turkey after the Elections

I flew to Turkey to observe the local elections on 30 March. Staying in Istanbul I and my fellow observer, Father Joe Ryan, a Catholic peace advocate from Westminster in London, recorded concerns about numerous abuses and irregularities at various polling stations that were reported to us. We were however encouraged that the HDP did well in the elections; In areas such as Istanbul, the BDP, the main Kurdish party, was standing as part of the HDP, an alliance of progressive social movements and individuals who had joined together to form the new party in October last year. The candidates for the Beyoglu district of Istanbul were an architect who had been leading opposition to urban redevelopment schemes and the sister of a victim of the Roboski massacre.

Evaluating the poll results we were told by a party spokesperson that its performance was encouraging for a new party; it had succeeded despite facing organisational challenges and financial difficulties. The HDP, which advocates a progressive social democratic programme of reform including rights for women and gay people, will nevertheless need to develop its political campaigning to address the concerns of the people and attract wider support. However, the attitude of the party remains positive and its next political challenge will be the election for the presidency due in August.

At the time of writing a process is taking place which may see the merger of the BDP and the HDP and BDP Members of Parliament recently joined the HDP. During our visit we were informed that the HDP was a culmination of the political project developed by Abdullah Ocalan of building alliances for the democratic transformation of Turkey. The party’s social agenda included civil rights for minorities in education, healthcare and employment. It campaigns for peace as a necessary prerequisite for democratisation.


Some of the alleged electoral abuses were absurd and the irregularities seemed to be widespread. Some local polls had to be re-run later. During the polling day we heard accusations of people seeing ballot boxes in polling stations already with ballot papers before the doors opened for people to vote.

There were further allegations that ballot papers had already been stamped before being handed out to voters. It was also reported in the Turkish media that 180 million ballot papers had been printed for an electorate numbering just 52 million, which sounded very odd. No explanation for this was made nor was any denial given by the electoral commission for this apparent anomaly.

If these allegations are true, it is at best highly suspicious. Irregularities during the vote counting were later reported with power cuts taking place in numerous cities as the votes were in the process of being counted. The official response was to blame power blackouts on the bad weather.

The country’s Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız emphatically denied any wrongdoing: “In the eastern Mediterranean cities of Mersin, Adana and Gaziantep, there was a storm with winds reaching 75 km/h. In addition, there was heavy snow in eastern Anatolian cities like Erzurum and Ardahan. These weather conditions caused some local power outages which didn’t affect the vote counting.”

However the minister failed to address complaints about power outages in western cities such as Istanbul and Eskişehir, where the weather conditions were mild and caused no problems. We were staying in the centre of Istanbul and we witnessed no adverse weather conditions at all. Clearly the implication is that the blackout provided an opportunity to tamper with the votes in some way.

In a victory speech as the polls closed, Prime Minister Erdogan issued a threat to his opponents, stating that his “enemies would pay a heavy price” for plotting against him. We were informed that this threat was aimed specifically at supporters of the Gulen movement and was not directed at Kurds. Nevertheless, such threats always sound ominous and could indicate a wider clampdown on opposition forces in future if tensions exacerbate.

The implications of Erdogan’s poll victory are being taken as an endorsement of the peace process and provide the AKP with a mandate to pursue it with a renewed sense of urgency. The rival CHP and MHP had opposed the peace process with the Kurds.

More Women Elected

It was clearly positive to see more women elected as mayors for the first time including the BDP’s Gultan Kisanak in Diyarbakir, who succeeded Osman Baydemir. The Kurdish movement in Turkey is well known for its encouragement of women’s participation as this has long been promoted by Abdullah Ocalan. It is good to see it having an impact on the empowerment of Kurdish women especially when the prospects for women in other parts of the Middle East, such as Syria and Iraq, are now so grim.

In fact the BDP and sister party People’s Democracy Party (HDP) both have a policy of equal representation for women and actually exceed the 50 percent mark in practice. During the visit Turkey we were impressed by the optimism expressed by all the people with whom we met including the many officials from the HDP, human rights association (IHD), two of the Ocalan legal team who had just a few days earlier been released from prison, journalists from Ozgur Gundem and members of the teachers’ union EGITIM SEN. They generally felt that prospects for moving the peace talks forward were good.

Context for the Peace Talks

A serious and succinct examination of the possible outcome of the peace talks and the Kurdish position is discussed in a new report, Living Freedom: The evolution of the Kurdish Conflict in Turkey and the Efforts to Resolve It, published by the Berlin based non-governmental organisation, the Berghof Foundation, which specialises in searching for innovative methods of conflict resolution. This report was written by Adem Uzun, a Kurdish activist who had a key role as a facilitator in the recent peace talks until they were broken off by Turkey. Uzun was then targeted and smeared as a terrorist suspect later to be arrested in Paris on trumped up charges of alleged arms dealing. He was detained for over 10 months and eventually released as not a shred of evidence could be found to establish the allegations; on the contrary, it was discovered that Turkish and French security agencies had collaborated in order to entrap Uzun and fabricate evidence, an action that has been described by his lawyer as akin to the police planting drugs on someone. In fact, Adem Uzun’s case illustrates perfectly the relationship between Turkey, Europe and the Kurds and how the states have co-operated in an often highly cynical manner to criminalise the Kurds. It is to be hoped that as Uzun is now free and able to publish freely a seriously argued report from a respected NGO that prospects for a peace deal are improving. Adem Uzun’s report is certainly well worth reading and can be obtained from the Berghof Foundation; details can be found on its website which is: http://www.berghof-conflictresearch.org/en/contact/

The Crisis in Iraq

At the time of writing Iraq is coming under concerted attack from the militant jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), formerly known as Islamic State for Iraq and Levant (ISIL), which appears to have a fair amount of support from the Sunni Arab population or at least from some disgruntled factions including former Baathists. The rise of ISIS raises many questions as it is a serious threat to the Kurds and to peace in the region. But what is fuelling this current crisis? In part it is ‘fuel’ itself in the form of oil; what is most worrying is that ISIS is gaining control of oil fields. I must say that I am sceptical of the suggestion that the rise of ISIS can be attributed to a Sunni-Shia divide alone; it must not be forgotten that for decades Iraq was a secular state and for longer even than that Sunni and Shia communities have lived peaceably together.

In terms of business and commercial relations between the region and the outside world, ISIS does not really pose much of a threat since it has no credible alternative; it certainly lacks an economic policy. If we take the Muslim Brotherhood’s short rule in Egypt it can be argued that the Morsi government failed precisely because it did not have much of a clue about managing the economy and so did little to satisfy the wishes of the people for improved material prospects. ISIS which is an extreme version of the Brotherhood in terms of outlook will surely never get to grips with power or run a modern economy. All it can do is to create chaos, if that is not a contradiction. A cynical observer might suggest that chaos can often be good for business – in terms of boosting the arms trade, the security industry and opening up future potential for reconstruction; conflict also absorbs surplus labour. Increased security measures are given an added legitimacy by being made more necessary.

The advance of ISIS in Iraq cannot be separated from what has been taking place in Syria which seems to be a part of a new cold war being played out in different arenas, Syria and Ukraine also. The aim of the US and its allies is to topple Assad in part because he is seen to be too pro-Russian. Likewise, the conflict in Ukraine is an extension of Western influence into a former pro-Russian client state taking NATO power right up to the Russian border in violation of an agreement with Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

An aim in Ukraine is to draw Russia into a conflict that may spill over into Russian territory and thus provoke renewed unrest in places such as Chechnya. In this there is a more direct link to ISIS as many of its volunteers apparently come from Chechnya as Chechen fighters share the same extreme jihadist ideology as ISIS. There has been a lot of evidence of close collaboration between ISIS and Western powers, which is not just speculative but substantial. Recently there was a report of a secret training camp set up in Jordan where US Army personnel have been training ISIS volunteers in killing techniques. On this matter of collaboration with outside powers, the Kurds have long pointed out connections between Turkey and jihadi groups like ISIS.

The video footage that emerged of British students urging others to join them in a jihad exposes the international network that has grown up. They are able to mount sophisticated media campaigns using marketing techniques to promote their cause which shows a level of professional competency that is deeply worrying. The group therefore poses a real threat to peace and democracy in Iraq and elsewhere.

In its latest success in the field, ISIS claimed to have seized a border crossing to Syria and two towns in north-west Iraq on 21 June. The Iraqi army has seemed to be overwhelmed by ISIS fighters who look better trained, better equipped and are definitely much more ruthless. ISIS shocked the world when it successfully attacked the city of Mosul in early June and has since seized large swathes of territory across the country.

The BBC has reported that ISIS had since been able to establish secure safe havens, including linking up supply lines with bases in neighbouring Syria, which are likely to prove difficult to target. ISIS of course recognises no borders and operates as if Syria and Iraq were one territory. It seems that ISIS’s ruthless determination and ability to attract volunteer fighters emboldened by a sense of mission has transformed them into a formidable force and as such they pose a danger to Iraq’s very existence. It is the latest tragedy facing a country that has been made to endure more than its fair share of tragedies over the past few decades. Whether Iraq can survive this latest assault is the big question and the outcome has far reaching consequences not only for the diverse communities inside the country but for peoples around the region, the Kurds included.

A Historical Comparison – Contrast

During the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War became a cause of international solidarity for progressive minded idealists everywhere. It was a cause that knew no borders – for example, miners from South Wales needed no state to force them to enlist or patriotic fervour to urge them to do what they saw as their duty as human beings: they simply believed that they were doing the right thing. Political networks were established to facilitate volunteers for Spain, to rally popular support and bring in supplies. Those who died were generally very young and naturally idealistic. Today once again there is a great cause that inspires a section of the world’s youth. But that is where the similarities cease; ISIS is like the warped imitation of that great cause of the left and international solidarity expressed during the Spanish Civil War. ISIS in fact is in part an expression of the failure of the left to inspire people as it did in past times with earlier generations.

It is a tragedy for humanity that this is the case.  For the moment ISIS is thus a real force to be reckoned with – when it took Mosil in a matter of hours it shocked the world and the implications of its success are dramatic and still to be assessed; these events have effectively redrawn the map of Iraq and its impact will reverberate across the whole of the Mideast in coming months and years. The outcome is far from certain and various competing scenarios are being touted. What is the future for Iraq – will it split into three parts as some have long envisaged? If so, how can that unravelling of borders ever be contained within the territory of Iraq when the perpetrators like ISIS recognise no such borders? As for the Kurds, how could they establish an independent state in the territory of the Kurdistan Regional Government plus Kirkuk as this would effectively exclude the majority of Kurdish people who actually live in Turkey, in Syria and in Iran? 

Wider Implications

Great powers from outside the region may meddle but they also wish to quarantine the virus; however, these attempts may be forlorn – sometimes great powers can overreach themselves and they do not always come out on top. Once a process of unravelling the borders has started there is no end to what the outcomes may be; everything is up for grabs and some long cherished dreams and hopes are reawakened along with deepest fears of ‘the other’ and new enemies thrown up by the immense uncertainties and dislocation. Borders are certainly artificial constructs but they serve an important function of at least providing a modicum of a legal basis for existence offering a degree of security for those fortunate to be able to identify with the nations that exist contained within these borders. Today it is as if the post-World War One settlement is unravelling; the Kurds lost out in that agreement, but whether they will gain from the chaos in the region is far from certain.

What we may be seeing before our eyes in Iraq is not simply a nation falling apart from within but one that is under attack from without from hostile forces who themselves have little legitimacy and command less popular loyalty than the hapless elected central government in Baghdad. The campaign that ‘’Maliki must go’’ has a sinister aspect; it emanates from US circles and the same language that Maliki is ‘sectarian’, that he has allegedly ‘marginalised’ the Sunni and by implication brought the revolt on himself, are arguments that have all been echoed by Western spokesmen and media commentators everywhere. The question of Sunni marginalisation is largely a myth; in what sense are they marginalised when many Iraqi government ministers are still Sunni? The country’s president is a Kurd as is the foreign minister, it might be added; in counter to the view that Maliki is running a Shia regime at the behest of Iran. There have in fact been incessant attempts to “sectarianise” Iraq since the toppling of Saddam Husein. Western diplomats and commentators are prone to identifying people by their sectarian background.

A question uppermost when meeting a person from the Middle East for the first time is, “is he Sunni or Shia?” This mindset is an expression of an imperial ideology and a reflection of the power pact between the West and leaders of the Sunni majority population nations of the region. In this regard it is no surprise that when the Arab Spring spread to unrest among the Shia majority in Bahrain it would be savagely suppressed with hardly a squeak of protest from Washington, London or Brussels.

To get back to ISIS, as far as it is concerned the “liberation” war is part of the same struggle that it has been waging in Syria with tacit support from some of the same outside actors – such as Turkey – who are now expressing a wish to suppress it in Iraq. And if ISIS is defeated in Iraq but is not eradicated – where will it re-emerge? Will it eventually turn on Turkey? Such possibilities all need to be considered. If the current prospects offer an opportunity for the Kurds in the long term, the short and medium terms are more uncertain and threaten much more suffering. It is surely virtually impossible that Turkey and Iran will give up their parts of Kurdistan without a fight – their enormous armies may end up being turned on the Kurds with merciless massacres the result as has been carried out in the past.

If the KRG decides that it wants to hold onto Kirkuk how will Iraq react? Will there be negotiations and if these break down might not the Iraqi forces –if strengthened by success in battle with ISIS – be ready to do battle with the peshmerga and enter Kurdistan? The bloody history of Iraq can teach us that this is always a real danger. In the Ukraine, the people of Crimea, the majority who traditionally identify with Russia, expressed their overwhelming desire in a referendum to rejoin Russia, and Moscow quickly obliged by amending its constitution.

This process occurred with remarkable speed and with very few casualties. Of course, the action has not been recognised either internationally or by the rest of Ukraine; indeed the newly elected president in Kiev has pledged to get the Crimea back. But Kiev might not want to fight for it and the world might grudging accept the reality of Crimea as part of Russia, as expressed by the will of the people. Now clearly, the situation in Crimea and Kurdistan are very different but there are some lessons in terms of process and legality for what may one day occur in Iraq.

Clearly any change would be helped by having the support of a great power – at present no power, neither the EU nor the US, has publicly officially contemplated the breakup of Iraq or the emergence of a ‘’lesser Kurdistan’’ out of the KRG. Reports of think tanks, individual academics and maverick retired diplomats may have floated the idea of splitting Iraq in three, but it is far from an official policy anywhere as yet and there will be enormous pressures from regional allies to prevent any change of policy in this direction. One imagines the heated exchanges and protracted discussions that will be taking place in the cabinet rooms and the Oval office. 

The Kurds or ISIS – a Choice for the West

The imposition of a merciless punishment regime based on a perverse interpretation of Sharia law in those territories where ISIS now holds sway is a prospect that must fill ordinary Iraqis and especially women with absolute dread. Public executions, including amputations and even crucifixions, have been carried out in those places where ISIS has taken power. If more Iraqi towns and cities fall to ISIS and their allies the people can surely only expect more of the same. It is therefore surprising that resistance to the onslaught has as yet seemed so half-hearted.

Conservative elements in the society may welcome such moves while others, out of desperation, may be prepared to silently accept it. The view that people in the Middle East are simply waiting to cast off their oppressors and adopt the norms of Western liberal democracy is a myth too long perpetrated and it has clouded the judgement of commentators; probably it is now only politicians in the West and their handpicked policy advisers who truly believe it.

Engaging with the Kurds

What can be stated in connection with the fate of the Kurds with some certainty is that the successes of ISIS and other groups sharing a similar mindset and a militant Islamic agenda pose a grave challenge to the Kurds everywhere. ISIS certainly does not respect ethnic and cultural diversity; indeed the very meaning of the concept of diversity is alien to their thinking. The pan-national Islamic state envisaged by ISIS and all other Al-Qaeda affiliates as their remedy for the reconstruction of a new Middle East cleansed of heretical influences is one that is anathema to the majority of Kurds and in total opposition to the democratic, secular, gender balanced, ecologically sustainable community envisioned and advocated by Abdullah Ocalan.

In the context of the challenge from ISIS one would have expected a more favourable appreciation and more serious consideration of Ocalan’s proposals which he has sought to articulate in writings published over many years. His visionary thinking is refreshing and profoundly attractive in itself, but when set against the alternative of the austere and tyrannical dystopia offered by ISIS, progressive minded policy makers should welcome Ocalan’s suggestions if not with open arms at least with some more encouragement than is currently being given to it.

The time is certainly urgent for more serious consideration being given to the politics of Ocalan and the organised Kurdish political movement. Perhaps one consequence of the challenge posed by ISIS will be greater realisation that the Kurds have a positive and constructive role to play in the resolution of the current conflicts shaking up the region. Stability is seen as an essential requirement for economic activity and generating prosperity. Indeed stability and prosperity go hand in hand, as organisations such as the World Bank and IMF are keen to insist. Hence, Western governments with interests in the Middle East should prioritise securing stability over fanning the flames of conflict, and if they are now searching for a way out of the impasse as they surely should be, then they would be advised to start by encouraging greater engagement with the Kurds in Turkey and Syria.

Rojava – the Kurds in Syria

It is appalling how the embattled Kurds in Rojava who are seeking to offer a democratic alternative in Syria have been cold shouldered by the West until now. Rather than engaging with them, a human rights agenda has started to be used propagandistically to discredit and undermine the efforts of the Kurds in Rojava to build a new society there. This is seen in the widely publicised report issued by Human Rights Watch which purported to find dictatorial methods emerging in Rojava. The report utterly fails to acknowledge the actual conditions within the region which is a state of siege with the Kurds resisting ruthless enemies who have some very powerful backers. In this hazardous scenario the Kurds should be applauded for seeking to empower women and for co-operating with non-Kurdish communities while attempting to defend their people and at the same time trying to run their administration on a more democratic basis against very difficult odds.

Ultimately, the success of the Kurds will be our success as we will all gain if a new society that is more inclusive, democratically inclined, pro-women, pro-environment, pro-diversity and pro-humanity is securely established in the Middle East. Let diversity and democratic aspirations thrive. Sectarianism in all its forms needs to be rolled back.

Turkey after the Elections – Prospects for the Peace Process and Opportunities for the Kurds – Observations Following a visit to Istanbul during the Recent Municipal Elections by David Morgan, Peace in Kurdistan Campaign and Father Joe Ryan, Chair of the Westminster Diocese Peace and Justice Commission. Delegation Report Download PDF Here


Read David Morgan’s article in Live Encounters April 2014 The Kurds – A resilient people with a tragic yet inspiring history.


David Morgan is a journalist, editor, political writer and historian. He has written widely on political and historical subjects for journals, newspapers and online. He has edited a book on the anti-terrorism legislation in the UK and was an editor and contributor to the former Kurdistan Report, a quarterly magazine published by Peace in Kurdistan Campaign.

David is Secretary of the Socialist History Society, has been a member of the editorial board of the journal Socialist History and is presently editor of the Society’s Occasional Publications series.

He is also a historian focusing on labour, radical and socialist history. He organises lectures and seminars on these themes in London and recently participated in an international conference at the University of East Anglia. He is currently organising talks on the history of the First World War and a major seminar on the legacy of the British politician Tony Benn which will be held in April 2014.

A professional journalist for 30 years he has written about the financial, commercial and trading relations between the UK and the Middle East and produced several commercial publications and guides for business.  

He also writes poetry in his spare time but usually not for publication.

Email : morganshs@hotmail.com

Peace in Kurdistan campaign

Kurdistan National Congress (KNK)

Kurdish Info

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