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Enemy at the Gates: why Syria’s disaster threatens war in Turkey

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Turkish tanks at the Syrian border. Sedat Suna/EPA

By Hugh Pope

published in The Guardian Friday 10 October, p. 37

Turkey feels as if it’s reliving an old nightmare. Each morning television presenters and newspaper headlines glumly round up news from the Islamic State (Isis) siege of the Syrian Kurdish town Kobani, and its spillover into Turkey. Riots, tear gas, and live fire this week have killed more than 20 people in cities in Turkey’s Kurdish south-east. There have been multiple arson attacks on cars, buses and trucks, ethnic tensions, street corner nationalist gangs, curfews and armed troop deployments unseen since the miserable years of all-out Turkish Kurd insurgency in the 1990s.

At the same time politicians have begun shrilly pouring doubt on the vital, nine-year-old peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgents. This reached an apex of absurd conspiracy when both sides began labelling each other as being “the same” as Isis, a group which is actually their mutual enemy.

A tragedy has indeed engulfed Kobani, but little fundamental has changed just because, unusually, TV cameras lined up on the border are able to record first-hand one scene within the larger epic of the Syrian disaster.

photo (1)The hard truth is that the Syrian Kurds and their main Democratic Union party (PYD) militia were always vulnerable and ultimately unable to defend Kobani alone, puncturing a moment of Kurdish hubris after a summer of impressive progress. Their isolation is partly because PYD and the PKK, with which it is umbilically linked, have insisted on a level of autonomy that is controversial, both in Turkey and with the Syrian mainstream opposition.

Nor is Turkey free to drive its tanks down the hill to save Kobani, as demanded by Turkish Kurd politicians. Breaking international law by crossing a border would weaken Turkey’s international position (as with Russia in Ukraine), set off angry regional reactions from backers of Damascus such as Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and could lead to Syria itself firing missiles at Turkish cities. Turkey may be a member of Nato, but the airstrikes are not a Nato operation; Nato is supposed to be a defensive alliance, and is unlikely to back a unilateral Turkish move.

Turkish action around Kobani would also mean armed confrontation between Turkey and Isis. The Turkish armed forces are absolutely unprepared for any long-term foreign operation. With its porous, 570-mile long Syrian border, Turkey has everything to lose in such an open-ended conflict, and Turkish soldiers would certainly die on a mission that most Turks would not understand let alone support. Where would Turkey’s military have to stop in Syria to make its border secure? Do jihadi sleeper cells lurk among its 1.5 million Syrian refugees, ready to target the tourist industry that powers 10% of Turkey’s economy? Would taking sides against Isis – the principal Sunni militia in the Syrian war – risk a reaction from Turkey’s own Sunni heartland, which has already sent hundreds of Turks to fight in Isis ranks?

Turkey cannot order the ethnic, sectarian and political faultlines of the Middle East to stop at the Turkish border. Certainly, Turkey made mistakes: betting too big on the quick ousting of Bashar al-Assad, and opening its border to all who would fight against Damascus – a policy it is only beginning to reverse. But these policies are similar to those of western actors. It is not fair to make Turkey both the viewing platform and the sole scapegoat for the dysfunctional international system that has exacerbated the Syrian war.

The Turkish government and the Kurdish national movement should therefore discuss what they can themselves do, not what they would like others to do. Both sides actually identify Isis as their deadliest enemy, abhor Isis tactics, broadly favour friendship with the west, and adhere to an ideal of secular governance. Both sides’ favoured scenario is a partnership between Turks and Kurds. They share a long common history, a common Sunni religious tradition, and are interconnected in a way that would be hard, if not impossible, to unravel.

The only way to make this partnership happen is to complete the peace process fitfully under way since 2005. All the necessary elements are in place for a breakthrough to end a 30-year conflict that has already killed 30,000 people. A ceasefire has held since March 2013. Strong leaders on both sides could implement a deal. Popular support is significant. Notorious south-eastern jails are now being made into remembrance museums. The Kurdish language, previously prohibited, is spreading in the media and public life. And above all, a decade of normalisation has empowered both Turkish and Kurdish middle classes, laid new roads and brought new prosperity all over Turkey.

It has not been easy to dispel mistrust. From the 1920s to the 1980s, Turkey denied the existence of Kurds, calling them “mountain Turks”. Police torture in the 1980s and death squads in 1990s killed and traumatised Kurdish activists. Even in 2009, nationalists in the Turkish judiciary undermined the government’s efforts by arresting thousands of Kurdish political activists, including elected mayors, on terrorism charges. Subtler discrimination in workplaces, public spaces and house lettings remains rife.

But since direct talks started between the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and the Turkish state in late 2012, there has been improvement. Reform laws have brought legal protection to the peace process. Delegations of Turkish Kurd MPs travel from Ocalan’s prison island in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul to the PKK’s mountain headquarters. On 1 October the government announced a proper framework, a cross-ministerial board under the prime minister with 11 sub-commissions.

Still, progress remains much more of an avalanche of initiatives than a structured process. Neither side trusts each other enough yet. Ankara sometimes seems to be regally granting small concessions to the Kurds and resenting legitimate demands. And the PKK finds it very hard to commit publicly, as it must, to eventual disarmament within Turkey; to a wish to join the whole country and act through the political capital, Ankara; or to state clearly whether, as its actions on the ground often suggest, it retains a secret urge to push for an independent state under PKK control – a goal for which there is no economic, geographic, social or consensus among Kurds, let alone the majority Turks.

A Turkish-Kurdish partnership is achievable, and should not be put at risk by political grandstanding over the ruins of Kobani. If its defenders are doomed, the town’s remaining population should be safely evacuated to the Turkish border, like the 150,000 who have already passed through. But whatever happens to Kobani, it is only by sorting Turkish and Kurdish differences inside Turkey that the two sides can begin thinking the unthinkable about facing Isis together. And the time to begin negotiating that compromise is now.

Survivors’ guilt & a pioneer who helped save the Kurdish language

mehmed_uzun_festivali2_1_Nearly thirteen years ago, I was lucky to meet the late, pioneering Kurdish novelist Mehmed Uzun in Stockholm, Sweden. The story I wrote about him for The Wall Street Journal makes interesting reading today, even ominous. What a chance there was back in 1999/2000 to settle this long-running and much misunderstood conflict — just like today, yet again. It’s as if history is doomed to repeat itself, bloodily. And Uzun’s account of his experiences remind me again why Kurdish speakers in Turkey continue to insist on equal rights and justice – and especially freedom for their mother tongues.

Restaurang PrinsenUzun died in 2006 of cancer, aged 54. He was an intense person to interview. He met me off the plane at Stockholm’s airport and attended to me almost non-stop for the 48 hours I was in Sweden. We dined together in the  famed Prinsen restaurant – a haunt of the city’s intellectual elite, where he was treated with respect – he drove me round Stockholm to show me the city, he took me to his modest apartment to meet his family, and he insisted on dropping me off at the airport when I left 48 hours later. He even shyly showed me the Swedish Academy building where the Nobel Prize for Literature ceremony is held each year.

The epic and fable-like tone of his novels made didn’t make them my favourite reads. But I could have gone on listening for ages to his stories of how he and a group of others set about trying to rescue their Kurdish language, and through that, to restore a sense of communal dignity. After meeting someone like Uzun, it is hard to believe that Kurdish languages are a threat to anyone, as too many people in Turkey believe. In fact, Kurdish is in reality so marginalised as to be threatened with oblivion — which is why Uzun acted in the first place.


War and Peace Turn

A Kurdish Novelist

Into a Cause Celebre

Mehmed Uzun Finds Fame —

And a Less Hostile Turkey


By Hugh Pope

Staff Reporter

STOCKHOLM — Mehmed Uzun’s education in the power of language began the day he watched a man sear his own flesh with a cigarette.

Then an 18-year-old ethnic-Kurd activist, Mr. Uzun had been arrested and taken to Diyarbakir, Turkey’s largest Kurdish city, on charges of supporting independence from Turkey. Held in a cell with two dozen fellow Turkish Kurds, he found himself next to a terrified shopkeeper with an outlawed word tattooed on his hand: “Kurd.” As Mr. Uzun watched, the man burned it out.

“The torturers will have to thank me for helping them,” the merchant said as he was led away for interrogation.

Mr. Uzun later fled to Sweden, where he took up a different brand of subversion, in exile: creating a modern, literary form of Kurdish, a language once banned by the Turks. His quest involved, among other things, entering a Turkish army base in disguise to do research on a medieval Kurdish prince  and flying a Kurdish shepherd to Stockholm, to pick up unusual words for entry in a new Kurdish dictionary. Now 47, this bookish ex-radical finds that he and his works have become star players in Ankara’s latest clash with the West.

Last year, Turkey pretty much crushed a 15-year-long Kurdish rebellion. To the surprise of many, it then let a Kurdish Spring ensue. Kurdish culture became fashionable, Kurdish bookshops opened up, and Mr. Uzun’s novels started selling fast. His sudden celebrity helped Ankara’s campaign to join the European Union.

When Foreign Minister Ismail Cem visited Sweden last year to promote Turkey’s application for EU membership, he showed off three of Mr. Uzun’s novels. The EU made Turkey a candidate in December. Then in February, a provincial Turkish court banned seven of Mr. Uzun’s works. Mr. Cem and other Turkish progressives got the order rescinded in May, but not before Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lind had talked of freezing Turkey’s EU bid.

Europeans have mistrusted their Muslim neighbor for centuries, while in recent years, the Kurds — numbering 25 million and spread out among Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria — have become a cause celebre in which many European liberal activists see Ankara as the villain. For their part, the Turks have lurched between scrambling to join Europe and striking out at any EU meddling in their Kurdish affairs.

Mr. Uzun’s role in this drama began with his love of an imperiled language. Years ago, when he said he wanted to write in Kurdish, friends begged him not to. Use Turkish or his adopted Swedish, they told him: Turkey virtually outlawed Kurdish between 1920 and 1990, fearing its use would strengthen the separatists.

“There were no publishers, no market, no critics, no schools, no TV, no proper dictionary, no translators and no readers,” he says. “The language was in a tragic state.”

So he set out to create a new Kurdish literature, drawing on his childhood in the town of Siverek in southeast Turkey, a region dominated by Kurds. His sheep-merchant father nourished young Mehmed’s love for rural Kurdish life: They would go around to check on flocks, chat with villagers and listen to Kurdish ballads sung by shepherds who accompanied themselves on a kind of wooden flute.

As a teen, he seethed as he watched police beat Kurds in the street merely for speaking Kurdish. Then came arrest and torture in 1971, where he says his jailers beat the soles of his feet with a stick.

During his time in jail, he fell in with a heady mix of Kurdish characters who constituted what Mr. Uzun calls his university. “They lived at peace with themselves,” he says of the inmates. “They taught me to love Kurdish.” Let out under an amnesty, he wrote a plea in Kurdish to save the language in a nationalist magazine in 1976. Within half an hour of publication, police bundled him off to jail again. Released pending trial, he escaped through a border minefield to Syria and eventually to Sweden.

He resumed his linguistic quest in Stockholm, fueled by grants from the Swedish government. To collect vocabulary and lore, he visited an Iraqi Kurdish leader in a rebel-held mountain valley of Iraq, spending evenings in a tent listening by the light of an oil lamp to Kurd poets and storytellers. Mr. Uzun learned Arabic script to read classical Kurdish poems that thrived in a Kurdish princedom in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Later, he hunted down rare copies of a magazine published by Kurdish exiles in the 1920s. The ill-fated adventures of these pioneers form the backbone of two of Mr. Uzun’s novels, which, like all of his fiction, detail the struggles of Kurds through the ages. He also led an editorial board of intellectuals, who would pay for Kurds to fly to Europe to brief them on obscure vocabulary.

From his research, Mr. Uzun published his first attempt at a modern Kurdish novel in 1985, “You.” Next came an anthology he edited of Kurdish literature, the first of its kind. Critical success came with his novel “In the Shadow of a Lost Love.” The story fictionalizes a 1920s Kurdish intellectual’s struggle between love for a woman and duty to go fight the newly formed Turkish republic, and the tragic failure of both quests. Turkish translations followed, usually outselling the Kurdish versions, since only a few thousand people can read or write the Kermanci dialect of Turkey’s Kurds. His novels began to be translated into European languages in the 1990s, although as yet not into English.

Last year brought a truce between Kurdish rebels and Ankara, and suddenly Mr. Uzun was famous. In January, Turkish police allowed him to visit his home region for the first time in 23 years. More than 3,000 people jammed the city hall of Diyarbakir to hear him read from his new book, “Love Like Light, Death Like Darkness.” Crowds of Kurds lined up for hours to get his autograph on copies of this tale of love between a Kurd rebel and a Kurdish girl, set against the military repression of the Kurds. A Turkish translation became a bestseller, as ordinary Turks became more curious and less fearful of their Kurdish cousins after the rebellion was put down.

His success has drawn envy, both from Sweden’s exiled Kurdish intellectuals and back home. “He may have created the modern Kurdish novel, but he didn’t invent the language,” says Edip Polat, a much-jailed author living in Diyarbakir. “What about those of us who stayed and struggled for Kurdish literature here?”

But Mr. Uzun has had brushes with the kind of violence that fills his work. In 1979, gunmen shot dead his elder cousin as he held his newborn daughter in his arms. In 1992, assassins murdered Musa Anter, the revered author of an early Turkish-Kurdish dictionary, who taught Mr. Uzun to write Kurdish in jail. Two younger cousins were killed in action as rebel commanders during the latest Kurdish revolt.

“That’s why I put no humor in my novels,” Mr. Uzun explains, steering his new silver Skoda car through the orderly streets of Stockholm, far from where he spent his youth, the now dank and dilapidated alleyways of Diyarbakir’s old town. “You could say it’s survivor’s guilt.”


24 May 2000

Copyright (c) 2000 Dow Jones and Company, Inc.