The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement leading to the fragmentation of Kurdistan into four parts in four countries and the continued denial of Kurds in ensuing international treaties constitute the foundation of massacres and injustices against Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria for more than a century.
The mid-1900s saw the rise of the nation-state regime, which created a dire situation for all peoples outside of the hegemonic nations in the highly heterogeneous Middle East. Kurds were pushed out of the nation-building process with their partitioned lands, and made into an “enemy” by these four states. Their very existence was denied, Kurdish was banned, and all their marks on history were obscured in an effort to prevent a national awareness from building up.
Against all odds, Kurds prevailed. But their efforts to self-actualise were met with military and political repression. These conflicts with the four states are based on the Kurds’ objections to colonial imposition. Kurds, with their 40 million strong population, have become a political actor as the largest people without a state after much struggle.
In this sense, the Kurdish problem is a problem of a shattering homeland, denial of a people, deep division of their societal reality, a hindering of their political will, a forced bowing to the denial and annihilation tactics of states, abandoning their identity being made into a precursor for fulfilling economic needs, deprivation from opportunity and legal basis to become a cultural and ideological entity based on their own identity, deprivation from contemporary tools and methods of education, a holistic application of denial of identity, and an inability to lead a free life.
The Kurdish problem, in other words, is not a national question, but a question of removal from nationhood.
It has been almost 40 years since the state of war “began” in 1984, during which time all Turkish governments have viewed the matter through a lens of security-focused policies. Their legitimacy derived from a combination of “terrorism” and “survival”, under a “low-intensity war” that has become the single greatest obstacle on the path to demilitarisation and the functioning of democratic mechanisms. Neither the state nor the governments ever acknowledged the reality of war, even as all institutions and social space was designed in accordance with it.
The Turkish state has insolubility embedded in its core code, rather than a desire to resolve the matter. A small example of this is the annual budget hearing in parliament – isn’t it interesting that the biggest share of the budget goes to security and war? Just looking at next year, it seems the 2024 defence and security budget will be more than 1.1 trillion liras – about $40 billion in today’s exchange rates.
Education or healthcare do not get such budgets.
The insolubility of the Kurdish issue and the ever-running war machine has spent some $800 billion since 2000 alone.
Syria: What path did Kurds take as Arab Spring spread throughout?
Kurds organised among themselves and other peoples they lived with in Syria when the civil war broke out in 2011, to stand against radical Islamists that were taking over the country. In the north, they managed to build a safe and liveable region, fighting for progressive values against the Islamic State that threatened the whole world. More than 11,000 young Kurdish men and women lost their lives in this process, while the Kurdish people evolved into a decisive actor in the international arena and made visible their century of denial. The Kurdish issue went global, beyond the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
The social contract in northern Syria, which Kurds call Rojava, is unprecedented in the history of the Middle East. There is virtually no better constitution in favour of peoples and democracy.
What does the Kurdish experiment of radical democracy and coexistence mean for the EU?
Kurds have embraced radical democracy and pluralism, based on all peoples living together with all their diversity. This ideological outlook creates an important mindscape for the future of Syria and the Middle East. The animosity among peoples sown by the nation state concept is giving way to coexistence.
On the European continent, ravaged for centuries by wars, another project for coexistence and peace has propped up under the European Union. Universal principles that make up this union have also inspired the Kurdish proposals for the Middle East’s problems. EU member states and the European Parliament are now expected to support the Kurds’ project in the Middle East as conflict resolution, even as current political calculations and commercial ties stand in the way. This is the wall Kurds come against as they face towards progressive and democratic values and Western civilisation in general.
Kurds are only ever on the European agenda over matters such as rights violations or torture, but Kurds want structural solutions to these issues, not court orders of compensation after the fact.
As such, for Kurds, there are two Europes. One is peaceful and recognises fundamental principles and international values, and the other has a tendency to violate all its principles for a quick fix to current issues – as seen in refugee policies and waves of migration.
European countries have chosen to partner with non-EU states to stop the inflow of refugees, ignoring their own values. They also remain silent and refuse to set up policy when countries and their leaders outright threaten Europe.
Concessions to Erdoğan, and the Copenhagen Criteria
The extent of concessions Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has secured from Europe via refugee blackmail is not fully known, but the Turkish President clearly feels comfortable enough to say he does not recognise rulings by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). EU member states, in compromising their principles for short term political gain, have lost their sanction power in the face of this rejection of their decisions and rulings, which in a manner of speaking exacerbates the issues with Turkey’s democracy.
We have yet to see any effort or initiative by European countries for the solution of the Kurdish issue in Turkey. They know that Turkey led by Erdoğan is the real threat to the continent, but the fear of refugees has tied the hands of all governments. The rise of right-wing policies in the EU is also an outcome of this fear-based lack of policy.
In a sense: Europe is experiencing an axial shift, away from the most fundamental value of democracy!
Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Italy and many others have seen a rise of the far-right. The institutionalisation of open fascism is a serious sign.
Migration from Kurdish-held northern Syria to Europe is quite low, while Turkish citizens have started to leave Turkey in growing numbers due to the political climate and the failing economy. Political stability in Rojava is the reason for the lack of a wave of migration, but Erdoğan’s unstable Turkey pushes thousands towards Europe. This alone necessitates a review of European concessions and support.
EU and the solution to the Kurdish issue
The Kurdish issue in Turkey is not just a political one, it will also affect the economy. And for the EU to remain an island of peace, the issue must be resolved. That could also trigger a peace movement for the whole region.
Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan’s calls for a political resolution towards peace remain current. The EU-wide ban on his Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was declared due to a political balancing act, and stands in the way of a recognition of these peaceful calls.
Öcalan is a key actor who develops projects towards a political solution instead of a military one, and who has the power to implement such projects. He is the chief negotiator for the PKK, and has put forth dozens of roadmaps and projects for a solution. Since 1993, he has been actively proposing protocols for ceasefire, negotiations, and a solution. He has been under absolute isolation in the İmralı Island Prison for more than 2.5 years, unable to contact the outside world, including his family and lawyers. This incommunicado state is absolutely unprecedented. European entities have kept silent on this extremely important matter due to their relations with Turkey, but they could contribute to peace instead if they took a stance against this isolation.
Europe needs to take a peaceful side in trans-border conflicts and act as a mediator for peace talks in order to uphold its fundamental principles against the extreme right, and maintain societal peace. This is an initiative that is expected of the union.
It is clear that Europe cannot resolve its issues within the confines of the continent. Mr Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, uses a metaphor of a rose garden and a savage forest for the EU and non-EU regions. In this metaphor, walls will clearly not protect the union, and Europe’s peace remains intertwined with developments in the Middle East and Asia Minor. Any attempt to secure peace will therefore also uphold Europe’s own. As such, one hopes, EU member states’ efforts towards peace would be heeded by the actors in conflict.
Almost all conflict and peace processes throughout the world follow the same trajectory as the one we experience today. From Guatemala to Ireland, Spain to Colombia, many processes share characteristics save for some unique conditions. Asian experiences seem to have more commonalities with the Kurdish issue than those in Europe or the Americas. However, Europe still remains the more experienced entity in these matters, and as such, should take on its role and mission. It is not too late yet.
Another part of the equation is the Kurdish political parties in Turkey, which are parties suitable for negotiations and are demanding the opportunity to play their own role. Turkey’s parliament is the most important authority in this process to play the role that falls on its shoulders in turn.
* Amed Dicle was born and raised in Diyarbakır, Turkey. He has worked for Kurdish-language media outlets in Europe including Roj TV, Sterk TV and ANF. His career has taken him to Rojava, Syria, Iraq and many countries across Europe. Follow him on Twitter.