Turkey at the moment is being swept by a great wave of patriotic rage. In the past several weeks a dozen or more young soldiers have been killed in the borderlands of Iraq, and even the most sober television channels again and again show their faces, their funerals, their weeping mothers and sisters. There have been vast demonstrations in Ankara and even in provincial towns, bringing the traffic to a stop for hours on end, and there is enormous pressure on the government for something to be done. The problem is a Kurdish terrorist organisation, the PKK, which had been dormant for several years. Its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was captured in 1999, and now sits in prison on an island in the Sea of Marmara, having been spared the death penalty largely because of European intervention.
Now the PKK is back. The Turks hate it. Everyone knows that there is a Kurdish problem and everyone knows that it has been made far, far worse by the PKK. It is a Maoist-nationalist terror movement, co-operating on the net with the Basque lot and Sendero Luminoso: it hates, it kills innocents, it deals in drugs. Defeated in the later 1990s, it is now back, and this time with formidable support. It has a dozen bases just over the Iraqi border, where there is now a Kurdish state-entity, protected by the Americans. From there, hit-and-run raids can be staged and the Turkish army cannot stop them.
The PKK is a horrible organisation. It was just about the last of the ‘national liberation fronts’ that made such a running in the Fifties and Sixties. Its model came from Vietnam, and the general idea was that a Communist guerrilla movement could get peasant support and the aim was a People’s Republic of Kurdistan. Its tactics amounted to Lenin’s ‘the worse, the better’ — cause chaos, in the hope that the police, overdoing repression, would drive neutrals into its arms. In the 1980s, to some extent, this worked. There would be some terrorist outrage, and the police would then break the wrong heads. Innocent peasants were herded into shantytowns on the edge of the cities, and the whole region is still studded with abandoned villages: 30,000 people have been killed, and there have been some notorious horrors — whole families, tiny children included, slaughtered; poultry farms machine-gunned; schoolteachers targeted (on one occasion the PKK offered to spare a pregnant wife, not long married; she asked to be killed, too, and they obliged).
Then in the 1990s the Turks became cleverer, and for a time the organisation skulked into hiding. Öcalan was caught in a dramatic operation in Kenya (he had been hidden in the Greek embassy in Nairobi, the Orthodox Church having distinguished itself by holding Sunday collections to buy Strela rockets from Belgrade on his behalf) and there were Europeans who tried to defend him. He waved them aside: the task now, he said, was to mend fences, to get Turks and Kurds to work together. True. But the existence of a safe haven just over the Iraqi border has complicated matters.
Northern Iraq is now in effect a Kurdish state. It is (or was) divided into two tribal federations, which sometimes fought each other: the north-western one under Mesut Barzani, on the Turkish border, and a north-eastern one under Celal Talabani, who is now formally the president of Iraq. In the old days, their relations with the PKK and with Saddam Hussein himself were tense or co-operative, as and when. The PKK was dropped by Barzani, and then co-operated with Saddam: the pattern was unpredictable. But now, with Saddam over, there is indeed a Kurdish state entity, and the Americans naturally patronise it, as the only large area in Iraq that works. Money pours in, and the Turkish lira has shot up in value even against the euro because $50 million flows back into Turkey every day, to be exchanged. And north Iraq has oil — a very great deal of it. The sums of money involved are huge, and there is even a suspicion in Turkey that the Kurdish chieftains are stirring up trouble in the hope of pushing oil prices up to $150 per barrel. The Kurdish entity is booming — five universities, endless government buildings, roads, police, etc. And this particularly enriches Barzani, now the Americans’ friend. Into Barzani’s region, through the Habur border-crossing, come, every year, 500,000 lorries, most of them Turkish (or Kurdish-Turkish) and Barzani levies a tax on each of them. There is an element of drugs-smuggling, probably uncontrollable, though every week the Istanbul police find a cache, and that, too, no doubt adds something to the strength of the Turkish currency.
With money of this scale, Barzani can dream his dreams. His grandfather fought the British for a Kurdish state; his father followed, co-operating now with the Shah, now with Moscow, now with the USA, getting nowhere. However, this new Barzani is very, very rich, and has American support (the PKK have acquired American weaponry as the result). His aim seems to be the creation of a Greater Kurdistan, and if that means using the PKK against Turkey, so be it. He has tolerated and perhaps even armed it, and Talabani refuses to extradite proven criminals to Turkey. Now the Turks are in a rage, and have mustered 100,000 troops on the border, threatening at the least to wipe out the dozen border camps.
They are as usual being lectured by the Americans. But what are they supposed to do? The Americans after all hardly hesitated when it came to invading Panama to get rid of Noriega. And besides, the Turks know enough about the Kurdish question to recognise an impossible quandary when they see one. The Kurds themselves are very divided. The millions in western Turkey just want to get on in Turkish. There is no single Kurdish language: there are at least four, divided even then by dialects. The northern Kurds are good Turkish citizens, some of them — the Zaza speakers — even nationalist. The southern ones, with a heavy tribal inheritance, have something of an outlaw tradition, but they are divided by religion. You can bring out thousands for a nationalist demonstration, sympathetic to the PKK, but tens of thousands for a religious cause.
It would be horribly difficult to construct an autonomous region out of all of this, let alone a state, and most Turks (including most western Kurds) regard Barzani’s region as just a huge Somalia, with oil. They have, therefore, mustered their forces, and are telling Barzani to get rid of the PKK. They are right. In the end he will have to co-operate with Turkey, the only truly working state in the whole vast region. But the PKK must go first.
The paperback edition of Norman Stone’s World War One: A Short History is being published by Penguin next March at £7.99.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 27, 2007