Long thread, about the Kurds, and ethnicity in the Turkish Republic. Relevant to current events in Syria, but focused on background of Turkey’s “Kurdish problem.” With apologies to scholars, this is a ‘quick tour,’ a summary with much detail omitted.
In 1071, the Seljuk Turks, coming out of Siberia/ Central Asia, defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert, near Lake Van. Centuries of conquest in Asia Minor followed. Finally, in 1453, Mehmed II took Constantinople (Istanbul) and ended the thousand-year Byzantine Empire.
Soon after entering Asia Minor (Anatolia), the Seljuks encountered the Kurds, one of the oldest peoples of eastern Anatolia. They were a tribal, clan based people, semi-nomadic (by the 19th c.), warlike and hard to subdue.
The Ottoman Empire interfered w/ the (Muslim) Kurds relatively little but made them their ‘enforcers’ in eastern Anatolia, counting on them to guard against Persian (Iranian) incursions, and to subjugate other minorities, especially the (Christian) Armenians.
The Ottomans also attempted to dilute Kurdish suzerainty in eastern Anatolia by planting large numbers of refugees from the Caucasus and Balkans there, over generations (echoes of the ‘population engineering’ we may be about to see in norther Syria).
Immediately prior to WWI, what is ‘Turkey’ today was an ethnic patchwork of Muslims (including Muslims of other traditions, discriminated against by the Ottomans, esp. the Alevis), Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Kurds. Those were the principal groups.
If you had asked a Muslim in this territory to self-identify, before WWI, he wd have said, first, “Muslim,” and second, “Ottoman.” There was no concept of “Turkishness” and no effort by the Ottomans to promote such a concept. Turkey, as a political entity, did not exist.
In 1915, for reasons not discussed here, Ottoman authorities initiated the systematic removal and liquidation of most of the Armenian population (estimated 700,000 – 1.5mm deaths). Much of the mayhem was committed by Kurds, who afterwards usurped Armenian lands and properties.
In 1919, expecting to capitalize on the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in WWI, Greece invaded Turkey. Mustafa Kemal (‘Ataturk’) led nationalist resistance and, during that war (1919-22), a movement of Turkish independence was born which led to founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
One of Ataturk’s principal aims was to create, out of nothing, a sense of national identity, of ‘Turkishness.’ Understandable in response to the national nightmare of invasion and foreign occupation, that ‘project’ ultimately stripped Turkey of much of its multi-ethnic heritage.
As an immediate consequence of Greece’s defeat, large numbers of Greeks, who had been in Turkey for millenia in many cases, either fled or were expelled. A ‘population exchange’ agreed w/ Greece brought large numbers of ethnically Muslim people to Turkey from Greek territories.
Following a Sept. 1955 pogrom against the remaining Greek population in Istanbul, large numbers of Greeks left Turkey. In 2006, Human Rights Watch estimated the remaining Greek population at 2,500, saying the “community is collapsing.”
At the start of the 20th century, the Jewish population of Turkey is estimated at 200,000. They had been in Anatolia, Constantinople and eastern Thrace since the 5th century. In 1934, there was an ant-Jewish pogram, associated w/ the planned deportation of Jews from Thrace.
In 1942, the Turkish state imposed a ‘wealth tax’ on non-Muslims, which hit Jewish property owners particularly hard. Those who couldn’t pay went to labor camps. About 30,000 Jews emigrated.
Today, the once robust Jewish community of what is now Turkey lives mostly in Israel (with some business owners maintaining their businesses in Turkey while ‘commuting’ to their families in Israel).
The disappearance of the Armenians, Greeks and Jews from Turkey’s rich ethnic patchwork brings us back to the Kurds.
CFR: Approximately thirty million Kurds live in the Middle East—primarily in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—and the Kurds comprise nearly one-fifth of Turkey’s population of seventy-nine million.
CFR: PKK, established by Ocalan in 1978, has waged an insurgency since 1984 against Turkish authorities for greater cultural and political rights, primarily with the objective of establishing an independent Kurdish state. The ongoing conflict has resulted in nearly 40K deaths.
In context of the history summarized here, Turkey’s efforts to subdue, and assimilate, the Kurds can be seen as the ‘last domino to fall’ in Ataturk’s long term project to forge a ‘Turkish’ national identity.
Modern Turkish citizens’ attitudes to Kurds and Kurdish cultural identity have substantially evolved, and it should now be possible, IMO, to accommodate that cultural identity within the Turkish polity.
IMO, no military solution is possible for Turkey’s long term struggle w/ the Kurds. A political solution, involving significant ‘devolution’ of power to Kurdish-led regional and municipal governments in SE Turkey, is the only way to maintain Turkish territorial integrity while
accommodating the just demands of Kurds for self-determination. Many opportunities for peace talks with that end in view have been missed. The leader of the Kurdish party in Turkey’s parliament is in prison. Ocalan, the leader of the PKK is in prison.
Turkey’s war w/ Syrian Kurds allied to the PKK is, clearly, a function of its struggle to defeat the PKK and the idea of an independent Kurdish state.
USG decisions wrt northern Syria therefore have implications, not only for the future of Syria, but for the ultimate outcome of Turkey’s own “Kurdish problem.” END
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