By Eric Margolis
Kurds: No Friends But The Mountains
Toronto Star, Feb. 21, 1999
ZURICH - `We have no friends but the mountains.' So say Kurds, a people whose long agony and national tragedy are only now coming to be known by the outside world.
Last week, in a stranger than fiction scenario, charismatic Kurdish rebel leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was kidnapped by Turkish commandos in Nairobi, Kenya, of all places, where he had been hiding in the Greek Embassy, and flown back to Turkey to stand trial for his life. The leader of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, is Turkey's public enemy number one.
Turkey had no intelligence capability in East Africa. Ocalan was clearly tracked and shadowed by US intelligence and, very likely, Israeli intelligence. Both services have important posts in Nairobi, and work closely to monitor East Africa. Israel, Turkey's new strategic ally, provides Ankara with substantial anti-guerrilla training, equipment, and interrogation techniques. The US supplies Turkey's 525,000-man army with weapons, including armor and helicopters used to fight PKK guerrillas in eastern Anatolia.
Greece was enormously - and rightly - embarrassed by revelations it had been hiding Ocalan at its Nairobi embassy. Three senior Greek government ministers resigned. Ocalan and the PKK are branded `terrorists' by NATO, of which Greece is a member. In fact, Greece has long secretly armed and financed the PKK to bedevil old foe Turkey. So have Armenian groups. Greece also covertly aids Serbia, in direct violation of a NATO boycott. When Ocalan was seized, he was carrying a Greek Cypriot diplomatic passport.
I've followed the Kurdish question for decades, and covered the 15-year old guerrilla war between the PKK and Turkey in bleak eastern Anatolia. This complex, tragic drama leaves me torn, and sympathetic to both sides. There are 25-30 million Kurds, spread across five nations, but most numerous in Turkey and Iraq, where they account for 20% and 23%, respectively, of the population. The world's second largest tribal society after Pathans, Kurds are of ancient Indo-European origin, with distinct society, customs, and language. Yet these admirable, courageous highlanders have never had their own nation.
President George Bush's foolish decision not to allow Saddam Hussein to pull out of Kuwait in 1991, the ensuing Gulf War, and creation of a US-protected mini-Kurdish state in northern Iraq, let the Kurdish genii out if its bottle - as this column repeatedly predicted it would back in 1990. The result has been massive upsurge of Kurdish nationalism that destabilized Iraq and Turkey, the latter a close US ally. While war bands, or `Pesh mergas' of `good,' US- backed Kurds battled Saddam, `bad' Kurds fought Turkey. But then Turkey battled `good' Kurds in northern Iraq, and so on.
The legitimate desire of the long-suffering Kurds to have their own nation conflicts head-on with the fact they live in well-established nations who, while they grant varying degrees of autonomy to Kurds, will never voluntarily give up territory, some of it rich in oil, to a new Kurd state. Kurds, for their part, have been unable to produce a common leadership or policy; like all mountain peoples, they spend as much time battling rival tribes as their lowland foes.
Kurds deserve better than PKK leader Ocalan, originally funded and armed by the Soviet Union. He is a ruthless, Kurdish Stalin, who terrorized his foes, and exterminated all rivals within the party. PKK guerillas slaughtered large numbers - up to 30,000 - civilians, many of them Kurds who would no cooperate with PKK extremists. Any PKK members who `deviated' were summarily shot.
As I saw when covering the dirty war in easstern Anatolia, the fierce Turkish Army was equally brutal battling the PKK. Guerrilla wars fought in the midst of civilian populations are always bloody, savage affairs. Supporters of Kurdish independence - or greater autonomy - have been frequently murdered by Turkish security agents, and by gangsters, working for the Turkish government. Torture of arrested Kurdish suspects is common.
Ocalan's dramatic capture and trial in Turkey will focus world attention on the neglected Kurdish question. His trial and probable subsequent hanging will only further inflame Kurdish nationalist passions, and make it even less likely Turkey will ever be admitted, as it so ardently desires, to membership in the European Union.
Ocalan has also become a new hero and martyr of Europe's left. When Ocalan sought refuge in Italy, he was allowed to stay for a time, then depart in spite of German arrest warrants by Italy's communist-led government - which, ironically, cheered the detention by Britain of Chile's Sen. Pinochet on charges of human rights violations.
Interestingly, Turkey has cynically sided with NATO in attempting to deny Albanians of Kosova their legitimate right to self-determination because Ankara fears its Kurds will seize such a precedent to press for their own independence. This past weekend, at so-called `peace' talks in France, Albanians, like Kurds, are once again being sold out by the Great Powers, who are trying to force Albanian Kosovars to accept bogus `autonomy' that keeps Kosova under brutal Serb rule.
PKK has been decapitated. Turkey has won a major victory and even managed to humiliate the Greeks. This triumph will embolden Turkey's real rulers, the military, to press the war against the Kurds. The day after Ocalan's arrest, Turkish troops once again invaded northern Iraq to fight Kurdish separatists. But Kurds are legendary fighters; they will battle on.
Copyright: Eric Margolis, 1999