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A public policy blog from AEI
When do countries break apart? Sure, civil war and violent conflict often precede secession. For every peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia, there is a Yugoslavia or India partition. It took decades of fighting for Eritrea to break away from Ethiopia, or for South Sudan to win its freedom from Sudan. While the Bangladeshi separation from Pakistan took just a year, it cost more lives in a year than the Syrian civil war has taken over five.
In every case, however, a psychological separation preceded the political division. Eritreans did not see themselves as Ethiopians long before independence formalized a separate status. Bangladeshis spoke a different language and had very different cultural identity. Czechs and Slovaks likewise had distinct histories before being forced into a union and even then spoke different languages. Not so California, despite all the talk of its succession in the wake of Donald Trump’s winning the presidency. From the interstate highway system to the National Football League to Hollywood, California is America. Californians have fought and died in foreign wars alongside their compatriots from 49 others states. A majority of Californians may not like Trump, but then again, a majority of Americans didn’t vote for him either. To talk about California secession is just to blow off steam, nothing more.
Now to the Middle East: The Kurds describe themselves as the largest people without a nation. Tens of millions of Kurds are spread across four countries: Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. The Kurdish struggle in Iraq dates back decades. During the Iraqi monarchy, there were occasional clashes between the Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces but it was only in 1961, three years after army officers overthrew the Iraqi monarchy that Kurdish resentment toward Baghdad erupted into open conflict. Insurgency and low-intensity conflict continued through the next decade. In 1970, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani, father of its current leader Masoud Barzani, believed Saddam Hussein might be a pragmatic partner for peace. Together, the elder Barzani and Saddam negotiated an autonomy accord. Only subsequently did Barzani realize Saddam Hussein’s insincerity. Fighting once again erupted. The fiercer the conflict and the more repressive Saddam became, the more Kurds focused on their own cultural heritage and began to reject the common identity successive Iraqi leaders had tried to imbue. In 1991, the break formalized after Saddam miscalculated: he withdrew Iraqi civil servants and sought to blockade Iraqi Kurds into submission. The Iraqi Kurds seized the opportunity and established their own government.
They speak Kurdish and do not understand Arabic. They listen to Kurdish singers and watch Kurdish television. Few have been to Baghdad, let alone southern Iraq. They feel little if any Iraqi identity.
More than a quarter century has now passed. The younger generation has never known Saddam, and most Kurdish civilians have not experienced war, never mind that the Islamic State battles for control just a few dozen miles away from major Kurdish cities. They speak Kurdish and do not understand Arabic. They listen to Kurdish singers and watch Kurdish television. Few have been to Baghdad, let alone southern Iraq. They feel little if any Iraqi identity. This is not new — many journalists and academics visit Iraqi Kurdistan and observe the same. What is interesting, however, is the change in attitude among the younger generations in Iraq proper. In Basra, Najaf, Karbala, and even Baghdad, many have heard how different Iraqi Kurdistan is, but few have visited the region. If they managed to head north for a summer vacation in the Kurdish mountains, it was as if they visited a foreign country, right down to the passport checks at the internal federal border. Whereas earlier generations of Iraqis schooled in Arab nationalism fought for unity, most young Iraqis shrug off the idea that Iraqi Kurdistan will or even should be fully integrated. Iraqi Kurds have won not only territorial control, but psychological recognition as well.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan embarked on a bloody and cynical Kurdish policy. He wooed the Kurds prior to elections, but forgot his promises once he no longer needed a Kurdish vote. His embrace of the peace process was insincere. As soon as he realized that Kurds would vote for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), he launched a scorched earth policy which transformed towns like Cizre, Silopi, and Nusaybin into scenes remiscent of Aleppo in Syria. After trying peace but experiencing violence remiscent of the mid-1980s, most Turkish Kurds have given up on a common future with their ethnic Turkish compatriots. But, it is not only the Kurds whose mindset has shifted. As Erdogan has consolidated control over Turkish broadcasting and newspapers, Turks are exposed to an ever-shrinking range of permissible voices.
Turks should face reality: Turkey is effectively partitioned.
As a result, a new generation of Turks now sees Kurds as the other, if not the enemy. Add to this the problem that most Western-oriented Turks have never visited south eastern Turkey, and most Kurds from the southeast if the country no longer can visit Antalya, Bursa, and Izmir. Turkey is already undergoing a psychological partition. Indeed, even Erdogan understands at one level that partition is inevitable, and his economic policies seem to suggest that he has already written off predominantly Kurdish regions.
Psychological separation is impossible to reverse absent wholesale ethnic cleansing. That will be nearly impossible to pull off, however, since the Kurds are armed and experienced. Turks should face reality: Turkey is effectively partitioned. Its borders will change; the only question is whether the new lines will be international borders or internal, federal divisions. Erdogan may see himself as a great leader and a new Atatürk. But while Atatürk built modern Turkey, Erdogan has killed it. He will go down in history not as a hero, but as a corrupt villain who destroyed Turkey for his own vanity.
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