WILSON DECIDED THE QUESTION EIGHTY YEARS AGO:

Why Turkey’s Kurds matter: After five years of calm, the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey seems to be rekindling. But the government must not return to the heavy-handed methods of its predecessors. With EU membership now a real prospect, the best way to defuse the conflict is by reform (Jonathan Power, November 2005, The Prospect)

The Kurdish “problem” goes back to the collapse of the Ottoman empire, and probably further. The rugged mountains where Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet have been called Kurdistan since the early 13th century, and the Kurds’ roots can be traced back at least 2,000 years. Most of the world’s 20m Kurds live in the region, although well over a million have emigrated to Istanbul, Baghdad, Tehran and Beirut, often assimilating well with the local people, and there are another million overseas. In Turkey, such Kurds are in prominent positions in many walks of life and a Kurd was prime minister not so long ago.

But just as the Kurds of Istanbul appear cut off from the political attitudes of the rural Kurds of southeast Turkey, so too the Kurds of Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Russia and Lebanon might as well be six different peoples. Of course, when Saddam Hussein made his notorious effort to bomb Iraq’s northern Kurds in the wake of the ending of the first Gulf war, they poured across the mountains into Turkey and the Turkish Kurds helped them. And today, after the Iraqi Kurds have entrenched their autonomy in the new Iraqi constitution—and probably entrenched their hold on the northern oil fields—there is a lot of buzz on the Turkish side of the mountains about building a new, united Kurdistan. But most of the time Kurdish leaders from these countries do not meet, do not talk, and often speak different languages. Even in the remote villages of the stony landscape of the southeast, villagers preferred to talk to a visiting reporter about their urge for Turkey to be part of Europe than for a link up with their Asian brethren.

When the Ottoman empire collapsed, a casualty of the first world war, undermined by British arms and intrigue, most of its subject peoples knew what they wanted. Greeks, Arab, Armenians, Jews and Palestinians all demanded their own homelands, claiming a right to nationhood, in one case within God-given borders. The Kurds, distinct but indistinct, lacked the resolve that comes from possessing a single ethnic origin, religion, language or leadership, and thus were relegated to the sidelines of the nationalist drama. The opportunity passed them by, and has passed them by ever since.
Just because you were slow out of the gate doesn’t mean you won’t get self-determination…sooner or later.

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