Syrian Kurdistan and Turkish Kurdophobia
In the last decade, there was a popular joke among the Iraqi Kurds: A young girl, who was named “Kurdistan” by her parents out of nationalistic enthusiasm, needs to go to Turkey. At the border, she gives her passport to a Turkish policeman, who asks, “What is your name?” Feeling uneasy about uttering the “K” word in front of the Turkish authorities, the girl chooses a compromise. “My name,” says young Kurdistan, “is Northern Iraq!”
This joke is not only funny but also explanatory, because for many years, the overwhelming majority of Turks had a big problem with uttering the very name of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. The official language and the officially-tuned media have been careful to use euphemisms such as “Northern Iraq” or even “the north of Iraq.”
The reason was obvious: Since the beginning of the Turkish Republic, the very existence of region of Kurdistan, which was once the name of an Ottoman administrative unit, has been denied. Ankara’s Newspeak aimed to create a new country by carefully cleansing the republic of any language other than Turkish.
In fact, not only “Kurdistan” as the name of a region, but the very word “Kurd,” was illegal in Turkey until the early 1990s. Luckily, that insane taboo died out gradually, but the taboo on “Kurdistan” has remained.
Why is that? Because most Turks fear that “Kurdistan” is the name of the unified and independent country that Kurdish nationalists want to create, and which would include large parts of Turkey. And in fact there are many Kurdish nationalists who do want to realize that goal, as evidenced by their maps of “Greater Kurdistan.” The Turkish concerns are not totally irrational.
What is totally irrational is the use of denial as a method to deal with those concerns. As many Turkish liberals, including my humble self, have argued, Ankara should try to “win over” the Kurds, rather than suppressing them, and make them its allies rather than enemies. And the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, like it or not, has been able to bring this conceptual change to life, at least partly, at least with regards to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Now what makes all this relevant these days is the rise of the Syrian Kurds, as a consequence of the gradual collapse of the bloodthirsty Baath regime in Damascus. Ankara, to its credit, has been a strong supporter of the Syrian opposition, which includes Kurdish groups. But the almost-sudden appearance of the prospect of a “Syrian Kurdistan,” which seems as though it would be dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which seems to be allied with Turkey’s bête noir, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has caused some alarm in Turkey. While some of this alarmism comes directly from the established Turkish Kurdophobia, which is undoubtedly wrong, the rest stems from a reasonable concern about the PKK, which is a terrorist group by international definition.
So the Syrian Kurds would be doing themselves a great favor by distancing themselves from the PKK and refraining from proving to be anti-Turkish. If that is the case, Ankara could well develop good relations with the Syrian Kurds, as it has done with the Iraqi ones. Yalçın Akdoğan, the closest advisor to the Turkish prime minister, seems to set the tone in a recent piece in which he said: “The AKP government will act towards the Kurds, which it knows as its brothers, with affection rather than fear. But it will not shy away from taking the necessary steps against the terrorist organization [the PKK] which has launched a war against it.”