February 23, 2012
Two Washington, DC institutions, Atlantic Council and Middle East Institute, held a panel discussion on the Kurds today (February 23, 2012). They called it, “Kurdish issues: Turkey and Kurdistan Regional Government in a Changing Middle East.” The panelists were Dr. Henri Barkey of Lehigh University and Qubad Talabani, the Washington representative of Kurdistan Regional Government. Ambassador Ross Wilson of Atlantic Council moderated the panel.
This is not a comprehensive write up of what took place at the event. I have a hunch you could watch the video of the discussion on the website of Atlantic Council. Here, I would like to share with you a few of my impressions from a Kurdish perspective. There were a number of Turkish journalists in the room as well; they probably have written their own impressions of the debate. So you don’t have to take my word for what transpired there.
Washington, DC is not a Kurdish friendly town. The Kurds of Iraq are barely tolerated. Those of Turkey are treated as if they were lepers. The Syrian Kurds are beginning to get noticed. Those of Iran, God help them, are as far away from Washington as the inhabitants of another planet in the universe. In other words, their presence and absence, in spite of the sabre rattling that is going on in Washington, DC relative to Iran, is not even an issue in the capital of the “free world”.
Some Turkish bigots reading these musings of mine may think I am giving them the best news of their lives by confirming the loneliness of the Kurds. Our loneliness notwithstanding, a greater threat is facing them who occupy the highest echelons of the Turkish government. Freedom’s time has come. No amount of Turkish pressure or the support of its misguided friends can derail the Kurds from their march on the most precious human right, liberty.
At the panel discussion though, there was no hint of such an eventuality for the Kurds. To be sure, Ambassador Wilson made references to forbidden letters of alphabet, he gave the example of w, but was as quick to say that Turks were democrats, leaving the uninitiated in the room scratching their heads about democracies that ban letters, the seeds of civilizations! Yes, Turkey still passes as a democracy in Washington, DC. Just like the United States once passed as the leader of the “free world” when it was practicing segregation.
Mr. Barkey began his remarks by saying he was confused about what is taking place in Turkey. He made a reference to the infighting between the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and the Judiciary, but was reluctant to elaborate on the misdeeds of the first against the Turkish civilians disguised as members of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In the past, he has been vociferous in “blaming” the PKK for spoiling the prospects of “peace.” If you thought, given the scandalous revelations of last weeks, he might have offered a few words of contrition, nothing of the sort was done or shown at Atlantic Council.
Mr. Talabani spoke of stability of Iraqi Kurdistan and cited the example of Tariq al-Hashimi, the VP of Iraq, who has sought refuge in its security. He was nuanced about the PKK and said, Kurds are beyond fighting each other. But where he really shined was on the question of Syrian Kurds, and there, he spoke of their plight as if he were a native of Qamishlo. I was impressed.
Then there was the Q&A session. There were your usual softball questions. Stephen Larrabee of Rand Corporation said something like he was still “confused,” but that his confusion had now entered a higher level. We were supposed to laugh here. Then there was your Turkish embassy staff who felt compelled to say a few words about the PKK and quoted Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq, who had, apparently, at one time, called the PKK, a “bela”, a Turkish word that translates as “trouble,” and invited everybody to declare a war on it. Even in a room filled with pro-Turks, this came across as stale.
I had a question of my own, but I never got a chance to ask. If I had, I would have asked the following, “Mr. Barkey, I understand you have friends in the Turkish government and you may not want to answer my question, but I hope you will. I wonder if you would agree with me on a couple of points relative to Turkey. One, that it is too big for its own good. That if it were a smaller state, without its Kurdish part for example, it would have enjoyed peace, security and a higher standard of living. Two, that what it is doing to the Kurds is no different than what Milosevic did to Bosnians, that what it really needs is a democratic culture like that of Czechoslovakia in which it offers the Kurds a choice for a better union or amicable divorce from Ankara. Let me hasten to add here, it was Bismarck who once noted that peace and security would always be elusive in Europe so long as its borders are not drawn along the linguistic lines. Do you think Bismarck is applicable to Turkey?”