US policy in the Middle East seems to presume that Washington has the ability to re-arrange national and group attitudes and fears at will in the pursuit of a better world. This is ambition on a scale that brings to mind hackneyed words describing spiritual pride that "goes before a fall."
American policy on Turkey and the Kurds is an example. Modern Turkey is a consolidation and amalgamation of a number of Muslim peoples in the aftermath of the First World War. In that war, the "ecumenical" Ottoman Empire was defeated as a member of the Central Powers alliance and what is now Turkey in Anatolia and Thrace was saved from the wreckage of the empire by the efforts of Mustafa Kamal Atataturk. The revanchist ambitions of the non Muslim peoples of the empire threatened in the early 1920s to deny the Turkish speaking peoples of the area a "national" homeland that could be consolidated permanently. Ataturk, by a combination of competent military campaigning and effective and far-sighted diplomacy solved that problem. His diplomatic agreements with Greek premier Venizelos transferred large populations between Greek and Turkish territory in such a way that Greece became overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian and the Turkish Republic almost completely Muslim.
The "fly in the ointment" in this solution has always been the pre-existing presence of large numbers of Kurds in eastern Turkey. The largely Sunni Muslim Kurds are not Turkish in speech or culture but by Kemalist standards of national identity had to be accepted into modern Turkey in order to justify the inclusion of many other groups of doubtful Turkish identity into the Turkish state. For that reason the Turkish government, using a definition of "national" identity other than linguistic and cultural self identification has always insisted that Kurds who are Turkish citizens are merely "mountain Turks," who will be assimilated into the larger population through a process of state run education.
Not surprisingly, the Kurds in Turkey have resisted that process of assimilation, preferring to remain what they have always believed themselves to be. Turkey’s modern borders are a new thing. Kurdish identity is ancient.
The tensions between the Turkish government and dissident Kurds is what it has always been. Sporadic fighting and terrorist action in Turkey is a continuing fact of life in the region. The Turkish government regards northern Iraq, with some justification, as a sanctuary and redoubt area for Turkey’s Kurdish rebels.
The United States has encouraged the ambitions of Kurdish Iraqis for political and social autonomy in the north. The US has protected a nearly independent Kurdish autonomous zone for over a decade. It should be obvious that the real aspiration of the Kurds is northern Iraq is independence.
Turkey regards that as a threat to its long term stability and territorial integrity.
Should the American government not have foreseen that? How difficult was it to see that coming? Has the US government tried hard to resolve the potential for further war in the region over this issue?
Now Turkey is assembling its forces on the border. It is not too late to act. The US government shold aggressively seek an agreement in which Turkey and the Kurdish entity in the north accept a US guarantee (enabled by an American military presence) that preserves both Kurdish and Turkish equities. The US is now a Middle Eastern regional power and must accept its responsibilities as such. pl