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Kurdish rebels, seeking an autonomous Kurdistan, have been attacking Turkish troops from the sanctuary of northern Iraq. Turkey now threatens to send troops into the most peaceful region of Iraq. Complicating the problem was an attempt in the U.S. Congress to condemn Turkey for a massacre that took place almost a century ago.The world seems unable to get away from the Ottoman Empire, almost a century after its demise.
Throughout the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was "the sick man of Europe." Its decline brought independence to a number of nations in the Balkans and North Africa. One of the consequences of its dismemberment was World War I, triggered by a Serbian nationalist's assassination of an Austrian archduke. Serbia was one of those countries that came into existence as the Ottomans gradually fell back to their Turkish homeland.
In 1914 they allied themselves with Germany and Austria against Britain, France and Russia. After the war, the empire was carved up at the Treaty of Sèvres and a number of new nations entered the world scene, with complications and frictions that continue to this day:
• Saddam Hussein's claim on Kuwait, which led to the first Persian Gulf War, went back to the Ottoman Empire's regional divisions.
• Syria's incessant interference in Lebanon similarly goes back to that time.
• The pre-2003 Sunni domination of majority Shiite Iraq similarly went back to the Ottomans.
• The 30-year-old division of Cyprus owes its origin to the Ottomans, who settled on the island centuries ago.
• The demise of the Ottoman Empire set the stage for the current never-ending conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
• And now the Kurds are the center of attention as they push for a unified autonomous state of their own.
Even the U.S. Congress seems unable to get away from the Ottoman Empire, which was finally replaced by the Republic of Turkey in 1923. After almost a century, Congress seemed set to condemn Turkey for the 1915 massacre of Armenians, until it realized that Turkey is the main supply route for American troops in Iraq. Additionally, the United States is trying to restrain the Turks from attacking the Kurds in northern Iraq, hitherto the only peaceful area of the country. Congressmen are now hesitant about upsetting Turkey, an old U.S. ally, any further.
The Ottoman Empire had many faults, but it did bring peace to the Middle East for four centuries. One hundred years ago, nobody alive could have foreseen the volatility that is today's Middle East.
However, two millennia ago, somebody did.
What Christ foretold
In a major prophetic section of the Bible, Jesus Christ tells His followers to "watch" what is happening in the world (Mark:13:33). In Luke's parallel account, in Luke:21:20, Jesus showed that the Middle East would be the center of tension in the end time, immediately prior to His second coming.
In the other parallel chapter, Matthew 24, Jesus said: "For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom" (verse 7). A kingdom is a political entity that may contain many ethnic groups. B ut the word nation here is from the Greek word ethnos, which refers to ethnic groups or tribes. One of the signs of the end time is a marked increase in conflict between ethnic groups.
The assassination that ultimately led to the fall of the Ottoman Empire was rooted in ethnicity. The Serbs had been under the rule of the Ottoman Turks for centuries when they finally achieved independence in 1817. Some Serbs, however, remained under Austrian rule. The desire for a greater Serbia inspired a Serbian nationalist to fire the shots that triggered World War I.
Since that pivotal turning point in world history on June 28, 1914, a trend throughout the world has been the desire of different ethnic groups or tribes for their own independent homeland. Ethnic conflict has increased as tribes want to break away from the dominant political entity.
The Kurds are one of these ethnic groups.
The struggle for Kurdistan
Numbering about 20 million people, the Kurds are a non-Arab tribe of predominantly Sunni Muslims, roughly half of whom live in Turkey. The other half are mainly in the Kurdish province of northern Iraq, the most peaceful area of that war-torn country. Others are scattered throughout neighboring countries, and there is a significant Kurdish diaspora in Europe and North America.
The dream of many throughout the last century was of a unitary Kurdistan, which would have meant both Turkey and Iraq losing territory.
Today the Kurdish nationalist movement, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has said it will settle for a Kurdish autonomous region. Now that this has effectively been achieved in Iraq, the PKK's primary efforts are directed against the Turkish government, with regular terrorist attacks in Turkey conducted from neighboring Iraq.
Turkey is threatening to send troops into Iraq, further exacerbating the conflict there. The United States and Britain are trying to restrain the Turks from taking this action.
A Turkish military invasion of northern Iraq with the intent of suppressing the Kurdish nationalist movement could provide Iran with the pretext to do the same in the south, annexing the Shiite area of Iraq, thereby dismembering the country.
It is important for people in the West to realize that many of the Middle Eastern borders are arbitrary. The boundaries often go back to old regional borders within the Ottoman Empire and have little to do with tribal loyalties. This means that many countries are unstable and there is little to hold them together, which is one reason why brute force is the norm in this region.
The majority of the people in Turkey, however, are ethnic Turks. The Kurds number about 20 percent of Turkey's population and are concentrated mostly in the east near the borders with Iran, Iraq and Armenia.
"Having been decimated by the Turks in the years between 1915 and 1918 and having struggled bitterly to free themselves from Ottoman rule, the Kurds were encouraged by the Turkish defeat in World War I and by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's plea for self-determination for non-Turkish nationalities in the empire. The Kurds brought their claims for independence to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
"The Treaty of Sèvres (1920), which liquidated the Ottoman Empire, provided for the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state. Because of Turkey's military revival under Kemal Atatürk, however, the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which superseded Sèvres, failed to mention the creation of a Kurdish nation" (The Columbia Encyclopedia, sixth edition, 2001-05, "Kurds," www.bartleby.com/65/ku/Kurds.html ).
Frustrated, the Kurds rebelled in 1925 and 1930, rebellions that were crushed by Turkish troops. "Later (1937-38) aerial bombardment, poison gas, and artillery shelling of Kurdish strongholds by the government resulted in the slaughter of many thousands of Turkey's Kurds. The Kurds in Iran also rebelled during the 1920s, and at the end of World War II a Soviet-backed Kurdish 'republic' existed briefly" (ibid.).
The overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 gave the Kurds hope in Iraq, but it didn't last. It wasn't until the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 that they had any realistic hope of autonomy. This came briefly with the coalition victory that year over Saddam Hussein. But the Kurds were badly let down by the United States and its allies and were soon crushed again by Saddam.
The second Gulf war, which began in 2003, changed things. The Kurds were quite happy to be liberated by coalition forces and have enjoyed autonomy since that time. They have been the most peaceful, stable and prosperous region of Iraq. All of this would be lost if Turkey chooses to send troops into the region to track down Kurdish rebels from Turkey who take refuge among fellow Kurds in Iraq.
"As Turkey moves troops toward the Iraqi border and officials scramble to prevent an invasion, the Kurdish separatists at the center of the storm are again proving their ability to use a well-oiled international support network to confound decades-old Turkish efforts to defeat them," writes Philip Shishkin and Yochi J. Dreazen in the Wall Street Journal ("Turkey's Rebel Kurds Still Elusive," Oct. 23, 2007).
Under international pressure, Turkey is going to try diplomacy first. The article quotes the Turkish foreign minister: "We will continue these diplomatic efforts with all good intentions to solve this problem caused by a terrorist organization…But in the end, if we do not reach any results, there are other means we might have to use" (ibid.).
While America and Britain try to restrain the Turks from attacking Iraq, a resolution in the U.S. Congress condemning the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915 could provoke them into immediate military action.
"The Turks are a proud, prickly people, easily offended by criticism. That much is clear from the row over a resolution, passed by a Committee of the United States House of Representatives on October 10th, calling the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 genocide. [The full House backed off from supporting the resolution.]
"But Turkey has reacted angrily, recalling its ambassador. It is talking of cutting military ties and even denying the Americans use of the Incirlik airbase that is vital for the supply of their troops in Iraq" ("A Resolution Too Far," The Economist, Oct. 20, 2007, p. 16).
It would be short-sighted to say that this problem must be resolved in the next few months. Whatever the outcome of these immediate concerns, the Kurdish issue is not going to go away at any time in the foreseeable future. The Turks are not likely to grant autonomy to the Kurds, so future conflict is certain.
The position the United States and its European allies take, however, could change things dramatically. Turkey, a modern secular Islamic country with democratic credentials, has long sought membership in the EU and remains the second biggest military force in NATO. It is these ties that are at stake every bit as much as the future of the Kurdish people. WNP