Sons of Devils

In a turbulent region the stateless Kurds play the role of spoiler

The mountains of northern Iraq are home to no fewer than five Kurdish guerrilla armies. In the Turkish border area Mustafa Barzani's son, Massoud Barzani, leads the Kurdish Democratic Party. The Ayatollah Khomeini is backing the Barzani clan, as the Shah did in the early 1970s. Barzani is also receiving support from Libya. Thus the KDP, a tool of American policy only fifteen years ago, when it got help from the Shah, the United States, and Israel, is now very much a tool of anti-American forces. Barzani's troops threaten Iraq's international highway and oil pipeline to Turkey. Over to the east, near the border with Iran, is Jalal Talebani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), backed by Iran and Syria. Talebani split with the Barzanis in 1975, but they are now reconciled and both organizations are fighting Iraq. However, Talebani is hosting on his territory another pesh mergas force, Abdel Rahman Qassemlu's Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), which cooperates with Iraq against Iran. The compact was explained to me by Said Badal, a Qassemlu aide: "Our cooperation with Iraq is limited to the struggle with Iran, so that does not necessarily make us enemies of Talebani, who is fighting Iraq." Barzani's KDP, Talebani's PUK, and Qassemlu's KDPI can put into the field as many as 10,000 pesh mergas each. The two other Kurdish groups, both Iranian in origin but based in Iraq's northeastern border area, are much smaller, with about 500 pesh mergas apiece: the Marxist-Leninist Komala, and the force of Shaikh Ezzedin Hosseini. Hosseini, who was the Sunni Muslim leader of Mahabad in the 1970s, now maintains a loose alliance with Qassemlu. The complexity of the military situation becomes apparent at the KDPI command center in the cliffside town of Gowreh-deh, five miles from the Iranian border. Looking out over the deforested valley, one can see four different armies.

Crossing into Iran involves a fast march of two hours, by night, from a point north of Gowreh-deh. The thud of Iraqi and Iranian artillery is heard throughout. The two armies exchange fire from the mountain tops on each side of the border; the valleys and defiles in between are controlled by Qassemlu's Kurds. The KDPI is said to have fifteen staging posts on the Iranian side of the border, from which it launches attacks as deep as a hundred miles into Iran. "When darkness approaches, the pasdaran [Revolutionary Guards] leave the towns and we enter to get food from the villagers," says Ahmed Nastani, a pesh merga commander. "At night everything is free for us." Iran's five million Kurds, who account for about 11 percent of the country's population, are the second largest of all of Iran's ethnic minorities, after the Azerbaijanis. The pesh merga rebellion, which appears to be militarily more significant than that of the better-known Mujahidin Khalq (a leftist, Persian-dominated organization led by Massoud Rajavi), illuminates an aspect of the Iranian reality that has been more or less obscured in recent years. Ethnic minorities, who also include Arabs, Baluchis, and Turkomans, make up nearly half of Iran's population. Because some of these people, like the Kurds, are not Shiites, Ayatollah Khomeini's brand of nationalism is even more alienating than was that of the late Shah. As a consequence, the mullahs' regime, after eight years, still has not managed to consolidate its rule in the outlying minority regions to the extent that the Shah was able to. Here may be where the authorities in Tehran are the most vulnerable to foreign pressure and involvement.

THE LARGEST KURDISH population is in southeastern Turkey, where half the Kurds in the world live. Although 15 percent of Turkey's 52 million people are Kurdish, Turkish governments since Ataturk's have made no concession to the Kurds. The Kurdish language is not taught in schools, and Kurdish broadcasts and publications are banned. Officially, the Kurds don't even exist; the Ankara government prefers to call them "eastern compatriots" or "mountain Turks." Despite the size of the community, its history of revolt, and the extent of government repression, for the first half of this decade the Kurds were less of a menace to Ankara than they were to either of the two war-weakened regimes in Baghdad and Tehran. A military coup in 1980—which occurred, coincidentally, in the same month that Iran and Iraq went to war—gave Turkey a strong central government better able to control the country's volatile southeast.

Lately, however, the situation has deteriorated. According to the Turkish daily Hurriyet , more than 400 armed attacks by Kurdish guerrillas have taken place in the past three years. Some 150 Turkish security officers and several hundred civilians, many of them women and children, have been killed. Turks see unsettling similarities between the recently quickening pace of Kurdish attacks and the urban guerrilla activity in the late 1970s that led to the coup. And because these attacks are happening at a time of increasing democratization, people in Ankara, both in and out of government, are discussing the Kurdish problem more openly and more honestly than ever before.

Almost all the violence is done by the Kurdish Workers' Party, a self-declared Marxist group that Western diplomats and others believe has, at most, a thousand active fighters. The group assaults remote border-area villages, going after anyone (often another Kurd) who has a close relative believed to be cooperating with the Turkish authorities or who is believed to be doing so himself. Its zeal in murdering civilians—in one instance, a grenade was tossed down a house's chimney—has caused the Workers' Party to be branded "terrorist." The Workers' Party leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is reported to be living in Damascus. Turkish officials privately accuse Syria of training the group, with Soviet-bloc help. Adnan Kahveci, the chief adviser to Turkey's Prime Minister, Turgut Ozal, explained to me that "Syria has never been favorable toward Turkey." He said that "a good argument" could be made for describing the Workers' Party as a tool of Soviet and Syrian policy.

The Turks are now securing the Syrian border with barbed-wire fences and video cameras. Nevertheless, officials in Ankara admit that terrorists based in Syria (whose Kurdish population is more than half a million) can cross into Turkey by way of Kurdish-controlled parts of northern Iraq. Given the forbiddingly mountainous topography of the region, no one can say for certain that they're not based inside Turkey itself, hiding in caves for months at a time. On several occasions the Turkish air force has, with the consent of the Iraqi government, bombed guerrilla hideouts across the border; the utility of these raids is doubted.

Quite apart from the human toll taken by the Workers' Party, it presents an economic threat. More than a third of Turkey's oil comes from the Kirkuk fields, just across the border in Iraq. There is speculation that if Baghdad's authority in the north weakens further, Ankara might attempt to occupy the oil-rich Mosul province that Ataturk relinquished six decades ago. The tension is palpable in Hakkari, a town of 20,000 people less than thirty miles from the border with Iraq. The streets bristle with walkie-talkies and European-designed G-l and G-3 rifles. Four separate security services patrol the streets, and helicopters prowl the surrounding mountains.

Both Syria and the Soviet Union have ample incentive to harbor ill will toward Turkey. Kahveci pointed out that the Syrians have never accepted Turkey's incorporation, in 1939, of Hatay, a predominantly Arab province, located strategically in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean; to this day official Syrian maps do not recognize Turkey's sovereignty there. And Damascus now sees another threat in the thirteen-dam South-East Anatolia Project, scheduled to begin operation in the 1990s, in the vicinity of the ethnic-Kurdish city of Diyarbakir. As observers in Ankara explained the problem to me, although Turkey has declared that it has no intention of using Syrian water, the Damascus government knows that the network of dams will give Turkey the ability to do so.

Turkey is on less overtly hostile terms with the Soviet Union, but this relationship remains deeply ambivalent. Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, yet its Bosporus Strait provides the only warm water egress for the Soviet navy. Thus, even though the two countries are traditionally enemies and now belong to opposing alliances, Moscow's official dealings with Ankara have usually been correct. The ambivalence was evinced in the 1970s when the Soviet Union, through its satellite Bulgaria, supplied arms to various Turkish extremist factions, while at the same time giving Turkey significant economic aid. Today, even as the Turkish-Soviet economic relationship is again warming up, Moscow is broadcasting Kurdish-language radio programs into southeastern Turkey, using a high-powered transmitter in Yerevan, in Soviet Armenia. The content of these broadcasts is said to be more cultural than political. But with Turkey's discontented Kurds wedged between the Soviet Union and its ally Syria, there is no need for Moscow to be blatant.

ANKARA'S VULNERABILITY helps explain why the Turkish government has permitted the Soviets to use an air-and-land corridor through eastern Turkey in order to supply Iraq with military hardware. Throughout the seven-yearlong Gulf War, Moscow has remained Iraq's principal arms supplier. Its motive is clear. An Iranian victory would serve to improve the morale and the strength of the mujahidin fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan: four of the seven main Afghan resistance groups are fundamentalist, and many of their members are Farsi-speaking like the Iranians, and look to the Shiite clergy in Tehran for support.

Were Iraq to be defeated in the Gulf War, despite tremendous Soviet military support, the various Kurdish guerrilla organizations, all of which have left-leaning ideologies and have dealt with Moscow before, would constitute the best available insurgency option for the Soviets—a way to keep Iran weak and preoccupied, and thus in a position, as it is now, where it needs to curry Moscow's favor. It is an option that the United States, conceivably, could also employ as a means of pressuring the mullahs—much as Washington used Barzani's Kurds in 1974 to pressure Iraq. Draw up any scenario you please: the Kurds are available. Lacking a state of their own, the Kurds thrive when all the existing states are in turmoil.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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