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Turkey: Analysis From Washington -- Kurds Continue To Be Kicked Around

Washington, 5 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The possibility that thousands of ethnic Kurds may soon flee Turkey to the countries of Western Europe has focused renewed attention on the problems of that stateless people.

On Friday, Ankara warned the countries of the European Union against offering political asylum to Kurds who have fled Turkey during the last few weeks. The Turkish government suggested that such offers would only encourage more Kurds to flee.

Meanwhile, Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro said that Rome would take a "positive attitude" on requests for political asylum, a remark that prompted Germany and Austria to reimpose border controls less than 30 days after lifting them as they and several other European countries had agreed to.

But despite this expanded attention, there is little reason to think that either the Kurds, the Turks or the international community are likely to take any steps to resolve what has been one of the most contentious issues in the Middle East.

One reason for this is rooted in the nature of the Kurdish problem itself. Another reflects in the utility it has for a variety of outside powers.

And still a third is part of the international community's general reluctance to recognize claims of national self-determination that would lead to border changes.

Most of the world's 30 plus million Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. They were promised an independent state carved out of the territory of these countries by the Treaty of Sevres in 1920.

But three years later, the international community in the Treaty of Lausanne reneged on this promise. And the Kurds have been fighting for a state of their own ever since.

Most of their efforts have been in Turkey where more than half of the world's Kurds live. During the past 13 years, this movement has been led by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been engaged in a bloody struggle with the Turkish army.

But because the Kurds live astride many national borders, problems in one country soon become problems in quite another. Last week, for example, the Turkish army reportedly again sent its forces into northern Iraq as part of an effort to control the PKK.

And because the United States is maintaining a no-fly zone in that region as part of its effort to put pressure on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Washington is very much involved as well, albeit on a different side.

Ankara has repeatedly denounced the PKK as a terrorist group and suggested that it is supported by Syria and Iran as part of campaign to destabilize Turkey. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Turkish authorities suggested Moscow was behind the PKK as well.

Repeated discussion of such links reflects both Turkey's domestic political situation and its international position.

On the one hand, Turkey's unwillingness to meet Kurdish demands even half way and its inability to help develop the regions where most Kurds live guarantees the existence of an unhappy people interested in gaining support from abroad.

Indeed, last Wednesday, Turkish State Minister Salih Yidirim told the daily Milliyet that Ankara lacks the funds to invest in these regions even though the Turkish army has said that such investments are necessary to end the insurgency. And on the other hand, Turkey's key location -- a link between Europe and the Middle East, NATO's eastern anchor, and a possible route out for Caspian oil and gas -- ensures that many countries will have an interest in exploiting its internal difficulties.

Indeed, many analysts in the Caucasus and the West have even suggested that Russia and Iran might be interested in playing up the Kurdish problem in order to make the Turkish pipeline route less attractive to Western investors.

And such commentators are quite likely to see the timing of the current Kurdish upsurge as anything but accidental: only a few months before an international consortium is to make some significant decisions on the location of future pipelines in this region.

But suggestions that these problems -- Kurdish-Turkish violence and an end to Kurdish refugees toward Europe -- might be solved by an independent Kurdistan as the international community once promised seem certain to fall on deaf ears.

In addition to flying in the face of the conservativism about border changes inherent in any international system based on states, the creation of an independent Kurdish state faces other obstacles as well.

First, it would require that land be taken from several countries, not just one.

Second, it could also destabilize the region. And third, it might lead other submerged groups around the world to demand independent statehood.

As a result, the Kurds are likely to remain what they have been for more than half a century: a political football some will try to put in play while others are likely to countenance further efforts to keep it out of play.