The best day’s work that Lenin ever did was to publish the secret treaties that the Bolsheviks found in the archives of the czarist regime. These covert agreements between the Allies in World War I made it perfectly plain that the objectives of the British and French were entirely imperial. Most revealing was the deal between the Anglo-French diplomatic team of Sir Mark Sykes and F. Georges Picot on the future dismemberment and sharing of the Ottoman Empire. Woodrow Wilson, eager to drag the United States in on the side of Lloyd George and Clemenceau, could not continue to posture about a war for democracy in the face of such cynicism. So in January 1918, only weeks after Lenin’s revelations, he evolved his “Fourteen Points” on the principles of a postwar world. The best remembered of these points concerns the so-called self-determination of peoples. As a result, the United States has been embarrassed ever since by its promise to facilitate self-government for, among other peoples, the Palestinians, the Armenians and the Kurds. The commitment has often been grossly betrayed–it was first betrayed in the immediate aftermath of World War I, when the Kurds naïvely thought they would be represented as a delegation at the various “peace conferences”–but never so obviously as by the Clinton Administration’s role in the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan.
You cannot make a child grow smaller, and the latest proof of Kurdish national self-awareness was all over the streets of Europe last month. The Turkish military authorities can babble and lie all they like, but it has now been proved beyond doubt that another nation exists within nominally Turkish borders, and that this nation is now being born. Those who reduce such a matter to a question of “terrorism” are condemned to view history through the optic of the police spy.
At Beirut airport in 1991, I looked around to see if the promised emissaries of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) would be there to meet me. There was nobody in sight; the airport was, like the rest of the city, dark and filthy and half-destroyed by shellfire. There were no taxis, and after a disagreeable wait I was forced to accept an offer made by a policeman, who said that he would convert his squad car into a cab in return for some hard currency. Much later, at my hotel, some Kurdish toilers turned up. “You could not see us,” they said. “But we could see you. We moved away when we saw you talking to the police.” I was made aware of what some European governments have recently discovered–the PKK is very cautious, very well organized, very ubiquitous, very suspicious and very efficient.
A day or so later, and after many hot, sweet cups of tea in many a traditional Levantine safehouse and in a camp down in the Bekaa Valley near Baalbek, I finally met Abdullah Ocalan. My first impression, I have to say, was a frivolous one. If I had a passing resemblance to the late Joseph Stalin, I distinctly remember thinking, would I emphasize it or de-emphasize it? This comrade had chosen to emphasize it. The thick black hair, the heavy mustache, the insistence on being called “Apo,” or Uncle–it was a thing to note. Photographs of the Georgian original, along with old editions of his rather pedantic works on the national question, were freely available in the well-stocked camp library (“well stocked,” I mean to say, with classics from the Comintern and Cominform eras). Hundreds of well-armed and neat young men and women–you don’t see women wearing trousers and carrying guns in Iraqi Kurdistan–were going about their tasks. That afternoon, a “self-criticism” session was under way, showing all the solemnity of a Red Guard detachment and reminding me of some things I had heard about the PKK and its “people’s courts.”
In our conversation Ocalan said some impressive things about the historic failure of the Kurds to unite or to overcome tribalism and feudalism. (It was this backwardness, he argued, that led them to be used as mercenaries against the Armenians in the mass murder of 1915.) He was implacably against Saddam Hussein; interested in ending the Turkish strategy of confrontation with Greece and Cyprus; voluble about uniting the Kurds of Iran and Iraq and Turkey for independence. He was more opaque about his own ties to the Syrian regime, which was effectively his host and guarantor in Lebanon. (I have heard it plausibly said that Ocalan, like Hafez al-Assad, is a member of the Alawite Muslim minority and thus has a confessional as well as a political relationship with the Syrian Baath Party. In any case, he was willing to be used as a pawn in the Syrian-Turkish rivalry over the damming of the Euphrates. And some PKK propaganda has emphasized Islamic themes among the poorer Kurds.) And when I asked him if he attended the self-criticism sessions himself, he didn’t seem to get my little joke.
Not long before, in the towns and villages of southeastern Anatolia, I had seen people practically standing to attention at the mention of his name. The PKK is often feared in this area, and for good reason, but it has won a reputation among the Kurds, and in their diaspora, for the one thing that is essential in a battle for nationhood, namely that it means what it says. And now I learn that the US government helped track Ocalan’s movements when he was on the run and also that the CIA assisted in his arrest by Turkish commandos in Nairobi. General Pinochet and Ocalan first found themselves in legal jeopardy overseas at almost the same time: The Clinton Administration discovered that it had nothing at all to say about the first defendant and everything about the second one.
Ever since Congressman Otis Pike’s leaked report on US intelligence in 1976, we have known that Iraqi Kurdish aspirations have been exploited and manipulated by Washington. However, the present case is unadorned even by hypocrisy. Just as the European Union had begun to take a firmer line with Turkey on the Kurdish question, the Turkish authorities decided that they could deflect this pressure by appealing directly to the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA. Nor were they disappointed.