Dogu Ergil: It was the Kurds who did not want a Kurdish state in the Treaty of Lausanne

14 April 2013 /AYDOĞAN VATANDAŞ, NEW YORK – In the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, after World War I, Allied forces envisioned an independent Kurdish state for Kurds. But in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, after the Turkish War of Independence in which the Turks and Kurds fought against the Western invaders together, this promise was ignored.

Some Kurdish intellectuals tend to blame the Turks for not delivering the promise to the Kurds for a state of their own. They believe that they were betrayed. But Professor Doğu Ergil, one of the most renowned political sociologists from Turkey, says it was actually the Kurds themselves who did not ask for a state.

He explains that the Kurds “cooperated” with the Turks against the Armenians to deport them and seized the goods and property left behind by the Armenians. Professor Ergil claims that the Treaty of Lausanne was crafted with the consent of the Kurds. “They did not want a Kurdish state for several reasons. But the primary reason was the ambition of some to create a separate Armenia in the same lands. The Kurds wanted to prevent this from happening.”

Professor Ergil also shares his insights about “neo-Ottomanism,” a term which came into parlance right after new possibilities emerged for Turkey in the Middle East. “If we have made such a huge shift from the thesis that the Kurds would partition Turkey to the argument that Kurds can flourish alongside Turks, something is wrong. Caution is necessary in such things. The discourse on the revival of the Ottoman Empire is improper. Contrary to what we believe, the Ottoman state is perceived as a conqueror rather than a big brother in this region.”

Sunday’s Zaman interviewed Professor Ergil in New York on some of the most controversial issues, and once again Ergil ventured to break taboos.

You completed your Ph.D. in the US a long time ago; what sort of changes have you observed in American society?

The American people were influenced by Sept. 11. The American nation was not a cowardly society. As a nation that entered World War II and saved Europe as a conveyor of civilization, it was an amazing nation that replaced the former empire owing to its economy, army and culture as well as confidence. The destruction of this confidence due to the Sept. 11 attacks and the use of these attacks by George Bush as a pretext for an aggressive stance contributed to the emergence of a culture of fear and doubt in the US. It further contributed to the exacerbation of its enmity towards the rest of the world. This attitude by the Bush administration destroyed the confidence of the American nation and had a detrimental effect on the American perception of the world.

We are familiar with the reasons in the Middle East for strong opposition to the US; what is the case in Turkey?

This is in fact interesting; the American image is even worse in Turkey. There are two social segments conveying anti-Americanism in Turkey. One of them is the far right and the other is the left wing. The far right views all others as the enemy. The left, on the other hand, sees the US as a conveyor and center of imperialism. In addition, the alliance between the US and Israel and US indifference to the injustices done to the Palestinians raised opposition among Muslims as well. On the other hand, because of the perception that the US is behind the pro-Kurdish movement, both Muslims and the far right as well as the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have adopted an anti-American stance. The [National Security Council] MGK did not take any decision on the March 1 motion in 2003; this was seen as the military’s reaction to the US. This is actually seen as a strong case where all social segments, including religious people, rightists, leftists and seculars, expressed their opposition to the US. Surveys concluded back then revealed that the level of anti-Americanism in Turkey was even stronger than anti-American sentiments in Iran.

How do you see the American attitude vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue? Do the nationalist circles hold suspicions about the US stance?

There is no single Kurdish issue. There is a Kurdish issue that has changed with time. Turkey is where this issue emerged. The Kurds who contributed to the Turkification of Anatolian lands fought on the side of the Ottomans against the Safavids and played extensive roles in Malazgirt (1071), Çaldıran (1514), Çanakkale (1915) and the War of Independence so that the unification of the state that was preserved disappeared in the aftermath of 1924. They became invisible on the political radar screen.

How and why did this happen? Why did the Kurdish state that existed in the Treaty of Sevres disappear in Lausanne?

This did not happen in the Treaty of Lausanne because of the consent of the Kurds. The Kurds did not accept Sèvres.

So they did not want a separate state in the Treaty of Sèvres? Or were they incapable of this?

They did not want this for several reasons. But the primary reason was the ambition to create an Armenia on the same land. The Kurds wanted to prevent this from happening. The Kurds played an extensive role in the expulsion of Armenians from Turkey and the appropriation of their properties.

Can you elaborate on this?

Kurds and Armenians used to live together in East Anatolia. They cooperated with Turkish official circles in the deportation of Armenians and played a primary role in the redistribution of the property and land of the deported Armenians. Their return would mean that everything should be restored and reversed. They converted their children to Islam and took them into Kurdish families. And, of course, there was no Turkism back then; there was a state approach based on an understanding of Islam. This was pretty understandable for the Kurds. They have lived like this for centuries. No room was left for Kurdishness when Turkishness in a political sense was invented because this place was declared as being the land of the Turks.

So did the Kurds feel betrayed and deceived?

You have to ask this to the Kurds because I am on the deceiving side; this is the primary reason for the Kurds. The state whose creation they contributed to ignored them. This is the real problem for the Turks. For the Turks, the problem does not start in the 1920s. It starts with the Kurdish uprising. For the Turks, the problem did not even start in the 1970s when the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was founded; the problem started in 1984 when they staged their first violent attacks. There was no problem for the Turks up until then.

When did the US become interested in the Kurds?

The US perception of the Kurds is not limited to Turkey alone. When there was no support from Turks at the time of the Iraq invasion, the US counted on the guidance and concrete support of the Kurds, and they became a loyal ally to the US. As a result, they gained the current autonomous status in the north. But this is not our Kurds.

So when did the US become interested in our Kurds?

The PKK wing of our Kurds fell into the sphere of US interest when it wanted to destabilize Iran. When they explored the PKK’s ability to destabilize Iran through the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) and when Turkey was banned from taking any action through the southern border, the PKK was supported on condition that this support would be forwarded to PJAK. However, the support ceased when the prime minister made an intelligence agreement with the US. The American administration did not lend this support for use against Turkey. Well, this might have been used for this purpose; it is a different issue. But if, for instance, the US had given stinger missiles to the PKK, Turkey would be adversely affected by this. The US did not do this. If this had happened, the US would totally lose Turkey, and Turkey would lose its airstrike ability over the PKK.

How does the US approach the rapprochement between Turkey and the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq?

The US is uncomfortable with this. The US does not want a disintegrated Iraq to ensure that the central Iraqi administration does not fall into Iranian control. If a Sunni state emerges in Syria, the unhappy Arabs in Iraq may make an alliance with Syria.

Some arguments on the integration of northern Iraq with Turkey have been raised recently. So you do not see this as likely?

At the beginning, Turkey was also in favor of the territorial integrity of Iraq. At that time Turkey declared the establishment of a separate Kurdish state in northern Iraq as its red line. But when it failed to prevent this from happening, it made reference to the geographic and political integration of Iraq. However, when strong relations were established with the Kurdish administration, these relations generated great opportunities for economic benefits, and it became evident that the Kurds in Syria might be impressed by the Kurds in northern Iraq, so Turkey decided it would not be the end of the world if they separated from Iraq because it held that northern Iraq would fall into its sphere of influence.

However, this should not be exaggerated because separating off land from another country and claiming authority over this land will further necessitate other similar demands by which land would be separated. If an alliance based on recognition of political and economic interests is to be made, this would happen anyway. The legal borders for this are not necessary, and in fact, this causes problems.

If we have made such a huge shift from the thesis that the Kurds would partition Turkey to the argument that Kurds would grow with the Turks, something is wrong. Caution is necessary in such things. The discourse on the revival of the Ottoman Empire is improper. Contrary to what we believe, the Ottoman state is perceived as a conqueror rather than a big brother in this geography. The conqueror rules, and the ruler seizes the local resources. This is something inherent in imperial state behavior. It is argued that the Ottoman state did not exploit like the Western states. It was unable to do so because there was no industry, therefore, there was no need for the acquisition of raw materials. It did not have automobiles, so it did not need oil. It had no advanced mining industry, hence, it did not need mines in these lands. The Ottomans were an agricultural society, and they exploited as much value out of agricultural products and revenues.

Go and ask these people what the liberation days in our neighboring countries mean to them. For this reason, foreign policy cannot rely on patriotic discourse. Foreign policy does not tolerate emotionality. When they hear remarks about the Ottomans, they say they want a partner rather than a protector. For this reason, our politicians have to remain cautious on this matter. There was a position the government offered in the beginning on the return to Turkey of former lands of the Ottoman Empire. This was withdrawn within a month; reference was made to neo-Ottomanism. And then, zero problems with neighboring countries was declared. However, you cannot establish problem-free relations with neighboring countries, because they have inherent problems. Turkey should rely on its soft power rather than hard power in the Middle East. It has to establish cultural, diplomatic and economic networks. It may instead create alliances where it may assume a determinative role.

You were elected to the committee of wise men for the peace process. What sort of obstacles do you see before the peace process?

Unfortunately, people have been manipulated about this matter through several methods. In reference to the PKK, the militants were regarded as some disordered gangsters. We did not want to believe that we were facing an international organization. We did not accept the fact that some militants in the mountains actually had millions of supporters in Turkey. The reality made itself acceptable over the time. Now we have to understand this and do whatever is necessary. The official discourse referred to this as an issue of terrorism created by the traitors who wanted to partition Turkey. These traitors should have been destroyed and when soldiers were killed, revenge should have been taken. This is a never-ending process of death. There is a clichéd scene in Turkish movies: a man is attempting to murder another man when somebody appears out of the blue, saying: “Stop! He is your brother.” This is what is being told to us now. This is a project of brotherhood. Why did we fight each other if we were brothers? We have to confront ourselves and our past; we have not done this yet.

Sometimes there are reactions against my remarks. They ask me what I would do if my child had been murdered. How could one possibly respond to this question? First option: I would question the system that caused the death of my child. Second option: I kill somebody else’s child. If they did not expect me to give the second answer, then I would offer a third option: We should question the system that caused all these troubles and forgive each other so that this will never happen again because we have killed many of them, too. We have to put an end to violence. And then, we have to establish another order where it will not be used again.

So is this what you will be telling the people as wise men?

The government is administering the peace process in legal and actual terms; in this situation, it does not want any partner. For this reason, it is not our job to serve as a facilitator or a mediator. What is expected from us is PR. In other words, we will tell the people that unless we make peace, the bloody conflict will continue and that this will be in no one’s interests. We will also explain the conditions under which the peace process made progress, how it happened, the values that fostered the process and the content of the peace language.

Do you know under which conditions the parties made an agreement?

Nobody knows.

To what extent do the Turkish people support the peace negotiations with the PKK?

The prime minister told us that 55 percent of the people in Central Anatolian cities support the process. I am not sure whether this is a scientific finding or not. We, a group of researchers, also conducted a survey. The responses of the participants vary depending on how you asked the question. I should underline this point: Nobody opposes peace. But they are opposed to the party with which the negotiations are being held. They argue that the government is making peace with terrorists and traitors. There are some concerns on this matter. They find negotiations with a terrorist organization offensive. Sixty percent of people are opposed to peace talks with a terrorist organization, and this may go up to 80 percent with respect to talks with Öcalan. But everybody wants peace. However, every dispute is settled by the parties to this dispute. This is our job; to explain this to the people.

However, if you consider the messages from Kandil, you would see that they see this problem as a matter of status rather than a matter of cultural rights or human rights alone. Will autonomy come out of this?

The emergence of the current peace environment was made possible by giving up a different political status. If the implementation of the local self-government charter of the EU is required for the democratization of Turkey, this should be done anyway. This is something that Turkey should have done years ago. This was included in the 1921 Constitution. This nation was not afraid of decentralization during a time of war, so there is no reason to be fearful now.


Professor Doğu Ergil is a leading figure in the field of political sociology. He drafted a noteworthy report on the Kurdish issue in 1995, sponsored by the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB), in his capacity as adviser to the TOBB president. The report attracted a great deal of attention, and since then he has been regarded as an authority on the Kurdish conflict. Professor Ergil has also conducted several research projects sponsored by international organizations.;jsessionid=8C3FCEE153AA5D2A832DED0637DF7AAF?newsId=312525