Another Borderland: Kurdistan

Northeast of the Levant, there is a region distinctively transcending borders. Spanning across five states, Kurdistan represents a striking example of a loosely defined territory and multiple spatial overlaps, borderland par excellence. In light of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan´s speech, delivered in the course of the Kurdish New Year´s festival Nevruz yesterday, a closer look at this issue is timely. Not least because there are interesting interconnections to Obama´s visit (see last post), Israel and the wider region.

With the actual boundaries depending on the authority that draws them, Kurdistan, in any case, incorporates areas in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia. The Kurdish territory therefore constitutes an area of blurred boundaries within an inhomogeneous region. By stretching across several states, it shows some similarities to the Levant.

turkey, caucasus, levant

Source: NASA Visible Earth,

In all these states there has been a struggle for freedom and self-determination of the Kurdish peoples, in large parts violent, so that the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan), the Kurdistan Worker´s Party, is classified as terror organisation by the United Nations and others. Being a Turkish-Kurdish party, PKK has sister organisations in Iran, Iraq and Syria, and while there is a desire for a homogeneous Kurdish state, the Kurdish movements in the different states do have varying statuses in their respective political environments. In the wake of the last war in Iraq, for instance, Iraq´s Kurds, located in the north of the state, managed to become relatively autonomous, as the International Crisis Group reports.


Source: NASA Visual Earth &; assembled: borderlandlevant

Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK, in a speech delivered on his behalf, is calling on his fellow Kurdish people to lay down arms and help build a bright, democratic future for Turkey. Whereas these words are generally welcomed as a major step towards a peaceful coexistence of Kurds and Turks in Turkey after 30 years of armed struggle, there are still cautious voices, warning from too much optimism. Following the Turkish Hurriyet, this caution seems advisable as Öcalan says that it is time the armed forces move out of Turkey, which is equivocal and signals they will actually still be around, just somewhere else. Moreover, Turkish opposition fears that Erdogan´s opening up towards PKK is related to doubtful domestic political goals, as Swiss NZZ shows. However, on the other side, considerable progress has been made by the Turkish government in terms of rights for the Kurds in Turkey, for instance with regard to the official use of the Kurdish language.

Another Turkey-related issue was a phone-call between Israeli prime-minister Netanyahu and his Turkish counterpart Erdogan. In the call, supported by Obama, who actually tuned in for a minute, Netanyahu apologized for the incident on the Mavi Marmara, the vessel of the Gaza flotilla. Back in 2010, Israeli military boarded the ship in international waters, killed nine activists and wounded dozens of others. This line of action has been condemned by the United Nations and led to severe diplomatic differences between Turkey and Israel. Erdogan and Netanyahu agreed on re-opening embassies in the respective other country and return to a regular diplomatic relationship. Reading between the lines of the speech Obama gave last night in Jerusalem, this step could be part of a larger initiative in the region, trying to work towards `security, peace and prosperity´ in a more indirect way.

In the context of the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, and Öcalan´s peace-initiative, there certainly are implications on the wider region. Questions around the Kurds are in any case also crucial for the conflict in Syria. As said above, territories overlap, and Turkey does not want to jeopardise its regional power by getting involved in the civil war in Syria too much. Hence, the incorporation of the Kurdish movement into a normal political discourse in Turkey is an important step also for Turkey´s relations to Syria and the rest of the region.

On a concluding note, Austrian DerStandard reports that Turkish artist Murat Gök approaches the question of the border between Turkey and Syria, that also separates the Kurdish territories, in his own way. Spanning a hammock in between border fence posts, Gök playfully places himself `in between´. Using the hammock as a swing, one can change from one state to the other in the blink of an eye. Casually lying in the hammock moreover satirizes the apparent severity and rigidity of state borders. Well done!

border (hammock) - murat göks 2010

Source: DerStandard,

All rights reserved: Sigi Atteneder, 2013