Edward J. Erickson, a US army veteran and historian, explains how ethnic tensions unravelled in the Middle East following World War I.
Prior to World War I, the Middle East was a loosely connected federal domain ruled by the former Ottoman state. But as the war ended, the empire collapsed, with modern-day Turkey becoming its direct successor. The rest of the geography from North Africa to the Middle East to Balkan regions was divided into several nation states. British and French forces claimed to bring peace by creating artificial borders. But a century later, there is no peace. The Middle East has been destroyed by several wars fuelled by toxic ethnic tensions. It's turned into a highly volatile region, even threatening the security of stable nations like Turkey.
In a two-part interview with TRT World , Edward J Erickson, a former US military officer and military historian who participated in Gulf War I and II, contextualised the Middle East's conflicts, going as far back as World War I.
Pre-WWI Ottoman Turkey, as you mentioned, faced war on many fronts, especially, the Middle Eastern Belt. Looking at present times, when the definition of warfare has changed, Turkey seems to be in the middle of a mess again. How does the current formation of nation states [in the Middle East] impact Turkey’s positioning?
Edward J Erickson: Turkey has two problems for national security that no other country has. You have a domestic insurgency for the PKK and you also have external threats coming from both state and non-state actors. The United States, for example, for the Western hemisphere, has no external enemies. Canada and Mexico are our friends. We don’t have a revolutionary movement in our country. So Turkey’s national security strategy by definition is far more complex than US or Germany. I mean, everybody has terrorists. But Germany doesn’t have a PKK. The Catalans in Spain aren’t picking up weapons and rising in rebellion. So this makes Turkey’s dilemma extremely complex.
They must have conventional military courses to deal with external threats. They also need a large gendarmerie and they also need a large military force stationed inside their country prepared to deal with the PKK. So it’s not only complex but also it’s expensive because you have to be prepared to fight at the high end of military operations with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and fighter planes. And you also have to be prepared to operate against insurgents who have rifles and hide in caves. So it’s a very complex situation for Turkey.
Looking at WWI, is there a context to what is happening today?
EE: Absolutely. The Versailles Treaty stops the war in Europe. The subsequent treaties that affect Turkey, the Treaty of Sevres [signed in 1920], which gives away most of modern Turkey to the Italians, the Greeks, and the Armenians; Ataturk and the nationalists dispute that and the next treaty, the Lausanne Treaty [signed in 1923], establishes modern Turkey. The problem is with those newly-created borders, which divide peoples. Much like Kashmir, much like Palestine, you have Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. It’s a huge problem.
The borders, once they’re established, trap minorities outside what’s now Turkey, so, for example, there's still a Turkish ethnic community in Greece that Erdogan is concerned with. In 1988, the Bulgarians expelled the ethnic Turks. I think 200,000 came here from Bulgaria. So it’s never subtle like natural borders. They are not like the English Channel between England and France, the Pyrenees between Spain and France, and the Rhine River between France and Germany.
There really aren’t natural borders when you go from Edirne across into Bulgaria there’s nothing. When you go from Hatay into Syria there’s nothing. These are lines on a map. As we see everywhere else in the world, there are all these problems associated with it. It’s a constructed geopolitical identity.
What kind of problems have these borders created?
EE: There are large groups, in some senses, like the Kurds in those borders. In many ways it’s created 'micronationalism'. If we look at Spain in the Iberian peninsula, is there room for Portugal, Spain and Catalonia? Every small group can’t have its own country. This is my personal opinion. If the Kurds establish their own country, maybe the Druze in Lebanon want their own country and the Alawites in Turkey, somehow… Where does it end?
Out of Czechoslovakia, there’s now the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. In the past, Yugoslavia worked. Yugoslavia had agriculture. It had industrialisation and had water resources. It worked. They mass produced cars called Yugo. Remember the Yugo, the tiny little cheap car? What used to be Yugoslavia, where you can’t make a case that it didn't work. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, now you have Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. They’re [now much more] limited [than Yugoslavia]. None of them have everything they need. So it’s difficult in some ways for those kinds of countries to exist in the European Union, I think. They would have been better off to maintain Yugoslavia.
So back to the original question concerning Turkey and the Kurds. If the Turkish Kurds somehow seceded and formed their own country in south-east Anatolia, then what? They understand democracy, they understand capitalism, they understand western culture. The Kurds in Iran don’t. The Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, that’s an artificial country, gets by with American money. It’s really not a democracy. They vote, but Barzani and the Talabani families run it. It looks like a democracy, but it’s not. So, just because they’re Kurds doesn’t mean that you can put a new country together quickly and that [it] would work.
Most Americans support the Kurds for some reason. I don’t. I’m happy with the current boundaries. I’m happy with the way Turkey works. I’m happy with Iraq. If the Kurds formed a country [in northern Iraq], Iraq would then be partitioned. It hasn’t worked in Kashmir. It hasn’t worked in Cyprus. It hasn’t worked in Palestine. It hasn’t worked in Ireland. It hasn’t worked in Bosnia. It hasn’t worked anywhere else.
The challenge we’re facing right now is when we try to centralise power, the rifts emerge between various identities and classes, and [in history] that became the reason for the creation of countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. What do you think about that?
EE: The United States is almost unique in the way it assimilates ethnic groups or minorities. We had waves of immigrants coming to the US. In the 1880s, Germans came. In the 1910s, Italians came and in the 1920s, Eastern Europeans and Polish people came. Typically, in almost every other country, those immigrant communities retain their language, their culture, their religion and their separateness. In the United States, within two or three generations those people are all Americans. My family came from Sweden in 1888. We lost our language in a single generation. One generation here, nobody spoke Swedish. I don’t speak Swedish. So I have a Swedish name, but I’m an American.
Well, if you want to work and get ahead in America, you’ve got to speak English. You’ve got the mainstream education systems and you’ve got the required skills. When we have the draft, you get drafted to the military. This works for my country. Places that experience trouble in this regard, those ethnic communities, are separate and struggle to retain their identity and their language.
In the United Kingdom, for 300 years nobody that lived in Wales spoke Welsh. It was almost a dead language. Well in the 20th century, some Welsh people said, “You know, we should be proud of being Welsh people.” Now when you go to Wales, you see road signs where the top is in English and the bottom is in Welsh. You can’t even pronounce it because it’s consonants and vowels. So the Welsh are trying to create a Welsh identity. It hurts the whole. It doesn’t make a country stronger.
In Turkey, Ataturk had the right idea. Everybody is a Turk. And you have a unified educational system. And everybody has a last name. My name is Ataturk, what’s yours? You pick a name. And Turkey in this regard, as difficult today as it is for Turks, they’re farther ahead than Iraq or Syria or any other country in the area that has multiple ethnic identities and populations.
France is currently undergoing huge problems because the North African immigrant Muslim communities have not assimilated fully and it’s a difficult situation. How do you change it? It’s hundreds of years of process, it can’t be done quickly.
Do you think ethnic tensions can be resolved if we have a good plan [for the development] for those communities?
EE: Democracy doesn’t work everywhere to the same extent. India and Pakistan were both under British rule for about the same time. But in 1947 they split. Democracy [mostly] works in India, but you can make a case that democracy doesn’t work in Pakistan. Most of the time Pakistan has been under the military dictatorship. Now both countries have elections. Why does democracy work pretty well in India, but it didn’t work in Pakistan?
They have elections in Iraq, but democracy really doesn’t work very well in Iraq. It’s not easy to start from scratch. What has to happen for it to work? If you have minorities in the country, there has to be inclusion in the political process. In Turkey, for example, Kurds are in the parliament and there’s a predominantly Kurdish party. The whole thing has gone off the rails somewhat in the past two years with Erdogan’s position towards the Kurdish parties.
If the system is inclusive and minorities can have representation in the parliament, and minorities understand that the judicial system treats them equally with everybody else, then, the system is operational. That works. If those things don’t happen, then you’ve got problems, as we see in Afghanistan or Iraq or those places.
It’s taken England from 1215 to today to get [to the level of democracy they now have]. It’s taken my country 250 years [in spite of the fact that] we had the English system to begin with. Democracy is the hardest kind of system to operate. It’s enormously difficult because it requires cooperation and consensus. It only works if people cooperate.
Additional reporting by Melis Alemdar