Ottoman Lite

By Greg Somerville

A Path to Middle East Stability and Prosperity

This recommendation is the only realistic and forward-looking possibility visible in a war-torn and violently inclined region of the world. It consists in encouraging a modern and democratic enlargement to a nation whose insistence upon secular politics has already earned it NATO membership and EU attention. It lifts from Turkey and from Turkey’s eastern neighbors burdens of strife and expense indulged too long, and facilitates reverse trends of integration and of productive synergy. Kurdish independence was always the most challenging and least palatable political arrangement conceivable in the region. Instead, a loosely federated Kurdish province in a cooperative and supportive Turkey, where Kurdish existence could acquire unprecedented levels of acceptance and economic opportunity, offers everyone the benefits of a peacefully evolving future.

And to the south of Kurdistan we have the portion of Iraq which most needs to acquire a stable new identity and destiny. Thus, a loosely federated Iraqi province, also integrated into a cooperative and supportive Turkey, could complete the picture of a territorially contiguous and economically viable "Ottoman Lite" and offer at the same time the only solution I can discern to the puzzle posed by the obviously imminent secession of the Iraqi southland with Basra as its capital and Tehran as its true seat of national government. "Ottoman Lite" responds to that violent initiative, already under way, already lethal to both coalition forces and to any hope of cross-confessional peace.


Let me address the details of this divorce of Shia from Sunnis and the remarriage of Kurdistan and Baghdad to polygamous Ankara, once Basra consummates its lewd Iranian flirtations.

Doesn’t this idea call for amity between Kurds and Turks?

This idea is actually more an insight into what the parties on the ground would do, if the US stopped trying to run the show. Turkey has a substantial Kurdish population within its present borders; and the present conditions of their life are already a significant irritant upon Turkish presumptions concerning the definition of the Turkish nation. We can return to this theme in a moment, but first we ought to look harder at the region.

My conviction is that most of our own American thinking about possible futures for all of the rest of the world is constrained and degraded by an inadequate grasp of just how tenuous and unsatisfactory many of the world’s present arrangements are. Borders, ethnicities and legacies of hostile history conspire to render much of the world inhospitable to friendly overture or mutual trust. All of western Asia suffers from that disability.

We can shift our gaze far to the north of Palestine and take the mountainous countryside immediately east of Turkey as a quick example. Rifles are still kept handy despite the truce now freeing the airspace of Nakhichevan from any risk of Armenian bombs, where Turkic-speaking Azeris inhabit a territory bearing thirty-six-century-old fortifications. This outlier from Azerbaijan’s principal boundaries is mirrored by, but not equivalent to, the Armenian enclave within those boundaries, called Nagorno-Karabach. In the hostilities most recently ended, Armenia was dissuaded from pursuing its invasion of Nakhichevan by the presence of Turkish military units stationed just to the west over the nine-kilometer border.

Western Europe, pampered by circumstance, unselfconsciously indulgent toward every frivolous whim of linguistic nuance and barely recognized distinction, has found fulfillment in divorce without much requirement of remarriage, but this is perhaps a reflection of barren ambitions and generational amnesia. Even little Czechoslavakia evicted Slovak tenants as illegitimate, and who knows, their pure Czech-speaking nest may now appear hardly large enough to hold Bohemians and Moravians warmly.

But Europe is of two minds on the dissolution of bonds. Regions, even within countries, are acquiring parliaments and laws and cementing a set of sub-national identities which oddly ape the "autonomous" areas which rise up to trouble the more fragile and hitherto less adroit political institutions of Asia. In Europe, cultural autonomy and empowerment are created within an understanding built on uncompromising and exclusive custom, which encrypts while it assures continued untouchability for the Romany, Basque and especially Muslim incarnations of historical caste marginality. If Asia has more recently embarked on journeys of self-discovery which eschew bold empire in favor of modest ethnic and linguistic scales of population agglomeration, let us not disparage their cobbling together what amounts to a hardly more conflicted set of interim accommodations, and revealing in the process a hardly less sure expertise in how to balance federal against regional.

Now, back to Turkey. The Kurds within its borders aren’t going anywhere and neither are the Kurds over the border in Syria, in Iraq, in Iran. Turks are unlikely to admit finding a Greek lesson persuasive, but the absurdly paranoid reluctance of Athens to countenance a Macedonian state on their northern border has proved groundless and backward-looking. If the border separating southeastern Turkey from Iraqi Kurdistan were to be redrawn as an internal Turkish regional boundary, and vigorous cross-border trade there became a national asset instead of a military challenge, who would lose? Turkey knows the present internal affairs of its eastern region desperately need to be modernized and integrated into a wider sense of Turkish destiny: multicultural, productive, peaceful. This is why they are engaged in strenuous negotiations with Armenia.

Don’t Kurds want independence rather than Turkish overlords?

They want stability, prosperity, local control, and defense against foreign threats. New Hampshire wasn’t sure it wanted to join the Union, either. We’re talking about a loosely federated province, with representatives in Ankara to look after its welfare from within the Turkish political system. "If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!" As America disengages from Iraq, Kurds need strong friends in their neighborhood, and Ankara has no pasha lording it over masses of janissaries, only NATO credentials and a nose it wants to keep squeaky clean for EU.

Okay, but what’s in it for the Sunni Arabs of central Iraq?

What’s not in it for them? After a Shiite secession, nothing will remain except dwindling American pressure upon the Kurds to show Sunni Arabs a charity for which their recent past stands as insurmountable disqualification. The six southern Iraqi provinces which are moving rapidly toward the exits will take their titles to southern oil with them as dowry. Loose federation in "Ottoman Lite" is Baghdad’s only chance to ally itself with owners of any oilfields. And Ankara is a better guarantor of survival for them than any local theocracy or king.