Kurds Must Be Part of the New Middle East: Interview with Dr. Mehmet Gurses & Dr. David Romano

Interview by Benjamin Kweskin:

Mehmet Gurses is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University. He received his doctorate from University of North Texas and his research interests include democratization, ethnic and religious conflict, post-civil war peace building and democratization, Kurdish politics, and Political Islam.

David Romano holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East. He received his PhD from University of Toronto and his research interests include Politics and Government of the Middle East; International Relations Theories; Middle East states’ foreign policies; Political Violence and Terrorism; Nationalism; and Political Islam.

They co-edited Conflict, Democratization, and the Kurds in the Middle East: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria (Springer,  2014)

BK: Dr. Gurses, in 2013 you stated that “Due primarily to their distribution…in the region, Kurds can serve as a key to democratize Iraq and Syria, check and balance religious fundamentalism, and lay the groundwork for a secular and democratic co-existence between all groups.” How is this still true and/or changed in 2016? What are the limitations of this?

MG: This is key to our book. Today it is even more applicable because it is more important an issue. Without Kurds’ political and social involvement there can be no stability in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. If there is no involvement then there will remain unresolved issues. Turkey, for example, has the potential to spill over to neighboring countries, but mainly Syria.

DR: I agree with this but I should add that these are both short term and long term issues that must be appropriately and satisfactorily addressed. The essence of democracy is equality, according to many social scientists. Within this, minorities’ rights must be upheld, provided, and protected. Power sharing is a must. Kurds demands rights and generally offer good example of liberalism and democracy, albeit imperfect, such as in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Even in Turkey: so far the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) has successfully limited the presidential system being implemented which would consolidate more power into the President’s hands. In this sense, Kurds can and should be stabilizing forces.

MG: Now they have two main choices (mostly in Iraq): 1. they can chose to become independent or they can somehow persuade these countries to provide them with full equality and democracy. There is a cost to war sometimes and it may pit democracy against independence. This may not result in the same outcome in all four countries but as it is often said, ‘democracy is a journey, not a destination.’

It is counterproductive and harmful to continue to ignore the demands and rights of 30-40 million people. As such, Kurds must become part of the new Middle East. The alternative is chaos and bloodshed.


BK: Removing the PKK from the list of terrorist organizations has increasingly been discussed in European capitals as well as in Washington recently. Is this achievable and/or feasible in EU or US anytime soon?

DR: This is a catch-22. Honestly, I initially thought that it would help…

MG: You make peace with your enemy.

BK: My father also says this.

DR: First the PKK must cease terrorist activities and then the question becomes: “what is the [Turkish] states’ responsibility now?”

MG: Targeting civilians [in the latest attacks in Ankara and Istanbul] was deliberate. The PKK has been careful to target the military and not civilians in recent years. [Removing the PKK from the terrorist list] would incentivize them to become more integrated politically. They must show (as well as the state) that they are for a political solution. Therefore, they must be engaged.

DR: This needs a carrot and stick approach. They need to be encouraged to negotiate and then take practical steps. The attacks that were claimed by TAK [Kurdish Freedom Falcons—a radical offshoot from the PKK] are beyond the pale and the PKK must distance themselves from them. There are many examples of PKK overtures toward the state proving they are willing to negotiate for peace and eventually the PKK must deliver to its constituency. If they turn up empty-handed then TAK may become emboldened.

BK: To some, the Syrian PYD (Democratic Union Party) is viewed as a a ‘model for a future decentralized system of federal governance in all parts of Syria.’ How do you see this implemented in the future, especially given their new declaration of federalism in Syria?

DR:This discourse began as “democratic autonomy.” Now it’s become federalism. If borders are not redrawn, then Kurds must know the political limitations. The chances for a decisive military victory are small but the chance for autonomy or some limited freedom is likely. If Russia and/or the US support federalism than this risks Turkish protestations.

MG: Currently, international negotiations are not allowing Kurds a full seat at the table. Turkey should concede some autonomy for Kurds in Syria and in Turkey. To be sure, there are strong linkages between what happens in Rojava and Bakur (Kurdish areas in Turkey). Of course, the biggest victims of Sykes-Picot are Kurds. As a federal, secular, democratic country, the US should absolutely support federalism, secularism, and democracy in Syria.

BK: Explain the similarities between what is happening now in Turkey to that in the 1990s. Is it worse, or not as bad, and how has violence in western Turkey changed these circumstances?

MG:The war has now come to the cities. In the ’90s it was mostly a rural guerilla war being waged. Now Kurds are leaving the war zones for other Kurdish areas in the southeast, as opposed to back then when they largely settled in central and western Turkey. They feel threatened as Kurds in the majority-Turkish areas. If this continues they will become more estranged, more radical, and more uncompromising.

DR: This also has affected and disrupted the lives of more people on a daily basis. In the 1990s I traveled to many different areas but it is not like how it is now. The situation has become more militarized. It is the first time tanks were stationed and used in large urban areas.

MG: Kurds have become more militarized as a result of Turkey’s military operations. There is no need for PKK or its affiliates in the mountains—the fighting is in the streets of Kurdish towns and cities. This has a potential to turn into an ethnic civil war!

DR: I heard Jorge Ramos, the president of Timor Leste say once, “You can’t claim a people as ‘your own’ if you don’t treat them accordingly.” Such is the case with Turkey and its Kurds.

MG: It’s important also to acknowledge that the state is losing credibility and legitimacy not only in the eyes of Kurds, but also internationally. It reminds me of Algeria in the 1950s to an extent. The AKP [Justice and Development party; ruling party in Turkey] is behaving in a similar manner to the Turkish military-led state from previous decades, rather than a democratically-elected party.

BK: What is the status of the HDP and other pro-Kurdish parties now? What kind of influence or power do they have at this point?

MG: The HDP is on the defensive; they’ve been marginalized and ignored and now some HDP parliamentarians may have their immunity lifted in the coming weeks and months. They are also dealing with a media blackout: they are not receiving airtime. However, it’s important to recall that they were able to build an amazing, diverse base in a short period of time. Moreover, Turkey needs the HDP if for no other reason than to work as a liaison between the state and the PKK.

BK: Turkey’s remaining friend in the Middle East seems to be the KRG. What does this mean?

MG: This is ironic and also a contradiction. 15-20 years ago, the notion of a semi-autonomous KRG was a red line for Turkey but now it sees it as a political and economic partner. The same circumstances and relationship could have been replicated in Rojava and even in Bakur.

DR: Clearly, the KRG attracted a great deal of Turkish investment.

MG:  The economic relationship could help lay the groundwork for independence and become a mutually beneficial partnership in this sense. Political reconciliation is needed between the PKK and Turkey—

DR:The KRG can only help facilitate such reconciliation.

MG: The United States could play a larger role to this end in Syria and Iraq which would also help facilitate reconciliation with the PKK, PYD and Turkey. The European Union does not have the willingness to engage in as strong a way as the US and Russia also knows it can hurt Turkey.


Benjamin Kweskin: Specializing in the Middle East, International Affairs, and US Foreign Policy, Benjamin Kweskin has been researching and writing for over fifteen years and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and beyond.

He has presented his research in various venues and settings, including at several national and international academic conferences and has published numerous articles. In 2013-2014, he lived in the Kurdistan Region (Iraq) for one year in the Region’s capital, Erbil as an educator, lecturer, journalist, and tour guide. He was also the main Historical Researcher for the official Kurdistan Region Tour Guide (2015-2016), the most comprehensive tour guide about this Region to date.

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