An Interview with Dr. Sardar Aziz, ORSAM Advisor, Lecturer at Department of Government University College Cork Ireland – Interview by Selen Tonkuş

First of all can you introduce yourself?

My name is Sardar Aziz. I am a Kurd from south part of Kurdistan. I obtained my PhD at the University College Cork (UCC) Ireland. My thesis question was why occidental modernity failed in the Arab Middle East: the emergence of failed modern state.  I am a visiting lecturer at the school of Asian Studies at UCC. Independent researcher, recently I completed a book on governing natural resources in Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Currently I am working on a book on Turkey and KRG relationship. I am columnist at Awene, the leading nonpartisan newspaper in KRG. I advise and frequently contribute to various media outlet in Kurdistan.

What was the purpose of your visit to Turkey and what was the reason being choosing ORSAM?

I came to Turkey to carry out research for my book. I chose ORSAM for its special focus on Iraq and its various components; among them the Kurds.

What have you done during your research in Turkey?

I observed, met, exchanged, and curried out dialogues and experienced.  I observed think tankers and their aura of being experts. Gleefully I observed the expertise for their unmatched Turkish style self-confidence. Above all I enjoyed observing the cities, especially Ankara. The latter is a modern utopia that requires deconstruction in order to touch the essence of the Turkish journey in last century.  I met variety of people, from party politics, think tanks, universities, media, out of prison, café workers, grossers, book sellers, they all contributed in their special way in making my view of today’s Turkey. I exchanged conversation and ideas with people in different sectors. Conserving with Turks or with those who I met has a special taste. They generally immersed in the immediate, which makes them missing the complexity of now. It reminds me of the phenomenological approach which gives absolute priority to the observing subject, which attributes a constituent role to act, which places its own point of view at the origin of all historicity – which, in short, leads to a transcendental consciousness.

Throughout my dialogues I was stunned and stung. In everybody’s consciousness there is a sort of relic of an outdated nationalism: whether they are secularist, Islamist or leftist. One can argue what one witness in Turkey is just a variety of the same.  This resulted in dominance of an atmosphere that people don’t exchange ideas and not engaging in enrichment. It is always a confrontation. In Turkey the idea is not a realm to harvest epistemological encounter. It is a tool to prove your superiority.   

After completing your month-long research, as a Kurdish scholar and intellectual, what are your observations regarding Turkish society and politics in itself, as well as the way Kurdish question is approached by the society and politics?

Being a Kurd in Turkey is a painful endeavor. It is rather more tragic. Kurds are banned within the Turkish system. As Agamben puts it eloquently ‘He who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable. It is literally not possible to say whether the one who has been banned is outside or inside the juridical order”. In the other words Kurds are hampered, trailed and tortured by law but they are unable to claim their being human, as they wish, according to law. 

Thus I tried to lull my Kurdishness in order to grasp the situation. However, that was an impossible endeavor. Turkey is not ready to recognize other than the Turk, no matter how you define recognition, from Hegelian origin to the current styles.  In Turkey to be happy you have to be a Turk, my observation tells me that, no matter what you become, it is difficult to be happy in Turkey.

Based on your observations, what do you think is the core of the Kurdish question and the solution for that?

The core of the Kurdish question is political. Kurds according to the Turkish political fantasy, they should exist as nonexistence figures.  So, the solution is to reverse this queer formula. Kurds are human; unfortunately they are not angels to exist in a nonexistence manner. As humans it is their unalienable rights to live in a humane condition. The basic of a humane condition is to live as one wish, within the frame of humanity. To be recognized as one is. To have right equal to the other, to sing and dance as you love. To dress as you find it elegant. To name your child as you think is appropriate. To dwell where one finds it proper.

My Turkish friends argue that Kurds have every right in Turkey. They can become president and prime mister, mayor or anything else. But they forget to say as long as they abandon their being Kurd.  As the situation shows, for Turkey to be a regional power has to be in peace with Kurds. To remember the famous Ataturk motto: peace inside, peace in the world, indicates a peaceful condition not an imposed peace. The Turkish word for peace is Sulh from Arabic which indicates reaching an agreement with the other. In its essence shows recognition, negotiation, equal partners, and above all respect. So Turk should have sulh with Kurds in the true essence of the word.

In order to achieve such an aim a lot has to be changed.  Throughout the history of the Republic Kurds has been portrayed as subhuman, barbaric people.  There is a telling incidence narrated by Chirstopher de Bellaigue in his fascinated book: Rebel Land among Turkey’s Forgotten Peoples. It goes like that:  once, as Besikci sat in the office of a publisher in Istanbul, ‘a translator entered, a woman charged with translating a novel from the English. The action takes place in Spain. There is a Turkish character, the sort of character who incarnates all that is bad about human nature. Theft, fraud, drug smuggling, murder, prostitution; he’s involved in the lot. “He’s guilty of every bad thing under the sun. He’s a very bad man. I thought at length about this,” the translator said, “and I decided to turn the word ‘Turk’ into ‘Kurd’, because I couldn’t impute to a Turk so much ill.”  That is how the Kurdish image has been made throughout Turkish history. The incidence tells us that the Kurds are not Kurds but they are just the bad Turks.

Can you enlighten us about the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) position regarding the Kurdish question in Turkey? What is the stance of the authorities and the opposition, if they are different?

Unfortunately there is no KRG stance. There is KDP and PUK and other stance. The party is above all. Accordingly, every party has their own stance, based on history, geography, and their leaders understanding of power. Political parties in KRG are not people’s party or social organization; they are tools in the hand of their leaders to achieve their narrow personal interest. We can talk about two groups: KDP versus the rest. KDP is Turkey’s ally. Both sides benefit from their relationship. KDP has one aim, to secure Barzani’s family on the throne. Turkey has no problem with that; it rather sees it as beneficial.  It is easier to pressurize a political party rather than a government. It is also more robust to secure the allegiance of a party, which based solely on the character of the leader, than a government that represents people.

Currently PUK is experiencing a critical moment. Their position within Kurdistan dwindles. KDP transformed PUK into a dwarf. As it is clear nowadays the infamous strategic alliance between PUK and KDP going through turmoil. It is expected that there might be end or drastic adjustment to what is called strategic agreement.  PUK’s relationship to Turkey is pragmatic. One can say they are neither enemy nor friend and their interest with each other is law. So consequently the relationship is weak.

The oppositional parties are Gorran and Islamists. They have their different stance on Turkey. Gorran more institutional and national oriented. While Islamist are divided, the Muslim Brotherhood group such as KIU is more oriented toward current Turkey and hold AKP as a model. While the other Islamic parties are less oriented toward Turkey and not fascinated by AKP’s experience.

How do you see the current state of relations between Turkey and the KRG? In what ways the relationship is satisfactory and what are the lacking points?

While Turkey has a consulate in Hawler but the relationship is not on the level of state government. It is rather astonishing that Turkey doesn’t relate to the Region as a state. There is still a continuity of past relationship that Turkey aided KDP against PUK in their civil war. Today Turkey has different interests in KRG. It is not only security, as it used to be. There are market, energy and balance of power; these aspects require solid, durable relationship.

There has been a shift in the relationship in the recent years, what do you think the factors behind that shift are?

There are broadly two factors. One is AKP and the other is the position of Kurdistan. In contrast to other Turkish political parties, I argue in my book that the current relationship between Turkey and KRG is uniquely AK party relationship. That means AKP’s constituency, AKP’s economic orientation more than other and also means broader neoOttoman view.

KRG can serve AKP and current Turkey’s ambition of becoming a regional leader positively. I would argue further without KRG the AKP dream is impossible.  If Turkey KRG’s gate to the west, similarly, KRG is Turkey’s gate to the east.

To what extent economy, especially energy aspect of the bilateral relations came to overcome the security aspect? What can you say about the energy relations between Turkey and the KRG, which develops even at the expense of Baghdad?

I think we need a new framework to understand the current situation. There is no strict separation between security, energy, market, geopolitics, and balance of power. They all amalgamate in one when it comes to Turkey’s interest. Energy is about energy security, securing Turkey’s coming decade of energy in Kurdistan is and will be priority for any government in Ankara. Energy plays essential role in making post-cold-war-Turkey. Turkey demands more and more energy both oil and gas. The energy price in Turkey is high and climbing higher. Energy situation is a frustrating situation for Turkish policy maker. The price of energy in Turkey is higher than Germany while Turkey is closer to the sources of energy. Turkish policy maker were in past lacked sufficient policy and vision in that regard. Current government might have a blue print of a plan but does not grasp the reality of the region.

Still among the conventional policy makers security is the dominant variable. But that requires an urgent revision. This reality tells us that Turkey’s foreign policy has to be made not only by diplomats or one department but the whole state apparatuses.

Turkey gambled against Maliki and lost the game. Turkey supported, or realistically speaking cooked up, al-Iraqia list, but that endeavor failed drastically.  The last adventure was the attempt to outset Maliki and that failed also. Turkey as a newcomer to the region has to have a clear and realistic long-term strategy.  Turkey has to remain impartial in internal politics and avoid being manipulated by regions politicians. Baghdad will not be part of Turkey’s zone of influence in coming future, especially after Syria war pushed Turkey more and more toward Sunnisim.

How is the KRG’s perception of Turkey? How can you describe the dynamics on the KRG side that determine the outlook and the policy towards Turkey? For example to what extent does the economic factor or the security factor matter?

Part of KRG perceives Turkey as an ally. Others are vary, some look at Turkey with suspicion, other want to change the content and the style, there are some who prefer to stay aloof.  The public are distrusting. The current style of the relationship is alienating majority of the people. The essence of a durable mutual relationship lies in solving the Kurdish question in Turkey. Turkey’s economic relationship to Kurdistan is unbalanced. Turkey attempts to make Kurdistan a dependent place, this might work in the current situation but it will back fire in the future. Turkey prefers a rentier state in KRG. Rentier policy hampers democracy, curtails human rights, damages local products and makes the government weak and vulnerable. It is in Turkey’s long term interest to adjust its general policy toward KRG. That is how the relation seen, critiqued and envisioned.

Where do you think the Turkey-KRG relations are heading? Do you expect the relations to get closer or do you see any factors that can jeopardize or end this relationship?

There are many factors contributing into the making and unmaking the relationship. As I argue in my book the relationship is uniquely AKP relationship, thus as long as AK party in power one does not expect deterioration. One does not expect that especially when the AK party facing more and more challenge internally and externally. However one can argue that the current government differentiates between KRG and PKK but still the latter plays a decisive role in making and unmaking the relationship. Moreover, the central Iraqi government impacts the relationship as we see through their attempt to redirect KRG toward the center after willingness to pay the money of the IOC’s.

But the most important factor is intra-Kurdish factor. If KDP utilizes Turkey to implement its own undemocratic agenda inside, there will be a resistance to the relationship. In this regard Turkey has to make sure it is not related only to KDP but to the government in the region. There is a lot of personification of the relationship, especially from the Turkish side, which might be attributed to the personal dominant nature of Turkish politics. One should admit personification of politics is a Middle Eastern phenomenon par excellence. Turkey is also a Middle Eastern country in that regard.

This is a challenge. Will the relationship changes when Barzani is no longer the president? A possibility that might become reality in the coming months. This similarly applies to Turkey’s side.

What are your policy recommendations for the future course of the relations for both sides?

The first recommendation would be: to institutionalize the relationship; opening KRG office in Ankara will be a positive step toward that direction. Turkey should open up toward other political parties in the KRG. Turkey should remain impartial in internal politics. Turkey has to apply transparency to the relationship especially when it comes to the natural resources money and local politicians account.

Coming to KRG’s internal politics, can you inform us about the main political actors and dynamics in the KRG? As you know Turkey for a long time perceived the KRG politics as dominated by tribal relations, but nowadays the role of political parties, indeed the figures in the parties came to be the point of academic research in Turkey. So to provide a correct image, can you tell us which actors or factors determining the KRG politics does Turkey have to take into consideration in order to formulate a right policy towards the KRG?

Tribe in local Kurdish politics went through ebb and flow. I differentiate between tribal rule and tribal mentality. The tribal institution is ebbing while tribal mentality is flowing. The modern Kurdish politics has always been post-tribal politics. But since the tribe was a social reality for a long time the political activist could not afford to ignore.  The relationship between political and tribal is tool relationship. Tribe is a tool, utilized by politicians to achieve their goal. I was discussing this very issue with former Prime Minister Barham Salih, his opinion was that all the political parties began as post tribal parties but they went back to tribal or utilization of tribe in the later stage.  He asked me why? My answer was because of domination of personality over Kurdish politics. A person as a political leader goes through stages, rebelling against the structure of traditional society in early stage and embracing it when it comes to ruling it, for reason of manipulation and personal rivalry.

In order to understand the essence of KRG local politics one has to take leadership seriously as a one who has a predominant position in decision-making and has the final word on most policy matters. In order to understand that one has to analyze the mechanism of deliberation, as personality study literature informs us, one has to focus on: how leaders set up their advisory systems, who they choose as advisors, and how they respond to advice incongruent with their preconceived notions can radically shape the policy process and outcomes. Selection of like-minded advisors, for example, indicates that a leader does not value diverse opinions and genuine deliberation in decision-making; rather, they just seek advice to bolster their preconceived positions. In fact choosing adviser in KRG politics is a matter of public entertainment. There is a pun between advising act and rumination in Kurdish language. This is a clear sign that the leader is the one who ultimately decide on ever things.

Considering the fragility in the strategic agreement between the KDP and PUK, Talabani’s health conditions, the rising opposition, the pressure that Barzani faces, in your opinion where is the KRG politics heading?

To a better adjustment. So called strategic agreement was against the spirit of democracy. The two main parties came together mainly from the top to share the oil rent. This resulted in the paralyzation of democratic atmosphere. Talabani reached a conclusion that there are certain issues KDP won’t tolerate except by force. He lost the clout to force them, thus he decide to share the rent money with them. Therefore, the strategic agreement is the main cause of widespread corruption in the region.

Now we are nearing the end of this era. The strategic agreement hollowed PUK and made it an impotent figure in Kurdish politics.  PUK dreams of recovery the only path of recovery is to either end the so called strategic agreement or adjust it drastically. We are witnessing the early stage of that process. Gorran is the party that plays the decisive role in that process.

Currently the formula is like that the closer PUK gets from Gorran the more it gains its past glory. The closer PUK with KDP the latter becomes more of a paralyzed power. But one has not to undermine PUK intra-factional war and how impact on the whole situation.

If we talk more about the opposition, Gorran, and the two Islamist parties, what can you say about the state of opposition in the KRG? What are their main criticisms, demands, their power  and future?

The opposition in Kurdish politics is a novelty. This fact makes of being opposition a difficult task. To oppose, to participate critically, to be different, to aim for change, to relativize the truth, to argue their cane be space for improvement, to hold a totally dissimilar worldview, these are all issues not familiar to the oriental mind. We live under the jurisprudence of religious epistemology, which characterizes by certainty and dogma.  Opposition is a modern phenomenon; we are required to be accustoming to it. Thus in past when there were oppositions, they could not act as opposition. They were rather effigies of opposition.   But after the emergence of Gorran this process has speeded and now one can argue that Kurdistan has oppositional political parties and Kurdish people take for granted that there should be oppositions. 

So now one can say the ground is fertile. Today in Kurdistan the oppositions are far more popular than the ruling parties, but what hinders this reality is the money and force. When these two variables are neutralized then democracy prevails in the region.  Currently the catholic marriage of certain people to their chairs confines democratization process.

Considering the well-known demands of the KRG regarding the disputes with Baghdad, how do you see current KRG position vis a vis Baghdad? How do you think the KRG and the Kurdish parties in the Iraqi parliament should behave in order to realize their goals?

KRG in Baghdad has to act as a unified body; in order to accomplish that the representation has to be institutionalized. Currently there is dominance of personalities and their narrow interests. Kurds has yet to learn how to practice diplomacy of a nation or a government or a region. Still Kurds engage with the outsider to oppose the inside: a mentality that prevailed in last five centuries, when Kurdistan first divided between Ottoman and Safyed.

Baghdad strengthens its position day by day. Maliki is a character that looks to press forward wherever he meets no resistance. He also maneuvers like a fox. Try’s to create crack or gaps and to fill them by his power. The location of the country favors him, let alone current balance of power. We know throughout history Mesopotamia has been everyone’s invasion route as Robert Kaplan puts it. This being a route of other powers led to the emergence of a very suspicious national attitude.

Kurds need to hedge their house. This requires multidimensional policies. There are other who are living with Kurds in Kurdistan, encompass them and making them part of a tolerant, open, democratic, prosperous society is a huge task. For example for the Turkmen minority in Iraq is better in every way to live with the Kurds rather than the rest of Iraq. As history shows in Iraq they are treated as second class citizens, and their sheer small number deprives them from having any real influence over the power in Baghdad. Whereas their being among the Kurds makes them a substantial minority and have their considerable influence in Erbil.   

How do you evaluate the KRG’s regional position considering the rivalry between Turkey and Iran or in wider sense between the Sunni and Shia blocs? In what way the KRG should behave in order to not be squeezed but be the winner in this rivalry?

Kurdistan has a unique strategic location in the heart of the Middle East. No other geographical location bridges Arabs, Turks and Persians as Kurdistan do. This made Kurdistan throughout history to be the battle ground of these contesting empires and later on in modern times to attract global powers such as Europeans, Russians and Americans.

Today this game partially continues in KRG between Turkey and Iran. Throughout history Kurds when they sided with any of these powers were always end up to be the loser. Today it is time to end this tragic situation. We know that Turkey and Iran are vowing for more power and influence in the region. Each of them has its own differing visions for the broader Middle East. And that is particularly evident in Iraq.

While Turkey becomes sidelined more and more in Baghdad, it ends up concentrating in Kurdistan. Iran is not far away from Kurdistan, in fact historically and culturally is closer. While Turk treat Kurdistan as backward place and behave in a superior manner toward them, comparatively Persians are less.  However there is only one fact both Turkey and Iran are fighting for their interest on the Kurdish land and trying to make Kurds the fuel of their enmity.

The best for KRG is to evade any of these alliances and be as neutral as possible between the contested powers. Kurds are culturally, historically, geographically are positioned to be close to both parties without being friend of the one and enemy of the other.

Finally how is the KRG’s outlook to the Syrian crisis in general sense? What is the likely scenario for post-Asad Syria according to Iraqi Kurds? I know that the opposition and the KDP-PUK have different opinions, even KDP and PUK differ among themselves, can you in a nutshell inform us about their respective positions? To what extent Barzani’s moves regarding the crisis are supported in the KRG? How is the cooperation between Turkey and Barzani seen regarding the Syrian crisis? How is Turkey’s policy regarding Syria is seen from the KRG? 

Turkey’s policy regarding Kurds in Syria seen as the confirmation of the believe that the Turks are the eternal enemy of the Kurds no matter where they are. Now Turkey is the country that perceived as the barrier in front of Kurds to live like human, in Iraq, Syria and obviously Turkey. This makes Turkey the Kurdish enemy. As it becomes clearer day by day that Turkey’s adventure in the Middle East is ill fated.

For KRG Kurds in Syria similar to the Kurds everywhere lived under harsh, discriminative, brutal, fascist regime, the end of this regime should be the end of all these together. The best way to end these is to recognize Kurds and their homeland within Syria; in the other words, a federal Syria.  As we know Syria composed of more than 40 % of different minority groups. A centralized system does not suit such a society. It always leads to dictators.  The intra-Kurdish differences regarding Turkey are nuances results from KDP desire of dominance and Turkey’s pressure to neutralize PYD.

Thank you for sharing your time and views.