ROJHELAT – Interview with Jonathan Spyer: Kurdish Issue & Politics in Contemporary International Relation

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Masters’ Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His blog can be followed at:

Kurdish Issue and Politics in Contemporary International Relation: How do you define Kurdish issue? Is it possible to give specific or general definition?

Jonathan: Yes, I think it is. The Kurdish issue is the problem of a large, culturally and linguistically distinctive people of around 40 million who for various reasons have not yet achieved self-determination, and who as a result find themselves divided between a numbers of Middle Eastern states. The problem has been compounded by the fact that all the states in question have been governed by oppressive regimes committed to one or another supposedly unifying ideology which negated the national and cultural claims of the Kurds. Kurdish resistance to oppression has been met with the utmost cruelty, producing a tragic and as yet un-solved situation which is one of the central issues facing the Middle East. By contrast to a decades ago, do you think Kurdish politics play an active role regionally and internationally, if yes, what kind of role does it play and if not, why not?

Jonathan: Yes, I think that compared to a decade or two ago, the Kurdish matter is much harder to ignore at the present time. I would say that there are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the emergence of a Kurdish quasi-state in northern Iraq since 1991 is a vital element. The Kurdish Regional Government has established a quasi sovereign entity which is now a strong player in its own right. It conducts its own foreign and energy policy, and has armed forces which are probably stronger than those of Iraq. The emergence of a quasi sovereign Kurdish entity as a powerful player on the regional stage in my opinion transforms the Kurdish situation, even if only a relatively small number of Kurds live within the borders of the KRG.

Secondly, since 2012, a second, contiguous Kurdish entity has emerged in north-east Syria, or Rojava, as the Kurds call it. This enclave is more precarious at the moment because of the ongoing civil war in Syria, but like the KRG in n. Iraq in its context, Rojava has emerged as the calmest and safest part of Syria. The YPG militia has also shown itself capable of defending the borders of Rojava.

Lastly, the long insurgency of the PKK against the Turkish government has also played a major role in placing the Kurdish issue on the map and ensuring international attention for it. You are expert in Middle East politics; in your own perspectives do you believe Kurds are still bound by the Sykes-Picot agreement? How effective Sykes-Picot agreement in present Kurdish politics?

Jonathan: If you mean by that the borders of the states of the region as currently constituted, my view is that these borders have increasingly little meaning. In particular, the borders of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have become increasingly porous and in my view a single, sectarian war is now taking place in the entire area of what was once designated as these three countries. In that situation, where various elements are making alliances across formerly existing borders, the Kurds would be well advised to adopt a similar strategy and to in no way feel constrained by these fading and artificial borders. Since the uprising in Syria in 2011, you have been monitoring the development in Syria particularly in Kurdish region, how do you view Kurdish role in Syrian politics?

Jonathan: The Kurds prior to 2011 were one of the key elements resisting the Assad dictatorship, for example in Qamishli in 2004. However, since the outbreak of the current insurgency, the dominant Kurdish political forces have sought to keep outside of the fray, and to protect, defend and administer the Kurdish majority area in the north east. This is an entirely understandable position. If, however, either the Assad regime or the rebels were victorious, this could well mean that the Kurds would then face a threat to their continued autonomous rule in Rojava. But given that neither the regime nor the rebels are committed to allowing Kurdish rights, this strategy of armed separatism is probably the most advisable. So far it has worked out well. Do you think the de facto administration in Rojava was a coincidence or Kurds have learnt from the history and their past political mistakes? In other words, do not you think existence the de facto administration in Rojava is a result of Kurdish practical steps rather than a coincidence?

Jonathan: I don’t think it was a coincidence. I think it is the result of the abandonment by the regime of most of northern Syria in the summer of 2012, and the subsequent entry of PKK cadres to the Rojava area, to assist local PYD elements in constructing the current system in place in Rojava. How do you view Kurdish administration system in Rojava? In your own perspective do you think it is democratic or not in comparison to the rest of the region particularly in comparison to the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq?

Jonathan: Well, I think like the KRG in n. Iraq there have been accusations from people not associated with the party in power that they are not permitted to organize and demonstrate and so on. At the same time, Rojava is obviously an entity that emerged in time of war, so it is hard to judge it at the moment. It will be interesting to see what emerges after the elections. It is a pity that the KNC-ENKS has decided not to recognize the Kurdish High Council in Rojava. I note also the very unfortunate refusal of the KRG to meet with Saleh Gedo, foreign minister of the new provisional administration in Rojava. Kurdish unity would seem to me to be of primary value at the present time, and this should involve a mutual recognition by the two quasi-sovereign bodies.

I would hope that Barzani associated parties would be willing to give more of a chance to these new institutions, whatever complaints they may have, including justified ones, regarding their own members and organizations within Rojava. This is particularly so given the KRG’s own imperfect record on internal repression in the KRG area, and also given the acceptance by PUK and Gorran of the new administration in Rojava. How do you evaluate Geneva meeting? Why the Kurds are not invited to the meeting? Who are the parties which do not want the Kurds to participate in the meeting, Iran, Turkey, Arab Syrian or Super powers, such as USA and Russia?

Jonathan: Well, I predicted that Geneva 2 would fail and lead to nothing. It was one of the easiest and safest predictions I have ever made and of course it has been realized. My sense is that all the major parties in the conflict appear to have decided on a joint interest in doing their best to ignore Rojava and the emergence of a successful Kurdish autonomous area in north East Syria. Turkey of course is opposed to Rojava and is most worried at the emergence of an autonomous enclave with a long border with Turkey that is associated with the PKK. The Syrian regime and rebels and their backers are all committed to the territorial integrity of Syria and are therefore suspicious of what they regard as a separatist enterprise. Russia is obviously supporting Assad and his total victory. The USA, which might of all the factors be expected to take notice of a well ordered enclave attempting to build representative institutions, appears in fact to be hostile or indifferent. But the USA has long been skeptical of Kurdish aspirations, in Iraq, Syria and Turkey (and silent re the Kurds of Iran), despite the secular and largely pro-western orientation of the Kurds, so this is also in line with previous US behavior. : In Rojava apart from the Kurds there are other ethnic minorities, do you think the political, social and economic administered by the Kurds will represent those ethnic minorities? In other words, you have visited Rojava and you have been in the field, do you think Kurds in Rojava have managed to establish coexistence system in Rojava or not? if not, what are the defects of the system?

Jonathan: Well I am aware of Kurdish attempts to afford protection and representation to other minorities, and to the non-Kurdish groups now within the YPG. As of now, Rojava is quieter than other parts of Syria and so non-Kurdish people have an interest in going there in order to find shelter, and they have been received. When in Rojava, I had the opportunity to speak to Christian Arabs who seemed satisfied with the situation in their town of Derik (Malkiya). But as I said, I regard the administration in Rojava as an embryonic structure created to provide quiet and security for the population in time of war. In these terms, I think it can be judged a success. But it is too soon to award it a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ mark in terms of integration of non-Kurdish communities. We will see. Middle Eastern political experts suggesting that the peace process in Turkey will have a great impact on Turkish approach to the de facto administration in Rojava, Turkey may change its policies toward the Kurds in Syria; do you think Turkish State will change its policies toward the Kurds in Syria if the peace process continued positively or not?

Jonathan: Currently, I see no signs of this. My view is that the peace process between the PKK and Turkey is structurally flawed, and is unlikely to lead to a comprehensive peace between Turks and Kurds in Turkey, so this does not mean that a return to armed conflict is inevitable. But short of a comprehensive peace, the Turks are likely to remain worried and hostile re the emergence of a new Kurdish enclave. They accepted KRG as an unavoidable fait accompli and then began to build relations with it. But it will take a long time for any similar dynamic to emerge in Rojava. Particularly because the Turks see Rojava as an area of PKK control, which was/is not of course the case regarding the KRG. Kurds in Rojava maintained their neutral position, they have not sided any sides of the conflict except they have used force in self-defence against the parties who have attacked them, such as Islamic state of Iraq and Sham or regime’s forces, do you think if regime defeats opposition it will turn its armed forces toward Rojava, Should Kurd be concerned about such possibility?

Jonathan: Yes, I have no doubt that if the regime defeats the rebels it will wish to reunify the country and will try to take back the Rojava area. And if the regime itself is destroyed, then the opposition forces will unite to try to re-conquer Rojava. We have already witnessed how various elements of the rebels, from Liwa al-Tawhid to Jabhat al-Nusra, have united to fight the YPG, despite their differences. This awareness should permeate Kurdish decision making in the Syrian context.

It is clear that Syria is strong ally of Iran, and Iranian forces are present in Syria and also in Iran there are Kurdish people, do not you think even if Turkey changes it policies toward the Kurds, Islamic regime would let Kurds to enjoy their de facto administration?

No, I think that the hand of the Iranian regime is likely to remain very oppressive against the Kurds of the Kurdistan province in Iran and beyond it. Final question, to what extent do you think de facto system in Rojava have a direct or in direct impact on Kurds in Iran?

Jonathan: I would think that the advances made by the Kurds of Syria and also of Iraq would be a source of inspiration for Kurds in Iran. At the same time, the Kurds of Iran remain at the moment the most suppressed and silenced element of the total Kurdish population. Should the Islamist regime in Iran come under serious challenge then I have no doubt that Kurdish demands will emerge strongly, but for the moment the Kurds of Iran share the general experience of the people of Iran – namely the heavy weight of repression at the hands of the regime.