Interview with Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: “Kurds have become an important political factor everywhere, no matter how different their political orientation may be in different countries”
Demonstration against polygamy in Iraqi- Kurdistan Picture: Thomas v. der Osten-Sacken
Global Review: Mr. Osten-Sacken, the Kurdish-Iranians seem to play a very active role in the Iranian protests, the YPG is seen as supporter of the USA and the West in the fight against IS, and even in northern Iraq they seem to be able to manage and run a relatively stable community by Middle Eastern standards after Saddam Hussein was toppled by the Iraq war in 2003. Kurds have the image of being secular, democratic and women-friendly (and often womenizers) , at least they enjoy a very positive image in the West. Now, apart from the PKK, there seems to be no Kurdish party that wants a Greater Kurdistan, although there was a referendum in Northern Iraq under Barzani’s KDP, which wanted a Small Kurdistan but then backed off after threats from the Iraqi central government and Turkey. . Could you give us an overview of the main Kurdish groups, their goals and leaders and how they relate to each other. PKK HDP, YPG, PUK, KDP, Iranian Kurdish parties and Islamist Kurdish parties.
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: You’re asking me a lot about what I actually could write a book. The political party landscape in the different parts of Kurdistan is extremely diverse and first of all: This idea, especially popular in Germany, that there are “the Kurds” does not do justice to this diversity in any way, but rather appears as a national-ethnic- folkish projective matter that then in turn, fits in very well with some Kurdish parties because they like to present themselves as representatives of the „Kurdish people“. This is of course especially true for the Kurdistan Workers‘ Party with its countless sub-organisations, which extremely dominates the „scene“ in Germany. The PKK is a very Turkish party, both in terms of its ideological orientation and its history. In Turkey, Kurdish existence was simply denied for a long time, people spoke of „mountain Turks“ and Kurds were not only victims of political persecution and repression, but also of cultural ones. Sometimes it was even forbidden to speak Kurdish.
It was always different in both Iraq and Iran: as much as Kurds suffered from political repression there, their culture and language were never questioned there. The PKK then reflected this Kemalism in a negative way and countered the fatal Turkishization with a Kurdization. It also emerged from the Turkish left of the 1970s – so it is a very late phenomenon compared to the two Kurdish Democratic Parties in Iran and Iraq, which were founded in the 1940s. Unlike these, the PKK pursued a Leninist-liberation-nationalist course with an extreme cult of the leader around Öcalan. There is a significant gap between demands for a separate Kurdish state or Kurdish states and reality. Neither in Iraq nor in Iran, the two countries with large Kurdish population groups, does the PKK have a great deal of support. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that the Sorani dialect is mainly spoken in these areas and not Kurmanji as in Turkey and Syria – and this language barrier plays an enormous role – and to the very different history of these countries.
In Iraq in particular, the Kurds were seen as more conservative and linked to their tribes. The KDP is still dominated today by the Barzanis and members of a few other tribes. After the founding of the republic, they often opposed land reforms and also tended to reject social modernization processes. This is one of the reasons why the second major Iraqi-Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), was founded, which saw itself as more socialist and progressive. In reality, however, it is also about the separation of Iraqi Kurdistan into two language areas: the KDP has its strongholds to this day in the Kurmanji-speaking area in the north, the PUK in the Sorani-speaking area around Suleymaniah. Shortly after liberation from Saddam’s dictatorship in 1991, an internal party war broke out between the two in Iraq and to this day the PUK has no influence in Dohuk, while the KDP has none in Suleymaniah. Until a few years ago it played an enormous role whether you belonged to KDP or PUK, only now with the new young generation this is changing. Both client parties, which differ less in content, are concerned with the distribution of resources and loyalties, even if the PUK appears less nationalistic overall and the 2017 referendum met with very little positive feedback in the areas it controls.
For a long time it has been part of the history of all Kurdish actors that, also due to the geographical conditions, they are forced to maintain good relations with at least one of the powerful neighboring countries – even if Kurds are also oppressed there. In Iraq, the KDP traditionally has a very close relationship with Turkey, and the PUK with Iran. Of course, this in turn also has an impact on internal Kurdish conflicts. While the PUK is a purely Iraqi party, the KDP has a certain Pan-Kurdish orientation. Even if it is completely separate from it in terms of content and organization, the KDP-Iran is a kind of sister party and the KDP also tried to gain influence in Syria after the start of the mass protests there.
It should therefore be clear that the PKK and KDP are not only in competition with each other, but are usually in open, often armed opposition. Until 2003, the PKK maintained a certain proximity to the Saddam regime and is also very closely linked to Iran. In Iraq, it controls the Kandil Mountains on the Iranian border and areas north of Dohuk, where there has been constant fighting with KDP militias and Turkish soldiers allied to them. For many residents of these areas of northern Iraq, the PKK poses just as much of a threat as the Turkish army. The goal the PKK is pursuing is so-called cantonalization, which is part of its new program. Just as Syrian Kurdistan or Rojava is divided into cantons, militias close to the PKK have been trying for a long time in northern Iraq to proclaim a new canton in the Sinjar Mountains, i.e. the area inhabited by Yazidis and where the Islamic State committed genocide in 2014 . These cantons operate at sub-state level, sound very progressive in theory, but of course they question the existence of existing states, which is why the Iraqi government and the KDP are doing everything they can to prevent something like this from happening on Iraqi territory.
Escaped from IS: Yazidi refugee camp Picture: Thomas von der Osten-Sacken
The mixed situation is difficult for outsiders to understand: In Syria, the PYD – de facto an offshoot of the PKK – is allied with both the USA and Russia and also maintains very good relations with the Assad regime. The fact that they control almost 600 km of the common border objectively poses a problem for Turkey, and not just for Erdogan. And the United States is also pursuing a schizophrenic policy, since the PKK is on their terror list, whatever you may think of it. Now, as is well known, quite a few PKK members serve in the militia units in Rojava, who would be classified as terrorists by the USA if they crossed the border into Turkey, but are allies in Syria.
Global Review: “The Kurds” are seen as secular, democratic, and pro-women in the West, as mentioned earlier. But which religious affiliation do the Kurds have and what is the significance of religion for the Kurds? And are there also Islamic and Islamist Kurdish parties?
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: Here, too, it is important to separate and distinguish ideology, projection and reality. Female Kurdish militia groups of the YPG or PKK are definitely not representative of Kurdistan. And: The pictures may look beautiful, but women in arms are now only a limited expression of great emancipation. In addition, there is this martyr cult, which the PKK also adheres to and which, unfortunately, many in the West think is great. But there is no doubt that the PKK has done a lot for the emancipation of Kurdish women, as I said, it emerged in the 1970s as part of the Turkish left. But what is quickly forgotten is that traditionally, most areas where Kurds live are more conservative and traditional than other parts of the country. Kurdish cities like Suleymaniah or Sanandaj used to exist only in Iraq and Iran, the rest of Kurdistan was largely rural. You only have to look at how elections are held in Turkish Kurdistan today: the AKP is the second largest party, there are two Islamic parties in the Iraqi Kurdish parliament and, last but not least, Al Qaeda Iraq was founded near Halabja. Even in Kobani, which was so heroically defended by the YPG against the Islamic State, many Kurds also fought on the side of the jihadists. Islamist Kurdish parties include: The Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal) and the Kurdistan Islamic Union. One is close to Turkey, the other to Saudi Arabia. Mullah Krekar and Ansar Al-Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan are jihadists. (See the article after the GR interview for more details).
So it is not true that Kurds are less religious just because they are Kurdish. What is true is that Kurdish nationalism tends not to have a religious foundation, which is why Kurdish nationalism has slowed things down a little in times when Islamists were on the rise elsewhere in the Middle East. In the 1990s, when various Islamist parties were also gaining strength in Iraqi Kurdistan, there were occasional armed conflicts with the PUK, but overall the Iraqi Kurdish parties try not to mess with the clergy. What is interesting is the development in Iran, where Kurds and Baluchis make up the two large Sunni minorities. At the same time, these are also the areas in which there are massive demonstrations and protests, and in these the clergy plays an important role. Some have just been arrested again. Now these clerics have joined the demands of the protest movement, i. H. de facto they are not only opposed to the Islamic Republic, but also demand free elections, an end to compulsory hijab and much more. This also shows how much has changed in recent times. The same can be observed with Iraqi-Kurdish-Islamic parties, all of which are still suffering from the terror of the Islamic State. You want to give the impression that you have nothing to do with something like that and you make an effort to present yourself as democratic and modern. This is part of the tremendous upheaval processes taking place in the region.
In these upheavals, women and the women’s movement play an important role everywhere, it’s just far more plural than the pictures of PKK activists would lead you to believe. Some significant achievements have also been made in Iraqi Kurdistan in recent decades: there are laws that de facto prohibit polygamy, all forms of violence are criminalized, genital mutilation has been banned and much more. Of course, these changes are also noticeable in everyday life, but the road to equality is still long and rocky.
Global Review: After the Istanbul atack, for which Erdogan blamed the PKK and YPG, he called for a ground offensive in northern Syria. To what extent do Iraqis, Syrians, Iranians show solidarity with the Kurdish minorities and with each other? What is the actual state of the ground offensive: Putin, Assad and Erdogan now want a joint Syria solution, with the former both demanding the withdrawal of Turkish troops in order to restore Syrian sovereignty and territoriality and to place the Kurdish areas under Assad’s control? Will the YPG and PKK allow this and give up their hopes of a transnational Greater Kurdistan? And what about the US troops in northern Syria?
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: No, so far there hasn’t been a ground offensive, even if Turkey would have liked that. In strange unanimity, both the US and Russia, like Iran, made it clear that they would not agree to such a request. The USA in particular has recently signaled very clearly to Ankara that it is interested in a stable Rojava. These signals were not that clear before, because after all, Turkey is a NATO member and is still an important ally of Washington. And, as Ankara is right, as I said, the USA is in fact allied with a subsidiary organization of the PKK in Syria, which they equip with weapons and train. Officially, it is said that this would take place within the framework of a coalition in the fight against the Islamic State, but one naturally wonders in Ankara whether these weapons will not one day also be used against Turkish soldiers. I don’t think that Putin, Assad and Erdogan want a joint Syria solution. This is propaganda and serves the election campaign in Turkey. At best, they all want the US to withdraw, but then interests diverge greatly. Turkey occupies large parts of north-west Syria and has no interest in withdrawing from there, which in turn the Russians and Syrians absolutely want. Several million Syrian refugees live in Turkey, and they have now become a topic of the election campaign – above all, the opposition promises to deport them as quickly as possible in the event of victory. That’s hardly possible in an area controlled by Assad, Erdogan has also announced that he wants to start a large repatriation program; However, in the Turkish-controlled areas of north-western Syria, where systematic ethnic cleansing has taken place in recent years, especially in and around Afrin. The original Kurdish population was largely expelled and Arabs settled in their place.
After years of civil war, the situation in Syria is not only hopeless, but also completely muddled. Even if these three actors wanted to and would come to an agreement, it would be anything but easy to implement any agreement. Iran still plays an important role there, and of course the PYD too. She is also the one who, with American help, keeps the Islamic State in the border areas with Iraq under control to some extent. If it collapses or if the USA withdraws, the IS would become stronger again almost overnight and nobody has any great interest in that at the moment. I think the conflict will remain frozen in Syria for the time being, something will happen at some point, but we don’t know what. Syria has become too much the scene of all regional conflicts for that, and at the moment the future of this battered country is more likely to be decided in Tehran or Ukraine than in Damascus.
With regard to Kurdish parties in Syria, one should also know that the PYD is by no means loved by everyone there. I think with free elections she would probably get 50% and other Kurdish parties as many votes. The Syrian opposition accuses the PYD of having de facto taken control of the Assad regime, one should not forget that the Syrian army and secret service are still present in Qaumishli. The other Syrian-Kurdish parties, on the other hand, had sympathized with the mass protests, even if there was and still is a lot of criticism of the Arabo-centric program of many Syrian opposition groups. For the Islamic parts of the opposition that cooperate with Turkey, the PYD represents an enemy to be fought and armed clashes occur again and again.
As I said, it is difficult to make any prognosis about the future of Syria, unfortunately it is a question of an enormous failure by the West ten years ago and even with a lot of good will it is difficult to imagine a scenario of how this country will continue can go. It’s in ruins, Assad is only staying in power thanks to Iranian and Russian support, and the economy is in shambles. The regime’s main sources of income are drug production and trade and international aid funds. The situation in Damascus and other cities is catastrophic with raging inflation, a lack of supplies and brutal repression by the regime and actually everyone in the country is thinking of leaving – if this were possible. Syria has no future with Assad, only as long as Iran and Russia support him he is likely to remain in power while the situation continues to deteriorate. In the meantime, millions have left the country, including large sections of the intelligentsia, and are no longer planning to return in the foreseeable future.
Back to the Kurdish parties: I think a lot has changed in the last few decades. They have become important partners both in Iraq and in Syria, and no one questions that there must be some form of self-government. Iraq is a federal state, Kurdish is the official second language throughout the country and anyone who was born in Iraqi Kurdistan in the last 20 years can hardly imagine what persecution and oppression by the central government means. In Syria, too, self-government is a fact, it cannot simply be reversed. Today, children there learn Kurdish at school and listen to Kurdish music. The question remains how things will continue in Turkey and Iran. In Turkey too, despite everything, a lot has changed in recent years. The cultural oppression of Kurds, as it used to be under the Kemalists, no longer exists and it is easy to forget that the AKP, yes initially pursued a completely different policy. In short: Kurds have become an important political factor everywhere, no matter how different their political orientation may be in different countries. So it is to be hoped that if there are further changes in the region, these will also have a positive effect on the Kurds, although I have always thought that federal structures and systems, such as in Iraq, are the best way for everyone.
Global Review: The announced northern Syria offensive against the YPG seems to be quite a non-starter, also because the USA still has the remaining troops there and is sticking to the YPG and its hoped-for neo-Ottoman empire has not made any real progress either. That’s why he’s trying to get Syria and Russia on board, which, as you correctly described, will also fail. But that’s why he’ll turn to Greece and hopes to get a kind of Cyprus 1974 off the Aegean Islands and to offer the USA NATO membership for Sweden, which he’s still holding back as a bargaining chip.
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: As in the past, NATO and the USA will make it very clear to Erdogan that nothing will happen with the Aegean. And please, what exactly does Turkey want in Lesbos, what does an invasion bring you? In order to show him his limits – in other words, he can announce as much as he likes domestically as long as it does not result in foreign policy actions – the USA recently increased military cooperation with Athens. Without wanting to belittle possible dangers, I have the impression that these threats are often taken far too seriously. Strictly speaking, there is no Turkish foreign policy, everything Ankara does is motivated by looking inwards, including this regular raising of Laussane. Although: If you look at a map where these East Aegean islands are actually located, you can somehow understand that Turkey feels cheated there. From a purely geographical point of view, nobody should question that these islands actually belong to Asia Minor.
Global Review: Good argument. But this constant rumbling and rattling and the non-redeeming of his neo-Ottoman empire also cause a loss of credibility among his supporters of the AKP and the MHP, where it then becomes almost ridiculous again and the loss of his own substance goes hand in hand with the economic crisis. Not an emperor, but the sultan without clothes. Well, we’ll see if he will be the Aegean Putin or not.
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: Turkish domestic policy follows its own rules, which often seem difficult to understand. This Neo-Ottomanism is not meant to be taken that seriously, but it must also be seen as a response to Kemalist nationalism and Panturanism. I know people don’t like to hear that, but the AKP has changed a lot in Turkey, which is also positive. The power of the military has been broken, there has been an enormous push towards modernization in recent decades, from which many people have benefited, and Ottomanism also means showing greater tolerance towards religious minorities, which have always been part of the Ottoman Empire. Today is. In addition to gigantic new mosque buildings, in Istanbul, for example, e.g. Christian churches were renovated. It’s not enough to simply demonize the AKP.
Global Review: Nevertheless, on the 100th anniversary of the Lausanne Treaty and the founding of Attaturk-Turkey, this is coming to a head. Back to the pro-Western Attatürk Party or Back to the Future- Ottoman Empire.
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: Well, the Attatürk party wasn’t that pro-Western either. Adnan Menderes has been sentenced to death for, among other things, „being too pro-Western“. If you read texts by the Kemalists from the 1960s and 1970s, they almost surpass the Islamists in anti-Western rhetoric and conspiracy theories.
Global Review: But Erdogan wittily invokes Menderes over the failed military botch coup to give his authoritarianism and neo-Ottoman empire ambitions a democratic tinge, despite Menderes‘ more pro-Western stance on the CHP, which he would happily bury anyway on its 100th anniversary. Although Atatürk and his military were autocrats, they were still pro-Western, which is why Turkey was admitted to NATO.
Thomas von der Osten-Sacken: It’s not all that simple. There have always been regimes or countries in the Middle East that tactically align themselves with the West, but have taken a completely different course domestically. This ambivalence runs through the entire history of modern Turkey and one should not forget that the AKP once started out as very pro-Western and desperately wanted Turkey to join the EU.
|Ansar al-Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan|