“It’s important not to consider the region in some homogenous way,” Brendan O’Leary was saying. “Every place has its own nuances and its configuration of ethnic groups and sects, and these really matter.”
O’Leary, the Lauder Professor of Political Science at Penn, was referring to the volatile region encompassing Syria, Iraq, and southeastern Turkey.
Few outsiders understand those nuances and configurations better than he does, especially when it comes to the Kurds, the durable ethnic group whose population is spread across those three nations as well as Iran. Ever since the Ottoman Empire was dismembered, the Kurds—who were promised their own state at the Treaty of Sevres in 1920—have been without an independent state of their own. Now, after decades of repression and neglect, their role in the region’s affairs has become increasingly recognized.
O’Leary, who served as a constitutional advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government during the making of Iraq’s constitution, is the author, co-author, or co-editor of more than a dozen books, including The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq and Right-Sizing the State: The Politics of Moving Borders. In late July he spoke with Gazette senior editor Samuel Hughes about the Kurds’ underappreciated role in the evolution of Syria’s civil war (whose death toll surpassed 100,000 this summer, according to UN estimates), the way the conflict is reshaping geopolitical relationships in the region, and what the United States should do about it.
You’ve been saying for quite a while that you thought Bashar al-Assad would stay in power. Why?
Most analysts thought that Assad was certain to fall, and that was particularly true if they had been following the Arab Spring. They mostly categorized what was happening in Syria as part of a general regional phenomenon. The appropriate comparison for them to make, however, was with Iraq—because both the Syrian nation and the Iraqi regime are Baathist regimes (or were Baathist, in the case of Iraq). The Baath regime is based on pan-Arab nationalism—that’s its ideological orientation—but politically it was modeled on a combination of Soviet and Nazi practices. One-party rule, stringent monopolization of the media, penetration of all levels of civil society by the party, extensive use of secret intelligence services in order to control potential opposition, and regular resort to paramilitary extra-regime forces to control potential troublemakers. That meant a Baath regime was likely to be far more troublesome to remove than, say, Mubarek’s regime, or the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. That’s why, while some of my colleagues were confidently predicting the fall of Assad, I was less willing to believe it would happen—unless America or Turkey intervened.
America wasn’t going to intervene because President Obama has made it a signature feature of his presidency that he’s ending two wars and doesn’t want to begin a third one.
Turkey has many reasons to want to see the Assad regime fall … It’s been a very troublesome neighbor; at one juncture Syria was the prime supporter of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party], the Kurdish guerrilla/terrorist organization, which was a real threat to the stability of Turkey, particularly during the 1990s. And Turkey plainly has been interested in sponsoring the opposition to the Syrian government. Yet it has not gone in militarily, even though it’s the second-largest power in NATO, in terms of soldiers; and even though Syria is right on its border.
No. 1, Turkey is not an Arab country, and the Turks realize that there’s still residual hostility to Turkish/Ottoman imperial rule in the Middle East. Secondly, and I think very importantly, the current government in Turkey has no reason to give its military the basis for some successful enterprise abroad. The Turkish government has successfully increased civilian control over the military. There is no better opportunity for the military to recover their power than in an extensive intervention in Syria. Thirdly, even if they did go in, they would not be assured of success. A protracted war would be very costly, and the Turkish government has done very well out of an extensive period of prosperity.
So it’s not obvious at all that it’s in Turkey’s interests to engage fully in war. It, like America, wanted quick, cheap regime change. Now it looks as though neither of them are going to get it.
But Turkey has backed the Free Syrian Army rebels against Assad, and the retreat of the Syrian Army has created a sort of vacuum for the Kurds.
There is emerging in what the West would call “Northern Syria,” what the Kurds would call “Western Kurdistan”: a new autonomous zone. The PKK, and what’s called the Democratic Union Party [PYD], are making a bid to be the government of that autonomous zone. That’s being contested by the other Kurds. It’s led to violence.
Is the Kurdish role in the Syrian conflict well understood by outside parties?
Most people have assumed that the Kurds of Syria are much weaker than the Kurds of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. They’re estimated to be anywhere between 8 and 14 percent of Syria’s population—roughly two million people. Nevertheless, one of the interesting events that occurred very early on more or less passed without notice: Assad announced that the Kurds of Syria would be fully entitled to have their citizenship restored. The Kurds had been deprived of citizenship on the grounds that most of them were descended from Kurds who’d come from Turkey in the 1920s. As you can imagine, living inside a country where you’re not officially a citizen can create huge problems in terms of access to resources, the ability to conduct a normal life, and so on.
So why did Assad restore their citizenship?
Well, quite plainly he wanted to minimize opposition to the regime … I think what the regime has been doing is trying to mobilize all of the minorities against the potentially largest group of Sunni Arabs. It’s looking for support not merely among the Alawites, but among the Druze, the Christians, and the Kurds, who between them probably comprise up to 40 percent of the population. That’s quite enough for a dictatorship to survive.
At the same time, Assad made the remarkable move of unleashing the PKK once again—in the hope that it would attack Turkey as a deterrent … The fact that he was willing to do so, I think, was a big warning to Turkey about the scale of the trouble Turkey could have.
There’s a new oil pipeline between the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and Turkey. How significant is that?
This is very important. It is certainly the case that the relationships between the government of Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government have not only relaxed, they’ve positively blossomed, partly because of mutual economic self-interest.
The Turks have it both ways because they also have a pipeline that is largely within Arab Iraq-controlled territory, [as well as] a separate one to the Kurds. And Turkey is the principal external trade partner of the Kurds. Turkish companies are everywhere in the Kurdistan region. And there are some signs that the boom in Turkey is actually spreading to the southeast, to Turkish Kurdistan.
What are the political dynamics of the Syrian Kurds?
There is a range of small Kurdish parties—10 of them—who among them almost certainly have more popular support than the PKK of Syria. There is a group of Kurds who are opposed to the PKK, and they in principle support the Syrian opposition. So the Kurds are split.
Now, here’s where things get really interesting because the Kurds who are anti-regime, they’re not very happy with the Syrian opposition either—because that Syrian opposition is, like the regime, Arabist in character, as well as being seriously Islamist. And none of them have made any serious indication that Kurds as ethnic Kurds, or Christians as Christians, have a viable and pleasant future in the future Syria. That strategically dumb and wholly ideological disposition, of course, makes it incredibly unlikely that either the Kurds or the Christians are going to be enthusiastic members of the coalition against Assad. All of which gives Assad much greater prospects of staying in power.
So where does this leave the Syrian civil war?
My own suspicion is that we’re likely to see a very prolonged stalemate, not a quick resolution on either party’s side. The regime has Russia and China on the [UN] Security Council, determined to prevent another American-led regime change. And Hezbollah, the Alawites of Syria, the Iraq government’s majority faction, and Iran are all, in different ways, pro-Assad.
Hezbollah took a terrifically risky decision from the point of view of its own security by deciding to back the Assad regime … There’s every likelihood that the Syrian civil war will spread over into Lebanon and destabilize Lebanon.
So I think we’ll see over time diplomatic moves to have diplomatic conferences. In a benign world, or a world of very protracted violence in which nobody wins, you can see negotiations occurring on a federal Syria. One of the things that’s going to happen is already happening: Sunnis are going to cluster together, Christians will cluster together, and Kurds will cluster together. So we might see the spatial construction of what might be required to make Syria work as a federation.
What is the US likely to do?
America’s first thoughts in this part of the world are always very simple. Who’s our big ally? It’s Turkey. But Turkey isn’t going to do what America wants because Turkey’s got very good reasons not to go in there. The other big ally is of course Israel, and Israel can do nothing productive in Syria from an American point of view. So the only real player that America has to work with in the region—though it’s constitutionally incapable at the moment of exploiting it—is in fact the Kurds of Iraq. They’re their only serious, reliable ally in the region. And the reason they’re important is that they’re linked to a block of secular Kurds who would have a secular, pluralizing impact on the Syrian opposition.
So if America is smart, that’s where it’s going to go. But America doesn’t show much sign of being smart in this, to me. The debate is really focused on should we intervene to help the opposition or not, without a proper debate taking place on the character of that opposition.
Whatever one might want to say about what the Bush government did in Iraq, one can’t accuse them of not engaging in a prior mobilization of the Iraqi opposition. The Iraqi opposition had met; they had agreed on a plan for a federal Iraq before the Americans went in to remove Saddam’s regime. There is absolutely no comparable high-caliber mobilization of the Syrian opposition. To the extent that anybody’s influencing the Syrian opposition, they are the Saudis and the Qataris. And neither the Saudis nor the Qataris are known for the spread of democratic and pluralist values.
If you were President Obama, what would you do?
I would seek to internationalize the conflict. I would avoid America getting sucked in. I would make any aid to the Syrian national opposition absolutely conditional, not only on their commitment to democracy but on their commitment to the rights of non-Arabs and non-Muslims. At the moment they’ve made no such commitments. If they’ve made them, they’ve been uttered so quietly that nobody’s heard them. It would be bizarre if America got locked into supporting Sunni Islamists who are not democrats. So I would expect Obama to avoid that temptation. There’s a lot of people around him saying, “It’s terrible. Something must be done. This is something. Let’s do it.” I think he’s reluctant to follow, and I think there are good reasons why he’s reluctant to follow.
Like every humane person, I loathe civil wars and loathe repression. And the Assad regime has been a repulsive regime. But when you intervene—and in general I’m in favor of intervention—you have to have not only a clear plan but one with some plausible possibility of working.
At the moment, it’s quite clear that, whatever else, America’s not going to commit its troops. All it’s going to do is to provide logistical support—and that could be quite significant—possibly air support and so on.
But the question is, to what endeavor will that be directed? Asking the regime to surrender doesn’t seem likely to work. If that’s the case, then a negotiated settlement is what is called for. And America has had a role in negotiated settlements where nobody won. Think of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine a world in which there might be a negotiated settlement down the road. But it’s much more difficult to imagine a world in which the Assad regime simply crumbles.