THO Interview with Dr. Robert Olson

Dr. Robert Olson, Professor Middle History and Politics. He received his Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1973 where he studied with Professor Wadie Jwaideh and specialized in the history of the Ottoman Empire and contemporary politics of the Middle East. You can read more about Dr. Olson here

THO: How do you see the current situation of the Kurdish Question and the civil war In Syria? 
Robert Olson: I think, the Kurdish Question in Turkey is completely tied up with the situation in Syria and in Iraq. Ten years ago, Davutoglu pioneered ‘zero problem policy’ and later on the failure of that -mostly due to the situation in Syria- and then Turkey’s downing Russian fighter jet and subsequently Turkey’s declining relations with Russia for over a two year period put Turkey in a difficult situation in Syria. In addition to these, having over 2.5 million Syrian refugees’ burden made the situation for Turkey quite a complex case.

I try to look at the international relations and crises through geopolitical and geo-economical perspectives. The AK Party in Turkey has tried to expand Turkey’s power through thriving its economic relations within the Middle East and before the civil war in Syria, Syria was a great example of it. From the beginning, AK Party has improved the relations with the Assad regime greatly, and it reflected on economic developments, but the civil war ended all of these. I do not see ever Syria is recovering from this civil war and calamity. It is a calamity, and unfortunately still going on. 

It seems to me that Turkey will be the dominant power in Northern Syria in near future, but there is an obstacle. How Turkey is going to manage YPG/Russians, US and the Iraqi Kurds, its quite an obstacle. 

And how AKP’s relations with the Kurds in Turkey will evolve, its quite a difficult situation especially after MHP’s support for AKP. Though, I don’t see the situation is getting better in near future for the Kurds in the region. 

THO: How do you see the Kurds’ situation in Iraq:

Robert Olson: The Kurdish question is so much involved within the geopolitics of the Middle East. In Turkey’s case, PKK and KRG are very important for Turkey’s national security strategies, but in addition to these, we have Russians, PYD/YPG; you have there more than a stalemate.

But on the other hand, the situation doesn’t look good for anyone. It is a total disaster going on. 

THO: What about the Kurds in Turkey:

Robert Olson: Turkey’s Kurds have benefitted for sure within the economic development of Turkey from 2002 until recently, maybe the Kurds hasn’t benefitted from Turkey’s economic progress as much as the high-middle class bourgeoisie in the West, but definitely the Kurds’ situation in Turkey has improved from 2002 till I would say 2011.

The unique thing in Turkey is more than half of the Kurds are living in the West in Turkey, and at least more than half of the Kurds have been voting for other parties-mainly AK Party and CHP-, other than Kurdish nationalists- HDP. So there is not really a one nationalistic political movement going on among the most of the Kurdish populations in Turkey. There is no unity. AK Party, has given important rights to the Kurds with “Acilim Sureci/The Peace Process”  but the US invading of Iraq in 2003 and  Syrian civil war after 2011 put Turkey in a very difficult complex with much more unknown. 

A 10 year ago, you didn’t have a Kurdish militia movement in Syria, right along the Turkey’s southern border, but now you have it, and it is a fundamental issue for Turkey’s national security agenda. 
It will be very important with all of these, how Ankara is going to position itself, whether it will take a harder line or less hard approach after the election, we will see. As I said, there is also not one Kurdish nationalist movement. How a movement-such as HDP- can satisfy Kurdish businessmen in Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, Mersin? It is difficult to conceive. It is a dilemma. 

I think, Ankara needs more cooperation with Iran, but it is not that easy to proceed. In Iraq, Iran has a great sphere of influence, Tehran is still a major player in Iraq and Lebanon, and of course today in Syria, though the case in Syria is much more complicated for Iran and Turkey than many could thikn. Iran may end up having hard time with its own Kurds. 

THO: Do you see a possibility of Iraq’s collapse as a state and a Kurdish state to merge in the north?

Robert Olson:  I do not think that way. It is not practical for several reasons. First of all, both Iran and Turkey would be against it. Also, more importantly, domestically the Kurdish movement in Iraq is quite fragmented, look at the differences; KDP, KRG, Goran. An independent Kurdish state in Iraq would be hard to implement, politics, geography and more reasons out there. I also do not see any way Turkey disintegrating, as some claims.  The relations between Ankara and KRG has been good. Turkish companies have been playing dominant roles in northern Iraq, and the KRG needs Ankara’s friendship greatly. 

On the other hand, whatever happens, whoever comes to power in Syria somewhat must have a good relation with Turkey. Given the intensity of the calamity in Syria some kind of political autonomy could be considered. If Turkey implements this for its own Kurds, Germany, France, US systems should be evaluated carefully. It may work for Turkey and could help to bring peace to the region. Turkey is seeking the expansion of its soft power through northern Syria and northern Iraq. These 3 million refugees are important for this. Turkey is a big country, strong army along the way with a big economy, vibrant, well-educated population.

Turkey will be the dominant power in the region in the long run. These things have to be looked through a far reaching geopolitical facts and calculations. Look at the situation In Syria now. After the war ended, who will stay there? US? Russia? Iran, Saudi Arabia No, none of them. But Turkey will be there.