THO Interview with Michael A. Reynolds

Michael A. Reynolds is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies. His research areas include Ottoman and modern Middle Eastern history, Russian and Eurasian history, the Caucasus, international relations, empire, nationalism, Turkish foreign policy, and US foreign policy. He holds a BA in Government and Slavic Languages and Literature from Harvard University, an MA in Political Science from Columbia University, and PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University. You can read more about Dr. Reynolds here

THO: For years, you have been working on Turkey and its Kurdish Question. How did it start?
Michael Reynolds: When I first went to Turkey in 1991, I understood that this country has a bright future. Young and vibrant society, people are hardworking, along the way with a huge democratic population. 

About the Kurdish Question, there is one thing we need to point out; we need to separate PKK from Turkey’s Kurdish Question. They may be related but they are not identical. 

From Turkish state point of view, Kurdish Question is the greatest nightmare of the state, and Turkey needs to solve it. The founding idea of Turkey is that Turkey is a strong uniter state so its has one constitutional identity to keep the people of state together after Ottoman partition. The problem is Kurdish population is so big, definitely more than 10 percent of Turkey’s entire population.  They are more concentrated in the south east, or may be to say the south east of Turkey is dominantly Kurdish. There are a lot of historical problems coming from the Ottoman era, even beyond. 

Things have changed within last one or two decades so much. One of the biggest problem of today is when people look at the Kurdish Question, they somewhat see the PKK and its actions as part of the Kurdish issue. This is dangerous. But I see there are Kurdish nationalists and Turkish nationalists. But, in the western turkey, most people wouldn’t talk badly about the Kurds. They will talk badly about the PKK. 

PKK wants only one thing; they want Kurds to find themselves in a situation that they have to make a choice between the state and the PKK.  “I am a Kurd and I support PKK”, this is what PKK wants from the Kurds. So far, it hasn’t come to that point. On the other hand, either being a Kurd or being a citizen of Turkey is the vital target for the state. People who run the PKK in Kandil and in Europe eventually want to have separate Kurdish state, that is what they say, but in practical there are many reasons that this is not something they can run. Turkey has done a lot of thing within last decade, but those terrorists in Kandil have dedicated 30-40 years of their lives for this fight and they won’t come up and say ‘Oh Turkey recognized Kurdish identity so let’s stop fighting, let’s retired’. This won’t happen. Many people outside of Turkey think that Turkey is at war with the Kurds which is a huge mistake. Turkey is at war with the PKK not with the Kurds!  PKK try to make the people in the south east to come to a choice of ‘whether you are with us or you are against us’ The trap that PKK puts is ‘This is a Turkish and Kurdish fight” and it is not actually! 

Now we have much more complicated situation for Turkey and the Kurds, because we have Syrian civil war going on. THE US support to YPG seems to be deteriorating US-Turkey relations for a long time. James Jeffrey said that we are putting the Turks in a very difficult situation. 

But policymakers in the West, especially in the USA see the PKK or YPG/PYD as useful ally against their fight with ISIS which is another mistake. 

THO: How do you see the Kurds’ socio-political situation  in general?

Michael ReynoldsThe Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Syria are so deeply divided in many ways. There is no single Kurdish language, 3 different dialects. There is a language division. More importantly we have short and long term political divisions among them. PKK is a radical organization, you have PUK, KDP, Goran in northern Iraq who are much different than PKK. The PKK is a radical revolutionary organization; but those in northern Iraq are more evolutionary. PKK wants to push separation, taking the idea of ‘who are the good Kurds and who are the bad Kurds’ that is what they want to do. 

But in overall, there are many splits among the Kurds.

Even if those four countries; Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria; if they all say ‘Okay we recognize what the Kurds want” this will not bring a stability or a peace. It will bring another huge civil war.

Imagine if the Kurdish state founded tomorrow, what will happen?

Who will run the region? PUK? KDP? PKK? PYD? Goran?
THO: Turkey has done a lot for the Kurds within the last decade. How do you see it?

Michael Reynolds: I supported the Acilim Sureci(The Peace Process) very much. Davutoglu said that let’s not put emphasis on ethnic identity. De-politicizing the ethnic identity is vital. This was good. You can be a citizen of Turkey without any explanation.  

But, I believe that PKK has never been interested in peace! They are trying to politicize the ethnic identity of the Kurds. How many Kurds would say ‘let’s found an independent state, this Ocalan is a great leader, we want to separate from Turkey?” I think almost none.

One thing that really struck me is in near history, AKP is the only party that has run a very successful political campaign against the Kurdish parties in the south-east Turkey. This is a huge success of Erdogan.  The south east now is a very different place than ten year before. As I said PKK has never been interested in peace. 

AKP should recognize the HDP as a full legitimate party. They shouldn’t have prosecuted. 

HDP has very limited options in Turkish politics. As long as HDP is in parliament there is a maneuver. Then those Kurds would say ‘yes we have a word to say in Turkey’s politics’ Yes, this is very difficult, I know that. This requires leadership, and Erdogan is a strong figure but so far, I am disappointed. It’s too quick to fall back to Turkish nationalism.  Not Diyarbakir, not Erbil not Suleymaniye, its  Istanbul the largest Kurdish city in the world. How you can divide this. This is insanity. This will be socia-economically the biggest disaster for the Kurds. This eventually also set-back the economic development in the south east for another half a century. 

The PKK is the biggest hurdle in front of the peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurds in Turkey. The Middle East is a very complex thing. PKK is based in outside Turkey, and still quite a strong organization. It’s very different situation than other regions and the terrorist organizations. ERA, IRA these are very different than the PKK.
Sometimes Ocalan seems to understand what is going on. But, I am not sure how much power he has. The real problem is the people in Kandil. 

But AKP put a difference in the history of the Kurdish Question. This is very different, AKP- was willing to understand that not everything has been done by the Turkish state is perfect. This was very important, and it happened first time. You can criticize the state but it doesn’t mean you need to destroy it. These are very different things. The Republic of Turkey has made mistakes, AKP has understood this well. But now AKP lost this momentum. When I went to Turkey in the 90s, it was almost impossible to criticize the state, but AKP has done a huge success to break idea.

I think, people in Ankara understand that the real struggle is not ISIS, its PKK. But people in the West, the policymakers don’t see this. 

The Arab Spring brought civil wars in Yemen, Libya, Syria and the situation is not bright in Iraq. I hope the Kurds should avoid this danger. 

YPG, PKK, PUK, KDP cannot co-exist all together. It’s politically impossible. You have a very deep ideological divide.  Do people in Diyabakir care about the people in Erbil? I don’t think so. 

Kurdish region in the south east hasn’t economically developed as much as the western part of Turkey. But this has nothing to do with the Turkish state.  Does Kansas as developed as Manhattan? Or Does northern England as developed as London? This is completely consequences of geography.

The question is these young people at Kandil, what will they do in 20 years from now?

Look at the calamity in Syria. How long it is going to take to recover, if ever? 30 years, 50 years? 

Turkey’s democratization process started very well but now its lost. It is bad for AKP. 

Turkish republic’s border needs to stay where they are. Breaking away isn’t going to solve any problem. It will even make things worse. Kurds inside of Turkey involved in political, socio-economic life in every aspect is the best situation for the Kurds. But, the PKK has to be defeated. The question is how the PKK can be defeated? 

THO: Do you really believe that the US is really helping Turkey to solve the PKK terrorism?

Michael Reynolds:  The US should support Turkey. ISIS has changed a lot of things. In recent years, anti-Turkish sentiment is so high in the US. Everyday media has bad hits on Turkey, think-tanks, policymakers they all are angry. About the PKK, there is a great misconception in the US unfortunately. The PKK is also quite misunderstood. Who is the PKK? Are they pro-American? No, actually they were at the beginning very anti-American. The US geostrategically needs Turkey. The US really doesn’t understand Turkey nor the Middle East. 

The US had no idea what it is doing in Iraq. The stupidity that the US created in Iraq makes me worry that we could do another stupidity with our relations with Turkey. 

US doesn’t really understand what drives Turkey or the Kurdish movement. The big thing is Ocalan and the PKK are hundred times worse for Turkey than what Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are for the US. This is what the policymakers in Washington don’t see that way.