Jean Marcou: “an independent Kurdistan? That’s unlikely!”

by Hervé Pugi.

« The Kurdish Question » ! Everyone’s talking about it but what do we really know? We went looking for answers, to Prof. Jean Marcou, the « Mediterranean-Middle-East » Masters program director at the Grenoble School of Political Science (Sciences Po Grenoble). Hoping to make a valuable contribution to reestablishing the terms of reference of a debate often trivialized by caricature.

Turks and Kurds go back a long way. A « multifaceted and diverse community, like every people, »  says Jean Marcou, who strives to highlight « the religious and linguistic differences » between the 30 to 40 million people who are « among the most ancient inhabitants of the Middle East. » Some 15 million Kurds live in Turkey, mostly (but not only) in the southwestern part of the country.  Far from remaining at the fringes of the nation, Marcou emphasizes that « they fought alongside the Turks,  between 1919 and 1922, in the war for independence which resulted, in 1923, in the creation of the Republic of Turkey. » And that may well be the main basis for their grievance: « They don’t see themselves as a minority,  but as a people who contributed to founding what is modern Turkey. »

However, the director of the Mediterranean-Middle-East Masters program at the Grenoble School of Political Science is quick to admit that « their difficulties integrating and their being ignored by Turkish authorities have created problems since the early days of the Republic. » Nearly a century of State repression resulted in a drive for recognition of Kurdish identity. Nearly a century of State repression has opposed the drive for recognition of Kurdish identity. It was against the background of the 1980 coup d’État that « fierce guerrilla action appeared » led by none other than the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). However, it would be wrong to pretend that the PKK and its goals were supported by most Kurds.

This is a claim that Jean Marcou demolishes by pointing out that « in Turkey we find every type of Kurdish persuasion: independents, separatists, left-wing and extreme-left, right-wing and extreme right, conservatives, Islamists, and even Salafists and Jihadists. » Yes, even Jihadists: « In the past two years, although many Kurds in the Syrian conflict have been supporting the Marxist-Leninist-inspired PYD (Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat – Democratic Union Party) which currently governs Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), others have opted to follow Daesh and have even sometimes fought alongside it. »

But it’s in the ballot boxes that the Kurds have really made their mark. And not just by voting for the HDP (Hakların Demokratik Partisi – People’s Democratic Party), or for President Erdoğan’s Kurdish AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – Justice and Development Party). Strange? Not for Prof. Marcou: « These allegiances reflect the polarization that cuts across Kurdish society and symbolizes its division into two main camps: those who support the government with religious conservatism because they also feel that the AKP has improved Kurdish people’s lives and those who do consider that AKP has thereby renewed their commitment to shrug off the yoke of repression and keep fighting for recognition of Kurdish identity. »

In short, it is a great mistake to see Turkey through the prism of a single community. First of all, « as are the Turks, most of the country’s Kurds are Sunnis, with significant numbers of Alevites. There are also Yezidis, Druzes, Yarsanis, Christians and Jews. » Also, as the HDP has refocused « by abandoning an exclusively ethnic identity and instead focusing on representing the Republic’s ‘forgotten people’ – Alevites, Christians, Armenians, women, Turkish democrats uneasy about increasing authoritarianism, environmentalists, homosexuals… » A clearly fruitful strategy as the party now has 59 Parliament members. Unfortunately, far from being a single issue, the « Kurdish Question » is now more violent with, as backdrop, the conflict in Syria. Ankara has always been obsessed by the fear that Syrian Kurdistan would become a PKK stronghold and, what’s more, that « Damascus would try to sign up the Syrian Kurds against it, as happened in the 1990s. » These underlying fears which, according to the Grenoble Political Science Professor « explains why Turkey in the early days of the conflict allowed its territory to be used as a rear-base for Jihadists connected with Daesh. »

Even if this means getting upset with Washington for openly supporting YPG militants (People’s Protection Units) in ground combat operations against terrorists. As Jean Marcou explains: « As far as Turkey is concerned, US support for Syria’s Kurds amounts to indirect support for the PPK, at the very time that fighting between Turkish security forces and guerrillas has intensified, especially in the southeast. » We should not forget the Ankara atrocities of February 17 and March 13, 2016 (75 dead) claimed by a dissident branch of the PKK. Against that background, our expert is categorical: « The Kurdish Question now impacts,  more than ever, our assessment of the Syrian conflict, which is that of Turkey. »

Clearly, a burning question remains: Can the present regional crisis lead to a declaration of an independent Kurdistan? « That’s unlikely, » says Marcou unhesitatingly, pointing out that « When you look at it regionally, these proto-Kurdish states have their own rules of the game and are struggling with their own relationship issues. Without a doubt, the Kurds have asserted themselves in the Middle East, but this phenomenon has revealed that their diversity is not just one of identity, religion and language, but also strongly political and strategic. »

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