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May 14, 2011

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Marianna Charountaki: “US–Kurdish relations cannot be placed into any specific frame” 

Kurdishaspect.com - By Hasan Usak

Marianna Charountaki is an independent  scholar and specialist in international  relations and Middle East politics, with a  particular focus on US foreign policy and  the Kurds. Marianna published her PhD  thesis in a book, titled US Foreign Policy  and the Kurds: International Relations in  the Middle East Since 1945. It deals  primarily with the relationship between  US and the Kurds, and the interplay  between states and non-state actors.  

What made you choose the subject of US  policy and the Kurds? 

Although Kurdish studies have recently begun to flourish, there is still surprisingly little in the current literature that addresses the empirical and theoretical implications of this case study. This lack of scholarly focus has been aggravated by the absence of an interdisciplinary political approach positioning the Kurds and their issues at the centre of the analysis, and also by a bewildering neglect in international relations literature of just how important the interaction between states and ‘newly’ emergent ‘non-state’ actors has been. Accordingly, it seemed clear that an in-depth study of the link between US foreign policy and the Kurds would be of benefit in addressing these issues—a powerful reason for conducting this particular case study. 

The main rationale behind the choice of this subject was the way the "Kurdish Issue" has recently begun to occupy international and regional attention once again, and its relevance as a key factor in both regional and international developments. 

Does the US have one Kurdish policy, or does it address the Kurds in the context of the states they inhabit? 

The fragmentation of the Kurds in the post-World War I era led to the rise of four distinct Kurdish groups, and this has contributed to the complexity of the Kurdish status. The Kurdish split was responsible for initiating a series of issues overlaid by a variety of problems and questions. Thus, the Kurdish division created certain characteristics within each Kurdish movement; each one developed its own demands in response to the location it now occupied. This accounts for the variable status held by Kurds, which is heavily dependent where they live. It was thus inevitable that the nature of the Kurdish Issue took on a multidimensional shape. 

This complexity has inevitably affected US perceptions of the Kurdish Issue and is reflected in the four different US Kurdish policies currently implemented. Similarly, the existence of the various Kurdish groups, together with the differing views that may prevail in each of the US bureaucracy’s departments toward even the same Kurdish group, help to explain why the United States has so far continued to hold fragmented views, and thus policies, towards the Kurds. However, this cannot be solely blamed on the varying US agendas towards the different regional states in which the Kurds live, as the lack of a unified US Middle Eastern policy per se seems to be another important contributory factor.

So far, this has been the general rule, with one notable exception - US policy towards the KRG. There, we find a single US Kurdish policy. This different approach was created by the Americans' interest in creating a stable and united Iraq; to do so, forging a close relationship with Iraq’s Kurds was a necessity. 

What are the main criterions of US Kurdish policies? 

Given that US foreign policy is influenced by that country's domestic, structural, and ideological determinants as well as, although to a lesser extent, the impact of external developments, both regional and international, it is not surprising that US Kurdish policies are subjected to these same pressures, as well as to the aims of each US presidency. Although external factors do have some influence, US foreign policy is still primarily dependent on US ‘national interest’.

Hence, it is the determination of the United States to protect its economic and geostrategic assets, combined with its pursuit of regional stability and military security by maintaining the regional balance of power in its favor that has continued to shape the orientation of its foreign policy. 

Has the PKK affected US Kurdish policy in Turkey? 

I believe that the PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan), a particularly powerful movement in Turkey, has elevated and internationalized Turkey’s Kurdish Issue to such an extent that US foreign policy can no longer ignore it. It is true that the PKK's militarization of its strategy and the negative impact of some of its radical actions since 1984 have partially overshadowed the Kurdish Issue, and reinforced Turkey’s depiction of the Kurdish Issue as a ‘PKK problem’, yet it was PKK that drew US attention to Turkey’s Kurdish cause. 

US willingness to interfere in Turkey’s Kurdish Issue for the first time was explicitly demonstrated in the role of the United States in the capture of Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK leader, in Kenya in 1999. At the same time, the US scheme to capture and hand him over to the Turkish authorities signaled a new era for Turkey’s Kurdish Issue—it was the start of US involvement in supporting the human rights and cultural freedoms of the Kurds as citizens of a different ethnic identity. 

After August 2006, the United States appointed former general Joseph Ralston as a ‘Special Coordinator’ in the struggle against the PKK, while, somewhat to Ankara’s annoyance, Sean McCormack, a US State Department spokesperson, addressed the PKK directly in a call to end violent incidents, while Turkey also made allegations concerning covert US support to the PKK.  

It therefore seems clear that the PKK has stimulated and influenced the Americans’ Kurdish policy. It could now be said that the US and the Kurdish political parties are entering the ‘proto-stage’ of an interactive relationship.

How do US relations with the regional states (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey) affect US foreign policy on the Kurds? Also what outcome can be expected following the uprisings in the Arab world? 

US relations with regional states are inversely proportional to US–Kurdish relations, because the Kurds appear to be ‘trapped’ in the ideologies and interests of both the regional and international powers, as well as in inter-regional interactions, and those between them and the US which, in turn, drive the latter’s Kurdish policies. 

Actually, the regional states have always feared that any potential for Kurdish autonomy could easily be transformed into independence, and cause territorial disintegration as a result. In addition, regional regimes are keen either to preserve their territorial integrity, or to use the Kurdish Issue against each other in their regional strategies, which explains their effect on US- Kurdish relations. 

Ultimately, US–Kurdish relations cannot be placed into any specific frame. While US relations with Iraq’s Kurds may have been initiated on the basis of hostile US relations with the Iraqi regime, the frostiness between the US and the Alawi regime in Syria has not led to stronger ties with the Kurds of that country. Even today, despite hostile US–Iranian relations, developments in Iran’s Kurdish Issue appear sluggish.

At the same time, close US–Turkish relations have actually impeded any development in Turkey’s Kurdish Issue. The comparative study of these cases demonstrates that US–Kurdish relations can either progress or regress in relation to the connections between the United States and the regional states, or even run parallel to them.

However, the recent Arab uprisings in the broader Middle Eastern region, the role of the Kurds in recent developments in Syria and the future destiny of that regime, along with potential alterations in the traditional patterns of relations in the Middle East, especially with respect to relations among Iran, Turkey, and Israel, indicate that the existing US-Kurdish dependence on the US relationship with the regional states could very well be subject to change, as was the case with Iraq’s Kurds. 

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