Democracy in the Middle East: watch the Kurdish issue

Democratic transformation in the Middle East will need a recognition and resolution of legitimate Kurdish claims. The Arab Spring provides a new setting for the challenge

The role of the Kurdish Issue is so closely inter-related to the democratic transformation of the Middle East that its resolution cannot be underestimated in achieving full democratization in the Middle East. Yet, a potential resolution would necessitate the prevalence of a rule of law intertwined with rights, and political, religious, cultural, and civic freedoms in the  entire Middle East; the Kurds constitute a significant proportion of the population in at least four crucial Middle Eastern states; namely, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey.

Τhe uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere have been followed by recent developments in Syria. The change of regime in Egypt and these more recent, equally important, developments in Syria clearly express the 21st century societal demand for democratization.

Two opposing forces have been the driving force behind these revolutions. Public demands for reforms have not been adequately met, possibly due to the Arab regimes’ fear that it will undermine their hold on power. Accordingly, they have responded with haphazard and half-hearted reform initiatives instead of the structural reforms needed, which has ultimately resulted in revolutionary uprisings.

US foreign policy towards the region has followed a similarly indecisive trajectory, and raises an important question. If the adopted linear US foreign policy has been supportive of regional democratization as a strategy of freedom in the region as expressed through the US Plan for the Greater Middle East Initiative (November 2003) since George W. Bush’s era, then why didn’t the US try to influence the policies of regional regimes for change before it escalated into revolution?

One possible explanation could be US absorption in protecting its ‘national interest’ in the region, and the fact that the issue of terrorism has dominated US foreign policy agenda so far. This perhaps explains the non–support of such policies by US administration, even though, if they had done so, public demand might have been satisfied, and the Arab revolts avoided. Another reason for this US foreign policy outlook could lie in the US prioritization of promoting its political and economic national interests in the Middle East through the countries at the epicenter of the reform demands, while US support of the status-quo stance to favour incremental reform above more radical changes, reflects US concern for the security of its relationships in achieving its objective of the regional balance of power.

Thus, further US activity may depend on whether the US can find the golden mean between supporting the regional allies’ move towards democratization, and the achievement of the US realpolitik objective of maintaining the regional balance of power in its favour.  It is in the context of this delicate balancing act that the Kurdish issue becomes an important dynamic of the democratic transformation of the Middle East.

The current situation of the Kurds in Syria who have broken their prolonged silence in the 21st century is not accidental. The government of Syria recognized some 300,000 Kurds as citizens of the Syrian state after half a century of repression in an effort to appease popular demands for reforms, and to counteract the fear of possible repercussions on the future destiny of its regime as well as on the country’s Kurdish issue. This event is highly indicative of the power the Kurdish role holds in Middle Eastern politics.

In addition, the Kurdish example of Iraq has shown that the autonomy of a different populous indigenous ethnic group within a bi-national state entity not only did not dissolve Iraq, but helped stabilize the country during the chaotic post-Saddam era.

In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s commitment to his democratization discourse of which the ‘Europeanization’ process is a notable expression, has also been reflected in the Justice and Development Party’s (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) ‘Kurdish Initiative’ (2009). Yet, it seems that AKP’s democratization policy is also directly linked to the resolution of the country’s Kurdish issue, so that once again it can be clearly observed as a sine qua non for the country’s stability.

Undoubtedly, the AKP’s victorious rise in power has marked a real change in Turkish politics vis-à-vis Erdoğan’s Kurdish discourse as well as his successful attempts to counterbalance the role of the country’s military structure. However, unless Erdoğan overcomes the resistance of the “deep” state and those opposed to democratic change, and unless the implementation of the ‘Kurdish initiative’ intertwined with structural changes of the state can be put into force which will be a challenging task given the intransigence of Kurdish leadership, then his reforms could become as ineffectual as the belated reformation attempts of Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, or Muammar Al-Gaddafi, whilst internal peace is also unlikely to be achieved with the Kurdish Issue unresolved vis-à-vis the elections of June 12th 2011  and its aftermath. Thus, it again becomes apparent that Turkey’s democratization and the role of the Kurdish issue within it are closely interlinked.

In this context, the role the US plays continues to be of critical importance. Consequently, contingent on continued US support, regional democratization also appears dependent on what role the regional regimes, as well as the Kurds, will perform as allies of the United States. The recent reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas may well indicate the possibility of a US-initiated settlement of the Palestinian Issue on the basis of a two-state solution for the sake of regional stability (as depicted in Barack Obama’s National Security Strategy) and perhaps also to forestall a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence. If this did happen, it could pave the way so that the US could then turn its attention to other equally important regional issues like the Kurds as a key player and ally in the area in the context of the regional democratization, and of potential alterations that could occur in the traditional patterns of relations in the Middle East, especially with respect to relations among Iran, Turkey, and Israel in order to achieve the US goal of maintaining the regional balance of power in its favour. Consequently, regional democratization seems unlikely to be achieved also without the Kurds: they are of central  importance in Middle East politics.

About the author

Dr. Marianna Charountaki is specialist on the International Relations of the Middle East. She is the author of "The Kurds and US foreign policy: International Relations in the Middle East since 1945" (Routledge). 

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The Kurds and US Foreign Policy

International Relations in the Middle East since 1945

By Marianna Charountaki