Kurdish Unity Determines External Behaviour: Marianna Charountaki
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Kurdish Unity Determines External Behaviour: Marianna Charountaki



With the recent developments and rapid political transitions in the Middle East, the relations between international and regional powers seem to be the key for a solution to the future of people in the region. Concerning the role of Kurds and their influence on any future resolution, Dr. Marianna Charountaki, a Lecturer in Kurdish Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester, believes they should concentrate on mobilizing their different foreign relations in favour of their common agenda.

In an interview with BasNews, Dr. Charountaki sheds light on the ongoing Astana talks, the ties between Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Democratic Union Party (PYD) with the regional in world powers.


BasNews: What do you think about the outcomes of the Astana summit concerning the status of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), taking into consideration that the Kurds were not invited as a group but only the Kurdish National Council will participate as part of the Syrian opposition?

Charountaki: The partial Kurdish participation in the Astana summit indicates a clear change of policy toward Syria. The increasing power of Iran, demonstrated through its current policies of the re-population of Syrian towns with Shi’a Muslims, and Russia’s policy to preserve a balance of power with regard to its relations with Turkey and Iran, have been reflected in the negotiations over the post-war political settlement. This summit has demonstrated that the international powers, and in particular Russia, seem no longer to share the same views on the Kurdish issue in Syria as was the case during the war. This divergence in policies has been revealed, in effect, in Russia’s determination to preserve Syria’s territorial unity, unlike the Western aim of regime change, thus far, at any cost.  

The Russian initiative to call for this summit could further explain a change in policy as to why not all the Kurdish forces were included in the first place given the PYD’s dominant role in Northern Syria with its considerable military capability, which in turn could be linked to their exclusion. At the same time, the Astana summit itself, with the aim to reach a ceasefire as a basis for a long term solution as is so often the case, signals the exhaustion of the superpowers, but predominately the Russian decision to exit this war as the winner through the disengagement of its forces after succeeding, by any means, in the consolidation of its military bases. Clearly, regional geopolitics appears once again to determine the fate of Syria’s political future.


BasNews: How do you explain the complicated relations between USA/PYD versus USA/KRG? How does the USA manage this relationship when PYD and KRG are in totally different political blocks in the Middle East?

Charountaki: As I have argued in my previous writing, the road to Kurdish unity goes through the PKK. It is well known that the US and the KRG enjoy institutionalised strategic relations which were strengthened even further in the aftermath of the war against the Islamic State. These are different parameters though and by no means should Kurdish policies be concentrated on such different levels of cooperation, but rather on how Kurdish political forces can mobilize their different foreign relations in favour of their common agenda. Thus, the differing regional and international relations of the various Kurdish parties should not constitute an obstacle to the achievement of Kurdish unity and cooperation. Similarly, the KRG as a constitutionally, regionally and internationally recognised de facto state entity could act as a mediating force, and in the same manner Kurds from Syria can act as a bridge for Kurdish empowerment on their own side. Inter- and intra-Kurdish cooperation is not in opposition to the regional environment, where alliances are today critically important for any regional power’s survival in this multi-polar system.

How international state entities observe and react to the Kurds is also related to the extent that the former perceive them as a united force rather than fragmented parties with completely different agendas. Kurdish unity can therefore serve as a determinant of the direction of external behaviour.  

The PKK has formed relations with the KRG, regardless of their ideological differences, and the former has a stronger affiliation with the PYD. As a pre-existing force in comparison to the PYD, the PKK can exert a positive influence on the KRG to strengthen relations between the KRG and the administration in Rojavayê Kurdistan. At the same time, the KRG can play a positive mediating role in the Kurdish Issue in Turkey, in view of the institutionalised relations between Erbil and Ankara which requires security today more than ever. Also, the KRG can act as a connecting bond – as it has in the recent past – between the PYD and the US in view of the KRG’s strategic relationship with the US as well as its strengthened relations with Europe, especially in the aftermath of the war on terror against the IS. We can thus understand that the dynamic born of PYD–PKK cooperation constitutes one parameter that, with the KRG’s support, could permit unity to be achieved. The KRG and PYD–PKK cooperation reveal that the PYD is the connecting point between the PKK and KRG, whereas the PKK stands out as an influential actor which can bring the KRG and Rojava closer.


BasNews: President Erdogan accuses the West of intending to change the political map of the Middle East. Does he mean even KRI/Northern Iraq or is it Northern Syria that is his focus? And why?

Charountaki: The coup d’état in Turkey heralded a new era for Turkish politics to the extent that we are talking about a new period following the 15 July 2016 – a landmark with the pace of change  soon reaching its peak with the newly-established Presidential system today. The Turkish Presidency is currently under pressure to achieve an effective balance between the states’ previous goals to pursue an independent foreign policy that would allow Turkish mediation and dominance in the region, especially following the repercussions of the Arab Uprisings, and to preserve the traditional alliance with the West. The US policy objective to alter Middle Eastern regimes and replacing them with ostensibly more democratic and friendly ones, willing to cooperate further – which is actually an on-going process today – is not new. Turkish foreign policy partially supported this policy, which reached its peak in 2011. Ankara convinced itself that if Turkey was the first to point out al Assad’s need to pursue reforms, following Turkey’s warning that called on Syria to make urgent reforms (Davutoǧlu’s trip to Damascus on 9 August, 2011), this would grant the Turkish leadership a greater role in the region. Yet, this regional interference was instrumental in jeopardizing Turkey’s foreign policy, and more importantly, its regional domination. Still, Turkey remains an important regional power and very quickly made a U-turn in its alliances, siding with Russia as far as the Syrian situation is concerned. Indeed, Russia has shown reluctance to share total control of Syria, a fact which also explains the latest Turkish-Russian proximity in relation to Iran. But ultimately, the traditional superpowers have always applied a balance of power policy in the region.  

Overall, though, it is very unlikely that either Russia or the US would ever let a single regional power entirely take over their respective spheres of influence.


BasNews: If Syrian Kurds have a chance to have a stake within the sovereignty of Syria, which one do you think is possible; autonomy, federalism or some kind of cultural rights etc? Which one do you think will have a chance for support from the International community (or maybe rather superpowers)?

Charountaki: It is well known that on 12 November 2013 the Constitutive General Council of the Joint Interim Administration was announced, with 86 delegates, representing 35 different parties and civic and social organisations from the Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and Syriac communities in attendance. At the second meeting (15 November 2013), the formation of three regions, consisting of 60 members, was declared. These three autonomous cantons established in the PYD-controlled Kurdish provinces of Jazira (Cizrê, 21 January 2014), Afrin (Efrîn, 29 January 2014), and Kobane (Kobanê, 27 January 2014), would then fulfil the project of democratic autonomy through the formation of committees for drafting the constitution for the electoral system of the joint interim administration. Yet this reality could be very difficult to evolve into a permanent autonomy without regional and international recognition as well as mutual Kurdish cooperation. 

To conclude, in contrast to Turkey and Iran, multiple players are involved in the shaping of Syria’s post-war future. The basic prerequisite though as far as the Kurds is concerned, is Kurdish unity in Syria and a common agenda to represent their position both internally and internationally.