Is a Biden presidency good for the Kurds? An interview with Hişyar Özsoy, academic and HDP MP

Since March 2019 local elections, the Turkish government has carried out “a systematic campaign” according to POMED, to overturn the results by removing Kurdish mayors in South Eastern towns and replacing them with trustees known as ‘kayyum’. The former leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, is in jail and many of its MPs have also been arrested, charged with association of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on the flimsiest of evidence. As life under Turkey’s increasingly nationalist government gets harder for ordinary Kurds and their representatives, John Lubbock asks the HDP’s Hişyar Özsoy, the HDP's Vice co-Chair of Foreign Affairs, about the situation and his reaction to the recent U.S. election.

 

How are things for you in Turkey?

The political climate in Turkey is tense; we have detentions and arrests almost every week. I had two court cases, in one I was acquitted from charges, in the other I was sentenced but the pronouncement was postponed. I have five other cases for which I have immunity, so they first need to lift my immunity again so I can be prosecuted for those 5 cases. But for any opposition politician, particularly if you are Kurdish and affiliated with the HDP, at one point in your political career most likely you go to prison. Personally I don’t have any worries but the general political climate in the country is not good; Kurdish politicians have been under particular repression. Part of the reason I don’t have so many cases, only seven, is because I mostly spend time abroad doing foreign affairs work, I represent the HDP in multiple transnational parliaments, like the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, NATO parliamentary assembly, OSCE parliamentary assembly, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I spend most of my time dealing with these kinds of platforms, and so I don’t have enough time, unfortunately, to stay here in Turkey and “commit crimes.” 

How do you feel about Trump’s loss?

It is a loss for Trump as a person, but we also have to think about why so many American citizens voted for a president like Donald Trump, who has been accused of being racist, sexist, misogynist, xenophobic, and the like, and who could not manage to contain the pandemic that has killed more than 240 thousand people in the U.S. alone. Over 70 million people voted for Trump. He will soon be no longer the president, but he does reflect the wishes, demands and desires of a significant portion of American society; this harsh fact is going to stay with American politics for quite some time. Trump is not a kind of abnormality, an aberration, an accident on the way, he speaks for a significant part of the American people.

Since the 1980s the amount of wealth produced in our world has been increasing, but the distribution of this wealth is so unfair that socio-economic inequalities are increasing as well. It seems to be a paradoxical situation, there is more wealth but more poverty, and this is about the distribution regime of global capitalism. Erdoğan, Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and many other authoritarian leaders are all part of this game. None of these leaders are just some accidents, they pretty much reflect the very nature of global capitalism as we experience it right now.

When we analyse politics I think there is too much focus on individual personalities such as Trump or Erdoğan. We need a more structural, institutional and process-based or historical analysis of what has been happening in Turkey or in the U.S.. I think Trump or Erdoğan are symptoms of the processes of global capitalism. They are conditioned by them, they are reacting to them, they are trying to act on those processes. I think we are coming close to some kind of a shift, because it has been many years in Turkey or elsewhere that people have been promised a fair society by such leaders who are now failing miserably. In that sense, people are trying to look for some political alternative.

In Turkey too if the opposition cannot develop a kind of better political alternative to Erdoğan and his allies, society may go even more towards an even more aggressive right, that is a certain possibility. People are looking for some way out. Finding that way depends on how political actors engage with this situation. There is a deep crisis, which is deepening every passing day, and as the opposition our task and responsibility is to develop some alternative political program and vision. If we fail in this as those who are on the progressive side of politics, those on the right will mobilise and prevail.

Talking about what’s going to happen in the United States, Trump may be gone as president but there are 70 million people who fiercely support Trumpism and they will surely try to come back four years later with a bitter feeling of vengeance or vindictiveness. The progressives within the Democratic Party also gained some strength, it seems. One nice thing to underline is that in the 80s and 90s there was a lot of depoliticising of the American population, particularly the youth. American people are now more into politics, which is good.

Biden has said in the past that he’s a friend of the Kurds. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for the U.S. changing its foreign policy in a way that is beneficial for the Kurds?

Biden will try to restore the political institutions that Trump has been destroying. And that’s going to take some time. We don’t know whether there will be a second term of Biden, either. He will be limited by the dynamics at the congress. Besides, Biden’s promise was not making big changes, but bringing back the status quo by restoring “normalcy.” He didn’t really offer much that you may count as a genuine alternative. But that normalcy that Biden claims to restore was itself part of the problem, to be honest. What kind of normalcy? Normalcy for whom and what?

When it comes to his specific Kurdish policy, one should not expect a very radical shift. We know that he has good relations with Iraqi Kurds and the Kurds who fought ISIS in Syria. Most probably he will improve relations with the Kurds in these two countries. But he also may continue with the conventional U.S. policy to help Turkey, a NATO ally, in criminalizing and terrorizing the Kurdish people and Kurdish movement. This conventional U.S. policy is unfortunately a part of the “normalcy” that Biden claims to restore. We wish and hope that President Biden would push for the resumption of the peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK and a negotiated settlement of the protracted Kurdish conflict that has so far killed more than 50 thousand people in Turkey.  

Do you think the AKP is being too hysterical about a Biden presidency?

Of course AKP did not want Trump to lose because President Erdoğan and Trump have developed a “friendship.” The kind of transactional personal diplomacy between Trump and Erdoğan, both of whom were bypassing state and governmental institutions, was quite effective. They were trying to work out all problems and tensions through that personalised relationship, be it the sanctions regarding the S-400s, the Halkbank case, or attacking the Kurds in Syria.

That is gone now, but Turkey will adapt to the new situation. They will be looking for ways to work with Biden. But I think Biden will not be for a personalised relationship; he will recover the institutions destroyed by Trump and let them implement institutional diplomacy, not a one on one diplomacy. That means the Pentagon, the State Department, Department of Defense, other institutions relevant to Turkey will be empowered. For the U.S. and the West in general, Turkey will remain an important country, though they are not happy with Erdoğan’s leadership. It’s a big country, over 80 million people. Economically, politically, militarily, it is a very important country.

There will surely be arguments here and there, but both sides will be trying to normalise relationships. I don’t think that Biden will be very aggressive towards Turkey at least in the first few months of his term. But the problems between Turkey and the U.S. are so structural that even good will and good intentions will not be able to resolve them. There will be multiple crises in American-Turkish relations despite the fact that both sides may be willing to re-engage with each other in a positive way in the beginning. They may try, but it’s not going to work if President Erdoğan will not make significant concessions.

Do you expect there might be American sanctions against parts of the Turkish government?

It is too early to talk about these issues because it is going to be more than two months from now for Biden to come to power. He may want to try his chances with Erdoğan, first without sanctions. Every leader who comes to power starts by opening up a new page, to just give a chance to diplomacy and negotiations, if possible. I may be wrong but I don’t think Biden will start by imposing sanctions. He will invite Erdoğan to some reasonable argument, but he’s going to fail very soon, and after that we will have multiple crises and possible sanctions.

Turning to the situation in Syria and Iraq, do you think the U.S. will become any more supportive of the sovereignty of the KRG or supportive of Rojava.

This morning we woke up to James Jeffrey (U.S.  Special Envoy to Syria) retiring. He could have stayed at least for another couple of months, but he just quit. Biden does have good relations with the KRG and he knows a lot about the Kurdish issue, and it was during his vice-presidency that the U.S. got involved in Rojava, sending troops to Northern Syria and helping the Kurds to defeat ISIS. Biden will have a sympathetic position towards the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. But then like any politician he needs to consider so many other actors and factors in the Middle East. Ideally he will try to bridge the gap and tension between the Kurds and Turkey, but Turkey has not been cooperative in that regard. Promising something and doing it when one comes to power are two different things. In the latter case, one has to take into account complexities and realities on the ground. Overall, I think President Biden will be more sympathetic towards the Kurds as he himself declared a few times, while Trump, through Bolton’s book we have learned, “hates” the Kurds.

Trump’s structure of feeling with respect to the Kurds was, ‘I’m working with the Kurds, but everybody is so angry at me’. Being friends with the Kurds means you have a lot of enemies in the Middle East (Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq). That was his complaint between the lines in Bolton’s book. By saying ‘I hate the Kurds’, he meant he hates having problems with many countries because of his relations with the Kurds. A similar pressure may be put on Biden, but it is likely that he would not yield to it. President Trump was so easily influenced and manipulated by Erdoğan, if you remember Trump giving the green light to Turkey over a phone call to invade parts of Syria in 2019. He simply disregarded all relevant American institutions, including the Department of Defense, and chose to work with Erdoğan.

One should not exaggerate expectations from president Biden. Many expect that Turkish-American relations are going to totally deteriorate very soon, and Biden will be very very tough. That is an overinterpretation to me. He will not be as ‘friendly’ and ‘personal’ as President Trump was with Erdoğan, but still he will try his best to maintain a relationship with Turkey. It is about geopolitics, it is about the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO, has the second biggest army in NATO, and may still work as a regional power countering or balancing Iran’s or Russia’s growing influence over the region. No leader would want to lose Turkey.

If Turkey becomes more constrained in its region, would that be more to do with Turkey over-extending itself, and its internal situation than any U.S. actions?

Turkey does have an expansionist agenda now in the region, from Nagorno-Karabakh and Syria to the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya. In some of these cases the U.S. is actually encouraging Turkey’s expansionist agenda. For example, in Syria, at least some elements of the U.S. government, people like Jim Jeffrey for example, have been trying to increase Turkey’s influence in Syria. They have been supporting Turkey, who is protecting and working with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib. It’s very interesting that the U.S. government even let Turkish Lira be used by HTS to circumvent or do away with the economic sanctions the U.S. imposed on Syria. The sanctions do not apply to Idlib, which is under the protection of Turkey now, although both the U.S. and Turkey as well as the UN designated HTS as a terrorist organization.

In Libya, too, at least some people within the U.S. administration are supporting Turkey. The general idea is that they think they can still position and use Turkey as a member of NATO to limit Russia and Iran’s influence in Syria, Libya or elsewhere in the Middle East. But when it comes to the Eastern Mediterranean, to Cyprus and Greece, that is a different issue. There, the U.S. has a position closer to the European Union, a key ally. In Syria, Turkey could invade certain northern parts of the country thanks to the position of the United States. It was President Trump who let them do it. Why did the U.S. do this? Couldn’t they stop Turkey? Of course they could have, but the idea was to appease and make Turkey a bit happy and try to position Turkey’s influence in Syria as a limit to Russian and Iranian influence. Did it work? No, it definitely did not, just like many other U.S. designs and plans in the Middle East. 

But at the same time they’re encouraging a proxy war in the Middle East.

Yes, but there are different proxy wars in different areas. For example, in Eastern Syria, the U.S. works with the Kurds, even with the Saudis, in places like Deir ez Zor. In Idlib the U.S. is working closely with Turkey and its proxy forces who are protecting the HTS. When the Russians attacked Turkish forces last year in Idlib, Jim Jeffrey even claimed the dead as “our martyrs” and promised to help Turkey. Many U.S. policy makers think that Turkey is an important regional actor in the Middle East and will remain so in the future, because it is a member of NATO, even though it violates many principles of NATO. Americans do not want to lose Turkey (to Russia or some other power-bloc), an institutional thinking that we know from the Cold War. 

I can’t see Turkey ever joining an alliance with Russia, they are too opposed.

But in foreign affairs countries can compartmentalise problems. For example, they say well, we may disagree over the politics concerning Idlib, but we agree on weakening the Kurds in Serekaniye or Deir ez Zor. We may disagree over Libya, but we agree on some other issues. Such compartmentalisation helps them work together in some situations while fiercely confronting each other in others. Russia has also been significantly deepening divisions between Turkey and the rest of NATO, right? The U.S. still wants to keep Turkey as a NATO ally in the Middle East, although Turkey’s adventurous unilateral actions have been undermining the interests of the U.S., the EU and NATO. 

Are Turkey and Iran that opposed to each other?

No, Turkey and Iran may not be that opposed to each other, but in the U.S. imagination, since the Iranian revolution in 1979 and since 1980 when American “boys did it” in Turkey (the 1980 Turkish coup d’etat), the United States has been using Turkey as a base in the Middle East to limit Iran’s influence. For people like Jim Jeffrey the fight against ISIS was not really as important as limiting Russian and Iranian influence in Iraq and in Syria. That is why and despite multiple odds, the U.S. has been cooperating with Turkey. The U.S. could not position Turkey in direct confrontation with Iran, but Turkey is having a lot of military adventures in Syria and Iraq that Iran is not happy about, and the U.S. is not opposing Turkey.

Think of Turkey’s gradual invasion of the KRG territories in Iraq. Why are the Americans so silent despite the protest of the Iraqi government? Turkey is establishing permanent military bases in Iraqi territories. Jim Jeffrey has been trying to develop an American policy on Syria, which still does not exist. The U.S. had a policy on Iraq, but it failed terribly. So Jeffrey and the U.S. team on Iraq were trying to develop a joint American policy on Iraq and Syria. As part of this, Jeffrey has been trying to ensure Turkish cooperation. He has been very clear about his intentions. For example, he expressed America’s full support against the PKK to appease the Turkish government.

What is the role Turkey can play in Syria and the broader region, at least in the imagination of Jeffrey, who is a Cold War politician? Jeffrey’s number one priority was not to defeat ISIS or protect the Kurds, but to undermine Russia and Iran’s influence and ensure the security of Israel. From such a perspective, any U.S. administration would do its best to seek the cooperation of Turkey as a major player in the Middle East, a member of NATO and the CoE that also has a customs union with the EU. Considering all these institutional historical relationships, they wouldn’t want to lose Turkey. 

Do you think the Biden administration will seek to slowly push Turkey back into line, but when it meets resistance, and that policy fails, do you think they will take a tougher line?

Yes, I think it will be a gradually toughening position. The first thing Biden may try for a couple of months after he comes to power is to test relationships with Turkey and invite Erdoğan to some rational dialogue in order to repair the damage in U.S. relations. But, if Turkey exploits the political vacuum in the United States and, say, attacks the Kurds in Syria again before Biden comes to power, the already limited space for a rational argument with Erdoğan may be virtually destroyed and Biden may feel forced to use sanctions earlier than expected. If Turkey does not add more problems to the already heavy agenda until Biden comes to power, then there may be a short period of a willingness to negotiate differences and try to resolve them through diplomacy. If that doesn’t work, and I don’t think it will work, then we will surely have a gradual process of toughening, including sanctions. 

There are U.S. troops in Rojava, would they attack it?

I suspect Kobane is the target. The Russians have been encouraging Turkey to attack Kobane for the last 2 years. Turkey has not attacked up until now simply because they made an agreement with the Americans. If the U.S. gives a green light, the next day the Turkish army will attack Kobane.

Why does Russia want Turkey to attack Kobane?

Because Russians are unhappy about the Kurds having a military alliance with the Americans, and they think Turkish pressures and attacks may weaken the Kurds and push them closer to Assad. They have been very open about this. Russia has also supported Turkey’s idea of creating a 30 kilometer strip along the Syrian border. Russians are clearly seeking to punish the Kurds for their alliance with the US in places like Raqqa and Deir ez Zor. That is why they gave the green light for the invasion of Afrin as well.