Academics discuss Kurdish political situation at MERG event

Members of Middle East Research Group, housed in the Institute for Global Leadership, pose for a portrait on Oct. 9. Ann Marie Burke / The Tufts Daily

Tufts’ Middle East Research Group (MERG) hosted a discussion and panel in Cabot 205 last night on the implications of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria for the Kurdish ethnic group and politics in the Middle East.  

When President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria in October, the Turkish government quickly attacked the Kurdish towns and strongholds near its border.

The MERG event began with a short discussion led by keynote speaker Michael Gunter, a political science professor at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tenn., and the secretary-general of the European Union Turkey Civic Commission, who addressed the audience in a video conversation. 

Gunter brought to light and discussed many topics, including Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds, Kurdish aspirations and subsequently Turkey’s fears of a pan-Kurdish state. However, he mentioned that a Kurdish state, given the interests of the states with major Kurdish populations — Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq — is unlikely, and he mentioned that as a result he views increasing autonomy of Kurdish regions as a pragmatic and viable option.

Following the discussion led by Gunter, the event then transitioned to a panel, which consisted of three panelists ranging from various backgrounds, along with elapsed time for questions scattered throughout. The panel was moderated by MERG Co-President Esra Gurcay

Panelists included Roger Petersen, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science at MIT, Nazan Bedirhanoğlu, a Freedom Project post-doctoral fellow in political science department at Wellesley College, and Lenore G. Martin, professor of political science at Emmanuel College.

Petersen opened the panel, and during his allotted time, he decided to analyze the situation from a political science perspective. While he acknowledged the fact that the Trump administration’s withdrawal from Syria was abrupt and without consultation with allies, he argued that withdrawing did nonetheless fall within U.S. interests.

According to Petersen, as early as the Obama administration, the U.S. decided that allocating resources to Syria was not pragmatic from a cost-benefit perspective. In addition, he mentioned that it was within U.S. interests because it helps maintain the alliance with Turkey, which he believes is strategic and important.

Following Petersen’s remarks, Bedirhanoğlu argued that perhaps the Trump administration’s withdrawal from Syria was not so erratic; he had announced the withdrawal a year prior, leading then defense secretary James Mattis to resign. In addition, Bedirhanoğlu, who researches the Kurdish diaspora in the U.S., mentioned that Kurds in the U.S. continue to protest Trump and there exists a dissatisfaction with recent U.S. politics toward events in the region. 

The final panelist, Martin, started by offering an alternative viewpoint to that of Dr. Petersen, arguing that although an alliance with Turkey is of strategic importance, Turkey has not been the best ally in recent years, and therefore, the insistence that Turkey be an ally has in fact posed a problem for U.S. policy. Martin said that Turkey has evaded sanctions against Iran and allowed Jihadi leaders to cross the border.

Following these remarks, she provided background on the situation, discussing in particular the turbulent historical relationship between Turkey and Syria. At the end of her allotted time, she reinforced the importance of the relationship between Turkey and its Kurdish population, and she expressed the viewpoint that the only way to ensure a peaceful future is for Turkey to restart the peace process and negotiations with the Kurds

After the panelists had each finished their allotted time, Gurcay and members of the audience posed questions aimed at the panelists regarding their views and remarks.