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Ofra Bengio: “The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not the reason of all the trouble in the world. The terrorist attacks have causes and ways of their own”

During her visit to Istanbul, we had the chance to discuss recent events with Professor Ofra Bengio. She shared her views on the terrorist attacks in Paris, developments in Syria, Iraq and KRG, the future of Turkey-Kurdish peace process and Turkish-Israeli relations for Salom readers. Ms. Bengio is a Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, and professor in the department of Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University

Russia’s military intervention in Syria has dramatically changed the calculations of all involved in Syria. Why Russia wanted to become involved in Syria now?
Russia felt that there is a certain vacuum in Syria that needs to be filled. The U.S. was not fulfilling its task of fighting ISIS. Furthermore, Obama put certain redlines but did not act on them so this emboldened the Russians to take this move. Secondly, the Assad regime was in a very shaky situation, almost on the verge of collapse while ISIS was gaining more and more ground and no one was stopping it. This gave the justification or pretext for Russian involvement and the attempts to save the Ba`th regime. Thirdly, one should mention the Russian embroilment in Ukraine and the need to distract world attention from that region by opening a new front in Syria. Last but not least, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, there was no strong presence to Russia in the region. This gave them the opportunity for a comeback.

Last week spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve Steve Warren said, “As of now, we are not providing weapons or ammunition to the YPG but only to the Syrian Opposition.” What does this statement mean?
The Syrian opposition collapsed completely. They did not succeed to put any fight either against the Syrian army or against ISIS. The claim that the U.S. is supporting only the Syrian opposition is not correct. In fact it has been supporting the PYD and its military arm, the YPG since the Kobani fighting in the fall of 2014. Not long time ago there was a tripartite meeting between President Mas`ud Barzani, the head of Syrian Kurdish PYD, Saleh Muslim and an American official in order to coordinate support to the PYD. Steve Warren said what he said because of Turkey and the need to calm it down with regard to the PYG. The Americans need Turkey because it is part of NATO and because of the basis in Incirlik from which they launch attacks against ISIS. But on the other hand they need also the YPG. So they are trying to play with words because they know that the only power which is active on the ground is the Kurds. It seems probable that they will continue supporting YPG because otherwise who will stop the ISIS? Who will balance the Russian and the Iranian involvement? Furthermore, the Kurds are the only factor which is in a way pro-western, secular and is attempting to establish a system with some democratic characteristics. On the other hand, the other real forces on the ground are Islamist forces like Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS and other different Islamist forces which are anti American through and through.

Ankara has sensitiveness towards its own Kurdish population, but we also know that there is a special relation between Turkey and KRG and energy is one of the most important aspects of it…
A few years ago I wrote an article in which I suggested that Turkey was a midwife for a Kurdish state in Iraq because thanks to Turkey the KRG can reach an economic independence. The two Kurdish oil pipelines crossing Turkish territory are fulfilling this project. Similarly, thanks to Turkey the Kurds are connected with the outside world and thus loosening their shackles to the Iraqi state. In fact, there exists special relationship with the KRG and this is one of the paradoxes that we are witnessing in the region whereby Turkey has strong relationship with the Kurds of Iraq and very tense one with those of Turkey and Syria.
I think KRG is very happy with the results of the elections. Ironically enough, the doctrine of "zero problems with neighbors" is functional only with the KRG. Now Iraq is suing Turkey for helping the KRG to export oil, it seems that Turkey would not care less about it. So this special relationship is beneficial for both Turkey and the KRG and since the AKP will be again the only power in government, the Kurds of Iraq will push hard for peace settlement of the Kurdish problem in Turkey. Otherwise, if there is another war, the Kurds of Iraq will have to fight against their own people in order for them to continue the relationship with Turkey, or the other way around. This is a terrible dilemma for the KRG. So for longtime it has been trying to force the two parties into a peace agreement. For certain time it worked, but before the elections everything collapsed. I think they will continue working to have this two parties coming together.

Last summer the idea of independence for Kurdistan and a Kurdish state was really strong. What do you thing about the situation now?
First of all, within the Kurdish camp itself there are disagreements regarding this issue. On the one hand you have the Barzanis who are pushing for such development, on the other hand you have Goran and the PUK who are very reluctant to talk about this issue or support it publicly because they are more dependent on Iran which vetoes such a move. The other important point is that since last summer there were certain developments which turned such a move very difficult. In the summer of last year, the Kurds got hold of oil rich Kirkuk region which stimulated the call for independence but at the same time a war for life and death began with ISIS.
In time other problems accumulated as well. First of all, even though they came to agreement with Iraq, Iraq is not giving the oil royalties. Second, of all they have now a lot of refugees which they have to feed. It is claimed 1/5 of the population are now refugees. Another problem is the internal political crisis with regard to Barzani's willingness to continue to hold the presidency while his term is already over. Another big question mark is the American stance on the issue of independence. So far the U.S. is the main block against such a possibility.
The Kurds themselves are speaking in two voices which makes decision-making in Washington even more difficult. Bayan Sami Abd al-Rahman, the KRG representative to Washington, gave a speech at a conference there in which she said: “I am sure there will be independence but I don’t know when it is going to take place.” A few days later a member of the rival PUK also gave a speech in Washington in which he stated: “We are in such a bad situation, should we think of independence? We have to give all the attention to the war with ISIS.”
Maybe this is the time for them to ask for the support of the world saying “you know we are the only force fighting ISIS here, so you need to support us.” However, it seems that the KRG is not cohesive enough to do so. Nor is the case similar to that of Israel when Ben Gurion decided to declare independence saying: “OK, I am going to declare independence and if we need to go to war, we go to war.” I don’t see a person with a vision strong enough, with capability to do it. Barzani might be this person but he is somehow hesitant to go the extra mile. Probably he wants to declare independence while he is the president and therefore he is reluctant to leave his office before achieving this goal. Anyway, what Bayan Sami Abd al-Rahman said is very interesting; “We are working for economic independence which will lead us to a higher level of political independence.”

Israel is supporting the independence of Kurdistan. What are the main reasons of it?
Three of our leaders published their ideas about the independence of Kurdistan. It started with President Shimon Peres during his meeting with Obama where he raised the idea of independent Kurdistan. Then PM Binyamin Netanyahu stated it publicly followed by foreign minister at the time Avigdor Liberman and also our representative to the U.N. So far there was no reaction from the Kurds even though they might be happy with such declaration but are hesitant to do so because of its sensitiveness. This is on the declaratory level. On the economic level we know that Israel is buying a lot of oil from KRG. Some claim that 75 percent of its oil comes from KRG. I don’t know about numbers but for sure it amounts to a kind of triangular relationship between Kurdistan, Turkey and Israel. Certainly Turkey is aware that Israel is buying the Kurdish oil and it helps this move because Turkey wants this oil to be sold.

Having restyled itself as a liberal party that represents the country’s marginalized minorities and voters angry with Erdogan’s rule; HDP was able to garner 13 percent of the votes in June elections. Then we witnessed the Suruc attack and PKK killed 2 Turkish police officers in retaliation for it. What was the reason behind the end of ceasefire? Was it rivalry, the fact that PKK could not stand the victory of Demirtas? 
The two parties, the PKK and the HDP are strongly linked together. It is not that HDP would do something that PKK is against. I think for two years PKK was expecting that there will be a peace process. There were certain provocations by the Turkish side during these two years but the PKK remained silent. Remember, the government kept a blind eye to Uludere and PKK did not retaliate. The end of the ceasefire was caused by the government and the PKK loss of faith in each other and the belief that they could gain more if the fighting was restarted.

I understand all this but the results were very good and Demirtas could have changed something in the Parliament. But all of a sudden a chaos started instead…
The PKK fell into the trap which Erdogan arranged for them. Maybe the Suruc and the Ankara attacks were the PKK’s red lines after which they could not stay silent anymore. Both the PKK and HDP seem to have lost hope that the government will go on for the peace process. It seems that they were hoping to create like in Syria, certain autonomous cantons in Turkey itself to make it local governments led by Kurds. They were encouraged by the results of HDP after Kobane. So they were building on the possibility that the same thing will happen after the attacks in Suruc and Ankara. They were hoping that it will strengthen HDP and that the Kurdish nationalists would come and support them. But it did not work because Erdogan decided to come to an agreement with the U.S., to enable it to use Incirlik and in return Turkey could attack Kandil which will bring all the Turkish nationalists' votes again to AKP. Similarly, the PKK seemed to have belittled the appeal of Erdogan to the more tribal and conservative parts of the Kurdish population.

HDP lost Kurdish votes also, but still passed the threshold so it is not so bad after all…
HDP lost 1 million Kurdish votes. But still I don’t see it as a big failure. They passed the threshold and now they came as a party. They can make a difference in spite of everything in the parliament. The question now is that since Erdogan pushed them so hard, would they support him for presidency? I think this is what will Erdogan try to do now. He pushed them before because he saw that they did not support him after the June elections. I don’t know what would be the answer. If they go for it and support him on presidency they would lose so many things especially democracy in Turkey and also their own achievements in it.

What do you think about the peace process? Would they restart? With whom?
It might restart if Erdogan thinks that this is the best strategic thing to do to get presidency. It will certainly start with PKK. All the time they were the partners. It started in Oslo in 2008; they are those who decide on the ground. With all my respect to them, HDP don’t decide. The decision makers are the PKK in Kandil or here in Turkey wherever they can survive, or KNK in Europe. You only sit with your enemy not with your friend. Israel brought Arafat and all his PLO people in order to solve the situation. It is the same with the Irish as well. You do it with those who carry the fighting, the leaders.

Oslo, was it a tactic or strategic step of Turkey?
I think it is like Israeli- Palestinian agreement in Oslo. Both parties reached a point where they thought the time was ripe to start talking. Erdogan wanted so much to weaken the military to strengthen him. The PKK saw that they are not getting any more forward. It was as if they were saying: let’s see what will happen, let’s move forward see what will be the reaction from the Turkish street, what will be the reaction from the Kurdish street, let’s see where it is moving us. There was a vision there, for certain. But things did not develop as Erdogan was hoping, namely getting the HDP's support for the presidency issue.

With the results of elections in Turkey, knowing Erdogan and Netanyahu, what do you think about the future of Turkish-Israeli relations? The trade figures are always going up but is there any chance of political normalization? 
It depends on what Israel will do. Israel is expected not to fight the Palestinians. I think this is a condition sine qua non that there will be some quiet on the Palestinian front. So for the time being we see it is very problematic issue from the Turkish point of view to restart the relation in this atmosphere. Even if they want and there are a lot of strategic common denominators. Maybe we will see a return to a kind of peripheral alliance in the sense that Turkey and Israel will do things behind the scenes, even on military or intelligence level, but not publicly because it is very difficult for Erdogan to go all the way.

There is an unprecedented silence from the Turkish government. Erdogan did not criticize Netanyahu’s controversial statements on the Palestinian issue just before the Israeli election for example. How do you interpret this silence from the Turkish side? I am of course excluding the media…
They changed all their discourse during this period. Erdogan did not speak on many things that he could have spoken. Erdogan decided to be quiet. Maybe because he thought that this card has spent its effectiveness. He wanted to put emphasis on the Kurdish issue and on stability and not deflect attention from these issues to Israel. In older times he used as a very effective tool. But now I think it lost its importance. Maybe it is also because the U.S. pressurized him on this point but we do not know much about it.

About the murderous terrorist attacks in Paris…
The murderous attacks in Paris which have shocked the world can teach us a few things:
Even though the international community tends to ascribe all the trouble in the world to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in fact the terrorist attacks have causes and ways of their own. ISIS which assumed responsibility for these attacks did not mention the Palestinian issue even in one word. But on the other hand it did state that it sought to punish France for taking part in the fight against it in Syria.
It was proved that being lenient on terrorist attacks against Jews in France could boomerang. The attacks against Jews have emboldened the Islamists in their attacks against all French people.
ISIS is no longer limiting its activities to the areas in which it rules but far beyond to the West and other far countries turning it into a civilizational war with either the West or even fellow Muslims who do not seem to follow its lines.

Karel Valansi Şalom November 18, 2015


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