The Kurds Ascending
Michael Gunter
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 192p.

Reviewed by Major Steven Brothers, U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer, Middle East Regional Affairs Specialist

What is to become of Iraq’s Kurds in light of recent difficulties in forming a central Iraqi government on which all ethnic groups can agree? How is Turkey’s pursuit of joining the EU affecting the future of its Kurds? According to Michael Gunter, we are witnessing an unprecedented ascension of the Kurds in the Middle East. Gunter, a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and an expert on Kurdish affairs, has authored five books and numerous articles on Kurdish politics, nationalism, and the Kurdish Language. In his latest work, The Kurds Ascending, Gunter explains how recent events have provided the Kurds with the opportunity to pursue autonomy, recognition, and civil rights.

Gunter’s introductory chapters provide the reader with sufficient historical information to fully understand the breadth of the issue. Here he discusses how events and political changes have led to the strengthening of Kurdish autonomy and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). He discusses how the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the ensuing difficulties facing the Iraqi government in terms of securing agreement on the creation of a multi-ethnic government has assisted with this. Further, he explores how compared to the rest of Iraq, the Kurdish areas in the north are much more peaceful, stable, and secure. This in turn has led to further empowerment and popularity of the KRG.

Gunter also describes the different proposals being debated to determine the relationship between the KRG and the Iraqi Government. Among them are: ethnic federalism, non-ethnic federalism, and federacy. In ethnic federalism, provinces would be delineated along ethnic boundaries. In the non-ethnic version, the regional boundaries would be drawn so that no one ethnic group dominates a particular province. In the federacy option there would be a central Iraqi government with a semi-independent Kurdistan similar to the current situation. Gunter discusses how a form of federacy may be the best solution, but if none of the options can be agreed upon by all three major ethnic groups (Shias, Sunni, and Kurds) then other proposals will have to be considered. And should the Iraqi government collapse entirely (which Gunter indicates may be a possibility) then the Kurds would likely declare themselves independent.

The Kurds have also seen a similar “rise” in Turkey. Gunter sets the stage well in this section by discussing how national, transnational, and regional issues have occurred to present Turkey and its Kurds with an opportunity to eventually come to an agreement on their status. Specifically, he describes how recent political and social reforms brought forth by the (relatively secular) ruling AK party as a result from its desire to join the EU have brought this about. For example, the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the long-time leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has “ironically opened new possibilities for solving its (Turkey’s) continuing Kurdish problem.” At first glance this reader was skeptical about how Gunter was going to explain this. Nevertheless he successfully presents his argument that Turkey, in its aspirations to comply with the EU’s admittance regulations, realized that it could not execute Ocalan as it originally planned. Also, they understood that his execution would only further embolden Kurdish extremists. Additionally, Turkey also realized that if it was to achieve its EU aspirations then it would be required to grant its Kurds two things which they currently lack: recognition as an official minority group and basic civil rights. Gunter implies that this scenario will lead to further empowerment of the Kurds in Turkey.

Gunter also explores the major reforms of the Turkish justice and political systems that would be necessary for its admittance to the EU. Specifically he describes how a hidden organization known as the “Deep State,” really has control of the Turkish government and its power must be checked as it ultimately interferes with Turkey’s EU ambitions. It is described by one of his sources as “an omnipotent force with tentacle-like hands reaching everywhere…a state within the legitimate state.” Here the discussion may at first resemble a far-fetched conspiracy theory, yet he provides plenty of evidence to support the claim and the reader is encouraged to take notice, as it is critical to understanding his central argument. Clearly the “Deep State” would have to be controlled, if not dismantled entirely, if Turkey is to join the EU. Gunter explains by saying “…Turkey is seeking to join the EU, a candidacy supported by a large majority of its population and an initiative that promises to help solve Turkey’s long-standing Kurdish problem. Clearly, a Republic of Turkey that is truly a pluralistic democracy cannot be constituted along the lines of the Copenhagen Criteria necessary for Turkey to join the EU until the Deep State is dismantled.” Indeed, if effective and long-lasting reform is conducted then both Kurds and the general Turkish population could benefit. Yet, this is a tall order; changing the status quo in Turkey will require a complete overhaul of entire government systems.

Gunter spends only a chapter discussing the Kurds in Iran and Syria but no more is needed, as it would not lend itself to his thesis. Though nearly twice as many Kurds live in Iran than in Iraq, according to Gunter, they have not experienced the major events and opportunities that have occurred in Iraq and Turkey. Indeed, he briefly discusses how, for a number or reasons, Tehran and Damascus have so far been successful in preventing an assertion of Kurdish nationalism. According to Gunter, the Iranian government has often assassinated Kurdish separatist leaders, but there are other reasons that Kurdish nationalism has not taken hold in Iran as well, including cultural connections. For example he states that the Persians are closely related to the Kurds and this has “…served to moderate Kurdish national demands in Iran.”

Gunter’s book is strongly recommended to anyone with interest in Kurdish affairs. He has presented a thorough and unbiased analysis of the opportunities and challenges that the Kurds and their national governments face. His argument is logical and easy to comprehend. His book serves well those unfamiliar with Kurdish issues and it does not overwhelm the reader with any unnecessary details. Those with experience in the issue will also find it beneficial. He provides his honest professional opinion without any political bias and discusses the broad over-arching nuances of the issue and also the deeper and sometimes hidden ones that may underpin it and influence any future outcome.