Sir John Jenkins is a distinguished British diplomat with experience serving as an ambassador all around the world. He received his B.A. and doctorate from Cambridge University and joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office thereafter. He served in Abu Dhabi, Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait early in his career and then served as Ambassador to Burma (1999-2002), Consul-General in Jerusalem (2003-06), Ambassador to Syria (2006-07), Director of Middle East and North Africa (2007-09), Ambassador to Iraq (2009-11), UK Special Representative to the National Transitional Council of Libya (2011), and Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2012 onwards). He was awarded the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 2011.
The Politic: What brought you to Syria? Was that a choice?
Choice? Yes, I was in Jerusalem for three and a half years and I thought it would be quite fun to go to Syria as well. I mean it all fitted together. It’s an area of expertise sort of thing. For me, the intellectual challenge of learning about a particular area is what drives me.
The Politic: What drew you to the Middle East in the first place? Why that particular region of the world?
It was a very long time ago and I can’t quite remember! I studied Arabic. I joined the foreign office from Cambridge University, in England in 1980. I’d done a doctorate, my subject was classical languages, Latin and Greek actually. There weren’t any jobs in universities, there were a ton of cutbacks, so I joined the foreign office. You do language tests, the MLAT test, the proficiency test, aptitude test, and then I had to choose which hard language I wanted to learn. So I could have chosen any hard language: Chinese, basically any non-European language and I decided on Arabic. I think because it looked like an interesting region. I had these sort of romantic ideas about the Middle East, as a lot of us do. It seemed to fit in. I thought of the Arab world as sort of Mediterranean cultures, as many of them indeed are.
There were around 22 or 23 countries that speak Arabic. So I thought it looked like a good career move because there are lots of places you can go. If you learn Mandarin Chinese, you can go to Beijing, or you can go to Taiwan, I guess, or Hong Kong – there’s Cantonese in Hong Kong – whereas in the Middle East there’s a lot of variety. It gives you that if that’s what you’re looking for. I think that may have been part of it. I was never one for having a great vision of how my career was going to go. I remember interviewing students in Malaysia for scholarships. Chinese students, in particular, had this frighteningly clear idea of what their life was going to be like: I’m going to be this by twenty-five, a millionaire by thirty, a billionaire by… and so on. But it’s always been a bit serendipitous for me; which has been great, it’s fine.
The Politic: Leaving it open?
Yeah, so Jerusalem and then Syria seemed like a good match. But then the Middle East and North Africa directorate job came up in London, and they wanted me to do that, so I went back from Syria. I started out in Syria in the early 1980s so I knew some of it already.
The Politic: What were you doing there in the early 1980s?
The Politic: What is your overall opinion of the Kurds in Syria?
Well, when I was in Syria it was very difficult to get up there because the Syrian authorities were very, very nervous about foreigners going and looking at the Kurdish areas. The Syrians had this saying that “everybody is equal in Syria, and everybody benefits from this wonderful system we’ve got,” but the Kurds were clearly dissatisfied because it was similar in a way to what had happened at some periods in Turkey, what had happened in Iraq. The Kurdish language was suppressed, Kurds couldn’t celebrate festivals like Nawruz, there were no Kurdish language schools – or I don’t think there were anyway. There was this persistent sort of sense of unrest, which sometimes erupted into clashes at Kurdish festivals. So the Syrian authorities were a bit nervous about foreigners going up to have a look.
So it was interesting but it was sort of peripheral because we had to think about other things. The big thing for me then was the Middle East peace process and Syria-Israel proximity talks, which had started in what I thought was a rather theatrical not entirely serious way. Negotiations with Israel under Olmert – with the Turks being the mediators – was the beginning of a sense that Turkey was the answer to everything in the Middle East. And what was happening in Lebanon because it was just after Hariri’s assassination, there was the international tribunal on Lebanon, Syrians had been kicked out of Lebanon; it looked as if Lebanon, with the March 14 movement, were going to reconstitute Lebanese politics on a more modern basis. So the Kurdish issue wasn’t a big issue, it was sort of a human rights issue but it was off to one side – it wasn’t a big political issue.
The Politic: It wasn’t a so to speak strategic concern for the government.
No, in spite of what happened in Iraq from 1991 and onwards, the establishment of safe havens and the seeds of a Kurdish state, in northern Iraq. It wasn’t really playing across in any prominent way into Syria at the time.
The Politic: Since the Syrian revolution has begun, to what degree has the Kurdish question become a real concern for anybody, or is it still rather on the periphery, they’re trying to stay out of it?
No, actually, it’s gotten quite big. It’s connected – the Kurdish issue is connected with lots of other things in the Middle East. It’s not an issue with one country – the Kurdish issue in Syria is clearly linked to the Kurdish issue in Iraq, and the relationship between the KRG and its constituent parts and Baghdad, an issue of the unitary nature, or otherwise of the Iraqi state and its future. It’s connected to Turkey, in a big way. And all these relationships – so the relationships between the KRG to Baghdad; of Turkey to the Kurds; of Turkey to Baghdad; Turkey to Syria; Turkey to the Kurds inside Syria who are substantially PKK/PYD – their allegiance is to Öcalan rather than Barzani although there are some Barzani Kurds there – it’s all very fractious.
There was a moment when it looked as if Barzani was going to lead the KRG to some sort of maybe unexpressed Kurdish state through a genuinely sustainable economic relationship with Turkey, because of energy. This would involve a subordination of the PUK to the KDP as well and it looked as if that was going to work and it looked as if the Turks would do very well out of it. It looked as if on the back of that, there was maybe a chance that the KRG would do a deal with Baghdad that would stabilize the relationship enough to allow this to happen. But that now looks very different, much more difficult now than it was before. Partly because of what’s happening in Syria, because there’s now an alternative pole of attraction for the Kurds. It’s not just about Erbil. I mean before you know even in the KRG it wasn’t just about Erbil or Barzani, it was about Talibani as well. But then Talibani’s health was poor, and then Öcalan emerged as an alternative pole of power, which wasn’t the case two years ago before this kicked off in Syria.
The Politic: What do you think is the degree of fractionalization of the Syrian Kurds, between the PYD and KNC and now arguably youth committees that are starting to get a voice now because of the revolution?
I don’t know much about it because I haven’t been there. I’m not sure anyone really knows what is going on inside.
The Politic: Do you think they’re disconnected from the outside and is that why it’s hard for people to really know what is going on?
There is clearly fighting between the ISIL and the Kurds in the Jazira. Now what exactly is the basis of that and why the regime seems to be content to let the fighting happen up there is unclear because they seem to have been content since the beginning to allow the Kurdish militias up there more or less to get on with it. They either think we can deal with this later, or there’s something else going on. You know a lot of people in Syria said there was some kind of deal between the PYD and the regime.
The Politic: I think there are some arguments that the central government pulled their forces out to deal with the revolution and then the PYD comes in.
The most important access for the regime is the line of cities from Damascus to Aleppo and then the area to the west of that towards the coast, into Lebanon. And yeah, that makes a lot of sense. What the Kurds want in Hasaka, Raqqah, and so forth I’m not entirely sure.
What the PKK had before is that they were stuck up in the mountain between Iraq and Turkey and they kept getting hit from time to time by the Turks, and they knew that Barzani, the KDP, and the PUK would never simply abandon the Kurds to the Turks for nationalist reasons. But there was always going to be a price for a deal between the Turks and the KRG which would involve the PKK in some way. But they were at a disadvantage because they didn’t really hold territory. Before they were just stuck up in the mountains – now they hold territory and that’s quite an important negotiating point for them.
Öcalan has the key. I mean there’s all this stuff going on between the Turks and the Kurds between the PKK for the last decade or so, and there were times when it looked like they were coming to an agreement when Öcalan accepted in return for a relaxation on the restriction on the culture of the Kurds inside Turkey, there was a deal to be done, that looks more problematic to me now simply because, my personal view is the PKK seem to have a greater position of strength. They’re a well-armed and motivated group, stuck in the mountains. They look now as if they have taken territory in Syria.
The Politic: One interesting thing is the longer the issue goes on the harder it becomes to resolve. There are arguments that, especially in Turkey, the longer they wait to make a deal with the Kurds, the more power the youth have and they seem to be a lot more vociferous whereas the older people seem to be more tired and more willing to make a compromise and the youth are saying “No, we are going to get what we originally asked for” and have new energy.
Which may well be true, you know, Erdoğan, they’ve done quite well – Erdoğan, in terms of opening up and putting things on the table in the last decade. It looks to me as if now what’s happening in the region with the policy of no problems with neighbors, he’s stepped back from that a bit and some of the people that are running the Kurdish policy for him are gone from the Turkish government. And at a time when he’s got his own domestic problems he’s got to deal with, you know, Gezi Park and so forth. And concern about the way he’s taking Turkey. He needs to shore up his base. What does the average devout Turk from Anatolia – who is doing well in Istanbul or Ankara – want? Because that’s his base.
The Politic: So I guess one of the questions I had was about the youth committees because that’s been getting a lot more attention. What do you think is the youth’s potential in the current struggle within Syria – not only within the Syrian regime’s issues but within the Kurdish issue as well-as they get louder – are they the solution or are they precluding the solution, in a sense?
I don’t know much about what’s happening on the Kurdish side. I mean more generally in Syria, you look at Syria and it’s a thousand militias. I mean the problem is, even on the regime’s side, it’s become a militarized conflict. There’s various shabiha groups, you know smuggling groups, local petty criminals and plus the Shia militias they’ve got fighting for them, the Abu al Fadl al Abbas Brigade etc. It’s become a conflict of militias, many of them with conflicting goals. They all claim bits of territory – that seems to be where the biggest problem is with this. You know if you have a negotiated settlement, a lot of this would be economic as well – a lot of people would be getting money out of this, you know a lot of militias on the opposition side have been doing this. Are they going to let go, at the end?
The Politic: What do you think is worse or better for the Kurds: if Assad keeps control or if it becomes a fractionalized new order?
If it becomes fractionalized, the Kurds in Syria are going to have to work out how they relate to the Kurds in Iraq, I think. Otherwise, you have two Kurdish entities in direct competition for the loyalty of the Kurds and I think that will inevitably feed back into Turkey, which is one of the reasons why the Turks are getting quite nervous about it and trying to actually lock down parts of that border in the northeast across into the Jazira.
The Politic: How significant do you think borders are in that region? Because a lot of these are just lines in the sand that some politicians drew.
The thing is, once you undermine one border, you undermine many borders. The border between Syria and Lebanon mostly has never been demarcated, which has facilitated smuggling. It’s facilitated terror across borders; from the PFLP-GC camps in the Beqa’a Valley into Syria and down south, for example.
So you could argue what you’re seeing is a melting of the border between Lebanon and Syria. That’s not a good option. But Assad might imagine one possibility emerging as a Hezbollah-Allawite state controlling parts of Lebanon plus the coast plus a line of cities. In that sense borders have always been very porous. On the other hand, do I think that if Assad wins he’s not going to want to recapture the whole of Syria? I think he is because a) that’s the expression, the final expression of victory if you can reclaim the national territory; b) he’s always said we will never let an inch of our national territory go, about the Golan, and if you let go of bits inside Syria, why can’t you let the Golan go? And thirdly, it’s a domestic legitimacy issue. This is the state of Syria – fractured now, of course – but it’s Syria, and if it’s not Syria, what is it? Plus it’s a CT issue, in the end if you have ungoverned space in the Syrian Desert and the Euphrates Valley and Iraq, you’ve got a terrorism problem. They’ve all got terror problems: the Turks have a terrorism problem, the Saudis have got a terrorism problem, Kuwait’s got a terrorism problem.
The Politic: Do you see Turkey as potentially finding a solution if they can figure out their PKK issue, that that’ll transcend into the Syrian issue becoming easier to resolve, or is Turkey’s meddling in the whole affair potentially destabilizing it because they have their own interests, the Syrians have their own interests, Iraqis have their own interests, and each one is trying to negotiate with their respective Kurdish minorities?
I think it’s become a much more complicated issue for everybody. The ideal solution to that in the end may be a sort of Taif 2 conference where we collectively settle political dispensations in Syria and Lebanon and maybe parts of Iraq. But you need an outside, committed, neutral, powerful arbiter to make that happen. I mean who did the Taif agreement in Saudi Arabia? That was the Saudis, plus the Syrians who got it done. That constellation doesn’t exist anymore. I mean the Middle East looks far more fretful than it’s done for a long time. This is an age of discontent in the Middle East, which we haven’t seen for decades, not in quite this way.
The Politic: Why do you think that – and it might just be strategic – the Kurdish question hasn’t gotten as much attention as certain other conflicts in the region? I mean of course people have spoken about it, but it’s usually peripheral to most of the large-scale conflicts.
First of all, everybody thought that the KRG was a big success, so in the 1990s, in Iraq it was the most successful bit of Iraq; it was a done deal. The Kurds had sorted it. Then there’s the difficulty of access in Syria which applies to the whole conflict. It’s very difficult for journalists to get in. And I think there is an understanding gap; nobody quite knows what is happening..
There’s a lot of debates in the academic literature and in the press about what’s happening in the Jazira: who are these people? What do they want? Are they with the regime or against it? Because if they’re with the regime then they’re fighting against elements of the armed Syrian Arab opposition. So are they with the regime or against it? Do they want an independent state, or are they with Barzani? So there’s an issue of knowledge, a sort of epistemological issue about all of this. And then people just have too much to worry about elsewhere. Aleppo has been a big thing because of the ferocious bombardment and there hasn’t really been that sort of ferocious fighting around cities as far as I know in the Kurdish areas – it’s been concentrated in the major urban centers and that’s the thing that draws attention when you’re shelling areas or sending chemical weapons into populated areas including your own capital. That’s a big story.
The Politic: You mentioned this earlier, but the push-pull between Barzani and Öcağlan: what do you think are the main factors leading to each side having more of a pull or less of a pull than the other?
Some of it is tribal, with Barzani. Of course Barzani has his father, Mullah Mustafa, and his grandfather. So Barzani’s got some tribal revolutionary lineage. Which is very powerful for the Kurds. Barzani also had success, what looked like success. I mean you go to Erbil and it looks fantastic, the airport’s great.
The Politic: Have you ever been?
Oh yeah, lots of times. I’ve been all over the KRG, Erbil, Suleymanieh, Dohuk — Dohuk looks like a Turkish town, it’s got all the buildings built by Turks. And it looks as if there was an understanding between Turkey and the Kurds through Barzani, Barzani was getting used to doing this. Öcalan was seen as a terrorist, as a man who blew cafés up. So it looked like the deed was done, you know the kidnapping happened, he’s in prison now and nothing’s going to happen. Now it looks as if he’s back; a lot of people still support him.
I don’t know enough about the allegiance of Kurds inside Turkey. There does seem to be a lot of support for the PKK for the Kongra-Gel, whether it’s covert or not, inside the Kurdish communities in Turkey. I mean Barzani – does he have support in Turkey? I don’t know enough about that. There were allegiances that were already there which have now become easier to express, to actualize politically.
The Politic: Do you think that the Kurds in Syria feel more Syrian or feel stronger ties to the Kurds or whatever issue or state that they would call it?
I think that’s why the Syrians are so nervous about letting anyone up there for years and years because it was sort of Kurdish identity. Of course having the KRG just across the border you know nowadays people will just go across as the Kurds in Iran actually just go across into Iraqi Kurdistan at Nawruz – they’ve got singers, which you can’t do in Iran – you have fires and all the picnicking and stuff and huge numbers of Kurds in Iran used to come. So it’s clearly a powerful identity across borders.
The Politic: In what direction do you think we are headed in terms of resolving the Kurdish question? What do you think are the preliminary changes that have to happen before people are even able to address the overall question?
Exactly what I said earlier: you can’t do this while Syria is in the state it is. It just adds too many uncertainties. And it creates too much violence in Kurdish areas which could spill over. You know the KDP and the PUK fought each other only 15, 16 17 years ago and there had been Kurdish civil wars before.
The Politic: What’s holding them back right now?
In Iraqi Kurdistan it’s the success of the KRG – no one is going to fight if things are going well. And the illness of Talebani and the decline of the PUK.
The Politic: Sounds like a grand calculus, if anything comes up here everything else shifts around.
Right, like a whack-a-mole.