SYRIA & IRAQ: NOW WHAT ABOUT THE KURDS?

From Sevres in 1920 to Raqqa in 2017, the Kurds Face Insurmountable Obstacles to their Nationalist Aspirations

The War in Syria is Ending, Rekindling the Kurdish Question
The Syrian government has been winning back territory. Reconstruction has begun in many areas, including Aleppo. Against all odds, the Asad government in Syria has survived the onslaught of an international proxy conflict, which the media presented as a civil war. The only ‘nice guys’ in the conflict, as portrayed by Western media and governments, are the Kurds. Yet, they might not be so nice, when the Syrian war ends and ISIS is terminated. The Kurds, who together count a population of about 30 million, have nationalist ambitions which might render the ‘peace’ more complex than the current war. The Kurds are geographically split, living within Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Armenia. After the war against Islamic State is over, they hope to come together in a united future. Most Kurds live in the Turkish territory, which makes them the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East. 

Their history is characterized by nomadism: Historically, for time out of mind, the Kurds were shepherds grazing on the plains of Mesopotamia and the highlands that run from south-eastern Turkey to the southwestern part of Armenia. Not having their own homeland, however, has created the idea of ‘Kurdistan’. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of WW1, the United Kingdom, Russia and France encouraged the idea of Kurdish nationalism, to challenge the Ottomans. The formal expression of this produced the Sevres Treaty of 1920. It sanctioned the Kurds’ right to seek an independent state. Then, the same great powers ignored their own treaty. The Kurds run the same risk again now. Their efforts to defeat ISIS/Islamic State represent the best chance to form an independent state since Sevres and to make room among these countries. They may agree to federations and true regional autonomy. Clearly, this constitutes a political problem for each of the countries in which they live. Even the most advanced democracies, such as Canada, are still confronting notions of competing nationalisms and languages within their borders, imagine in the complexities of the Middle East.

In Syria, the Kurds represent between seven and 10% of the total population, most living in the two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, and in the northern areas like that around Kobane. During the 1960’s, nationalist Syrian governments, including the Ba’ath, confiscated Kurdish lands, redistributing them to Arabs to "Arabize" the Kurdish regions. That is one of the reasons why at first, the Syrian Kurds fought – though not nearly as much as other factions – against the Asad regime, then controlled by Asad pere.

The Kurds in Iraq represent between 15-20% of the population. In Iraq, the Kurds had more rights right from the start, but suffered violent repression. They formed the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP) which under the leadership of Mustafa Barzani began to claim greater autonomy. In 1961, they engaged in armed struggle. But, by the mid-1970s, divisions emerged within the KDP that spawned the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani, who became Iraqi President from 2005 to 2014. After Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, the Kurds have enjoyed growing rights and today have a Kurdistan regional government, which administers the three provinces of Dohuk, Irbil and Sulaimaniya.

What Happens After ISIS is Defeated?
As this war ends and Damascus focuses on expelling the last ISIS, al-Nusra and other foreign fighters out of their territorries, the United States and local powers from Turkey to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies will have to come to terms with what they have lost. They have failed to topple the Baath Party and its rule. But, while Bashar al-Asad and his Hezbollah, Iranian and Russian allies, without whom he would have surely lost, can taste victory, a further chapter of the war is emerging. This chapter has two parts. 

The first concerns Israel. Asad’s victory means that Iran and Hezbollah and Iran have in Syria grown in prestige as well as battle expertise. Iran will seek a bigger role in Syria than before the start of the war in March 2011, extending its area of influence from Tehran to Damascus via Baghdad. An Iranian dominated ‘Shiite crescent’ is now all but reality. That will attract more Israeli attention. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and its hawkish defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, wanted to avoid such a scenario at all costs. Russia could act as a deterrent, but it won’t be easy to prevent Israeli efforts to try to topple the Asad government. Moreover, American neoconservative think tanks and the politicians they influence, will be furious that they did not invade Syria earlier, as Iran can feel it’s close to repeating the feats of Darius and Xerxes, in the late sixth and early fifth centuries B.C. 
They extended a corridor from Persia to the Mediterranean as part of the Achaemenid Persian empire. 

But, Iran’s newly re-elected president, Hassan Rohani has come under pressure from hardliners. President Trump’s attitude toward Iran, particularly in the form of additional sanctions and threats to repeal U.S. support for the 5+1 nuclear deal, has not helped Rohani. But, it has given a stronger hand to hardliners, who would like to restart the nuclear weapons program. The hardliners, presumably, would also encourage its regional clients (Hezbollah) to take a stronger stance against Israel. As if this scenario weren’t troubling enough, Saudi Arabia is clearly loath to allow rival Iran to enjoy the fruits of its labor in Syria. The Asad government, therefore, will have to endure more pressure. But, there’s another issue that will place massive obstacles ahead of a full-on Syrian social and economic reconstruction. It is this issue of the Kurds, and it affects all of Syria’s neighbors. 

Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, all have substantial Kurdish populations 
There has never been a Kurdish State. But, there has been and still exists a Kurdish nation. The Kurds have occupied the mountains that extend from western Iran to eastern Turkey through Iraq and Syria for centuries. because political boundaries have worked that way, and there is no Kurdish nation, as such, although they have occupied their mountains for at least a thousand years. The Kurds were a thorn in the side of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Kurds have also engaged in a war of independence, mostly involving Turkey, to form their own state, for well over forty years. The American invasion of Iraq facilitated Kurdish autonomy from Baghdad. Many oil companies have been dealing exclusively with Erbil, the capital of what was ‘Iraqi Kurdistan’, now ever more effectively ruled by Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Regional Government. 

Indeed, on paper, the Kurds still dream about a united or greater Kurdistan. But, there are many different visions of such a Kurdish entity, depending on the origin of who is ‘doing the dreaming’ (i.e. Iraqis, Syrians, Turkish, Iranians etc.) Doubtless, it will be hard if not impossible for these other actors to accept that the Kurdish dream should come true. So, there is a real risk that the Kurds and their nationalist aspirations will be crushed by the interests of others who are deciding the fates of Syria and Iraq. That would almost certainly exclude the Turks who have been fighting a bitter civil war for more than forty years against Kurdish nationalists who seek that their regions should become independent of Turkey. 

That said, there’s no question that part of the merit for releasing areas of northern Syria and northwestern Iraq from the yoke of ISIS and other islamists, must go to the Kurdish militias. They will expect compensation for acting as the vanguard and supplying infantry against the self-proclaimed Caliphate. Of course, the Kurds received logistical, financial, military and political support from many powers. But, the United States and the Western countries provided the lion’s share of that aid. Without this backing, the Kurds would not have achieved their victories. 

It is said and widely believed that the US made promises to the Kurdish leaders. The reality is that when ISIS had routinely pulverized the Iraqi army, in one engagement after another; the US, having withdrawn their ground troops from what had become in the States, a very unpopular war, the Kurdish leaders stepped up and avoided the necessity for the Pentagon to either accept defeat, or dispatch a new wave of US troops to address the ISIS reality.. They provided Kurdish ground troops working with US strategic input, the Special Forces trainers and the Alliance airforces, which has proved and is still proving very successful against the dogged fanatical ISIS fighters. There has long been speculation as to what was the ‘quid pro quo’ the US agreed to this major commitment. The history of western promises to local inhabitants in the mid-east, is not a good precedent, when after WW1 it was European powers, failing to honour pledges. We will see whether the United States can do it better. 

Still, the Americans have had to confront the issue of Kurdish nationalism before and objections to it, when they invaded Iraq and the government in Baghdad, largely a US construct, seems unlikely to passively accept the amputation of their Kurdish regions and the current and future oilfields there. 

Therefore, while the Americans will likely agree to demands from Syrian Kurds for international recognition for a self-administered territorial status in northern Syria (Rojava). They will probably object to similar expectations from Iraqi Kurds. The latter will no doubt express their right to self-determination, namely to form a truly independent state of Iraqi Kurdistan. 

Turkey, for its part, will object to an autonomous State of Rojava because it would imply granting the political victory for The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara considers a terrorist organization. As it happens, Ankara considers the Syrian Kurds in Rojava, headed by the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and their military arm of the Popular Protection Units (YPG), to be an extension of the PKK.who are leading the civil war in Turkey Thus, over the past few years, the Turks have been attacking the YPG as well as ISIS in Syria. If ISIS is defeated, Turkey will likely continue to challenge the PYD/YPG unless an agreement is reached to contain their ambitions. The risk is that the war against ISIS could evolve into a new phase of war that could alter the political geography of the region, damaging the ‘peace’ that the West and Russia want to establish. 

The West Will Betray the Kurds Again
The West is hardly ready to compromise Turkey’s strategic role and position in NATO to please Kurdish interests, (although Turkey’s continuing membership of NATO is currently openly being questioned)! The Americans, and the Russians, know that agreeing, carte blanche, to an independent Rojava would test Turkey severely. Russia enjoys an important economic relationship with Turkey. It also wants to maintain, and likely expand, its military presence in Syria. The Americans have given the Syrian Kurds considerable visibility and media attention. But, it might all turn out to be a bluff in the end, given the bigger geopolitical calculus. 

So long as ISIS remains a threat, the Americans – without Russian objection – will try to get as much as possible from the Kurds against ISIS. The West have perhaps already- we do not know, promised far more than they might ever be willing to grant. With an administration in WDC like that of Donald Trump, there can be few if any certainties.

Still, nation states have permanent interests rather than permanent friends. Thus, nobody will be surprised if / when the superpowers turn their backs on an independent Syrian Kurdish entity. The PYD were not born yesterday; they understand and will expect this. But, they might secure American – and Russian – backing to obtain more autonomy from Damascus than they enjoyed before the start of the Syrian war in 2011.

As for Iraq, Turkey enjoys relatively cordial relations with the Kurdish Regional Government there, (KRG) now led by Masoud Barzani and the Iraqi Kurdish Party (KDP). Turkey has even invested heavily in KRG controlled areas. But, a major test of Turkish and American tolerance of Kurdish ambitions in Iraq will come next September 25. There will be no reason to wait for a formal ISIS defeat. Last June 10, Iraq’s KRG President Barzani, called for a referendum on the region's independence, which will take place on 25 September. The referendum will concern KRG zones – that is the governorates of Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah. Yet, it will also extend to Kurdish areas in the Kirkuk province, over which the Kurds and the Iraqi Federal Government have a dispute. Expectedly, neither Baghdad, Ankara or Washington approve the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. Tehran, which maintains better relations than most with ‘their’ Kurds, has also objected. The Iraqi government has promptly opposed any action by the Kurds in the direction of independence, judged unconstitutional. Turkey has called the referendum a "fatal mistake" that would help make the region more unstable. In fact, Ankara knows that for the KRG to form an actual independent State, as opposed to autonomous region of Kurdistan, would urge Kurds within its own borders to join it. Ankara’s fears in this sense were proven, when on July 29 the Kurdish led areas of Northern Syria (Rojava) announced plans for the first local elections in the Kurdish territory, bordering Turkey. These are areas held by the United States’ main ally on the ground in Syria, the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but in fact led by the YPG. Iran, which has an important horse in the Syrian race and the solidity of Iraq, fears the obstacle that this poses to stabilizing the country after the demise of ISIS. The Saudis have seized their opportunity. 

They have expressed support for the Iraqi Kurds’ independence referendum, securing perhaps a well-tested military ally in a region where it has had none so far. Such a move would most certainly prompt Tehran to oppose the independence of Kurdistan. This would be a rare case where Tehran and Washington might agree, because Trump’s Special Envoy to the ‘International Coalition Against the Islamic State’, Brett McGurk, made it clear his government would challenge the referendum, suggesting that such an effort would compromise the fight for Hawija. The latter is torn between the Kurds and Iraqi government, even as there have been intense clashes between ISIS militants and coalition forces. The US clearly wants the peshmerga to focus on the Islamic State prize, rather than potentially having to divert their attention toward the Iraqi federal government forces. Significantly, the U.S. has made it clear that it much prefers a united, federal (and stable) Iraq to one that switches from fighting ISIS to Kurds. 

Northern Syria has become a seething pot of opposing ambitions. Syria wants to keep its territorial unity while the United States has been financing the Kurdish dominated forces, supplying them with weapons in their advancement towards Raqqa, where Islamic State and Al Qaeda are still holed up fighting to keep their last major stronghold in Syria. Turkey has no interest in the Kurds leading the effort in Raqqa, as the United States would like. The Americans, it should be noted have no ground forces in Syria. They can only offer aerial support and need their allies to conduct ground attacks and gain territory. But, Turkey has always been concerned about the PKK and its YPG Syrian counterpart. It propped up the Islamists against them, fearing the repercussions from the combined nationalisms of Syrian and Turkish Kurds. The West's support for the Kurds with weapons, money and trainers has further aggravated the already tense relations between Ankara, NATO and the United States in particular. 

Perhaps, given that Erdogan considers the Kurdish issue near to his borders to represent a major threat to the stability of his government, the Turkish president still might even order a widescale attack against Raqqa, to prevent the Kurds from claiming it and increasing the scope of their demands, but he is leaving it late, if that is his intention.  

Alessandro Bruno