Secrets of the Syrian War: The Kurdish Factor

Dmitry Minn

Are they on the verge of a historic triumph or a new national tragedy?

It is tragic that throughout history it has been the Kurds’ fate to be deprived their own state, despite being one of the most populous nations on earth (numbering 30-40 million). Twice in the last century at the end of global conflagrations – first WWI, then WWII – they have come close to attaining national sovereignty, but both times external forces intervened to dash these hopes.

The British first used the Kurdish tribes as part of their own struggle against Germany’s ally, the Turkish Empire, but afterward, having safeguarded their own colonial interests, they used military force to quash the Kurds’ desire for independence. The second time, those same British, together with the Americans, pressed the Kurds to fight the Nazis’ infiltration into Iran and Iraq, but after the Third Reich was defeated they helped the governments of those countries to suppress Kurdish proto-state polities (for example, the Republic of Mahabad.) And so history repeats itself. Again the Anglo-Saxons (primarily the Americans this time) are using the Kurds as a tool to promote their own geopolitical interests in the Middle East. And there is no guarantee that the Kurds, despite their sad historical experience, will not once again fall into the trap.

Because the Kurds are such a close-knit group, the two million of them who live in Syria have ended up front and center in that civil war. They have liberated vast swaths in the north of the country and along the Euphrates River from the Islamic State (IS) and they have proclaimed Rojava to be a Kurdish autonomous region.

The Turks have noted uneasily that all three major dams across the Euphrates are under Kurdish control, and thus, consequently, are Syria’s energy supplies, water resources, and most fertile arable land.

The Kurds in Syria and Turkey are extremely close, both ethnically and politically, which explains Ankara’s special antipathy toward and fierce resistance to the idea of any sort of independence for that nation in Syria. The leading Kurdish political force in Syria – the Democratic Union Party (PYD) led by Saleh Muslim – has close ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey has labeled a terrorist organization. The Americans agree, yet still cooperate with the PKK.

Naturally the Kurds have not forgotten how the Anglo-Saxons treated them in the past, but somehow seem to feel that this time will be different. Perhaps it is the memory of how the West helped to establish the independent Albanian state of Kosovo atop the remains of Yugoslavia that they find so appealing. The SDF’s American advisers are probably taking advantage of the «Kosovo precedent» to convince the Kurds that they can count on the US and thus make them willing to fight for American interests. This is hardly a complete analogy, however – there are far more differences. In Kosovo, the Americans’ only military adversary was Serbia, which had been weakened by sanctions, but now they must contend with resistance from at least four states – Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey.

There is no situation that is truly analogous to that of Iraqi Kurdistan. Much could change there by Sept. 25 – the date for the referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan – because by then the Iraqi army could be at its borders, and thanks to its experience battling IS, that fighting force has already been mobilized and trained to maneuver in unison. It is even more likely that the Islamic State in Iraq could be completely decimated and wiped from the map not by the end of 2018, as has been claimed, but within two to three months. The sizable territory held by IS forces in Syria and Iraq is far from homogeneous. Three-quarters of it is desert inhabited by Bedouin tribes who have merely sworn allegiance to IS, without fully integrating themselves into it. The Bedouins will have no problems shifting their loyalties, as if offering a “baksheesh” to the new bosses when they arrive. IS doesn’t have many real areas of strength, and the ones it has are all under siege. Some of them, such as Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, will fall within a matter of days; and others, such as Tal Afar in Iraq and al-Sukhnah, Deir ez-Zor, and Uqayribat in Syria, will be taken within weeks. This will have a domino effect.

One cannot help but feel sympathetic about the sad fate of the Kurdish attempts to win legal recognition for their nation, but it makes no sense to step on the same rake three times in a row. Neither Washington nor London has offered nor will offer any guarantees about the creation of an independent Kurdish polity in Syria or an independent state in Iraq. Nor are such obligations found in any of the cooperation agreements signed with such fanfare over the course of decades between the Pentagon and the Peshmerga. All that other stuff is just hot air. Recent decades have offered plenty of examples of the US flouting even legally binding treaties, not to mention its verbal promises offered by «somebody somewhere».

It should be noted that throughout the entire Syrian war, Russia has been the one reliably standing up for the interests of local Kurds. Moscow, for example, has tried to ensure that the Kurds have been represented at every international forum for resolving the Syrian issue, including in Geneva, while the West has not lifted a finger. Only Russia was able to halt the implementation of Turkey’s plans to decimate the Kurds as part of their Operation Euphrates Shield. Kurdish rights are explicitly included in the draft of the Syrian constitution that was drawn up by Russian advisers and proposed to Damascus. A few days ago Bashar al-Assad announced an administrative reform in the country, proposing that the Kurds truly take their rightful place in all of Syria’s public and state institutions and be permitted to realize their national and cultural aspirations. And this represents a real, tangible «bird in the hand». Until recently, the leadership of the PYD, led by Saleh Muslim, both recognized this and greatly valued Russian assistance.

But unfortunately, the Kurds have recently been pushed to choose unwisely between this «bird in the hand» vs. the Americans’ offer of «two in the bush». This became especially noticeable after the failure of the Pentagon’s May attempts to ensure that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) units it controls hold full sway throughout southern Syria. Disappointed in the FSA’s fighting skills and seeking at all costs to «topple Assad», the US «advisors» have shifted the focus of their attention to the northeast and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which consist primarily of Kurds. The government SU-22 shot down by Americans near Raqqa (the plane was allegedly planning to bomb SDF positions, although in fact it had been tasked with hitting IS targets) marked a turning point. Washington has demonstrated that it considers the fight against Damascus to be more important than defeating IS and that it is prepared, or so they say, to defend Kurdish interests with all its military might. And unfortunately many of the commanders of the Kurdish forces believed this, although in the long term this threatens the Kurds with a new national catastrophe. This is especially true if they continue their short-sighted refusal to allow the government army to pass through to the territories they occupy.

But in reality the Americans have no intention of throwing the kind of military muscle at Syria that they deployed against Serbia back when they were helping to carve out Kosovo. Even in their worst nightmares they did not imagine battling the standing armies of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and their own ally – Turkey, in order to win independence for the Kurds. And such a prospect is by no means a fantasy, because these states see Kurdish independence as by far their greatest threat. For Turkey, for example, this threat will always dwarf its obligations under any alliance, including NATO.

ARANews, the semi-official press service of the Syrian Kurds, even quotes former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford’s claim that in the final phase of the war the US «will not defend the Kurds against Assad’s forces». Ford asserted that «What we’re [the Americans – D.M.] doing with the Kurds is not only politically stupid, but immoral. Syrian Kurds are making their biggest mistake in trusting the Americans». ARANews disagrees and cites other analysts as well, but to no avail: you will not find a more respected expert on the Syrian crisis than Robert Ford, who was present for its inception.

Nor will the huge amount of land the SDF holds in Syria (as much as 45,000 sq. km.) keep the Kurds out of harm’s way. The Kurdish forces are extremely thin on the ground in those regions (only 30,000 fighters), and their communication lines are stretched out. If there’s a showdown, the regular Syrian army will have no problems breaking up the area held by the SDF. Two-thirds of the terrain occupied by the Kurds (which they want to keep) consists of Arab lands, and the Kurds have no resources for forging any kind of normal life there. Between Damascus and the pro-Turkish forces, they’ll have no trouble galvanizing the Arab settlements there to rise up, should things escalate, and the Kurds would look like the «cruel oppressors». Then they’d be entirely out of options for finding international support.

According to recent reports, Turkey has already marshaled massive numbers of troops on the borders of the Kurdish cantons in Syria and is waiting for the go-ahead from Moscow and Damascus. And why, one might ask, would those countries continue to hold the Turks in check, if the Kurds themselves are turning their backs on Damascus and Moscow?

The leaders of the Syrian Kurds must now grapple with the enormous responsibility of making a fateful decision for their people. They can either refrain from throwing obstacles in Damascus’s way, helping to build a new version of the state in which they will have far more rights than they used to have in Syria, or they can choose the opposite path, doing the bidding of what Robert Ford has called the «immoral» foreign politicians and embark on adventures that will end with them losing everything they have gained.