The ‘state’ of Kurds: A Mideast quagmire

The on-going phase of conflict in the Mideast has really exposed the Kurdish people to a situation that might enable them, for the first time in modern history, to make the strongest case to establish their own State or, on the contrary, it might also lead to their fall, shattering the dream of an ‘Independent Kurdistan.’  Such is the state of geo-political alliances and entanglements in the region!

A Kurdish youth fighting IS in Syria

A Kurdish fighter in Syria

On the one hand, the US is following a dual-edged policy towards Kurds based in Iraq and Syria, and on the other hand, Turkey has launched a virtual war against the KKP, pushing them to the very margins of political significance.

In fact, the very purpose behind Turkey’s intense military campaign against the KPP is to pre-empt the making of a ‘Greater Kurdistan’ in the wake of the on-going crisis and the important role Kurds are playing in stemming the tide of the self-styled Islamic State (IS).

Their success against IS, Turkey fears, might lead to an intense upsurge in Kurds’ demand for a State of their own.

On the other hand, the US’s engagement with Kurds is far from smooth. It is mainly conditioned by the nature of the US interests in the region. Therefore, it varies from region to region. However, what is clear is that the US, unlike in the past, does not seem to be that much interested in carving a Kurdish State out of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The operational idea behind supporting Kurds, other than KPP, is what Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria, said “just a recipe for medium- and long-term fighting.”

Perhaps this change of policy has stemmed from a through re-evaluation of the US interests in the region. For example, the US has literally turned a blind eye to the new wave of a large-scale anti-Kurdish campaign in Turkey and their punitive military action against the bases and camps of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

However, the US’s policy towards the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD), who are also affiliated with the PKK, is diametrically opposite. The US administration considers the PYD and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), allies in the fight against radical Islamist groups such as the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

The primary reason for the US not complaining over Turkish campaign against Kurds is that both the US and EU need Turkey, which also happens to be the only member Muslim country of NATO, for various geo-political and geo-strategic reasons in the Black, Aegean and Mediterranean Sea regions. Additionally, since the beginning of Russian campaign in Syria, Turkey has become even more important.

As a matter of fact, Turkey is the main source of hope for the US and EU to help them counter Russian military tactics. It is for this reason that the US and EU have been hoping Turkey formally invoking the “ghost protocol” of NATO in its fight against Islamic State. However, the Western policy towards Turkey itself is not straight enough.

On the one hand, they are encouraging Turkey to take a ‘tough’ stand against Russia, and on the other, they are removing air defense systems that were installed in Turkey only a few years ago.  Similarly, the US has not stopped arming Kurds too.

As a matter of fact, American and Kurdish officials and Syrian Arab opposition leaders were reported to have said that ammunition, which were said to have been dropped by the US for the Syrian Arab Coalition, a newly announced group of Sunni Arab brigades in northeastern Syria, had largely ended up arming the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and its associated military forces, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG.

It is quite understandable that Kurds would not use this aid in their fight against IS alone. They would also possibly use it for cementing their control over swathes of territory currently under control — a step that directly runs counter to Turkish objectives vis-à-vis Kurds.

Notwithstanding the extent of the US support for Kurds against IS, it cannot still be gainsaid that Turkey’s importance for the US and EU has not decreased to the extent of jeopardizing its interests.  As a matter of fact, the US and its allies continue to turn a blind eye not only to Turkish campaign against Kurds, but also to the support it continues to provide to IS against Kurds. Like Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Turkey, too, is making use of IS as its proxy ground force to ‘eliminate’ as many Kurds as possible.

Only a few days ago, The New York Times reported that many Iraqis wish that the United States would “begin cracking down on the [Islamic] militants’ supply lines from Turkey,” while The Washington Post reported that Turkish authorities “have for years allowed extremists to cross freely into Syria.”

What explains this dual-edged policy of the US towards Kurds is its larger post-conflict strategic objectives. Some US politicians have been voicing the possibility of Kurds playing the role of a mediator between the largest Arab religious communities who are currently warring among themselves in the country: the Sunnis and the Alawites.

For example, the White House, some are inclined to believe, may push the Syrian Kurds for an important role as a liaison in the future Federal Syrian state and, to some extent, as a guide to its foreign policy in “post-Assad Syria.” In turn, the Syrian Kurds are hoping that the US will continue to provide them military support and, at the same time, will target IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and will not allow Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria.

The US government is building its relations with the Iraqi Kurds in approximately the same way. Having become allies during the fight against Saddam Hussein’s regime, Washington and Erbil are continuing their close cooperation in all areas.

However, the US supports them only to the extant they support the US interests in the region. The US, as said earlier, has lost interest in the idea of a “Greater Kurdistan.” On the contrary, it now perceives the creation of such a State as a threat to its interest.

The US officials have not hidden their vested interest in the future participation of the Kurds in the central government of Iraq, fearing that should Iraqi Kurdistan secede from Iraqi Baghdad, all of the other southern Shiite provinces of the country could fall entirely under Iran’s influence.

However, it is also quite possible that the US’ concerns regarding Iraq falling under Iranian influence might have already lost ground given the extent to which Iran itself has established relations with Kurds.

Tehran has recently intensified its contacts with the Kurdish parties who are both in opposition to Barzani’s government, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Movement for Change aka Gorran, in order to displace Barzani as president while adhering to the constitution or break off the Sulaymaniyah Province from Iraqi Kurdistan, where the aforementioned parties hold strong positions.

However, Iran, too, does not seem to support the idea of a larger Independent Kurdistan. For Iran too, a stronger Iraq continues to be the primary goal to achieve.

Amid these umpteen variations of regional and extra regional powers’ relations with Kurds, perhaps the only mid-eastern State that continues to express public support for the establishment of a Kurdistan is Israel. The first most prominent and unambiguous instance of Israeli support for Kurdistan came in 2014.

It was only a few days after the first tanker carrying crude oil produced in the autonomous Kurdish Region in Iraq arrived at the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashkelon, bypassing areas under Iraqi government control, that Netanyahu made his public announcement of support for Kurdish independence.

Netanyahu’s words must have come as nothing short of sweet music to Kurdish leaders’ ears. Not only that, It is no secret in the Middle East that Tel Aviv and the Kurds have had historically a fruitful working relationship — in military, intelligence sharing and business terms – since at least the 1960s.

The Israeli support partially stems from the fact that Israel considers Kurds a “non-hostile entity” that, crucially, is not exactly touched by the plight of the Palestinians. As such, from a strictly Israeli point of view, Kurds are regarded as moderate, secular Muslims who have been victims just like Jews – and that’s the key operative notion – of Arab chauvinism, be it on nationalist or hardcore Islamist terms.

The case-by-case policy the US seems to be following towards Kurds may have left them between the devil and the deep sea. On the one hand, they are, to a considerable extent, depending upon the US for military aid to fight IS, and on the other hand, they are being targeted by one of the US allies in the region.

To be fair, it should be noted that the Kurds are fighting courageously, defending their territory and their citizens, but it would be a mistake on their part to expect the US or any other Arab State, excluding Israel of course, to come to their aid in carving out a State of their own. What they can, at the most, expect from their “partners” is a somewhat better share in political arrangements in future so-called and hypothetical “post-Assad” Syria.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.

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