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Syrian Kurds

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Amateur Hour in the Middle East

On Sunday it was revealed that the Syrian army has made a deal to help the Syrian Kurds (who are technically rebels) fight off the Turkish invasion of Afrin, a chunk of Syrian territory on the north-western border with Turkey that has been held by the Kurds since 2012,

And the Russians are allegedly brokering this new anti-Turkish alliance, even though they recently gave the Turks a green light for that invasion (or at least that was what the Turks thought they were getting).

And do you recall that the United States, which armed and supported those same Syrian Kurds because it needed them to fight Islamic State, announced three weeks ago that it would be training a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led force to patrol the borders of the large part of north-eastern Syria that has been liberated from IS?

When Turkey objected, Washington hastily dropped that notion, and is indeed standing idly by while the Turkish army tries to take Afrin from America’s Kurdish allies. It does warn, however, that American forces might take a different line if the Turks invade other Kurdish-held territories in Syria.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Syria, there were massive Israeli air strikes last week in retaliation for a small reconnaissance drone allegedly launched by Iranian forces in Syria that had entered Israeli airspace.

This huge over-reaction was orchestrated by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is trying to draw attention away from the criminal charges he is facing for corruption in office. A shabby tactic, certainly, but at least he knows who his real friends are (Trump and Saudi Arabia), and they all see Iran as the real enemy.

There is a kind of paranoid logic in that, but most of the players in Syria don’t have a serious strategy at all. Indeed the Americans, and increasingly the Russians as well, don’t have a clue about what they want as a final outcome. Neither do the Turks. It’s amateur hour in the Middle East.

The United States doesn’t want President Bashar al-Assad to win, but beyond that the Americans don’t know what they want. They originally made their alliance with the Syrian Kurds to destroy Islamic State, but now that that’s done they are essentially purposeless. Yet they won’t leave the field as long as the Russians and the Iranians are in Syria.

The Russians intervened to save Assad from defeat by Islamist rebels, which has also been accomplished. They would now like to declare a victory and leave, but they dare not leave so long as American troops are in Syria. And Assad (who does know what he wants – the ultimate reunification of Syria under his rule) works hard to keep the Russians trapped in the conflict.

The Turks are split right down the middle at home, with half the population swallowing President Erdogan’s line that all Kurds are terrorists. The other half disbelieves that and hates him, but Erdogan is pushing ahead with an invasion of Syria whose only rational goal would be the permanent Turkish occupation of Syria’s Kurdish-majority territories and the subjugation of the Kurds.

Yet the closer he gets to that goal, the more likely he is to provoke a counter-attack by the Syrian army, by the Russians, and even by the Americans. And by the way, after three weeks of fighting in Afrin the Turkish-led forces have actually made little progress against the Syrian Kurds. Like every player in the game, Erdogan habitually over-estimates his own strength.

The situation in Syria is coming to resemble the devastated and depopulated German lands in the final decade of the Thirty Years’ War, when almost all the local forces had lost their ideological motivations and were still fighting only because that was what they did for a living.

Then as now, foreign great powers would make splashy military interventions from time to time (Sweden, France and Spain then, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United States now), but those interventions effectively cancelled one another out and the war dragged on senselessly year after year.

The Syrian war is in its seventh year now, but the commitment of Turkish and American troops to the conflict raises the odds that it might make it to a decade. And down on the ground there is an orgy of betrayals as the local players lose old foreign patrons and find new ones.

Weirdly, it reminds me of the J. Geils Band’s greatest song (they didn’t have many): ‘Love Stinks’.
You love her
But she loves him
And he loves somebody else
You just can’t win…

I’ve had the blues
The reds and the pinks
One thing for sure
Love stinks.

There’s not much love happening in Syria right now, but the tangle of alliances and allegiances, mistaken identities, misunderstandings and betrayals, come straight out of a very bad romantic novel. However, real people are being killed in large numbers at every step in this pathetic, ridiculous story, and it stinks.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 15 and 16. (“Weirdly…stinks”)

Syria: A Carnival of Treachery

There are comical elements in the current Turkish invasion of northern Syria. Its name, for example: Operation Olive Branch. Or the frantic back-pedalling by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the announcement that triggered (or at least provided a pretext for) the Turkish offensive.

A week ago the US declared that it was building a new 30,000-strong ‘border security force’ in the territory controlled by the Syrian Kurds along the Turkish border. It would be backed by 2,000 US troops, who would remain there indefinitely. Whereupon Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exploded, and declared that his army would strangle this new Kurdish ‘terror army’ in its cradle.

Tillerson, who had been attending a pointless meeting in Vancouver of all the countries that sent troops to fight in the Korean War 67 years ago, was caught on the hop, and quickly denied it all. “That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” Tillerson said on the way to the plane. The lack of adult supervision in Washington extends beyond the White House.

In any case, too late. The Turkish army is now fighting its way into the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave, with further operations promised to eliminate the rest of the Kurdish-led ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ that the United States used to destroy Islamic State’s troops in eastern Syria. From Erdogan’s point of view, all Kurds are bad Kurds.

And Washington, as predicted, is betraying and abandoning its Kurdish allies. They were useful at the time, but it’s more important to keep Turkey happy. It’s the most powerful country in the Middle East, it’s a NATO ally (with the second-biggest army in the alliance), and it controls the Straits that give the Russian navy access to the Mediterranean. So the United States confines itself to urging ‘restraint’ on the Turks.

That’s what great powers say when they have no intention of intervening to stop something bad from happening – and the Russians are also urging restraint, so they are not going to stop the Turks either. The ally the Russians are betraying is the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad.

“We warn the Turkish leaders that if they start fighting in the region of Afrin, it will be seen as an aggression by the Turkish army against the sovereignty of Syria,” said Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad last week, adding that Syria would shoot down any Turkish planes bombing Afrin. But then Turkish military and intelligence chiefs flew to Moscow on Thursday and got Russian and Iranian approval for their bombing campaign.

The Damascus regime hates Turkish tanks on its soil, but it accepts Moscow’s hands-off policy because it still depends on Russian and Iranian military support for its remarkable come-back in the Syrian civil war. Besides, it suspects that America really was planning to create a Kurdish-ruled protectorate in the north-eastern part of Syria as a US base and counter-weight to the Russian presence in the country.

Why has Russia given the green light for the Turkish invasion? Because Vladimir Putin senses an opportunity to prise Turkey out of NATO and make it a Russian ally. That’s probably not going to happen, but Turkey has just bought $2.5 billion of Russian arms so he has some reason to hope. And he too suspects that the United States was planning to use the Kurds to maintain a foothold in Syria.

The Syrian Kurds are also lying. They insist that their army, the People’s Protection Units (YFP), has no links with the PKK, the nationalist and sometimes separatist movement of the Turkish Kurds, which is listed as a terrorist organisation by NATO, the United States and the European Union (although not by the UN). But of course they have links, and they share the same long-term goal: an independent Kurdish state.

In fact, everybody is lying, everybody has ulterior motives, and the Syrian people’s best interests are the last thing on anybody’s mind. Business as usual, in other words, including the usual betrayals.

This is a very old game, so old that the rulers of the first Sumerian city-states would recognise it. Indeed, even the head-men of warring aboriginal tribes in the New Guinea highlands would understand what is going on in Syria now – and realise that it is probably inevitable but generally futile.

A few thousand people get killed, a few pawns move on the strategic chessboard, and then it’s time for the next round. Once in a while things get out of hand and a great deal of death and destruction ensues over a broad area, but not often: maybe every second generation. And there is no final outcome: the leading players change from time to time, but the game never ends.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 9. (“The Syrian…state”)

Will the US Betray the Syrian Kurds?

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an angry man at the best of times, but on Monday he outdid himself: “This is what we have to say to all our allies: don’t get in between us and terrorist organisations, or we will not be responsible for the unwanted consequences.” That was a barely veiled threat that he will use force against American troops if they try to stop him from attacking the Syrian Kurds.

The iron law of international politics in the Middle East is that everybody betrays the Kurds. It was on display again in Iraq last October when the Baghdad government seized almost half the territory ruled by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

In obedience to that unwritten law, nobody else objected – including the United States, even though it had armed the Iraqi Kurds to fight Islamic State. But now the US government has effectively told the Syrian Kurds that they can keep the huge chunk of Syria they control for the indefinite future. And the Turkish government, predictably, has gone ballistic.

In President Erdogan’s book, any Kurd with a gun in his hand is a ‘terrorist’, and the Syrian Kurds are a ‘terror army’. In fact, they played the main role, under US air cover, in destroying the Syrian base of the real terrorists: Islamic State. As a result the army that the Kurds dominate, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), now controls almost half of Syria’s territory.

It’s the north-eastern, relatively empty half, with less than one-fifth of Syria’s population, but it includes all of Syria’s border with Iraq and almost all its border with Turkey. On Sunday Washington confirmed that it will help the SDF create a new 30,000 ‘border security force’ over the next several years that will police those borders – and also the ‘internal’ border between Kurdish-controlled Syria and the rest of the country.

The ‘rest of the country’ is now mostly back under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, after six years of civil war, thanks largely to the intervention of the Russian air force and Iranian militas. Both Moscow and Tehran immediately accused the United States of planning to partition Syria, and there is some substance in the accusation.

Washington is indeed creating a Kurdish-ruled protectorate in the northeastern half of Syria, and has declared that 2,000 US troops will stay there indefinitely. Or, to be more precise, until progress has been made in the UN-led peace talks in Geneva and it is certain that Islamic State is permanently defeated. Which is another way of saying indefinitely.

The main purpose of this sudden escalation in the US commitment in Syria is presumably to stop the Russians from winning a total victory in the country. The Syrian regime, of course, has denounced the plan as a “blatant attack” on its sovereignty – but Turkey is the only country threatening to kill Americans over it.

The Kurds always get betrayed because what they really want is an independent Kurdistan including all 20 million Kurds. But to create that, the four most powerful countries in the region – Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq – would all have to be partially dismantled. They will do whatever it takes to prevent that.

Erdogan re-started the war with Turkey’s own Kurdish separatists two years ago mainly for electoral advantage, but he really is fanatical on the subject. He is convinced that the Syrian Kurdish organisation, the YFP, is really just a branch of Turkey’s own PKK (which does have a terrorist past), and he is determined to destroy it.

The declaration of a de facto American protectorate over the Kurdish-dominated parts of Syria only makes the matter more urgent in Erdogan’s eyes. “A country we call an ally [the US] is insisting on forming a terror army on our border,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara on Monday. “What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born.”

That’s nonsense: the Syrian Kurds are not terrorists. They are American allies – and when the Turkish army first attacked Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria last spring, US troops drove in front of the Kurdish lines flying very large American flags to protect their allies from Turkish fire.

What Erdogan meant in that quote at the start was that next time, if American soldiers and flags obstruct Turkish operations, they will be blown away. Does he mean it? He may not know himself, but his army is going to move into several parts of Syrian Kurdish territory this week or next. Turkish artillery is already softening the targets up.

But the likelihood of a shooting war between Turks and Americans remains very low. Like Obama before him, Trump is pursuing a policy in Syria that is not backed up by enough force to make it credible. Everybody assumes that he is bluffing, and that he will betray the Syrian Kurds in the end.

For the peace of the world, it’s probably better that he does.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The Kurds…destroy it”)

The Fall of Kirkuk

Two big cities fell within 24 hours of each other last weekend. The fall of Raqqa in Syria, once the capital of all the territory ruled by ISIS, came after a five-month siege and was no surprise at all. The fall of the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk in Iraq took less than a day and came as a complete surprise.

Possession of Kirkuk was critical for the project of Kurdish independence, because it was the source of most of the oil that would have made an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq economically viable.

The Kurds of Iraq came tantalisingly close to realising their dream of independence. Since the first Gulf War of 1990, five Kurdish-majority provinces in northern Iraq have been ruled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which had American support because it opposed Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime. That American support continued even after the US invasion that finally overthrew Saddam in 2003.

The new government the US created in Baghdad had no control over the KRG, and the would-be Kurdish state almost doubled its territory by taking over the other provinces with Kurdish majorities, including oil-rich Kirkuk, after the Iraqi army fled in panic before a suprise ISIS offensive in 2014. Three weeks ago, the Kurdish government even held a referendum on independence in both its old and its new territories.

It has been clear for some time that the KRG’s Peshmerga fighters would be no match for a rebuilt and combat-tested Iraqi army, which had already recovered all the other territory it lost to ISIS three years ago. Yet the KRG’s president, Masoud Barzani, still went ahead with his referendum on 25 September, and 93 percent of the voters said yes to independence.

But then Iran, which is worried about the loyalty of its own large Kurdish minority just across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan, decided it was time to take the Kurds down a peg or three. As the greatest Shia power, Iran effectively controls a lot of the sectarian militias that make up the new Iraqi army, and the Baghdad government was happy to act as its proxy.

The KRG’s president, Masoud Barzani, probably assumed that American support would shield him from Iraqi retaliation when he called the referendum, but it didn’t. When Baghdad sent its troops in on Sunday, the Trump administration merely muttered some weasel words about not liking to see friends fight, and by Wednesday morning the area controlled by the KRG had shrunk by almost half.

Only months ago the Iraqi Kurds were fighting alongside the Iraqi army in the struggle to free Mosul from ISIS control, and the Syrian Kurds have been the main American ally in the fight to destroy ISIS in Syria. But once ISIS was defeated those alliances were bound to end: betraying the Kurds is a old Middle Eastern tradition. The only surprise is how fast it has happened, and how comprehensively the Kurds have lost.

There are about 30 million Kurds, but they live on territory that belongs to four of the most powerful states in the Middle East: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They have been seeking an independent Kurdish state for a century now, but all the countries that stand to lose large amounts of territory if it ever actually happened are profoundly opposed to that outcome.

Moreover, the Kurds themselves have never really been united, even within the borders of the KRG. In practice, control of the territory has always been split between factions centred on the Barzani or the Talabani clans. Each faction has its own militia, and they even fought a civil war that killed thousands in the mid 1990s.

People talk about the peshmerga as if it were a Kurdish national army, but it is actually a loose association of separate militias that answer to different commanders. In the past three years they cooperated in the war against ISIS, but they split over the question of Barzani’s referendum, which the Talabani faction thought was too dangerous. That turned out to be right.

There was no joint defence of Kirkuk when the Iraqi army finally moved. Indeed, there was hardly any defence at all; first the Talabani forced pulled out, and then Barzani’s troops had no option but to follow. The Kurdish dream of independence is at an end, and the Kurds will be lucky if they manage to keep even the autonomy they have enjoyed in Iraq since 1991.

Indeed, they will be lucky if can avoid another civil war over who is to blame for the catastrophe (from the Kurdish point of view) of the past few days.

On Wednesday, President Barzani gave a speech that said, presumably about the Talabani faction: “They want to drag us into a civil war, but we will in no way be doing this.”
But a lot of Kurds blame him and his referendum for provoking the disaster, and they will be looking for somebody to punish.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“It has…independence”; and “People…right”)