Kurds in the Limelight of the Syrian War Theater


The Syrian war, which has dragged on for eight years, causing two million casualties and many more refugees, was not fought to determine the plight of the Kurds living in Syria. Many more complicated issues were involved and various other interested parties collided in the process.

As the war winds down and the Syrian government brings much of its territory back under its control, the parties who had a stake in the conflict are about to collect their booties, before allowing the Syrian government and people to begin the recovery efforts.

As an outcome of the war and the ensuing diplomatic negotiations, the Kurdish issue has emerged and became an intractable problem getting in the way of a final settlement.

At the beginning of the war, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey cooperated in infiltrating Syria with mercenaries and supplying them with arms, the goal being to topple the last secular regime in the Arab world.

As Iranians showed up on the scene, that changed the paradigm and rendered the crusade into a cause célèbre, as if a Sunni coalition was fighting Shiite expansionism in the region. This concept best suited US policy planners, since the attention of the Arab masses was diverted away from Israel and a bogeyman was discovered to justify the conflict.

On the one hand, advances by the Assad regime on the ground, with the help of Russians and Iranians, and on the other hand the splinter of the Sunni coalition with the fallout between the Saudis and the Qataris, altered the entire scenario.

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The Kurdish issue was one of the unintended consequences of the war. At this point, the Kurds are experiencing the same dilemma that the Armenian Legionnaires experienced during 1918-1920. A fighting force of some 5,000 young Armenian volunteers had been recruited by the Allied commanders to fight along them against the German-Ottoman armies entrenched in and around Jerusalem. The Armenian Legionnaires spearheaded the attack at the Battle of Arara, breaking the German-Ottoman fortifications, which signaled the beginning of the end of World War I.

Armenians were motivated to join the Allies with the hope of receiving home rule in Cilicia. As the victorious Armenian Legionnaires marched into Cilicia, followed by the deported civilian population, the French authorities began disarming the volunteer legion, leaving, at the end, the defenseless population to the tender mercies of the marauding Kemalist forces.

The same fate is now awaiting the Kurds who fought along the US forces to defeat ISIS in northern Syria in order to carve out a potential canton for themselves. Once again, the Turks are there to wipe the Kurds out of northern Syria. At this time, two million Kurds occupy one-third of the Syrian territory. Thus far, the US administration is refusing to succumb to the backstabbing policy that the French pursued in 1920.

Therefore, the Kurdish issue has become one of the most topical problems of the Syrian war. There is a standoff between two NATO allies — the US and Turkey.

President Trump is exercising a steadfast policy in defending the Kurdish allies.  But if history is any guide, the major forces will eventually find a fig leaf policy to defuse the crisis, mostly at the expense of the weaker parties.

Thus far, the US has been adamant in guaranteeing the security of the Kurds in the region, after the withdrawal of its forces. Already, a concession has been made to the Turkish side by promising them to disarm the Kurdish forces. But that has not met the demands of Sultan Erdogan, who has become more arrogant and belligerent.

Topics: Kurds

President Trump sent his National Security Advisor John Bolton, who is not known for his diplomatic skills, to Turkey to negotiate.

President Erdogan outdid Bolton’s arrogance and refused to meet with the latter’s delegation. Instead, he relegated the negotiations to a third-rate government functionary, Ibrahim Kalin, and he took to the airways to denounced Bolton and the US policy.

Bolton’s earlier stop in the region was Israel, where he told journalists that  President Trump would not “allow Turkey to kill the Kurds.” Further unfolding US policy, he had stated, “We do not think the Turks ought to undertake military action that is not fully coordinated and agreed to by the United States at a minimum, so they don’t endanger our troops but also so that they meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered.”

While the negotiations were still in progress, President Erdogan’s furious speech was broadcast. He said Mr. Bolton had “made a huge mistake.” Reverting to his Machiavellian skills, Erdogan assured his public that Ankara seeks only to kill “terrorists while actually protecting the Kurdish brothers in the neighboring country.”

The definition of “terrorist” has become a bone of contention between the two sides. The US and by extension, the European Union, agree with Turkey that the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) is a terrorist organization which has mounted an insurgency in Turkey for the past 30 years. In reality, the organization, led from jail by Abdullah Ocalan, is defending the rights of 20 million Kurds in Turkey. Across the border in Syria, Kurdish fighters operate legitimate political groups that have allied themselves with the US and proved to be the most effective forces in defeating the IS in Syria. Yet, for the Turkish government, they also are an extension of the PKK in Syria and thus considered terrorists.

The US Kurdish allies constitute the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), composed of 25,000 Kurds and 5,000 Arabs, and the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The Kurds have organized a political organization, the Democratic Union (PYD), which governs their affairs in the territories under their control.

In his speech, Mr. Erdogan warned that Turkey will deploy its forces soon in the Kurdish areas and no one can stop them. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu, in his turn, announced: “Turkey will do whatever is necessary against a terror organization posing threats to its national security,” even after meeting his US counterpart, Mike Pompeo.

Mr. Pompeo’s job is cut out for him. While he was entangled in delicate negotiations with the Turkish officials, his boss, President Trump, threw a live grenade, tweeting: “We will devastate Turkey economically if it attacks the Kurds.”

When asked about the president’s statement, he answered that the question should be directed at Mr. Trump, while an irate spokesman for Erdogan reminded the US to “honor our strategic partnership.”

While dealing with Mr. Trump’s intemperate behavior, Mr. Pompeo has to assuage regional allies that the US is not abandoning the region.

All the parties who were encouraged by the US to get involved in the adventure of overthrowing the Syrian regime are now critical of the US policy of unilateral withdrawal. In this matter, Mr. Pompeo threw his hands up and said: “It’s an ambitious objective but it is ours and it is our mission.”

While fiery rhetoric is crisscrossing the region and while so many issues collide, no one seems to be in the mood to listen. Mr. Pompeo’s whirlwind mission in eight Middle Eastern countries continues, where he is engaged in a diversionary tactic announcing that the “United States will expel every last Iranian boot from Syria.”

Indeed, Turkey is negotiating the outcome of the war in Syria with Iran and Russia. On the other hand, Iran and Turkey have a common cause to fight all Kurdish aspirations in the Middle East. There is a huge Kurdish minority in Iran, as in Turkey.

Despite the turmoil, Mr. Pompeo left the region on a positive note that a “good outcome” could be reached between Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish groups. That outcome is a 20-mile buffer zone that the US is proposing to the Turks against a pledge that they will not overrun the Kurdish forces there.

The US insistence in protecting the Kurds does not emanate from charitable sentiments nor is it driven by any moral compunction. The role model is already in view for anyone to see: the Kurdish autonomous enclave in Iraq was hailed by Israel, which is the only country advocating a Kurdish independent state, as Israel has set up shop in that enclave. The repeat scenario may take place in Syria.

No matter how recklessly President Trump may behave against Turkey, there are more seasoned diplomats around him who will caution him against pushing Turkey further into a Russian embrace.

The Kurds were given an independent homeland with the Treaty of Sevres of 1920, along with the Armenians. That dream was frustrated by the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, which resurrected a defeated Turkey at the expense of its victims. Today, after shedding so much blood on the Syrian battlefield, they seem to get closer to their dream of some kind of autonomy.

The next step is dealing with the Syrian government which has vowed to “liberate every inch of its national territory.”


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