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Assessing the threat that Syria’s Kurds pose to Turkey and the US

March 10, 2020 at 3:34 pm

This picture taken on July 30, 2019 shows a view of shelters at al-Khazir camp for the internally displaced, located between Iraq’s northern city of Mosul and the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region Arbil. [SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images]

The Kurds are one of the population groups that are native to Mesopotamia, numbering between 25 and 35 million people. They mostly live in south-east Turkey, north-east Syria, northern Iraq, north-west Iran and south-west Armenia. Race, culture and language unite the Kurds across different nation state borders, although there are naturally different dialects, political affiliations and some religious minorities within the Sunni Muslim majority. Nonetheless, religion is not a fundamental element of today’s Kurdish cultural lifestyle, in contrast to their Arab and Persian neighbours.

The dream of creating a homeland of Kurdistan began after the First World War and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, when the victorious Western allies made provision for a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. The dream was crushed when Turkey’s nationalist leader, Kemal Ataturk, protested against the already-signed treaty and waged another war which forced the Allied Powers to draft the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 wherein parts of Armenia and the Kurdish region remained under Turkish rule. In other words, the establishment of the boundaries of many nation states, including modern Turkey, did not lead to the Kurds getting their own state.

In Syria, the Kurds have opened a new and different chapter in their modern history. When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, the minority took a different approach towards the conflict. It totally ignored the reality on the ground of the Syrian regime, a Syrian uprising and a terrorist organisation known as Daesh. Instead, the Kurds established a self-governing region in north-east Syria, known as Rojava. In July 2012, the Syrian regime forces under the command of President Bashar Al-Assad withdrew from north-east Syria to defend Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Deir Ez-Zur. In response, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (YPD) decided to protect and govern itself in a “radically democratic” style. The autonomous region of Rojava was defended by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), including its three main cities of Kobani, Jazira and Afrin.

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The US made an opportunistic alliance with the Kurds in a complicated war against the Russian-backed regime and Daesh. America provided air cover to the Kurds when Daesh besieged Kobani in January 2015, for example. With this US support, Rojava gained more territory and incorporated the cities liberated from Daesh under its umbrella, which was renamed the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Kurdish fighters later allied with non-Kurdish fighters to form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on 11 October, 2015. This alliance surprisingly ended when US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw his military support and personnel from Rojava, claiming that the Kurds were never America’s allies in the first place and their conflict with Turkey is “natural” and “endless” like many others in the Middle East. This was perceived as a major US betrayal of the Kurds.

Turkey took advantage of the US withdrawal and sent its army to Rojava. This was expected, as Ankara views the rise of the Syrian Kurds as a threat due to their ideological affiliation with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and its western allies. The PKK and YPG share an intellectual lineage back to the political teachings of the jailed PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan. Having a strong Kurdish presence, whether it be an autonomous region or an independent state in north-east Syria, poses a direct geopolitical threat to Turkey.

As well as Turkey, other parties involved in the Syrian conflict also had an interest in the US withdrawal from Rojava. Daesh and other extremists went through a long war with the Syrian Kurds. The Assad regime justified its military return to the north-east region as a means to protect itself from the Turkish military operation. A relieved Russian government also benefited from a lower level US military presence.

Putting all of the external interests and actions in and around the Kurdish region aside, what was Rojava actually like? Its decentralised autonomy was based upon its constitution, known as the Charter of the Social Contract. The movement claimed to promote “radically democratic and decentralised self-governance, equity between genders, regenerative agriculture, a justice system based on reconciliation and inclusion of minorities”. All are aspects of a democratic life that Turkey, and, to some degree, the US do not enjoy fully. The role of women was one of Rojava’s most popular elements. They were on the front line with the YPG and involved in the regional government, to an extent that it was believed that one third of the Kurdish fighters in that part of Syria were women. It is worth noting that a clash of interests arose between some Arabs and Kurds in the area, as the latter’s self-governance strategy indirectly promoted the idea of an independent Kurdistan.

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Looking at Turkey’s concern, an interesting exercise would be to understand the motive behind the reaction of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan towards the Rojava project when the Kurds in Iraq are enjoying a de-facto state in all but name. Could it really be just due to the Syrian Kurds’ affiliation with the PKK? What if Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government decides to align fully with the PKK one day? Or was Rojava’s organic experiment one for which the Kurds in Turkey could be encouraged to sacrifice themselves, in contrast to the Iraqi model, which despite its development and economic achievements, is still a corrupt, nepotistic dictatorship?

What motivated the US to sacrifice a promising proxy from which it could have benefited greatly? The Kurds in Syria were favoured by most European Union countries, as they promoted an alternative to the radical armed groups in the Syrian context and beyond. One possibility is that the US realised that it is political incompatible with the Syrian Kurds, who are more left-wing.

The fundamental argument here is that regardless of any possible revival in US-Kurd relations in Syria, or the repercussions of Turkey’s military operations in Syria against the Kurds or the Syrian regime, the Kurdish autonomous region with its communal-governance in the north-east is always likely to find itself uncertain about an alliance with the US, but very certain about a confrontation with Turkey.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.