One major factor behind President Trump’s decision to withdraw US special forces from Syria is the dominant position achieved by Russia, in alliance with Iran, in restoring the fortunes of Syria’s President Bashar al Assad. Another seems to have been a telephone discussion with Turkey’s President Erdogan just before Christmas 2018. The implications of this are worrying.
The military defeat of Islamic State (IS) over the eight long years of Syria’s civil conflict has been due in no small measure to the part played by the doughty Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. But for Erdogan the Kurds and their aspirations – whether for civil rights, for autonomy or, worst of all, for independence – are a constant thorn in the flesh. Kurd-occupied territory encompasses substantial areas of Turkey, but also of Syria, Iraq and Iran. It spans their borders. So Erdogan faces not only a domestic political threat from Turkish Kurds, but what he perceives as their military support abroad, and specifically in north-eastern Syria.
Long before the civil war, the 2 million Kurds in Syria, accounting for 15 percent of the population, had aspired to some degree of autonomy. Their opportunity came with the internal uprising in 2011 against Assad’s regime. As the civil war inside Syria resulted in Islamic State winning vast swaths of territory, the Syrian Kurds began battling IS up in the north-east. Backed by air support and special forces from the US and its allies, the Kurdish Peshmergas began to prevail, winning back large areas of Kurd-inhabited territory.
Today the Kurd-occupied region – about 25 per cent of the old Syria – is formally known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), ruled under a new federal and democratic constitution. It is not a sovereign state nor, if statements from its leaders are to be believed, does it aspire to be one. It is a semi-autonomous region, and there have been formal moves by its leaders to reach an accommodation with the Syrian president.
In September 2017 Walid Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister, said that his country was open to the idea of greater powers for the country’s Kurds. They ”want a form of autonomy within the framework of the borders of the state,” he said. “This is negotiable and can be the subject of dialogue.” He indicated – presumably with the acquiescence of Russia – that discussions could begin once the civil conflict had ended.
A Kurdish legislator, Omar Usi, who sits in Syria’s national parliament in Damascus, recently said the government wanted the Kurds to “facilitate the entry of the Syrian army and the return of state institutions into Kurdish-majority areas east of the Euphrates.” In return, it was offering “constitutional recognition for the Kurdish community and its cultural rights.”
All this might eventually result in a Syrian version of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan that is recognized by the Iraqi government. But any such formal recognition of the DFNS would be anathema to Erdogan. Whatever degree of autonomy Syria’s Kurds might gain could only reinforce the separatist demands of the Kurds in Turkey.
This explains Erdogan’s incursion in January 2018 into the region around Afrin in north-west Syria. His success in defeating the Kurdish forces there indicates that, allowed a free hand, Erdogan would probably take action aimed at gaining dominance right along the Turkey-Syrian border, decimating the DFNS Kurdish-ruled region.
Subsequent to his off-the-cuff announcement about US troop disengagement from Syria, Trump seems to have allowed wiser counsels to prevail. The US simply could not allow a free-for-all to develop inside Syria, give Turkey carte blanche in its vendetta against the Kurds, and throw its long-time and successful ally and partner to the wolves. So whatever the substance of his telephone discussion with Erdogan, Trump now indicates that there is to be no hasty US withdrawal from Syria. It will be done, but in a measured and timely fashion.
It is well established that in foreign relations there is little or no room for sentiment. Realpolitik is the order of the day. But the civilized world does owe a debt of gratitude to the Kurdish people in general, and to their stalwart Pershmerga fighters in particular, for their successful efforts to combat the evil and inhumane IS movement. Theirs has been a long struggle for recognition and self-determination. It is time the world honoured its debt and at least allowed the Kurds in Syria to negotiate an acceptable future for themselves as part of the post-war settlement.
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