Andrei SHERIKHOV – Independent analyst and researcher
Last March, at the peak of the pressure on Syria and Iran, the Syrian Kurds boldly declared the independence of West Kurdistan, with the city of Afrin as the capital. The territory thus claimed lies in the northern part of Syria and borders Turkey. A forum of Syrian opposition groups held earlier this year in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, passed a resolution to the effect that a self-governed Kurdish formation would be established in North-Eastern Syria when Assad's regime finally falls.
Predictably, it took Turkey virtually no time to respond. Premier Erdogan said that the only way to keep civilians safe in the Idleb and Rakka provinces would be to dispatch the Turkish troops and to set up a buffer security zone in the region. If the plan becomes reality, guerrillas from the Syrian Liberation Army would get enviable positions for attacks against the government forces in Syria plus a stronghold where they would be free to exercise and to reorder their ranks under Western instructors' oversight.
Should the promised Western Kurdistan come into being, Ankara which already faces serious risks due to the near-total autonomy of Southern Kurdistan in Iraq would be confronted with two serious problems instead of one. It should be taken into account that, as the developments in Libya increasingly demonstrate, central governments in countries recovering after regime change have slim chances to regain control over the territories which had sent independence messages in the days of unrest.
Ankara simply must keep a lid on whatever concerns Western Kurdistan, considering that the rise of a new center of Kurdish statehood in Syria would likely be a prologue to the creation of a Greater Kurdistan and thereby put Turkey on the brink of territorial disintegration. The course taken by Syrian Kurds can inspire their brethren resident in Turkey, and their separatist tendencies are as of today Ankara's worst headache.
Kurds, in turn, also reacted to the plan rolled out by Ankara without delay. Leaders of the Kurdistan Workers Party – in particular, Murat Karayilan – threatened that fighting would immediately spill across the entire Kurdistan if the Turkish army invades Syria.
in the settings, opponents of the Kurdish movement were able to charge that the Kurds must have cut a secret deal with B. Assad. Allegations sounded that they expect special terms from Damascus upon B. Assad's re-winning a grip on the country and that some of the pledges were already being fulfilled. The Kurdish wish list in Syria is well-known and features citizenship for some 400,000 of the 2.5 million Kurds living in the country, a cultural autonomy, school instruction in Kurdish, the opening of Kurdish-language media, etc. It must be noted that the territory of West Kurdistan is strategic as a source of agricultural products for Syria and as the part of the country containing key oil reserves.
The dynamics within the Syrian opposition appears to support the hypothesis that there indeed exists some sort of a deal with Assad. At the end of last March, the Syrian opposition held crucial negotiations in Istanbul, and the Kurdish delegates walked out in the process, further destabilizing the fairly disunited front. In a pertinent comment, the Курдистан.ру outlet stressed that a recent report by Henry Jackson Society, a British-based foreign-policy thinktank, described the Kurds as “the decisive minority” in the anti-Assad revolution and said that their joining the cause would be “in the interests of the U.S. for a stable and inclusive Syria”. Regardless of the West's calls, though, the Kurds are showing little if any resolve to get into the fight against Assad.
The Iraqi Kurdistan, in the meantime, urges the Kurds to eye the involvement in Syria with caution. Kurdistan's director of security and intelligence Masrour Barzani maintained in an interview that, being a part of the Middle East, the Kurds should be prepared for a worst-case scenario and receptive to whatever opportunities – if changes create greater stability, everybody will enjoy the enhanced security, but otherwise security will deteriorate and preparations have to be made accordingly.
The truth is that consensus between the Kurdish leaders and their Arab partners over the status the Kurds would be given in Syria if Assad is ejected has not been reached. The Kurds demand clearcut guarantees, but the Syrian opposition declines to provide them. As a result, the Kurds have no motivation to fight against the government in Syria. In contrast, B. Assad has accommodated some of the Kurdish demands since the outbreak of unrest in the country.
Speaking of the possibility that an independent West Kurdistan establishes itself as an independent territory and starts struggling for survival under pressure from both Turkey and Syria (with or without B. Assad) and that political turbulence erupts on other Kurdish-populated territories, the unraveling of the story would show that a global scenario intended to radically transform the region's political landscape is being implemented. One of the issues capable of jumping to the regional agenda is the independence of South Kurdistan from Iraq. In fact, Kurdish autonomy president Masoud Barzani upheld the plan to declare the independence following the celebrations of Nowruz on May 21, but the step was postponed.
The complexities around Iran additionally factor into the above situation. If the Western coalition attacks the country, the Kurds would likely unveil their own set of demands as they did during the war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980ies.
The launch of any of the scenarios – the declaration of independence by West Kurdistan, by the Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, or by Iranian Kurds – or of the three combined would electrify all Kurdish-populated territories, and the explainable merger of the newly born statehoods would mark the materialization of the old Kurdish dream about the Greater Kurdistan. The circumstance not to be overlooked at this point is that the Kurds are backed by a hyperpowerful ally – the US. The reasons behind Washington's support for the Greater Kurdistan aspirations are on the surface. First, the cooperativeness displayed by Masoud Barzani and the whole Kurdish community makes it considerably easier for the US to handle Iraq where, at the moment, the Kurdish part is more stable and manageable than any other. Secondly, the US-Kurdish partnership evidently has a destabilizing impact on Iraq, where the Kurdish population is bigger than in Iran (6.6 million vs. 5 million) and inhabits a larger chunk of the territory (160,000 vs. 75,000 square kilometers). A further objective linked to Washington's engagement with the Kurds is to achieve control over the Middle Eastern oil and gas reserves. The autonomy of South Kurdistan and the friendship with Barzani should help the US military presence in Iraq continue even after the announced withdrawal. For a time, rumor had it that the Pentagon either intended to plant a new airbase in the Kurdish autonomy or to transfer to it the Incirlik base from Turkey, and it did not evade watchers that no official statements disproving the projection had been released.
The Arab Spring made the Kurds a group central to the US plan to dominate the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, and the Persian Gulf. The Kurds who never dropped their centuries-old independence goal out of sight are eager to seize the arising opportunities and to capitalize on the strategic alliance with the US.