The bizarrely intertwined events of the Syrian conflict are suddenly playing out in a less than logical manner, but in fact this big reversal for the Kurds – who make up about 10% of Syria’s population – is no surprise. Although they’ve not lost a single battle and have made real gains in their fight against the Islamic State (IS), they have suddenly found themselves forced to abandon the vast swaths of the territory they had liberated east of the Euphrates.
Now that the Turks have invaded Syria, there is no more talk of granting the Kurds the status of a separate federal region within a new Syrian state – something the Kurds very much want – much less the independence for which many of them have secretly dreamed.
It is already clear that Ankara’s primary goal is not to fight IS, but to neutralize the Kurds. The Kurdish plan to unilaterally proclaim the establishment of a federal system in early October looks belated and out of touch with reality. Their hopes of seamlessly linking together all the Kurdish cantons across northern Syria now also look illusory. However the real problem is not Turkey, but the fact that the Kurds’ former patrons in Washington have decisively quashed all their aspirations.
The Kurds have once again been cynically used and left with nothing. The duplicity and poor choices of their allies are a curse that has plagued Kurdish history, possibly dating back to the era of the legendary Kurdish military commander Saladin (Salah ad-Din), who vanquished the Crusaders.
A prominent columnist for the Washington Post, David Ignatius, in an article with the indicative title, «The U.S.’s Syria Policy Rests on a Treacherous Fault Line» reminds us that until quite recently the US military consistently claimed that the Syrian Kurds were «the strongest force against the Islamic State.»
During the relentless fighting of 2014-2015, that force liberated vast territories, including the major cities of Al-Shaddadah and Manbij, strategically encircling the capital of IS, Raqqa, from the distant outskirts. Ignatius writes that he personally visited US training camps in northern Syria, where American instructors praised the courage and daring of the Kurdish fighters, viewing them as the backbone of the attack on Raqqa.
For a time, the Turks, although hostile to the Kurds, accepted this alliance. But all that changed after the failed military coup in Turkey. The «allies by proxy», trained by the Americans and hailing from various Syrian factions, now found themselves on opposite front lines. That was when US Vice President Joe Biden came to Ankara to lend his support to the steps taken by the Turkish government and demanded that the Kurds withdraw from Manbij and pull back across the Euphrates.
It goes without saying that this was a true breach of faith – something that has become an ignominious tradition. Ignatius writes that «Western powers over the past century have used Kurdish fighters when it suited their purposes, and then abandoned them when neighboring powers objected.» That is what happened after 1918, when the allies of the Entente ignored US President Woodrow Wilson’s promises to create a national home for the Kurds. In 1947, the British allowed Iran to wipe out a Kurdish republic that had been established within its own borders.
In 1975, despite promises to support Iraq’s Kurds, the Americans, along with the Shah of Iran, allowed Saddam Hussein to savagely crush their rise. But not long before that, in 1973, the leader of the Iraqi Kurds at that time, Mustafa Barzani – the father of the current president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani – pinned his hopes on American decency and stated, «America is too great a power to betray a small people like the Kurds.» But according to Ignatius that was a serious mistake.
One would hope that today’s Kurdish leaders would not repeat the errors of their fathers. One need only remember how, speaking about the deception of the Kurds in 1975, Henry Kissinger stated bluntly, «Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.» And aren’t all the current actions by the US administration in the Middle East in line with this extremely utilitarian recommendation?
Der Spiegel also believes that the Kurds have been the biggest losers from the new turn of events in Syria. Until recently, the Kurds seemed to be the «canniest players» in the Syrian game, with more victories than anyone else, but in the end they risked too much. The US, instead of acting as an intermediary between the warring Turks and Kurds, found itself in the schizophrenic position of being an ally to both sides. Sooner or later they would have to choose whom they preferred, and it seems they have now chosen the more powerful and geopolitically significant Turkey.
The Kurds’ relationship with the United States is rapidly deteriorating. Although, to be frank, they never really had a relationship. The US never regarded the Kurds as a partner, instead seeing them as something to be used and thrown away, despite any assurances to the contrary that Washington may have issued to the Kurdish leaders. This is yet another lesson, not only for the Kurds but to everyone throughout the Middle East. It is not the Americans, but others there who understand what it means to honor their commitments in the region.
Also noteworthy are the sophisticated tactics the Americans are using in their efforts to dump their Kurdish allies. At first they tried to cause a permanent rift between the Kurds and Bashar al-Assad. Those calculations were apparently based on the theory that, once they were left entirely on their own, the Kurds would be forced to swallow even more of their pride and continue to take orders from the Americans, even with the understanding that they were being shamelessly deceived.
The August clashes between the Kurds and Syrian government forces in Al-Hasakah – the capital of the province of the same name – which preceded the Turkish invasion of Jarabulus, could not have occurred without the knowledge and encouragement of the American advisers. Talal Silo, the official spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, which primarily consist of Kurdish militias, acknowledged that «We are US & coalition partners. They make decisions. Of course, we are free, but we can not attack if there is no signal from the Americans.» He also stated that the Americans prohibit their protégés the Kurds from making any contact with the Russians in Syria («in case communication with Russians you’re lose all our support» [sic].)
What was especially painful for Damascus, in addition to being driven out of Al-Hasakah, was the fact that Kurds from the neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsood in Aleppo at the same time blocked the Castello Road supply route used to provision the government forces in the western part of the city that had already been cut off by a sudden breakthrough by jihadists from the south (which has now been rectified).
For the first time in all the years of the war, the Syrian air force has bombed the Kurds. It’s no surprise that these actions were also approved for the first time in Ankara. There was even talk there about the acceptability of keeping Bashar al-Assad in power during the transition period, and they immediately seized upon a favorable moment for a long-prepared invasion. That meant that for the Kurds, their localized success in Al-Hasakah turned out to have negative consequences in a strategic sense. They have been thrown under the bus. And it is difficult to believe that the Americans were unaware of Turkey’s intentions. In Ankara, US Vice President Biden did not seem at all to have been taken by surprise, and his statements of approval did not sound in the least off-the-cuff.
Meanwhile, the latest turn of events is not bringing a resolution of the Syrian conflict any closer. The commanders of the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) have already informed the Pentagon that «if the Turks don’t get out», the Kurds might not take part in the planned Raqqa offensive. And there is simply no other force in the country that is capable of clearing out the «terrorist capital» anytime soon.
The agreement reached between the Americans and the Turks during the G20 summit in Hangzhou to jointly attack Raqqa is hardly feasible without the Kurds. Without them, that operation would require many Turkish and American ground forces to plunge deeply into Syrian territory. And that might not only bring many casualties, but would also likely face serious opposition in the United States and Turkey, as well as from other countries, including Russia and Iran.
Damascus, which still retains its seat at the UN, would also oppose it. Ankara might repeat the mistake made by the Kurds and set off down the «treacherously dangerous path» laid out for them. One can only hope that the Turks will not allow themselves to be coaxed into once again undermining the partnership with Moscow that required so much work to repair.
Yet the Kurds could salvage their situation, if they are able to make the right choice in the final stage of the war, by renouncing their fraudulent dependencies and alliances that promise them nothing but a copious «tribute of blood.» It seems more obvious that their natural ally – and essentially their only one – not only in warfare but also in achieving national self-determination in a post-war version of Syria, is Bashar al-Assad’s secular regime in Damascus.
No other opposition force, not the Americans and certainly not the Turks, give the slightest thought to any sort of national rights for the Syrian Kurds. Their current partners all see them as merely «along for the ride.» But Assad has an objective interest in reaching a permanent accord with the Kurds, because the support of ethnic and religious minorities will always be needed in order to stand up to Sunni fundamentalism. And no genuine alliance will be possible unless they are allowed to realize their aspirations.