The Kurds: Everyone’s ally and everyone’s foe
They are supposed to be on the same side, fighting a common enemy. Still, given that the end game for each side is a very different map of what post-civil-war Syria should look like, there are frequent clashes between Kurdish forces fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad and other rebel forces.
Earlier this month, Syrian rebels fighting to capture Islamic State-held al-Bab said they clashed with Kurdish forces also attempting to seize the city. The fighting occurred in the village of Sheikh Nasser, which was only recently taken from ISIS by the Turkish-backed rebels.
Yet Ankara views the Kurdish forces, part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters, as an enemy and looks at any territorial gain by Kurdish forces with suspicion, afraid that it would contribute to the hope of eventually creating an independent Kurdish state.
History has not been kind to the Kurds as, time and time again, they found themselves short-changed by Western politicians who promised them that they would help establish a Kurdish homeland only to renege at the last minute.
And if history has been unkind to the Kurds, geography has been even more unkind, placing the Kurdish area and people between Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Talk about bad neighbourhoods.
The Iraqis gassed them, wiping out entire villages. Saddam Hussein’s henchman, his first cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, notoriously known as “Chemical Ali” for his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, deployed chemical agents regardless of the women, children and elderly present.
The Iranians hanged and executed by firing squad hundreds of Kurds. Kurdish militants in Syria were arrested and jailed without trial. And in Turkey, the Kurdish parties are considered terrorist organisations.
Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan, officially known as the Kurdish Autonomous Region, has fared far better that the rest of the country from a security and an economic perspective.
The region has enjoyed relative calm and has prospered greatly, with a number of international hotels setting up branches in the capital, Erbil. Baghdad, while it has no great love for the Kurds, nevertheless will fight tooth and nail to maintain the region well inside the frail and fractured republic of Iraq given that the majority of Iraq’s oil comes from wells in Iraqi Kurdistan. Losing the oil revenues from the Kurdistan region would be disastrous for Baghdad.
Protected by the US Air Force, which turned the entire Iraqi Kurdish region into a no-fly zone for the Iraqi military after the 1991 Gulf War, today Iraqi Kurdistan is as close to being an independent state as it is likely to get, at least in the near future.
As the former representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) told this reporter when the Kurds inaugurated the KRG’s representative office in Washington just a few blocks from the White House: “This is as close to an embassy we will get without seriously upsetting Baghdad.”
The Kurds seem to go out of their way to appease the West, particularly the United States. This is something of an anomaly in a part of the world where animosity to America seems to be the order of the day.
Since the outset of the Syrian civil war the Kurds have sided with the anti-regime forces. The peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters, have assisted US forces since the first Gulf War.
They have proven to be an effective force in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS). Although they are in large part Sunni Muslim, they opposed their fellow co-religionists in ISIS. Upon liberating a town from ISIS, Kurdish fighters scrambled atop an old church to restore the heavy stone crucifix that ISIS had taken down.
So far the Kurdish interaction with Western powers throughout the current Middle East conflict has been quite positive.
But will this honeymoon stand the test of time and Middle East geopolitics?
What is likely to happen if and when Ankara decides to launch an all-out assault on the Kurds? What will be the US position given the close relationship between Washington and Erbil and the fact that Turkey is part of NATO?
Will a battle-tested and largely successful Kurdish military force represent a new military reality to be dealt with in the region?