Syrian Kurds’ calculations, between Turkey and US
WASHINGTON - In December 1945, a small area of Iranian Kurdistan, centred on the city of Mahabad, declared itself an autonomous republic and the Iranian government could do nothing about it as the area was within the Soviet zone of occupation during second wold war and its aftermath. The Soviets provided some assistance to the fledgling Kurdish republic but it operated mostly on its own.
US intelligence officials who visited Mahabad in 1946 were impressed with the new republic’s leader, Qazi Muhammad, a soft-spoken Kurdish intellectual. Although he was only in charge of a small piece of territory, Qazi Muhammad had a large map on his office wall depicting the boundaries of a larger Kurdistan, one encompassing territories in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. It was a map of the nationalists’ dream.
Despite the sympathies of US officials towards the Kurds, strategic issues soon trumped their personal feelings. When Soviet troops left north-western Iran in May 1946, the Iranian Kurds and Azeris, who also had established an autonomous republic, were vulnerable. In December 1946, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, with US encouragement, sent in Iranian troops to reclaim the territory. Qazi Muhammad was arrested and hanged for treason in 1947.
US support for Iran’s territorial integrity and the shah, a pro-Western ally in the burgeoning Cold War, was far more important than supporting Kurdish nationalism.
This history has relevance to the present era. In the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, US military officials (and US Special Forces on the ground) have been impressed with the fighting ability of the Syrian Kurds, most of whom are affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). They have been the most effective fighters in Syria against ISIS.
Politically, the Syrian Kurds have created an autonomous proto-state called Rojava in eastern and northern Syria that flies its own flag and has its own administration. Rojava means “west” in the Kurdish language, signifying the western portions of Kurdistan.
But US support for the Syrian Kurds has run up against Turkey’s deep antipathy towards the PYD because of its reported links with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which has fought an armed separatist campaign against Turkey since 1984. Both Ankara and Washington consider the PKK a terrorist organisation.
Turkish troops, backed by air strikes, have moved into parts of northern Syria ostensibly to clear ISIS fighters from the town of Jarabulus with the support of the Free Syrian Army. However, a large part of the mission was to strike YPG fighters and, in the words of the Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik, prevent the Kurds “from joining their east and west cantons in Syria”.
The PYD not only controls north-eastern Syria but also an enclave north of Aleppo.
More ominously, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “We will continue until we uproot this terror [PYD] organisation.”
Syrian Kurds captured the ISIS-controlled city of Manbij just west of the Euphrates River and south of Jarabulus this summer and were supposed to relinquish it to the Free Syrian Army because it is an ethnic Arab town. There are conflicting reports on whether all of the Kurdish fighters have left.
During his late August visit to Ankara, US Vice-President Joe Biden, who went to Turkey to assure Erdogan of US support in light of conspiracy theories about the US role in the failed Turkish military coup — felt compelled to address the Syrian Kurdish issue. Biden said there would be no Kurdish corridor in Syria or separate Kurdish entity on the border and underscored that Washington supported a “united Syria”. Biden also threatened to end US support for the Syrian Kurds if they do not exit Manbij.
These statements caused anxiety among Syrian Kurdish groups that the United States has been training and fighting with for two years. It sounded like the United States was planning to sell them out for the goal of supporting the more powerful Turkish state. The Kurds have seen this movie before.
Biden, who was often a critic of Turkey when he was a US senator, may have hyped up the rhetoric to assuage his Turkish hosts. The Syrian Kurds are in a stronger position today than were their brethren in 1946 in large part because they are helping the United States pursue a strategic goal (destroying ISIS) but the Kurds are still vulnerable to the much larger Turkish military forces.
US President Barack Obama, at the Group of 20 summit in China, reportedly advised Erdogan to concentrate on ISIS targets, not the Syrian Kurds, It is unclear whether the Turks would desist from their campaign against the Kurds.
PYD officials would be wise to declare loudly their support for a federated and united Syrian state with autonomous regions. This is a reasonable position to take given the nature of the conflict and would receive considerable attention and support in Washington despite Turkish opposition.