Up until recently remaining neutral to the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, the Kurds, amidst the devastating offensive of the radical group “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), have found themselves in the firing line and thus have had to take up arms to fight back.
After the withdrawal of Syrian government troops from the densely populated Kurdish settlements (the provinces Afrin, Jazira, Kobani and the areas around the cities Aleppo and Damascus), local Kurdish fighters have had to repel border raids and attacks by Islamist units on their own to ensure the safety of the population and the activity of the local government. For a long time clashes between the Kurds and the jihadists were local and sporadic, and the Kurdish enclaves enjoyed a relatively normal life; the total number of refugees and displaced persons was insignificant.
During peace talks and conferences such as “Geneva-1″ and “Geneva-2″, the Kurds preferred to act as a third party and stressed that they expected the future authorities in Damascus (no matter who came to power) to restore their legitimate rights and freedoms to the level of a titular Arab nation. In practice, this means a proportional number of Kurds participating in the legislative and executive branches, the state apparatus, law enforcement agencies, the independent creation of local (municipal) authorities and the recognition of the Kurdish language as a language of regional communication. Syrian Kurds have offered their own views on the future state organization of the country, where all ethnic and religious groups could peacefully co-exist and evolve within the boundaries of a new democratic state. The status of a “cultural autonomy” would suit them perfectly well.
So far the political, diplomatic, financial, material and military assistance to the armed Syrian opposition from the US and its Western and regional allies has not only prolonged the Syrian civil war, but has also provoked a new wave of chaos and violence in the country and the region by way of strengthening the positions of radical Islamists. In the summer of 2014 the pro-Western moderate Sunni opposition against the regime of Bashar al-Assad ultimately ceased to exist. Most of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) units, armed and equipped by Washington and its allies, eventually sided with the Al-Qaeda based military and political group ISIS, which quite easily established control over a large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. The financial and material resources obtained via special services and non-governmental foundations of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as the latest designs of American heavy weapons and military equipment acquired during the successful offensive in Iraq have turned ISIS into the most powerful regional group capable of carrying out large-scale fighting both against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Iraq’s central government. Isolated ISIS military operations have been observed in Lebanon.
The ISIS leader has already laid claims to the territory of Kuwait. The Islamists have not hesitated to attack smaller anti-government groups not willing to join their cause. In the occupied Syrian and Iraqi territories, ISIS leaders have announced the creation of an Islamic caliphate with all the necessary attributes (the black banner, Islamic rule, Sharia courts, mass executions of prisoners, infidels and dissenters, the Islamisation of education and all aspects of life).
Analysts believe that the leaders of ISIS may try to expand the territory under their control by occupying the Syrian Kurdish enclaves, considering them as easy targets. The interest of the “jihadists” to the Kurdish areas is being amplified due to the fact that these territories have large deposits of oil and gas. The Kurdish militias of Syria, split apart and possessing only small arms, are unlikely to be able to withstand ISIS military units in the long term. The military units have carried out planned artillery and mortar attacks in Damascus, and are responsible for the recent destruction of several Iraqi mechanized divisions and the storming of Iraq’s second city Mosul with a population of 2.5 million.
Without swift and effective assistance from fellow tribesmen in neighbouring countries (Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdistan Workers’ Party of Turkey and the Iranian Kurds) and without the immediate intervention of the world community under the aegis of the UN Security Council, Syrian Kurds will find themselves in an extremely difficult situation. With all due respect for the courage of Kurds, born fighters, and their readiness for self-sacrifice, it should be noted that as of now the sides to the conflict are evidently unbalanced. Syrian Kurds have already lost about one thousand militants in fights with jihadists, some one hundred Kurds have been taken prisoner or hostage and fighting has also claimed about two thousand civilian lives. There are serious fears that Syrian Kurds could become part of a bargain in regional geopolitics and their territories could in the long term be occupied by the Islamist groups.
Such pessimistic forecasts by experts are based on the recent tragic developments in northern Iraq when ISIS gunmen dealt with the Yezidi Kurds in the most ruthless manner. Hundreds were executed, tens of thousands fled to Iraqi Kurdistan or were forced to hide in the remote mountainous region of Sinjar without water, food and warm clothing. The Peshmerga brigades who came to their rescue, the US surgical strikes on militant targets and the airlifted relief supplies saved the surviving Yezidi Kurds from death and genocide. Direct military assistance in the form of weapons and ammunition, promised by the US and other Western countries to the Iraqi Kurds, has not yet arrived to the region. Moreover, the new government in Baghdad opposes such moves.
Tens of thousands of radical Islamists from all over the world, by undergoing military training with the help of American instructors in Jordan, Turkey and other countries, armed with the latest weapons and equipment and having virtually unlimited financial and human resources, have created their own state (the Islamic Caliphate) in the centre of the Eastern Arab world and they intend to expand its borders even further. At present, neither Syrian nor Iraqi authorities have the means to counter the aggression. Surgical strikes by the US Air Force on “jihadist” positions remain irregular and inconsistent and have not had any serious effect on the combat capability of ISIS units. It seems that Washington does take into account the potential of ISIS and associated radical Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra in possible fighting against the much hated regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the Shia group Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is possible that within the State Department and the CIA, the self-proclaimed Sunni caliphate is being considered as a buffer zone or barrier in the so-called Shia chain coming from Tehran. It seems that, in the pursuit of its national, selfish goals in the region, Washington (in close cooperation with Ankara, Riyadh and Doha) has created, in addition to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, yet another terrorist monster that could destabilize the region for many years to come.
By a twist of fate, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are standing in the way of the further expansion of the Islamic caliphate under conditions of weak central governments and limited aid from Western countries; as a result they are forced to mobilize all their internal resources to fight the Islamists. It is possible that international terrorism or radical Islam will be viewed as a common enemy and this will contribute to the further integration processes in the Kurdish territories in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.
Stanislav Ivanov, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, PhD in history and columnist for the “New Eastern Outlook”.