18.10.2015 Author: Stanislav Ivanov

Washington is playing the “Kurdish card” once again

67444718Large-scale civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and the de facto emergence of a new Arab Sunni formation, Islamic State caliphate, on a considerable part of their territories, have forced Washington to make some adjustments in its foreign policy in the Middle East and intensify work in the Kurdish area.

Whereas previously, the US administration harboured plans to create a new pro-Western state, Greater Kurdistan, by separating significant areas of the existing states, as part of its “Greater Middle East” project, now we can see attempts by the US and its allies to use the Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria more actively for their national interest but only within the currently existing states.

For example, Washington turned a blind eye to the new wave of a large-scale anti-Kurdish campaign in Turkey and punitive military operations made by the Turkish authorities against the bases and camps of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in doing so making regular use of their armed forces in the border areas of Iraq. However, their attitude towards the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) who are affiliated with the PKK is diametrically opposed. The US administration considers the PYD and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), allies in the fight against radical Islamist groups such as the Islamic state, Jabhat al-Nusra etc.

Since October 2014, the Pentagon with help from the Joint Operations Center has been coordinating the activities of its air force on the Syrian-Turkish border with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The US Administration approves of the breakdown in relations between the Syrian Kurds and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, strongly supports the communication and contact between the PYD-YPG and other Kurdish parties and the Syrian foreign and domestic opposition, and welcomes the coordination of their efforts in confronting Islamists of all kinds. The US Air Force and the Western coalition air strikes have aided the Syrian Kurds in their defence of the strategically important city of Kobanî and its surrounding rural areas.

Attempts by the Turkish authorities to equate the PYD-YPG militias with militant-terrorists of radical Islamist groups, or with the PKK, and carry out a series of air strikes on them did not find support from Ankara’s overseas partners. Also, the US administration did not support the Turkish authorities’ intention to establish a so-called “buffer zone” in northern Syria, where the role of the police would be entrusted to the Free Syrian Army troops (FSA), not to the Kurdish militia that currently effectively control some of the districts of Aleppo and three autonomous Kurdish enclaves (Cantons) along the Syrian-Turkish border. Later, Washington hopes to integrate the leaders of the Syrian Kurds in the future coalition government in Damascus and influence the new Syrian authorities via them. Before the civil war began, the Kurds made up 15% of Syria’s population (around 3 million people.)

According to American politicians, Kurds could become a mediator between the largest Arab religious communities who are currently warring among themselves in the country: the Sunnis and the Alawites. For example, the White House will assign Syrian Kurds an important role as a liaison in the future Federal Syrian state and, to some extent, as a guide to its foreign policy in post-Assad Syria. In turn, the Syrian Kurds are hoping that the US will continue its air support defence operations against Kurdish militias, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and will not allow Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria.

The American administration is building its relations with the Iraqi Kurds in approximately the same way. Having become allies during the fight against Saddam Hussein’s regime, Washington and Erbil are continuing their close cooperation in all areas. Nowadays, Iraqi Kurdistan, which became a federal subject with the most broad rights and authority in the new Iraq, is, in fact, a state within a state. It has all the attributes of an independent state: a flag, national anthem, constitution, a set of regional laws, a president, government, parties and public organizations, mass media in Kurdish, a judiciary, police force, armed forces (the Peshmerga forces), essential service systems, health, education, etc. Moreover, the Kurds are very adequately represented in the central government (by the president, six federal ministers, and a faction in parliament). The US administration fostered the process of the country’s federalization and relied on the Kurds in the establishment of the new Iraqi state.

The President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, has repeatedly acted as a mediator in the settlement of conflicts and disputes among the major Arab political forces in the country (Shia Arabs and Sunni Arabs) both on his own initiative and in accordance with Washington’s requests, and facilitated the establishment of the coalition governments of Iraq. However, the relationship between the Arab religious communities has noticeably deteriorated in recent years and have taken on the character of a bloody Shiite-Sunni war, which radical Islamist groups of the Wahhabi-Salafi persuasion didn’t hesitate to take full advantage of. It is they who, with the support of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Persian Gulf monarchies, led the armed struggle of Sunni Arabs against Baghdad and Damascus and established the IS’ caliphate. Iraqi Kurds found themselves geographically cut off from Baghdad and the southern provinces of the country by Islamists and were forced to fight IS militants in ground operations almost single-handedly, when protecting the areas of their small residence. The Iraqi army as such does not exist today, and the Shiite militia only protects the areas where Shiite Arabs live. The main military ally of the Kurds has become a coalition of states (Air Force groups) under the auspices of the United States. To avoid further involvement in large-scale Shiite-Sunni bloodshed, Iraqi Kurds are not ruling out their secession from Iraq or a complete declaration of state sovereignty. The central government’s neglect of their obligations to the Kurds and the high level of corruption in the Cabinet of Ministers is also pushing them towards this.

Amidst all this, Washington is trying to “right the situation” and build their relations with Baghdad and Erbil simultaneously, trying as much as possible to maintain at least a semblance of the failed state and the status quo (the union of the Kurds and Shiite Arabs) which emerged after the Sunni provinces left. The US do not hide their vested interest in the future participation of the Kurds in the central government, fearing that should Iraqi Kurdistan secede from Iraqi Baghdad, all of the other southern Shiite provinces of the country could fall entirely under Iran’s influence. Washington’s fears about the rise of Iran’s position in Iraq have no grounds. Tehran has recently intensified its contacts with the Kurdish parties who are both in opposition to Barzani’s government, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Movement for Change aka Gorran, in order to displace Barzani as president while adhering to the constituion or break off the Sulaymaniyah Province from Iraqi Kurdistan, where the aforementioned parties hold strong positions. Allegedly, Iranian leaders believe Barzani is a puppet of the United States and do not rule the possibility of joint actions between Washington and Erbil in the country and the region, and, in particular, against the Shiite authorities in Baghdad. Many Kurdish soldiers are already currently leaving what remains of the governmental army to serve in the Peshmerga forces of the Barzani family.

As for the Iranian Kurds, on the eve of restrictive sanctions against Iran being lifted, Washington is refraining from providing any support whatsoever to the Kurdish national movements there. It can’t be ruled out that in the future, should there be a renewed deterioration in US-Iranian relations, or an aggravation of the political situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Washington will become more actively involved with Kurdish migrant centres and groups in opposition to Tehran, considering them a “fifth column” or lever of pressure on the Iranian authorities.

Thus, at this stage, US policy has been slightly adjusted in relation to the Kurds in the region and is carried out strictly on a case-by-case basis. Nowadays, Washington no longer calls for the repartition of the region’s boundaries, the secession of the Kurdish minorities (enclaves) from their historical states, or for the establishment of a hypothetical Greater Kurdistan with a population of 40-million. For this scenario, there are no objective prerequisites (no single Kurdish parties and movements, or recognized leaders. Tribalism, separatism persists and the Kurds are fragmented in terms of language, territory and other elements, etc.) On this basis, the US administration prefers to work with the leaders of the Kurdish minorities in each country of the region, and via them influence the central government and the situation in the region as a whole in this way. Washington is currently assigning the Kurds role as the advance troops in the fight against the Islamic State and similar radical Islamist groups. To be fair, it should be noted that the Kurds are fighting courageously, defending their territory and their citizens, but it would be a mistake for their overseas partners rely on the broad participation of the Kurds in ground offensive operations to liberate the Sunni provinces of Iraq and Syria from radical Islamists.

Stanislav Ivanov, leading research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies RAS, PhD in History, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook


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