BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
The American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (YPG), is a force of Kurds who have been waging constant war against ISIS. These Kurdish forces are believed to be a partner group of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has been fighting for Kurdish independence in the region and whom Turkey (and the U.S., technically) views as a terror group. The U.S. disbelieves that the YPG is linked to the PKK, but Turkey is convinced that the two groups are, in fact, united as one.
“The Syrian Democratic Forces (YPG) is the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.” – Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana White
Kurdish forces and other anti-Islamic State elements in Syria are readying for the Big Push into Raqaa, the “capital” of the Islamic State in Syria. The Islamic State has for weeks been preparing for this great attack. Indeed, the Battle of Raqaa is likely to be the last great battle in the fight against ISIS. Yet, there will be several more knock on effects regionally that the U.S. will have to contend with (despite not being present on the ground en masse, the way American forces were in both Desert Storm and the Iraq War in 2003).
As I have written elsewhere, the Iraq War of 2003 fundamentally transformed the entire region. In brief, the U.S. position has been greatly reduced in the region and is tenuous at best. Meanwhile, Iraq and Syria have become two of three pivotal battlegrounds (the third being Yemen) in the raging ethno-religious regional Cold War being fought between the Shiite community (led by Iran) and the Sunni states (nominally led by Saudi Arabia). Should the U.S. coalition prevail in its main fight against the Islamic State, the true beneficiaries of this victory will be Iran (and, by extension, Russia, Iran’s chief benefactor).
The conflict has fundamentally shifted Turkey’s long allegiance from the West into an elliptical orbit around Russia (primarily out of solidarity with the illiberalism of Putinism and out of a desire for partaking in Putin’s geo-energy program of using access to fossil fuel sources as a geostrategic lever against the world). Also, increased Iranian control over Iraq will allow for the establishing of a land bridge linking Iran with their besieged proxy, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria. This, then, will allow for the doubling down of Russo-Iranian support for the profligate Assad Regime (not that any of the other actors fighting against Assad are any less savory). Thus, in all likelihood, barring direct American intervention, Assad’s position will have been reaffirmed in Syria.
This will allow for an intensification of Russian forces in the region and, more devastatingly, it will streamline Iran’s repellent support for Hezbollah, thereby increasing the threat to Israel. Keep in mind that the Iranian regime poses an existential threat to the beleaguered-but-mighty tiny Jewish state, as the Iranian theocracy views annihilating Israel as not only a geopolitical imperative, but as a fundamental religious decree from their deity.
Unfortunately, there’s still more.
It is the issue of the Kurds. You see, the Kurds have been fighting for their freedom for decades. The Kurdish diaspora exists primarily in territory divided between Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. In northern Iraq, the Kurds have operated a quasi-independent state there since the mid-1990s, when U.S. forces created a No-Fly Zone to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s genocidal mania (usually directed against both the Kurdish population in the north and the Shiite population in southern Iraq). From that point onward, the Kurds became a state-within-a-state. Based out of Erbil, possessing a robust economy (built off of the massive oil wealth of northern Iraq), and defended by the fearsome Peshmerga, this portion of the Kurdish population has known a degree of freedom that none of their brethren have known.
In fact, the existence of this quasi-Kurdish state in northern Iraq has caused significant consternation among other regional actors, particularly Turkey. For, the Turks understandably fear that by giving the Kurds the degree of autonomy that they’ve enjoyed in northern Iraq thus far; given the suffering that the Kurds have had to endure there under Saddam Hussein’s rule, and now, at the hands of ISIS, the Kurds will not only seek to fully break from Iraq, but also will begin antagonizing for a return of all Kurds to the proposed Kurdistan based in present-day northern Iraq. And, I am not merely referring to the people being returned to this potential Kurdish state in northern Iraq. I am also referring to the lands which those Kurdish people live. Thus, the Turks fear losing at least one-third of their territory in any official geopolitical reorganization following the inevitable defeat of the Islamic State.
“It is less an inherent dislike [in Turkey] for Kurds that drives state repression of this minority than the state’s fear for the institutional consequences and loss of centralized power.” – Erik Meyersson of the Stockholm School of Economics
As you’ve seen, the world has been torn between the inexorable pull of Democratic Globalism versus the natural needs of Nationalistic-Populism. For the first time in a long time, national interests are being considered over the global good. This has mixed effects. On the one hand, it confers greater freedom and choice onto local populations–many of whom have been all but forgotten by the international perspective. On the other hand, this has created a degree of uncertainty and allowed for old tensions and animosities to bubble up to the surface.
Such is the case with the question of Kurdish independence.
Understand that the Kurds have a long history of agitating for their freedom. During the reign of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were subordinated to the predominantly Sunni Muslim Turkish authorities. Although, to be fair, under Ottoman rule, the Sultanate was content to leave the daily governance of Kurdish life in the Ottoman Empire to the local Kurdish leaders. Still, though, as a non-Turkic ethnic minority in the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were mistreated by their Turkish overlords whenever it suited those overlords.
Afterward, the Kurds continued to be oppressed with the rise of the Kemalist government in Turkey following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. During the height of the Cold War, as the Soviet Union sought to break its encirclement by removing the pro-American Turkish government. In no time, the Soviets looked to the oppressed minorities within Turkey as a conduit from whence to export its Communist revolution. Various Kurdish terror groups, specifically the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) would arise, most of whom were dedicated to Marxist-Leninist-style revolution. They also sought national independence for the Kurdish diaspora.
Thus, for many years, the Kurdish independence movement became inextricably tethered to the Communist cause. Whatever sympathy it elicited from Western quarters became muted, as the Turks–under the aegis of fighting the Cold War–began fighting the Kurdish groups. The U.S. and others declared the PKK “terrorists” and treated them accordingly. However, toward the end of the Cold War, the Soviets became less of a factor for the Kurdish independence movement and Communism became even less of a motivating ideological force for such “terrorist” movements, like the PKK. Indeed, the prime issue galvanizing these Kurdish groups was the issue of national independence. They were more separatist rebels first and nominal Communists second.
When the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed and the Cold War officially ended, the Kurds retained their separatist wishes and abandoned their nominal allegiance to Communism as an ideology. Though, many of the Kurdish groups were likely socialists, to be sure. After all, a majority of the governments in the West are Social Democracies, this is a fairly common trend among foreign governments and political movements.
Also, do not doubt the fact that the PKK was quite violent and willing to engage in terrorist activities. Bombings, kidnappings, and the like were all endemic of the Kurdish separatist movements. Such attacks were most usually directed against their Turkish neighbors. Still, though, the issue at hand–Kurdish independence–is not necessarily an illegitimate political goal.
Indeed, around the start of Desert Storm–the First Iraq War–the George H.W. Bush Administration began looking at ways of destabilizing the Saddam Hussein Regime in Iraq. The most obvious route (outside of war) was to incite the oppressed Kurdish and Shiite populations into waging a rebellion against the Baathist, mostly Sunni, Iraqi government.
It worked–for a time.
The Kurds of northern Iraq in particular answered America’s call to arms with great élan. All throughout Desert Storm, as American-led Coalition forces sliced through the Iraqi lines in Kuwait like butter, the Kurds assumed that the mission was not merely reestablishing Kuwaiti independence. Rather, the Kurds (and scores of Iraqi dissidents) believed (because American intelligence officials had, in many cases, encouraged them to believe) that the U.S. was going to move into Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein.
This was not to be.
Disbelieving the announcement of the ceasefire signed between Saddam Hussein and President George H.W. Bush once the last Iraqi troops fled Kuwait, the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south continued their rebellion against Hussein. Their rebellion was more effective than even the Americans realized. However, without American support, the Kurds were bound to be decimated. Following the ceasefire, U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf inexplicably allowed for Saddam Hussein to fly his helicopters over Coalition lines and return to Iraq. As they returned to Iraq, the helicopters were redirected by Saddam Hussein and began slaughtering all of the dissidents. Saddam’s fearsome security services finished whatever the Baathist military started.
An endless wave of genocide followed. That is, until 1994, when the U.S. decided to create the aforementioned northern No-Fly Zone (with the British instituting the southern No-Fly Zone). This was in response to the continued massacre of the Kurds in the north by Saddam Hussein’s forces. Once that occurred, the Kurds of northern Iraq were given the reprieve they needed to become strong and build a quasi-state entity. Even before U.S. forces ultimately toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Kurds had effectively been operating as an independent political element for nearly nine years–thanks to the protection provided them by the U.S. military.
The existence of a partly independent Kurdish state just across the border from Turkey never sat well with the Turkish government. Indeed, during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military sought to utilize Turkish territory to open up a northern invasion route into Iraq. The Turks refused the American request. Their immediate concern was that the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government would inevitably lead to the breakup of Iraq, and the rise of a fully independent Kurdish state. Such a reality would shake Turkish sovereignty to its very core. After all, the Mideast saw what happened when a Jewish state was allowed to arise: the Israelis were supplemented with additional Jewish citizens who flocked to Israel on religious and political grounds from across the world. The last thing the Turks wanted was a repeat with their Kurdish population vis-a-vis a potential Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Anything that Turkey could do to complicate America’s invasion of Iraq, then, was viewed from Ankara as being in the Turkish national interest.
“We need to ensure that Kurdish Iraq survives. They’re Democratic; they’re very, very pro-American. They sit in one of the most strategic locations in the Middle East, with our enemies to the east, west and south … and they’re oil-rich.” – Retired U.S. Army General Jay Garner in 2014
When Iraq was “liberated” by Coalition forces in 2003, the Kurds were prepared to contribute to the political rehabilitation of Iraq and its much-hoped-for shift to democracy. Indeed, from the earliest phases of the mismanaged postwar reconstruction of Iraq, the Kurds were the bright spot. As a semi-autonomous state for at least nine years before the invasion, the Kurds had the infrastructure and leadership in place in northern Iraq to withstand the riptide of sectarian, ethno-religious violence that washed over Iraq (and, in a way, never stopped) since 2003. Indeed, Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, was elected President of Iraq on 6 April 2005.
Meanwhile, the Kurds greatly profited from the oil wealth in their region. In many ways, Iraqi Kurdistan flowered after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Yet, they did not ultimately agitate for complete independence from Iraq. They contributed significantly to the early phases of trying to pull Iraq back from the brink. But, after decades of oppression and genocide directed against them–most recently by ISIS–one must wonder at what point will the Kurds say, “enough is enough”?
The Kurds have been at the frontline of the fight against ISIS. Even as they fought against ISIS, their purported allies, the Turks, were more likely to attack them rather than ISIS, since the Turks viewed the Kurds as a more immediate threat to their national interests. In 2014, during the Siege of Kobane, it was believed that the Turkish military sat back and let ISIS ravage the Kurds in the town. In fact, there are instances of disparate Turkish units selling military equipment and supplies to the ISIS forces that were slaughtering the Kurds in Kobane. Shortly thereafter, the Kurdish population in Turkey erupted into violent protests over the mistreatment of their brethren.
Given how hardened by combat the Kurds of northern Iraq have become, understanding how satisfying the taste of freedom these last 23 years has been for the Iraqi Kurds, and given how much of a connection they still retain with the Kurds of surrounding regions, what is to stop them from demanding full independence? After all, Iraq is about to become a vassal state for Iran and Russia. And, the Kurds sit atop of vibrant source of oil, meaning that they could fund their independence. Do they really need to become servants to Iran? Or to Russia, for that matter?
So, as the Trump Administration rightly moves to supply the gallant Kurds in their fight for Raqaa, please keep in mind that this is not the end of ISIS or the end of America’s problems in the region. Rather, this is the start of a very serious geopolitical shakeup in the region. Iran’s influence will grow, Israel will become more threatened, Russia’s reach will intensify, the U.S. will have to decide whether to intervene further in Syria; the Sunni Kingdoms will expand their resistance against the Shiites of Iran, and soon Turkey could become mired in a brutal ethno-religious campaign against the rebellious Kurds.
Only the United States has the capability to lay the groundwork for a more peaceable transition in the region. The Trump Administration must begin gaming out the possible responses to the increased instability still to come in the region. Otherwise, we will be caught in the middle of an explosion of inter-communal violence we’ve not experienced before. The Trump Administration will first need to decide, however, if they will side with the eventual Kurdish separatists or whether they will look the other way and allow Erdogan to crush the rebellion. It will all hinge on America’s decision.
The U.S. has a history of making great promises to the Kurds and not following through on those promises. Should the Kurdish people once again take up the mantle of actively pushing for independence, the U.S. government needs to have in mind how it will respond. The Kurds are the largest stateless people in the world. Ever since the breakdown of the negotiated settlement between the PKK and the Erdogan government, the PKK in particular has yet again been moving toward calling for Kurdish independence in southern Turkey.
So, here are some things for the Administration to consider:
- Should the U.S. decide to stand with the Kurds, it will alienate Turkey, a primary NATO partner.
- Turkey has already begun flirting with moving closer toward Russia. This will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, especially considering that Turkey’s entire foreign policy is predicated in large part on preventing Kurdish secession.
- NATO’s southern perimeter will have been destroyed, allowing for the expansion of Russian influence in Southern Europe and the Middle East.
- At the same time, the creation of a Kurdish state, coupled with a defense guarantee from the U.S. would see a very pro-U.S. state birthed in the heart of present-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria–all good things, especially considering the U.S. will need a solid partner in the region.
- An independent Kurdistan would be oil-rich and pro-West. It is in a strategically vital location. Such a state could complicate the strategic aims of American adversaries in the region.
- An independent Kurdistan could also contribute to a renewal of the balance of power stability that existed before 2003.
If the U.S. does not intervene to protect any Kurdish independence attempt:
- The Turks will crush their Kurdish population once again.
- The Iraqi Kurds may finally decide to turn against American elements or to simply disengage from helping the U.S. in the Global War on Terror.
- Turkey will continue slowly enmeshing itself with the Russo-Iranian alliance while keeping NATO together (playing both ends against the middle).
Yet again, the larger geopolitical issue is Russia. The Russians are intent on expanding their reach into Europe and the Middle East. While Turkey’s loss would allow for the Russians to link up with both their Syrian and Iranian clients (as well as a budding Libyan contact), the creation of a Kurdish state in the region would likely further complicate the Russian plans, considering that Turkey is working with Russia, irrespective of what we want. Also, the creation of a Kurdish state in the Middle East would seriously complicate Turkish and Iranian regional power (and, therefore, Russian reach as well).
In any event, the U.S. must be prepared for the potentiality that the Kurds will no longer be content simply existing as a quasi-state. The defeat of ISIS in Iraq will likely lead to follow on effects whereby the Kurds will seek independence. This analysis is an attempt to highlight the importance of the issue for interested parties. I personally believe that, while it would complicate the short term prospects for stability in the region, in the longer-term, given all of the negative trends working against America in the region, a pro-American, oil-rich united–independent–Kurdistan would serve American interests far greater than simply maintaining the status quo.
President Trump has fancied himself as the candidate of necessary disruption. Thus, maintaining the status quo in the Middle East is untenable. The makings for a viable Kurdish state are there and, the promise of a healthier Middle East is possible with the creation of a sovereign Kurdish state. Further, the establishing of a free and independent Kurdish state would be vital for U.S. foreign policy. After all, it has been an accepted tenet of American foreign policy to disallow for the creation of a united political and military bloc in the Mideast, in order to create a balance of power. Since 2003, that balance of power dynamic has been off-kilter and, therefore, greater-than-usual amounts of instability has spread throughout the Mideast.
The Kurds must be free, if they so wish to be. It will be a long-term boon for the U.S.