Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Strange alliances

Syria’s Kurds have been cooperating with competing parties in their efforts to secure an autonomous region in the country, but they would do better to return to the opposition fold, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), responsible for Syria’s Jazira region and a proponent of federalism in the country, announced on 24 May the launch of military operations to take back control of the town of Raqqa and expel the Islamic State (IS) group from it through its military arm, the People’s Protection Units.

The Kurdish forces also declared that they would annex Raqqa to the Kurdish federal region after it was liberated from IS, although Kurds constitute no more than seven per cent of the town’s population.

They have previously set fire to villages and farms owned by Arab Syrians and expelled them, claiming that the areas were uninhabited. The Kurds have renamed towns and cities they have taken and intend to take with Kurdish names, declaring them to be originally Kurdish, not Arab villages, even though no Kurds have resided there.

Other Syrians have been unable to act militarily against the Kurds and have proved incapable of stopping their expansion. Aside from regime forces, the Kurds are the only party in Syria that receives major military support from international parties, making the opposition unable to resist them.

Syria’s Kurds are now maintaining a complicated web of relationships, particularly proponents of federalism in the country and the PYD, a Syrian extension of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party. They have political and military ties with parties that have incompatible interests, making for a puzzling situation that has not been clarified.

In September 2012, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad virtually surrendered Hassaka, the biggest city in northeast Syria, to the PYD without a fight, although the party was part of the Syrian opposition demanding the fall of the regime.

The regime’s security and military institutions then continued to operate in the city with PYD People’s Protection Units. The Syrian opposition claimed that the PYD was receiving military support and weapons from the regime, which was confirmed at the Moscow Conference in March 2015 by Bashar Al-Jaafari, the chief of the regime’s delegation.

Al-Jaafari said the regime had supplied weapons to the PYD, which neither confirmed nor denied the statement. This is the same regime that has violated Kurdish rights in the country for decades.

The PYD began to coordinate with the Russians early on, with Russia impressing on the Syrian opposition the need to include the Kurds in its negotiating team at the Geneva Conference and threatening to bring them in as a third party. Russia then began coordinating militarily with the PYD in northern Syria.

The Kurds have exploited Russia’s disputes with Turkey and the tense relations between the two countries, especially after the Turkish military brought down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border in November 2015.

A month later the Russian air force dropped five tons of light weapons and ammunition for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units near Aleppo to assist them in cementing their military positions against Turkish opposition. In March 2016, the commander of the Russian forces in Syria announced that Russian military advisors had trained Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Politically, Russia also facilitated the declaration of the Kurdish federal region. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in February that his country supported the creation of a federal republic in Syria, and just days later the Kurds unilaterally declared their own federal region in the north of the country.

Rejected by both the Syrian opposition and the regime, this was welcomed by Russia. The US held its tongue, while Turkey and Iran panicked, fearing similar actions from their own Kurdish minorities.

Not satisfied with regime and Russian support, the Kurds exploited the Russian and US need for partners on the ground against IS to enter into an alliance with the US as well, requesting arms and training from the Americans.

After much hesitation, the US agreed, although Kurdish military forces number no more than 25,000, while the Syrian opposition has more than 100,000 fighters. The US appears to think that the best way to stand up to Russia in Syria is to steal its allies, first and foremost the Kurds.

In November 2015, the US sent special combat forces to train the Kurds, and in February 2016 it sent planes packed with weapons and military equipment to Kurdish fighters. The US then began constructing a military airfield in the Kurdish-controlled city of Rmeilan in northeast Syria.

Some days ago, France declared it was dispatching military forces to support Kurdish forces in the battle against IS. The announcement has further complicated the landscape, as France has thus far refrained from any direct military intervention in Syria. Meanwhile, the US has been attempting to limit European influence on the Syrian crisis.

This web of alliances raises many questions, among them how the Kurds can ally themselves with both Russia and the US, and how the US can ally itself with the Kurds when Turkey is a US ally. How can the Kurds ally themselves with the Syrian regime and the US at the same time, when the US is calling for regime change? By some inscrutable logic, the Syrian Kurds are cooperating with both the regime’s friends and its enemies.

Throughout all of this, the PYD has remained on good terms with Iran and has been coordinating with Iranian militias in Syria. The two have set up joint checkpoints in some cities, although the Kurds are well apprised of Iran’s persecution of its own Kurdish population and the violation of Kurdish rights in Iran.

The PYD has been hostile to Turkey, its direct neighbour, and it has not sought to initiate friendly ties with major Arab players such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt. It has stoked up disputes with Iraqi Kurdistan to a point that threatens its national bond.

At the same time, the PYD is rumoured to be maintaining ties with Israel, these having been seemingly supported by the participation of French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy in the opening of a PYD office in Paris. Israel is of course a US ally, a friend of Russia, a quasi-ally of Turkey and an enemy of Iran.

The PYD is capitalising on regional and international contradictions to further its own ambitions. It is allying with parties on both sides and with states that have mutually exclusive interests in Syria and the region. It has not refused support from any direction provided this will bring it closer to its goal, which is the establishment of a Western Kurdistan.

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition has been reiterating that the Kurds will eventually discover what the Arabs and other Third World peoples before them have discovered — that short-term necessities make everything permissible in international relations and that politics has no religion and no heart.

States care about outside parties only insofar as these can help them achieve some interim interest of their own. The Kurds will pay a steep price for yielding to forces that have interests far removed from those of the Syrian people.

Russia’s interests in Syria are not those of the US, which are not those of Iran and the Syrian regime, and none of which are those of Israel. Each of these parties is playing its own game with the Kurds, and they all have much more at stake in international politics than the fate of Syria’s Kurds, who are no more than a weak rebel movement without the ability to become independent on their own.

The Syrian opposition maintains that Kurdish demands for full equality in a unified, democratic, non-sectarian Syria based on pluralism and the peaceful rotation of power are legitimate rights. But the Kurds have not joined with the opposition and instead have looked for a future far from their Syrian partners and chosen to ally themselves with international forces that have their own competing interests.

They have failed to consider that these forces will abandon them if their interests dictate it, at which point the Kurds will find themselves in a very difficult spot with their Syrian partners indeed.

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