North Africa, West Asia

Kurds’ choices: heed history or the US?

Who controls Syria’s borders? The US and Israel are encouraging Syrian Kurds to fight the regime and its allies for border control. The ensuing mayhem might unravel the Mideast and far beyond.

Dunia Assa Farman-Farmaian
7 December 2017

Syria is perceived by the West and by many in the Middle East – particularly the Gulf States and Israel – as the enabler of Iran’s Shi’a Crescent, i.e., the extension of Tehran’s influence and the promotion of its Shi’a revolutionary ideology into Sunni Mideast.

Before the onset of Syria’s civil war, the regime resisted Saudi, Qatari, Turkish and American ‘sticks and carrots’ and refused to sever it's strategic connections with Iran. Once fighting started in earnest, the regime vowed to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity and to regain ultimate control. Ironically, after years of war, destruction and bloodshed, Damascus’ conviction solidified that the Syria-Iran alliance is the guarantor of the Syrian regime’s stamina and long term survival. Given the billions of dollars spent and the forces armed in the pursuit of its downfall, the regime’s political survival – till Russia intervened militarily – would have been doubtful without Iran’s (and Hezbollah’s) initial, crucial and sustained military, logistical and financial support.

Over the past seven years, the ‘Friends of Syria’ alliance that coalesced around the USA delivered massive support to the opposition (Qatar alone is rumoured to have spent over three billion dollars). The ensuing mayhem and chaos became fertile ground for extremism, thus enabling the so-called Islamic State (IS) to take over large swathes of Syrian territory and to establish Raqqa as its capital in Syria’s north.

‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’

The US’ (and Israel’s) primary aim in Syria was initially the preclusion of Iran’s supply of arms to Hezbollah via Iraq and Syria, and subsequently – once Hezbollah forces arrived to succour the Syrian regime – the creation of a buffer zone on the Israeli-Syrian border to stem Hezbollah’s ability to launch simultaneously attacks from Syria and Lebanon.

After IS took hold, defeating it was proclaimed an additional objective. In pursuit of these goals, the US made the Syrian-Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPU) the recipient of its military and financial aid, to the ire of Turkey that has, on and off, fought against the independence agenda of its substantial Kurdish minority. The declared aim of this alliance was to fight against IS for the territory, oil fields and border crossings under its control. Although divided on tactics, Syrian Kurds hoped that autonomy, with US strategic support, would eventually become a stepping stone to independence.

At the outset of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian regime tacitly tolerated de facto Kurdish autonomy in areas where the Kurds are a majority; this self-ruled territory is known as Rojava (‘Western Kurdistan’ in Kurdish). The regime’s de facto acquiescence to Rojova’s autonomy was a quid pro quo for Kurdish abstention from joining the armed opposition. However, the Syrian government has yet to de jure recognise Rojava's autonomy in Kurdish-majority areas and to delineate its borders.

Last March, the Democratic Union Party (a Kurdish political party created on 20 September 2003 in northern Syria) established a 'Founding Council of Democratic Federal System in Rojava' and declared the formation of a 'democratic federal system for northern Syria'. Prior to that announcement, Rojava was understood to consist only of the self-proclaimed Kurdish autonomous area in north-west Syria, where Kurds are a majority of the local population.

Last October, a Kurdish affiliated militia called The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recovered – with the help of US Special Forces – vast areas in the north-east and the east of Syria previously controlled by IS, then declared an autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) to include not only the autonomous Kurdish majority areas in north-west Syria, but also the recently acquired IS areas in Syria’s north-east and east where Kurds are not a majority.

By virtue of this additional acquisition, SDF/YPU now control almost 25% of Syria's territory, and the majority of its arable land, oil and water resources. SDF is mostly composed of Kurdish YPU fighters, with token other minority and Sunni participation. All foreign and domestic actors in Syria understand this, as do the tribes and local populations in territories under SDF control.

When the portrait of the jailed leader of Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was brandished in IS’s ex-capital Raqqa after it fell to joint SDF and US Special Forces, the suspicion solidified of a Kurdish global alliance under various names, whose ultimate aim is the creation of an independent Kurdish State that would be carved out from contiguous regions now under Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian suzerainty.

The independence referendum organised almost simultaneously in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan further reinforced this suspicion. Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria concluded in dismay that the PKK, that advocates Kurdish independence, was firmly in control of the newly-minted autonomous ‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’, and that the US was complicit in the drive for an independent Kurdistan.

A matter of time

Geographically, the territory newly acquired by SDF from IS in Syria is a cumbersome acquisition in a hostile neighbourhood. It is surrounded to the north by Turkey, the east by Iraq, the south by the Syrian army and the west by Turkish-supported Turkic opposition forces and the Syrian army. Kurds do not constitute a majority in most of its cities and towns, and locals do not by and large share the Kurdish dream of independence. Moreover, Turkic opposition forces allied with Turkey physically separate the recently acquired north-east and east Syrian territories from the self-declared autonomous Rojava in north-west Syria.

Turkey is not acting alone. Other state actors – in pursuit of their own national interests – will not enable a viable, independent or autonomous Rojava, whatever its territorial limits might be. They would not allow or facilitate the export of oil or the import of arms, goods or significant reconstruction aid to newly-acquired territories under Kurdish control.

The Iraqi government used the ill-fated Kurdish independence referendum to recover Mosul and Kirkuk along with their oil resources, and is in the process of regaining control of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders, including border crossings into Syria’s Kurdish-controlled areas. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish YPU/SDF militia a ‘terrorist organisation” affiliated with its homegrown outlawed PKK, and would not relinquish control of its border crossings.

Iran would do its utmost to protect its supply route to Syria and Hezbollah via Iraq, and is wary of its own Kurdish minority that potentially might be used instrumentally by the US and Israel in regime change projects (in 2010 WikiLeaks published Israel’s plans, agreed by the US, to use the Kurds and other Iranian minorities to affect regime change). While Syria's Foreign Minister has publicly stated that Kurdish autonomy is negotiable, unnamed Syrian Army sources have called the SDF-controlled territory a national ‘occupied territory’ and vowed to retake it, echoing the Syrian President who has repeatedly stressed his determination to regain sovereignty over every inch of Syria.

It is also doubtful that the Gulf countries would provide long term massive reconstruction aid for this vast SDF-controlled territory, given their present financial restraints born from reduced oil income, diminishing reserves and altered national priorities (Yemen war, conflict with Qatar,  confrontation with Hezbollah in Lebanon, needed massive economic stimulus and investment in the Gulf, etc...). Absent major reconstruction projects that would allow the return of refugees and create employment in the areas under SDF control where Kurds are a minority, it is a question of time before tribal and civil leaders side with the Syrian central government.

Art of the possible

The Kurdish leadership in Syria would ignore at its peril the lessons of Kurdish overreach in Iraq, of US refusal to support Iraqi Kurdistan’s recent failed independence bid, and of the blunt opinion voiced by American experts like the US Ambassador to Syria from 2011 till 2014 who stated that the US will lose Syria to Iran and abandon their Kurdish allies. They would do their constituents and the region a favour by remembering the adage that ‘Politics is the art of the possible’ and Lord Palmerston’s observation that “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests”. Notwithstanding their repeated assertion that Syrian Kurds’ objective is an autonomous Rojava within a Federal Syria, the devil remains in the detail! Would they negotiate away areas in the north-east and east, in exchange for autonomy guarantees for Rojava in the north-west, or would they seek to preserve their present control over the expanded territory?

The Syrian regime’s ultimate objectives are survival and the control of all Syrian territory. To quickly wind down the war, attain a political solution and start reconstruction, the regime might agree to grant Kurds de jure autonomy in Kurdish-majority areas only, in exchange for control over non-Kurdish majority areas. However, should Syrian Kurds overreach – encouraged by the US and/or Israel – their neighbours would fight them implacably. The construction of US bases in Kurdish-controlled territories as protection would only increase Kurds’ isolation and further motivate the forces arrayed against them.


Kurds who are tempted to fight the Syrian army for control of the north east and east of Syria need to factor in the US’s checkered history as an ally: Historically, since the latter part of the twentieth century, many allies have found it ultimately futile to rely on the constant, enduring and efficient backing of the United States. In Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia, the US abandoned its allies and withdrew without achieving its strategic goals. In Iran and Egypt, the Shah and President Mubarak, both staunch allies of the United States, were undermined and abandoned at crucial junctures. In Afghanistan, the longest war in American history has resulted in the country’s practical division, with the Taliban regaining control over the majority of the country. In Iraq, the US supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, yet later turned against him due to shifting objectives, and invaded Iraq – a strategic blunder that enabled Iran to expand its influence in the region, and proved Washington to be a fickle friend who failed to support its Kurdish ally’s independence bid. In Syria, irrespective of rights and wrongs, regime change has failed, Iran’s influence has increased, Hezbollah has gained a foothold and strength despite US-led efforts to stem its Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon supply route, and the US-supported Syrian Opposition in exile, is increasingly marginalised, almost abandoned. 

The large areas and resources of Syria’s eastern and north-eastern borders that have recently come under the control of the Kurdish SDF should logically form the crux of future negotiations between the Kurds and the Syrian regime over Kurdish autonomy in Kurdish majority areas, and between the US and Syria’s government and allies over the crucial issue of who would control Syria’s border with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel.

The Iraqi and Syrian governments, with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are regaining control of parts of the Iraqi-Syrian border. US plans to deny Iran the use of that border for the shipment of arms to Hezbollah are now severely compromised. Knowing this, will the SDF fight to extend the territory it controls to the areas now under the control of the Syrian Army and its allies, or will it seek a compromise with the regime?

Military buildup

Tehran’s projection of power in the region depends on its continued ability to supply Hezbollah with arms via Iraq and Syria. Would it be willing to trade a Hezbollah-free zone on the Israeli-Syrian border in exchange for this? Would the US accept this trade off? The Syrian regime might accept a joint Syrian-Russian buffer zone on the southern border with Israel; this would probably be conditional on US recognition of Syrian sovereignty throughput its whole territory – including an autonomous indigenous Kurdish area – and Syrian military control of Syria’s northern and eastern borders (to maintain the Iran-Hezbollah supply route). Would the US accept this and force Israel to live with this prospect? And what incentive would the US then have to maintain military bases and Kurdish allies in Syria?

In all probability, neither the US nor Israel would readily agree to this trade off. Their refusal could translate into clashes between the Kurdish forces in the present SDF-controlled territory and the Syrian army and its allies. The US and Israel might encourage the SDF to keep Syria’s northern-eastern and eastern territory recovered from IS, and promise military support and protection to maintain and/or expand it. For the SDF to retain longterm control, an expanded massive US military presence in Syria would become necessary. In acquiescing to this military buildup and enabling it, Kurds run the risk that the US might at will withdraw its protection and abandon them, in exchange for one or both of its, and Israel’s, strategic goals – i.e. stemming the flow of arms from Iran to Hezbollah via Iraq and Syria, and/or creating a buffer zone on the Syria-Israel border (at present, Syrian opposition forces financed and aided by Israel constitute a buffer-enclave on that border).

‘Constructive chaos?’

State actors are actively sabotaging US-Israeli objectives: Iran’s allies are already taking military action to gain control of the border crossings that separate the SDF autonomous areas in eastern Syria from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan – thus precluding the emergence of a contiguous autonomous/independent Kurdistan in Iraq and Syria. Iraq’s central government is methodically taking back control of Iraqi-Kurdistan’s borders and airports, in coordination with Iran and Turkey. There are reports that Turkey is preparing an attack to extend till the Mediterranean the corridor its allies control, in order to completely separate areas under Kurdish control in the north-east from those in the north-west of Syria and encircle the Kurds in north-west Syria. For reasons of national interest, Iran, Turkey and Iraq would actively support Syria’s territorial integrity.

Russia's national interests also lie in the survival of the Syrian regime as a guarantor to its continued access to its Tartus naval facility – its only warm water naval facility, other than in the disputed Crimea – and in the elimination of IS’s Russian fighters (its largest foreign contingent). An American-Russian deal on Crimea appears a dim possibility in the midst of US judicial and Congressional probes into Russian interference in the US Presidential election. With no deal in sight, Russia would presumably continue to help its Syrian ally regain control over the totality of Syrian territory. The Kurds would have to fight these allied forces.

Many in the Mideast and in Russia remember the famous declaration in 2006 of the then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice advocating ‘constructive chaos’ as the ‘birth pangs’ for the rebirth of a New Mideast. A map surfaced in US military publications in 2006 outlining the joint US-Israel vision of a reconfigured Mideast. There is a general suspicion in the Mideast that the Kurds are the US/Israeli tool for the planned fragmentation of the region.

Restive minorities

At a recent hearing of the US’ House Committee on Foreign Affairs, written testimony on ‘Confronting the full range of Iranian threats’ was received stating: “The U.S. thus must recognize the stakes: if America does not stop the Iranians on this front, they will soon emerge as the dominant force in the region, deeply inimical to the United States and its partners, and allied with Putin’s Russia”. Should the US act on such advice, it might implement Plans to build multiple military bases in Syria to replace its Incirilik air base in Turkey that might be threatened by the disagreement with Ankara over Rojava’s empowerment.

In so doing, it would seek to weaponise the Kurds. Washington and its Kurdish ally would do well not to underestimate the collective national interests aligned against them. Should they persevere, they would enter into a direct and simultaneous confrontation with Russia, Iran/Hezbollah, Turkey, Iraq and Syria that would exponentially increase the risk of resurgent nationalism becoming the extremists’ rallying cry and recruitment tool for targeted attacks against American and Kurdish  troops in Syria and Iraq, and US and Kurdish civilians.

Absent an urgent regional endeavour to reduce ethnic and sectarian tensions, Syria’s mayhem, strife and destruction would leak into Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the Gulf region and Iran – like Iraq’s seeped into Syria in the form of IS. All these countries have societal schisms and/or restive oppressed minorities that could be fanned into militant action: Turkey has a militant Kurdish minority and an upset Alevi one; Iraq has an independence-aspiring Kurdish minority, along with a deep and fractious Sunni-Shia schism; Jordan has a Palestinian and Syrian refugee problem; Lebanon has a sectarian divide that has already caused a civil war, compounded by massive Syrian and Palestinian refugee presence that is upsetting its sectarian makeup; Iran has multiple ethnic minorities including Kurds, and many of its oil and gas fields are in Arab-populated areas; Saudi Arabia – which is spearheading the pushback against Iran’s expanding regional influence – has a discriminated-against Shi’a minority living above its most important oilfields, Saudi-origin IS returnee fighters, a costly proxy war in Yemen, rapidly declining oil revenues and national reserves, and an unfolding fractious succession. The Kurds would be deemed complicit in this dangerous escalation and held responsible.

Sectarian Frankenstein

The sectarian Frankenstein unleashed in the Mideast could wreak havoc worldwide: according to the BBC, the largest contingents of foreign fighters in Syria hail (in descending order) from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Tunisia, France, Morocco, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Germany and the UK. The largest contingents of ‘returned fighters’ (in descending order) went to Turkey, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, UK, Germany, Russia, Jordan, France, Morocco and Uzbekistan.

What happens in the Mideast rarely stays there. Continued fighting in Syria would further exasperate radicalism and the epic human tragedy endured by its population, and spill over into neighbouring countries and beyond. Europe especially is vulnerable to increased terrorism inside its border, and to an unstoppable multiethnic tidal wave of refugees from the Mideast heading to its shores, seeking refuge, safety and a future for their families.

The impact on changing demographics and latent separatist strains might politically destabilise Europe and lead to social disorder, internment camps and the rise of xenophobic and nationalist parties. Europe, China and Russia (who all have ethnic and sectarian fault lines) should encourage the Kurds to resist the temptation to retain, as part of an autonomous region, Syrian territory where they are not the majority of the population. By negotiating away these areas in exchange for de jure autonomy in Kurdish-majority areas, Kurds would avoid abandonment by their US ally, and might become partners in the post-war Syrian government.

Ends rarely justify means. Kurdish leaders in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran should not forget that in geopolitics, National Interests are permanent. No sovereign country or national leader would readily acquiesce to the dismemberment of sovereign national territory. By endeavouring, counting on and/or enabling plans to redraw the Mideast’s borders, Kurds would permanently alienate geographic neighbours, and contribute to regional political and social chaos, human suffering, mayhem, unending wars and destruction on an epic scale, in the hope of an independent Kurdistan, with no assurance that backers would stay the course, or that plans would ultimately succeed. It is a well-established military principle that “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”; In this instance, numerous determined enemies would mount a determined, unwavering and effective counter-offensive. 

United Syria and equal rights

The Mideast is on the brink of an abyss because of sectarian and ethnic schisms and vying multi-national interests. The  armed pursuit of Kurdish independence would destabilise the region further, and enable the spread of vicious extremism and terrorist blow-back throughout the Mideast, and hence to many African and Asian states along ethnic and sectarian fault lines, where oppressed minorities, like the Rohingya, might provide fertile recruiting ground for evermore virulent fanaticism and extremism born from the ashes of IS’s defeat.

US allies would be undermined. Terrorist attacks would seep into Europe and the US mainland causing public opinion to shift. In a democracy like the US, that shift would result in the redefinition of strategic objectives. The Kurds would become collateral damage to changed goals.

The Kurdish leadership would better serve its constituents longterm by heeding history’s lessons, not enabling Syria’s breakup, and opting instead to pursue equal rights inside a united Syria.

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