- The Only Thing That Can Save the Kurds Is Themselves
The U.S. Government allied with Turkey and with Syria’s Kurds worked like a buffer between the two. That is gone now. Turkey already invaded Syria. The Kurds are seeking new protection. But they won't get it from the Trump administration
Diese englischsprachige Kolumne erscheint regelmäßig auf Cicero Online in Kooperation mit der Publikation Geopolitical Futures.
Turkey’s long-threatened invasion of Syrian Kurdish territory, euphemistically dubbed “Peace Spring,” commenced on Wednesday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a gathering of fellow Justice and Development Party members in Ankara on Thursday that by the end of the first day Turkish forces had killed 109 “terrorists.”
In the fog of the Syrian civil war, the U.S. has backed Syrian Kurdish militias to fight the Islamic State and the Assad regime. Turkey, also a U.S. ally, has been threatening to fight the Syrian Kurds since 2014. In allying with both Turkey and Syria’s Kurds, the U.S. has been as a buffer between the two. That buffer is now gone.
The Kurdish militias weren’t Washington’s first choice. U.S. attempts to train secular, anti-Assad, Syrian Arab forces to fight on its behalf cost hundreds of millions of dollars but produced just 5-50 fighters. The U.S. was forced to change tack and support Syrian Kurdish militias. The largest and most powerful of these were the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which were later called the “Syrian Democratic Forces” in the hopes of easing Turkish hostility and endearing the new fighting force to the predominantly Arab territories it began to conquer with U.S. air support.
The rebranding helped with the latter but did not appease Turkey in the slightest. As a result, on Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump betrayed the Syrian Kurds. To the consternation of many in Trump’s own government, the White House released a statement on Sunday saying Trump, after a phone call with Erdogan, had agreed to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. The next day, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense insisted that the U.S. did not approve of Turkey’s unilateral offensive, but by that point Turkey wasn’t listening. The presence of U.S. forces in northern Syria was the only reason Turkey had not invaded Syrian Kurdish territory before this week. Now that it had a green light, Turkey moved in. Syrian Kurds are motivated and experienced fighters, but the best they can hope to do against a superior military is to make Turkey’s inevitable advance as slow and costly as possible.
Unless Syria’s Kurds are able to secure significant external support from another patron (more on that in a moment), the Turkish invasion of northern Syria is a death knell for Rojava, the Kurdish name for the territory Syria’s Kurds have ruled autonomously since the Assad regime pulled back its military from the region in 2011-12 to fight bigger threats in Aleppo, Damascus and Idlib.
A strategy depending on others
In truth, though, Syrian Kurds were always in an extremely fragile position. Kurdish territory in northeastern Syria has few natural defenses; it is a flat plain that was for centuries a shared space of nomadic Arab and Kurdish tribes. It is also one of the few parts of Syrian territory relatively blessed with natural resources. In the 1950s and 1960s, northeastern Syria grew more than 20 percent of Syria’s wheat and produced enough oil to account for 25 percent of Syrian state oil revenues. The Syrian Kurds, in other words, live on land that is both valuable and indefensible – a treacherous combination.
Syria’s Kurds know this better than anyone, which is why they participated in the U.S.-led operations against the Islamic State, which has inflicted them more than 11,000 Kurdish casualties. The SDF’s motives for committing its people were hardly altruistic. The Syrian Kurds assumed that if they made themselves indispensable to U.S. interests (described by then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the time as the “annihilation and humiliation” of the Islamic State), the U.S. would protect them, much like how it has protected Israel since 1973. The Syrian Kurds also attempted to develop stronger relations with Russia, albeit to little avail, and even offered to remain loyal to the Assad regime if it promised to grant them autonomy in the north.
The problem is that their strategy depended on the actions, interests and whims of outside powers. The only thing that would have given the Syrian Kurds a chance to defend their territorial gains was the unification of the Kurdish peoples. There are roughly 35 million Kurds living in southern Turkey, northern Syria and Iraq, and northwestern Iran – and if they pooled their resources and used every political, economic and military tool available to them, they might have a shot at securing their independence, provided they are able to secure strategic relationships with other powers in the region like Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia the U.S.
Underdeveloped Kurdish national consciousness
But the unification of the Kurdish peoples is optimistically decades away because Kurdish national consciousness is seriously underdeveloped. In fact, “Kurdish” is a bit of a misnomer. It doesn’t so much describe a single, socially cohesive national population as it does a diverse range of tribes and communities that speak different languages, worship different gods and have different political ideals. The two most common Kurdish languages – Kurmanji and Sorani – are about as similar as English is to German.
Furthering impeding the drive to statehood is the fact that Kurdish groups frequently fight among themselves. In 1994, just six years after the Saddam Hussein regime’s infamous gassing and massacre of Iraqi Kurds, the two main Iraqi Kurdish political groups – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which are still around today – fought a civil war that killed some 5,000 people. Today, Iraq’s constitution recognizes the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan (the Kurdistan Regional Government), and the KRG has a tight relationship with Turkey, the main economic power in its territory. Indeed, Iraqi Kurds regularly offer Turkey assistance in hunting down Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants that often hide in northern Iraq’s mountainous terrain.
The PKK is a Kurdish separatist and militant group active in southern Turkey. The Turkish government and various other countries and international organizations classify as a terrorist group. Ever since the Islamic State started making a name for itself, Turkey has been trying to convince the world that it and the PKK should be eliminated concurrently. Soon after the YPG emerged as a significant power in northeastern Syria, Turkey began characterizing the YPG, too, as a terrorist group and made Turkish assistance in the fight against the Islamic State contingent on expanding the fight to the YPG. The problem for Turkey is that no one outside of a Turkish madhouse believes this propaganda. In any case, the YPG, with U.S. support, turned out to be capable partner in the war against the Islamic State. Turkey has been trying to undermine the YPG’s relationship with the U.S., even as the YPG committed itself completely to defeating the caliphate. With Trump’s declared withdrawal, Ankara finally succeeded.
Between Ankara and Washington
Turkey’s interests here are fairly clear-cut. Turkey is threatened by an independent Syrian Kurdish state because Syrian and Turkish Kurds are closely related – far more so than Turkey’s Kurds and Iraq’s Kurds. Turkey is worried that an internationally recognized, independent Syrian Kurdish state could legitimize the independence aspirations of its own Kurds, who constitute roughly 15 percent of Turkey’s population. An independent Syrian Kurdish state could be used by the PKK as a haven and perhaps even a base of operations for attacks in Turkey. That is why Turkey, which declined to commit many troops to fight the Islamic State, is willing to deploy its soldiers to defeat the YPG. Turkey can control and manipulate a Sunni fundamentalist group much more easily than it can a Syrian Kurdish group. The Syrian Kurds look at Turkey through the lens of their Turkish cousins, which is the kernel of truth in Turkey’s insistence that YPG and PKK are the same thing, even though they are not.
In Ankara, it seems this shared worldview is, at this point, tantamount to shared operations. It is precisely this kind of manipulation that makes outsiders interpret the Erdogan government’s crackdown on free speech and journalism and its indulgence in crony capitalism as prelude to the rise of a kind of Turkish fascism; it’s not much of a leap to see the invasion of northern Syria as a precursor to a kind of Turkish-inspired Lebensraum. If this sounds hyperbolic, it is only slightly so.
Turkey is fraught with internal domestic issues, like the relationship between secularism and religion, and the rise of a new, more traditional middle class from the Turkish interior that has supplanted power centers in Istanbul and the coastal regions. These issues are manifesting as devotion to a leader who has, with democratic support, secured hugely expanded presidential powers; who is seeking to increase the power and role of the state in all aspects of Turkish life; and who recently reorganized the Turkish military after a failed coup. Now, Erdogan is directing his handpicked officers to pursue an aggressive military invasion of a neighbor and using the political cover provided by the United States to validate Ankara’s behavior just enough to not be seriously challenged on the world stage.
The “how” of a withdrawal is crucial
As for the United States: There is a legitimate and very good argument that can be made for a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, and specifically from Syria. The U.S. has spent significant blood and treasure in the region with little to show for it. The United States’ surge in recoverable energy resources has severed the last real strategic interest it has in the Middle East beyond preventing the emergence of a hostile regional hegemonic power. As former President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq showed, however, the “how” of a withdrawal is crucial. The U.S. does not seem to have secured any concessions from Turkey that would make the move strategically logical – however morally unsatisfying. If the U.S. wanted to let the region stew in its own juice and work with another country (i.e. Russia) to maintain a stable balance of power, that could also be a viable strategy. Letting Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt foot the bill for supporting the Syrian Kurds could work. Supporting the Syrian Kurds – and funneling aid and money to the development of a broader Kurdish national identity –would also be an interesting strategy, the long-term goal being a U.S.-allied buffer state between Turkey and Iran.
Instead, the U.S. is engaging in exactly the kind of ad hoc decision-making that countermands strategy. The U.S. has abandoned the Syrian Kurds, antagonized Turkey, opened up the space for the Islamic State to re-emerge, and created a power vacuum that either Turkey or Iran will fill. Whether in the Middle East, in East Asia or in Europe, the Trump administration has no strategy to speak of. It has, in its place, the whims of a mercurial real estate developer. That’s why the Syrian Kurds never stood a chance.
A Model for the Kurds
The obvious model for the Syrian Kurds (and for the various Kurdish groups of the Middle East in general) is Israel. The difference between the Kurds and the Jews is that Zionism – the mainstream Jewish nationalist ideology that underpinned Israel’s rise – existed for almost a century before Israel declared its independence. Zionists established coherent international organizations that were devoted to the realization of an independent Jewish state. Those organizations, in turn, bought land in areas that they wanted to control and encouraged immigration to that land in Palestine. Eventually, those organizations used both military force and the disarray of the Arab states aligned against Zionism to secure and defend a Jewish state – without much in the way of support from outside powers besides Soviet black-market weapons. Israel became a U.S ally in 1967 during the Cold War to deepen its security; it never depended completely on the U.S. because it knew the support of a great power patron is ephemeral. Crucially, despite plenty of their own factional infighting, the Jews who created Israel looked past their differences and fought together for the same goal. (The fraying of that shared mission is perhaps the biggest threat to Israel’s future.)
The various Kurdish groups of the Middle East have never come close to achieving that kind of political clarity and national cohesion, and for as long as that remains the case, they will remain the pawns of others. In the meantime, if Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria is too brutal, it may unwittingly give an impetus for the consolidation of a shared Kurdish experience of persecution and massacre that might drive at least some Kurdish groups closer together. Similar episodes of defeat and massacre at the hands of others has thus far failed to bring Kurdish groups close enough – but we are also talking about peoples that were largely tribal until well into the 20th century. The development of national consciousness takes time.
The Syrian Kurds will lose Rojava. But the long-term viability of a Kurdish unification and independence does not depend on what happens in Rojava, but rather on whether the region’s Kurds begin to think of themselves as a single nation. The only thing that can save the Kurds is themselves. The day they realize it, the map of the Middle East will change dramatically. In the meantime, tragedy will precede redemption.
Liebe Leserinnen und Leser,
wir freuen uns, mit George Friedman einen der bekanntesten geopolitischen Analysten für uns gewonnen zu haben. Ab sofort wird der US-Politologe und Leiter der Publikation Geopolitical Futures regelmäßig seine gleichnamige Kolumne „Geopolitical Futures“ hier auf Cicero Online veröffentlichen. Seine englischsprachigen Texte sollen nicht nur Ihnen einen Blick über den hiesigen medialen Tellerrand hinaus ermöglichen, sondern auch Leser und Leserinnen aus dem Ausland erreichen. Wir wünschen Ihnen viel Spaß beim Lesen und kluge Erkenntnisse.
Ihr Alexander Marguier, Chefredakteur des Cicero