US’ Kurd policy full of contradictions - GulfToday

US’ Kurd policy full of contradictions

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter stands near Kurdish internal security special forces during a security operation in al-Hol camp, in Hasaka governorate, northeast Syria. Reuters

A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter stands near Kurdish internal security special forces during a security operation in al-Hol camp, in Hasaka governorate, northeast Syria. File/Reuters

Sunni Arab tribesmen have delivered a hard knock to the US-Kurdish project in Syria’s oil hub and resource-rich Deir al-Zor province. The fragile Kurdish-Arab partnership in Deir al-Zor has been jolted, depriving the Kurds of unchallenged dominance and forcing the US to exert pressure on them to cede power to the Arabs, who constitute a 90 per cent majority in the province.

Ten days of fighting between tribal levies and the Kurd-led and staffed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) killed 90-100, the majority fighters, wounded dozens and damaged or destroyed critical infrastructure.

Clashes began after the arrest by the SDF on August 27th of Deir al-Zor Military Council commander Ahmad Khubail, aka Abu Khawla and lieutenants. While the SDF charged him with corruption and drug smuggling, his chief offence was demanding regional autonomy and contacting the Syrian government and its Iran-backed militia allies. Tribesmen mounted roadblocks and attacked SDF patrols. When tribal fighters crossed from the government-held west bank of the Euphrates River to the SDF-administered east bank, the Kurds sent reinforcements and shelled Arab villages. The US became alarmed as fighting intensified and threatened to draw in more tribesmen, the Syrian army and Turkey’s surrogate jihadi forces which illegally occupy enclaves on the Syrian side of the border.

Washington dispatched State Department official Ethan Goldrich and commander of the 900 US troops in Syria, Major General Joel Vowell, who met with tribal leaders and SDF commanders with the aim of quelling the Arab rebellion. On one hand, the US team said that “distractions (from the fight against Daesh) create instability and increase the risk of (its) resurgence.” On the other hand, the US persuaded the Kurds to “address local grievances (and both sides to) de-escalate violence as soon as possible and avoid casualties.” On September 7th, the SDF announced the fighting had ended — although mopping up operations were continuing. Subsequently the SDF proclaimed amnesty for Arab tribesmen who took part in the uprising.

US and Kurdish interests coincide just so far. The US is using the Syrian Kurds to divide and undermine the Syrian state by backing their occupation of 25 per cent of its territory, which the Kurds call Rojava. Since Syria’s oil fields are located in this region, the US also deprives Syrian-government held areas of 85 per cent of the oil consumed by Syrians before the war. This has forced Damascus to lift subsidies on fuel which has sent prices soaring and prompted protests in Sweida and Deraa.

Syrian Kurds exploit US protection, funds and arms in the forever Kurdish campaign to carve out a Kurdish state called “Greater Kurdistan” in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. Kurds call the Syrian area they hold Western Kurdistan (Rojava); southeastern Turkey is Northern Kurdistan; the Iraqi Kurdish region, Southern Kurdistan; and southwest Iran, Eastern Kurdistan. The US-Kurdish joint project falls apart, at least for the present, over Greater Kurdistan as its formation would lead to constant turmoil in this deeply troubled region.

The Kurds do not mind. The SDF includes Kurdish volunteer fighters from Iraq and Iran as well as Turkey. This complicates matters for the US which supported Iraqi Kurdish insurgents — led by Mustafa Barzani — for decades but no longer does. The US aim was to divide and weaken Iraq under Saddam Hussein which was the core of the Eastern Arab World (Mashreq) and the main obstacle to Kurdish separatist ambitions. It took two wars and Saddam Hussein’s fall for the US to succeed in fracturing Iraq.

The emergence of Iraq’s “semi-autonomous” region consisting of the provinces of Dohuk, Irbil and Suleimaniya was given impetus by the “no-fly zone” denying Baghdad control of the skies over these provinces after US President George HW Bush’s 1991 war on Iraq. This culminated in formal recognition of the Kurdish “semi-autonomous region” in the 2005 constitution imposed on Iraq by his son President George W. Bush.

However, the US was wrong-footed when the Iraqi Kurds went too far by voting overwhelmingly for full independence on September 25th, 2017. The vote precipitated fighting with the Iraqi armed forces which resulted in the Kurds’ loss of Kirkuk and its oil fields, amounting to 20 per cent of the territory the Kurds had held.

So far, the Syrian Kurds, who have gained a good measure of self-rule, have avoided making a similar mistake while Iranian Kurds have become restive since last September when a Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, was arrested for “bad hijab” and died in Iranian moral police custody.

The Syrian Kurds’ arrogant, autocratic and discriminatory behaviour toward Arabs and minority Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, and others have driven resentments that have produced the latest Arab uprising. The Kurds are accused of marginalising other communities by monopolising local councils, corruption, cracking down on the media, forcible recruitment to the armed forces, and drafting underaged children. The Kurdish education authority imposed a Kurdish curriculum and Kurdish language in schools which adhered to an Arabic curriculum. Teachers and students were detained and some Arab children were sent to government-held areas to study.

While the Kurdish-led administration runs affairs in the occupied region, it is not sovereign and does not replace the government. The Kurdish administration cannot issue birth and death certificates, school and university graduation decrees and other documents which are accepted outside the Kurdish-held region. Residents have to visit Syrian government offices to secure essential documentation and secure specialised medical treatment. This happened also during the rule of Daesh’s false caliphate based at Raqqa.

Washington’s Kurd policy suffers from internal contradictions. Having favoured the Iraqi and Syrian secessionist Kurds, the US has stuck by ally Ankara by branding as a “terrorist organisation” the insurgent Turkish Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has battled the Turkish military for nearly 40 years. This is, of course, a paradoxical policy because the PKK is the font of Kurdish separatism and its Turkish imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan is seen as the leader of this struggle.

While Washington is willing and ready to undermine and divide Arab countries by supporting separatism, the US is firmly behind NATO ally Turkey in its ruthless suppression of its Kurds, who constitute the largest Kurdish community in the region. Iran’s Kurds are the second largest, Iraq’s third, and Syria’s fourth. Without Turkish Kurds — who also constitute the majority of the region’s Kurds — there can be no “Greater Kurdistan.” The Kurds are a people whose friendships are fleeting because of the colonial policy of divide-and-rule which has been imposed on them by four states established in the wake of World War I even though Britain promised the Kurds a small independent state in southeast Turkey.

Ill-conceived US projects in this region are bound to fail. The US failed to secure control of Iraq after the 2003 war. Instead, Washington handed over Iraq to Iran’s Shia acolytes. Rebels, jihadis and US-sanctions have also failed to topple the Syrian government which has been backed by by Iran and Russia. While pursuing its projects the US has damaged Iraq, Syria, and the Kurds and killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of innocents.

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