Kurds Fight Islamist Rebels In Syria, Threaten Independence In Iraq

I’m rather befuddled by how many Middle East watchers are paying all their attention to the new regional petit-Napoleon, Egypt’s Morsi, and to the aftermath of the eight-day conflict in Gaza, while there’s a smouldering powederkeg in the region they’re ignoring.

I wrote about Kurdish unity moves in Syria the other day, and about the Iraqi Arab-Kurdish standoff recently. These two Kurdish issues are now taking on a synergy that threatens to upset everyone’s plans.

In Syria, Kurdish forces are now fighting Islamist rebels in the town of Ras al-Ain, hard on the Turkish border.

The clashes came less than two days after rebels, armed with at least five tanks according to a military source, took full control of the sprawling Base 46 in the same province. The Britain-based [Syrian Observatory for Human Rights] said that at least 29 people had died in clashes in Ras al-Ain, near the Turkey border, over the past 24 hours. The casualties included four Kurdish fighters, a local Kurdish official, and 24 members of the Islamist Al-Nusra Front and Gharba al-Sham rebel battalions.

The original Kurdish fighters in the area will now be reinforced by others in their new unified forces.

The agreement sets the stage for an expanded conflict in the area between Islamist rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian Kurdish forces.

“We initially agreed on forming these (joint) forces that do not belong to any side, and discussions are ongoing now” in Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, Mohammed Rasho, a representative of the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan, which is close to the PYD, told AFP.

Talks on the formation of the joint forces between the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan and the Kurdish National Council, which comprises a number of Syrian Kurdish parties, began three days ago, Rasho said, adding that they took place under the supervision of the presidency of Iraqi Kurdistan. [Emphasis mine – SH]

An activist who identified himself as Havidar, meanwhile, said: “The two Kurdish national councils in western Kurdistan (Syria) have agreed in Iraq to create a united military force, bringing together PYD forces and other Kurdish dissidents” in Syria.

“Since the Free Syrian Army forces came to Kurdish areas, especially Ras al-Ain,” there was in the beginning “an understanding that they would limit their deployment to Arab areas,” said Rasho.

But after some time, rebel forces burned Kurdish flags that had been raised, and “clashes between us and them occurred in Kurdish areas,” he said.

Meanwhile, the head of the SNC, himself a Kurd, is on record as saying, rather ominously, that “In order to achieve your rights, you have to be part of this revolution” rather than fighting against the rebels and that should Kurdish forces extend their fighting to units of the Free Syrian Army then “you deny all of the FSA, this means that you and the people of Syria are in a confrontation”. He went on: “it is clear; you have to side with one side. You either have to be part of the revolution, or not part of the revolution. Even if you are silent, then this is something else.”

Keeping the Kurdish fighters and FSA apart, or even Kurds asserting their neutrality, may be easier said than done. The Islamist group fighting in Ras al-Ain understands this well enough. The day before this new Kurdish unity force was agreed, the Ghuraba al-Sham battalion called on Islamist and mainstream FSA forces to drive on the majority-Kurdish city of Hasakeh and seize it. “And we warn all those who stand in the way of this revolt… especially the PYD and the PKK, and any other armed group, against taking any action that contradicts the path of the revolution,” their statement said.

Where this new Syrian Kurdish unity wants to head is plain, and the FSA will be in the way.

#BREAKING: The Kurdish parties were unable to reach agreement on the official name of Kurdish areas “Kurdistan” or “West Kurdistan” #Syria

— Zaid Benjamin (@zaidbenjamin) November 23, 2012

And likewise, these Syrian Kurdish forces seem to be in the way of a Sunni wish to rule the whole country. That cannot end well.

But if the Syrian Kurds are “West Kurdistan”, what about “East Kurdistan”? Things are not looking much better there.

ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraq’s Kurdish region has sent reinforcements to a disputed area where its troops are involved in a standoff with the Iraqi army, a senior Kurdish military official said, despite calls on both sides for dialogue to calm the situation.

The second military buildup this year illustrates how far relations between Baghdad’s central government, led by Shi’ite Muslim Arabs, and ethnic Kurds have deteriorated, testing Iraq’s federal cohesion nearly a year after U.S. troops left.

Baghdad and Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region earlier this week began sending troops to an area over which they both claim jurisdiction, raising tensions in a long-running feud over land and oil rights.

More Kurdish troops and tanks were mobilised on Saturday and headed towards the disputed areas, the deputy minister for Kurdish military affairs said late on Saturday, adding that they would hold their positions unless Iraqi forces made a move.

“If they overstep the line, we will strike them,” Anwar Haji Osman said.

Meanwhile, In Washington, Qubad Talabani, the Washington representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq and the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, has said any attack by Iraqi forces against the country’s autonomous region would justify Kurdish independence from Iraq. Jabar Yawar, the peshmerga’s secretary general, told reporters “If one bullet is fired, the whole of the disputed areas will erupt in flames.” 

US diplomats are frantically trying to calm both sides down, and some have even suggested re-sending US troops to Iraq to provide a buffer between the two military forces. That’d probably get acceptance from the Iraqi Kurds and would be loved by US neocons – Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites, Maliki and the leftie US Dem base would be rather less pleased. It’s unclear that even a US military presence could keep the two sides from clashing, however, unless it was in considerable force. Even then, Kurds would simply take this as US protection for their own seccessionist tendencies.

Turkey would probably be pleased to see US troops back in Kurdish Iraq too. Since Kurdish territory forms the entirety of Iraq’s border with Turkey, Tayyip Recep Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has been at pains to foster good relations with Iraq’s autonomous Kurds by doing oil deals, increasing cross-border trade and enlisting the region’s political leaders help in Turkey’s ongoing decades-long conflict with its own Kurdish separatists, the PKK. Erdogan has been especially scathing about Iraqi prime minister Maliki’s actions in the current crisis, with Maliki replying that he should mind his own business as Turkey is headed for its own civil war.

Although that’s the least likely fallout from this cross-border Kurdish turbulence, erdogan should perhaps not dismiss the possibility out of hand as he has. While he’s backed the Iraqi Kurds strongly, they in turn have just as strongly backed the new unity movement in Syria – and one of the key groups in that movement backs the PKK. In that interview with SNC leader Abdel Basset Sayda I mentioned earlier in this post, he sets out the Turkish problem.

The Turks are not secretive about their intolerance for having the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) on their border. They publicly state this. In the Erbil meeting that the Kurdish National Council (KNC) attended, Ahmet Davutoglu [Turkish foreign minister] repeated this statement. Davutoglu said that they were not against the PYD if the PYD works as an independent Kurdish party in Syria. But if they consider themselves PKK, then Turkey will not tolerate that.

As I say, it’s the least likely scenario: but there’s still a scenario where Iraqi Kurds and Syrian Kurds, coming together for mutual support, find that they have been painted into a corner where all must stand together or hang separately by conflicting threats from Maliki, Assad and the Syrian rebels. At that point, they’d need to throw their support to the PKK again, as they once did, in order to keep their unity front – and Turkey too would be headed into the same kind of complex separatist civil war Iraq and Syria already stand in danger of seeing. The end result woul be either a separate Kurdistan straddling the three old borders, or decades of Kurdish armed resistance.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • In my humble opinion, I believe that the Kurds are protecting their autonomous region for the oil income. From that base they go where they can. Above board deals with Turkey to transport the oil all the while maintaining important but below board ties with the PKK. This Syria thing is a stroke of luck thrown into their lap. When Syria goes they make their move for the beginnings of absorbing Kurdish Syria into their Iraki base. Maybe it starts out as an informal confederation of two separate so-called autonomous regions.

    Over time and circumstance they turn their attention to Kurdish Turkey and Kurdish Iran.

    I see them eventually having their own Kurdistan or whatever as their own country in the U.N. etc.

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