Kentucky voices

The war among Kurds makes Syrian peace unlikely

September 13, 2013 

Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst and author of Turkey-Iran Relations, 1979-2004.

Since the Aug. 21 chemical gas attack in a suburb of Damascus, Americans' and most of the world's eyes have focused on the civil war in Syria. It has been a dreadful war affecting and destroying the well-being of many peoples and religions in an ancient land.

It was with sighs of relief that many people heard President Barack Obama announce Tuesday that imminent attacks against Syria would be delayed until the Russian proposal advocating that Syria place its chemical weapons under some kind of international control be considered.

But it seems unlikely that any kind of negotiated peace can be obtained because of the other war in Syria; a war that affects not just the Kurds of Syria, but the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq as well.

The main reason for this is that the destruction wrought in Syria has partitioned Syria into several contending de facto regions and groups.

The most important of these groups are Kurds. Kurds are important because unlike other peoples in Syria — Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Isma'ilis and Druze — some of the 2.2 million Kurds, perhaps 60 percent, are aligned with the 18 million Kurds of Turkey.

More significantly, 60 percent of Syrian Kurds live in northeast Syria and along the 910 kilometer border with Turkey. Because of the brutality of the al-Assad regimes over the past 47 years, the Kurds of Syria now seek political autonomy.

In order to achieve political autonomy, the main leadership of Syria's Kurds is the Democratic Union Party, headed by Salih Muslim.

The DUP did not ally with the Syrian National Coalition and did not participate in its political arm, the Free Syrian Army. Since it did not participate in the FSA, the al-Assad regime allowed the DUP to gain control of most of northeast Syria and the Kurdish towns along Syria's border with Turkey.

Indeed, the DUP still allows the al-Assad regime to remain at the major airport at al-Hasakah, the major city in the northeast. The DUP is strengthened further by the fact that most of Syria's oil and gas fields are in this province. Control of the oil fields has strengthened further the DUP's demands for autonomy.

In order to defeat the DUP, the Syrian National Coaltion and its Free Syrian Army have allowed fanatical armed groups, largely from the Gulf Arab countries, to fight the DUP's forces along the Syria-Turkey border. It is a fairly large war. The forces of the DUP coalition are said to be around 30,000; opposing forces number 15,000 to 25,000.

The fanatical Islamist forces want to ethically cleanse the Kurds along the Turkish border and regain control of the northeast and its oil and gas fields. They hope to achieve this by cooperating with the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. The KRG is politically autonomous from the state of Iraq, but it is opposed to the DUP because it is allied with the Kurdistan Workers Party, popularly called the PKK.

The PKK is fighting a war against Turkey in order to achieve more political autonomy like the Kurds of Iraq and what the Kurds of Syria are also demanding from Damascus.

But the Kurds of Iraq are aligned with Turkey because Turkey is the only outlet for its vast (an estimated 45 billion barrels) oil and natural gas fields.

This is Turkey's trump card. It also represents the classic struggle between nationalism and capitalism. The Kurds of Iraq have opted for capitalism and the welfare of their own Kurds; not for other Kurds.

Because of the power it has accumulated since the U.S. invasion in 2003, the KRG thinks that it will be able to dominate the DUP and, hence, the Kurds of Syria.

Such a development would delight Turkey because this would allow Ankara to better manage its own problems with the PKK and Kurdish nationalist forces in Turkey.

In turn, this would allow Turkey to fragment the PKK and deny its demands for autonomy in Turkey, among other demands.

It is clear in the civil war in Syria that the U.S. backs the Free Syrian Army.

Washington hopes that the fall of the al-Assad regime will allow the Syrian forces in the FSA to defeat the Gulf Arab militias who, by then, they hope, will have defeated the armed forces of the DUP.

But this seems unlikely because the PKK is not just a strong national liberation movement and it is now firmly embedded in Kurdish society in the east and southeast of Turkey.

Indeed, it is possible that the PKK and DUP together may increasingly challenge the KRG for dominance of the Kurdish nationalist movements in the Middle East.

If this proves to be the case, the other war in Syria may reach proportions as significant as the civil war in Syria.

Robert Olson, a Lexington Middle East analyst, spoke at the June Rand Corporation CIA-sponsored conference, "The Future of the Kurds: Independence, Autonomy and Interconnectedness."

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