As ISIS fades and as the Syrian conflict winds down, regional tensions in the Middle East are escalating, as the attention of the Great Powers switches to the growing crisis in Iraq’s and Syria’s Kurdish areas.
The latest stage in the seemingly endless geopolitical struggle in the Middle East is currently underway, with the Kurds of Syria and Iraq taking centre-stage.
Though it is important not to attribute more structure and coherence to US policy than it actually has, it appears that US policy over the course the Syrian conflict in particular has evolved through three overlapping stages.
Stage 1 – Plan A: Regime Change in Syria
First, there was an all-out attempt to achieve regime change in Syria, with the US supporting a proxy war intended to overthrow the Syrian government.
This stage lasted from 2011 up to the autumn of 2016, when the Syrian army’s successful defeat of the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo made it non-viable.
This stage could be called the US’s Plan A.
Stage 2 – Plan B: Partition Syria by creating eastern ‘Sunnistan’
Secondly, as hopes of achieving regime change in Syria faded following the Russian intervention in 2015, plans for partitioning Syria by setting up a Sunni statelet in central and eastern Syria were gradually substituted in its place.
To that end the US established military bases on Syrian territory at Al-Tanf and elsewhere, and began arming and training various anti-government “Free Syrian Army” militia groups both in northern and southern Syria.
This is the classic US ‘third force’ strategy, applied by the US to many conflicts ever since it was first tested out in Vietnam in the 1950s. It has always proved a failure whenever it has been attempted, but that never seems to prevent the US from turning to it whenever it finds itself in a losing position.
In Syrian terms this could be called the US’s Plan B.
Support for the ‘Free Syrian Army’ militia groups and by implication for Plan B was always controversial within the US intelligence and security establishment, with the Defense Intelligence Agency strongly opposed, a fact which in 2014 cost its chief General Michael Flynn his job.
In the event the doubts of the skeptics have proved right. A project initiated in Spring 2015 costing $500 million to set up a Syrian Sunni ‘third force’ was recognised by spring 2016 to have been a total failure – just as the previously sacked General Flynn and his Defense Intelligence Agency had predicted. This did not however prevent the US from trying to do the same thing all over again in 2016, however with the same result.
In recent months it has become finally clear that this strategy has failed. The various ‘Free Syrian Army’ fighters the US has trained and supported have invariably proved a disappointment, incapable of standing up to the Syrian army or Al-Qaeda or ISIS on the battlefield, and ideologically all but indistinguishable from Al-Qaeda and ISIS (which they frequently defect to) anyway. It is common knowledge that most of the weapons the US has supplied to these fighters has ended up in the hands of Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The reason this strategy has failed is because its underlying assumptions are wrong. It assumes Syria’s people are deeply divided on religious lines between Syrian Sunnis, who are assumed to oppose the government, and the Alawite/Christian/Shia/Druze communities, who are known to support it.
This religious division of Syria’s people has never really existed, at least in a political sense, or at least not to anything like the extent the US and many Western commentators imagine. The vast majority of Arab Syrians identify themselves as Arabs and Syrians and with the Syrian state, whilst the religious differences which have existed in Syria for millennia have never caused the fracturing of what is in every other respect a single country and nation. Though most Syrians are Muslims, the prevailing ideology of the Syrian people and state is first and foremost Arab nationalism.
The result is that the sort of Syrians who are attracted to the US’s ‘third force’ ‘Sunnistan’ project are unrepresentative of the great majority of Syrians, and come from Syria’s very small minority of religious extremists. For those sort of people the real extremism of Al-Qaeda and ISIS will always be more attractive than the phoney sectarianism of whatever ‘Sunni’ “third force” the US tries to cobble together and not surprisingly, whenever they are given the choice, their preference is to join Al-Qaeda or ISIS rather than stick with whatever ‘third force’ the US has conjured up for them.
Plan B’s other problem is that it also ignored the enormous logistical and political challenges of sustaining indefinitely an unrecognised Sunni Jihadi ‘statelet’ in the poor and isolated desert regions of central and eastern Syria.
Such a statelet would be cut off from direct access to the sea and would be sandwiched between Syria’s wealthy western coastal regions firmly controlled by the Syrian government and Iraq whose Shia dominated pro-Iranian government would be bound to be implacably opposed to it. It could only therefore survive through US support, which would need to be both costly and indefinite.
Given the enormous cost and the certain opposition of much of the US public to such an expensive long term commitment to Syria, the sheer cost of sustaining a ‘Sunnistan’ in eastern Syria means that in practical terms Plan B was never a realistic strategy.
In the event the rapid advances of the Syrian army into central and eastern Syria since the spring, and the concurrent advances of the Iraqi army through Iraq’s western regions to the Syrian border over the same period, and the emerging Syrian-Iraqi alliance, have acted to kill whatever hopes for Plan B there ever were.
It is now clear that the setting up of a Sunni Jihadi ‘statelet’ in the central and eastern regions of Syria adjoining the Iraqi border is no longer possible, and Plan B – the partition of Syria along religious lines – has failed and has had to be abandoned.
Stage 3 – Plan C: Support the Kurds
Following the failure of Plans A and B, most governments would have accepted that there is no realistic way for the US to achieve its maximalist objectives in Syria, and would have cut their losses. Unfortunately, as has become all too clear in the last few months, the US has no reverse gear, so that in place of Plans A and B we are now seeing the rolling out of Plan C.
This is to manipulate Kurdish national aspirations to undermine the Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian-Hezbollah “axis of resistance/Shia crescent”, which in my opinion had no real existence before the start of the Syrian conflict but which as a direct consequence of US and Israeli policy in Syria and Iraq is now emerging.
The results of this new strategy – which can be called Plan C – are now evident in the form of the escalating conflicts between the Kurdish militia and the Syrian army in north east Syria – with Deir Ezzor province emerging as the key flashpoint – and with the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.
At this point a number of qualifiers are needed.
Policy instability in Washington
Firstly, though I have no doubt that Plan C exists and is both calculated and supported by some influential people in Washington – including within the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon – I doubt there is any consensus within the US government behind it.
There has never been any sign of any properly structured discussion within the US government about the sort of strategy the US should be following in Syria, whether conducted through the vehicle of the National Security Council or through any other format. In my opinion the US government is now too disorganised and dysfunctional to be capable of carrying out such a discussion. That was already the case under the Obama administration, and the current political chaos in Washington has made the situation worse.
The result is that many senior officials within the US – including I suspect President Trump himself, and quite possibly his ‘realist’ Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – have not been consulted about the new strategy and may not even know about it.
My strong impression is that US policy in the Middle East has for some time been run by a small but powerful cabal of officials inside the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon, who have strong links to various neoliberal/neoconservative groups working in US academia, various Washington think-tanks, and the media, and who also have strong personal and organisational links to the governments of the US’s two major allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Needless to say, since policy is made in this way with no proper discussion behind it, the new policy of supporting the Kurds (like the previous policies of seeking regime change in Syria and Iraq, and of partitioning Syria on religious lines) has not been properly thought through, and is not being executed in a consistent or organised way.
Kurds are manipulating the US
Secondly, the ‘new’ policy looks to have been ‘made’ by the Kurds as much as by US officials in Washington.
In both Syria and Iraq the Kurds have sought to leverage the conflicts there to their own advantage, using US hostility to the Syrian government and increasingly to the Iraqi government to advance their longstanding national aspiration for an independent Kurdistan.
The Kurds have sought to do this by presenting themselves to the US as the one ‘third force’ in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq which is both consistently reliable and militarily effective.
To a quite remarkable extent they have succeeded, carving out for themselves with US help large oil-rich and all-but independent zones in both Syria and Iraq.
US support for the Kurds in Iraq
Neither of these zones could have been created without US help.
The Kurdish zone in Iraq was created back in 1991 following the US war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Kurds were never able to defeat Saddam Hussein’s army by themselves, even in its weakened post-1991 form, and there is no possibility their zone in northern Iraq could have been created or maintained without US support.
Since then the Kurds in Iraq have used the US’s continued support to expand this zone. It now includes large areas of Iraq of predominantly Arab population, including the important oil town of Kirkuk.
US support for the Kurds in Syria – a tidal wave of weapons supplies
In Syria the Kurds, especially since the defeat of the US’s ‘Free Syrian Army’ proxies in 2016, have emerged by default as the US’s one remaining ally. The result is US support on an astonishing scale.
A recent joint report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (“OCCRP”) and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (“BIRN”) has revealed the gigantic flood of weapons the US has since September 2015 poured into Syria to support the Kurds there.
Apparently $700 million of weapons have already been sent to the Kurds in Syria, with the Pentagon planning to spend a further $584 million buying arms for the Kurds in eastern Europe up to the end of 2018.
Apparently a total of $2.2 billion in arms transfers by the US to the Kurds in Syria is planned, a figure which I suspect exceeds the price of the weapons supplied by the Russians to the Syrian army over the same period. The OCCRP/BIRN report as it happens says that this figure is an underestimate, and that the true cost of the arms transfers by the US to the Kurds in Syria is much greater.
It is at this point that some of the problems arising from the US’s failure to hold a proper discussion of its new Syrian strategy become apparent.
Since the strategy of arming the Kurds in Syria is not backed by any formal consensus within the US government, and has not been formally agreed by the US with the US’s NATO allies, the whole programme to arm the Kurds has had to be conducted informally, without proper control or accountability, though its scale is such as to make it impossible to speak of a covert programme.
The result is that instead of the US supplying US weapons directly to the Kurds in Syria – something which the US government has not formally authorised itself to do – the US is buying former Soviet weapons for the Kurds in eastern Europe, faking documents and (no doubt) bribing officials there to do it.
It seems demand by the US for former Soviet weapons for the Kurds in Syria has become so great that the US’s east European suppliers are struggling to keep up with US demands, so that some of the weapons which have been supplied are past their sell-by date and are substandard and dangerous to those who use them.
A further result of the obfuscation which exists within the programme is the fiction – to a great extent maintained even by the OCCRP/BIRN report itself – that the weapons are going to something called the “Syrian Democratic Forces” even though everyone familiar with the Syrian conflict knows that the “Syrian Democratic Forces” is simply a fig-leaf term used from time to time by the Kurdish militia there.
It is this vast flood of weapons which together with US air support has enabled the Kurds in Syria to carve out and enlarge their zone in northern Syria.
Nominally this is done in order to fight and defeat ISIS, and the Kurdish militia has indeed fought some hard battles against ISIS in Syria, and is currently battling ISIS for control of ISIS’s former Syrian ‘capital’ Raqqa.
However increasingly, as is now happening in Deir Ezzor province, the Kurdish militia is pitching itself against the Syrian army, using – with US encouragement – the Syrian army’s preoccupation with its fight against ISIS as cover to seize territory and oil wells in eastern Syrian in order to bring them under its control and to make them part of its Kurdish zone.
The result is that though the Kurds only account for around 8% of Syria’s population, their zone in north east Syria has expanded until it now covers roughly 20% of Syria’s territory, with Arabs now outnumbering Kurds inside it.
Differences between the Kurds in Syria and Iraq
There are profound similarities between the position of the Kurds in Syria and the Kurds of Iraq. Both have carved out semi-independent zones in the north of their respective countries; both nominally oppose ISIS; both are increasingly at odds with the governments of their two countries; and both depend heavily on US support. However there are also profound differences.
The Kurdish militia in Syria is controlled by the leftist YPG militia, which is associated with the PKK (“Kurdistan Workers’ Party”) in Turkey. Its ideology is Marxist and it is bitterly opposed to Turkey, which it regards as the enemy of the Kurds. Turkey in turn is strongly hostile to both the YPG and the PKK, which it considers terrorist movements.
The Kurdish militia in Iraq by contrast is controlled by Masoud Barzani, a conservative Kurdish tribal leader and head of the aristocratic Barzani family, who is the President of Iraqi Kurdistan.
In contrast to the YPG Barzani has until recently enjoyed good relations with President Erdogan’s Turkish government in Ankara. There are persistent rumours of close and and even corrupt business dealings between members of Erdogan’s and Barzani’s families, and Erdogan and Barzani treat each other as friends.
On the face of it that should preclude cooperation between the YPG led Kurds in Syria and the Barzani led Kurds in Iraq.
In practice it is likely that some limited cooperation between the two does take place, with arms and fighters probably moving freely between the two ‘Kurdistans’, and it is likely that there is some level of political coordination between them as well.
Consequences of the US’s Kurdish policy
What are the consequences of the US’s Plan C/’Kurdish’ strategy, and what are its prospects? In summary there are five:
(1) it will prolong the conflicts in Syria and Iraq;
(2) it is delaying the final defeat of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria and Iraq;
(3) it will make the Iraqi government align itself still more closely to Iran and Syria;
(4) it will strengthen hostility within Turkey to the US, and may make Turkey more inclined to seek regional alignments with the US’s Middle East rivals and enemies: Russia and Iran;
(5) it risks making the Kurds even more isolated in their region, whilst uniting the region against them.
(1) Prolonging the conflicts in Syria and Iraq
This is of course part of the purpose of the policy, its intention being to weaken the Syrian and Iraqi governments by setting up powerful pro-US Kurdish statelets on their territories.
Presumably the US hopes to use these statelets to leverage influence for itself in Damascus and Baghdad. Even if it is not successful in that, the calculation presumably is that the Syrian and Iraqi governments will have their hands full dealing with the Kurds, and that this will limit their ability to act in concert with each other in a way that is contrary to US wishes and interests.
This objective has to some extent already been achieved. Just a few weeks ago the simultaneous and coordinated advances of the Syrian and Iraqi armies to their joint border appeared to be on the brink of establishing for the first time a genuine land bridge running through Syria and Iraq all the way to Iran. Following the actions of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, those advances have significantly slowed, and the establishment of the threatened land bridge has been postponed, even if it has not been averted entirely.
In the longer term the Kurdish statelets which are emerging in Syria and Iraq possess a coherence and viability that a Sunni statelet in eastern Syria never would have done. They do therefore provide a genuine possible route for the US to maintain a presence and even some influence within Syria and Iraq, even contrary to the wishes of the governments of those countries.
The emergence of these statelets also means that the Syrians and Iraqis to a great extent will at least in the foreseeable future be tied down dealing with their respective Kurds rather than coordinating with Tehran and with each other in a way that might be contrary to US wishes and interests, and in a way which might threaten the regional positions of the US’s two key Middle East allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
(2) Delaying defeat of Al-Qaeda and ISIS
This ‘achievement’ has however come at some cost, and the extra lease of life given to Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria and Iraq is the most immediately obvious.
Until just two weeks ago ISIS in particular, both in Syria and Iraq, was visibly on the run. After a prolonged siege it was driven out of Mosul by the Iraqi army, its position in central Syria appeared to be on the brink of total collapse, and following a whirlwind advance the Syrian army successfully broke its siege of Syria’s strategically important eastern city of Deir Ezzor, which ISIS had appeared to be close to capturing just a few months ago.
The tensions between the Kurdish militia in Syria and the Syrian army, and the political crisis caused by the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, have however forced the Syrian and Iraqi militaries to redeploy their forces to deal with the challenge of the Kurds.
The result is that ISIS in particular has been provided with a new lease of life. The reduction in the number of Iraqi troops in western Iraq in particular has enabled ISIS to redeploy fighters from Iraq to Syria, enabling ISIS to launch fresh attacks on the Syrian army.
The result has been a succession of ISIS counter-offensives aimed at recapturing the strategic town of Al-Sukhnah – liberated from ISIS by the Syrian army in August – whose recapture by ISIS would place Syrian communications to Deir Ezzor in jeopardy.
Further west Al-Qaeda has used the Syrian army’s focus on its conflicts with ISIS and the Kurds to launch new offensives against the Syrian army in Syria’s Idlib province. The Russians – some of whose troops were targeted by these offensives – have made it clear that they suspect a US role in them.
Elsewhere the Kurds’ own increasing focus within Syria on their escalating conflict with the Syrian government appears to have slowed the momentum of their advance against ISIS in ISIS’s former Syrian ‘capital’ Raqqa.
Though the number of ISIS fighters still fighting in Raqqa is now put at no more than a few hundred, ISIS still controls around a quarter of the city, with the Kurds so far failing to inflict on ISIS a final knock-out blow despite the heavy air support they are getting from the US.
Though these renewed offensives by Al-Qaeda and ISIS show how these two terrorist organisations have been able to exploit the conflicts between the Syrian and Iraqi governments and the Kurds to their advantage, it should be stressed that their final defeat in Syria and Iraq has been delayed, not prevented.
Latest reports from eastern Syria suggest that the Syrian army has successfully contained ISIS’s counter-offensive against Al-Sukhnah and is continuing to score gains against ISIS in the remaining pockets of its resistance in central Syria.
It seems that units of the Syrian army may also be closer to capturing the important ISIS held town of Mayadin on the Euphrates river, which following the evacuation of ISIS’s ‘government’ from Raqqa has been made by ISIS its headquarters.
As for Al-Qaeda’s offensive in Idlib province, heavy Russian bombing and the intervention of Russian Special Forces has ensured that it too has been defeated with heavy losses. Latest reports suggest that Al-Qaeda’s leader in Syria – Abu Muhammad al-Julani – has been injured in a Russian air strike and is in a coma though Al-Qaeda is denying this.
(3) Iraqi realignment with Syria and Iran
Iraq has been in the process of re-aligning with Syria and Iran for some time, its rapprochement with Iran having started following the election of a predominantly Shia government in Iraq as the US occupation of Iraq began to wind down.
More recently Iraq and Syria have also edged closer together as they have coordinated their forces to fight their common enemy: ISIS.
I have previously discussed this evolving Syrian-Iraqi alignment and have pointed out that it represents a break in the historic pattern of relations between these two countries, which were previously marked more by hostility than friendship
Since the Second World War Syria and Iraq have more often been in bitter conflict with each other than allied with each other.
In the 1960s the antagonism between the two countries sharpened when they each came to be led by rival branches of the Baath party. There is nothing more calculated to intensify hostility than an ideological split as the history in the twentieth century of the world Communist movement can testify, and in the case of the hostility between the rival Baathists of Syria and Iraq the antagonism became murderous, with former Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein loathing each other.
However this rapprochement, should it become permanent, has the potential to reshape fundamentally the geopolitical picture of the Middle East. As I have written previously
There has been some lurid talk in recent years of a supposedly menacing ‘Shiite crescent’ stretching all the way from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran.
This is a wild fantasy. The Syrian government is not Shiite but secular, and is supported by many and probably most of Syria’s Sunnis. Though there are Shiite sectarians in Iraq, and though they are for the moment in the ascendant, opinion polls show that the majority of Iraqis – Sunnis and Shiites – reject religious sectarianism, and oppose attempts to divide them on religious grounds.
I would add that the supposed conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East is anyway largely misunderstood in the West, which wrongly interprets it through the prism of early modern Europe’s very different Protestant-Catholic conflict. In reality non-Salafi/Wahhabi Sunnis – who are the great majority of Sunnis – have theologically far more in common with Shia Muslims than they do with the Salafi/Wahhabi Sunni Muslims who make up the various Jihadi movements.
Though it is wrong therefore to speak of a ‘Shiite crescent’, it does seem that an evolving geopolitical alignment pitting Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria against Israel and a group of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia may be in the process of forming.
The long history of rivalry and even hostility between Syria and Iraq does however beg the question of how strong and lasting a rapprochement between Syria and Iraq can be?
Though this remains a question only the future can answer, it is difficult to think of anything more likely to solidify Iraq’s new alignment with Iran and Syria than the threat of secession by Iraq’s Kurds.
With both Iran and Syria implacably opposed to such a Kurdish move – not just because of the challenge it would pose for the relations of these two countries with their own Kurds, but also because of the threat of an independent Kurdistan aligning itself with the US and Israel – the threat of Kurdish secession has provided Syria, Iraq and Iran with a fresh challenge and enemy for them to face together once ISIS is defeated.
As such it is likely to bring them closer together, and to bind them together more firmly, than might otherwise have been the case.
(4) A Turkish realignment?
Even as Iran, Syria and Iraq have united to condemn the latest Kurdish independence moves in Iraq, they have found themselves joined in their expressions of concern by the US’s militarily most powerful regional ally, Turkey.
Turkey’s Kurdish problem is possibly the most intractable of all, with Turkey already fighting a low level guerrilla war on its own territory against the PKK, the Kurdish leftist group aligned with the YPG, which has become the de facto leader of the Kurds in Syria.
The close links between the PKK in Turkey and the YPG in Syria must make Turkey extremely nervous not just about the YPG’s success in carving out a semi-independent zone for itself in northern Syria with US backing, but at the vast flood of weapons the YPG has been receiving from the US.
It is precisely this hitherto unreported flood of weapons to the YPG which is probably the single most important reason why over the last year Turkey has slowly shifted its policy in Syria away from seeking regime change there towards working with the Russians to try to bring an end to the war there.
For the Turks a Syrian government – any Syrian government, even one led by Bashar Al-Assad – in full control of Syria’s territory is preferable to the existence of a powerful heavily armed Kurdish statelet on Turkey’s southern border, which is ruled by the YPG. Once it became clear to Turkey following the Jihadi defeat in Aleppo last year that the overthrow of President Assad’s Syrian government was not going to happen, preventing the emergence of a YPG led Kurdish statelet in northern Syria became for Turkey the priority.
That points to the need for Turkey to cooperate with Russia to settle the conflict in Syria, even if that means abandoning some of Turkey’s Jihadi allies there, and even if that results in President Assad continuing in power in Damascus.
However whilst Turkey is implacably hostile to the YPG in Syria, it has hitherto maintained cordial relations with the Barzani regime in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Masoud Barzani, the leader of this regime, has now acted to call that relationship with Turkey into question by holding the independence referendum.
This referendum appears to have been called for internal reasons: to shore up Barzani’s domestic support within Iraqi Kurdistan as Barzani has faced increasing criticism for corruption, authoritarianism and economic mismanagement. However it has been deeply unwelcome in Turkey, which though tolerant of a Barzani led autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Iraq, is strongly opposed to an independent Kurdish state being established there.
Latest reports suggest that Barzani – who depends heavily on Turkish support – is trying to patch things up with the Turks, sending a strong delegation to Ankara to try to reassure Turkish President Erdogan and the Turkish government of his friendly intentions.
Whilst the cracks may be papered over for a while, the effect of Barzani’s referendum has however been to place the whole question of Kurdish independence from Iraq back on the international agenda. Given the extent to which the Turks regard the Kurdish question as an existential issue for themselves, that is bound to cause alarm in Turkey.
The result is the hurried announcement of joint Iranian-Turkish military exercises along their common frontier, a step taken in direct response to Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish independence referendum, and the threats from Turkey of an economic blockade of Iraqi Kurdistan if the results of the referendum are not rescinded.
Those announcements were preceded by high levels talks in Moscow between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia over the course of which the two leaders spoke of each other as “friends”, Erdogan calling Putin his “dear friend”. Significantly the talks were attended by General Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of General Staff, with the final agreement for the sale by Russia of its sophisticated S-400 anti aircraft missile system to Turkey being agreed just before them.
I have previously made known my doubts that any deep realignment of Turkey’s relations with Russia is likely. It has always seemed to me that Turkey is too anchored in the West and too closely tied to the US for that ever to happen.
If any single thing could however make such an otherwise improbable realignment happen, it would be US and Western support for Kurdish national aspirations that failed to take into account Turkey’s concerns and interests. Given the importance of Turkey to the Western alliance, it is baffling that US and Western leaders seem unable to see this, and are drifting into a policy that is risking their alliance with Turkey, without it being properly thought through.
(5) Kurdish isolation
The Kurds both in Syria and Iraq have since the 1991 Iraq war been extremely successful in leveraging their usefulness to the US to promote their national aspirations.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong in this, and in seeking their own state – or at least a secure homeland of their own – the Kurds are not aspiring to anything illegitimate. However they are now in serious danger of overplaying their hand.
From a position of great influence in Iraq, which they successfully achieved following Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Kurds now risk finding that they have made an enemy of the increasingly powerful Iraqi government in Baghdad.
From a situation of de facto alliance with the Syrian government in the war against Al-Qaeda and ISIS, which might with Russian help have been leveraged to secure for the Kurds at the very least significant autonomy and influence within a future Syria, the Kurds now find themselves drifting into confrontation with the Syrian government at just the moment when the Syrian army is sweeping all before it and stands on the edge of victory.
More to the point, by positioning themselves as the allies or even the proxies of the US and Israel, the Kurds have upset the major regional powers – Iran, Syria, Iraq and Russia – whilst alarming Turkey, which is now threatening to impose an economic blockade on Iraqi Kurdistan.
If the Kurds are not careful they could find themselves isolated in the region, with all the major regional powers uniting against them.
Should that happen there is no guarantee that the US would ride to their rescue. On the contrary the recent experience of the Middle East suggests that relying on the US to do so would be a serious mistake.
Rather than risk all by making an outright bid for independence, which has the potential to end catastrophically, the Kurds would be far better advised to work with the regional powers so as to consolidate the already considerable gains they have made. The Russians, who are becoming the major power brokers in the region, have historically been sympathetic to Kurdish aspirations. Were the Kurds to take this approach there would be a reasonable chance that with Russian help they could negotiate for themselves a position which would leave them in possession of most or all of their gains.
That would of course fall short of outright independence. However realistically that may not be achievable at the present time. Attempting to achieve it risks a catastrophic outcome which would put in jeopardy all the gains which since the 1991 Gulf War the Kurds have made. That hardly seems a worthwhile risk.
Unlike the US’s previous projects of regime change in Syria (Plan A) and the partition of Syria along religious lines (Plan B), the latest US ploy to maintain US influence in Syria and Iraq – the creation of pro-US Kurdish statelets there (Plan C) – is grounded in a certain reality. The Kurds in Syria and Iraq are a powerful and coherent force, and they do have longstanding national aspirations the US can exploit in its own interests.
Like all the US’s other Syrian and Iraqi projects this latest one involving the Kurds does not however appear to have been properly thought through. Though it has succeeded in delaying the final victories of the Syrian and Iraqi governments in their respective conflicts, that delay is likely to be short, and the price of achieving it is already looking high.
Instead of drawing Syria and Iraq away from each other, and drawing both away from Iran, US meddling in Kurdish affairs in Syria and Iraq is instead bringing Syria, Iran and Iraq even closer together.
Worse still it is increasing Turkey’s disenchantment with the US, a fact which ought to be of major concern to the US given Turkey’s importance to the US as a key NATO ally, but which incomprehensibly it doesn’t appear to be.
Last but not least, the policy threatens to involve the US in a Kurdish conflict in a region where apart from the Kurds themselves it would be without friends. At a time of growing popular disenchantment in the US with the interventionist war policy that the US has been following since the end of the Cold War (see Glenn Greenwald’s discussion of this here), that has obvious potential for disaster.
There are signs that some US officials understand this. Though it is difficult to believe that Masoud Barzani would have gone ahead with his independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan without receiving at least an amber light from the US, Rex Tillerson, the US’s ‘realist’ Secretary of State, has condemned the move, calling the referendum illegitimate. That suggests that there are at least some people in Washington who understand the risks, and who are concerned.
The problem is that though there are plenty of people in the US who can see the dangers and want to pull back, the initiative in the US always seems in the end to rest with the hardliners. The consistent lesson of the last few decades is that these people have no reverse gear, so that the very fact that the US’s latest Kurdish ploy is for the moment achieving some ephemeral gains is likely to embolden them, causing them to press on, ignoring the risks which lie before them.
All the signs therefore point to a deepening of US involvement in Syria’s and Iraq’s Kurdish areas and of the prolongation of the wars there.
In other words the scene for the next US foreign policy disaster in the Middle East is now being set.