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15 Oct 2019 18:58
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  •   Home > News > International

    US and Syrian Kurds have always made for strange bedfellows — and it could never last

    The United States and Kurds in Syria may have a convergence of interest, but they have always made for strange bedfellows, writes Tristan Dunning.

    The Turkish Government has laid bare the waning influence of the United States in the Middle East by striking Syrian Kurdish targets in defiance of the Trump administration's (public) warnings to the contrary.

    The potential ensuing conflict puts the US Government in a catch-22: caught between its formal, yet cantankerous ally, Turkey — with which it shares a mutual defence pact through NATO — and the Syrian Kurds, who played a central role in vanquishing the Islamic State terrorist organisation.

    The US move to withdraw troops paves the way for a wider military incursion by Turkish armed forces against their Kurdish arch-nemeses and highlights US preparedness to betray the Kurds once again.

    Not only was US abandonment entirely predictable given Trump's previous declarations but it is also consistent with the historical actions of the West and regional powers.

    The Kurds seem like perfect US allies

    At first glance the Kurds seem to perfectly align with declared US interests in the region: they promote democracy and human rights, oppose religious extremism, are avowedly secular and are gender and ethnically inclusive.

    The Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) — the armed wing of the region's dominant political party Kurdish Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) — has long been lauded as the most effective US-aligned ground forces fighting ISIS.

    What makes this putative betrayal by the US all the more egregious is that it so closely follows an August deal between Turkey and the US through which the YPG withdrew from parts of northern Syrian, destroying their military fortifications along the way no less, per a US-backed security mechanism aimed at addressing Turkish security concerns.

    Strange bedfellows

    It appears the US and Kurds in Syria have a convergence of interest. Yet they have always made for strange bedfellows.

    The PYD is widely regarded as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which has fought a decades' long insurgency against the Turkish state, first fighting for an independent Kurdish homeland, before ostensibly transitioning more recently to a struggle for Kurdish autonomy and cultural rights.

    The conflict has resulted in more than 40,000 deaths since the 1980s and the PKK is an historically doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist organisation that is a proscribed terrorist organisation in the US.

    Northern Syria has often acted as a safe-haven and staging post for PKK fighters, hence Turkish hostility towards the Kurdish-dominated region on its southern border.

    The Kurds of Syria and Iraq have been useful foot soldiers for the US in fighting against Islamic State at a time when the Iraqi army was being rebuilt following the loss of around a third of Iraqi territory.

    At the same time, the Turkish government — depending on who you ask — at best, turned a blind eye and at worst, actively aided Islamist militants crossing its borders into Syria.

    Indeed, the US only turned to the YPG after losing faith in Turkey as a reliable partner in the fight against Islamic State.

    The unlikely US-led coalition cobbled together, however, was never going to last.

    It was based on the shared threat of Islamic State.

    It never even attempted to resolve the underlying causes of conflict among these erstwhile allies and the conflicts which led to the security vacuums that ISIS so successfully exploited in the first place.

    Once Islamic State territorial ambitions were thwarted, it was almost inevitable that these conflicts would re-emerge.

    At that juncture, it would become increasingly untenable for the US to simultaneously support warring parties.

    US decision-making in the Middle East predominantly comes down to geo-political utility.

    Turkey is a key NATO ally, possessing the second largest army in the alliance.

    Even Iraqi Kurds are aligned with Turkey.

    Syrian Kurds are of little geo-strategic worth to the US now that Islamic State has notionally been defeated.

    In recent years, moreover, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has become increasingly authoritarian, at odds with Western interests, and gravitated towards Vladimir Putin's Russia.

    The latter occurrence has the potential to compromise NATO military technology following Turkey's purchase of Russian anti-aircraft weapons.

    As such, the US may be hoping to bring Turkey back into the NATO fold.

    Erdogan's particular brand of authoritarian populism may also endear him to Trump.

    Despite the ongoing conflicts in the region, moreover, the US maintains a commitment to the territorial integrity of Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

    Indeed, the UN Charter accords sovereign states the right to territorial integrity and (notional) non-interference in internal affairs.

    Given the mosaic of peoples residing within and across state borders in the Middle East, the spectre of Kurdish independence could potentially open a Pandora's box vis-à-vis ethnic self-determination, entailing further fragmentation and conflict throughout the region.

    Indicatively, the US refused to support a referendum on independence in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017, despite being overwhelmingly endorsed by Iraqi Kurds, and the fact that the US functionally established and has been supporting the semi-autonomous region since the early 1990s.

    This should have been interpreted as a harbinger of things to come by the leaders of Rojava.

    Why the Kurds keep falling for it

    In brief, what other options do they have?

    The Kurds as an ethnic group live across Turkey, Syria and Iraq yet they have never had a nation state.

    At the end of WWI as the Ottoman Empire was carved up, the 1920 Treaty of Sevres recognised Kurdish nationalist aspirations and an autonomous Kurdish homeland was planned.

    But fierce Turkish nationalist resistance thwarted the plans and resulted in the West's first betrayal of the Kurds: abrogating the earlier treaty and reneging on its promise of Kurdish self-determination and leaving the Kurds split across four newly-formed nations.

    Kurdish identity has been at odds with the Turkish, Arab and Persian identities that surround it resulting in periodic conflict and the ruthless suppression of Kurdish identity.

    Moreover, the Kurds, have often been used as expendable proxies by regional and international powers to further their own interests. As such, Kurds are often regarded as potential fifth columns.

    Today the Kurds are weak, fragmented, and land-locked, lacking in diplomatic recognition and support and, as the old Kurdish adage goes, "have no friends but the mountains".

    Syrian and Iraqi Kurds were fighting an existential battle of survival against ISIS; of course they would align themselves with the US-led fight despite any potential misgivings.

    For Syrian Kurds, alignment with the US had the potential to safeguard their new-found autonomy against Ankara and Damascus.

    There does, however, seem to be a bewildering naivety involved about the beneficence of outside powers.

    When I worked in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2013-14, Kurds often told me: "America is our friend".

    Incredulously, I would reply that the US does not have friends, but rather interests and instruments it uses in pursuit of these, pointing to the Kurds' own long history of betrayal at the hands of others.

    Iraqi Kurds learnt this when the US sided with Baghdad to scupper the results of the referendum; it is this lesson that Syrian Kurds may now be learning.

    Dr Tristan Dunning is an honorary research fellow at the University of Queensland.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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