The Kurds, perpetual losers at the game of nations
US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria is a perfect example of his style of doing things at the White House: He tweeted it and had made it without consulting his staff.
Trump’s solo decision prompted his Secretary of Defence James Mattis to resign and confused his advisers and US institutions along with US allies and friends.
It is hard to be a friend of Washington in Trump’s time, especially for the Kurds who already were the victims of geography’s curse and the sacred alliances against them and above all victims of their own ill-considered choices and divisions.
With all the changes in the Middle East and the confliraicts raging since 2011 in the context of the “big game” in Syria, the Kurds were under the impression that the time was ripe for them to correct history and post-World War I partitioning of the region by exercising their right to self-determination and imposing themselves as players in the future map of Syria. They apparently believed they would be difficult to bypass because of their role in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS).
However, their bets or calculations did not withstand the “destructive chaos” on the ground. They received the first blow after the referendum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and the loss of Kirkuk in September 2017 and another with the loss of Afrin in northern Syria.
After the US withdrawal, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units are not afraid of losing much of their geography and their goal of achieving a pluralistic Syria but this American abandonment and Russia’s neglecting them will result in a blow to the Kurdish dream. Most likely, the Kurdish forces will withdraw towards northern Iraq, with all the risks involved.
In the end, despite the drawback in Syria, the lost battle in Iraq, the containment of Kurdish protests in Iran and the political and security pressures in Turkey, the world’s largest population without a state will not abandon the idea of self-determination.
People often repeat that the Kurds have no friends but their mountains but that amounts really to an oversimplification and marginalisation of modern history. They certainly made mistakes by deciding to rely on others and by becoming mere tools for foreign agendas when they don’t ask for guarantees or fully understand the complexities of the regional game and regional changes.
Of course, one can always blame the others instead of learning from one’s mistakes and by carrying on with an unfair war against Ankara and its capacities. To this is added today’s special moral and political responsibility of Washington and its allies.
During the Battle of Afrin, the West praised the Kurdish peshmerga forces who were the West’s main allies in the war on ISIS. The European media focused on Kurdish female fighters and on the bravery and sacrifices of the Kurdish forces in the battles against ISIS in Sinjar, Kobane and Raqqa. Washington and the international coalition against terrorism made the People’s Protection Units the core units of the Syrian Democratic Forces and had them control sensitive areas north and east of the Euphrates in Syria.
With the turn of events at Afrin, however, and especially after the victory in the battle of Hajin against ISIS, Trump quickly made the decision to withdraw US troops from Syria but later accepted to postpone six months. The reason was that a decisive and full victory against ISIS was needed. The same scenario happened in Iraq during the term of US President George W. Bush. On May 1, 2003, Bush announced the end of military operations in Iraq but Iraq is still unstable to this day.
Observers wondered about the real outcome of the war against ISIS since 2014. What they saw as a result of that war was the handover of Iraq and Syria in one form or another to Iranian influence. There were a few consolation prizes for the Turkish player by the new international force in the Middle East — Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
It is too early to do an inventory of the winners and losers. Perhaps Trump wanted to let go of the burning ball of fire so that someone else would pick it up. What is being said about a deal with Turkey is inaccurate because there is a race for a new balance of power in the region plus an American-Russian rivalry over Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is taking advantage of that rivalry and is pushing his own agenda.
It is important not to underestimate the importance of American internal factors, especially the case of “Russia Gate” whose shadow is dogging the White House. It could also be the case that Trump’s decisions to withdraw from Syria and to withdraw troops from Afghanistan are part of the rivalry game between Trump and the US Congress, which is blocking the president’s agenda on many issues such as Yemen and the wall at the Mexican border.
Of course, by withdrawing from Syria, the United States stands to lose a significant lever in the decision regarding Syria’s fate. Turkey may end up gaining control of some territory along its southern border. Its penetration inside the region east of the Euphrates and even in northern Iraq will be constrained only by Russian and Iranian redlines and by Europe’s stances and the United States’ control.
The Kurdish side risks to drown in the region’s turbulent waters because of Hurricane Trump east of the Euphrates. When this happens, a leaf of Kurdish history will be turned. The influence of Masoud Barzani’s current and that of Abdullah Ocalan are receding. The bets now are on the younger generation of Kurdish leaders — like Selahattin Demirtaş, who, by the way, is rotting in a Turkish jail — who have a better understanding of the world.
Khattar Abou Diab is director of the Council on Geopolitics and Perspectives in Paris.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.