Kurds of Syria and Iraq: Washington’s Dilemma

Kurdish autonomous regions in Iraq and Syria are facing increasing threats from regional powers like Iran and Turkey, as well as internal challenges from central governments in Baghdad and Damascus. The United States has played a significant role in the establishment of two autonomous Kurdish regions in these countries, but the changing dynamics in both countries and the broader region may require Washington to become more involved in preserving these Kurdish entities.

In September and October 2023, Syrian Kurds faced a significant challenge when Arab militias led by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) nearly overran the U.S.-backed group’s presence in Deir Ezzor, a former stronghold of ISIS. The SDF reclaimed control, resulting in clashes that killed 29 Arab militiamen, 25 SDF fighters, and 9 civilians.

The Kurds blamed both Tehran and Damascus for instigating the revolt and actively sending men and weapons from the regime-held western side of the Euphrates River into the SDF-held eastern side to destabilize the Kurdish-led group’s territory. This clear and assured Kurdish position towards the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies signaled to Washington and others in the West that Kurdish self-rule was facing a real risk.

The U.S.-led Coalition against ISIS issued a statement reaffirming its solid support for the SDF, but the situation remains unsettled. The population of Deir Ezzor is almost exclusively Sunni Arab, and some influential Arab tribes can’t simply accept a Kurdish-led rule over their region, often contradicting the ultra-conservative values of the local Arab population.

The Syrian regime and its Iranian allies are using anti-Kurdish sentiment to prevent a Kurdish presence in Dier Ezzor. Turkey has launched a massive bombardment campaign in October, targeting civilian infrastructure and vital points of interest in northeast Syria. The aim is to destroy income sources for Syrian Kurdish forces and prevent them from pursuing further political and economic development for their nascent autonomy. Ankara considers the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group designated by Turkey, the U.S., and the E.U. The Turks believe a Kurdish-held, PKK-friendly region poses a direct threat to their national security.

The United States did not overtly support the establishment of a Kurdish-led autonomous region in northeast Syria in the early years of the conflict, but its military support for Kurdish forces against ISIS helped expand Kurdish gains and further their self-rule. The Syrian regime wants to regain its control of the Kurdish-held region in northeast Syria, which makes up roughly one third of Syria’s territory. The SDF-controlled region makes up roughly one third of Syria’s territory, including the Kurdish heartland along the border with Turkey and Arab tribal regions in the east along the border with Iraq.

The Syrian regime, Iran, Turkey, and Russia are all interested in destroying the Kurdish autonomous administration in northeast Syria, which is closely tied to American forces. They believe that ending Kurdish autonomy will reduce America’s influence in Syria, but first, they must ensure America no longer supports Syrian Kurds to eliminate this self-rule experiment.

Damascus aims to control the Kurdish forces in Syria, which have grown into a sophisticated military force with well-developed, disciplined, and specialized units. The Syrian regime has two military advantages over the SDF: its air force and the support of Iranian-backed militias. However, the Syrians should not wage large-scale military assaults on the Kurds while American forces are deployed in the Kurdish-held region. They would use their proxies to destabilize the SDF rule and undermine its autonomy without risking direct confrontation with American troops.

The Kurdish region remains economically dependent on the Syrian regime, as its control over local resources and trade ties with Iraqi Kurdistan don’t seem sufficient for a viable economy for northeast Syria that is entirely independent from Damascus.

The Syrian Kurds’ autonomy in northeast Syria is unacceptable to Damascus due to the Baath regime’s centralist mindset. While the Assad regime could grant limited powers, talks have been suspended indefinitely due to the Syrian regime’s refusal to make concessions.

Tehran faces a major obstacle in its long-term expansionist ambitions in the “Shiite Crescent” region, which aims to create an overland corridor between Tehran and Beirut through Iraq and Syria. The presence of a pro-American Kurdish enclave in Syria is delaying these plans. Ankara’s Syria policy is driven by its anti-Kurdish approach, opposing political autonomy for the three million Kurds in Syria. Since 2016, Turkey has launched multiple invasions into northern Syria to dislodge Kurdish forces and prevent them from taking territory previously controlled by ISIS. However, the presence of U.S. troops in northeast Syria has prevented such threats. Washington recognizes its forces’ role in assisting local Kurdish forces but fears a new Turkish invasion could allow ISIS resurgence.

Turkey’s drone and airstrike campaign continues to target crucial targets in the Kurdish region of Syria, demonstrating understanding of Ankara’s security concerns in Syria. This may be satisfying for Ankara as long as it keeps the Kurdish region unstable and prevents the Kurds from expanding territorially, politically, and economically. Turkey has come to understand that American troops cannot stay in Syria indefinitely and that once U.S. forces leave northeast Syria, eradicating the Kurdish autonomy would be a matter of time.

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has a much longer history with political autonomy, starting with self-rule in 1991 after a U.S.-led coalition imposed a no-fly zone over northern Iraq and established “safe havens” in the Kurdistan region. However, none of this decades-long experience seems to matter now as the central government in Baghdad continues to tighten its grip over many affairs of Iraqi Kurds, including control of border crossings, airports, budget, oil revenue, and the status of provincial councils of the Kurdistan Region.

The situation has been on a downward slope for Iraqi Kurds since October 2017, after a major referendum for Kurdish independence. The ill-fated voting for Kurdish statehood gave a pretext for the Iraqi government to take retaliatory measures against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Iraq’s constitution grants Kurds the right to a federated region, but they no longer believe this guarantees their autonomy. Iranian-backed Shiite militias, supported by Baghdad, are taking over more disputed territories, threatening their autonomy.

The shrinking of areas controlled by Kurds in northern Iraq has led to a diminishing role in Iraqi politics, particularly in the form of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Since 2003, Kurds played a significant role in maintaining Iraq as a unified country, mediating between Sunni and Shiite groups and preventing the breakup of Iraq. They also played a key role in the formation of successive Iraqi governments since 2005. However, the “Kurdish House” is now divided more than ever before, with the Strategic Agreement signed in 2006 between the KDP and PUK rendering it worthless due to growingly divergent views by the two parties and the emergence of other political forces that have shaken up the foundational legitimacy of the KRG as a solid governing body.

Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani recently sent a letter to President Biden expressing concerns that if the crisis is left unresolved, the Kurdistan Region could collapse altogether. However, the deep divisions within the main political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan must not be looked at independently from attempts by regional powers, namely Turkey and Iran, that are aimed at limiting Kurdish autonomy in Iraq. Both countries were vehemently opposed to the referendum on Kurdish independence in 2017, and since then, they appear to be working closely toward breaking up any prospect for Kurdish statehood or strong autonomy within Iraq.

The KRG has been deprived of significant financial resources, including blocking its oil exports to Turkey, and talks between Baghdad and KRG over the latter’s share of the national budget are not likely to see any breakthroughs. The Kurdish population is increasingly dissatisfied with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s performance, with some calling for a stronger federal government’s involvement. The KDP and PUK, two political powerhouses in Iraq, are divided by Iran and Turkey, with Ankara supporting the KDP and Tehran backing the PUK. This division has resulted in a lack of a unified Kurdish front in parliament, government, and KRG-Baghdad talks.

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