In the Wall Street Journal Weekend edition, June 20-21, 2015, Yaroslav Trofimov writes of the possible rise of an independent Kurdistan, “The State of The Kurds.” An independent Kurdistan was promised by the WWI Allies in the Treaty of Sevres that ended the Ottoman Empire in 1920. That commitment was dashed by the rise of the Turkish Republic under the secularist Kemal Atatürk which confirmed in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne the denial of an independent Kurdistan in what is now Eastern Turkey. All territory combined, a future Kurdistan (encompassing eastern Turkey, Northern Syria, northwest Iran and northern Iraq) might comprise a landlocked republic of 30 million with significant energy and agricultural resources. The rise of Kurdistan is reflected in these comments in the Trofimov WSJ review article:
Selahattin Demirtas, Chairman of the HDP party in Turkey:
The Kurds’ existence was not recognized; they were hidden behind a veil. But now, after being invisible for a century, they are taking their place on the international stage. Today, international powers can no longer resolve any issue in the Middle East without taking into account the interests of the Kurds.
Tahir Elçi, a prominent Kurdish lawyer and chairman of the bar in Diyarbakir, Turkey:
In the past, when the Kurds sought self-rule, the Turks, the Persians and the Arabs were all united against it. Today that’s not true anymore—it’s not possible for the Shiite government in Iraq and Shiite Iran to work together against the Kurds with Sunni Turkey and the Sunni ISIS. In this environment, the Kurds have become a political and a military power in the Middle East.
Elçi, amplifies a concern that Sherkoh Abbas, leader of the Kurdish National Syrian Assembly (KURDNAS) has expressed in several NER interviews with him:
The PKK has made important steps to adopt more democratic ways. But you cannot find the same climate of political diversity in [Kurdish] Syria as you find in [northern Iraq], and this is because of PKK’s authoritarian and Marxist background. This is a big problem.
As effective as the KRG government and peshmerga have been in pushing back at ISIS forces threatening the capital of Erbil, the real problem is the divisiveness in the political leadership. That is reflected in the comment of Erbil province’s governor, Nawaf Hadi cited by Trofimov:
For 80 years, the Arab Sunni people led Iraq—and they destroyed Kurdistan. Now we’ve been for 10 years with the Shiite people [dominant in Baghdad], and they’ve cut the funding and the salaries—how can we count on them as our partner in Iraq?” All the facts on the ground encourage the Kurds to be independent.
That renewed prospect reflects the constellation of events in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
There was the stunning defeat of the 12 year reign of the Islamist AKP headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by the trio of secular, nationalist and upstart Kurdish parties, the CHP, HNP and HDP that might form a minority ruling coalition 45 days from the June 7, 2014 parliamentary elections. These minority parties garnered a plurality of 299 seats in the Ankara Parliament. That is, if these parties can coalesce. If not, Islamist figurehead President Erdogan might seek new elections if they can’t put together a new ruling coalition government. A Washington, DC forum on the results of the Turkish election convened by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) presented nuanced views. Watch this C-Span video of the FDD forum.
FDD Senior Counselor John Hannah moderated the discussion with former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and FDD Senior Advisor Eric Edelman and FDD Non-Resident Fellow and former member of the Turkish parliament Ayman Erdemir.
June 7 in my opinion was an inspiring performance, a much needed triumph of the spirit of liberal democracy in a Middle East landscape currently inundated with way too much bad news.
For those of us who have watched over the past decade with great dismay the slow drip of Turkey’s democracy being drained away by Erdogan’s creeping Islamism and authoritarianism, we frankly weren’t sure anymore if the Turkish people had this kind of an election in them.
My take-home message would be that we should not read these elections too much with a progressive, liberal-democratic interpretation. But we should not underemphasize the importance of it either, because ultimately June 7 proved to us that there could be a return from competitive authoritarianism, where an incumbent with huge advantages nevertheless can suffer a relative defeat in the ballot box.
I have always argued that Erdogan’s policies and politics cannot be interpreted within the nation-state borders. Erdogan’s policies right from the start have been transnational; it has always been a Muslim Brotherhood-oriented policy, whether in Syria, Jordan, or Egypt. He is a visionary transnationalist politician.
Turkey is a deeply polarized society, and the bad news there is that the AKP is the only party that is competitive across the nation.
Erdogan will not see this vote in any way as inhibiting him in creating an executive presidency. My suspicion is that Erdogan does not want to see a government formed within the 45-day period set by the constitution and would like to see the country go back to elections. He thinks that if he could apply the ‘keep voting until I get the right answer’ standard, there is a chance he will do better in a second election, get at least a governing majority if not the super-majority.
Dr. Harold Rhode, former Turkish and Islamic Affairs expert in the Office of the Secretary of Defense held a more optimistic view cited in a JNS.org article on the Turkish Elections, “noting that he personally knows pro-American and pro-Israel officials within the senior leadership of all three of the [non-AKP] parties.”
The second development was the victory on June 15, 2015 by Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters, Christian Assyrian and secular FSA militias wresting the strategic border gateway of Tal-Abyad from ISIS with support from US coalition air strikes. The YPG combined force advanced further along the highway seizing a military base and on June 22, 2015 Ain Issa less than 55 kilometers from the Islamic State stronghold of Raqaa. Both the military base and Ain Issa lie astride the main road between Kurdish-held territory, Aleppo province to the west and Hasakah province to the east. These string of victories followed the successful January 2015 siege at the border city of Kobani may complete the recapture of Kurdish controlled land lost to the ISIS advances in 2014 and early 2015. The Syrian YPG, affiliated with the Turkish PKK, a terrorist group designated by Turkey, the EU and the US, has been assisted by fighting units of the Iraqi Peshmerga from the adjacent Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. The third development was the KRG Peshmerga wresting control of Kirkuk and its vast oil field. Kirkuk, as Trofimov noted is considered the “Kurdish Jerusalem.” Not to be outdone by Kurdish compatriots in Syria and Iraq, in mid-May 2015, Iranian Kurdish Party of Free Life in Kurdistan ( PJAK) forces in northwestern Iran’s Zagros mountain fought Iranian security forces in Mahabad. Mahabad was the capital of the short-lived State of Republic Kurdistan established with Soviet Russian support in Iran in 1945-1946.
ISIS strikes back with Raids on Kobani and Hasakah
On June 24, 2015, ISIS fighters wearing YPG fighter combat fatigues struck back simultaneously at both Kobani and Hasakah. The defense of Hasakah was divided between Assad Regime forces and those led by the YPG. It was rumored that the ISIS commandos might have entered via Turkey. The YPG reported 60 ISIS fighters killed, while more than 200 civilians were killed in the ISIS assault at Kobani. Once again beleaguered Syrian Kurdish civilians fled to the Turkish border city of Suruc seeking temporary sanctuary. US air strikes destroyed a building held temporarily by ISIS. The Kurdish YPG regained control of Kobani on June 26, 2015. The ISIS raid on Hasakah was reported to have displaced over 120,000 in the Northeastern governorate.
Erdogan Weighs In, Denying Hopes for Kurdistan while Bolstering ISIS
The Syrian Kurdish YPG victories and resilience in repelling ISIS assaults on their ancestral homeland in Syria’s northeast prompted an outburst from embattled Turkish President Erdogan. His goal of a complete transformation of the figurehead post to an executive one was thwarted with the June 7, 2015 election victories of the opposition minority parties. AKP’s Premier Ahmet Davutoğlu resigned. The three minority parties garnered a majority of the 550 seats in the Ankara Parliament, 299 seats. Additionally, Erdogan’s negotiations over a peace agreement with PPK leader Abdullah Ocalan under house arrest in Istanbul is also in abeyance. According to Reuters, Erdogan spoke out on Friday June 26, 2015 against the prospect of a Kurdistan arising from the combination of majority Kurdish southeastern Turkey and adjacent Northern Syria, saying:
We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south. We will continue our fight in this regard no matter what it costs.
They want to complete the operation to change the demographic structure of the region. We will not turn a blind eye to this.
There have also been allegations by Turkish officials that the advancing Kurds have been ethnically cleansing Arabs from recaptured areas. Those have been denied by YPG officials, who point to the mixed Kurdish, Christian and secular FSA forces in the spear point of recent advances.
These allegations by Erdogan led Michael Totten to comment in a World Affairs Journal article, “Turkey Chooses ISIS Over the Kurds”:
Twenty five percent of Turkey’s population is Kurdish and Erdogan—like most of his ethnic Turkish countrymen—is terrified that Turkey may lose a huge swath of its territory if Syrian Kurdistan liberates itself alongside Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkish Kurdistan could very well be the next domino.
They are not crazy to fear this.
But they’re reacting by treating as ISIS the lesser of evils. If ISIS can keep the Kurds down, Turkey’s territorial integrity is more secure.
“ISIS commanders told us to fear nothing at all,” a former ISIS communications technician told Newsweek, “because there was full cooperation with the Turks and they reassured us that nothing will happen…ISIS saw the Turkish army as its ally especially when it came to attacking the Kurds in Syria. The Kurds were the common enemy for both ISIS and Turkey.”
Erdogan is not a state sponsor of terrorism. He is not championing ISIS, nor is he on side with them ideologically. He is not their patron or armorer. But he is letting one of our worst enemies grow stronger while stomping on one of our greatest allies.
The Daily Beast has a report that Erodgan is threatening to establish a buffer zone in Northern Syria, the better to halt the successful Syria Kurdish advance against ISIS, “Turkey Plans to Invade Syria, But to Stop the Kurds, Not ISIS.” These developments followed Erdogan’s remarks last Friday night at a Ramadan break-fast Iftar dinner saying that he would never accept a Kudistan state comprised of southeastern Tirkey and adjacent Northern Syria. The Daily Beast article noted the unease of Turkish military about this latest diktat by the figurehead President whose Islamist AKP party was defeated by a minority of Kemalist, Nationalist and a Kurdish secular party. The Daily Beast reported:
Following Erdogan’s speech, several news outlets reported that the president and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had decided to send the Turkish army into Syria, a hugely significant move by NATO’s second biggest fighting force after the U.S. military. Both the daily Yeni Safak, a mouthpiece of the government, and the newspaper Sozcu, which is among Erdogan’s fiercest critics, ran stories saying the Turkish Army had received orders to send soldiers over the border. Several other media had similar stories, all quoting unnamed sources in Ankara. There has been no official confirmation or denial by the government.
The government refused to comment on the reports. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said “the necessary statement” would be issued after a regular meeting of the National Security Council, which comprises the president, the government and military leaders, on Tuesday, June 30, 2015.
The reports said up to 18,000 soldiers would be deployed to take over and hold a strip of territory up to 30 kilometers deep and 100 kilometers long that currently is held by ISIS. It stretches from close to the Kurdish-controlled city of Kobani in the east to an area further west held by the pro-Western Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel groups, beginning around the town of Mare. This “Mare Line,” as the press calls it, is to be secured with ground troops, artillery and air cover, the reports said. Yeni Safak reported preparations were due to be finalized by next Friday.
There has been speculation about a Turkish military intervention ever since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. Ankara has asked the United Nations and its Western allies to give the green light to create a buffer zone and a no-fly area inside Syria in order to prevent chaos along the Turkish border and to help refugees on Syrian soil before they cross over into Turkey. But the Turkish request has fallen on deaf ears.
Remember Obama saying that he wished there were more Islamist leaders like AKP Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Arab ummah of the Middle East. Erodgan’s threatening to invade Syria to build a buffer zone to do what, protect shrines of ancient Ottoman Sultans? More likely, he’s angered at the Kurdish HDP party, that together with the Kemalist CHP and Nationalist HNP, thwarted his dream of becoming the Sultan of a neo-Ottoman empire with minority parties copping a plurality of votes in the June 7th parliamentary elections. He’s also mad at the plucky Syrian Kurds for beating back the ISIS in a string of victories this month. This despite bloody raids by ISIS on both Kobani and Hasakah that were beaten back. Those Kurdish actions may have cut off the main route for those ISIS foreign fighters entering Syria that Turkey gives a wink and a nod to, backed by funds and assistance from the infamous Muslim Brotherhood global IHH charity, You remember IHH? The Muslim charity underwrote the infamous 2010 Free Gaza Flotilla Mavi Marmara incident infamy.
We wrote about how IHH was caught sending cash and weapons from Turkey into Syria for their brothers in AQ and possibly the ISIS. Presumably, the Turkish military isn’t so keen to do Erdogan’s bidding given their NATO membership and because the 45 days aren’t up yet to see if a ruling minority government can be formed or a new election is called so that Erdogan might return his Premier, Ahmet Davutoglu to power with a super majority. Based on KRG meetings with the Obama White House, the Administration doesn’t want to give the Syrian Kurds the promised quality weapons that it and Syrian Kurdish fighters could effectively use against ISIS. Perhaps U.S. Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Senate Armed Forces Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) might request US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to release those weapons from the US War Reserve Stock already positioned in Israel. Perhaps this latest development may be a clarion call to action to deliver those long promised weapons to both Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Peshmerga to push back ISIS. They are the only boots on the ground doing this successfully. Besides those U.S. weapons stockpiles in Israel have already been paid for.
KRG Meets with President to Free up Arms Deliveries
The KRG quest for independence has been stymied by the Baghdad government of PM Haidar al-Abadi. The Baghdad government has not lived up to its agreement reached in December 2014 to provide regular payments to the KRG amounting to nearly $5.7 billion in exchange for selling 550,000 barrels of oil. The result has been that KRG government and the 160,000 Peshmerga force have not been paid in months. More troubling has been the current agreements between the Obama Administration and the al-Abadi government for allocation and deliveries of heavy weapons that have not found their way to the highly effective Peshmerga fighting force. This is especially galling given the thousands of Humvees, mobile artillery, anti-tank, main battle tanks and MRAP vehicles abandoned by fleeing Iraqi national security forces in the ISIS conquest of Mosul in June 2014 and Ramadi in late May.
A meeting occurred in Washington in early May 2015 including KRG President Barzani and senior officials with President Obama, Vice President Biden and members of the National Security Staff seeking resolution of this impasse. Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote about this in a May 15, 2015 Al Jazeera, article, “A big win for Kurds at the White House”:
From May 3-8, Washington, DC hosted a high-powered delegation from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). KRG President Massoud Barzani was flanked by Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, National Security Chancellor Masrour Barzani and Minister of Peshmerga Affairs Mustapha Sayyid Qadr, among other KRG ministers and officials. [The delegation was originally scheduled for a five minute meeting with President Obama, instead the session lasted an hour].
In particular, the Kurds complained that Washington has allocated too small a proportion of its $1.6bn Iraq Training and Equipment Fund (ITEF) assistance to Kurdistan.
Slow and indirect delivery of US weapons systems is a major concern. Washington has chosen to funnel most weapons shipments via the federal Iraqi Ministry of Defense, the only entity entitled by US law to sign end-user certificates (EUCs) for the weapons.
In reaction to these views, the House Armed Services Committee introduced clauses into the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Pentagon’s budget, in an attempt to protect the Kurds’ fair share of US weapons.
The draft NDAA for Fiscal Year 2016 was amended by congress to include a clause (Section 1223) that named the Peshmerga as one of a number of security forces collectively entitled to “not less than 25 percent” of the annual $715m of US support.
Most controversially the amendment would allow the KRG “as a country” to “directly receive assistance from the United States” if Baghdad failed to meet the aforementioned condition, a clause that sparked security threats from Shia militia leaders against US trainers in Iraq.
Baghdad protested the language, and US Vice President Joe Biden signaled one day before the Kurdish delegation landed that “all US military assistance in the fight against [ISIL] comes at the request of the Government of Iraq and must be coordinated through the Government of Iraq”.
Instead of trying to force the White House to do Kurdistan’s bidding through pressure politics, Barzani seems to have adopted a longer-term view in his dealings with the US on defense.
Section 1223 did not give the Kurds a great deal – sharing a quarter of US material collectively with Sunni Arab paramilitary recipients – but it would have soured relations with the Obama administration at a critical time.
When we interviewed Sherkoh Abbas of KURDNAS on these Capitol Hill developments in Washington he said:
KURDNAS and the Kurdish National Council represent more than 15 political parties and many organization, 123 major tribes and religious leaders and many other civic leaders. So we coordinate and work together. We showed up on Capitol Hill, stressing our views that the Kurds are the people with boots on the ground, an estimated 20,000 fighters to push ISIS. However we cannot do it for two reasons; we don’t have the equipment and we don’t want to coordinate with the Assad regime and the YPG.
We had several meetings on Capitol Hill with Representative Trent Franks. He and Senator McCain introduced an amendment asking for the support for the Kurds. We appreciated Congressman Franks when he asked Secretary Ashton Carter, what he’s doing to help. Frankly, he didn’t know how to answer. This Administration is not willing to do anything to support the Syrian Kurds. The US military are not on the same wavelength with their commander and chief. This despite the military who believe the Kurds are the key element and should be fully supported. Unfortunately, this Administration is not ready to do that.
Israeli Support for an Independent Kurdistan
One Middle East nation that supports an independent Kurdistan is Israel. As exemplified by comments from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel supports the creation of an independent Kurdistan. There is a long connection between the Kurds and the Jewish nation. There are an estimated 150,000 Kurdish Jews in Israel who have fostered cultural–linguistic exchanges with Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi and Iranian Kurds smuggled Iraqi Jews to freedom via Iran, during the days of the late Shah, to Israel and the West. Iranian Kurds continued that effort despite threats from the Islamic Republic. From the 1950’s to the mid-70’s Israel provided covert military training and equipment to Iraqi Kurds against the Ba’athist regime of the late Saddam Hussein. That ended with a treaty between the late Shah of Iran and Hussein orchestrated by Henry Kissinger in 1975. During the 1980’s Hussein took his revenge on Iraqi kurds during the Iran-Iraq War in a series of genocidal revenge campaigns including a massive gas attack that killed thousands decimating Kurdish villages. Israel currently hosts the billion dollar US War Reserve Stock for use in Middle East conflicts. Perhaps, the Obama Administration might relent on the current agreements with the Baghdad government and permit transfers from the US War Reserve Stock in Israel of much needed weapons, equipment and munitions to the Peshmerga in Iraq and the Syrian Kurdish militias fighting ISIS. Israel is less than several hundred miles from Erbil and Northern Syria, Israel for its own security interests is immediately concerned about addressing Hezbollah, Al Nusrah and Druze problems on the Golan Syrian Frontier. One illustration of that was the attack on an ambulance conveying an injured Al Nusrah fighter for treatment inside Israel who has beaten to death by rampaging Druze on the Golan. That gave pause enough for Israeli PM Netanyahu to warn against “lynch behavior” by the normally very loyal 130,000 Israeli Druze, many of whom serve in the IDF and border police. Abbas of KURDNAS during our interview with him indicated his group would welcome Israeli support, but suspects that any transfers of US equipment stocks held in Israel and training would require clearance by the Obama Administration. He is naturally skeptical that would be forthcoming and might have to await a new Administration in January 2017.
When we interviewed Sherkoh Abbas of KURDNAS three years ago in June 2012, his hope was that a secular federalized Syria might emerge from the civil war that has claimed over 230,000 lives. That idealized federal Syria would have provided regional autonomy for Kurds in their ancestral homeland in the northeast, the former Alawite statelet in the northwest, Druze in the Southeast, while the Sunnis would predominate in Aleppo and the Damascus regions. The Syriac Christians are fleeing to their diasporas.
That was before the failure of the Administration to intervene militarily in both Syria and Iraq. The former occurred in August 2012 when the Administration balked at undertaking punitive action against the Assad regime for chemical attacks on civilians. Instead it handed the task over to an obscure UN affiliate group, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to allegedly reduce the threat. The failure in Iraq occurred when a status of forces agreement with the former al-Maliki Baghdad regime was not concluded when US forces exited in 2011.
The wild card was the emergence of both the Al Nusrah Front of Al Qaeda and fearsome Salafist Islamic State fighters decimating the Assad military, hollowing out the largely Alawite force and causing the flight in Iraq of its largely Shi’ite national security force. Now the Al –Abadi regime in Baghdad has become a virtual satrap of Iran relying on Al Quds Force and Revolutionary Guards Corps cadres to train and direct extremist Shi’ite Militia.
Abbas has always contended that Iran and Assad had actually fostered these developments in a cynical attempt to divide internal opposition in Syria.
Billions of dollars of US supplied equipment abandoned by fleeing Iraqi forces propelled the ISIS blitzkrieg and its barbarous assault on Christians, ancient Yazidi and religious minorities. That assault by ISIS initially pummelled the Peshmerga in Iraq and Syrian Kurdish militias, primarily the PKK-related YPG. The default strategy of a US air campaign backing local resistance has only worked in the Syrian Kurdish homeland and adjacent Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. The Syrian Kurds, bolstered by recent victories clearly deserve US deliveries of quality arms and equipment to defend these regions of the failed state of Syria. The same is evident in the rollback of ISIS by Peshmerga forces in Iraq that threatened the KRG capital, Erbil, and de facto control over Kirkuk and its massive oil fields. That is stymied by the lack of effective deliveries of quality heavy arms and ammunition, as well as a significant increase in close air support sorties.
On the geo-political front the prospects for a rising Kurdistan are reflected in the results of the June 7, 2015 Turkish elections that saw a Kurdish led secular party take 13 percent of the seats in the Ankara parliament bolstered the defeat of the 12 year reign of Turkish President Erdogan and his Islamist AKP Party. We shall soon see whether a minority ruling coalition can be formed thwarting Erdogan’s ambitions or whether new elections are called. Erdogan has been complicit in providing lines of communication for foreign fighters to join the Islamic State. He views the success of the Syrian Kurds as a threat to formation of a breakaway landlocked Kurdistan composed of southeastern Turkey and adjacent northern Syria. That is unlikely to occur for the Kurds in Turkey. They now see their way clear to become a political force, a reflection of their significant population growth. As Abbas sees it, Syrian Kurdish goals have been abetted by successes in the war against ISIS. At issue is what is required to compel a reluctant Obama Administration to relent and provide the means to both defend and govern their ancestral Syrian Kurdish homeland of Rojava that would acknowledge the minority rights of Assyrian Christians and Sunni Arabs. Abbas pointed out in our interview with him, Kissinger saw that both Syria and Iraq are failed states, he suggested the Kurds deserve one of their own promised in the Treaty of Sevres in 1920.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review. The featured image is of Syrian YPG fighters capture Tal-Abyad from ISIS, June 2015, Source: Reuters.