Syria’s Kurds deserve full autonomy

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Geopolitical Notes From India

M D Nalapat

IN the battle against IS (Daesh), two armed groups have been the most effective. The most deadly is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps ( IRGC), which has eliminated the terrorists from much of Syria, despite themselves being in the crosshairs of two influential countries and a major bloc, the US, Israel and the GCC. But for the IRGC, assisted by precision bombing by Russian military aircraft, long before now IS would have occupied Damascus, the way they were intending to. The only location where they still have presence near Syrian capital is Idlib, which has for the past four years been a protectorate of US. Indeed, IS found refuge in several locations where militia supplied by US and its allies have held ground, and it is from these locations that they expect to regroup after losing Raqqa, the way the Taliban regrouped in parts of Afghanistan during 2006-2009 after having been defeated in conventional battle by US-assisted Northern Alliance.
However, in places controlled by the IRGC and its allies, there is no space for this extremist group, barring isolated acts of terror designed to kill as many civilians as possible. After the IRGC, the most effective force against Abubakr al Baghdadi’s men has been the Kurds. Fighters from this ethnic group have played a considerable role in the shrinking of IS, both in Syria as well as in Iraq. In the latter country, the only reasonably secure zone is the territory which they effectively control, but which is under blockade by the central government in Baghdad. That Washington has given the green light to such an ungrateful action on the part of the Haidar al Abadi government in Baghdad once again adds force to the view across the region that the US is a fair weather friend who can turn against even those that have helped it enormously, should some policymakers in Washington fall under the influence of lobbies against such friendly groups. The Kurds have suffered for decades the effects of Washington extracting advantage from then before tossing them aside the way a banana skin gets thrown away once the fruit inside gets consumed, including when President George H W Bush watched in silence when Saddam Hussein used his air force to massacre Kurds in the villages and towns where this distinct ethnic group is in a majority, including by bombing them with NATO-supplied chemical toxins. After the brief conventional conflict in 2003 between the US-led alliance and Saddam Hussein’s depleted and hopelessly outgunned army, President George W Bush refused to trod on the path of his father. Instead of abandoning the Kurds once the conflict was over, Bush Junior helped establish a Kurdish safe zone in the north of Iraq, which has remained to the present, despite the recent loss of Kirkuk as a consequence of divisions within the Kurdish leadership.
Should the Bagdad government not bow to the requirements of justice and commonsense and respect the full autonomy of the Kurd Autonomous Region of Iraq, it will ultimately be the loser, as tensions between Erbil and Bagdad will grow to the detriment of stability. Unfortunately for the Kurds, in Iraq the US appears to be returning to the George H W Bush policies, in that it is leaving the Kurdish territory to its fate in its eagerness to placate certain Shia and Sunni groups in Iraq, neither of whom wish to respect the autonomy of the Kurds. Unless Washington returns to the policy of the son (George W Bush) rather than the father, the US will lose an essential ally in the war against both armed extremism as well as the ideological and theological matrix that breeds such fanaticism. The Kurds are overall representative of the modern and moderate face of Islam (which is the only genuine face) and hence need to be supported by the US and other major democracies rather than betrayed repeatedly, the way it has been their fate for generations.
Fortunately, this seems to be happening in Syria, where the Trump administration is (as yet) backing a Kurdish Autonomous Zone on the lines of the KAR in Iraq. Despite opposition from such opposites as Bashar Assad and Recip Tayyip Erdogan, the US Departments of State and Defence should go ahead with ensuring the safety and longevity of a KAR(S for Syria) on the lines of the KAR (I for Iraq). The Syrian Kurds have been frontline fighters against Daesh, and are the only ar,ed groups backed by NATO that are free from infestation by terrorist elements temporarily masquerading as “freedom fighters” ( i.e. freedom to set up the same kind of rule as al Baghdadi did in those parts of Syria and Iraq once controlled by him). President Bashar Assad needs to be pragmatic and accept that Syria will in effect be governed as two zones, the first controlled largely by him and another comprising the Kurdish zone, which will have between a third and a fourth of the area of the Syrian Arab Republic. If he were to fight the Kurds (the way Erdogan wants), he would be placing at risk his control of the non-Kurdish segments of Syria, thereby losing far more territory in the longer term than any temporary gain from attaching parts of the Kurdish zone. Only Turkey under Erdogan has a genuine interest in preventing KAR(S) from being formed, as that would lead to calls for setting up KAR(T for Turkey).
The Kurds are treated far worse in Turkey than they are in Syria and almost as bad as they were for long in Iraq, and it is likely that members of this ethnicity in Turkey will demand justice and fair play, something that President Erdogan is unlikely to concede peacefully to them. Just as KAR(I) led to KAR(S), so will the latter provide the impulse for the formation of KAR(T). Rather the oppose the historically justified demands of the Kurds for full autonomy, Baghdad, Damascus and Ankara should show statesmanship and agree to Kurdish zones so as to keep their countries united rather than once again lapse into civil war. As for the Donald John Trump administration, it should recognise the Kurds as the most reliable allies of Washington in the region besides the Jewish community in Israel, and follow through with their commitment to assist in the setting up of a Kurdish safe zone in Syria on the lines of that already functioning in Iraq.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.

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