Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Regional Deals Threaten Kurdish Gains in Syria and Iraq

Kurdish Gains
Syrian Kurds protest on the outskirts of Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province on October 23, 2022, against Turkish deadly offensives in the northeastern areas of the country. Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.

The estimated number of Kurds in the Middle East varies between 25 and 35 million people, distributed primarily in Turkiye, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Despite the fact that Kurds have lived in the area for thousands of years and are dispersed throughout a wide and connected territory, the region’s partition during World War I failed to recognize a state that embodied their ambitions.

Due to the regimes’ worries about the Kurds’ ambitions for independence and their cross-border collaboration in pursuit of the ideal of a Kurdish state, tensions have characterized the relationship between the Kurds and the authorities of the countries that incorporated them. The Kurdish issue, to put it simply, stems from their demand for self-determination, which contrasts with the region’s governments’ insistence on integration inside their own borders.

Gains in peril

Despite these challenges, over the past decade the Kurds have made some relative gains. In Syria, for example, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces managed to impose self-rule in vast areas of the country’s northeast in agreement and coordination with the Syrian regime after the Kurds helped liberate these areas from ISIS forces.

In Iraq, meanwhile, the Kurds played a key role in liberating vast areas from the control of the organization, establishing the discretion and autonomy that the Kurdistan region of Iraq enjoyed for a long time. Yet this did not prevent the Iraqi central government from seizing some of the areas liberated by the Kurds, such as the city of Kirkuk.

The Kurds are concerned about a number of regional settlements, because they may be detrimental to them in the nations where they already have a presence and may cause them to lose the freedoms they have won. The Syrian Democratic Forces and their control in Syria’s northeast have suffered as a result of Turkiye’s efforts to restore relations with the Syrian regime, for instance, which have enhanced the likelihood of a settlement between the two parties. Additionally, Iran’s growing sway in Iraq has made it possible for Iranian military operations to attack locations in the Kurdistan region of Iraq without encountering any opposition from the country’s central authority.

The risks of normalizing Turkish-Syrian ties for Kurds in Syria

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to conduct a fourth military operation inside Syrian territory in order to broaden the reach of the security perimeter that Turkey has formed there. By preventing the Syrian Democratic Forces from approaching its boundaries, this buffer zone hopes to reduce their influence inside Syria.

Turkiye considers the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turkish state classifies as a banned terrorist organization. For Erdogan, the Syrian Democratic Forces present an imminent strategic threat to Turkish national security, a view that has previously prompted him to launch operations to curtail these forces’ control in Syrian territories bordering Turkiye. It is why Erdogan has for months been seeking a green light from the influential powers in the region to carry out a new military operation aimed at dismantling the Syrian Democratic Forces present along its borders.

However, despite Damascus’ cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces, and despite their security coordination in some areas, the Syrian regime is not too content with the organization’s dominance in Syria’s northeast region. For the Syrian regime, the Syrian Democratic Forces represent an armed militia supported militarily by the West, allowing Western powers, particularly the U.S., to continue security interventions in vast areas of Syria.

The regime also intends to place the areas ruled by the Syrian Democratic Forces back under its direct security and military control in lieu of the current coordination mechanisms in place between the organization and the Syrian army. For this reason, the regime exerted intense pressure through its Russian ally, on the Syrian Democratic Forces with the aim of dissolving the latter and merging it with the Syrian army. In other words, as far as the Assad regime is concerned, the Syrian Democratic Forces cannot remain a dominant armed militia indefinitely.

As a result, the Syrian Kurds are being pressured by both the Syrian and Turkish governments. Due to the hostility that had previously existed between the Turkish and Syrian governments, the Syrian Democratic Forces were able to negotiate between the two parties in recent years to maintain control of the territories that they had previously held.

In fact, in order to stop Turkish forces from pushing into particular Syrian regions, the Syrian regime was compelled to recognize the presence of the Syrian Democratic Forces at specific points and to forge local coalitions with them. In the meantime, due to a lack of previous coordination with Russia, the Syrian regime’s partner, regarding these activities, the Turkish regime was compelled to postpone a number of military operations against the Syrian Democratic Forces.

All of that is changing right now. If relations between the Syrian and Turkish sides improve, they may be able to reach an agreement that would allow them to accomplish their shared objective of denying the Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces sovereignty over some regions of northeastern Syria. It should be highlighted that Turkiye has said that its primary demand for the restoration of relations with Damascus is for the Syrian regime to “eliminate the terrorist threat on the borders,” which refers to the Syrian Democratic Forces stationed there.

The Syrian regime is now open to any idea that would allow it to work with Ankara to increase the size of its control along the border with Turkey at the expense of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Before relations are restored, Damascus wants to include other clauses in its agreement with Turkiye, including the return of the Assad regime’s authority over the border crossings, which are now held by local militias loyal to Turkiye.

The risks of Iranian intervention in Iraq

After Persians and Azerbaijanis, Kurds are the third biggest ethnic group in Iran, comprising nearly between 10 and 12 percent of the overall population. Tehran is therefore extremely wary of Kurdish separatist movements, including those operating beyond the country’s borders, due to its concern about any scenarios that may inspire Iranian Kurds to call for their right to self-determination.

In order to suppress Kurdish demonstrations in 1979, the authorities launched a brutal military campaign in the Iranian region of Kurdistan, which resulted in the deaths of more than 10,000 Kurdish people.

Iran appears to be escalating its military activities against the Kurds in Iraq today in an effort to capitalize on its gaining influence in the nation. In reaction to criticism of its handling of the suppression of protests in Iran, the Iranian regime heavily bombarded Kurdish areas of Iraq in late September, specifically targeting Kurdish organizations and groups that opposed it.

In addition to the destruction of Kurdish political party headquarters in the Iraqi Kurdistan area, this assault also claimed the lives of 28 Kurds. Later, Iranian media reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had begun military operations utilizing drones and guided missiles against “terrorists” in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Despite the strikes being denounced by the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no significant action was ultimately taken by the government to put a stop to these military operations. As a result, it became evident that the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and the growing Iranian influence inside the Iraqi Parliament both contributed to the suppression of the Iraqi state and its ability to respond to Iranian intervention in the country.

Iraqi Kurds are concerned that these circumstances will make it easier for Iran to expand its military activities in Iraqi Kurdistan as a consequence of a possible agreement with other Iraqi Arab factions, which would deprive Iraqi Kurdistan of the privileges it has long enjoyed. Additionally, Iraqi Kurds worry that Iran may use these military operations to pressure local authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan into making political concessions, such as limiting the activities of Kurdish groups and parties operating in the region of Kurdistan and supporting Kurdish dissidents in Iran.

Despite essentially being under the jurisdiction of central Arab governments, the only locations where Kurds still enjoyed any autonomy in recent years were Iraqi Kurdistan and the regions of Syria under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces. As a result, the Kurds have been able to pass on their language in schools and retain their cultural and ethnic traditions and qualities. The Kurds are becoming more nervous and skeptical as a result of the recent political changes in Iraq and Syria, not to mention anxious about losing the privileges they have accrued there over the previous ten years.

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