The U.S. strategy to back the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the PKK terror organization’s Syria affiliate, the Democratic People’s Union (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), under the pretext of the fight against Daesh, and led by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani’s push for an independent state in northern Iraq with the Sept. 25 referendum, have left Kurds in Syria and Iraq to once again become the victims of wrong policies in the region.
According to experts, the situation for Kurdish people, both in Syria and in Iraq, as a result of wrong policies, have led to the emergence of antipathy against Kurds, as the U.S. and the KRG took significant steps, despite local and regional balances and sensitivities. The Kurds in Syria suffer from the PYD’s oppressive methods based on an orthodox Marxist-Leninist ideology, including attacks on opposition Kurdish voices, involuntary military service, in addition to demographic changes and forced relocation of other Turkmen and Arab minorities.
The Kurds in northern Iraq, due to Barzani’s persistence on holding the independence vote, are now dealing with internal political uncertainty, as well as severe economic sanctions, as a result of opposition from neighboring states and turmoil emerging from instable security and order.
‘Barzani’s miscalculations in bid to independence’
Although some analysts blame the lack of support by the U.S. and harsh stance from regional actors against Barzani for the post-referendum failure of the Irbil administration, many others disagree, saying Barzani’s insistence on holding the Sept. 25 vote, based on personal ambitions despite strong opposition from the local, regional and international community has led to chaos for Kurds in northern Iraq.
Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, as well as a Senior Fellow in the Center for Transatlantic Relations and a Scholar at the Middle East Institute, says the independence vote was not a calculated step, as Barzani “failed to appreciate the depth of Baghdad, Tehran, Ankara and Washington opposition to KRG moves toward independence.With regard to the referendum, “Instead of burnishing the nationalist credentials of Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Region, and strengthening the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) leverage with Baghdad, it has done just the opposite,” says Denise Natali, director of the Center for Strategic Research at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University.
This argument has been voiced mainly due to critical voices also coming from Kurds in northern Iraq, particularly from the Gorran Movement and also the Talabani-led Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the Sulaymaniyah region. In fact, after the reported negotiations between the PUK, which has the tradition of Iranian support, and the central government, there has been speculation that the new political center of the KRG will be Sulaymaniyah, not Irbil.Serwer says this was another moment of failure for Barzani, as he “over-estimated political and military cohesion within the KRG, where the PUK was not on board for making Barzani a great national hero by enabling him to take credit for independence.”
Natali, who is among the leading experts in Washington on the issue, adds that Barzani’s referendum move has “deepened intra-Kurdish divisions, which played in Baghdad’s favor. Over time, some Kurdish officials, mainly those in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] grew increasingly concerned about warnings from Baghdad, Turkey, and Iran.”
Commenting on the U.S. position over opposition to the KRG vote, Johns Hopkins scholar Serwer says: “The most it [the U.S.] can do for the Kurds in their conflict with Baghdad is to underline American commitment to Kurdish autonomy within the context of the Iraqi constitution, which means support for Baghdad in rolling back Kurdish forces from areas they took after 2003.”
A recent report published by the Crisis Group, “Oil and Borders: How to Fix Iraq’s Kurdish Crisis,” also criticized Barzani’s move, saying he “overplayed the Kurdish hand by pressing ahead with the referendum over the international community’s near-unanimous objections and refusing to negotiate with Baghdad about anything except Kurdish independence.”
Yesterday, Barzani dissolved his powers as president, distributing them between the Kurdish prime minister, Parliament and the judiciary, Barzani’s senior assistant, Hemin Hawrami told The Associated Press (AP).
Hawrami added that the KRG president also informed parliament that he will not seek an extension of his term which is set to expire Nov. 1, adding that Barzani could remain in office if mandated to hold the post until the next Kurdish presidential elections are held, which were suppose to be held on Nov. 1, but are now postponed indefinitely. According to AP report, Hawrami added that Barzani did not “step down” and “will stay in Kurdish politics and lead the high political council.”
On Saturday, a government official said that Barzani would not extend his presidential term beyond Nov. 1, while the KRG Parliament was expected to meet yesterday to redistribute the powers of the president. Last week, the KRG parliament announced that the previously announced Nov. 1 elections were postponed for eight months.
The main opposition party in the region, the Gorran Movement, called on Barzani to step down after the loss of Kurdish-controlled territory. Kurdish MP Iden Maarouf said parliament will meet on Sunday to see how best to “redistribute the president’s powers” among legislative, executive and judicial authorities. The mandate of Barzani, the first and only elected president of the autonomous Kurdish region, expired in 2013. It was extended for two years and then continued in the chaos that followed Daesh’s sweeping offensive across Iraq in 2014.
The Crisis Group report also underlines that with Barzani’s independence bid, and the turmoil after, including Baghdad taking over all disputed areas controlled by Irbil, has led to “set back the cause of Kurdistan instead of advancing it by frittering away international goodwill for the Kurdish cause.”
Can Acun, a Middle East expert at the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) think tank, who also observed developments during the referendum, said Irbil’s miscalculated insistence has led to major economic losses for the people in northern Iraq. “With the current situation the KRG has been forced to return to its 2003 borders and has been losing trade income generated through border gates and oil exports. The peshmerga’s military capability, which has led to trauma for Iraqi Kurds whose nationalist feelings were boosted, is now being questioned,” Acun said.
Since the recent launch of operations to retake control over disputed areas, Iraqi government forces have moved into several disputed provinces, including oil-rich Kirkuk.
Similarly, Denise Natali also argues that due to lost oil revenues and given the KRG’s reliance on this income, “This territorial loss will deepen the KRG’s debts and ability to repay international oil companies and oil traders.”
Acun also underlines that the KRG controlling political influence in disputed areas through Kurdish nationalism was triggering a strong response from the Turkmen and Arab populations in ethnically diverse, disputed areas. The central government retaking control over the disputed areas from Irbil has, thus, led to major satisfaction from the Turkmen and Arabs in the regions, Acun adds.
‘US’s PYD support a blockade for development of Kurds in the region’
The U.S.’s support of YPG terrorists has left Kurds suffering from similar consequences they faced with Barzani’s aim of an independent state. They are being agonized with wrong policies and are now seen as a threat by neighboring states and also by other local ethnic groups inside Syria.Rights groups and critical Kurdish groups have voiced concern over the PYD’s oppressive methods in Syria, as part of its aim to establish an autonomous region in the northern part of Syria and gain ultimate control over all the Kurds, many amounting to human rights violations.
Can Acun, a Middle East expert at the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), said that with the U.S. as its main supporter, the PYD has been able to oppress critical Kurdish voices, beginning with the Kurdish National Council (ENSK). “More than 500,000 Kurds who are critical of the PYD were forced to seek refuge in the KRG region and Turkey. In areas under its control, it has forcefully made girls and boys under 18 years old do military service, despite their families opposition,” Acun said.
He added that despite being recognized as a terrorist group by the U.S. and the EU, support for the PKK’s affiliate groups in Syria constitutes a threat to the people of the region, as it also acts as a “narco-terrorist” group, “being the main obstacle in front of development, stability, peace, and economic advancement.”
The U.S. has long been criticized for the military support it provides the YPG under the pretext of the fight against Daesh; the PYD has been trying to change the demographics of the area it controls. Emboldened by U.S. military aid, the terrorist group’s forced migration of Arabs and Turkmens, as well as arbitrary arrests targeting critical voices and the recruitment of child soldiers have been covered by international human rights groups, including the Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and KurdsWatch.
Despite Washington turning a blind eye to the organic links between the PYD and the PKK, the group has openly said that the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, is the ideological force behind the YPG in Syria. This was clearly shown in a recent video released by YPG terrorists after Daesh was cleared from Raqqa province in Syria.
Analysts also argue that the lack of an exit strategy in partnership with the PYD, given its affiliation with the PKK, a group recognized as a terror organization by the U.S., after Daesh is cleared from Syria, is also a reflection of an uncertain strategy.
“Washington has a big decision to make: Leave Syria entirely, abandoning the YPG/PYD to the whims of the Turks and [Bashar] Assad, or stay there to restrain Kurds from attacking Turkey and to discourage Turkey from attacking the Kurds. The options are not very appealing. The exit strategy is not yet clear,” Serwer underlined.
Acun, on the other hand, argued that the recent rapprochement in the region, particularly between Tehran, Baghdad and Ankara over the KRG, might push Washington to re-evaluate its strategy with the PYD and reconsider its options. However, he added that the U.S., given its Syria policy being drawn by CENTCOM and the Pentagon and that they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, it is hard to define an exit strategy.
Ankara has repeatedly said it will not allow the establishment of a terrorist corridor along its southern borders in northern Syria, adding that it will do what it takes, including a cross border operation if need be, as it eliminated Daesh terrorists from Syrian towns bordering Turkey within the scope of Operation Euphrates Shield. In addition, Turkey has argued that the fight against Daesh should be carried out by partnering with local forces, rather than the YPG terrorists. As such, ultimately, the YPG’s antagonism against Turkey through terror means it is further pushing Kurds into long-lasting armed conflicts in the region, deepening instability and turmoil among the region’s Kurds.