4 Policy Takeaways for the U.S. From a Month in Kurdish Syria & Iraq   


Kurdish Peshmerga and US Special forces in Iraq. (Photo: Patrick Barth/Getty Images)
Kurdish Peshmerga and US Special forces in Iraq. (Photo: Patrick Barth/Getty Images)

 “You’re late,” said Gen. Aitan Farhad, female chief of domestic security in Rojava, the semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave in Syria.

“Excuse me?” her comment left me bemused, as there is little sense of time in Kurdish culture.

America is late. We’ve led the fight against ISIS for years, and only now America is beginning to help us,” she clarified.

This uncommon visit to Rojava was a first, after eight visits to Iraqi Kurdistan. The area is far more difficult to access, due to the turbulent relations between Kurdish authorities in the two countries.

Iraqi Kurdistan currently bans journalists from entering Syria, and I never saw a non-military foreigner during 14 days in northern Syria’s Kurdish cantons.

So it comes as no surprise that mainstream narratives miss crucial aspects about what’s really happening on the ground, and what must occur to stabilize the situation.

Based on discussions with top political and military leaders of competing Kurdish factions in Syria and Iraq, there is a consensus of four key takeaways Western policymakers must be aware of:


1.Preventing a Kurdish Civil War: American Mediation for Political Fractures

The nasty dispute for control of the Sinjar region of Kurdish Iraq is now entering a breaking point between the Iraqi-based Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Turkish- and Syrian-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). While this Kurdish conflict is nothing new, it is escalating while the long-term victory over Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) hangs in the balance.

After a joint operation between the KDP and PKK-aligned forces drove ISIS from Iraq’s Yazidi-majority Sinjar area, the dueling parties are now vying for supremacy.

In the worst recent Kurd-on-Kurd skirmishes, multiple fighters on both sides were killed, and some potentially-armed demonstrators were wounded. Echoing messages from elements of the PKK, Iranian-backed militias in the area were quick to join in with threats of attack on the Kurdistan region of Iraq — a sign of the potential for sectarian flare-ups as these Shia groups are further emboldened.

A civil war along similar fault lines is not without precedence. From 1994 to 1997, Iraqi Kurdistan was torn apart by political strife, leaving thousands dead. Under Secretary of State Madeline Albright, the Washington Agreement was forged, bringing a resolution to the conflict. Power-sharing continues to exist between two of the main former Iraqi Kurdish rivals.

Yet, the fallout from conflict between the PKK and the KDP is not limited to Sinjar. It has the potential to destabilize Kurdish areas in both Syria and Iraq, as domestic attacks occur and scant Kurdish resources are diverted from fighting ISIS to focusing on solving internal problems.

In this atmosphere, weary foreign investors and multinationals may once again depart, dealing an economic blow. Iran, Russia and Turkey would choose sides in a Kurdish conflict and attempt to reduce these pro-Western areas to yet another regional proxy fight.

Using the PKK’s presence as a justification, Turkish forces have gone so far as to establish a base in the Sinjar area — within Iraqi territory — and recently conducted unilateral airstrikes, killing indiscriminately both PKK and KDP-affiliated forces.

Meanwhile, Iran continues its attempts to destabilize the area, aiming to add Sinjar as one of the final stepping stones in a new Iranian-controlled land route to the Mediterranean and Israel’s borders.

The recent Turkish airstrikes on Sinjar ignited a fresh push by Syrian Kurds for a no-fly zone over Rojava. In a positive step from the Trump administration, American forces now conduct high-profile patrols to dissuade further Turkish intervention.

Meanwhile, the indigenous Yazidi minority are still caught in the cross-fire. ISIS drove Sinjar’s Yazidi civilians from their homes; these same innocents are kept from what remains of their homes due to the Kurdish standoff. Until a resolution between the Kurdish factions is reached, vital reconstruction for the Yazidi people cannot begin.

The military and political wings of both sides share a consensus position that America must immediately sponsor reconciliation talks between the Kurdish parties and procure an agreement under which America will hold both sides accountable.

Further, America could play an instrumental role in securing a ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK, which would have a stabilizing effect on the relationship between Rojava/PKK and the Iraqi Kurds, as well as ease turmoil within Turkey.

With enough consistent support from the West, the Kurds will be decreasingly susceptible to induced strife from their hostile neighbors — and a tragic repeat of history will be averted.


2.Diplomatic Gymnastics: Dealing With Russia in Order to Deal With Assad, Iran and Hezbollah

A new “red line” was drawn in Syria, but there could still be some common ground for coordination with Russia on no-fly zones, with a focus on protecting the innocent while containing and reducing the influence of Assad and Iran.

Even a unilateral American no-fly zone over Kurdish-held areas would end a corrosive cycle of Turkish intervention against the Kurds — whose involvement is increasingly unwelcome by both Russia and the U.S.

Unavoidably, Russia is a player which the West can neither confront nor ignore in Syria. Russia also happens to be the only player with which dialogue can occur, and, significantly, the Russians can leverage Assad, Iran and other proxies to follow any memorandum of understanding. Attempts to unilaterally confront or negotiate with each of those actors — independently and without Russia — is simply not militarily or diplomatically realistic.

The window for toppling Assad seems to have closed, and America was happy to allow President Putin to diplomatically “resolve” the chemical weapons issue — to some degree. This has culminated with the U.S. declaring that the future of Assad is now in the hands of the Syrian people, even if moving forward, Assad and other actors will face immediate consequences for the use of chemical weapons.

With groundbreaking progress by Assad’s forces, however, there are unique opportunities. For instance, the Kurdish region in the north of Syria is a non-contiguous range of cantons, with an ISIS-Turkish siege of Efrin Canton that was only recently broken by regime advances.

On the upside, it is now possible for Kurdish commerce from Rojava to reach the Russian-controlled port of Lattakia — if Russia would nudge the regime to agree.

It would be in Russian interests to undermine the Turkish near-monopoly on Kurdish imports and exports, by allowing the Kurds to trade from this port. It would bring some relief to a landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan, while more options for trade would decompress one of the major sources of friction between the Iraqi Kurds and Rojava. Even Baghdad may see value in such a trade route becoming available.

The Syrian Kurds, who for some time have appeared to keep their options open and were alleged to have been cozy with Iran, Assad, and Russia, issued statements from their military and political leadership condemning Iranian influence and declaring that their aligned forces would not be allowed to enter Kurdish areas.

This could be a sign that the West is fostering more than a purely “transactional” relationship with their most reliable allies on the ground, and that the Kurds see a more solid partnership with the West, such that their distance with Iran and Assad can grow.

Yet one unspoken cause for concern is that the Russians have just recently established a military outpost in the westernmost Kurdish canton of Efrin. What will this Russian foothold mean in the long run, if Assad regains momentum and Russia decides it’s time for Rojava to reunify with Syria? Will the US-led coalition be able to position itself ahead of time?


3.Drawing the Line: Establishing a Permanent Military Presence

“A permanent U.S. base in the Kurdistan Region? It should have been built yesterday,” Maj. Gen. Sirwan Barzani told me during a recent visit to the Iraqi Kurdish front line.

Permanent U.S. deployments in Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan appear more attractive as Turkey hinders American use of its own facilities at the Incirlik airbase, currently central to ongoing operations. Just last week, Germany announced the withdrawal of German anti-ISIS forces from the NATO base at Incirlik, in favor of more stable bases in Jordan.

Fortunately, America now has the opportunity to establish a welcome presence immediately adjacent to Iran, Iraq and Syria, and one that’s already built. Iraqi Kurdistan’s Erbil airport boasts one of the longest civilian runways in the world — a convenient potential hub or stopover for future engagements.

In Rojava, the U.S. has not only staked a presence at the Rumeylan and Tabqa airports, but fresh reports note five total airstrips — geographically placing the Americans on nearly all sides of the waning Syrian regime’s presence in Rojava. This will enable greater counterterrorism capabilities, and deter Iranian attempts to leverage the northern regions of Iraq and Syria to become part of their long-sought “land bridge” to link Tehran directly to Hezbollah’s militants on Israel’s borders.

In the last month alone, U.S. warplanes twice struck Iranian-backed militants who came too close to American positions and ignored prior warnings — and an Iranian-made drone attempting to attack U.S. forces was shot down.

Most recently, a U.S. plane shot down a Syrian regime jet after the Syrian plane dropped bombs near U.S. partner forces fighting against ISIS.

In the last month, the commanders of the U.S.-led coalition and the U.S. Central Command both made statements in support of a permanent partnership. They mentioned that up until 2014, there had been no relationship between the Peshmerga and the U.S. military, but that the cooperation between them and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces should continue post-ISIS. A 35-point Western coalition plan to restructure and professionalize the Peshmerga is already moving toward implementation.

A serious, lasting American presence will send a clear signal to adversaries that the U.S. puts its strength where its policy is. It will also give heart to the Kurds — and other regional allies — that America no longer leaves friends behind.


4.Development of Civil Society and Economic Diversification

Former Obama State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf famously said, “Wwe cannot win this war by killing them [ISIS], we cannot kill our way out of this war,” and that a lack of “job opportunities for these people,” is a “root cause” for “what makes these 17-year-old kids pick up an AK-47, instead of trying to start a business.”

Harf may have been at least partially right: It’s true that ISIS paid up to $1200 monthly, while the average monthly salary in northeastern Syria hovers around $100. Yet unfortunately, there are no serious Western efforts aimed at civil society development and economic diversification in Kurdish Syria and very little in Kurdish Iraq.

The good news is that the Kurds do not require perpetual welfare from the West — and will probably persevere without it. Yet, with Rojava in its infancy and the Iraqi Kurds moving towards independence, such aid will ultimately pay huge dividends.

In stark contrast to the trillions sunk into Iraq, the greatest return on investment for Western security interests and human freedom is consistently found with the Kurds. It is perplexing that Western powers are reluctant to nation-build in one of the only places where lasting stability could realistically take hold.

Increased aid to Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria — beyond the defeat of ISIS — is in line with Western security needs. In providing aid to their nascent regional governments and civil society, we will also ensure our values are promoted: Freedom of press, transparent democratic processes and protection of minorities will be furthered.

The Kurdish authorities in Iraq and Syria certainly surpass their neighbors and other American allies in these areas, and they will continue to improve as their civil institutions mature. These aid programs are also key to dislodging Assad and Iranian influences and can incentivize the resolution of the Kurdish political conflict.

The U.S. can take swift and non-controversial actions now to reassert sorely needed leadership in the region. If even one of these four policy suggestions are applied half-way — political de-escalation, a comprehensive approach to Russia and Assad, a permanent military presence or internal development — it will represent a long-deserved, hard-earned level of Western commitment to a rising Middle Eastern ally.

With a more proactive administration in Washington to lead the way, perhaps America won’t miss a potential turning point in the pursuit of Middle Eastern stability. 


Zach Huff
Zach Huff is Clarion Project’s Kurdish affairs analyst.

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