15 May 2012

The Syrian Knot and the Kurds

Despite a few gentle nudges from friends, I have not been commenting on Syria.

There is a good reason for my silence.

There is both too much and too little information about what is taking place in Syria. Most of the information we get is centered around the grim daily casualties report and there is almost no decent analysis of what the future holds. Most observers seem convinced that a protracted civil war is what we will get for the foreseeable future.

I disagree with that conclusion, as I believe this conflict will come to an end sometime this year and the final solution will be in line with a larger plan to stabilize the Middle East. I also think the key constituency in all this will be the Kurds.

Let me start by quickly summarizing the main points that guide my thinking.

1) There is no going back to status quo ante

It is now clear that the Annan plan has failed and even if it didn't, it would not have solved anything substantial.

For the regime, the plan reduced the possibility of an outside intervention being triggered by what I call the Srebrenica guilt syndrome.

For the rebels, the presence of UN observers permitted freer operations in places like Hom and somewhat lessened the destructive pressure of heavy artillery.

For outside powers, the plan gave them some cover by fostering the illusion that they are doing their best through diplomatic means.

But there is no possibility of a negotiated settlement that would allow Assad and the Baath party to remain in power. It is not just the ten thousand casualties and hundreds of thousands displaced. It is also the historical knowledge that the regime will resort to atrocities at the first opportunity.  Assad's henchmen are also doing their utmost to instill a feeling of revenge in the displaced communities.

The rebels are also making any compromise impossible by resorting to terrorist tactics like suicide bombs aimed at civilians. Even those minorities that were not very supportive of Assad would now be quite leery of the radical Sunni influence behind the insurgents.

2) No major military intervention is in the cards

The Pottery Barn rule is still valid and no one wants to "own" the broken post-Assad Syria.

There are of course other military options besides outright intervention. They range from establishing a no fly zone coupled with punitive air attacks to marine blockade. Recently, an ex-Syrian army general asked for punitive and strategic air strikes against Fourth Armored Division and Republican Guards, both under the command of Bashar's bloodthirsty brother Maher.

The problem with these proposals is that they presuppose that there is a ground force that could fight the Syrian army if air support was provided. Unlike the Libyan case, in Syria, there is no organized rebel force that can act like a regular army. Plus, as the Syrian army is hardly using air power against the poorly armed rebel units a no-fly zone will not have a significant effect.

In the absence of such a ground force, any of those military initiatives could quickly turn into what the Americans call "a quagmire" and pull those involved deeper in the conflict. And no one wants to take that risk.

3) No heavy weapons to the rebels

As the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is clearly outgunned by Assad's forces, some regional players like Saudi Arabia pushed for a policy of arming them with heavy weaponry. But they are almost alone (save perhaps Qatar) in that position. Tellingly, despite providing the FSA shelter and logistic assistance, Turkey has refused to provide arms to them. The same is true for Jordan, Syria's other neighbor.

Recently, the Lebanese navy intercepted a ship carrying arms for rebels and confiscated the lot.

Despite the success (feel free to use sarcastic air quotes for success) of Libyan operation, which included arming the rebels, in this instance, regional players believe that when the regime is finally toppled, having a Sunni army emerge as the only group with heavy weapons would not be conducive to a democratic system.  Given the incredibly complex ethnic and religious mosaic that makes up Syria and the growing radicalization of Sunnis and the FSA, Syria's neighbors see the future more in terms of Afghan mujaheddin turned into Taliban than Benghazi fighters turned into National Transitional Council.

In fact, even Libya constitutes a cautionary tale in that respect. Regional and tribal fighters who were united against Qaddafi are now centripetal forces turning Libya slowly into a failed state. And one thing no one wants is a failed state in this strategically important oil rich region.

4) War of economic attrition

Previously, I suggested that one of the key elements to watch was the slowly collapsing Syrian economy.

It is a truism that no regime can sustain a prolonged military campaign without a decent economy to finance it and the Assad government is rapidly using up its meager reserves. With its own crippling sanctions, Iran is in no position to help out financially. And I doubt that Iraq has the resources to do more than giving token amounts.

In that sense, this is a war of attrition and all the anti-Assad regional players need to do is to maintain the pressure on the army and government through the FSA and force them to be at many places at once using up valuable resources. Hence the Turkish logistical support to the FSA.

The Future and The Kurds

From my vantage point, the most important player in this conflict is not the US, Russia, Iran or even Turkey. It is the Kurds. And not just the Syrian Kurds.

You probably know that the place known as Kurdistan is a contiguous area between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. I selected this map which shows Kurdish inhabited areas rather than an actual map of Kurdistan as this one has more realistic boundaries.

The bottom region shows Shia-inhabited areas of Iraq and is not part of Kurdistan. (Click to enlarge the map)

What unite Kurds in these four regions are (a) a secular national identity, (b) a strong desire for a homeland and (c) a deep suspicion towards each nation state of which they are part.

What divide them are (a) how to achieve their goals and (b) who to rely on while they go about it. This last item is crucial, as historically they have been betrayed by all relevant regional and international actors. Even though there are many issues and identity differences that prevent them from adopting a united front, lately, the most significant divide seems to be about Turkey's role in the Middle East and its dealings with various Kurdish movements.

The PKK or the Kurdistan Workers Party, the most successful Kurdish guerrilla movement in the region, has been fighting the Turkish state for several decades. They, and all Kurdish movements affiliated with them, are deeply suspicious of the Turkish state and refuse to have anything to do with any rapprochement with Turkey. The groups that are affiliated with the PKK are PYD (Democratic Union Party) in Syria and PJAK (The Party of Free Life) in Iran (both established in 2003).

On the other side are Kurdish groups who seem to view Turkey as a more benevolent regional protector who could help them achieve a degree of autonomy within their current states.

In Iraq, both the PUK, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (whose leader is the current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani) and the KDP (whose leader Masoud Barzani is the President of KRG, Kurdistan Regional Government) are in favor of working with Turkey. Turkish companies constitute a clear majority of foreign investors and operators in KRG and with a volume of $12 billion annually, KRG conducts a whopping 70 percent of its trade with Turkey.

Recently, Barzani visited Turkey and issued an emphatic call to the PKK to lay down its arms. Since the PKK operates cross border in both Turkey and Iraq, this was a very significant announcement.

Moreover, when Tariq al-Hashemi, the Sunni Vice President of Iraq who was accused of running death squads against Shiites by the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki first fled to KRG, Barzani refused to hand him over to Baghdad and told him to go to Turkey. He did. Now Turkey refuses to hand him over to Iraq, infuriating PM Maliki in the process.

In short, Northern Iraqi Kurds seem to have aligned with Turkey and against Baghdad and Tehran and of course against the PKK.

In Syria, the same dilemma divides the Kurds. Kurdish National Council is in favor of a limited Turkish intervention in order to get rid of the Assad regime.
The Kurdish National Council, a coalition of ten Kurdish political parties, officially supports the removal of the Assad government, the establishment of a federal system in Syria, and limited foreign involvement, though the coalition has remained independent from pan-Syrian opposition forums, such as the Syrian National Council (SNC).
By limited foreign involvement they mean constant pressure from Turkey and perhaps a limited military intervention including the creation of safe havens inside Syria and punitive air strikes.

But this is fiercely opposed by PYD and because of its anti-Turkey stance it actually supports the Assad regime.
The PYD’s rejection of Turkish involvement is related to the group’s links to the PKK. A high-ranking PYD member, Aldar Xelil, recently admitted to the PKK’s activity in Syria through its influence over the PYD. He did not deny the allegations that PKK members man checkpoints and conduct random ID checks. According to Xelil, the PKK also supports the Assad government and is actively exerting pressure on groups that take arms against the regime, including the FSA.
The polarization is such that, when Mashaal Tammo, a liberal Kurdish politician who advocated a pluralist and democratic Syria, was gunned down by masked men in October 2011, his political movement (Kurdistan Future Party) blamed the Assad regime and called it a turning point for Syrian Kurds. Whereas PKK (and by extension PYD) accused Turkey of being behind the assassination.

Given the ruthless suppression of Kamishli (al-Qamishli in Arabic) riots and subsequent mass exodus of Kurds towards KRG, the PKK's and PYD's pro-Assad stance does not sit well with most Kurds and according to some analysts, it might lead to their marginalization and more.
[T]he PYD’s marginalization has the potential to produce two main scenarios: First, with the cooperation of the PKK, the PYD can militarily challenge the FSA by acting as Assad’s militia on the Turkish-Syrian border. This could include a wide range of asymmetrical acts such as infiltration of the Hatay refugee camps, assassinations, kidnappings, ambush and espionage with the goal of disrupting the activities of the FSA. Recently, Turkish intelligence prevented a Syrian Mukhabarat kidnapping operation directed against an FSA leader in the Hatay camp.
In an alternative scenario, the PKK may dissolve its offshoot, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK)—which has operated against Iran since 2003—as a gesture of goodwill to Iran and subsequently offer the services of its other regional arbiter, the PYD, to Iranian interests in Syria. This could result in the ‘Hizballah-ization’ of the PKK in Syria and render the PYD a militant proxy of Iran: first as a Basij-like structure that performs police duties in the Kurdish parts of Syria, and second as a secular Kurdish nationalist version of Hizballah in Lebanon, engaging in militant warfare.
It is clear that either of these scenarios would complicate the Syrian situation considerably. But I personally think that they are rather unlikely. When you look at the obvious difficulties of untangling the Syrian knot you realize that it is also fairly simple to push through an unexpected Alexandrian solution.

What if, instead of playing cumbersome and risky games, Turkey persuaded the PKK to realign with the rest of the Kurdish political groups? Think about the benefits for Turkey: Kurds would fully participate in the Syrian uprising and the presence of peshmerga could change the military equation and remove the objections to air strikes and no-fly zone initiatives, their participation would reduce the Muslim Brotherhood influence in the conflict, it would give some confidence to Syria's other minorities and finally it would put a lot of pressure on Iran. From the Kurdish perspective, they would have a united front, increase their bargaining power in post-Assad Syria (like the Kurds in Iraq), enable them to establish a semi-autonomous region (like the Kurds in Iraq) and all of this could prepare the ground work towards a larger autonomous political entity.

From the US perspective, the Syrian transition would be less volatile, Russian and Iranian influences would be reduced and a long term solution to the issue of Kurdish homeland would be within reach, thereby increasing regional staibility.

But is that possible? Could Turkey relaunch its Kurdish initiative? And could it be trusted to follow through its own initiative? Conversely, could the PKK stop playing dangerous games and work towards a peaceful settlement?

In February, I wrote about the Spygate in Turkey and its regional implications. The brouhaha was caused by secret talks the government was conducting with the PKK's leadership.  At the time a well connected media outlet in Turkey reported that a major initiative on the Kurdish issue was being planned for the month of May. And the general consensus was that the spygate was the reaction of those elements within the state that wanted to prevent a negotiated settlement.

Apparently, the jury is out on the feasibility of a Kurdish initiative in the current nationalistic environment. And there are conflicting signals like the clumsy effort to stop Yilmaz Saeed, the representative of Tevgera Ciwan√™n Kurd (the ‘Kurdish Youth Movement’), which provide the bulk of the Kurdish opposition to the Assad regime).

But since it has so many upsides for not just Kurds but Turkey and the US that I believe the February media reports were accurate and  the AKP government will start that initiative in the very near future.

If they don't, expect things to get from bad to worse. Much worse.

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