The Kurds and the Shifting Borders of the Middle East

Lately, predictions about redrawing the map in the Middle East have proliferated: a new ‘Sykes-Picot’, a full century after its famous historical predecessor came into effect. Analyses (or guesses) which take this line, state that the multi-level, multi-party conflicts the region has played host to in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq—which started with the so-called Arab Spring revolutions of 2011—now appear impossible to resolve, especially following the involvement of regional and international forces either directly or through local groups.

This position is bolstered by the emergence of forces that seek independence from the centralized control of the state (the Kurds), others that have erased the boundaries between states (Daesh and Hezbollah) and yet others with similar proclivities but which are yet to declare them (Jihadist groups and Syrian Alawites).

In June 2014, in the wake of the assault by Daesh fighters on the Iraqi city of Mosul, the Islamist organization declared the establishment of the so-called Daesh (IS) under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to whom IS swore allegiance as Caliph of the Muslims. This caliph called on Muslims from around the world to emigrate to his new state to pursue Jihad against its enemies and stated that their primary objective was the capital Baghdad.

A few days after al-Baghdadi’s speech his fighters dragged away the land border dividing Iraq from Syria in front of TV cameras, proclaiming the end of the ‘Sykes-Picot boundary’ between the two countries. But instead of heading for Baghdad as their leader had promised in his inaugural speech, Daesh’s forces went north to Arbil, thereby breaking a recent pledge not to target the Kurds. The armed forces of the Kurdish federal region, known as the Peshmerga, quickly crumbled in the face of this surprise attack. The Peshmerga had not fought a war in years and had grown sluggish and weak: their regional capital was in real danger.

It was at this point that the US administration swung into action, announcing the creation of an international coalition of more than sixty countries to counter IS. Air strikes would support local forces fighting Daesh, including the Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces. This was in Iraq. In Syria the coalition had no local partner to rely on in the war on IS, until, that is, the long siege of Kobani and the subsequent battle which lasted from October 2014 to January 2015 and ended with the defeat of Daesh and the liberation of the small Kurdish town on the Turkish border in northern Syria.

The Battle for Kobani and its Political Repercussions

In an albeit slightly different way to what Daesh had done to the Iraq-Syria border, another border line was erased in Kobani, this time the boundary between Turkey and Syria: over here, were Daesh fighters, some masked, firing into the air in celebration, like victors; over there, one saw families fleeing hell—women, children and men in a pitiable state. Bulldozers were flattening earth ramparts that crossed the desert hinterland as far as the eye could see. Elsewhere, in a verdant patch that separated the two sides, barbed wire was being rolled up by hand. Finally, there was the Daesh’s multinational fighting force, held together by a shared belief in an extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam and a jihadist creed, and a local population of Kurdish civilians.

The battle for Kobani erased the Turkish-Syrian border in two directions: although the Turkish authorities had closed the border, there were people fleeing the stricken town in search of safety in Turkey, while Kurdish volunteers joined forces with the Kurdish fighters who were defending it.

The fact is that, spurred on by its traditional sensitivity towards its Kurdish population, the Turkish government’s actions in respect of the siege of Kobani gave the impression that it was helping a terrorist organisation’s forces surround the town. As a consequence thousands of Kurds took to the streets of Turkish cities, including the main centres of Istanbul and Ankara, protesting against the government’s position. The security forces met the protest movement with violence and in the subsequent clashes around fifty people were killed in less than a week.

What changed the government’s position on the siege were not the popular protests inside Turkey, so much as public American support of the town’s resistance. US President Barack Obama called his Turkish counterpart to request that he allow Peshmerga forces from Iraqi Kurdistan to enter Kobani through Turkish territory. And this is what happened.

This move, unprecedented in the region’s history, was a further transgression of the already shaky Sykes-Picot dispensation: a long corridor stretching from northern Iraq, through Turkey and into Kobani. Peshmerga forces with all their equipment and weapons in tow crossed large tracts of Turkish territory with Turkish Kurds lining the route and waving victory signs.

The symbolism of this land crossing went beyond an offering of military support for a battle of limited scope and importance, to unite the hearts of a Kurdish diaspora scattered across three countries (excluding those in Iran) and engaging, under direct US protection, in a battle that circumstances conspired to make decisive. The behaviour of the Turkish government played a major role in this. Both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had gone to great lengths to make deliberately indecisive statements on Kobani, which made it look as though they were backing Daesh against the Kurds. Moreover, these statements were accompanied by the closing of the border to civilians fleeing the fighting and the aforementioned suppression of Turkish Kurd demonstrations.

Thanks to American (and European) pressure, Turkey had to make a volte-face. The border was opened and Turkey welcomed in an additional two hundred thousand refugees then the government allowed Peshmerga forces to cross through its territory into Kobani. Obama paid no attention to Erdoğan’s raging and oft-repeated assertions that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) was a terrorist organisation no different to Daesh. Indeed, Erdogan openly criticised the US for making airdrops of weapons over Kobani to assist the People’s Protection Units hold fast against IS assaults and eventually emerge victorious.

Things were to get worse for the Turkish government just months after the end of this decisive battle. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), considered to be the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) exploited the impact of the Battle of Kobani in its election campaign and made history in the elections of 7 June 2015 when its list of candidates broke the ten per cent barrier for the first time and became the first Kurdish party with a presence in the Turkish parliament, its seventy MPs a difficult factor to ignore in the country’s political equations. 

To Summarize:

  1. Starting with the assault by Daesh on Mount Sinjar, home of the Kurdish-Yazidi minority, and their subsequent advance northwards to Arbil, it was clear how important a role Iraqi Kurdistan played in American calculations. Obama, who had been happy to issue a verbal condemnation of the beheading of the first US hostage by IS, mobilised immediately when Daesh was threatening the capital city of Kurdistan, and formed an international coalition to fight the group, which began airstrikes on its positions instantly.
  2. The second point concerns the PKK, which the US regards as a terrorist group. Reinforcements came from Mount Qandeel and northern Syria to help hold Daesh back at Mount Sinjar and there was, notably, a meeting between US officers, PKK field commanders, and members of the PYD-run People’s Protection Units in Sinjar.

From that moment on, as far as public opinion went, Kurdish fighters (Barzani’s Peshmerga or the Öcalan-loyalist People’s Protection Units) became the United States’ closest allies, an impression that was reinforced by a series of intensive political meetings between Kurdish and US forces. Although the Americans never officially recognised the ‘self-administered’ region comprising three ‘cantons’, which the PYD imposed as a fact on the ground, they never objected to this situation and treated the PYD as an ally (despite the ideological differences between them).

Taken together, these facts injected an unprecedented level of self-confidence into Kurdish public opinion—particularly in Turkey and Syria. Just as the US war in Iraq represented an historic opportunity for the Kurds, who took advantage of the situation to set up their own semi-independent federal region, the Syrian regime’s war on its rebellious population and the environment which facilitated the emergence of Daesh then its proclamation of a Caliphate, represented an historic opportunity for Syrian Kurds to realise their dream of independence. This was something both political wings of the Kurdish movement realised: the Kurdish National Council affiliated with Barzani and the pro-Öcalan PYD. However, the latter possessed weapons and trained fighters, not to mention historical ties with the Assad regime, and was able to profit from this fact (following a period of temporary hostility and broken ties between 1998 and 2011) to occupy Kurdish majority areas by force and in coordination with regime forces, who had withdrawn to concentrate their attentions on regions in revolt.

The Battle of Tell Abyad and its Consequences: from Capability to Expansion

The alliance between the Americans and the PYD reached the point where relatively small US bases were constructed in Kobani and Al Jazira. Senior US officials also made repeated visits to areas controlled by Kurdish forces (such as US special envoy to the coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, and CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel) not to mention the presence of US forces (albeit a token presence) in areas belonging to the PYD.

This high-level political and field coordination, in addition to a French, British and German military presence would encourage the PYD to expand outside their traditional strongholds, leading to the assault on Tell Abyad which lay next to the Turkish border in the al-Raqqa governorate. Daesh fighters were driven out of the Arab-majority town and the surrounding countryside with its mixed Arab, Kurdish and Turkoman population. The PYD was so emboldened by US and Western backing that it proclaimed Tell Abyad part of the ‘Kobani Canton’ and Amnesty International recorded serious violations committed against the local inhabitants by the People’s Protection Units; a number of these amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as the forcible depopulation of villages whose inhabitants just happened to be Arab. These actions triggered a wave of hostility and hatred towards the PYD which then came to encompass Kurds in general, with public opinion referring to the practices of the People’s Protection Units as ethnic cleansing.

However, it was the Turkish government and Turkish nationalists who were most unhappy with the Kurdish liberation of Tell Abyad. They saw that by capturing Tell Abyad the PYD had linked the cantons of Kobani and al-Jazira, creating an unbroken strip of territory which extended all the way from the Turkish-Syrian border to the furthest point east of the Euphrates. The most obvious military-political consequence of this new state of affairs was the agreement by the Turkish government after a full year of prevarication to open the Incirlik airbase to the planes of the international coalition, in exchange for a US-pledge that Kurdish forces would not cross to the west bank of the Euphrates.

Russia Enters the Syrian War

In mid-September 2015, Russia announced that it would be entering the war in Syria based on an agreement with the Assad regime, with the stated objective of ‘fighting terrorism’. And at the end of that same month Russian warplanes did indeed begin to mount attacks on areas outside regime control. On 24 November 2015, Turkish fighters brought down a Russia Sukhoi-24, claiming that it had breached Syrian-Turkish airspace in the Jebel Turkoman region north of Latakia.

In fact, the Russians had harassed Turkish fighters more than once in the lead-up to this incident and Ankara had done no more than summon the Russian ambassador and asked him to convey Turkish protests to his leaders. Furthermore, the Turkish government had always treated Jebel Turkoman as part of its own national security remit, lying as it does along its border, and because of the supposed ethnic bond with the region’s Turkoman inhabitants. Friction between Turkey and Russia was inevitable once Russian jets began bombarding revolutionary positions in residential neighbourhoods to support the advance of Assad’s forces and their allies, as part of a strategy to secure the Latakia region, which is one of the regime’s most significant social and ethnic strongholds.

The downing of the Russian plane gave the PYD the chance to expand beyond the Afrin Canton besieged by Turkish-backed brigades. Battle raged in the countryside north of Aleppo between the PYD and affiliated Arab groups, and those brigades conventionally referred to as ‘moderate Islamist groups’, supported by Ankara. The coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces started to penetrate south and east towards Aleppo and Azaz with Russian air support.

What had embarrassed Obama before his NATO ally Turkey was perfectly acceptable to a wounded Putin, who gave the Kurdish forces free rein north of Aleppo. However the advance of the Kurds and their Arab partners ended as suddenly as it had begun. This was possibly the result of a Russian-US understanding concluded in the framework of the International Working Group on Syria that held two successive meetings in Vienna and which produced a consensus over the Security Council resolution regarding a common policy to war in Syria. Saudi Arabia was given the task of forming the opposition’s negotiating delegation in partnership with Syrian opposition groups and bodies. One of the most significant measures taken during the Riyadh conference was to exclude the PYD from taking part.

A few days after the Cairo conference began, the PYD convened a parallel conference in the Syrian city of Rmeilan with the participation of Arab political forces and personalities, which produced a new political entity termed ‘The Syrian Democratic Council’. The council was chaired by Haytham Manna and had its own military wing, ‘The Syrian Democratic Forces’, with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units as its backbone.

From the perspective of the regional/international struggle over Syria, this council was Russia’s idea. Russia sought to apply pressure on Saudi Arabia and Turkey regarding their creation of an opposition body to participate in the Geneva 3 negotiations. For the PYD the multi-national council gave them cover when they took over territory that did not have a Kurdish-majority population; such as Tell Abyad, which secured the land bridge between al-Jazira and Kobani, or the countryside north of Aleppo, which the PYD wanted in order to secure a corridor linking Afrin and Kobani, thereby cutting Turkey off from the rest of Syria completely.

The US want to liberate Raqqa and first and foremost this will require cutting the city’s access to the Turkish border by expelling Daesh from Manbij and Jarablus. This would leave Turkey with a narrow strip along the Azzaz-Marea line.

The vicious clashes taking place around Aleppo point to differences between the Russian agenda and the priorities of the Assad regime and its Iranian allies. Without going into details one can simply state that US-Russian understandings have tended to work to preserve the balance of power on the ground in Aleppo and the surrounding countryside.

What concerns us here is the announcement by the Syrian Democratic Council in March 2016 of the creation of a federation for those regions controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. This provoked angry responses from Arabs opposed to Assad’s regime, and they refused to concede to what was in effect a fait accompli.

At the time there were continuous leaks about potential relations between Turkey and the Syrian regime, following a series of negotiations that were reached in the framework of “correcting” Turkish foreign policy. These talks have included Russia and Israel, and all agree over the danger of a Kurdish entity in northern Syria and southern Turkey.

The Turkish Intervention through Jarablos

On August 24, the opposition forces, fighters of the Free Syrian Army (some of whom had been previously trained by the CIA) entered the border city of Jarablos backed by the Turkish army with its heavy weapons on the ground and the US-led coalition in the sky; IS withdrew its forces from the city without a fight.

These operations have been politically covered by the US and seem to have been agreed upon with Iran and Russia implicitly. In fact, the Jarablos operation must have been planned at least a year before and was first delayed by a disagreement between Ankara and Washington about vision and objectives. Then, the plan was put on the shelf when Turkey shot down the Russian Sukhoi plane on 25 November 25 2015. In retaliation, Moscow installed the advanced S400 anti-missile batteries in its airbase in Khmeimim, preventing the Turkish airforce from flying over Syria. Indeed, Moscow has sought to exclude Turkey altogether from the equation.

When Turkish-Russian relations normalized, this was celebrated at the St. Petersburg summit, which brought together the two presidents. Erdogan obtained the necessary green light to penetrate the border and enter Jarablos as the first direct Turkish military intervention on Syrian territory.

The battle of Jarablos was designed to prevent the establishment of a corridor between Kobani and Afrin under the control of the people's protection units (YPG) yet the pretext was to liberate the city from IS.

The Turkish operation, which was endorsed by all major international powers, undermined the dreams of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) to establish a federal entity connecting the eastern canton of Afrin with the western ones along the Syrian - Turkish border; a move Ankara would view as a threat to its national security. Therefore, PYD’s party leader Saleh Muslim has vowed to incur large losses upon the Turkish troops.

Washington for its part is seeking a truce between the parties in an effort to redirect energies to the fight against IS. We cannot expect much, however, as the situation in this region remains unpredictable in light of the internal situation in Turkey and, in particular, the war for the last year between the PKK and the Turkish army in southeastern Anatolia.

So far, there are no signs that this internal war might stop and the parties resume their peace talks. As long as this conflict is unresolved, so the conflict between Turkish forces and the YPG in Syria will remain, a conflict between two of Washington’s allies that the latter tries to contain.

To Summarize:

The Kurdish issue dates back to the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent establishment of the Turkish republic and the modern Arab and Balkan states. While many different national groups were granted their own independent nation-states in the aftermath of the First World War, the Kurds feel cheated that they were denied their own, and that Kurdish society was sliced up between different political entities governed by other nations (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran). Since the modern Turkish republic was established under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk there have been a series of Kurdish rebellions, the most recent by the PKK in the mid-1980s. Like other uprisings in northern Iraq and Iranian Kurdistan, these were bloodily suppressed. Not one of these four countries has worked to assimilate the Kurdish presence in a positive way and recognise their identity as a distinct ethnic-cultural community; so far from being solved the Kurdish issue has become more and more intractable.

Historical experience suggests to the Kurds that there can be no hope of achieving their demands for national recognition without obtaining the support (and consensus) of the major powers that control events in the region. Some Kurds believe that an historic opportunity is at last within their grasp, as circumstances, from the Arab Spring revolutions to the rise in jihadist terrorism in the form of Daesh and al-Qaeda, have conspired to make this possible.

If the Kurdish leadership in Iraq depends on steady support from Washington and other Western capitals in its move towards total independence from the Iraqi state, Öcalan’s alliance with Washington seems circumstantial and opportunistic. Russian support, meanwhile, is predicated on the enmity between Russia and Turkey resulting in the shooting down of the Sukhoi-24, and it is too early to predict the future of this relationship following a rapprochement.

However, given that Russia turned a blind eye to the Turkish troops storming the town of Jarablos, we could say that the Russian - Kurdish honeymoon is almost at an end. However, Vladimir Putin will not entirely give up the Kurdish card while it remains useful for Moscow especially when there is a need to put pressure on Turkey. So Kurdish parties need to re-evaluate their allegiances with both Washington and Moscow. Although it has proved useful to deal with both, recently the alliance has begun to look more fragile than the party leaders expected.

But the Kurds, with all their political movements and parties and their dispersal over four nation-states, are not the only anti-centralist element in the ‘Sykes-Picot region’, if such an expression be permitted. There is a Sunni-Shia binary, actively promoted by Tehran and Riyadh, played out in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, not to mention Palestine. There is the Alawite community in Syria who supported the regime against the popular uprising, creating a profound split between themselves and the diverse elements that make up Syrian society: a wound it will take a miracle to heal. And, there is Hezbollah, the Iran-backed group that monopolises the political representation of Lebanon’s Shia and crosses national borders to fight for the Syrian regime. Israel tried to keep hold of the Druze card, sometimes playing it, sometimes hiding it in its hand.

Overall, there is a consensus among observers that the Middle East we know is gone for good. Just as direct American intervention in Iraq helped precipitate the disintegration of the Iraqi state’s infrastructure, so Washington’s refusal to engage in meaningful intervention in Syria has contributed to the dissolution of the Syrian state.

In part this disintegration is related to the damaging struggle between major international and regional powers in their efforts to draw up a new Middle East agreement and apportion influence within this new system: a process that is yet to reach its final settlement.


Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger