Syria’s Kurds are on a dangerous political teeter-totter, championed on the one hand by Russian President Vladimir Putin and demonized on the other by his sometimes-friend-sometimes-foe Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
And, to make matters worse, they are stuck right dab in the middle of one of the most brutal and indeterminable armed conflicts in the world today.
In February, Putin stated that he was ready to help arm Syria’s Kurds and to formally enlist them in his regional fight against the Islamic State (I.S.).
He even managed to get his lapdog minion Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — who in the past has been leery to trust the Kurds because they have been wrangling for a separate state within Syria’s borders — on board with the idea, at least partially.
Erdoğan is much more skeptical of the Syrian Kurds, who he believes (rightly or wrongly) are helping the separatist terrorist group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) inside his own country.
And with U.S. President Donald J. Trump too busy navigating his controversial immigration policies and his Obamacare replacement proposal, and the United Nations wobbling through a maze of unrealistic and toothless peace treaties that are predestined to fail before they are even implemented, Russia, Turkey and Iran are now plotting their own carving up of the bedlam that is Syria into informal territories of regional power.
And not unlike the backdoor Sykes-Picot divvying up by the French and British of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire into what was to become the nations of Iraq, Syria and Jordan, after the First World War, this new territorial dismemberment is destined to create a regional time bomb of political discontent.
In the past, the Kurds have been key allies to the Russians and Syrians in the fight against I.S. (based on a loose interpretation of the old my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend philosophy), and right now the curbing of I.S. is a top priority for everyone involved.
But there is no ignoring the fact that the Syrian Kurds’ main objective is and always has been autonomy.
And while the Russian peace proposal for a new “decentralized” Syria incorporates regional assemblies and recognition of Kurdish as a second national language are meant to placate their inconformity, Kurdish officials of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) have made it clear that they are not going to be appeased by halfway measures that boil down to little more than a diplomatic hat tip to their demands for full sovereignty.
The Syrian Kurds want and will settle for nothing less than total federalism.
Assad, meanwhile, has made it clear that that is not going to happen, at least not during his watch.
Bashar Jaafari, his envoy to the latest Russian-Turkish-Iranian talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, didn’t mince words three months ago when he stated outright that “the issue of federalism will be decided by all Syrians, and not decided unilaterally by a single component.”
He quickly amended his statement to clarify that federalism was a foolish solution to his nation’s current woes, and that even if it were proposed, it would have to “be put to a democratic vote” (i.e., it ain’t gonna happen).
Jaafari further said that “it’s completely unacceptable for a group of people to decide to create a statelet and call it federalism.”
That puts the Syrian Kurds at loggerheads with the Syrian government, and, should a tenuous peace treaty ever come into force in the country (which, at this point, looks like wishful thinking), it is a guarantee that the Kurds will immediately take arms against the Assad regime.
The Kurds constitute about 10 percent of Syria’s 18-million-strong population, so the ensuing civil war could turn out to be even more bloody and gruesome than what we are already seeing in the region.
Even though Assad and Erdoğan have butted heads in the past, they would definitely join forces in a fight against a militarized Kurdish insurgency in Syria.
Cleary, Syria’s Kurds have been repressed over the last few decades and they have legitimate grievances against the Assad regime.
But piling more weapons into an already explosive situation may not be the best solution.
Arming the Kurds to fight against I.S. may be a quick remedy in the fight against Islamic State violence, but let us not forget that the indiscriminate arming of insurgents against Assad and the despotic governments in Iraq is exactly how I.S. came into being in the first place.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]