National and International Issues

Syria, Turkey and the Kurd Issue

Roughly 25 million Kurds occupy a tract of land that includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Armenia but they have no state of their own.1 In 1920, the Kurds as an ethnic group were promised autonomy in the Treaty of Sèvres. But the two great powers of the day, Britain and France, reneged in 1923 and carved up the Kurdish territories into modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.2 



In 1958, a bloody coup led to the government of King Faisal II being overthrown in Iraq by Brigadier Qasim with communist leanings, sending shock waves among the Arab kingdoms and their allies.3 To prevent the situation from tilting further into the favour of the Communists and the USSR, by 1959 the U.S. was funding Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq, who were fighting for autonomy.4 In 1964, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion recognized that the Kurds could be used as a strategic ally against the radical Arab regime in Baghdad. Thus Israel also started supporting Kurd separatists in Iraq through Iran. Israeli strategy was simple, as long as the Kurds presented a clear danger to Baghdad, the Iraqi military could not be deployed in force against Israel in the event of a war. This strategy paid off in 1967, amid heightened Kurd insurgency Iraq was unable to deploy its forces in the Pan-Arab War against Israel. As a reaction to the defeat of the Arab countries during the 1967 War and the U.S. supporting the Israeli cause, Iraq severed its diplomatic relations with the U.S. and Baghdad drifted completely into the USSR camp. In 1973, Massoud Barzani, Kurd leader of Iraqi National Congress (INC), travelled to America. While in Washington Massoud met Richard Helms, the CIA director, and Al Haig, the White House Chief of Staff, a meeting that led to both CIA and Israeli advisors moving into northern Iraq to help the Kurds.5 This gave flip to insurgency in Iraq once again. As a consequence, during 1973 Arab-Israel War Iraq could only muster a single armored division because 80 percent of its military was tied down in northern Iraq.


With YPG getting stronger amid U.S. military withdrawal from the region, the Turkish military on October 9 launched military operation named “Operation Peace Spring” in SDF controlled northeast Syria. The aim of the operation is to create a 20 mile broad buffer zone from Afrin in the west to Iraq in the east. Turkey believes that by creating this zone it could prevent the Syrian border from becoming like its border with Iraq, where an autonomous Kurdish region hosts Kurdish militants in the form of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Similarly, by dislodging SDF from the area, Ankara also wants to rehabilitate some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees who have taken refuge in Turkey. 


The American Greater Middle East Project
In the State of the Union address delivered by President George W. Bush in January 2002, Iran, Iraq and North Korea were described as the “Axis of Evil”.7 In May 2002, Undersecretary of State, John Bolton gave a speech entitled “Beyond the Axis of Evil” in which he expanded Bush’s list to include Cuba, Libya and Syria.8 These assertions for the first time gave a road map as to which countries were on the hit list of the U.S. for occupation or regime change in future. 
After the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, had emerged as a militarily powerful country in the region. Subsequently, despite Kuwaiti invasion debacle, humiliating defeat during the first Gulf War and sanctions, Saddam’s Iraq still posed a grave danger to Israel due to its military strength. Since security and safety of Israel is of paramount importance to the U.S., to neutralize this threat, the U.S. in collaboration with the UK, Australia and Poland invaded Iraq without any legal justification and without the UN mandate on March 19, 2003.9 On April 9, 2003 Baghdad was captured and by May 1 of the same year President Bush declared the end of hostilities when most of Iraq had been captured and the Iraqi military had completely been defeated/destroyed.
After achieving the aim of fragmenting Iraq on ethnic and sectarian lines under the American “Greater Middle East” project in 2003. The U.S., in concert with Israel, started to create a wider arc of instability starting from Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt to Lebanon, Palestine, Syria to the Persian Gulf, Iran, and Afghanistan all the way to Pakistan.10 Existing ethnic, sectarian, religious and extremists fault lines in the region were exploited by providing financial support to extremist elements, through information warfare, false flag operations as well as through open provocations.
Syrian Civil War
Since 2008, Syria faced a drought-like situation due to little rain and building of Turkey's upstream dams for irrigation projects. Non-availability of livelihood led to mass migration of the poor rural Sunni peasants to the major cities of Syria. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the U.S., in collaboration with Israel, recruited citizen journalists who were provided with training and funds to launch anti-regime propaganda through the internet. By February 2011, protests organized on the American controlled Facebook projecting large-scale corruption and high-handedness by Alawite Shia minority of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime depriving Sunnis of their respectable living started to divide Syria on sectarian lines. As a result of this negative campaign, by mid-March a faceless opposition had emerged from the city of Daraa.11 From Daraa, protests soon spread to Sunni dominated areas of Homs and Hama, to Aleppo, the Kurdish northeast, the coastal Latakia area and to the suburbs of Damascus. The agitations which were initially peaceful soon turned violent and started to kill law enforcement personnel. In retaliation, the government forces also used force to suppress violence resulting in deaths. Deaths of civilians and use of force by the government agencies were publicized through Twitter and YouTube. This social media campaign added fuel to agitations and turned them into an armed rebellion. Resultantly, an all-out civil war broke out in Syria which was duly abetted by the U.S. and Israel.
Creation of Autonomous Kurd State in the Region
As discussed earlier, over the years Israel has also used the Kurd card very prudently to create a security and political crisis in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. Israeli policymakers believe that the creation of Kurdish state could generate endemic problems in all spheres for its regional opponents as Kurds are predominately Muslims and a martial race. Israel also thinks that their struggle for Kurdish state under the banner of Kurdish nationalism would keep them away from joining hands with other Muslims in their endeavors to liberate Al Quds from Israeli occupation.
In line with Tel Aviv’s thinking, the Americans established a no fly zone from March 1991 on over most of Iraqi Kurdistan. It gave the Kurds a chance to declare northern Iraq an autonomous region.  Iraq only recognized the autonomy of Kurdistan after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 with a new Iraqi constitution in 2005. The Kurdistan Region of the Republic of Iraq (KRI) government (the Kurdistan Regional Government – KRG) is based in Erbil. 
The Kurdish National Council in Syria (KNC) was formed on October 26, 2011 in Erbil, Iraq. The main sponsor of this initiative was Massoud Barzani (known CIA/Mossad agent), the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq. Kurdish National Council (KNC), comprising a group of fifteen Kurdish parties, aims towards achieving political autonomy of Kurd dominated areas, in other words, a separate homeland in the region. The other political outfit which became active in Syria was Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). PYD also collaborated with both Syrian regime and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to place several Kurdish cities across North-Eastern Syria under a de facto autonomy.
Turkey’s Involvement in Syrian Conflict
With the outbreak of Israeli orchestrated and the U.S. backed civil war in Syria in 2011, Turkey has been actively involved in Syria’s conflict to safeguard its national interests. It may be recalled that born in 1948 in the village of Omerli in southeastern Turkey, Ocalan, a Kurd, became politically active during his college years and founded the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 1974. Ocalan’s vision, rooted in Marxist-Leninist ideology, was to set up an independent Kurdish state in southeast Turkey by waging an armed struggle against Turkey. The first shots of this conflict were fired in 1984, but it continues even now, having claimed thousands of lives. Since the PKK’s formation, Turkey has formally declared the group a terrorist organization, a stance adopted by the U.S., the European Union, and much of the international community.12
In these circumstances Turkey’s main aim was to thwart an attempt by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) linked Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from establishing an autonomous area along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. Turkey also rightly identified the YPG and its political counterpart, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as a major threat to Turkish territorial integrity. Turkey believed that the YPG/PYD’s military and political success in Syria could act as catalyst for the PKK’s increased insurgency within Turkey. Knowing fully well that Turkey like PKK considers YPG a terrorist organization, the U.S. very cleverly asked YPG to abandon its name and merge itself into the umbrella group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which also included Arabs and other non-Kurdish elements.13 Since 2014, the SDF has been the main U.S. ground force partner against the Islamic State. Even though Turkey is also a part of the anti-IS coalition, the U.S. operations in support of the SDF – largely based from Turkish territory – have fueled the U.S.-Turkey tension because of Turkey’s view of the YPG as a terrorist outfit. 
With deteriorating security situation on its borders with Syria, on February 21, 2015 Turkey launched a military operation “Operation Shah Euphrates” in northern Syria. The aim of the operation was to move the shrine of Suleyman Shah, which Ankara regarded as sovereign Turkish territory, to a Turkey-controlled location near the border and evacuated 38 guards under threat from Islamic State. Again on August 24, 2016 Ankara commenced “Operation Euphrates Shield”. During this operation Turkish forces secured control of the region between Afrin and Manbij districts, pushing Kurdish YPG militia east of Euphrates river and driving Islamic State fighters away from Jarablus, Dabiq and Al-Bab regions in northwest Syria.



As part of SDF operations to expel the Islamic State from its main Syrian stronghold in Raqqah in 2017, the U.S. government disregarding the sensitivities of Ankara continued to pursue a policy of arming the YPG directly. As a consequence, Turkey launched an offensive directly against the YPG in Afrin district from January 20 to March 24, 2018 under code name “Olive Branch”. Around 25,000 Free Syrian Army personnel joined Turkish forces to capture Arab towns and villages seized by the YPG, taking control of the Afrin region of northwest Syria. 
Despite strong resistance by Turkey, the U.S. again in 2019, provided USD 300 million for military training and equipment to SDF, predominantly led by the PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG), and USD 250 million for building a "border security force" in Syria.14 With YPG getting stronger amid U.S. military withdrawal from the region, the Turkish military on October 9 launched military operation named “Operation Peace Spring” in SDF controlled northeast Syria. The aim of the operation is to create a 20 mile broad buffer zone from Afrin in the west to Iraq in the east. Turkey believes that by creating this zone it could prevent the Syrian border from becoming like its border with Iraq, where an autonomous Kurdish region hosts Kurdish militants in the form of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Similarly, by dislodging SDF from the area, Ankara also wants to rehabilitate some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees who have taken refuge in Turkey. 
It is believed that by the establishment of a buffer zone in northeast Syria, Ankara would not only be able to protect the influx of terrorists in the garb of refugees into Turkey as was done in case of FATA, Pakistan, but would also dash the hopes of U.S. and Israel to establish another autonomous Kurd state in Syria. In these circumstances both America and its western allies are reacting very adversely to the Turkish military operations in Syria. Apart from putting economic and military sanctions on Turkey, President Trump also tweeted that he would “devastate Turkey economically” if it hits at the Kurds.
Conclusion
In a changed geopolitical scenario, it becomes obvious that both Israel and the U.S. are working on the agenda of dividing and Balkanizing Muslim countries in the Middle East on one pretext or the other. Colonel Gaddafi as well as Saddam Hussein were removed from the seat of power by design to plunge Libya and Iraq into civil wars and chaos. A similar military coup attempt was made against President Recep Erdogan to remove him from the seat of power in Turkey. Apart from this, using Sunni-Shia divide as the main driver in the region, Muslim countries have been pitched against each other in proxy wars raging from Syria to Iraq including, Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Additionally, ethnic fault lines such as Turkish/Persian/Arab/Kurdish are also manipulated to create anarchy in the region. As a consequence of this well-crafted strategy Muslim countries are fighting each other as a group or as individual states with no clear agenda or end state in mind. 
In these circumstances it is very important for all the significant Muslim countries of the region like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Syria and Pakistan to rise above petty differences. It is of paramount importance that Kurdish issue facing the region must be resolved peacefully and amicably on priority. All the stakeholders of the region i.e., Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey must formulate a platform or organization with the active representation and participation of Kurds. This platform must build consensus whereby Kurds must be given their due share in governance, political guarantees and economic freedom without disturbing the territorial integrity of any state. Since this agenda runs contrary to the U.S./Israel designs for the region, therefore, Russia and China may be engaged to act as mediators and facilitators for the process. Meanwhile, irrespective of political and sectarian affiliation, all the Muslim countries must raise their voice against imposing of sanctions against Turkey or any other Muslim state in the future by the U.S. At the same time, Muslim world through dialogue and engagement must help Yemen, Libya and Syria to come out of civil wars and embark on the road to prosperity and well-being for their citizens. 


The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of Pakistan Navy. He is currently serving as Ambassador of Pakistan to Maldives.
E-mail: [email protected]


Disclaimer: This article contains personal views of the author and cannot be associated with the policy of Government of Pakistan or any other state institution. 


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13.  2019, October 15. Who are the Syrian Democratic Forces? Al Jazeera News. 
14.  2018, February 12. Pentagon 2019 budget allocates $550 million for YPG. Daily Sabah.

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