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Raqqa Battle and the Kurdish National Question

The ongoing preparations to capture ISIL self-proclaimed capital Raqqa are entering a critical moment. This calls for a further examination of the Kurdish National Question as it will emerge in the post Raqqa battle to be a central issue in the North of Syria.

We may have to clear a few related matter first. In “Middle East Briefing”- February 25 we wrote, in describing the contradicting signals sent by Washington to the warring parties in Syria: “The US is assisting a group that fights other US backed groups”. Now, it seems that this has turned to be a widely circulating news here in Washington. However, many details are neglected in the story which was published few days ago by other publications.

The most significant detail is that when people talk about the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) they talk about two separate military forces which belong to the same single organization. The YPG, a branch of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), controls the traditionally Kurdish areas of East Euphrates and one region in Efrin in the North West of Syria through those two relatively separate armed groups.

The YPG militia, which attacked US assisted groups in North Syria was the one based in Efrin. This group, while they are part of the YPG, do not physically receive any assistance from the US.

Therefore, the reason for the confusion was simply that the Efrin YPG (not helped by US) moved against Arab opposition groups helped by the US. But because the YPG in the East is assisted by the US (exclusively in the East), the impression was that US backed YPG is fighting US backed opposition.

On operational levels, the YPG tricked the US operatives based in Turkey. It is childish to say that the militia of Efrin moves independently from the overall leadership of the YPG (the PKK). But the attacks launched from Efrin on the Arab opposition groups around Aleppo was not coordinated with the US. It was an expression of the PKK determination to connect its controlled areas east and west of the Euphrates. And this shows how difficult the situation is on the ground with all the conflicting agendas fighting each other in North of Syria.

Nothing much will remain from this story of the US helping groups to fight other US backed groups. What will remain is the Kurdish Question. So long as this issue is not handled properly, it will remain a source of troubles even after the Syrian civil war ends. By helping the YPG, the US and Russia plant a future mine on the road to peace in this part of the world. As the US operatives were tricked, the open road to all kinds of games have been widened and it is easy to smell big problems coming on the way.

But for the moment, we detect an increasing proliferation of ceasefire violations. Only this week, parts of Aleppo were bombed, Hama’s east countryside and Dara’s west countryside witnessed fierce fighting, East Ghota, Douma and Haraste were theatres for intensive regime air raids and ISIL is still advancing in the north of Aleppo.

The impact of a wave of speculations which followed the news of CIA Director John Brenan visit to Moscow the beginning of last month was negative. The opposition is sensing that both Moscow and Washington have indeed agreed that Assad can remain in power for the time being. We are entering slowly the grey areas where speculations about an official reversal in Washington’s position towards Assad are gaining momentum.

The clear reiteration of Washington’s policy on this issue which came from The White House Spokesman Josh Ernest March 30 was indeed timely. Ernest responded to Assad’s interview with Russia’s RIA Novosti where he said that a national unity government should be formed by his men and selected opposition figures under the current Syrian constitution. This meant that Assad refuses the Geneva Communique’s transitional government with full powers and without his or his mafia’s presence. Furthermore, it clearly reflects his determination to remain in power whatever happens. It is expected that President Obama will raise this issue during his visit to Saudi Arabia this month. Ernest statement was indeed needed. A reversal in Obama’s position in this matter wouldn’t be welcomed by most of the Syrian opposition groups or their allied regional powers. The mere rumor of a reversal was causing already a negative backlash against the political process.

Now, back to Raqqa and the Kurds.   

Kurds in Syria and Iraq are divided on what should be the objective of this critical phase of their history. Iraq’s Kurdish Region Government President Massoud Barzani said March 23 that the PKK does not represent the Kurdish people. Pointing to the difficult situation that Syrian Kurds face, he said: “I do not know what might happen to the Kurds once the war ends, because neither the Syrian administration nor the opposition grants their rights.”

“Kurdish people have no agreement with the regime or the opposition. Neither the regime nor the opposition grants the rights of those Kurdish people in Syria. I do not know how they might be going on the right path, however I do know that the Rojava Kurds [Syrian Kurds] are being used as a war tool. Their fate is unknown after the war ends”, Barzani added.

Barzani is right. Assad declared few days later that the Kurds are chasing an illusion when they talk about federalism in Syria. Turkey, Iran and Assad are determined to block any attempt to join Efrin with the Kurds in east Euphrates or create an independent entity for the Kurds in north Syria, even under the loose banner of a federal state.

There are many signs that the Turks will do everything possible to prevent that. It is not accurate to say that Ankara opposes the creation of a Kurdish semi-independent region in north Syria. They do not oppose the creation of such an entity in Iraq. The precise Turkish position is that they do not want the PKK to be the one which create such an entity. For them, it is like Al Qaeda building a state on the US borders. The tools of Turkey to prevent that are not necessarily “Halal”, so to speak. The Turkish objection is more focused on the political-armed group that leads the Kurdish fight in Syria than it is on preventing the establishment of a Kurdish entity there.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said March 28 that Turkish authorities allowed over 50 Nusra militants and three vehicles loaded with ammunition supplies to cross their borders into Syria. The reinforcements have arrived to Anadan city near Aleppo, the information bulletin from the Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria, published by Russian Defense Ministry said. The statement cited witness reports made by local residents.

Erdogan wanted to reinforce the groups fighting YPG militias west of the Euphrates in order to block the PKK allied forces advance. The YPG’s (Efrin branch) swoop earlier into traditionally Arab lands north of Aleppo after fierce fight with Arab and Turkmen Syrian opposition. The resistance to the PKK expansion, outside of traditionally Kurdish regions, are still there. And it will not go away soon, Erdogan knows that.

Barzani does not think that Erdogan is opposed to Kurdish self-determination in Syria on ethnic or national grounds. “”Erdoğan has a better understanding of the Kurdish cause than most. When Erdogan was prime minister, it was he who came to Erbil, and to Erbil said that the era of denying the Kurds was over. This was a very important development. What I heard from Erdogan, I heard from no one else.” Barzani said.

The grounds on which Erdogan builds his position on the Kurds are framed by the violence and terrorist methods of the PKK. As for the PYG reiteration that it is not affiliated to the PKK, Barzani said that their denial is a lie. “”Any support to the PYD means support for the PKK. They are exactly one and the same thing” he added. Barzani dismissed that the US does not know if the YPG and the PKK are the same. “They (the Americans) know that very well, but they don’t want to say they know it very well”, he asserted.

US officially lists the PKK and Al Nusra as two terrorist organizations. However, the Pentagon and the CIA assist the YPG of the east Euphrates region. Therefore, in principle, the US has crossed its own legal red line. Why Erdogan wouldn’t cross those US lines as well and assist Al Nusra fighters, if those who drew the lines in the first place do not respect them? Why should he accept US classification of terrorist groups when the US breaks it systematically?

We think that history took a strange turn in the course of the Kurdish National Question in Syria when a leading role was given in the North of Syria to the PKK’s YPG. By doing this, Turkey will never rest as long as the PKK is the leading force there. Arabs in territories controlled recently by the PKK will not accept that as a fait accompli. A Barazani-like leader in North Syria could have changed the course of this delicate episode of Kurds fight for their legitimate rights.

The YPG, opportunistically using US and Russian support, accepted to be used in return for expanding its territories in order to connect their areas in the East and West of the Euphrates’s. It did not take into consideration the provocations this may cause to Arabs once it advances into their territories east of Efrin. A combination of Turkish-Syrian Arabs in the North of Syria would be hard to defeat in the future even if it is retreating now. This issue will transcend the Syrian war and will remain a complicating factor in heroic fight of the Kurdish people to obtain what is rightly theirs: Their long-denied national rights.  

The objective of taking Raqqa and defeating ISIL in its own capital is too tempting to resist for planners in the Pentagon and for an administration which seeks additional accomplishments to add to the legacy of President Obama. The problem here is that while the rush to Raqqa is gathering steam now, the political and social bills for Syria’s Kurds and Arabs would certainly come later. But that would be the problem of the next US President anyway.

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