Syria’s fallout on Jordan, Lebanon and the Kurds

| January 4, 2013 | 0 Comments
Kurds from Italy, using a variety of Kurdish flags, including that of the Kurdish Workers’ Party at right, protest in Bologna, against the  Turkish government.

Kurds from Italy, using a variety of Kurdish flags, including that of the Kurdish Workers’ Party at right, protest in Bologna, against the
Turkish government.

What happens to Syria’s Kurds may have broader implications for Kurdish populations in Turkey, Iran and Iraq — and regional instability.

By Harry Sterling

“Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder.”
When author George Bernard Shaw uttered that pessimistic, certainly cynical, view more than a century ago in 1903, he could not have foreseen the dramatic uprisings that swept through much of the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 and resulted in the overthrow of authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, as well as ongoing conflict in Syria.
Many of those who initially welcomed the so-called Arab Spring have become increasingly concerned about where it’s now heading in some countries. Fearful extremist movements, including Islamist fundamentalists, are undermining the early hard-won gains of pro-democracy groups, while non-democratic groups are determined to hijack such gains for their own narrow purposes.

Others are concerned about longstanding divisions erupting within societies, pitting rival religious and ethnic groups, clans, tribes and regions against one another, further undermining the stability of countries.

Paradoxically, one ethnic group that conceivably could actually benefit from the current tension between competing groups within society is the Kurds of Syria. And what happens to them could have even broader implications for Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

During the initial phase of the uprising in Syria against the Alawite-dominated regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s Kurdish population, like most of Syria’s Christian minority, essentially stayed on the sidelines, not wishing to take a stand that could endanger their own survival.

However, once the Syrian opposition forces strengthened their fighting ability, thanks primarily to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, President Assad’s loyalist forces found it increasingly difficult to control vast areas of Syria, especially more remote rural regions, while trying to stop advances made by the Free Syrian Army in various cities, including traditional anti-government urban centres such as Homs and Hama.
This inability of government forces to maintain a firm control over rural areas ultimately forced the regime to effectively withdraw from areas populated by the Syrian Kurdish community. It is a population whose fundamental human rights had been systematically denied by the Alawite-controlled central government in Damascus for countless decades, sparking sporadic anti-government incidents that were brutally quashed by the Baathist regime. Countless Kurds were imprisoned and tortured to terrorize that community into submission.

But the military successes of the Syrian opposition and the withdrawal of the government’s presence in the northeast Kurdish region have been an unexpected blessing for the country’s three million Kurds, which they have been quick to seize, though much of the present-day Kurdish population now lives in large cities such as Damascus and Aleppo.

Since October, the Kurds effectively started to replace the central government’s infrastructure in the Kurdish areas, especially in Aleppo Province, establishing their own rule and political control, operating police stations and manning roadblocks.

Demonstrations in Istanbul after an F-16 fighter bombed the Sirnak area, killing 36 people in December 2011.

Demonstrations in Istanbul after an F-16 fighter bombed the Sirnak area, killing 36 people in December 2011.

Some Kurds have made it clear they intend to defend these recent gains and will insist on Kurdish autonomy within a federation system once the regime of President Assad is overthrown. Other Kurds dream of someday going beyond an autonomous status within Syria to establish a separate independent Kurdish state.

While many regard such a goal as extremely difficult to achieve, especially given Turkey’s opposition, Kurds who disagree point to the situation in next-door Iraq, where the well-established and entrenched autonomous region of Kurdistan — with a population of three million — basically operates as a de facto independent state regardless of its ostensible status as part of Iraq.

Iraq’s central government in Baghdad, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has been powerless to impose its control over Kurdistan because it already has enough trouble coping with the never-ending terrorist attacks of Sunni extremists, including al-Qaeda, against the nominally Shiite coalition government led by al-Maliki.

Efforts by Baghdad to have federal military troops enter Kurdistan have resulted in tense showdowns, even requiring American officers to intercede during the period U.S. troops were still active in Iraq to prevent actual fighting between the federal forces and Kurdistan’s Peshmerga fighters (Peshmerga meaning those who confront death.)

In fact, Iraq’s Kurdistan clearly is being treated by non-Iraqis as if it were almost independent; several countries have established representative offices there and investment has poured in from several Arab and European countries. The capital, Erbil, is now served by direct commercial flights from abroad.
Even the Turkish government, which has opposed creation of an independent Kurdistan, primarily out of fear that this would work to the advantage of Turkey’s own Kurdish insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has established relatively pragmatic relations with the government of Masoud Barzani in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. The PKK has been carrying out a bloody insurgency since 1984, in which 40,000 to 45,000 reportedly have perished.

In fact, Turkey is one of the biggest investors in Iraqi Kurdistan and a channel for the export of petroleum from oilfields controlled by Kurdistan against the wishes of the al-Maliki government in Baghdad. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has visited Erbil for talks with Barzani and Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayipp Erdogan, even invited Barzani to visit Turkey, a prospect that was once unthinkable.
Nevertheless, Turkey’s concerns over developments in the Kurdish areas of Syria are a different matter.
The government of Prime MinisterErdogan is keenly aware that the most powerful of Kurdish groups in Syria, the Democratic Union Party, PYD, has close links with the PKK insurgents operating from their Kandil Mountain base in northern Iraq. The PKK has increased attacks inside the Kurdish region in Eastern Turkey over the past year.

The fact that Masoud Barzani was able to get the PYD to join other smaller Kurdish groups in Syria in an alliance last summer made it possible for the Kurds to effectively replace the departing federal authorities in Kurdish regions. This is also worrisome for Turkey because of the PYD’s close relations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party fighting inside Turkey.

Kurdish elders gather in Northern Iraq.

Kurdish elders gather in Northern Iraq.

The Turkish authorities are already convinced that President Assad is backing the PKK’s escalation of fighting in Turkey in retaliation for Ankara aiding the Syrian opposition. There is also suspicion Assad is somehow linked to clashes in Aleppo Province between the PYD and the Free Syrian Army.

A further complicating factor is that the Kurds themselves have also been divided by factionalism. In Iraq, former leader Saddam Hussein was actually able to have rival Kurdish groups join him against their joint enemy, resulting in Kurds spilling the blood of fellow Kurds.

Barzani’s main rival, Jalal Talabani, current leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), actually supported the PUK, aiding Saddam Hussein in his 1966 attacks against Barzani. Paradoxically, to ensure the support of Iraqi Kurds, Prime Minister al-Maliki agreed to have Talabani accepted as president of Iraq.

Although Iraqi Kurds are mostly affiliated with the Sunni branch of Islam, the majority Sunnis have not been willing to accept the controversial Yazidi minority in their region. This has resulted in Yazidis being attacked and killed.

The Kurdish dream of one day establishing an independent Kurdish state from the Kurdish populations of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran — Armenia and Azerbaijan also have Kurdish minorities — still remains a distant goal.

Nevertheless, the Kurds themselves are bitterly aware that such a homeland for the Kurds has always faced unrelenting opposition from the four countries in which they are significant minorities, especially Turkey and Syria, where their basic rights have historically been denied. In Syria, even citizenship was denied to many Kurds.

In Turkey, for instance, authorities have refused, until recent years, to acknowledge that there was a separate group known as Kurds. Instead, they were called Mountain Turks. They also were not allowed to operate schools in the Kurdish language or radio or television in Kurdish. Kurds running for office in parliamentary elections were prohibited from identifying themselves as Kurdish. A Kurdish female deputy was imprisoned for addressing the Turkish parliament in Kurdish.

To his credit, once his Justice and Democracy Party, AK, took power in 2002, Erdogan did make some initial efforts to permit greater use of the Kurdish language in schools and the media, though in recent months the PKK’s escalation of attacks has undermined efforts to improve relations with the Kurdish population.

The most recent escalation of PKK attacks within Turkey — along with a hunger strike by imprisoned PKK militants — was linked to demands that Turkish authorities improve conditions for the PKK’s founder, Abdullah Ocalan, who is imprisoned on the isolated island of Imrali without regular contact with outsiders, including his family.

In November, Prime Minister Erdogan said there was widespread support amongst Turkish citizens for reinstating the country’s death penalty, which was abolished in 2004 to meet requirements for Ankara eventually to be admitted to the European Union. Some see this comment as an implied threat that his government wouldn’t be blackmailed into releasing Ocalan, as the PKK demanded.

While many Kurds obviously would favour the eventual creation of an independent Kurdistan, they realize existing governments in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, as well as Iran, simply have no intention of letting their Kurdish minorities establish Kurdish independence. (Interestingly, there are also reportedly between 300,000 and 500,000 Kurds living in Turkish-speaking Azerbaijan, some in critical positions, including the all-important petroleum industry.)

Such Kurdish independence would not only have highly negative economic consequences for existing governments, but also could open a Pandora’s box for other minorities in the immediate region and beyond.

And few countries would willingly accept losing part of their territory, regardless of the wishes of a significant proportion of their population that insists on separating, as happened when Kosovo’s Albanian-speaking majority proclaimed its unilateral independence.

Although Canadian governments have indicated they would accept the results of a referendum in which Quebecers voted by a clear and unequivocal majority to separate from Canada, other nations around the world would not tolerate such a separation, as graphically demonstrated by China’s refusal to tolerate independence for Tibet or authentic autonomy for the Turkish-speaking Uighurs in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

In the case of Kosovo, even now, less than half of the United Nations’ 193 members have recognized its independence and five of the European Union’s 27 nations have not recognized Kosovo either. One of them, Spain, is obviously concerned about the separatist movement in its own rich Catalonia region.
The conflict in Syria vividly indicates just how fragile and tenuous many societies in the Middle East and North Africa are when authoritarian and despotic leaders are driven from power.

The overthrow of the Alawite-controlled regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been of particular concern because of the spillover onto neighbours, such as Jordan and Lebanon. Both have been extremely vulnerable because of their own deeply divided societies.

The fallout from the Syrian conflict was vividly demonstrated in October in Lebanon when pro-Assad Lebanese militias, predominantly Shiite or Alawite, fought Sunni supporters of the Syrian opposition movement in Tripoli.

Lebanon has always had to live with deep religious divisions, not just between Sunnis and Shiites, but also Christians and other minority sects. For its part, Syria has historically regarded Lebanon as part of Greater Syria, with Damascus constantly interfering in Lebanon’s affairs, even stationing 15,000 troops there during Lebanon’s bloody 1975-1990 civil war. Syria only withdrew its troops in 2005 following international pressure after the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri, whose murder is blamed on Syria and Hezbollah.

What happens in Lebanon in the post-Assad period could have profound and extremely dangerous repercussions for Lebanon’s continued stability. The assassination in October of its interior minister is indicative of the tenuous situation in that violence-plagued nation.
The spillover effect of the Syrian fighting also has the potential to destabilize the situation in Jordan, which has been swamped by more than 100,000 Syrians fleeing the conflict, creating incredible strain on the tiny nation, including the pro-Western Hashemite monarchy led by King Abdullah.

Until recent times, King Abdullah could normally count on the loyal support of Jordan’s traditional Bedouin tribes, whose leaders’ continued goodwill rests on the various advantages granted them by the king. Their loyalty has been critically important because half of Jordan’s population is Palestinian, most of whom are opposed to King Abdullah’s moderate policy towards Israel.

Tribal support can no longer be taken for granted. Some of the more important tribal groups have been demanding major constitutional changes. Anti-Israeli sentiment has also increased, with one of the largest tribes disowning a prominent tribe member for agreeing to be Jordan’s ambassador to Tel Aviv.
In such an increasingly uncertain time for Syria and its neighbours, some fear the situation could deteriorate to the point where Syria itself could fragment, with some regions, including the areas peopled by Kurds, seeking to undermine the centralized control and power of Damascus. Others hypothesize that in a worst-case scenario, the minority Alawites, rather than accept domination and potential threats to their very lives from a triumphant Sunni majority, might withdraw to the traditional homeland of many Alawites in the Antakya region along the Mediterranean coast, effectively dismembering that region from the rest of Syria.

As questionable as that might seem to outsiders, during the early stages of France’s mandate over Syria following the Ottoman defeat in the First World War, the French established six autonomous administrations in what eventually became Syria. Regional power bases and tribal loyalties still remain strong.

To complicate matters further, the civil war in Syria has become a magnet that attracts a plethora of militants and extremists from numerous backgrounds and movements, including seasoned fighters from such places as Kosovo, Chechnya and beyond, not to mention al-Qaeda. And each comes with competing goals and a sense of its own righteousness.

There is fear that the increasing presence of so many dubious groups, particularly Jihadists, many funded by Islamist organizations or fundamentalist-inclined Arab governments, introduces even greater uncertainty over where Syria will be heading. This is especially so once there no longer is any single powerful force in place to keep the lid on the totally unpredictable and dangerous developments that may be unleashed.

It also must be borne in mind that even though Bashar al-Assad’s father terrorized the Muslim Brotherhood into submission when he systematically destroyed its stronghold in the city of Hama in 1982, reportedly killing nearly 30,000, the fundamentalist-minded Brotherhood remains a force to be reckoned with in Syria and many of its members will want revenge on their oppressors.

It’s precisely because of understandable concerns over Syria’s deeply divided society that many have called for some form of outside intervention in Syria, whether by the United Nations, NATO or others to contain an even greater conflagration within Syria and beyond its borders.

In such an unstable and unpredictable environment, the future of groups such as Syria’s Kurds is far from clear. Nor is the future of present-day Syria itself. As one Jihadist extremist bluntly expressed it, Jihadists are not fighting in Syria for democracy or simply the removal of Bashar al-Assad. They are fighting for the imposition of Sharia Law and the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, in which democracy and elections are alien concepts.

 

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator. He served in Turkey and writes regularly on Middle East issues.

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