MISSOURI, USA: Ilham Ahmed, head of the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has been lobbying Moscow and Washington to support Kurdish representation in the long-stalled, UN-backed Syrian peace process.
Ahmed, who has visited both capitals in recent weeks, also wants the country’s Kurdish-run region to be exempted from sanctions imposed under the 2019 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, the US legislation that sanctioned the regime of President Bashar Assad for war crimes against the Syrian people.
But what are the Syrian Kurds hoping for, precisely, and how viable are their proposals?
Russian jets, Iran-backed fighters, Turkish-supported insurgents, Islamist radicals, US troops and Syrian government forces, as well as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), operate across the patchwork of territories that constitute northern Syria.
The US views the YPG as a key ally in the fight against Daesh in northeastern Syria while Russia has forces in the area to support President Assad.
While some media outlets reported that Ahmed, as the president of the executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), was lobbying for American or Russian support for the creation of a breakaway state, the Syrian Kurds are not actually pushing for such a maximalist goal.
The Syrian Kurdish parties are sympathetic to the ideology of jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan. They say they reject nationalism, secession and statism in general, in line with Ocalan’s post-2001 writings.
At the same time, however, Syrian Kurdish organizations appear to be establishing all the trappings of their own separate state in the territory they control.
Their military forces — including the SDF, the YPG and the YPJ, the YPG’s all-female militia — are working assiduously to establish and maintain their monopoly on the use of force in the northeast.
They have clashed not only with Turkish forces and various Islamist extremist groups in the area, but also on occasion with Kurdish armed groups, the military forces of the Assad regime, Free Syrian Army rebels and others.
A member of the Kurdish internal security services known as Asayish stands guard during a demonstration by Syrian Kurds against the Turkish assault on northeastern Syria and in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli. (AFP/File Photo)
Competing political parties in the territories under their control have likewise faced pressure, or outright bans, as the SDC and its ally, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), seek to bring everyone under the same institutional and governing structures that they created and dominate.
In some ways the Kurds of the SDC and PYD have proven to be very liberal, happily welcoming Arab tribes, Christians, Yezidis, Armenians, Turkmen and other groups and ethnicities into their ranks and governing structures.
However, they appear much less accepting and tolerant of those who seek to operate outside of the “democratic autonomy” political umbrella they have established.
With their own security forces, political institutions, schools and a variety of party-established civil-society organizations, it does at times look as though the Syrian Kurds are intent on creating their own separate state. But what choice did they have after the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011?
The Assad regime had brutally repressed Kurds for decades prior to the war. After Assad withdrew his forces and much of the Syrian government’s personnel from northeast Syria early in the conflict, to focus on the western and southern parts of the country where the rebel threat appeared the greatest, someone had to fill the resultant vacuum.
Syrian Kurdish women carry party flags, as they take part in a rally in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s Protection Forces. (AFP/File Photo)
PKK-aligned Syrian Kurdish groups moved in to defend the area against Daesh and other extremist groups that were trying to take over. They fought extremely hard against the radical Islamists, handing Daesh its first defeat, in Kobani in 2014.
Freed from the regime’s iron grip for the first time in their lives, the Kurds seized the opportunity to establish Kurdish and other minority-language programs, cultural centers, schools and institutions.
Fearing the malign “divide and conquer” tactics of neighboring powers, the new Syrian Kurdish authorities rejected attempts by other Kurdish parties, particularly those under the influence of Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional government, and Arab rebel groups to establish competing parties and militias in their hard-won territory.
Authorities in Turkey, meanwhile, were concerned by what they saw as an emerging PKK-controlled proto-state on their southern border. Through three military incursions in the last five years that displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds, Ankara seized hundreds of kilometers of the border strip and pushed around 30 km into northern Syria.
In 2018, Moscow appeared to greenlight the Turkish invasion of Afrin, which at the time was under SDF/YPG/PYD control, withdrawing its troops and allowing Turkish jets to operate in air space previously controlled by Russia.
Woman watch from a rooftop as US troops patrol in 2020 along the streets of the Syrian town of Al-Jawadiyah and meet the inhabitants, in the northeastern Hasakeh province, near the border with Turkey. (AFP/File Photo)
The following year, Washington appeared to do the same, withdrawing US troops from the Tal Abyad area on the border with Turkey just before the Turkish invasion.
These incursions have left the Syrian Kurdish administration in a serious bind. Without American support and the presence of a token US tripwire force, Turkey could well expand its area of control in northern Syria.
Just this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was determined to eliminate alleged threats originating in northern Syria and that a suspected YPG attack that killed two Turkish police officers in Azaz was “the final straw.”
Meanwhile, the Assad regime appears uninterested in any proposals for a “more decentralized Syrian state” in which parts of the northeast would remain nominally a part of the state but actually fall under Syrian Kurdish control.
Ahmed’s recent diplomatic forays have therefore focused on Moscow and Washington. In the former, the Syrian Kurds hope to convince the Russians to cajole the Assad regime into some sort of a compromise that would safeguard as much autonomy in northeastern Syria as possible. In the latter they aim to secure a US commitment not to abandon them again.
Cars drive past election campaign billboards depicting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, a candidate for the upcoming presidential vote, in the capital Damascus, on May 24, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
Ahmed outlined her hopes during a conference hosted by the Washington Institute on Sept. 29.
“The Syrian Democratic Council seeks a lasting political solution to the conflict, advocating internal dialogue and, ultimately, political and cultural decentralization that respects the country’s diversity and bolsters economic development,” she said.
“Continued support from our partner, the US, is crucial to this mission. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria faces numerous obstacles, including insecurity, poverty, foreign intervention, and terrorism.
“In addition, the Geneva peace process and constitutional process have stalled. The US could help alleviate these issues in the pursuit of a more stable Syria free of despotism, proxy conflicts and terror.”
America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan in August undoubtedly will have unnerved Syrian Kurds already apprehensive about their own future. Assad, Turkey and Daesh would all welcome a similar US withdrawal from northeastern Syria.
It is unlikely the “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria,” the governing body of which is the SDC, would be able to hold up against such combined pressures.
US troops patrol along the streets of the Syrian town of Al-Jawadiyah. (AFP/File Photo)
However, the botched American withdrawal from Afghanistan might actually work in Syrian Kurds’ favor, as the Biden administration will probably try to avoid a similar embarrassment in Syria any time soon.
Following meetings in Washington last month with representatives of the White House, State Department and Pentagon, Ahmed seems to have received a reassuring response.
“They (the Americans) promised to do whatever it takes to destroy Islamic State (Daesh) and work to build infrastructure in northeastern Syria,” she told the Reuters news agency. “They said they are going to stay in Syria and will not withdraw — they will keep fighting Islamic State.”
She added: “Before, they were unclear under Trump and during the Afghan withdrawal, but this time they made everything clear.”
With no change of attitudes in Damascus or Ankara, the Syrian Kurds are left with little choice but to continue to rely on the American presence, cooperation and support. At best, they can extend the status quo and the longevity of their precarious autonomy.
If they can convince Washington and Russia to help them reopen the crossings on the border with Iraq, exempt them from the sanctions designed to target the Assad regime, and allow the delivery of international aid directly to their enclave, rather than being routed through Damascus with the result that it rarely reaches the northeast, then the political and economic situation will improve.
Without a more durable political solution on the horizon, this is probably the best the Syrian Kurds can hope for.
* David Romano is Thomas G. Strong professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State University
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ALGIERS: French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian held talks in Algeria Wednesday in a bid to heal the latest rift between the North African country and its former colonial ruler.Le Drian’s trip, kept secret until the last minute, is a “working visit, to evaluate and relaunch the relationship” and he is set to meet President…
ALGIERS: French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian held talks in Algeria Wednesday in a bid to heal the latest rift between the North African country and its former colonial ruler.Le Drian’s trip, kept secret until the last minute, is a “working visit, to evaluate and relaunch the relationship” and he is set to meet President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a French foreign ministry source told AFP on condition of anonymity.Algeria’s APS state news outlet confirmed that the French diplomat had met his Algerian counterpart Ramtane Lamamra during “a working visit and evaluation of bilateral relations.”Relations between Algiers and Paris have been strained for much of the six decades since the former French colony won its independence after a 130-year occupation.President Emmanuel Macron has gone further than his predecessors in owning up to French abuses during the colonial era.But ties collapsed in October after Macron accused Algeria’s “political-military system” of rewriting history and fomenting “hatred toward France.”In remarks to descendants of independence fighters, reported by Le Monde, Macron also questioned whether Algeria had existed as a nation before the French invasion in the 1800s.Coming a month after Paris decided to sharply reduce visa quotas for citizens of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, those comments sparked a fierce reaction from Algeria.The country withdrew its ambassador and banned French military planes from its airspace, which they regularly use to carry out operations against jihadist groups in West Africa and the Sahel region.The comments also prompted Tebboune to boycott a major November summit in Paris on Algeria’s war-torn neighbor Libya, vowing that Algeria would “not take the first step” to repair ties.The dispute prompted a rare expression of contrition from the French presidency, which said it “regretted” the misunderstandings caused by the remarks.An aide from Macron’s office said the French leader “has the greatest respect for the Algerian nation and its history and for Algeria’s sovereignty.”Algerian Foreign Minister Lamamra welcomed that statement and, in the end, represented Algeria at the Libya conference.Le Drian’s visit comes as Algeria prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its independence in March.Macron, France’s first leader born after the colonial era, has made a priority of historical reconciliation and forging a modern relationship with former colonies.Earlier this year, he recognized that French officers tortured and killed Algerian lawyer Ali Boumendjel in 1957.Macron also in October condemned “inexcusable crimes” during a 1961 crackdown against Algerian pro-independence protesters in Paris, during which French police led by a former Nazi collaborator killed dozens of demonstrators and threw their bodies into the river Seine.A report commissioned by the president from historian Benjamin Stora earlier this year urged a truth commission over the Algerian war but Macron ruled out issuing any official apology.And as he seeks re-election next year, he is wary of providing ammunition to far-right nationalist opponents Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour.
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RAMALLAH: A Palestinian teenager who drove his car into an Israeli security checkpoint in the occupied West Bank was shot dead on Monday by a security guard at the scene, officials said. The car-ramming occurred after 1 a.m. at the Te’enim checkpoint near the Palestinian city of Tulkarem, an Israeli Defense Ministry statement said, adding that…
RAMALLAH: A Palestinian teenager who drove his car into an Israeli security checkpoint in the occupied West Bank was shot dead on Monday by a security guard at the scene, officials said.
The car-ramming occurred after 1 a.m. at the Te’enim checkpoint near the Palestinian city of Tulkarem, an Israeli Defense Ministry statement said, adding that the assailant had been “neutralized.”
It was not immediately clear if the alleged attacker was killed, but the official Palestinian news agency Wafa later reported that 15-year-old Mohammed Nidal Yunes died from injuries after being fired on at a checkpoint.
An Israeli security official confirmed to AFP that the driver of the vehicle was killed.
The Defense Ministry said that a security guard was “seriously injured” in the attack.
Israel’s Sheba Hospital said the guard’s injuries were not life threatening.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967 and the Palestinian territory is now home to roughly 475,000 Jewish settlers living in communities widely considered illegal under international law.
Attacks on checkpoints are common, often carried out by individual Palestinians armed with knives, as well as attempted car-rammings and occasional shootings.
Monday’s incident came after a Palestinian assailant stabbed an Israeli civilian and attempted to attack police on Saturday near the Damascus Gate entry to the Old City in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.
The assailant was shot dead by officers who appeared to fire on the suspect after he was on the ground, stirring debate about excessive force.
Israeli authorities have insisted the officers acted appropriately.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967 and the Palestinian territory is now home to roughly 475,000 Jewish settlers living in communities widely considered illegal under international law.
On Sunday, Israeli authorities freed a prominent Palestinian prisoner, two weeks after striking a release deal that ended his marathon 131-day hunger strike.
Kayed Fasfous, 32, had remained in an Israeli hospital since ending his strike on Nov. 23.
He was the symbolic figurehead of six hunger strikers protesting Israel’s controversial policy of “administrative detention,” which allows suspects to be held indefinitely without charge.
Israel claims the policy is necessary to keep dangerous suspects locked away without disclosing sensitive information that could expose valuable sources.
Palestinians and rights groups say the practice denies the right of due process, allowing Israel to hold prisoners for months or even years without seeing the evidence against them. The law is rarely applied to Israelis.
The Palestinian Prisoners Club, a group representing former and current prisoners, confirmed Fasfous had returned home to the occupied West Bank through a military checkpoint near the southern city of Hebron on Sunday afternoon.
Online footage showed the former prisoner in a wheelchair celebrating his return to his southern hometown of Dura before being taken to a hospital in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The plight of the six hunger strikers ignited solidarity demonstrations across the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza in November mounting pressure on Israel to release the detainees.
At least four of the five other hunger strikers have since ended their protests after reaching similar deals with Israeli authorities. They are expected to be released in the coming months.
Hunger strikes are common among Palestinian prisoners and have helped secure numerous concessions from Israeli authorities.
The nature of these strikes vary from individuals protesting detention without charge to groups calling for improved cell conditions.
Around 500 of the 4,600 Palestinians detained by Israel are held in administrative detention according to Addameer, a Palestinian prisoner rights group.
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SULAIMANIYA: An attack by Daesh militants on a village in northern Iraq on Friday killed three villagers and 10 Kurdish soldiers, officials in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region said. Daesh claimed responsibility for the deadly attack in a statement posted on an affiliated Telegram account.The attack took place in the Makhmour region, a hotbed for Daesh…
SULAIMANIYA: An attack by Daesh militants on a village in northern Iraq on Friday killed three villagers and 10 Kurdish soldiers, officials in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region said.
Daesh claimed responsibility for the deadly attack in a statement posted on an affiliated Telegram account.The attack took place in the Makhmour region, a hotbed for Daesh activity that sees regular attacks against Kurdish forces, Iraqi forces and often civilians.Makhmour is a mountainous area about 70 km southeast of Mosul and 60 km southwest of the Kurdish capital of Irbil.Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Masrour Barzani called for greater security cooperation between Iraqi Kurdish and Iraqi security forces to stop Daesh’s insurgent activities.Iraqi officials and analysts have long blamed a lack of coordination along a stretch of territory claimed by both Baghdad and Irbil for Daesh’s continued ability to wage deadly attacks.Daesh controlled roughly a third of Iraq between 2014 and 2017, including the remote Makhmour region but also major cities including Mosul.A loose coalition of US-led forces, Iraqi and Kurdish troops and Iran-backed Shiite militias defeated the extremist group in 2017, but its members still roam areas of northern Iraq and northeastern Syria.Western military officials say at least 10,000 Daesh fighters remain in Iraq and Syria.A statement from the Kurdistan region’s armed forces, the peshmerga, said Daesh militants attacked the village in the early hours of Friday killing three residents.It said peshmerga forces intervened, resulting in clashes that killed at least seven of their soldiers.Kurdish security and hospital officials said the final death toll was at least 10 peshmerga soldiers and three villagers.In a separate development, Kurdish demonstrators in The Hague stormed the headquarters of the global chemical weapons body on Friday, sparking clashes in which six people were hurt and 50 arrested, Dutch police said.
A loose coalition of US-led forces, Iraqi and Kurdish troops and Iran-backed Shiite militias defeated the Daesh extremist group in 2017, but its members still roam areas of northern Iraq and northeastern Syria.
Dozens of protesters alleging that Turkey is using toxic arms in northern Iraq broke through security to enter the grounds of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.A number of them managed to get inside the lobby of the building before police removed them, diplomatic sources said, while the rest staged a noisy protest outside the front doors.Police dragged the demonstrators off one by one, put them on the ground and handcuffed them, journalists saw. Some were bundled into waiting vans, but the large number meant many were taken away in a hired bus.At least a dozen police vehicles sealed off the road outside the OPCW, which is opposite Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s official residence. Several ambulances and a medical helicopter were also at the scene.Two police officers and four protesters were wounded when the demonstrators “stormed the building,” The Hague police said.Turkish jets regularly attack the separatists’ bases in northern Iraq and autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, with several villages having emptied of their inhabitants since a new Turkish army offensive in April.The PKK and Kurdish organizations in Europe have in recent months accused Turkey of using chemical weapons, including a nerve agent and sulfur mustard gas, in dozens of attacks in northern Iraq.“We have called on OPCW and all international bodies to come and independently investigate the use of chemical weapons,” Zagros Hiwa, a spokesperson for the Kurdistan Democratic Communities Union, the PKK’s political branch, told AFP.