‘The Mountains are the Kurds’ Only Friends’

Monday, 22 January, 2018 - 07:30 Issue Number [14300]

The emergence of ISIS was a calamity that befell the region, but its gradual defeat reminded people once again that the problems of the region did not start with the terror group. We would not be exaggerating in saying that ISIS, through its bloody barbaric acts, acted as a smokescreen behind which several major powers were able to conceal the real reasons for their keenness on getting embroiled in the Syrian conflict.

ISIS’ absence from the scene has raised the questions of why these forces are intervening, with or without permission, in Syria: What are you doing there? How long do you plan on staying? What is your real agenda and what are your real demands? It is no secret that Iran did not intervene in Syria to combat ISIS. Russia also did not go there to eliminate the group. The same can be said of the Americans and all foreign banners in Syria.

It pains the Syrians and Arabs to see Syria turn into an arena for settling scores in all sorts of open and secret wars. It pains them to see parts of Syrian territory and the Syrian people turn into pawns that can be manipulated by regional or international powers. The Syrian tragedy exposed the fragility of this country, which before the war projected the image of a fortified castle that could not be breached by foreign players. It also exposed the fragility of neighboring countries and their efforts to ease their fears through intervening in Syria and launching proxy wars there.

It became clear in the past few months that the Syrian developments dashed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dreams, including the one of a Syria without Bashar Assad. Russian President Vladimir Putin succeeded in turning Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter jet into an opportunity to tame Ankara’s policies in Syria. This is how Turkey became Russia and Iran’s partner in sponsoring the Sochi path, which is primarily aimed at undermining the Geneva talks.

The one dream that Erdogan was able to keep was destroying the gains achieved by Syria’s Kurds on his country’s borders. In recent months, diplomats have not hesitated in declaring that Erdogan could coexist with an Iranian-Russian Syria ruled by Assad, but he could not live with a Kurdish region in Syria bordering his country.

The truth is that the developments of the past three years have led the Kurds on with dreams and delusions. They believed that the prominent role they played in resisting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which cost them thousands of lives and wounded, would grant them legitimacy that previous battles could not. They perhaps went too far in believing that their role against ISIS gave them a sort of immunity in the disciplinary campaigns that the region’s armies had grown accustomed to waging against them whenever they demanded that they no longer be treated as second-rate citizens. They may have been deluded in believing that their armament with lethal weapons to fight ISIS had given them clout that would spare them the wrath of armies that saw ISIS as a passing danger and the Kurds as a permanent one.

The Turkish army and its local allies’ offensive against Afrin yesterday reminded me of a saying that has been often used to describe the Kurds in Iraq and Syria: “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” The disappointment of Syria’s Kurds in Russia reminded me of Iraq’s Kurds in the United States.

In June 2017, Asharq Al-Awsat published an interview conducted by Ibrahim Hamidi with the last US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who said: “I believe that what we are doing with the Kurds is not political idiocy, but it is political immorality. The Americans used the Kurds for long years under Saddam Hussein. Do you believe that the Americans will treat the Democratic Union Party and People’s Protection Units any different than how former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger treated Iraq’s Kurds (when he abandoned them)? Syria’s Kurds are committing the biggest mistake by putting their trust in the Americans.” He also stressed that Washington would in no way consider allowing the American military to defend a Kurdish region in Syria.

The Kurds always end up on the losing end of their bargains. Many factors change but their position in the losers’ circle does not. There are some strict geographic factors that cannot be altered with the toppling of a regime or the ouster of a ruler. After the Iranian revolution, the Kurds rejoiced with the ouster of the Shah. Late former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat encouraged them to contact the revolution leadership and even arranged a meeting for them. Khomeini welcomed the high-ranking Kurdish delegation that visited Iran to offer its congratulations. After pleasantries, the Kurdish delegation began discussing the difficult conditions of Kurds living in Iran. Khomeini replied that the problem will not be up for discussion because the “Islamic Revolution belongs to all and not to the sons of a certain ethnicity or race.” It is needless to say that the conditions of Kurds in Iran did not change.

Moreover, some regimes occasionally sought to support the Kurds beyond their borders, while keeping Kurds within their territory in a firm grip. The Syrian regime, for example, supported Abdullah Ocalan against Turkish authorities, but that did not lead Damascus to change its policy towards its own Kurds. A few years ago, Erdogan issued an extraordinary statement from Iraq, saying that “the time of ignoring the rights of Kurds is over.” Today however, Turkish forces are advancing to create a security belt inside Syrian territory to keep Kurds away from their borders. Ankara is ignoring that this form of victory over the Kurds will only pave the way for new conflicts that can only be resolved through a change in their circumstances.

In the past, late former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani sought to persuade Saddam’s Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz that the Kurds have old rights in Kirkuk and they should be respected. The reply was swift: “The only right you have in Kirkuk is to cry over it like the Arabs did over Andalusia a thousand years ago.”

The region is witnessing a new chapter in the Syrian war through the operation in Afrin, which is part of the Kurd Mountains area. Wars do not eliminate the reasons for the conflict and the tearing up of maps is not a solution. ISIS has been weakened and the region has found itself before deeper and more dangerous conflicts. Months after disciplining the Kurds in Iraq, Turkey is now disciplining the Kurds in Syria in developments that recall that “the mountains are the Kurds’ only friends.”