Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012
An Iraq intelligence specialist, who cannot use his name, wrote to disagree with my analysis of “Assad’s Kurdish Strategy,” published two days ago. He writes:
I was reading your post on Syrian Kurdistan and noted that you judged that the regional Shia will probably support Syrian Kurdish aspirations. I think this will not be the case for the Iraqi Shia parties. Maliki and his allies are locked in a struggle with Barzani and will be very wary of any development that would improve Barzani’s leverage. They undoubtedly already see the risk that Barzani and the KDP could, at some point, extend the KRG (de facto) into Syrian Kurdistan (or at least extend its influence). They are already finding it extremely difficult to contain the KRG and keep it within the bounds of a Baghdad-dominated constitutional framework; if Barzani and the KRG were able to jump Iraq’s borders and become part of a broader regional Kurdish alliance, it would be a disaster for the Malikiyoun. So Baghdad is going to have to walk a very fine line where Syria’s Kurds are concerned: they can’t denounce Bashar’s strategy of giving the PYD control of Kurdish areas, but neither can they countenance an autonomous, free-floating Syrian Kurdistan that could someday join up with Barzanistan…
You have presented a compelling argument for why Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, is likely to oppose Assad’s strategy of promoting the PKK (the Syrian Communist Party) as the dominant power in the predominantly Kurdish parts of Eastern Syria. But let me explain the thinking that ultimately persuaded me to conclude that Maliki will go along with Assad’s strategy in the Jazeera, even if doing so causes him to finger through his worry-beads with greater anxiety.
Massoud Barzani, the current President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, has come out against the PKK taking power in Syria. Barzani said last month that he was helping to arm and train fighters from the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is the PKK’s rival. One must note that the PKK has renamed itself the PYD in Syria. Thus, Barzani has come out squarely on the side of the Kurdish coalition in Syria that sides with the Turks, Americans and Free Syrian Army. He has decided that the PKK is trouble. I presume Barzani is doing this in part because he must maintain good relations with Turkey, his major guarantor against Maliki as well as his major economic partner. He is also correctly leery of the PKK, who are a bunch of hot-head nationalist extremists and who are defined as terrorists by most of his allies. (Turkey blames them for the deaths of 40,000 in Turkey over the last 30 years.) Barzani certainly does not want Kurdish foreign policy being made by the thuggish PKK. Having his own state to worry about, Barzani can no longer afford to be the nationalist militia leader he once was. He cannot gamble away his own state in order to promote Kurdish independence in Syria or even Greater Kurdistan. He will go soft on independence for Syrian Kurdistan in order to promote the interests of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The PKK as Poison Chalise
You are absolutely right about Maliki’s caution when it comes to the possibility of a greater Kurdistan. He does not want it. But, as you underline, he is trying to contain Barzani, behind whom are the Turks. If he can hurt Barzani by forcing him to link up with the PKK, he will ruin Barzani’s delicate understanding with the Turks. Should the PKK come out the winner in Eastern Syria, rather than the more moderate KNC, Barzani will be forced into a very difficult and embarrassing position. He will have to chose between his fellow Kurds in Syria, led by the PKK , and Turkey. For this reason, I suspect that Prime Minister Maliki will devilishly refuse to stand in the way of the PKK in Syrian Kurdistan in order to scuttle Iraqi Kurdistan’s pro-Turkish gambit and saddle Barzani with a “terrorist” partner.
Perhaps, I am being too Machiavellian, but what choice does Maliki have? He must go along with his fellow Shiites in Syria and Iran in their goal to spoil Sunni Arab chances of consolidating their rule in Syria. The best way to do this is to prop up Assad as a key player in Syria, even as he loses control of national government, and to promote minorities, such as the Kurds. This will keep Syria destabilized. Maliki must balance his fear of Kurds against his fear of Sunni Arabs.
In Maliki’s domestic power-struggles, the Kurds are his main competitor today. But in his larger regional struggle, the Sunnis are his nemesis in the longer-run — that is, if they can ever get their act together and emerge from the Arab Spring as unified and productive nations. Were I Maliki, I would promote the PKK in Syria as a poison chalice for Barzani. Even if the Kurds negotiate this crisis successfully to emerge as a larger nation, will a larger Kurdistan stand as a greater threat than the Sunni Arabs? I doubt it. Why? Iraq has already lost Kurdistan. (of course there is the complicating factor of Kirkuk) Kurdistan is land-locked and must depend on its neighbors for trade, transport, overflight permission and so much more. Maliki will always be able to contain Kurdistan because of its dependency on Iraq. He can manage its potential dangers. Afterall, who likes the Kurds among Iraq’s neighbors? Not Iran, not Turkey, not Syrian Arabs, and not Saudi Arabia. Only Israel and the US defend Kurdish interests, largely because the Kurds can be used to counter Arab states and Iran when needed. Turkey has emerged as Kurdistan’s protector of sorts, but that is contingent on Kurdistan keeping its expansionist ambitions in check.
Sunni Arabs are Nuri al-Maliki’s Long-term Danger
The Sunnis are the long-term danger for Iraq’s Prime Minister. Sunni Arab Nationalism is the BIG threat. Saudi Arabia has the money and America on its side, which enables it to fund the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, potentially empower a future Sunni Syria to counter-balance Shiite Iraq, squeeze Iraq diplomatically and perhaps economically (Should the US ever decide to sanction Iraq due to its alliance with Iran and sanction busting financial transactions with the nasty Persians). The recrudescence of al-Qaida in Iraq, Salafist bombings in Baghdad, and general revanchist Sunni agitation is preventing Maliki from bringing stability and security to Iraq more than the Kurds are. They are not giving up. A consolidated Sunni Syria will breathe new life into Iraq’s angry Sunnis. They have not come to terms with the notion of a Shiite dominated Iraq. For this reason, Maliki may choose to stoke the flames of Kurdish expansionism in order to douse Sunni expansionism? Keeping the Syrians off balance will help neutralize Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the real neighborhood bullies from Maliki’s perspective. What is more, the chances of the Kurds actually pulling off Greater Kurdistan must look very small compared to the chances that the Sunni Arabs, backed by the US and Israel, will launch a major counter-offensive against the feared “Shiite Crescent”. They are looking to destabilize Iran, overturn Shiite authority in Damascus, roll back Shiite power in Baghdad, and ding Hizbullah’s writ in Lebanon.
You write that “Baghdad is going to have to walk a very fine line where Syria’s Kurds are concerned: they can’t denounce Bashar’s strategy of giving the PYD control of Kurdish areas, but neither can they countenance an autonomous, free-floating Syrian Kurdistan that could someday join up with Barzanistan…”
This is very well stated. We agree that Maliki faces a dilemma in Syria in balancing Kurds against Sunni Arabs. His balance-of-power calculations will require a delicate dance in which he will likely be compelled to do-si-do his partners, sometimes leaning toward the Kurds and at others toward the Sunni Arabs in order to advance Baghdad’s interests and keep both of his adversaries from growing stronger.
Global Insights: Interests Aligned, Iraq’s Maliki Sticks By Syria
By: Richard Weitz | World Politics Review
Amid Syria’s widespread civil disorder, ongoing since March 2011, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pressed on with its policy of rapprochement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime….
Turkish Leaders Appeal for Unity After Deadly Car Bomb
By: Daren Butler | Reuters
Turkey’s leaders called for unity on Wednesday following a car bomb attack which heightened fears that Kurdish militants are exploiting chaos in neighboring Syria and stepping up their decades-old insurgency.
Syria’s Sectarian Echoes in Turkey
By Giorgio Cafiero, August 22, 2012
Not all Turks support their government’s position on Syria. Many Alawite Turks have expressed solidarity with the Assad regime, as have Turkish Alevis (who belong to another often-persecuted sub-sect of Shiite Islam). These Turks highlight an important lesson about the Middle East. In a region with deep sectarian divisions, national unity sometimes proves weaker than transnational religious, ethnic, and linguistic ties….
Turkish public opinion about Syria’s turmoil is most divided in Hatay province, situated on the Mediterranean coast along the Syrian border. Most of the half-million Arab Alawites living in Turkey reside in Hatay, where Alawites and Sunnis live in equal number alongside a sizeable Christian minority.
Since the violence erupted in Syria, a number of Alawite-led pro-Assad demonstrations have erupted in Hatay, while Sunni groups elsewhere in the province have aided and abetted the Free Syrian Army. In March 2012, NPR’s Istanbul-based foreign correspondent, Peter Kenyon, reported that “a large demonstration featured the classic pro-Assad chant: ‘Allah, Syria, Bashar, that’s all.’” According to Al Jazeera, many in Turkey’s Alawite community believe “President Bashar al-Assad is trying to hold a tolerant, pluralist Syria together, and many of them are concerned about how minorities are being treated by the Syrian rebels.” ….
By contrast, religious minorities in Turkey have not received similar protection from their government. During the Turkish Republic’s early years, many Alevis supported Kemal Atatürk because secularism was a key pillar of his ideology. As non-Sunnis, they believed that they could only fare well under a secular political system. However, throughout the last nine decades, Alevi Turks have been persistently marginalized, persecuted, and discriminated against. Right-wing Turkish forces, along with vigilantes and police, committed massacres against Alevi communities in 1978, 1993, and 1995. Moreover, cemevis (Alevi gathering places) are not granted legal status as a place of worship. Even today, numerous NGOs, including the Association for Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples and the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, have documented “mysterious marks drawn by individuals on dozens of homes belonging to members of Turkey’s Alevi minority in … Adiyaman.”
Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not popular within Alevi circles, and the crisis in Syria has not facilitated an improvement in relations between Turkey’s ruling party and the country’s largest religious minority. Selahattin Ozel, the chairman of the federation of Alevi associations in Turkey, told The Wall Street Journal, “As Turkish Alevis, we do not support an anti-democratic, an anti-humanist regime [in Syria], but we cannot understand why the [Turkish] prime minister so suddenly became an enemy of the Syrian administration.” The Alevis have remained overwhelming supportive of the AKP’s main opposition, the Kemalist-oriented Republican People’s Party (CHP), and many in the community fear that Erdogan is attempting to create a Sunni Islamist state in Turkey….
As Soner Cagaptay reports, “Should Ankara intervene in Syria against the ‘Alawite’ al-Assad regime and militarily support the ‘Sunni’ uprising, some in the Turkish Alevi community might be inclined to view this as a ‘Sunni attack’ against ‘fellow Alevis.’” Ali Yilmaz Cecim, a Turkish Alevi with a negative view of his government’s relationship with the armed Syrian opposition, echoed this view. “They [the Turkish Sunnis] are taking sides with foreigners against fellow Turkish citizens,” he told the Independent. “We know that many of these Syrians coming in have extremist views, that is why they are fighting their government, despite what they say. The people who want to bring them in are doing so because they will help to push their own extremist religious views here, they want to build up numbers.”
The Future of Turkey’s Religious Minorities
According to the Financial Times, “Reports of the black flag of al-Qaeda flying in parts of Syria, along with the kidnap of two western journalists near the Turkish border by an Islamist gang which seems to have included many foreigners, have led to fears that Syria is becoming a magnet for global jihadis.” Earlier this month, Alex Marquardt of ABC reported on Al Qaeda’s growing influence in Syria and stated that “foreign fighters, mostly religious fundamentalists, [are] streaming in – taking up the fight. They want Assad to go and Syria to become an Islamic state.” Unfortunately, the radicalization and internationalization of Syria’s armed opposition only exacerbate the fears of Turkey’s minority communities that Assad’s ouster could undermine their security.
Some Islamist members of Syria’s armed opposition have brought their anti-Alawite prejudices with them into the refugee camps in southern Turkey, thus exacerbating Turkey’s sectarian tensions. Mehmed Aziz, a 28-year-old Syrian refugee at a camp in Ceylanpinar, Turkey — which receives hundreds of refugees on a daily basis — threatened that any Alawites arriving at the camp will be murdered. On August 4, an Alawite family in Surgu was targeted by a Sunni mob at the beginning of Ramadan, which Alawites do not observe. The mob threw stones at the family’s house and chanted “Death to Alawites. We’re going to burn you all down.” The angry mob only dispersed after police officers announced that the Alawite family was moving, which the targeted family never told the police.
Although Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has carried out grave atrocities against his own people and provided many Syrians with reasons to support the armed opposition, Turkey’s Alawite and Alevi communities across the border have legitimate concerns about the regime’s demise….