Analysis

War Against ISIS and Syrian Kurds' Aspirations Could Spark Another Civil War

Life for Syria’s Kurds is burgeoning anew, as is their desire to establish an autonomous region, but their supporters Russia and the U.S. are at odds with Turkey, their ally in the fight against ISIS.

A Syrian Kurdish militiaman patrols near a Turkish army tank in Esme village in Aleppo province, Syria, February 22, 2015.
A Syrian Kurdish militiaman patrols near a Turkish army tank in Esme village in Aleppo province, Syria, February 22, 2015. Mursel Coban/AP

Amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish website Ekurd Daily found time to report on an unusual event: a fashion show that took place last week in the town of Qamishli on the Turkish border in Syria's Kurdish zone. Young women strolled down the runway wearing traditional Kurdish outfits with a Western twist – jackets adorned with embroidery and gold chokers around their necks. There were no hijabs; colored ribbons took their place. The musical accompaniment was Kurdish music reworked in a Western style.

The fashion show also had a national goal – to demonstrate the freedoms Syrian Kurds have achieved through the war. Before it broke out, they were barred from publicly appearing in traditional dress or singing in Kurdish. Since Syria denied them citizenship, they didn’t even have Syrian identity cards.

Ostensibly, life in Syria’s Kurdish regions is burgeoning anew, and with it, so is the desire to establish a recognized, independent, territorially contiguous Kurdish autonomous zone like the Kurdish region of Iraq.

But about 200 kilometers southeast of Qamishli, and 330 kilometers southwest of it, fierce battles are raging that threaten to destroy the Kurdish national dream. In two towns, Sinjar in Iraq and Manbij in Syria, Syrian Kurds are fighting not only against the Islamic State, but primarily against their Kurdish brethren and the Turkish forces that invaded Syria last summer.

Syrian-Kurdish women model traditional Kurdish attire during a fashion show in Qamishli, Syria, March 10, 2017.
DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP

Earlier this month, Syrian Kurds clashed with peshmerga forces from Iraqi Kurdistan over control of Sinjar. The town gained notoriety in August 2014, when ISIS militants carried out a terrible massacre of its Yazidi residents until it was liberated by Iraqi Kurds, with help from the American air force.

The story of Sinjar, where some 90,000 people lived before the war, was the tragedy of the year. But this human tragedy didn’t make a dent in the strategic aspirations of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds; each group sought to annex this important mountainous region abutting the Turkish border.

Control of the Sinjar district, whose southern portion is still controlled by the Islamic State, is vital both to prevent that organization’s forces from crossing from Iraq into Syria and to prevent the territorial continuity between Iraq and Syria that Iran is seeking to establish via the Shi’ite militias now fighting ISIS in Mosul. For the Syrian Kurds, control of Sinjar would also complete their grip on a Syrian Kurdish zone.

Kurdish aspirations on both sides of the border have “parents” who are working to achieve their own interests. Turkey, for instance, which invaded Syria’s Kurdish areas last August, wants to prevent the establishment of a contiguous Syrian Kurdish zone, lest it become a base of operations for fighters from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, and form the nucleus of an independent Kurdish state in Syria that would attract Turkish Kurds in its wake. To achieve this goal, it forged an alliance with Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and asked his peshmerga forces to fight against the Syrian Kurds.

Barzani, who himself declares his desire to establish an independent Kurdish state in Iraq, paid a state visit to Ankara last month and was received with full state honors. The Kurdish flag was flown in the Turkish capital for the first time, among other gestures. This exceptional move was criticized by national groups in Turkey, but when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has his sights set on a more important goal, flying the Kurdish flag is a small price to pay for its achievement.

While Barzani, who has been harshly criticized by his political rivals in Iraqi Kurdistan for his management of the Kurdish government and the autonomous region’s deep-rooted corruption, was smiling for the cameras in Ankara, Syrian Kurdish forces were preparing their assault on Sinjar. Earlier this month, a few hundred Syrian Kurdish soldiers and civilians were sent to capture it, and above all, to prevent Barzani’s forces from doing so.

Turkey hastened to warn that if the Syrian Kurds didn’t evacuate Sinjar, Turkish forces would take over the city. But that would risk embroiling it in a three-way conflict – with Iraq; with Iran, which wants its Shi’ite militias to take over the town and the district; and with the United States.

The Syrian Kurds’ backers include both America and Russia. Both countries are helping the Syrian Kurdish troops, some of which operate as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia of several thousand fighters set up by Washington to circumvent Turkish opposition to the Syrian Kurds’ involvement in the war against ISIS.

Syrian Democratic Forces fighters stand with their weapons north of Raqqa, Syria, March 8, 2017.
RODI SAID/REUTERS

This week, State Department spokesman Mark Toner stressed that the PKK is a terrorist organization which does not belong in Sinjar. This is one of the first statements the new U.S. administration has made on the Kurdish issue, but it’s not enough to reassure Ankara.

Turkey wants Washington to abandon even those Syrian Kurdish forces that aren’t PKK, to stop helping the Syrian Democratic Forces, and more generally, to stop viewing the Syrian Kurds as a vital partner in the war against the Islamic State. But the Trump Administration doesn’t yet have a strategy or any real plans. It hasn’t yet made clear whether it favors or opposes a Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria, or what it thinks a political solution to the Syrian civil war should look like.

In the absence of such a strategy, and with an international conference on Syria’s future due to convene in Brussels in the first week of April, each country is working to protect its own interests on narrow military fronts while the Kurds are effectively waging war on behalf of various other countries. And if Sinjar is one good example of the local complications, the Syrian town of Manbij is another.

That town was largely liberated from ISIS by Syrian Kurdish forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey then demanded that the Kurdish forces leave the city, and earlier this month, it threatened to attack them if they didn’t do so. But this Turkish threat ran into Russian and American opposition, since both countries support the Kurdish forces in Manbij. In the end, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was forced to announce that he saw no reason to attack Manbij.

Not only are the big powers not backing Turkey, but they are sending aid convoys to Manbij, thereby demonstrating their support for the town’s continued control by the Syrian Kurds. Both Russia and American consider it vital to nurture the Syrian Kurdish forces, even if Turkey kicks and screams.

But the fear is that all these local wars will spark a Kurdish civil war – a conflict between Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdistan, or between the two main factions in Iraqi Kurdistan. For in the latter, too, all is not well.

Barzani is facing off against two strong political forces. One is the young Gorran party, which holds about a quarter of the seats in the Kurdish parliament and is demanding new presidential elections for Kurdistan. The other is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, officially led by Jalal Talabani, but in practice led by his wife after the stroke that left him out of commission. Both parties receive financial and political support from Iran, while Barzani’s party is embraced by Turkey.

The irony is that precisely because of both Iraqi and Syrian Kurds' achievements in repulsing ISIS, and with the battle for Mosul now making real progress, local civil wars are liable to erupt between the Kurdish factions in Iraq and/or between Iraqi and Syrian Kurds. But any such war would apparently be of no interest to the great powers.