‘Kurdish complexities’ a major issue in Trump’s Syria call
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Staff, made a public appearance at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC on Feb. 23, just a few days before the presentation of a new plan by the U.S. security apparatus to President Donald Trump about a new plan to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or DAESH, that involves military operations to take Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq from their hands. Trump had given 30 days for his team to come up with a draft in 30 days, with the deadline to expire on Feb. 28.
Dunford talked about a “full range of options” without giving any detail, as he did not elaborate on sending American ground troops to Syria and Iraq in the fight against ISIL, al-Qaeda and similar terrorist groups. But he mentioned the problems of picking up ground partners for the operation. “Trump, who will make the ultimate decision, will be informed on the complexities in the region, including the multiple Kurdish groups on the ground and regional powers, including Iran and Russia,” Dunford said.
This is the first time after a few years that a ranking U.S. official has acknowledged that there were “multiple” Kurdish groups, not just the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, which Washington’s NATO ally Ankara objects to on the basis that the PYD is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK, which has also been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., launched an armed campaign in 1984 against Turkey with the aim of an independent Kurdish state carved out of four neighboring countries, namely Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Some 40,000 have been killed in the conflict.
Despite Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s objections and suggestions to fight together, former U.S. President Barack Obama picked the PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as the ground partner for the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) against ISIL in Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım told reporters recently that he had told Vice President Mike Pence during their meeting in Munich on Feb. 18 that the Turkish aim in backing the Free Syria Army (FSA) in the Euphrates Shield operation, which resulted in taking back key towns like Jarablus and al-Bab from ISIL hands, was to give them back to a new Syrian administration, but that the PYD/PKK instead aimed at establishing “cantons,” or confederative Kurdish entities, on them. To make the problem more complicated, before a Kurdish conference in Moscow on Feb. 15, a Russian suggestion for a “new Syria” constitution was publicized which included certain autonomies for Kurds.
On the other hand, Trump’s call to keep going with the PYD as a ground partner is likely to cause NATO member Turkey to refrain from close cooperation along its 910-kilometer border with Syria.
“What we don’t want to do is bring him [Trump] options that solve one problem only to create a second problem,” Dunford said in his Brookings remarks.
That is among the issues to be discussed with Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), during his discussions in Turkey with President Erdoğan and PM Yıldırım. Ankara and Arbil have good relations that also involve the transport of oil to European markets over Turkey. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), a traditionalist Kurdish movement and the PKK are staunch rivals, even though the PKK has established its headquarters in the rough Kandil Mountains in Iraq on KRG territory. The PKK’s ambitions to have control over the Iraq’s Sinjar area and mountains disturbs Turkey, the KRG and the Iraqi government as well, since the PKK aim is to provide a continuity in the territories in which they are active in Iraq and Syria, along Turkish borders. Barzani played a key role in collaborating with the U.S. forces in toppling Saddam Hussein following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It seems that the Kurdish factor will have an important place in Trump’s call for suggestions from his military and diplomacy team – not only in the fight against ISIL, but also for the near future of Syria and the entire Middle East.