Celebrations in the liberated town of Derkli in Syrian Kurdistan
[Note: See these earlier articles from this blog on related topics, especially with respect to the Kurds and the Arab Spring: “And Now Civil War ... Could Syria Break Up?” (Nov. 2011), “The Iraq War Is Over, but Is Iraq’s Partition Just Beginning?” (Dec. 2011), “Ten Separatist Movements to Watch in 2012” (Dec. 2011); “Get Ready for a Kurdish Spring” (March 28, 2012); “Shifting Alliances in the Kurdish Struggles” (April 1, 2012); “Turkish Delights Hide Ugly History” (April 4, 2012); “Syria’s Kurds Are Setting Up a Quasi-State—How Long Can It Last?” (July 2012), and, on a pretty much weekly basis, installments of my “Week in Separatist News” columns.]
The world’s media this week are focusing on what seem to be final battles for control of Syria in Damascus and Aleppo, what nearly everyone is predicting to be the dictator Bashar al-Assad’s last stand. More quietly, Syria’s civil war is spilling over the borders into neighboring countries—not just into Lebanon, where Shiites and Sunnis have been killing each other for decades (see below), but across the borders that transect the stateless nation of Kurdistan—Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq.
This week saw some startling developments. Last week in this blog, I described the liberation of the northern strip of mountainous land along the Turkish border, where Syria’s 2 to 3 million Kurds, who are 9% of the population, mostly live. A makeshift Kurdish government called the Supreme Kurdish Council, which represents a rapprochement between long-feuding Kurdish factions, has declared this area the Western Kurdistan Autonomous Region, and it is running it as a de facto independent state. (The notional capital of Syrian Kurdistan, Qamishli, right on the Turkish border, with 184,000 people, is an exception; Kurds seem to control it only partially, though news is sketchy. Likewise Hasakah, which in the city is mostly Christian Assyrians anyway.)
How this came about is in dispute and points to some of the contradictions in Kurds’ relationship to the civil war. Kurds, historically, have felt as sidelined as the Christians, the Druze, and the Sunni Arab majority under Assad’s Shiite Arab regime. But as the rebellion against Assad picked up steam last year, the regime handed out some favors to the Kurds to keep them from rebelling as well: they were, for example, granted full citizenship rights for the first time. (Previously, they had been regarded as spillover population from Turkey and not fully Syrian.) And Assad spared the Kurdish region much of the violence he perpetrated elsewhere. Kurds were strident about their identity but did little to antagonize the regime through most of the war, leading to suspicions by the Sunni Arab nationalists that were coming to dominate the Turkish-backed opposition’s Syrian National Council (S.N.C.) and Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) that the Kurds were somehow Assad’s allies. To be fair, the Kurds are a mountain people that are used to having no real allies, so they quite understandably were careful not to throw their lot in entirely with one side or another in the civil war until they could see how it would turn out. Being geographically out of the way, they could afford this; the fight would have no reason to come to them. So, when they took over a string of major towns, they themselves described it as the capturing or taking of those towns, whereas in fact they had to work harder to keep the F.S.A. out than they did the regime’s forces. Why Assad relinquished the region so readily can only be guessed at. Most likely, he has decided that he will only fight for the important, central, Arab-dominated parts of Syria at this point, now that he is on the ropes. And if, as some suspect (discussed last week at length in this blog), Assad’s Alawite Shiite inner circle is contemplating surviving a Sunni takeover in Damascus by setting up an Alawite quasi-state west of the mountains by the Mediterranean, then pulling out of Kurdistan would begin the necessary dismemberment process. Or, if the F.S.A. decided to insist on taking Kurdistan back from the Kurds too, then that, too, would suit Assad: there is nothing wrong with having one’s enemies exhaust themselves fighting each other. If Assad’s regime survives in an Alawite redoubt, then conceivably the Kurds could benefit from whatever cease-fire guarantees the Alawites their own area by getting a similar deal. If all of Syria gets ruled by Sunni nationalists, though, then the Kurds will already have their autonomous region and will be in a stronger position to demand to keep it, within a democratic Syria, much on the model of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) in northern Iraq.
Speaking of Iraq: it was the K.R.G. itself, under its president, Massoud Barzani, which brokered the formation of the Kurdish Supreme Council out of two warring factions in the so-called Arbil Agreement, named for the K.R.G. capital where it was signed. (These two factions are the Democratic Union Party (P.Y.D.) and its local proxy the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan—which have ties to the militant Marxist separatists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), which has been waging low-level civil war against the government in Turkey for decades—and the Kurdish National Council (K.N.C.), which the P.Y.D. tended, in earlier conflicts, to regard as too mainstream and conciliatory, too quick to cut deals with the regime. Neither ever trusted the F.S.A. much.) Barzani has taken a strong hand in aiding the Syrian Kurds, by helping unite them and by setting up training camps to train Kurdish refugees from Syria so they could go home and continue fighting. This proactive approach is a gamble for Barzani: the Syrian civil war aside, Barzani had just been reaching the point where Turkey was warming to the existence of a K.R.G. quasi-state in northern Iraq and signing lucrative energy deals with it. With the K.R.G. as an ally, Turkey would never again have to rely on Iran or on Syrian or Iraqi Arabs for Middle Eastern oil and natural gas; plus, it could solidify its role as a conduit of those essentials to Europe. Only such a geopolitical edge could ever convince a Turkish government to cosy up with Kurds of any country. But by siding with Syrian Kurds so decisively, Barzani may have sacrificed warming ties with his Turkish neighbors. More seriously, by exercising his own foreign policy, Barzani has upped the ante in his war of words with the central Iraqi government in Baghdad, which is already accusing him of setting up a quasi-state and has tried to punish the surprising number of western oil and natural-gas firms who are willing to go behind Baghdad’s back and sign deals with the K.R.G. directly.
But now Barzani has angered Baghdad as never before (read about it in detail below), by dispatching his own personal Kurdish army to Iraq’s Nineveh province (a Kurdish-controlled area outside K.R.G.’s technical jurisdiction) to side with Syrian Kurds in a border standoff at the Syrian-Iraqi border where the Iraqi army had tried to push its way into Syria this week. The result is an armed standoff between thousands of soldiers in two armies: a Shiite-run Arab one and two Kurdish ones. No one has yet blinked. If Iraq is ever going to collapse into separate countries once and for all, it may start here, and any day now. Perhaps Barzani is even dreaming of joining the two Kurdish autonomous regions, the Syrian and the Iraqi one, into a transnational Kurdish proto-state, even a fully independent one. The whole map of the Middle East may get redrawn soon.
The current border standoff between Barzani, the Syrian Kurds, and Baghdad is occurring in the light green blob just north of the “I” in “IRAQ” in this map.
Now the details, from this week’s news reports from Syria and Kurdistan ...
Syria-Border Standoff Brings Iraqi Kurds, Iraq Army Face to Face, Arms Drawn. As the civil war in Syria raged toward an apparent endgame, the central government of the Republic of Iraq sent 7,000 soldiers on July 27th to border crossings between Syria and the Iraqi province of Nineveh and tried to cross into adjacent Syrian areas controlled since last week by a new quasi-independent Kurdish government along Syria’s northern rim. But 3,000 Kurdish peshmerga rebels blocked their way, leaving the two battalions at a standoff, which as of August 1st is without an end in sight. The deputy minister of peshmerga, or soldiers (literally, “those who face death,” in Kurdish), for Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) said that his ministry had sent an artillery unit to the area to protect the Syrian peshmerga—a move which Iraq’s increasingly authoritarian Shiite Arab prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, called unconstitutional: Nineveh (ancient cradle of the Assyrian Empire), though it includes most of the Kurdish region that borders Syria, lies outside the K.R.G.’s technical jurisdiction. In reply, the K.R.G. peshmerga deputy minister, Anwar Haji Osman, warned that actions against them by Baghdad could lead to the K.R.G. forces attempting to bring non-K.R.G. Kurdish-dominated regions in Iraq under its control, including heavily contested areas like Kirkuk. Maliki has sent more troop reinforcements to the site of the standoff.
Bashar al-Assad pictured on a border crossing between Iraq and Syria.
“Hey, guys, I’ll see you later. If anyone needs me, I’ll be sipping piña coladas at poolside somewhere with Idi Amin.”
Anwar Hoji Osman
Turkish Foreign Minister, Syrian Rebel Leader Appeal to Barzani to Hold Back. Both the foreign minister of Turkey and the leader of Syria’s opposition in the civil war traveled to Arbil, capital of Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdish region this week to ask the Kurdistan Regional Government’s president, Massoud Barzani, to exercise restraint in his support for Kurdish separatism in northern Syria. First, on July 29th, the president of the Syrian National Council (S.N.C.), the main armed opposition group in Syria, arrived in Arbil, capital of the K.R.G., to try to convince Barzani to try to convince Syria’s Kurdish rebels to join the S.N.C. Currently, amid the chaos of Syria’s civil war, a coalition of Kurdish militias who united last month in an agreement in Arbil presided over by Barzani, are running most of the Kurdish towns in northern Syria as a de facto independent Western Kurdistan Autonomous Region, with logistical support from Barzani’s regional Kurdish military. The S.N.C. president, Abdulbasid Seyda—who is himself a Kurd, though most S.N.C. members are Sunni Arabs—will also meet with the leadership of the Supreme Kurdish Council (also called Supreme Kurdish Committee), the newly minted governing body of the autonomous region in Syria, which is a coalition of the Kurdish National Council (K.N.C.) and the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (P.C.W.K.) (an outgrowth of Syria’s main pro-Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., which is perceived as allied with the Kurdish separatist militia in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K.). The S.N.C., which is heavily supported by Turkey’s government, is thus under pressure to neutralize the influence of the P.K.K., Ankara’s deadliest enemy, in Syria. Then, on August 1st, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, arrived in K.R.G. territory to deliver the message that Turkey would not tolerate anything it regards as a threat to its territory from without and urge Barzani to withdraw his political and logistical support of the P.Y.D., which Ankara conflates with the P.K.K., via the Supreme Kurdish Council. The Turkish government has been particularly focused on the relatively small issue of P.K.K. flags being raised in newly liberated areas in northern Syria. (Predictably, the central Iraqi government in Baghdad had a hissie fit over Turkey sending Davutoğlu directly to the Kurdish regional capital rather than to Baghdad, but especially because they made a side trip to Kirkuk, an oil-rich Kurdish-ruled city which is not technically in the K.R.G.’s territory.) This all comes as Turkey undertakes an enormous mobilization of its military forces along the Syrian border, with tanks maneuvering ostentatiously on August 2nd in Turkey’s Şanlıurfa province, within a kilometer of the Syrian border and within sight of Kurdish-controlled towns. But Hussein Kochar, the P.Y.D.’s top representative in Iraq, insisted July 27th that Barzani is committed to Kurdish unity and would take no actions to undermine the coalition that formed the Supreme Kurdish Council, adding, “55% of the Syrian National Council is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Syrian people know this will fail because the Brotherhood cannot manage a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and diverse country like Syria.”
Massoud Barzani and Ahmet Davutoğlu
Baghdad Claims Autonomous Kurdish Region Made Secret Arms Deal. On July 29th, an anonymous high-ranking official in the Republic of Iraq’s Shiite-Arab-dominated government told media that intelligence agencies had discovered a secret deal between a foreign country and Massoud Barzani, president of the northern autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.). “The weapons,” the source said, “include anti-armor and anti-aircraft missiles, and a large number of heavy weapons.” The source pointed out that the deal is unconstitutional because defense is handled only by the central government.
French Energy Firm Buys 35% Stake in 2 Blocks in Kurdish Region; Baghdad Fumes. The French multinational oil and natural-gas firm Total, S.A., has joined Exxon Mobil Corporation and Chevron Corporation of the United States in engaging directly with Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (K.R.G.) rather than with the Iraqi central government, in this case by buying a 35% share in two exploration blocks in K.R.G. territory currently owned by Marathon Oil Corporation, of Houston, Texas. As with Chevron and Exxon, both of which were banned from further bids with the central government as a penalty, Baghdad threatened severe punishment in the form of “blacklisting” for Total or any other firms that sign unilateral deals with the K.R.G. without going through the central government. Total is based in Courbevoie, France.
Amid Civil War, Kurds Kill 6 Syrian Soldiers in Tit-for-Tat. In Syria, Kurdish fighters described as being from the Popular Protection Units, killed six government troops on July 27th in retaliation for three Kurds killed in an earlier attack. The fighters promised more reprisals if Kurds were not left alone. The Units, also known as the Y.G.P., are governing the territory in northern Syria known now as the Western Kurdistan Autonomous Region. On July 29th, celebrations were held in street parties in the major liberated towns in Syrian Kurdistan, including Qamishli, the declared capital of Western Kurdistan, which appears to have finally been ridden of the central government’s military.
7 Soldiers, 39 Rebels Die as Kurds and Army Battle for Turkish Border Town. In addition to the usual grinding on of low-level civil war in Turkey’s southeastern Kurdistan region, the Turkish military is also in the midst this week of major offensives against Kurdish separatist rebels both in Diyarbakir province, which is not far from the Syrian border and which includes the unofficial Kurdish “capital,” Diyarbakir, and in Hakkari province, at the three-way conjunction of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, where Turkish forces launched airstrikes August 2nd in response to what Ankara says is an attempt by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) rebels to parlay what Ankara considers their new base of operations in northern Syria into an almost unprecedented attempted takeover a Turkish town, in this case Şemdinli. Near the beginning of the week, in Diyarbakir province, a remote-controlled roadside bomb destroyed a military vehicle on July 27th, killing two soldiers and injuring one other and a civilian. Separatist rebels from the banned P.K.K. were suspected. On July 29th, in southeastern Turkey’s Şırnak province, two Turkish soldiers died when their vehicle overturned in a non-combat-related incident. On July 30th, the government announced that battles between the army and the P.K.K. in Şemdinli, in Hakkari province, had killed two Turkish soldiers and wounded 10. The same day, two women the government called P.K.K. members were arrested in Istanbul and had ammunition confiscated. Two Turkish soldiers died in a battle with the P.K.K. near Lice, in Diyarbakir province, on August 1st. Around the same time a P.K.K. landmine destroyed part of a road near Diyarbakir. The military reported via media on August 1st that 39 P.K.K. rebels had been killed in Hakkari, near the border with Iran, in operations ongoing since July 25th, which apparently intensified July 29th when nearly 100 P.K.K. fighters, according to the Turkish military at least, crossed into Turkey from northern Iraq and reached Şemdinli, where Turkish troops subsequently surrounded them, having been tipped off by two P.K.K. informants who had surrendered. The battle of Şemdinli was still ongoing on August 3rd, and attempts by police, media, and Kurdish support groups to reach the area were hampered by a forest fire. On August 3rd, meanwhile, in Siirt province, an armed attack by suspected P.K.K. fighters on a gendarmerie station killed one Turkish soldier and injured 13. A second military position in Siirt was attacked as well, but without casualty.
Şemdinli this week
20 Hurt as Lebanon’s Sunnis, Shiites Battle in Streets—Spillover from Syria Strife. The civil war between, in part, a Sunni Muslim majority and a Shiite minority in Syria has been echoed in the streets of neighboring Lebanon’s second-largest city, Tripoli, where 20 people, including three soldiers, were wounded July 27th in street clashes. The fighting began between a neighborhood dominated by Sunnis and one home to members of the Alawite branch of Shi’a Islam (the same as that followed by the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad). But it quickly spread to other Tripoli neighborhoods. By the next day, the country’s army command was declaring itself in control of Tripoli and blamed the violence on “tensions that had been mounting since” the July 18th suicide-bomb in Damascus that gutted Syria’s defense cabinet.
[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas. Look for it in spring 2013. I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]
Tripoli, Lebanon, this week