Patrick Cockburn (London Review of Books)
The war in Syria and Iraq has produced two new de facto states in the last five years and enabled a third quasi-state greatly to expand its territory and power. The two new states, though unrecognised internationally, are stronger militarily and politically than most members of the UN. One is the Islamic State, which established its caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq in the summer of 2014 after capturing Mosul and defeating the Iraqi army. The second is Rojava, as the Syrian Kurds call the area they gained control of when the Syrian army largely withdrew in 2012, and which now, thanks to a series of victories over IS, stretches across northern Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates. In Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), already highly autonomous, took advantage of IS’s destruction of Baghdad’s authority in northern Iraq to expand its territory by 40 per cent, taking over areas long disputed between itself and Baghdad, including the Kirkuk oilfields and some mixed Kurdish-Arab districts.
The question is whether these radical changes in the political geography of the Middle East will persist – or to what extent they will persist – when the present conflict is over. The Islamic State is likely to be destroyed eventually, such is the pressure from its disunited but numerous enemies, though its adherents will remain a force in Iraq, Syria and the rest of the Islamic world. The Kurds are in a stronger position, benefiting as they do from US support, but that support exists only because they provide some 120,000 ground troops which, in co-operation with the US-led coalition air forces, have proved an effective and politically acceptable counter to IS. The Kurds fear that this support will evaporate if and when IS is defeated and they will be left to the mercy of resurgent central governments in Iraq and Syria as well as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. ‘We don’t want to be used as cannon fodder to take Raqqa,’ a Syrian Kurdish leader in Rojava told me last year. I heard the same thing this month five hundred miles to the east, in KRG territory near Halabja on the Iranian border, from Muhammad Haji Mahmud, a veteran Peshmerga commander and general secretary of the Socialist Party, who led one thousand fighters to defend Kirkuk from IS in 2014. His son Atta was killed in the battle. He said he worried that ‘once Mosul is liberated and IS defeated, the Kurds won’t have the same value internationally.’ Without this support, the KRG would be unable to hold onto its disputed territories.
The rise of the Kurdish states isn’t welcomed by any country in the region, though some – including the governments in Baghdad and Damascus – have found the development to be temporarily in their interest and are in any case too weak to resist it. But Turkey has been appalled to find that the Syrian uprising of 2011, which it hoped would usher in an era of Turkish influence spreading across the Middle East, has instead produced a Kurdish state that controls half of the Syrian side of Turkey’s 550-mile southern border. Worse, the ruling party in Rojava is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which in all but name is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), against which Ankara has been fighting a guerrilla war since 1984. The PYD denies the link, but in every PYD office there is a picture on the wall of the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been in a Turkish prison since 1999. In the year since IS was finally defeated in the siege of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, Rojava has expanded territorially in every direction as its leaders repeatedly ignore Turkish threats of military action against them. Last June, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) captured Tal Abyad, an important crossing point on the Turkish border north of Raqqa, allowing the PYD to link up two of its three main enclaves, around the cities of Kobani and Qamishli; it is now trying to reach the third enclave, further west, at Afrin. These swift advances are possible only because the Kurdish forces are operating under a US-led air umbrella that vastly multiplies their firepower. I was just east of Tal Abyad shortly before the final YPG attack and coalition aircraft roared continuously overhead. In both Syria and Iraq, the Kurds identify targets, call in air strikes and then act as a mopping-up force. Where IS stands and fights it suffers heavy casualties. In the siege of Kobani, which lasted for four and half months, 2200 IS fighters were killed, most of them by US air strikes.
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- Whose side is Turkey on?
The Battle for Kobani
The End of Iraq
- Is it the end of Sykes-Picot?
The Syrian War Spills Over
A report from a divided Iraq