A Turkish border offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces will further weaken Iraq’s divided Kurds next door and embolden regional rivals who have one thing in common – they want no Kurdish state.
The assault, following an American troop pullback that in effect gave Turkey a U.S. green light, alarmed inhabitants of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. It ended Syrian Kurdish rule of “Rojava” – their name for northeastern Syria – and left Iraqi Kurdistan as the Kurds’ only self-governed land.
Outraged that their Syrian kin were betrayed by another U.S. policy decision, protesters in Iraqi Kurdish cities burned Turkish flags and authorities promised to help refugees fleeing.
“The world has failed the Kurds,” said Bayan Ahmed, a 20-year-old student.
“That’s our story – we’re always betrayed.”
But a more cautious reaction from Iraqi Kurdish leaders who did not condemn neighboring Turkey by name showed Kurdistan’s economic and political reliance on the same country that is battling their Syrian brethren over the border.
It also masked the underlying tensions between the two main parties in Iraq’s Kurdistan — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan PUK, a close ally of Iran, and the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which enjoys close relations with Ankara.
As Turkey advances on Kurdish militants, Syria’s government retakes Kurdish areas and Iran-aligned militias secure regional supply lines, Iraqi Kurdish dependence on regional powers will only grow, according to Kurdish officials and analysts.
“Kurds are caught between powerful states all working against them, Turkey, Syria, Iran, even Iraq. The Kurdish government’s worried. It’s the only one left,” said Shirwan Mirza, a Kurdish lawmaker in the Iraqi parliament.
“To preserve itself, it might look to closer cooperation with Baghdad – but not as first-class citizens.”
Iraqi Kurds are still reeling from a failed independence bid in 2017. They say the attempt was wrecked by U.S. criticism of their referendum on full Kurdish self-rule, a stance they see as a betrayal by Washington.
The U.S. criticism, plus Turkish and Iranian condemnation, paved the way for Iraqi government forces to retake areas under Kurdish control since Islamic State seized vast parts of Iraq.
Bilal Wahab, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the two Kurdish experiments in self-government in Syria and Iraq “suffered a nosebleed” in the past two years.
Wahab questioned whether the setbacks were due to bad timing, lack of political nous, or “a bigger picture where Kurds will always end up with the shorter end of the stick regardless.”
Kurds have sought an independent state for almost a century, when the Ottoman Empire crumbled and left Kurdish-populated territory scattered between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
But moves by regional powers to keep the ethnic group of 30 million in check, combined with internal divisions, have long thwarted efforts towards independence.
In northern Iraq, the Kurds got their first self-run territory in 1991, after the Gulf War.
But since then, they have had to balance their ambitions for full independence with the threat of a backlash from their neighbors and the reluctance of Baghdad to redraw borders.
Syria’s Kurdish experiment is younger. The war that began in 2011 allowed Kurds in the northeast to rule themselves as President Bashar al-Assad was busy fighting rebels in the west.
U.S. forces partnered with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia to defeat Islamic State, providing a powerful Western ally Kurds hoped would support shaky de-facto self-administration.
That ended last week as U.S. troops withdrew and Turkey began its incursion. Ankara sees the YPG as terrorists and an extension of its home-grown PKK militant group.
Desperate to stave off the offensive, the YPG made a deal with Assad to allow his forces to defend them, giving back territorial control to Damascus for the first time in years.
Assad’s ally Iran is also set to gain. Iraqi paramilitary groups backed by Iran on the Iraq-Syria border will likely help Assad secure control, strengthening their own supply lines along a corridor of territory from Tehran to Beirut.
In this environment the Kurdish regional Government (KRG) is not in a position to rush to the aid of Syrian Kurds, and nor will it want to, for fear of upsetting regional ties with Iran and Turkey, according to Kurdish politicians and analysts.
In Iraq, this could push Kurdish authorities to work closer with the central government, they say. The 2017 independence move left the Kurds weaker in their relations with Baghdad.
Maintaining ties with Turkey will also be crucial.
“The KDP has become a part of (Turkish President Tayyip) Erdogan’s plan … they have interests in keeping up ties, among them oil and gas contracts,” said Bezdar Babkar of the Kurdish opposition Change Movement.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) relies on Turkish pipelines to export oil. Links between the ruling KDP and Turkey go beyond the economy, including a shared enemy in the PKK. Turkey regularly bombs PKK bases in northern Iraqi Kurdistan.
KRG help to Syrians will therefore be limited to taking in some refugees, which it has started doing. KDP rival the PUK, which controls areas near the Iran border, has closer ties with the PKK and has issued stronger condemnation of Turkey.
The two Kurdish parties fought a civil war in the 1990s. More recently they have taken to sharing power, but competing regional loyalties, rivalry and strains govern the relationship.