The Kurds, indirect victims of the war in Ukraine


The war in Ukraine has significant geostrategic repercussions on the Middle East and, in particular, on the Kurdish issue. This war concentrates all the attention of Russia and a large part of that of the United States, and therefore makes these two actors less inclined to oppose firmly the operations carried out by Turkey against the PKK (Pan-Kurdish Marxist-Leninist party) . In addition, the current context contributes to creating an objective convergence between Ankara and Tehran on the Kurdish question.

When Ankara and Tehran simultaneously attack Kurdish groups

The search for a dialogue between the Western powers and Tehran is no longer on the agenda.

Westerners castigate Iran for its inflexibility on the nuclear file and its commitment alongside Russia in Ukraine, which materialized through the delivery of drones to Moscow.

For its part, Tehran denounces the interference of Western powers in its internal affairs (since these powers vehemently criticize the repression of the protest movement that has crossed the country since the murder of the young Kurdish Mahsa Amini) and the destabilizing role of the United States which show their support for the Iranian opposition – namely the monarchists, the People's Mujahideen (as identified political component) and also the current protesters inside the country.

Meanwhile, Turkey is taking advantage of the context of the war in Ukraine, which has enabled it to strengthen its diplomatic influence, to carry out a military offensive in Syria against Kurdish forces affiliated with the PKK. The Syrian branch of the PKK, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), dominates the Syrian democratic forces, a heterogeneous military structure made up of tens of thousands of combatants.

Since November 20, Ankara led a series of military operations which took the form of a series of air raids and artillery fire against the positions in Syria and Iraq of the PKK, held responsible for the bombing that killed six people in Istanbul on November 13. Turkey is preparing its land forces for a major engagement in northern Syria.

Turkey responds to the Istanbul attack by striking the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq, France 24, November 20, 2022.

Tehran, for its part, has hit the militarized positions in Mount Qandil (not northwestern Iraq) of several Kurdish organizations – the Democratic Party of Kurdistan of Iran (PDKI), the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK, Iranian branch of the PKK) and Komala ( Kurdish autonomist organization (of Maoist tendencies).These groups are accused by Tehran of stoking protests against the regime following the death of Mahsa Amini.

These new developments demonstrate that if, historically, the Kurdish question refers to a diversity of realities and interests, the sense of identity that goes beyond the borders and the trajectory of certain independence movements, as well as their alliance become inextricable with the United States, federate the two main regional players in their desire to neutralize the "Kurdish internal threat".

American passivity

For nearly 40 years, episodes of confrontation have marked the history of conflict between the PKK, created in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan (and registered since 1997 on the US list of terrorist organizations), and the Turkish authorities. The armed conflict, which began in 1984 and reached its climax In the 1990's, went through several phases. After a period of calm at the end of 2012, following negotiations between the Turkish authorities and the PKK, the conflict escalated again from 2015.

Thanks to the war in Syria and developments on the ground, the PYD has experienced a rise in power which has increased Ankara's apprehensions. For Turkey, this force embodies a threat weighing on its territorial integrity and its national unity since the project of the PKK (of which the PYD, as we have said, is the Syrian branch) is to create a Kurdish State by separating Kurdistan from Turkey from the rest of the country.

Spearheading the fight against the Islamic State group, the PYD is supported by the United States, even if they seek at the same time to spare their Turkish strategic ally. In order not to offend Turkey and directly support the PYD, Washington favored the creation of Syrian democratic forces (FDS), a motley coalition which is still perceived by Ankara as a screen structure dominated by the PKK, and which controls north-eastern Syria. This fluctuating alliance depending on the context and the redefinition of American priorities is first and foremost designed in the interests of the United States.

The FDS have, in fact, found themselves in a relationship of high dependence on Washington. Several episodes of the conflict in Syria have illustrated the weakness of the American security guarantee, for example the battles of Manbij in 2016 and D'Afrin in 2018 where the Kurds have been held hostage to American calculations, and treated more like ad hoc partners than strategic allies.

The military operation launched by the Turkish President on November 20 to neutralize the Kurdish threat in Syrian areas along Turkey's southern borders by pushing back the YPG (armed wing of the PYD) nearly thirty kilometers from the Turkish border has revived the concerns of the Kurdish forces, who fear that Turkey will once again benefit from Washington's leniency.

The general commander of the SDF, Mazloum Kobane Abdi, has indeed asked the United States to adopt a firmer position “in the face of Turkish threats”. He also called on Russia – which had mediated the previous Turkish offensive in 2019 and secured an agreement under which the Syrian army and Russian forces deployed along the border – to put pressure on Turkey.

This military operation by Turkey to secure its border areas is however perceived by Western observers as being part of an electoral agenda: it is a question of strengthening the position of the AKP in the perspective of the next elections, after its defeat in 2019 in local elections in Izmir, Istanbul and Ankara against a background of deep economic crisis.

But for Bayram Balci, director of the French Institute of Anatolian Studies (IEFA), contacted by telephone, this military offensive is not only a matter of political instrumentalization and obeys a real concern for security: "Internal political considerations are very important, the Turkish authorities want to show that those responsible for the Istanbul bombing did not go unpunished, and probably also get a better chance of winning the elections. But despite this, there is a reality that many analysts do not want to take into account: this operation has a real security interest in the face of the threat that the presence of Kurdish militias on its border represents for Turkey. »

Bayram Balci believes that if so far neither the Russians nor the Americans want a ground military incursion by Turkey into Syria, they nevertheless tolerate aerial bombardments and artillery fire insofar as they "do not have the means to enter into conflict with Ankara and need it in the conflict in Ukraine”.

For Igor Delanoë, deputy director of the Franco-Russian Observatory in Moscow, also contacted by telephone, the Russians are hostile not to the Kurds as such but to their military alliance with the United States, which continue to keep the eastern bank of the Euphrates under their control “Moscow has regularly criticized this American presence and called on the Kurds to break this alliance. Nothing indicates at this stage that the FDS will trade their allegiance to the Americans against a return to the bosom of Damascus. The Russians obviously pushed for the Kurds to evacuate the 30 km strip adjoining the border with Turkey into areas under their control, but nothing came of it. Now, it is true that the stubbornness of the Kurds in favoring their alliance with Washington irritates the Russians. But it doesn't go beyond that. »

A new deal destined to last?

On the Washington side, although the tougher stance on Turkey in an attempt to dissuade Recep Tayyip Erdogan from launching the ground phase of the offensive augurs well for a stiffening of the American position, means of pressure remain limited due to the importance of Turkey's role in the conflict in Ukraine.

On this issue, Ankara takes an ambivalent position. On the one hand, it contributed to the war effort of its NATO allies. On the other hand, she continues to block NATO's attempt to fast-track Swedish and Finnish membership to the Alliance despite American requests. Ankara is one of the only two member countries of NATO, with Hungary, not to have given its approval to the accession of the Nordic countries. Washington therefore has few levers of pressure against Turkey in this context.

As for Iran, if it has no major antagonism with the SDF in Syria, and does not seem resolutely hostile to the PKK in Iraq, it is today, as we have said, engaged in a confrontation military with the PDKI, the PJAK and Komala, considered among the driving forces of the current uprising against the regime (uprising at least partially blamed on Washington).

A new deal is therefore taking shape: the convergence of Turkey and Iran, which now see the Kurdish actors as auxiliaries to an American strategy of destabilization. The great powers having a lot to do elsewhere, the Kurds risk being able to rely only on their own resources to face this double offensive...

Lina Kennouche, Doctor of Geopolitics, University of Lorraine

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock/ Giannis Papanikos

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