Iran knows ‘how to drive a truck through American weakness,’ Mike Pompeo tells Arab News

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Updated 30 March 2021

Iran knows ‘how to drive a truck through American weakness,’ Mike Pompeo tells Arab News

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke, in an exclusive interview with Arab News, about the sustained threat the Iranian regime poses. (AN Photo/Screenshot)
  • Former secretary of state says protecting US soldiers in Middle East requires strong response to Iran’s actions
  • Says to deny Saudis “capacity to defend themselves is just crazy” and blames Houthis for blocking aid in Yemen

RIYADH: The US administration has a responsibility to push back against efforts to undermine Saudi Arabia, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says in an exclusive interview with Arab News, adding that to deny the Saudis “the capacity to defend themselves is just crazy, and yet that appears to be the direction this administration is taking.”

He says “the Iranian leadership understands how to drive a truck through American weakness” and that deterring the regime will require “a consistent, sound message” and “a willingness to impose a cost.”

Pompeo has also voiced strong opposition to the Biden administration’s lifting of the Yemeni Houthi militia’s terrorist designation, pointing out that “no one disputes that the Houthis are terrorists and no one disputes that the Iranians are underwriting them.”

 

In the interview, he touched on a number of important issues including the spike in attacks on Saudi population centers and oil infrastructure, Iranian perceptions of the Biden administration's foreign-policy moves, the Houthis’ role in exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and the Trump administration’s handling of US-Saudi relations.

“In the end, the Iranian leadership, the (Supreme Leader) Ayatollah (Ali Khamenei) and all those around him understand one thing: They understand power. And when they take action and they see weakness or they see appeasement or they have an expectation that there will be appeasement, they’re going to continue to act out,” Pompeo said.

Sounding a blunt warning, he said: “So, whether it’s the effort that you have seen from the missile strikes that (the Iranians) have undertaken, or the efforts they have taken to continue to put pressure on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to deny what we all know, their clandestine program, clandestine sites where they had WMDs that weren’t declared — those are the kind of things we will continue to see until the world, not just the United States, but the whole world, the E3 (UK, France, Germany) included, says that ‘That’s enough, we’re not going to allow this to happen anymore.’”

 

Pompeo was a congressman from Kansas who later served as CIA director under President Donald Trump before being nominated and confirmed as secretary of state in 2018. On his watch, the US adopted a campaign of “maximum pressure” to isolate the Iranian regime and kept open the option of a military strike to “keep Americans” safe.

Since leaving office in January, Pompeo has hit the speaking circuit and refused to rule out a potential 2024 presidential bid if his former boss, Trump, does not run. In addition to saying that he wants to help Republicans and advocate for conservatives, Pompeo has scolded the new US administration for refusing to put America first, especially in the context of the Middle East.

Pompeo told Arab News what makes him concerned is not just the “signals that the (Biden) administration sends; it’s the policy direction that they have indicated they intend to go.”

 

“They have made very clear that they would prefer to re-enter some kind of negotiation that’s closely tied to the 2015 JCPOA,” he said, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal.

The deal was reached in July 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 (the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) together with the European Union. The Trump administration withdrew the US from the JCPOA in May 2018, citing the flaws of its temporary nature, its lack of controls on Iran’s ballistic missile program and Iran’s “malign behavior” in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

“Let’s go look at the actions. So far, the administration has de-designated a terrorist organization. No one disputes, no one disputes that the Houthis are terrorists. And no one disputes that the Iranians are underwriting them,” Pompeo said.

“This administration said: ‘We’re going to take them off the list.’ This administration worked alongside the IAEA to say ‘No, were not going to issue a report about this material that was at undeclared locations.’

“They now are going to allow money from the IMF and from the Republic of Korea to flow into Iranian coffers. These are the kinds of concessions, before there’s been any conversation about actually even entering into a negotiation. This connotes weakness and, I promise you, the Iranian leadership understands how to drive a truck through American weakness.”

Describing Saudi Arabia as “an important security partner” for the US, Pompeo said: “For an awfully long time, I think we neglected this (fact). When we get this right, we can put fewer of our young men and women, American young men and women, overseas in the Middle East facing risk, and we can support them.”

 

Elaborating on how this could be achieved, he said: “It always begins with a commitment, a diplomatic commitment, a commitment from the president of the United States, that says we understand that you in Saudi Arabia have the right to defend yourself when there are missiles being launched into your country. To deny them the capacity to defend themselves is just crazy, and yet that appears to be the direction this administration is taking.

“Second, we worked with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a broader range of issues, weapons sales, things that would provide security for the people of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Pompeo rejected the common critique that the Trump administration ignored human rights in the process. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “We supported the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as it began to open up inside, to allow women to be more active and to do many things which had been prohibited for an awfully long time. And real progress was made.”

He argued that the Trump administration did call out the Kingdom when mistakes occurred. And in the case of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the administration did sanction the operatives who were implicated.

At the time, the Kingdom admitted that a number of agents had exceeded their authority and ended up killing the journalist in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018. A trial followed and five Saudis were sentenced to death with another three given jail time over the killing.

Still, Pompeo reiterated that having a “deep security relationship with the Kingdom is central to American security and also to security throughout the Middle East.”

He drew a sharp contrast between Trump’s Middle East policy and that of his successor.

“We had three primary lines of effort. The first was to build a coalition against the largest state sponsor of terror in the world, the Iranian regime. And we did that,” he said.

“We built a coalition that included Arabs and Israelis. It included others too who were prepared to help us patrol the Straits of Hormuz. We built a real global coalition against Iran to deter military attack.

“Second, we put enormous economic pressure on the Iranian regime. We sanctioned them; we made sure that they couldn’t sell their crude oil around the world — all the things that would force the Iranian regime to make hard decisions about how to spend resources.

“If you want to underwrite Hezbollah, you have to have less money to feed and care for your people. If you want to support the Iraqi militias, if you want to help the Assad regime in Syria, we made them face difficult financial constraints with the hope that they would ultimately conclude that building out their nuclear program, and continuing to build their missile program, wasn’t in their country’s best interests.”

Pompeo continued: “The third thing we did is we supported the Iranian people. This is different to what the Obama administration did. We were very mindful that the Iranian people themselves want a life that is not terribly different than that people all around the world want — and that the theocrats, the kleptocrats in power in Iran today, (may) have the weapon systems but not the hearts and minds of the Iranian people.

“So, we did everything we could to support the Iranian people. Those three key pillars of our policy were the right direction. They were the thing that would create the best deterrent from Iran attacking Arab countries, provided the most assurance that the Iranian stated intent to wipe Israel off the face of the map, would not come to fruition.”

Pompeo says there is no reason to second-guess the Iranian regime’s mindset. “They’ve made it very clear they are prepared to do things all around the world, with what they see as securing their rights around the world,” he told Arab News.

“So, I talked about this when I was secretary of state a great deal, (about) their efforts to conduct assassination campaigns all across Europe.

“You’ve seen some of their actors arrested and imprisoned in Europe, after they’ve been caught. It always befuddled me to watch the E3 continue to cozy up to the Iranians and the JCPOA deal to say ‘No, this is the right direction,’ when in fact the Iranians were trying to kill people inside each of their countries.

“We certainly see that here in the United States too. We shouldn’t forget it wasn’t all that long ago that the Iranians had a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador right here, not very far from where I’m sitting here today in Washington D.C.

“They’ve a global campaign, a global espionage campaign, a global assassination effort, all in defense of a handful of senior leaders inside of Iran who are siphoning off the remaining funds available to the Iranians. We can’t continue to underwrite this.

“We can’t relieve these sanctions, until Iran releases all the American prisoners, until Iran comes to understand that it is unacceptable to engage in this kind of behavior. To reward that, to reward them with financial resources, only gives them an incentive to continue to do this and provides them with the capital to continue these programs.”

 

Moving on to his decision to designate the Houthis a “foreign terrorist organization,” Pompeo told Arab News: “Of course. It was a simple step that was made by the (Trump) administration. It was straightforward. It didn’t take any great heavy lifting.

“But, look, the (Biden) administration can’t deny that these are terrorists, yet (it has) now said (the Houthis) are not terrorists. I understand the concerns that the world has about the humanitarian challenges inside of Yemen. Indeed, the Trump administration spent a great deal of American taxpayers’ money — and we convinced the Saudis and the Emiratis to do the same — to make sure that ordinary people in Yemen didn’t suffer famine.

“We worked really hard on this. We made sure, the best we could, that food got into that country. But the people who were preventing global aid from reaching those who actually needed that food and that medicine were, in fact, the Houthis.”

 

Alluding to President Joe Biden’s decision to drop the militia’s “terrorist” label, he said: “The Houthis have now demonstrated that if you continue to block routes of transit, if you continue to threaten ports, if you continue to take real estate, as they’re trying to do in Marib today, if they continue down that path, they’ll be rewarded with sanctions relief. That’s the wrong direction. They understand power. We’ve now demonstrated that we’re prepared to give them something when, in fact, they gave up nothing.”

Last week, Brent crude futures jumped above $70 for the first time in more than a year after Saudi oil facilities were targeted by missiles and drones. A petroleum tank farm at one of the world’s largest oil shipping ports was attacked by a drone while a ballistic missile targeted Saudi Aramco facilities, according to state news agency SPA. Shrapnel from the intercepted missile fell near residential areas in the city of Dhahran.

“You’ll recall that when the Saudi Aramco facility was targeted during our administration, I made (it) very clear where those missiles came from. They didn’t come from Yemen. These were Iranian missiles launched by the Iranians,” Pompeo told Arab News.

“This continued effort to undermine the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and to threaten people, whether they’re in Dhahran — where there are many, many Americans — or they’re in Riyadh, is something that poses a real threat to stability throughout the Middle East.

“Our administration here in America, administrations all throughout Europe, have a responsibility to push back against this and impose real cost on the Iranians for this kind of misbehavior. It’s quite something that, somehow, missile launches of Iranian missiles have now become, (for) this administration at least, something that isn’t viewed as requiring a direct response.

“There are few places in the world where this would be permitted to happen without a serious response from the Western world, and that would include a serious response, at least rhetorically, from the United Nations. I hope that that takes place.”

Pompeo said while it is “hard to know day-to-day” whether the risk today is higher than what it was a week or two weeks ago, we know this: Deterring the Iranian regime requires a consistent, sound message and a willingness to impose costs on the Iranian leadership.”

So, what does Pompeo make of the US military strikes in Syria last month on a site used by two Iranian-backed Iraqi militia groups, ostensibly in response to rocket attacks on American forces in Iraq? President Biden later described the strike as a message to Iran: “You can’t act with impunity, be careful.”

Pompeo said that “if the response to Iranian aggression is to throw some missiles into the desert, or hit a supply building in Syria, which imposes almost no cost on the Iranian regime itself, if those are the responses, then there is little “likelihood of being able to establish deterrents to protect and defend our soldiers who are stationed all across the Middle East, not just in Saudi Arabia, but throughout all the Middle East.

In his view, “we have an obligation to get that right and it’s going to take a strong American response to deter them.”

Encouraged perhaps by the successful campaign to get Biden to end the Trump-era Houthi “terrorist” designation, some religious, political and humanitarian leaders have recently signed a letter calling on the US president to lift economic sanctions on Syria. But Pompeo considers the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act “really important.”

“The great news was it was a bipartisan effort, this wasn’t just the Trump administration,” he told Arab News. “It empowered me as then-secretary of state to take real actions and respond under the authority of the Caesar Act. It was very effective. It put pressure on Syrian businessmen who had deep connections to Iran. It put pressure on Hezbollah and businesspeople who were underwriting Hezbollah.

“It was incredibly effective. I hope the Caesar Act and the enforcement of that by the administration will continue.”

 

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Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins

Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins
Updated 17 October 2021

Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins

Lebanon MPs hide in fear of Hezbollah assassins
  • Crisis surrounds probe being conducted by Judge Tarek Bitar, who wants to question former and serving ministers linked to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party about their responsibility for the deadly port blast

BEIRUT: Members of parliament hid in their homes on Saturday in fear of assassination by Hezbollah gunmen as new turmoil in Lebanon threatened to spiral out of control.

Security services advised MPs from the Lebanese Forces party not to venture out amid growing tension over a judicial investigation into the Beirut port explosion in August 2020, which killed more than 200 people and devastated swaths of Beirut.

“Yes, this advice was given to the MPs of the Lebanese Forces,” party media chief Charles Jabbour told Arab News. “There is fear of them being exposed to assassination and murder, which Hezbollah has practiced before. The solution requires that Hezbollah hand over its weapons to the state.”

The crisis surrounds the investigation being conducted by Judge Tarek Bitar, who wants to question former and serving ministers linked to Hezbollah and the allied Amal Party about their responsibility for the deadly port blast. The ministers claim the judge’s actions are political, and have refused to cooperate.

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Tensions erupted into violence last Thursday, when seven people were killed after gunfire erupted during a Hezbollah and Amal protest against the investigation in a mainly Christian area of central Beirut.

Justice Minister Henry El-Khoury said on Saturday he supported Judge Bitar, who had the right to summon whoever he wanted in the case. “I stand by the ... investigator,” El-Khoury said. He said he did not have the authority to replace Bitar, and faced no pressure to do so.

The minister held crisis talks on Saturday to discuss the investigation with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Supreme Judicial Council president Suhail Abboud and public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat. They decided to invite Bitar to a meeting of the council on Tuesday.

“Judge Abboud is committed to judicial, not political, approaches to resolving the problem,” a judicial source told Arab News.

There was also support for Bitar’s investigation from a surprising source —  former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon’s largest Christian bloc. “The Free Patriotic Movement is for continuing the probe, revealing the truth and putting those responsible on trial,” Bassil said on Saturday.

Bassil, who is President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law and is widely thought to be angling to replace him, is under US sanctions for alleged corruption, and for having ties to Hezbollah.


Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan

Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan
Updated 17 October 2021

Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan

Merkel vows continuity on last visit to Erdogan
  • Germany, Turkey hope cooperation prospers between both countries

ISTANBUL: Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday vowed continuity in Germany’s relations with Turkey that included both cooperation and criticism of Ankara as she paid her final visit to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Merkel and Erdogan developed complex but close relations over the German chancellor’s 16-year term that navigated the perils of Turkey’s tumultuous ties with the West.

Their personal bond was instrumental in helping Europe manage a refugee crisis in 2016 and calm simmering tensions in the east Mediterranean last year.

Merkel also helped iron out some of the difficulties that have crept into Erdogan’s relations with Washington and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The two leaders had lunch and private talks in a presidential villa overlooking the Bosphorus on the latest leg of Merkel’s parting foreign tour.

“I have always said that our collaboration was very good in the years that I worked with Mr. Erdogan,” Merkel told reporters after the talks.

The 67-year-old German leader said her “advice” to Turkey today was to expect “the same thing for the coming government in Germany.

“The relationship between Turkey and Germany, with its negative and positive sides, will go on. It will be recognised by the next government,” she said.

Erdogan referred to Merkel as his “dear friend” twice during the closing media event.

But he also hinted at the difficulties Turkey might have in promoting its interests after Merkel formally gives way to a new coalition government taking shape in Berlin following elections last month.

“If there had been no coalition government, (Germany’s) relations with Turkey might have been easier. Of course, it is not easy to work with a coalition government,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan headed Turkey as prime minister when Merkel became the first woman to head Germany in 2005.

The two have since shared a long list of differences and numerous testy exchanges on issues ranging from Turkey’s crackdown on human rights to its military campaigns in Syria and Libya.

But Germany also played a central role in defusing a crisis in the east Mediterranean last year that erupted when Turkey began searching for natural gas in disputed waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece.

Analysts say Merkel was more sympathetic to Erdogan’s position because of the presence of an estimated 3 million ethnic Turks in Germany.

She has also been sensitive to Erdogan’s threats to let an estimated 5 million migrants and refugees temporarily living in Turkey under a 2016 deal with the EU to leave for Europe unless Ankara’s interests are respected by Brussels.

After admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees to Germany in 2015, she stressed Turkey’s role in preventing a repeat of such large-scale migration to Europe and helped engineer a deal for Turkey to stem the flow of people seeking to cross the Aegean Sea.

“Their relations were very difficult in many respects but they managed to establish and maintain working cooperation,” analyst Gunter Seufert of the German Institute for Security and International Affairs told AFP.

Seufert predicted that the new German government will be more “sceptical” about extending the terms of the Turkey-EU agreement on migrants or continuing arms sales to Ankara — particularly submarines.

“With the new chancellor, no matter who they will be ... it will be more difficult to coordinate the European policy with Turkey to the level and degree Angela Merkel did.”


Sudan prime minister announces steps to move out of political crisis

Sudan prime minister announces steps to move out of political crisis
Updated 17 October 2021

Sudan prime minister announces steps to move out of political crisis

Sudan prime minister announces steps to move out of political crisis
  • Tensions between the civilians and generals in the transitional government have increased since the foiled coup attempt within the military

CAIRO: Sudan’s prime minister has announced a series of steps for his country’s transition to democracy less than a month after a coup attempt rocked its leadership.

In a speech, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok called the coup attempt an “alarm bell” that should awaken people to the causes of the country’s political and economic challenges.

“The serious political crisis that we are living in right now, I would not be exaggerating to say, is the worst and most dangerous crisis that not only threatens the transition, but threatens our whole country,” he said.

Authorities announced the coup attempt by a group of soldiers on Sept. 22, saying that it had failed. They blamed supporters of the country’s former autocrat Omar Bashir for planning the takeover.

It underscored the fragility of Sudan’s path to democracy, more than two years after the military’s overthrow of Bashir amid a massive public uprising against his three-decade rule. Sudan has since been ruled by an interim, joint civilian-military government.

Months after Bashir’s toppling, the ruling generals agreed to share power with civilians representing the protest movement.

But tensions between the civilians and generals in the transitional government have increased since the foiled coup attempt within the military.

There is wide-scale mistrust of the military leaders among the protest movement, and tens of thousands have taken to the street in the past two years to call for an immediate handover of power to civilians.

Earlier this month, the Sudanese Professionals Association, which spearheaded the nationwide uprising that kicked off in December 2018, said the interim government must end its power-sharing agreement with the military council. Their call then for demonstrations brought thousands more to the streets.

Hamdok said Friday that the root issues behind the political crisis have long been there, in an attempt to bring all parties back to the table for talks. He laid out a series of measures that he said would help speed the handover to a completely elected and civilian government.

They included repeated exhortations for groups of differing opinions to work together, and for the country’s transitional constitution and judicial bodies to be respected.

“This crisis was not created today, it did not descend upon us from the sky, and it did not surprise us at all,” he said of the recent political turmoil.


Iran’s former central bank chief gets 10-year jail term in $160 million currency fraud case

Iran’s former central bank chief gets 10-year jail term in $160 million currency fraud case
Updated 17 October 2021

Iran’s former central bank chief gets 10-year jail term in $160 million currency fraud case

Iran’s former central bank chief gets 10-year jail term in $160 million currency fraud case
  • Besides violating the currency system, Valliollah Seif also had a role in smuggling foreign currency

TEHRAN/JEDDAH: The former governor of Iran’s central bank was sentenced on Saturday to 10 years’ imprisonment for fraud, corruption and smuggling several million dollars in foreign currency.

Valiollah Seif, 69, headed the monetary authority under former President Hassan Rouhani from 2013 until he was dismissed in 2018, and is the first Iranian central bank governor to be indicted. He remains free pending an appeal.

In 2018, the US Treasury Department placed Seif under sanctions for helping transfer millions of dollars to Hezbollah.

Ahmad Araghchi, who was Seif’s deputy from 2017 to 2018, was sentenced to eight years in jail on the same charges. A third senior figure at the central bank, Rassoul Sajad, received a 13-year sentence for illegal foreign currency trading and taking bribes.

Eight others were also sentenced to prison terms, judiciary spokesman Zabihollah Khodaeian said. All of those convicted have the right to appeal.

Khodaeian said the three central bank officials were involved in violations of the currency market in 2016, a time when the Iranian rial sustained considerable losses in value against major foreign currencies. They illegally injected $160 million and €20 million into the market.

The rial exchange rate was at 39,000 to $1 in 2017 at the beginning of Araghchi’s time in office but it reached more than 110,000 to $1 by the time he was dismissed in 2018.

The change partly coincided with severe US sanctions imposed on Tehran.

The rial has tumbled from a rate of about 32,000 rials to $1 at the time of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers to about 27,000 rials to $1 in recent months.

The currency unexpectedly rallied for some time after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the nuclear deal and reimpose crippling trade sanctions on Iran in 2018.

The sanctions have caused Iran’s oil exports, the country’s main source of income, to fall sharply.

(With AP)


How viable is the Kurds’ autonomous territory in northeast Syria?

Members of the Syrian Kurdish internal security services known as “Asayish” march in a procession ahead of the body of their fallen comrade Khalid Hajji. (AFP/File Photo)
Members of the Syrian Kurdish internal security services known as “Asayish” march in a procession ahead of the body of their fallen comrade Khalid Hajji. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 17 October 2021

How viable is the Kurds’ autonomous territory in northeast Syria?

Members of the Syrian Kurdish internal security services known as “Asayish” march in a procession ahead of the body of their fallen comrade Khalid Hajji. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Bashar Assad appears uninterested in a more decentralized state in which the Kurds have greater autonomy
  • America’s botched Afghanistan exit might work in the Kurds’ favor if Biden wants to avoid similar scenes in Syria

MISSOURI, USA: Ilham Ahmed, head of the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has been lobbying Moscow and Washington to support Kurdish representation in the long-stalled, UN-backed Syrian peace process.

Ahmed, who has visited both capitals in recent weeks, also wants the country’s Kurdish-run region to be exempted from sanctions imposed under the 2019 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, the US legislation that sanctioned the regime of President Bashar Assad for war crimes against the Syrian people.

But what are the Syrian Kurds hoping for, precisely, and how viable are their proposals?

Russian jets, Iran-backed fighters, Turkish-supported insurgents, Islamist radicals, US troops and Syrian government forces, as well as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), operate across the patchwork of territories that constitute northern Syria.

The US views the YPG as a key ally in the fight against Daesh in northeastern Syria while Russia has forces in the area to support President Assad.

While some media outlets reported that Ahmed, as the president of the executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), was lobbying for American or Russian support for the creation of a breakaway state, the Syrian Kurds are not actually pushing for such a maximalist goal.

The Syrian Kurdish parties are sympathetic to the ideology of jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan. They say they reject nationalism, secession and statism in general, in line with Ocalan’s post-2001 writings.

At the same time, however, Syrian Kurdish organizations appear to be establishing all the trappings of their own separate state in the territory they control.

Their military forces — including the SDF, the YPG and the YPJ, the YPG’s all-female militia — are working assiduously to establish and maintain their monopoly on the use of force in the northeast.

They have clashed not only with Turkish forces and various Islamist extremist groups in the area, but also on occasion with Kurdish armed groups, the military forces of the Assad regime, Free Syrian Army rebels and others.

A member of the Kurdish internal security services known as Asayish stands guard during a demonstration by Syrian Kurds against the Turkish assault on northeastern Syria and in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in Syria's northeastern city of Qamishli. (AFP/File Photo)

Competing political parties in the territories under their control have likewise faced pressure, or outright bans, as the SDC and its ally, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), seek to bring everyone under the same institutional and governing structures that they created and dominate.

In some ways the Kurds of the SDC and PYD have proven to be very liberal, happily welcoming Arab tribes, Christians, Yezidis, Armenians, Turkmen and other groups and ethnicities into their ranks and governing structures.

However, they appear much less accepting and tolerant of those who seek to operate outside of the “democratic autonomy” political umbrella they have established.

With their own security forces, political institutions, schools and a variety of party-established civil-society organizations, it does at times look as though the Syrian Kurds are intent on creating their own separate state. But what choice did they have after the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011?

The Assad regime had brutally repressed Kurds for decades prior to the war. After Assad withdrew his forces and much of the Syrian government’s personnel from northeast Syria early in the conflict, to focus on the western and southern parts of the country where the rebel threat appeared the greatest, someone had to fill the resultant vacuum.

Syrian Kurdish women carry party flags, as they take part in a rally in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People's Protection Forces. (AFP/File Photo)

PKK-aligned Syrian Kurdish groups moved in to defend the area against Daesh and other extremist groups that were trying to take over. They fought extremely hard against the radical Islamists, handing Daesh its first defeat, in Kobani in 2014.

Freed from the regime’s iron grip for the first time in their lives, the Kurds seized the opportunity to establish Kurdish and other minority-language programs, cultural centers, schools and institutions.

Fearing the malign “divide and conquer” tactics of neighboring powers, the new Syrian Kurdish authorities rejected attempts by other Kurdish parties, particularly those under the influence of Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional government, and Arab rebel groups to establish competing parties and militias in their hard-won territory.

Authorities in Turkey, meanwhile, were concerned by what they saw as an emerging PKK-controlled proto-state on their southern border. Through three military incursions in the last five years that displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds, Ankara seized hundreds of kilometers of the border strip and pushed around 30 km into northern Syria.

In 2018, Moscow appeared to greenlight the Turkish invasion of Afrin, which at the time was under SDF/YPG/PYD control, withdrawing its troops and allowing Turkish jets to operate in air space previously controlled by Russia.

Woman watch from a rooftop as US troops patrol in 2020 along the streets of the Syrian town of Al-Jawadiyah and meet the inhabitants, in the northeastern Hasakeh province, near the border with Turkey. (AFP/File Photo)

The following year, Washington appeared to do the same, withdrawing US troops from the Tal Abyad area on the border with Turkey just before the Turkish invasion.

These incursions have left the Syrian Kurdish administration in a serious bind. Without American support and the presence of a token US tripwire force, Turkey could well expand its area of control in northern Syria.

Just this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was determined to eliminate alleged threats originating in northern Syria and that a suspected YPG attack that killed two Turkish police officers in Azaz was “the final straw.”

Meanwhile, the Assad regime appears uninterested in any proposals for a “more decentralized Syrian state” in which parts of the northeast would remain nominally a part of the state but actually fall under Syrian Kurdish control.

Ahmed’s recent diplomatic forays have therefore focused on Moscow and Washington. In the former, the Syrian Kurds hope to convince the Russians to cajole the Assad regime into some sort of a compromise that would safeguard as much autonomy in northeastern Syria as possible. In the latter they aim to secure a US commitment not to abandon them again.

Cars drive past election campaign billboards depicting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, a candidate for the upcoming presidential vote, in the capital Damascus, on May 24, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

Ahmed outlined her hopes during a conference hosted by the Washington Institute on Sept. 29.

“The Syrian Democratic Council seeks a lasting political solution to the conflict, advocating internal dialogue and, ultimately, political and cultural decentralization that respects the country’s diversity and bolsters economic development,” she said.

“Continued support from our partner, the US, is crucial to this mission. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria faces numerous obstacles, including insecurity, poverty, foreign intervention, and terrorism.

“In addition, the Geneva peace process and constitutional process have stalled. The US could help alleviate these issues in the pursuit of a more stable Syria free of despotism, proxy conflicts and terror.”

America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan in August undoubtedly will have unnerved Syrian Kurds already apprehensive about their own future. Assad, Turkey and Daesh would all welcome a similar US withdrawal from northeastern Syria.

It is unlikely the “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria,” the governing body of which is the SDC, would be able to hold up against such combined pressures.

US troops patrol along the streets of the Syrian town of Al-Jawadiyah. (AFP/File Photo)

However, the botched American withdrawal from Afghanistan might actually work in Syrian Kurds’ favor, as the Biden administration will probably try to avoid a similar embarrassment in Syria any time soon.

Following meetings in Washington last month with representatives of the White House, State Department and Pentagon, Ahmed seems to have received a reassuring response.

“They (the Americans) promised to do whatever it takes to destroy Islamic State (Daesh) and work to build infrastructure in northeastern Syria,” she told the Reuters news agency. “They said they are going to stay in Syria and will not withdraw — they will keep fighting Islamic State.”

She added: “Before, they were unclear under Trump and during the Afghan withdrawal, but this time they made everything clear.”

With no change of attitudes in Damascus or Ankara, the Syrian Kurds are left with little choice but to continue to rely on the American presence, cooperation and support. At best, they can extend the status quo and the longevity of their precarious autonomy.

If they can convince Washington and Russia to help them reopen the crossings on the border with Iraq, exempt them from the sanctions designed to target the Assad regime, and allow the delivery of international aid directly to their enclave, rather than being routed through Damascus with the result that it rarely reaches the northeast, then the political and economic situation will improve.

Without a more durable political solution on the horizon, this is probably the best the Syrian Kurds can hope for.

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* David Romano is Thomas G. Strong professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State University