How viable is the Kurds’ autonomous rule in northeastern 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)
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Updated 17 October 2021

How viable is the Kurds’ autonomous rule in northeastern 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


Coalition: Nearly 200 Houthis killed in airstrikes on Marib, Al-Bayda, and Taiz

Coalition: Nearly 200 Houthis killed in airstrikes on Marib, Al-Bayda, and Taiz
Updated 56 min 5 sec ago

Coalition: Nearly 200 Houthis killed in airstrikes on Marib, Al-Bayda, and Taiz

Coalition: Nearly 200 Houthis killed in airstrikes on Marib, Al-Bayda, and Taiz
  • The coalition said 29 military vehicles were destroyed during operations over the last 24 hours

RIYADH: More than 190 Houthis were killed in airstrikes on the Yemeni provinces of Marib, Al-Bayda, and Taiz, the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy said on Thursday.

The coalition said 29 military vehicles were also destroyed during the operations over the last 24 hours.

On Wednesday, dozens of Houthis were killed in Marib province as government troops rolled into a new area in Abedia district for the first time in months, adding to the latest military gains in the province, a local military official told Arab News.


FSO Safer tanker disaster could leave Suez Canal unpassable: Greenpeace

FSO Safer tanker disaster could leave Suez Canal unpassable: Greenpeace
Updated 27 January 2022

FSO Safer tanker disaster could leave Suez Canal unpassable: Greenpeace

FSO Safer tanker disaster could leave Suez Canal unpassable: Greenpeace
  • It would also have ‘catastrophic’ environmental, humanitarian consequences for millions
  • Iran-backed Houthi militia has repeatedly refused UN pleas for access to secure tanker

LONDON: Environmental activist group Greenpeace has warned of “catastrophic” humanitarian and environmental consequences if the FSO Safer tanker, currently under the control of the Iran-backed Houthi militia off the Yemeni coast, is not drained of its oil.

An oil spill or explosion from the tanker could also block the Suez Canal, costing the world nearly $10 billion per day, Greenpeace said at a press conference attended by Arab News on Thursday.

The tanker was abandoned in the Red Sea off the Yemeni coast in 2017. It holds 1.1 million barrels of oil, or around 140,000 tons, which Greenpeace said could spill into the sea “at any moment” or spread as a result of an explosion on board.

The vessel’s firefighting system is also inoperative, meaning a fire on the ship could spread vast quantities of pollution into the air if the crude ignites.

Paul Horsman, who leads Greenpeace International’s Safer Response Team, said: “Unless action is taken to make the tanker secure, there’s a real danger of a major oil spill, or possibly worse, an explosion.”

Either outcome would be “severe and long-lasting. In a worst-case scenario, the oil could drift to neighboring countries, to Djibouti, to Eritrea and Saudi Arabia,” he added.

“It could potentially disrupt shipping routes in the Suez Canal, it could impact any future tourism. If the Suez Canal is unable to function because ships can’t get out of the Red Sea, we all remember what happened when the Ever Given was blocked there — it was estimated that trade through the Suez Canal lost about $9 billion per day during that time.”

The Houthis have repeatedly refused international access to secure the FSO Safer despite multiple pleas by the UN.

According to a report released on Thursday by Greenpeace on the risks posed by the tanker, a spill would have a devastating humanitarian impact on millions of Yemenis. Perhaps most notably, access to clean water would be drastically curtailed.

“The desalination plants on Yemen’s coast at Hudaydah, Salif and Aden could be affected and that, combined with disrupted fuel supply, could disrupt the drinking water supply for up to 10 million people,” said the report.

“Yemeni fisheries (as well as those of neighboring countries) could be completely closed by an oil spill. These fisheries support 1.7 million people and closures would be necessary to ensure that no contaminated commercial fish enter the human food chain … the most serious risks are to the livelihoods of the fishing communities.”

Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, is already facing a humanitarian crisis following years of conflict sparked by the Houthis seizing the capital from the internationally recognized government.

While a spill or explosion appears imminent, Greenpeace stressed that action could be taken immediately to avert a disaster.

Horsman said a barrier could immediately be placed around the ship that would mitigate some of the immediate harm caused by the imminent spill.

He added that the technology exists to transfer the oil on board — still technically owned by the internationally recognized government — into another vessel. The problem, he said, is a “lack of political will” to solve the issue.


Autopsy says violence caused death of detained Palestinian

Autopsy says violence caused death of detained Palestinian
Updated 27 January 2022

Autopsy says violence caused death of detained Palestinian

Autopsy says violence caused death of detained Palestinian
  • Palestinian witnesses say Asaad was roughed up before being bound and blindfolded
  • The Israeli military has said he was detained after resisting an inspection and later released, implying he was alive

JERUSALEM: An autopsy has found that a 78-year-old Palestinian man who was pronounced dead shortly after being detained by Israeli troops in the occupied West Bank died of a heart attack caused by “external violence.”
The autopsy, undertaken by three Palestinian doctors, confirmed that Omar Asaad, who has US citizenship, suffered from underlying health conditions. But it also found bruises on his head, redness on his wrists from being bound, and bleeding in his eyelids from being tightly blindfolded.
The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday, concluded that the cause of death was a “sudden cessation of the heart muscle caused by psychological tension due to the external violence he was exposed to.”
Asaad was detained while returning home from a social gathering at around 3 a.m. on Jan. 12 by Israeli soldiers who had set up a flying checkpoint in his home village of Jiljiliya. It’s a common occurrence in the West Bank, which has been under Israeli military rule since Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Mideast war.
Palestinian witnesses say Asaad was roughed up before being bound and blindfolded, and then taken to an abandoned apartment complex nearby. Other Palestinians who were detained in the same building later that night said they didn’t realize he was there until after the soldiers left, when they found him unconscious, lying face down on the ground, and called an ambulance.
The Israeli military has said he was detained after resisting an inspection and later released, implying he was alive. It’s unclear when exactly he died. Initial reports said he was 80 years old.
The unit that detained Asaad, Netzah Yehuda, or “Judea Forever,” is a special unit for ultra-Orthodox Jewish soldiers. It was formed with the aim of integrating a segment of the population that does not normally do military service. But Israeli media have reported problems in the unit stemming from the hard-line ideology of many of the soldiers.
Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, an Israeli military spokesman, said the incident remains under investigation and that “actions will be taken if wrongdoing is found.”
The State Department has said it is in touch with the Israeli government to seek “clarification” about the incident and that it supports a “thorough investigation.” US officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the autopsy.
The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said Asaad’s detention was “bizarre.”
“This is a very small, quiet village,” said Dror Sadot, a spokeswoman for the group. “There was no reason at all to take an 80-year-old and to drag him and handcuff him. I have no idea why they did it.”
Israel says it thoroughly investigates incidents in which Palestinians are killed by Israeli troops. But rights groups say those investigations rarely lead to indictments or convictions, and that in many cases the army does not interview key witnesses or retrieve evidence.
Sadot said the fact that the military is still investigating more than two weeks after the incident, even with the added pressure of American scrutiny, indicates that any eventual conclusion will be another “whitewash.”
“I don’t know, but from our experience, it will lead to nothing,” she said.


Seven civilians killed in Houthi missile attack on Marib

Seven civilians killed in Houthi missile attack on Marib
Updated 27 January 2022

Seven civilians killed in Houthi missile attack on Marib

Seven civilians killed in Houthi missile attack on Marib
  • The Yemeni Minister of Information Muammar Al-Eryani condemned the attack through a series of tweets
  • Al-Eryani called for an international stance against the Houthis

DUBAI: The Houthi militia killed seven civilians, including a woman, and wounded 36 others in a missile attack on a neighborhood in Yemen’s Marib, Al-Arabiya TV reported.

The Yemeni Minister of Information Muammar Al-Eryani condemned the attack through a series of tweets. He said the massacre was a war crime and an act of revenge after the recent defeats and losses the Houthis suffered.

“We condemn and denounce in the strongest terms the horrific massacre committed by the terrorist Iranian-backed Houthi militia, targeting the densely populated Al-Matar neighborhood and the displaced people in Marib with an Iranian-made ballistic missile,” the minister said. 

Al-Eryani called for an international stance against the Houthis, and called on the international community, the United Nations, human rights organizations, and US envoys to issue a clear and explicit condemnation of the militia’s crime.

Dozens of Houthis were killed on Wednesday in the central province of Marib as government troops rolled into a new area in Abedia district for the first time in months, adding to the latest military gains in the province, a local military official told Arab News from Marib.

A day after seizing control of strategic mountainous locations in neighboring Hareb, Yemen’s army and the Giants Brigades seized control of Al-Jafara in the district of Abedia, south of Marib, and besieged Um Resh military base in Juba district, also south of Marib, after heavy fighting with the Houthis who are coming under attack from government troops and intense airstrikes from the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen.


Coronavirus-ravaged Iran finds brief respite with mass vaccination

Coronavirus-ravaged Iran finds brief respite with mass vaccination
Updated 27 January 2022

Coronavirus-ravaged Iran finds brief respite with mass vaccination

Coronavirus-ravaged Iran finds brief respite with mass vaccination
  • Hospitals preparing for the worst as infections tick upward after a months-long lull
  • More than 88 percent of all of those eligible for vaccines have been fully vaccinated

TEHRAN: As much of the world sees vaccination slowing and infections soaring with the spread of omicron, Iran has found a rare, if fleeting, respite from the anxiety and trauma of the pandemic.
After successive virus waves pummeled the country for nearly two years, belated mass vaccination under a new, hard-line president has, for a brief moment, left the stricken nation with a feeling of apparent safety.
Now, the specter of an omicron-fueled surge looms large. Hospitals are preparing for the worst as infections tick upward after a months-long lull. But so far, the variant has not battered the Islamic Republic as it has many Western countries where most adults got jabs a year ago.
Drastic infection surges among the inoculated from the United States to Russia have revealed the vaccine’s declining defenses against infection even as its protection against hospitalization and death remains strong. Meanwhile, Iranians have received doses more recently and are feeling off the hook with their immunity still robust.
“A large number of people already have contracted the virus and huge vaccination has taken place in recent months,” health official Moayed Alavian said in an attempt to explain the sharp drop in infections easing the burden on Iran’s overwhelmed health system.
The virus has killed over 132,000 people by Iran’s official count — the highest national toll in the Middle East.
Iran’s recently elected president, conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, has made it a mission to expedite imports of foreign-made COVID-19 vaccines. With hard-liners in control of all branches of government, the new administration is fast fulfilling a task that had been vexed by power struggles during former President Hassan Rouhani’s term.
The contrast is not lost on ordinary Iranians.
“I do not know what happened,” said Reza Ghasemi, a Tehran taxi driver. “Suddenly vaccination happened in a widespread and quick way after Raisi came to office.”
“By the way,” he added, “I am thankful.”
But skeptics question the presidents’ starkly different pandemic responses, criticizing the human cost of the country’s factional rivalries.
“We delayed vaccination because of political issues,” reformist lawmaker Masoud Pezeshkian bluntly said last September.
Now under Raisi, Iran is riding high on its successes against COVID-19. Cases have fallen to about 7,000 a day from some 40,000 just months before. The death toll plummeted to 20 a day this month from peaks of over 700. His administration has provided 180 million vaccines since taking the reins in August.
More than 88 percent of all of those eligible for vaccines have been fully vaccinated. Iran has administered booster shoots to 20 percent of its population. Last week the government announced it would make vaccines available to children under 18.