About the author  ⁄ Diliman Abdulkader

Diliman Abdulkader is the director of The Kurdistan Project at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). He was born in Kirkuk, Kurdistan.

Heightened tensions between the United States and Iran has put the Middle East on edge as the region prepares for the worst. After a war of words between the long-time adversaries, both have propped up their military presence and have alerted their allies and proxies, sending uncertain signals.

But like all major conflicts in the Middle East, the Kurds are likely to be dragged into the mess, whether they like it or not. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) was created by the United States during the first Gulf war with the implementation of a no-fly zone against Saddam Hussein. Since then, the Kurds and Americans have shared a unique political and military partnership that has benefited both sides. This alliance, however, took an unfortunate turn in 2017 when the Kurds ignored international calls and moved ahead with an independence referendum, without the blessings of the United States. The skepticism from the Kurdish side towards the Americans is still very much alive. After all, strictly from a Kurdish perspective, how can the Kurdistan region afford to openly back the United States against its neighbor Iran, especially when the United States was nowhere to be found in 2017 at a time of need? That legitimate concern still haunts the two allies.

If there is an outright war between the United States and Iran, the Kurds will likely attempt to lay low unless Washington can guarantee 100 percent air and ground protection for decades to come, which is highly questionable. Unfortunately, America has a negative track record of betraying the Kurds when needed most. What is certain is that the Kurdistan region must not risk its stability and cannot afford to find itself in an ambiguous position similar to their brethren, the Kurds in Syria, who face the likelihood of American troop withdrawal.

We know that a war between the United States and Iran will be a costly and long one—after all, Iran is not Iraq, its military is much stronger, it has proxies across the region, its weaponry is more advanced, its terrain is rough and its population is large. Kurdistan will likely be called upon by the United States to hold down its mountainous region and give access to its airspace. Washington will also probably ask for an open border between the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) and Iranian Kurdistan where the Peshmerga and Kurdish armed forces will keep watch, giving access to Iran through Kurdish held areas.

But this is easier said than done, as Iran has deep roots across the KRG between all parties, most notably the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by the Barzani clan and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by the Talabani clan. The United States will find it difficult to convince both these parties and their armed Peshmerga forces to simply push away Iran. In the past, Tehran has threatened the destruction of the KRI if they allowed Washington to use Kurdish areas as a launching pad against the Iranian regime. Moreover, Iran has acted on its threats by launching short-range missiles at armed Iranian-Kurdish forces based in the KRI.

Furthermore, tensions between Iran and America will dampen improved relations between KRG and Baghdad. Baghdad too will be forced to choose sides between the two states, and it may bring about the division of Iraq as a whole.

If it were up to the Kurds, they would choose to side with the Americans—but the ties they have with Iran are out of necessity and due to lack of trust with the United States. This has cornered not only Kurdish officials but the Kurdish population as well. Kurds are eager for the destruction of the Iranian regime—after all, it is the same regime which is responsible for thousands of Kurdish deaths. The most likely beneficiary of heightened tensions will be the Kurds in Iran, numbered at an estimated twelve million situated in the northwest, who too desire autonomy and independence. They have been training for the opportunity to strengthen their position and part ways with the Islamic regime militarily. This will possibly see a similar path to the one Kurds in Syria have taken—prove to the Americans they are the most pro-western, secular and reliable force to side with. The Kurds in Syria may benefit too, an increase of U.S. military presence in the Middle East will mean more ground troops in Syria, propping up American allies, including the majority Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

Whether war occurs or not, a conflict with Iran only proves that the United States must never abandon its allies, especially the Kurds. Kurdish reliance on U.S. forces in the Middle East benefits both sides, and Kurds are no longer a small minority that can be overlooked. Kurds have proven to be kingmakers in regional conflicts, they have proven to be steadfast, and they are battle hardened. Washington must stand by its Kurdish allies today across the region so when the time comes the Kurds can be there for America.

Originally published: https://nationalinterest.org/feature/what-war-iran-would-mean-kurds-58802

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Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 defense system has long been a burden not only for the United States but for NATO, too, the security bloc in which Turkey is a member. 

NATO was created to counter Soviet threats. Today it aims to do the same as Russia extends its influence across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Its members are sovereign states with the right to have normal relations with any nation, even Russia. But its members also have the obligation to not undermine the interests of the alliance. Turkey’s purchase of the very military equipment the alliance was created to deter undermines the interests of NATO.

The situation is not complicated. No NATO member can purchase defense systems that are incompatible with NATO defense systems, especially if the missiles were created to shoot down fighter jets like the American F-35.

Turkey’s list of bad decisions against US national security interests is never-ending: from evading Iranian sanctions, standing against designating the IRGC a terrorist organization, condemning the US recognition of US Embassy to Jerusalem and its recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, supporting Venezuela’s Maduro regime, threating America’s Kurdish partners in Syria and more. 

One must ask itself: Why does America need enemies when it has an “ally” like Turkey? Why is Erdogan so adamant on purchasing our adversaries’ weapons, even as the US gave Ankara an option to purchase the Patriot missile system, a much more sophisticated choice? 

The answer may not seem obvious, but as Kurds, we understand Erdogan’s devious tactics. 

Erdogan wants American’s to move out of the way in Syria so he can have his way with the Kurds, with an intent to slaughter them. 

Erdogan is dragging his feet. This is not about America or his country’s defense needs. The United States has gone out of its way to appease his Islamist government, even after multiple warnings. For Erdogan is threatening a shift toward the East, as he has already done and will continue to do, unless America lets go of the Kurds.

But the reality is that Turkey, with or without Erdogan, needs America, Europe and NATO. And if America wishes so, it can shut down the Turkish economy with a blink of an eye, as it nearly did with very basic sanctions in 2018. In addition, Turkey is already in a recession, so threatening the US is not very smart on Erdogan’s part.

Turkey’s policy toward the same Kurds who defeated the Islamic State caliphate, the same Kurds that sacrificed over 11,000 fighters and had nearly 8,000 wounded, should be condemned.

The biggest loser of the defeat of the caliphate is not ISIS itself, but Erdogan. He counted on the radical group to wipe out the Kurds, as we witnessed in 2014 in Kobani. With the threat of Erdogan from the North, ISIS and the Assad regime, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) composed of majority Kurds shattered Erdogan’s dream.

Erdogan’s biggest fear is another autonomous Kurdish region similar to that of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, created by the US in 1991 after it imposed a no-fly zone. There are more than 20 million Kurds in Turkey; the fear that they will demand the same is unfathomable to any Turkish government. 

The Russian S-400 is set to be delivered in July, though Erdogan has threatened to move the delivery date sooner. He has also declared that the purchase is complete and that he will not go back on the deal. 

Due to the reality on the ground, and in the interest of US national security, those in Washington must see Turkey for what it is: an unreliable burden on NATO and America. Erdogan is unlikely to change any time soon and may never. Therefore we must approach his government with realistic expectations and stop going out of our way to attempt to change it. 

America must continue to protect the Kurds in Syria. They are not up for bartering. Set up a no-fly zone for northeast Syria and recognize the Syrian Democratic Council as the best and proven alternative to the Assad regime. And finally, call Erdogan’s bluff so that he cannot use the Kurdish card in America as he has done in Turkey to gain political points. 

Originally published: https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Erdogan-will-give-up-the-S-400-on-one-condition-588098

Photo: Reuters

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The U.S.-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces just finished off the last remaining territory held by the Islamic State in Baghouz, Syria, bordering Iraq. This is a significant achievement, especially as the U.S. presence in Syria will eventually shrink down to 400 troops from 2,000. Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF Press Office, conveyed on Twitter, “as the SDF continue the final push against whatever remains of so-called caliphate, jihadists are surrendering en masse…Between 1,500 to 2,000 fighters and their families surrendered to our forces within 24 hours.”

While the SDF will continue to battle what remains of ISIS, they certainly do not have the tools or capabilities to make sure that those who surrendered don’t rise again. The shrinking of U.S. forces continues to be ill-timed. Former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, Brett McGurk, also tweeted, “Given this serious situation in Syria and the SDF now holding thousands of ISIS fighters and families, the last thing we should do is plan to withdraw 90 percent of the American force. Makes no sense. The SDF needs more support right now, not less.” U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, testified before Congress, “What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization — but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge.”

In other words, ISIS is not defeated, and ISIS will likely reemerge.

I believe that it is in the interest of national security in the United States to preserve northeast Syria, secured by the SDF, through a no-fly zone. This would be realistic given the organized, disciplined, and representative force of the SDF, — which is willing to defend its territory from Iran, the Assad regime, Russia, and Turkey — and which has successfully done so against ISIS. A no-fly zone, along with some U.S. troops, would allow the U.S. to strategically place itself where our adversaries don’t want us, keep away vital natural resources from Iran and the Assad regime, prepare to respond to any threats coming from Shiite militias, and gradually diminish the need to rely on our problematic partner, Turkey, and its Incirlik Airbase.

I also believe that the U.S. must take the next step to recognize the Syrian Democratic Council as the legitimate governing body of an autonomous region in the northeast of Syria. Just as the SDF is composed of local forces, including Kurds, Arabs, Muslims, and Christians, the SDC is similarly pluralistic. The core idea behind the SDC is the ability to be inclusive of genders, nationality, and religion, without attempting to alter Syria’s sovereign borders. A stable region within Syria, largely free from President Bashar Assad, is crucial for the betterment of those that have survived the near decade-long civil war. Recognizing the SDC will allow Syrians to eventually choose for themselves whether they want to continue to live under Assad or stay with the decentralized and autonomous local government system east of the Euphrates. Additionally, recognizing the SDC will allow them to openly conduct trade relations with neighbors and regional partners.

The SDF, SDC, and the 79-member Global Coalition has taken away Assad’s lifeline by holding on to northeast Syria. The Assad regime is cash-strapped; relieving the pressure now would be a grave mistake. Assad may have retaken large swaths of territory west of the Euphrates river, but most of Syria’s assets are east of the Euphrates. He needs to take them back, and the U.S. presence there blocks him from doing so. The U.S. should hold its ground.

Originally published: https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/op-eds/the-caliphate-is-dead-but-the-threat-remains

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In December, President Donald Trump tweeted out a call for the withdrawal of troops from Syria. In his tweet, he declared that since the Islamic State was defeated, it was time for the U.S. forces to come home. Unfortunately, ISIS then demonstrated that it is alive and well, when a suicide bomber exploded himself in Syria, killing four Americans. The ISIS caliphate may have faded, but an estimated twenty to thirty thousand fighters in Syria and Iraq remain.

Perhaps this bombing was a message to the president from the terror organization. Whatever the motive, if the United States intends to remain a key figure in Middle East, it must be visible in Syria, if not on the ground, then from the air.

It is certainly the right thing to do. Our Kurdish-led allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have led the fight against ISIS on the ground, at the request of the United States, and are now at risk of being slaughtered by the U.S.’ NATO ally, Turkey. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to dismantle the SDF and replace them with local forces. But the Kurds are the local forces. The civilian population in SDF territories numbers nearly four million, and the SDF has sixty thousand fighters, both men and women, all indigenous Syrians. Among the ethnic and religious groups represented in the SDF are the Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis, Muslims, and Christians. It is the responsibility of the United States to not only guarantee the safety of the Kurds and their partners for years to come but to also allow them to govern themselves. They fought ISIS for us, now we have to protect them.

President Trump has several viable options, if he wants the United States to maintain its influence in Syria. The first is to reverse the decision to withdraw American forces from Syria. But this is highly unlikely. The second is to support willing European states to create a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria to avoid Turkish aggression against the SDF. This also is unlikely, as Turkey has demanded its own forces be inside Syria. The third viable option is to enforce a no-fly zone (NFZ) in north-east Syria to prevent a Turkish “slaughter” of the SDF.

A NFZ has been tried before, successfully, post-1991, when Saddam Hussein threatened the Kurds in Iraq. Without boots on the ground, the United States implemented an NFZ in coordination with the United Kingdom and France. This allowed for the safety of the Kurds—to date—and the eventual creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The KRG has been extremely helpful to the United States. During the 2003 Iraq war, it was the one safe haven in all of Iraq where not one U.S. soldier lost his or her life during the entirety of the war.

Today, President Trump has an opportunity to create another region in the Middle East, friendly not only to the United States but also towards the rest of the West. The SDF in Syria is in a much better position than the Iraqi Kurds were in 1991. The SDF in Syria has held elections, has created local councils with representatives of different religions and ethnicities, and has allowed women to participate equally as men. The SDF has been a self-administering entity since 2015. All the SDF lacks is security in the air.

Implementing a NFZ would require countries like France to keep their troops on the ground to discourage Turkey from invading. French president Emmanuel Macron has promised to keep French forces in Syria for another year after the loss of the American service members. Others, like the British and the Dutch, are also willing to assist the SDF with ground troops, as long as they have American air power backing them.

The United States should gradually withdraw its troops, perhaps transferring them to neighboring Iraq, where there are already over 5,000 troops and where the United States has an airbase, Al Asad. A U.S. airbase in Jordan, Muwaffaq Salti Air Base, can also be used to enforce the NFZ. There is also Ali al Salem Air Base in Kuwait that the United States has at its disposal to enforce the NFZ.

Without U.S. boots on the ground, establishing an NFZ can allow the president to keep his promise to fully withdraw while still standing behind our allies the SDF. U.S. credibility in the region is at risk otherwise. Ignoring the plight of the SDF will force them to cut a deal with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, which would undermine U.S. national security.

The United States cannot allow Syria to go back to pre-2011, before the revolution. A troop withdrawal would legitimize the Assad regime, allow Iran to expand, and empower Russia. But all this can still be prevented by creating a safe haven for the SDF in northeast Syria through a no-fly zone.

Originally published at: https://nationalinterest.org/feature/wanted-kurdish-no-fly-zone-43937

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American administrations are known to betray the Kurds, this is no secret. The Kurds are often viewed as secondary and sometimes third actors. The Americans have never had a sole policy aimed at moving the Kurds closer to their aspirations of statehood. Not surprising, the status quo lens in which Americans have viewed the Middle East has only brought anxiety to the Kurds. The US withdrawal in Syria is a continuation of the same policy. Despite this, the Kurds still look to the Americans for protection. The reality is, Kurds cannot rely on regional powers for protection, largely because it has been these same regional powers – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria who have committed grave human rights violations against their existence. Therefore, America is the only solution.

The withdrawal of US troops from Syria was expected but not this soon. President Trump announced to withdraw early 2018, he later backed off. The tweet in December 2018 was a simple follow up, that time has run out. The problem was that no one was prepared on the ground in Syria, many were emboldened by the shifting US policy of “maximizing pressure” on Iran as repeatedly stated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor, John Bolton. Caught off guard, the Kurdish forces organized under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) scrambled to find answers. Not even their American counterparts had answers, they were just as shocked at the president’s decision.

The situation in Syria is clear. The Islamic State is not defeated. The caliphate is no more, but there still remains 20-30 thousand fighters. Assad is the winner west of the Euphrates. Iran has penetrated itself in Syria for the long term with its own agenda. Russia aims to be the top decision maker as the US loses its appetite for any presence in the country. While Turkey’s ultimate goal is to prevent any self-autonomous Kurdish region in northeast Syria, at any cost. Russia, Iran, Turkey all have an agreement, with Assad as the Symbolic winner. The US is nowhere to be seen, and the Kurds left to fend for themselves.

The Kurdish demands in Syria as I wrote here prioritizes a no-fly zone, a prevention of Turkish invasion that includes a so-called “safe zone,” proposed by the Turks, the US endorsement of Kurdish-led administration and for the US to mediate between the Kurds and Turks to generate economic opportunities similar to that of the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey.

The Kurds to date have had open lines with all sides, perhaps this has been their advantage. This is largely due to the expected American vacuum that would be left long before the President’s announcement. Despite their military alliance with the Americans, Kurds have had negotiations with Russia and even Assad to guarantee them a degree of autonomy. All talks have failed. Assad aims to regain control east of the Euphrates without giving any concessions to Kurds largely because he believes he can as the Kurds slowly lose US support and face Turkish threats.

By not putting all their cards into one basket (the US), the Kurds are attempting to pave the way to try to prevent a Turkish invasion by positioning Assad’s forces on the Syrian-Turkish border with Russia’s blessing. However, this may mean Kurds lose the leverage they have in that part of the country.

It is up to the Kurds to calculate the risks, should they wait for the US to negotiate on their behalf with the Turks, with the chance of still keeping their territories? Or should they give up on the Americans and fully engage Damascus, undermining the US before it withdraws, to avoid a Turkish invasion and risk losing their territories? That is the harsh reality the Kurds face.

The gains made by the Syrian Democratic Forces have come at a huge cost, nearly 10,000 fighters lost. A pre-2011 Syria with Assad at the helm would be catastrophic to not only the Kurds but for other minorities and would signal to the region that you can kill over 600,000 civilians, target half your population and force them to be refugees and IDPs and still get away with it all. This is the message if the global coalition, led by the United States abandons the Kurds. For Kurds, anything less than autonomy in Syria is a loss.

Originally published at: https://www.turkeyinstitute.org.uk/commentary/the-us-withdrawal-from-syria-the-kurdish-perspective/

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Photo: Rudaw

The Kurds are widely known for being brave, capable fighters, reliable, secular and Pro-American. For these reasons, America cannot afford to abandon its Kurdish allies. Even apart from that, among the peoples of the region the Kurds are most aligned with Western values. The Kurds have protected Christians in the Middle East. Kurdish fighters are composed of both men and women, and in many cases the women lead. The Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Union (YPJ) both embody the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by the United States.

Recent developments regarding US troop presence in Syria call for immediate reconsideration of American strategy, as security concerns on the ground are growing on a daily basis. To clearly understand the importance of American forces on the ground, we must understand what is at stake in Syria. This is true both for Syria as a whole and in north east Syria where Kurds and Americans are working side by side.

Kurds understood very well that US would have to leave sooner or later, but not immediately. The president did float a withdrawal in April of 2018 but was apparently convinced otherwise. Now a new call to leave Syria has been issued and the Department of Defense has signed the orders to fully withdraw.

But before America departs, the President must guarantee the safety of our allies the Kurds. This means that a gradual withdrawal with conditions and guarantees from other US partners are essential so that the Kurds are not in harm’s way and do not feel betrayed, again.

What’s at stake in Syria?

Before any withdrawal can take place, the US Administration must understand the risks of creating a vacuum, and someone is eager to take the place of the world’s strongest power.

Key actors in Syria are split into three groups. The first is Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran. The second are the American allies and our international coalition, which include the Kurds. Ironically this also includes supposed American NATO partner, Turkey, though Turkey is led by a rogue and unpredictable leader with his own agenda.  The third is of course Israel, a state constantly threatened by the creeping presence of Iran’s forces in Syria towards Israel’s northern border.

First, West of the Euphrates River, Assad has successfully crushed all remnants of rebels and terror organizations with the help of Iran and Russia. Assad’s control stretches along the Euphrates and towards the Iraqi border, this is important as the area is resource rich. It is also critical to note that Assad’s legitimacy ends at the Euphrates river. East of the Euphrates the Kurds have implemented their own Kurdish-led administration or the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES). A withdrawal will allow Assad, to rein in the rest of Syria using his brutal tactics: civilian bombardments to the usage of chemical weapons. By withdrawing immediately, US would indirectly legitimize the Assad regime and allow him to gain full territorial control of Syria, Assad has promised to regain “every inch of Syrian territory”, and only the current US presence is really keeping him at bay.

Iran, Assad’s loyal ally and top funder, views Syria as a strategic component of its greater Middle East plan. Iran’s intentions are well known: to wipe out Israel. Iran has striven toward this goal by building a land bridge stretching from Tehran through Iraq. Now it is using Syria as a stepping stone, and controlling Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to gain direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran has accomplished all this while keeping its foe, Saudi Arabia occupied in Yemen by supporting the Houthis with funds and arms.

A basic contradiction in current American foreign policy is our designation of Iran’s IRGC as a terrorist organization, while at the same time allowing the IRGC’s Quds Force to roam free in Syria. If the US is stern on “maximizing pressure” in regard to Iran’s expansionist agenda, Syria is key. The US does not have to directly attack Iran’s forces, but it does have the capability to limit Iran’s territorial gains, resources and proxies in Syria all by keeping a small presence. Troops on the ground allow this, but so even might an American air power presence.

Putin is eager for the US to withdraw, largely because that withdraw would allow him to be the sole strongman in the country. Russia does not have the capability to limit Iran’s agenda and cannot guarantee Israel’s security. But Russia does have the ability to deepen relations with NATO member Turkey to undermine US national security interests. Russia has allowed Turkey to control northwest Syria, most notably Afrin and Idlib, all without the United States coordination. Turkey is aligned with jihadists and al Qaeda affiliates.

With that in mind, let us turn to what the Kurds want to see included in any US withdrawal plans.

Kurdish Demands In Planning a US Withdrawal

No-fly zone

A no-fly zone (NFZ) is a top priority for the Kurds and is the best solution to guarantee the safety of the Kurds. The idea of an NFZ is nothing new, the Kurds in northern Iraq benefited from an NFZ from Saddam Hussein in 1991. The 1991 NFZ was in coordination with the United Kingdom and France. US has neighboring air bases which it could operate out of such as in Iraq, the Al Asad Air Base which includes two runways. US has a little over 5,000 troops in Iraq, since the withdrawal of forces under the Obama administration in 2011. In Jordan, the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base has played a crucial role in Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State and can continue to do so to protect the Kurds in northeast Syria. The Jordanian Air base also has two run ways and recently the United States allocated $143 million in upgrade funds to expand the base. Some experts have speculated this may be a move to gradually shift away from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. The German government decided to leave Incirlik in 2017 and moved to Jordan after disagreements with Erdogan’s government. All these are considerable options to protect the Kurds in Syria from the air.

An NFZ safe guards the nearly four and half million civilians at risk which include internally displaced Syrians and refugees from Iraq. Secular Kurds have protected the small Christian minority in Syria too, a recent statement from the local Syriac Christians warns that “Turkey is threatening us daily in the local media to invade, and to kill us. They are calling us infidels.” Furthermore, the Christians plea that they have “fought side by side with Kurds, Arabs and the US-led Global Coalition in the war against the Islamic State.” They call for the establishment of an NFZ to protect them from Turkey. Most recently, French president Emmanuel Macron underlined “the need to recognize the rights of local populations and to ensure forces allied with the US led coalition, notably the Kurds.”

The enforcement of an NFZ would be more difficult with no troops on the ground, however James Jeffrey, US special Representative for Syria Engagement hinted at a possible NFZ for the Kurds without having troops on the ground, “remember, we were not present in northern Iraq, but over northern Iraq in Operation Northern Watch for 13 years.”

Co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), Ilham Ahmed stated that the French were receptive to their request for a no-fly zone over northern Syria, but said they needed to consult with the European Union and gain Washington’s permission first. A de-facto US NFZ has been in play for some time in north east Syria in coordination with Russia, where Russian planes avoid flying near US zones.

France is eager to support the Kurds on the ground along with the UK and the Dutch, this will only be feasible if US continues the air cover. Together, the French, UK, Dutch and Americans can successfully protect the Kurds without giving up any territory to Assad, Iran, Russia while preventing a Turkish incursion from the north. In return, this would please all parties including the US president, European concerns and would allow the Kurds and other minorities to hang on to the advancements they have made while being protected from a Turkish slaughter.

Guarantees Turkey will not invade

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently stated “the importance of ensuring that the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds, the protection of religious minorities there in Syria. All of those are still part of the American mission set.”

By far the leading threat against our Kurdish allies in north east Syria comes from NATO partner Turkey. The United States must use its leverage to prevent a Turkish incursion into Syria. It is well understood among Syrian Kurdish officials and civilians in Syria that Russia gave a greenlight to Turkey to invade and occupy Afrin in January 2018, but Turkey can only start an operation against the Kurds with the permission of the Americans. That is why it is crucial for the US to stand by its allies to ease the frustration and concern of a possible Turkish invasion. US must clarify to Turkey that it is a red line if Kurds are attacked, they are not enemies of Turkey and mediate between the two sides to find common ground, such as economic opportunities.

The United States recently signed an $3.5 billion arms deal agreement with Turkey which includes 80 patriot missiles. The patriot missiles are to replace Turkey’s S-400 missile purchase from Russia, however Turkey has not cancelled the Russian order and is still set to receive in July 2019. This would mean Turkey would now have both Russian and American technology at hand, which are incompatible with NATO defense systems and can expose national security intel to the Russians. The Department of Defense released a report as required by the 2019 NDAA titled Status of the U.S. Relationship with the Republic of Turkey. The report clearly states that “the Administration will reassess Turkey’s continued participation as one of eight partner nations [F-35 program] should they continue their purchase of the S-400.”

The United States has an opportunity to set conditions to Turkey that it cannot target Kurdish allies inside Syria if it wants US F-35 fighter jets, the industrial workshare that comes with the purchase, patriot missiles and the $3.5 billion arms deal. In return, US can guarantee to Ankara that the Kurds will be under the watchful eye of US aligned forces on the ground and will respect Turkey’s security concerns to prevent cross border skirmishes. Turkey must respect that Syria is a sovereign state, therefore any operation that calls for annexation or “buffer zones” inside Syria would be a violation of such agreements. Syria must be for Syrians not Turkey. Appeasing Turkey would send the wrong signal to our Kurdish allies on the ground and embolden Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric and actions which undermine American interests in the region. Turkey will also receive the assurance that the SDF will continue the fight against the Islamic State without the need for Turkish boots in northeast Syria, there still exists an estimated 20-30k IS fighters.

To ease tensions, generate economic opportunities

American backed SDF control over 30 percent of Syrian territory east of the Euphrates, which holds nearly 52 percent of Syria’s oil riches accounting for 80 percent of the countries pre-war production, and according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), north east Syria contains over 75 percent of agricultural wheat production, while major dams and the bulk of the Euphrates River are all in the hands of US allies. This is significant leverage over Assad’s cash strapped regime at the same time creating potential economic opportunities with Turkey.

Through trade, Kurds and Turks can ease tensions. We witnessed this in 2008 when Iraqi Kurds and Turkey began trading and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq became Turkey’s second largest trading partner next to Russia. Even after the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum held in 2017, oil continued to flow due to a common interest, a growing Turkey could not afford to lessen its oil imports and KRG needed the funds as it was recovering from the war against the Islamic State. Turkey lacks oil resources and heavily relies on Russian, KRG, Iranian oil. (Turkey recently received a US waiver on Iranian oil imports with recent sanctions.) As Turkey’s economy grows, north east Syria can diversify Turkey’s oil partner-states, lessening the reliance on Russian oil in return bringing Turkey closer to the sphere of influence of the United States, NATO.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an on-the-ground based reporter and analyst reaffirms “Turkey initially opposed Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, but after 2007-2008 slowly opened up to economic opportunities. If there is peace between Kurds and the Turkish state, something similar could be developed between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds.”

US endorsement of Kurdish-led administration

US foreign policy towards Kurds has historically been within the context of the nation states of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. However, unless the US decides to recognize Assad’s brutality as legitimate, the United States will need to prioritize the Kurdish led administration in the north east of Syria, and create a foreign policy facing that Kurdish administration based on the interest of the Kurds and minorities in that area. The US should translate the great military success by American forces and the SDF into a political partnership based on cooperation and development.

Both the US and Kurdish led administration have common interests and shared values in Syria. Opposing the Iranian regime, Russian interference, opposing Assad, Islamic State reemergence, Turkish annexation and incursion into Syria, protection of civilians, refugees and IDPs, minority and religious rights are all ways the Kurds and Americans can find common ground and a path towards a political solution to Syria’s long-standing Kurdish question.

The American people very well understand the importance of standing behind our allies. As the President made the announcement to withdraw forces in Syria, regardless of where we stand on the political spectrum, one thing was agreed: Kurds need to be protected.

Originally published: https://securitystudies.org/the-kurdish-demands-in-syria/

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Photo: ABC News

With the Republicans losing control of the House in January, expect calls for an ‘exit strategy’ from the Syrian civil war. A rapid exit would be a mistake. An immature withdrawal from Syria would be a catastrophic miscalculation parallel to that of 2011 when troops pulled out of Iraq under the Obama administration. In 2011, as Iraq witnessed a degree of stability thanks to US troop presence, the Kurds in the north advised the Americans to stay. These warnings were ignored, the Islamic State (ISIS) emerged just years later.

Today in Syria the war is gradually on the decline with only pockets of tension. The Assad regime is the clear victor over territories west of the Euphrates river, thanks to the aid of Russia and Iran. In the northwest, rebels and al Qaeda affiliates have managed to carve up territories with orders coming from Ankara, aiming to fulfill Erdogan’s Ottoman ambitions. However, in Northeast Syria, there exists stability far greater than that of 2011 Iraq. Controlled by our coalition partners the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), East of the Euphrates holds 2,000 US troops, a small but potent presence. It is in the United States national security interests to keep a long-term presence in Syria for the reasons below:

Control Iran

Iran is the single biggest threat to US national security interests in the Middle East. If the US decides to pack up and leave it will hand over to Iran 30 percent of Syrian territory. Syrian land is not all created equal. The land the US is protecting includes an estimated 52 percent of natural resources — not only oil but also agricultural land, major dams, pipelines, highways and access to the Euphrates. Iran aims to institutionalize its presence in Syria. Iran’s model for Syria is Hezbollah in Lebanon, coupled with the sort of underhanded methods Iran has used to undermine Iraq. A US withdrawal would offer Iran access to substantial resources at a time when their economy is teetering.

A troop pullout would also embolden the Ba’athist regime in Syria to overtake territory in the northeast. Both to push back Assad’s ambitions of reconquering all of Syria, and to hinder Iran’s expansionist agenda, America must stay in Syria. The United States mustn’t indirectly give Iran the greenlight to permanently set up camp in another Arab state. The US has an opportunity to prevent Iran from further escalating tensions in an already-ravaged Middle East.

Befriend the Kurds

The United States most reliable and stable ally has been the Kurds. The US-Kurdish military partnership has drastically improved since 2011, and the fight against ISIS has only reinforced that they are a reliable and resilient minority. The Kurds in Syria have defended their historical territories east of the Euphrates while battling not only the Islamic State but other terror organizations, Iranian backed groups, and the Assad regime. Continuing to support the Kurds allows US soldiers to stick to their ‘train, advise and equip’ policy.

According to Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an on-the-ground based reporter and analyst, with extensive experience in northeast Syria states that “the SDF are a unified force, they provide the security for all ethnic and religious minorities, they allow journalists and NGOs to work freely in the areas they control, they have zero tolerance for corruption and looting, and have a great recruiting track record.” As the conflict winds down, the US can transform its military partnership with the SDF into a political relationship by supporting the governing system, the Syrian Democratic Council.

The alliance with the Kurds gives the US another advantage: it gives their presence legitimacy. As long as the SDC continues, US troops are in Syria with the permission of over 4 million local citizens. This is just. The Assad regime no longer has a legitimacy in the northeast. The SDC alliance shows that Assad’s argument that the US is in Syria without authorization is not valid. The US effort is legitimized by the very governing system that Assad would like to destroy.

Originally published: https://securitystudies.org/opinion-to-us-lawmakers-keep-troops-in-syria/

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There have been 25 dead journalists accounted for in Turkey since 1992; seven under Erdogan’s regime. Since the 2016 coup in Turkey, 189 media outlets have been shut down and more than 319 journalists have been arrested, the most of any country – even surpassing China.

In recent weeks, Turkey requested that the international police agency Interpol issue a “red notice” warrant to arrest exiled journalists Can Dundar and Ilhan Tanir. Erdogan’s abuse of Interpol to arrest his critics has received pushback from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said, “We must not misuse international organizations like Interpol for such purposes.”

If hunting them down weren’t enough, once journalists are in Turkish custody they are subject to more suffering. Turkish journalist Cevheri Guven stated that he was forced to sign his confession and was subject to mistreatment and torture. Another tactic is abduction. To date, 14 journalists have disappeared.

So why has the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi ignited like wildfire among the mainstream media? Why are we focused on one journalist and not all? Why just one country, Saudi Arabia, and nhot Turkey’s horrendous human rights record? If Saudi Arabia is guilty, then Turkey is beyond guilty. If this is truly about Jamal Khashoggi, then Turkey should be put under the same, if not greater, scrutiny until the cases of all 25 dead journalists have been solved and the perpetrators have been arrested – not just for Khashoggi. But this is not about human rights, nor is it about a journalist. Erdogan as usual is banking on a specific issue because he sees an opportunity to gain leverage.

Erdogan’s first motive is an attempt to shift the focus from his own troubled state to that of Saudi Arabia. If we discuss objectively a bad track record, then let’s have a look at Erdogan’s Turkey as of August 29, 2018: 170,372 state officials, teachers, bureaucrats and academics have been dismissed; 142,874 have been detained; 81,417 have been arrested; 3,003 schools, dormitories and universities have been shut down; 6,021 academic have lost their jobs; 4,463 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed – all since July 2016. This excludes the number of deaths and arrests in Erdogan’s war against the minority Kurds which number more than 20% of the country’s population in the southeast.

Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. It does not claim to be a democracy nor does it want to be one, despite gradual changes by the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. However, Turkey claims to be a democratic state, a secular modern state, a European Union candidate, a NATO member and a US ally. But let’s not forget that Turkey has deep ties with Russia, evaded Iran sanctions, threatened US soldiers and top officials at Incirlik Air Base, still holds Americans hostage, has close ties with Hamas – a US-designated terrorist organization – and aided Islamic State while spreading Muslim Brotherhood ideology in the Middle East. So, what makes Erdogan’s Turkey better than Saudi Arabia?

If shifting the focus off Turkey is not enough, Erdogan desires closer ties with the United States and is bitter towards the Trump administration’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Erdogan believes as a NATO partner, Turkey should be priority for the US, not Saudi Arabia, despite ruining the relationship on his own. Most importantly, Iran has been quiet throughout the Khashoggi case. Erdogan is attempting to steer the US from taking punitive measures against Iran by weakening Saudi Arabia.

It seems Erdogan is fighting Iran’s battle against the kingdom. Iran is deviously doing what it does best, patiently wait to strike. Meanwhile, Erdogan will also likely demand more leverage in Syria, especially against US allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces. Erdogan’s mission throughout the Syrian conflict has been to disintegrate the partnership between the Kurds and Americans. But he has miserably failed and this is just another stab at it. Of course, Erdogan will attempt to receive some sort of financial aid either from Saudi Arabia or the US for keeping his silence. This is another form of hostage diplomacy – blackmail, actually – with which he is well acquainted.

Erdogan is self-appointed as the protector of the Jamal Khashoggi case, but he should not be taken seriously. His attempt to reconstruct the image of Turkey and himself should be approached with the utmost hesitancy. Erdogan is not to be trusted.

Originally published: https://www.jpost.com//Opinion/Khashoggi-who-put-Erdogan-in-charge-571008

Photo: WPA Pool/Getty Images

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Russia

It is clear that since Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet in 2015 which flew over Turkish airspace for just under 12 seconds, Vladimir Putin has acted strategically to gradually pull Turkey under his sphere of influence, and Erdogan has taken the bait. Putin has fed Erdogan bits of Syria, like the once stable Kurdish enclave, Afrin. Putin has sold Erdogan the S-400 surface to air missiles, a weapons system incompatible with the NATO security bloc systems. The S-400 is set to be delivered July 2019. Erdogan is also interested in jointly producing the S-500 missile with Russia, “besides [the S-400s], I have made a proposal to Russia for the joint production of the S-500s.” This move will further force Turkey to dependent on Russia, a move Putin is hoping for only to establish a permanent rift between NATO partners.

Iran

Turkish president, Erdogan helped Iran evade US sanctions for violating the Nuclear Deal, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from 2010 to 2015, allowing the regime in Tehran access to international markets. The witness, Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian Gold trader told jurors in New York that Erdogan had personally authorized a transaction on behalf of Iran. The banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, responsible for taking part in the trading scheme between Turkey and Iran was sentenced to 32 months in prison in Manhattan. Erdogan stated that “if Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be almost equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal.” The Atilla v US case continues to prove that Turkey is damaging US strategy against the Iranian regime and is constantly aiding our enemies.

Incirlik Base

Incirlik Air Base in Turkey has been a strategic point of access for the United States into the Middle East. However, the base has been a thorn on our back, Turkey has constantly attempted to use it against the United States to get its way. Most recently, a group of Turkish lawyers, close to Erdogan’s circle has filed an arrest warrant of US officers based at Incirlik. Reported by Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) reported that lawyers filed a 60 page complaint of names which include top US officials asking for their detention. Included in the names is the commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) Gen. Joseph Votel. Clearly US men and women in uniform are not safe in Turkey, anti-American sentiments continue to surge thanks to Erdogan. The United states should look for alternatives and end our dependency on the airbase, in 2017 Germany made the decision to do so, redeploying its troops to a Jordanian airbase. A heavy US presence in Iraqi Kurdistan would be welcomed by Kurds, and would thwart Iranian influence in the region, disrupting their land bridge to the Mediterranean.

US Hostages

Since the failed coup of 2016, Erdogan has purged Turkish dissidents and foreigners inside the country. As Dr. Aykan Erdemir, former Turkish parliamentarian and current scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) brilliantly characterized it, Erdogan is using “hostage diplomacy” to gain leverage over the United States. Most famously imprisoned and now on house arrest is American Pastor, Andrew Brunson, who has worked in Turkey for over 20 years, and is accused of having ties to the Kurdish armed group the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Islamic scholar, Fetullah Gulen, which Erdogan blames for the coup. Vice President Mike Pence avowed, “to president Erdogan and the Turkish government, on behalf of the president of the United States of America, release pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences. If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.” The Trump administration did sanction two top Turkish officials in addition to doubling tariffs on steel and aluminum against Turkey, but Erdogan seems determined to ignore US pressure. Turkey responded by imposing its own sanctions on two US officials. Another hostage is Turkish-American, Serkan Golge, a physicist who worked for NASA’s Mars Program.

Hamas

Hamas has been on the foreign terror list by the United States since 1997, yet Turkey’s Erdogan openly embraces the violent organization. In 2017, Erdogan reiterated his support saying “Hamas is not a terrorist organization.” Erdogan’s hypocrisy of fighting terrorists while aiding and abetting a recognized terrorist organization reflects the path of his neo Ottoman Islamic ideology. Hamas is clearly a threat not only to Israel but as well as the Palestinian people, and Erdogan is banking on the tension in Gaza. His desire to be the custodian of Jerusalem and to become the savior of the Palestinians through the creation of an “army of Islam” to destroy Israel is something the US must wake up to before it is too late.

Islamic State (IS)

Countless reports have been published on linking Turkey to either directly assisting the Islamic State or turning a blind eye. Turkey’s main goal, as it is today, is to weaken the Kurds in Syria at all costs even if it means allowing the brutal terrorist organization to roam free within Turkey and across its borders. In 2014, Turkish forces watched on top of a hill as Kurds were besieged in a small Syrian border town, in Kobane. In addition, Turkey has profited from illicit oil deals with the Islamic State, the deals were not limited to Turkey and IS but Erdogan’s family and the terror organization as well. In 2014, former Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu stated that “ISIS is not a terrorist organization. It’s a group of people bound together with discontent and anger.” In a report titled ISIS in Turkey published in May 2018,  it stated that “had Turkey not been so tolerant of ISIS activities within its borders, including recruitment of thousands of foreign fighters, ISIS would not be as powerful as it is today.” Moreover, Turkey continues to undermine US operations in Syria against IS as it targets the Kurds organized under the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF.

Originally published: https://securitystudies.org/6-challenges-for-us-turkish-relations/

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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Russia

It is clear that since Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet in 2015 which flew over Turkish airspace for just under 12 seconds, Vladimir Putin has acted strategically to gradually pull Turkey under his sphere of influence, and Erdogan has taken the bait. Putin has fed Erdogan bits of Syria, like the once stable Kurdish enclave, Afrin. Putin has sold Erdogan the S-400 surface to air missiles, a weapons system incompatible with the NATO security bloc systems. The S-400 is set to be delivered July 2019. Erdogan is also interested in jointly producing the S-500 missile with Russia, “besides [the S-400s], I have made a proposal to Russia for the joint production of the S-500s.” This move will further force Turkey to dependent on Russia, a move Putin is hoping for only to establish a permanent rift between NATO partners.

Iran

Turkish president, Erdogan helped Iran evade US sanctions for violating the Nuclear Deal, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from 2010 to 2015, allowing the regime in Tehran access to international markets. The witness, Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian Gold trader told jurors in New York that Erdogan had personally authorized a transaction on behalf of Iran. The banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, responsible for taking part in the trading scheme between Turkey and Iran was sentenced to 32 months in prison in Manhattan. Erdogan stated that “if Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be almost equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal.” The Atilla v US case continues to prove that Turkey is damaging US strategy against the Iranian regime and is constantly aiding our enemies.

Incirlik Base

Incirlik Air Base in Turkey has been a strategic point of access for the United States into the Middle East. However, the base has been a thorn on our back, Turkey has constantly attempted to use it against the United States to get its way. Most recently, a group of Turkish lawyers, close to Erdogan’s circle has filed an arrest warrant of US officers based at Incirlik. Reported by Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) reported that lawyers filed a 60 page complaint of names which include top US officials asking for their detention. Included in the names is the commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) Gen. Joseph Votel. Clearly US men and women in uniform are not safe in Turkey, anti-American sentiments continue to surge thanks to Erdogan. The United states should look for alternatives and end our dependency on the airbase, in 2017 Germany made the decision to do so, redeploying its troops to a Jordanian airbase. A heavy US presence in Iraqi Kurdistan would be welcomed by Kurds, and would thwart Iranian influence in the region, disrupting their land bridge to the Mediterranean.

US Hostages

Since the failed coup of 2016, Erdogan has purged Turkish dissidents and foreigners inside the country. As Dr. Aykan Erdemir, former Turkish parliamentarian and current scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) brilliantly characterized it, Erdogan is using “hostage diplomacy” to gain leverage over the United States. Most famously imprisoned and now on house arrest is American Pastor, Andrew Brunson, who has worked in Turkey for over 20 years, and is accused of having ties to the Kurdish armed group the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Islamic scholar, Fetullah Gulen, which Erdogan blames for the coup. Vice President Mike Pence avowed, “to president Erdogan and the Turkish government, on behalf of the president of the United States of America, release pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences. If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.” The Trump administration did sanction two top Turkish officials in addition to doubling tariffs on steel and aluminum against Turkey, but Erdogan seems determined to ignore US pressure. Turkey responded by imposing its own sanctions on two US officials. Another hostage is Turkish-American, Serkan Golge, a physicist who worked for NASA’s Mars Program.

Hamas

Hamas has been on the foreign terror list by the United States since 1997, yet Turkey’s Erdogan openly embraces the violent organization. In 2017, Erdogan reiterated his support saying “Hamas is not a terrorist organization.” Erdogan’s hypocrisy of fighting terrorists while aiding and abetting a recognized terrorist organization reflects the path of his neo Ottoman Islamic ideology. Hamas is clearly a threat not only to Israel but as well as the Palestinian people, and Erdogan is banking on the tension in Gaza. His desire to be the custodian of Jerusalem and to become the savior of the Palestinians through the creation of an “army of Islam” to destroy Israel is something the US must wake up to before it is too late.

Islamic State (IS)

Countless reports have been published on linking Turkey to either directly assisting the Islamic State or turning a blind eye. Turkey’s main goal, as it is today, is to weaken the Kurds in Syria at all costs even if it means allowing the brutal terrorist organization to roam free within Turkey and across its borders. In 2014, Turkish forces watched on top of a hill as Kurds were besieged in a small Syrian border town, in Kobane. In addition, Turkey has profited from illicit oil deals with the Islamic State, the deals were not limited to Turkey and IS but Erdogan’s family and the terror organization as well. In 2014, former Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu stated that “ISIS is not a terrorist organization. It’s a group of people bound together with discontent and anger.” In a report titled ISIS in Turkey published in May 2018,  it stated that “had Turkey not been so tolerant of ISIS activities within its borders, including recruitment of thousands of foreign fighters, ISIS would not be as powerful as it is today.” Moreover, Turkey continues to undermine US operations in Syria against IS as it targets the Kurds organized under the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF.

Originally published: https://securitystudies.org/6-challenges-for-us-turkish-relations/

Photo: Twitter

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