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Review Category : Kurds

Wanted: A Kurdish No-Fly-Zone

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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The US Withdrawal from Syria, the Kurdish Perspective

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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Phone Seminar: “The Syrian Withdrawal and the Rapidly Shifting Sands in the Middle East”

January 23, 2019

On December 19, 2018, President Donald Trump announced by tweet that he was withdrawing most of the American troops currently in Syria. The President wrote, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” Trump also promised in a video message on Twitter that “Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now. We won.”

There are about 2200 U.S. soldiers in Syria. 2000 of these troops are in the northeast, where they direct the air and land war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), in coordination with the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF). The remaining 200 are at al-Tanf, a crucial base at the Syrian-Iraqi border which blocks Iran from completing its land bridge to Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. In both areas, the U.S. troops have very rarely been exposed to combat situations. Four Americans were killed on Wednesday in an attack by ISIS in Syria, and six U.S. soldiers have died in combat since 2014.

Since his initial announcement, the President and his aides have somewhat walked back these tweets. Although some U.S. troops have begun to leave, it is unclear exactly how long it will take, and whether the 200 troops in al-Tanf are to be included.

What are the ramifications of a U.S. withdrawal from Syria? And what are the national security interests that favor the U.S. staying the course there? To explore these questions and more, EMET is honored to host Professor Efraim Inbar from Jerusalem for a phone seminar.

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The Kurdish Demands in Syria

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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Press Release: EMET Expresses its Strong Disappointment with the Decision to Remove U.S. Troops from Syria

EMET Expresses its Strong Disappointment with the Decision to Remove U.S. Troops from Syria

(Washington, DC, December 19, 2018) – Today, the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) expressed its strong disappointment with the decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.  In a Wednesday, December 19th tweet, the President said, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”  The White House then confirmed in a statement that the administration has “started returning United States troops home.”  EMET strongly believes this surprising and precipitous withdrawal of all of our troops from Syria endangers U.S. national interests as it is not in line with the American foreign policy principle of standing by our friends, in this case the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), as well as the State of Israel, and only gives oxygen to our enemies — the Islamic State, the Iranian mullahs, the Assad regime in Syria, Putin’s Russia and Turkey under Erdogan.

There are currently an estimated 2200 U.S. troops in Syria.  These troops are located in northeastern Syria in an area controlled by U.S. allies, the SDF, and at the al-Tanf border crossing with Iraq in southeastern Syria. In both areas, the U.S. troops play only a training and support role and have only very rarely been exposed to combat. Their primary mission is to train, equip and advise our partners on the ground.

The SDF is a strong U.S. ally that controls about 30% of Syria.  It includes both Syrian Kurds and others who live in that region.  Unlike the rest of Syria, civilians in SDF controlled territory have civil, religious, and voting rights.  When the IS was ascendant in Syria and Iraq, the Syrian Kurds – who later became the SDF – were the lone moderate force who successfully opposed the IS. At the behest of the U.S., the Syrian Kurds/SDF fought the IS to liberate Syrian civilians in Raqqa and other areas, despite the fact that there were no Syrian Kurds living in the area.  Thousands of Syrian Kurds/fighters from the SDF were killed or wounded in this fighting.

By removing U.S. troops from these areas in Syria, the U.S. endangers moderate forces in the region and empowers many bad actors.  First, this will likely allow the Islamic State forces to rebound, in a manner similar to what occurred when the U.S. removed troops from Iraq in 2011.  Second, this will encourage Islamist Turkish dictator Erdogan to attack the SDF, as Erdogan has always hated and feared any Kurdish groups.  Third, this will encourage the Assad regime, backed by its allies the Iranians and Russians, to attack the SDF and the al-Tanf pocket.  Fourth, this removal will allow Iran to solidify its ‘Shia crescent’ land bridge from Iran to Lebanon, on which it has transported soldiers and weapons and missiles, and thus endanger U.S. allies such as Israel and Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  Fifth, by removing U.S. troops so suddenly, and without concern for the danger it causes to U.S. allies, the U.S. is likely to be seen as an “unreliable ally” by the rest of the world. And finally, this decision should be examined carefully in light of the fact that Iran, which has gotten progressively more and more entrenched in Syria, has just successfully conducted a medium range ballistic missile test, which, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said, “is capable of carrying multiple warheads.”

Sarah Stern, founder and President of EMET stated, “We at EMET have often argued that there should be synergy between good foreign policy, national interest, and what is moral and right. Here there is no synergy.  By removing U.S. troops from Syria so precipitously, we are weakening the fight against the Islamic State.  It is more than likely that ISIS will now emerge in another form, or some other re-incarnation.  We are throwing our SDF allies, and other moderate forces, who have shed their blood fighting the Islamic State, to the wolves of Turkey, the Assad regime in Syria, Iran, and Russia. We are encouraging the world to believe that the U.S. is a feckless and inconsistent ally.  This decision will only add to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. And we are allowing Iran to complete its land bridge, thereby endangering other U.S. allies, including our one democratic ally in the region, Israel. And we are leaving Israel, in particular, much more exposed and vulnerable to attack.”

“EMET strongly encourages the President to reconsider his decision soon, before the progress that has been made in the fight against ISIS is damaged, the stability the SDF has created in northeast Syria is destroyed, the enemies of the U.S. are empowered, and the U.S. looks weak abroad,” Stern concluded.

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About The Endowment for Middle East Truth
Founded in 2005, EMET’s mission is to educate policymakers in Washington and the general public about the importance of Israel to the United States in their common struggle against radical Islam. For more information, please visit, http://www.emetonline.org. Follow EMET on Twitter and Facebook.

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To US Lawmakers, Keep Troops in Syria

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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Israel, Turkey and the Kurdish Question

“I am not used to receiving lectures about morality from a leader who bombs Kurdish villagers in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, who helps Iran get around international sanctions,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments on the US relocating its embassy to Jerusalem.

Are these genuine comments from the Israeli side? Many Kurds feel bitter at Israel, rightly so despite many common interests. The Kurdish sentiment is legitimate. They feel the Israeli government only speaks out when it benefits its own national interests and does not really care about the Kurdish cause. Whatever the motive may be for the Israeli government to speak up, it is certainly time to alter its policy toward Turkey, as Ankara is gradually adjusting its policy toward the Jewish state.

Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric against Israel went as far as comparing the Jewish State’s response to recent Gaza protests to that of Nazi Germany.

“There is no difference at all between the persecution inflicted on the Jews in Europe 75 years ago and the brutality faced by our brothers in Gaza.”

He further added, “the children of people who were tortured in concentration camps in every way during World War II unfortunately today resort to methods against innocent Palestinians that are in no way inferior to those of the Nazis.”

But do these words mean anything to the governments on both sides? Economic ties say otherwise.

Turkey was in fact the first Muslim country to recognize Israel as an independent state in 1948. What followed was a series of gradual economic agreements, which still dominate the relationship between the two states today. Economist Hatice Karahan said Turkish exports to Israel have continued to grow over the last several years. They were at about $2.5 billion in 2016, and in the first 10 months of 2017, Turkish exports to Israel went up another 14%. Turkey’s state air carrier, Turkish Airlines, is also the second most popular airline out of Tel Aviv after El Al, Joseph Dana reported in an opinion piece written for The National.

Due to the lack of hydrocarbon resources in Turkey, the Turkish government has heavily relied on Iraqi Kurdistan for its supplies, and of course is working with Israel to build a pipeline through Cypriot waters. From 1995 to 2015, Turkey’s exports to Israel was on average 4.26 times of its share in the world export, as described in the International Journal of Commerce and Management. Furthermore, chairman of the Turkish Exporters Assembly Mehmet Buyukeksi called for a tripling of trade volume between the two countries in the next five years. This is after in 2017, Turkish exports to Israel increased by 20% and Israeli exports to Turkey rose by 45%, and trade volume was set to grow to $10b. from $3.9b., wrote Sharon Udasin.

Israel was the only country to recognize the Kurdish independence referendum held in September 2017, which failed miserably due to the lack of strategy on the Kurdish side and the absence of hard support from the international community.

It seems Israeli support for the Kurds does not have teeth similar to Turkish support for Palestinians. The Palestinians are surrounded by 22 Arab states that all call for an independent Palestinian state in addition to Turkey and Iran. The Kurds on the other hand are left to find partners anywhere they can to push ahead with their aspirations for self-determination, even if it means resorting to Israel’s tiptoeing statements.

If the Israeli government is firm about supporting the Kurds, and truly envisions the Kurdish people as a common ally with common interests in a Middle East rapidly shifting toward Islamist authoritarian governments, it must act quickly.

This can be done by supporting the Kurds in Iraq, dominated by Iranian influence, and in Syria, a fractured state that continues to be dictated by President Bashar Assad and his brutal allies, which include Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and holds over 3 million Kurds who have been the only successful force fighting Islamic State while facing a military campaign from Erdogan’s army.

The more than 20 million Kurds living under the Islamist Erdogan regime in Turkey, and the 12 million Kurds being governed by the dangerous Iranian regime for nearly four decades, are key to Israel’s security in the region. But if Israel continues to accommodate Erdogan’s regime through trade ties, then it may risk losing Kurdish support too.

Originally published at: https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Israel-Turkey-and-the-Kurdish-question-559446

Photo: Al Jazeera

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America Cannot Afford to Lose the Kurds

Kurds have a saying, ‘no friends but the mountains.’ This stems from a sense of betrayal by the international community since the end of World War I and a promise that saw no traction in creating an independent state called Kurdistan. In the 21st century the Kurds once again fear they will be given the cold shoulder in Iraq and Syria, this time by the United States.

The US has developed a historical relationship with the Kurds in Iraq, following the first Gulf War. Under President George Bush, the US set up a no-fly zone which allowed the Kurds a space to govern themselves protecting them from Saddam Hussein. Soon after, in 1992 the Kurds established the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which set the stage for self-determination, from the Kurdish perspective at least. Fast forward to the 2003 Iraq War, the KRG became the most important and reliable ally of the US inside Iraq. Let’s not forget that not one American life was lost in the Kurdistan Region during the entirety of the war.

On September 25, 2017 the Kurdish government decided to make a unilateral decision and pushed forward a referendum calling for independence. As warned prior to holding the vote, the entire international community, and the US included took a hard stance against the Kurdish decision. Perhaps the Kurdish decision stemmed from the idea that the US and the rest of the world would finally reward them with a state after successfully disintegrating the Islamic State (IS) while the Iraqi army collapsed. But this hope was short lived and what followed was a disaster. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRCG) general Qassim Soleimani visited Sulaimania province to warn the Kurds against calling for independence. Iranian backed Shiite militias, specifically the Popular Mobilization force (PMU) overran Kurdish held oil rich Kirkuk, a disputed territory under the Iraqi constitution. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened military action. Iraqi Prime Minster Haidar Abadi warned of consequences, and he kept to his word.

With all this, in the eyes of the Kurdish regional government, the US was nowhere to be found. The Kurds found themselves isolated and alone.

In Syria, the Kurds in the northeast sense betrayal is looming, again from the United States. Prior to the rise of IS, the Kurds in Syria played a defensive role as Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad pounded his opponents. The Kurds neither took the side of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) (which today is fractured, unreliable and fighting Turkey’s war against the Kurds), or the Assad regime. The Kurds were simply protecting their historical territories in the north of the country. As IS rose and declared Raqqa to be its capital, the tides turned against the Kurds. IS saw all as its enemy, including the secular and “atheist” Kurds. Despite the push from the terror organization, the Kurds successfully organized fighters both men (People’s Protection Unit YPG) and women (Women’s Protection Unit YPJ). In alliance with the United States which later established the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military force made up of the YPG, YPJ and Arab populations of north Syria. The SDF swiftly brought IS to its knees, liberated Raqqa and the rest of its territories east of the Euphrates River with less than 5% territory remaining.

Today there are about 2,200 US troops in northern Syria aligned with the SDF. The US plays many pivotal roles with its presence, which include but not limited to training and equipping the SDF, continue the fight against IS, prevent Russia, Iran and Assad forces from crossing the Euphrates river, help in reconstruction efforts in liberated areas and to patrol the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent Turkey from triggering a war against the Kurds, in what President Erdogan views as terrorists. However, President Donald Trump is adamant about withdrawing from Syria, a move if implemented, would be parallel to President Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.

A hasty US withdrawal from Syria would leave a giant gap for Russia, Iran and Turkey to fill and would ultimately leave the Kurds abandoned forcing them to make amends with Assad. This would undermine all progress made by US forces with the SDF and would further legitimize Assad’s dictatorship over all of Syria. The withdrawal is unnecessary as the Americans are welcomed by Syrians east of the Euphrates.

In Iraq, the United States risks losing the Kurds to Russia and Iran following the independence referendum due to lack of reliable US backing. US presence in the Kurdistan Region is critical as Iraq finds itself deeper in Iranian regimes sphere of influence.

The Kurds have proven to be reliable, honest partners time and time again both on the battle field and in the political arena. It is long overdue for the United States to distance itself from the status quo policy of keeping failed states of Iraq and Syrian intact. The US must implement a policy in the interest of our Kurdish partners so that we don’t lose them to the dangerous regimes in the unforgivable neighborhood that is the Middle East.

Originally published at: https://securitystudies.org/guest-opinion-america-cannot-afford-lose-kurds/

Photo: James Gordon

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