Monday, June 28, 2004

Were the Kurdish riots in Syria planned in Iraq?

Reports that the Kurdish riots in Syria this spring were coordinated, at least in part, by leaders in Iraq have been gathering credibility. Gary Gambill of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin writes that the Kurdish riots that began in northeastern Syria and spread throughout the country were not spontaneous. The riots in mid-March were planned as part of an effort to undermine the Assad regime amid rising tensions with the United States. "Although fueled by popular frustration in the Kurdish community," Gambill says, "the riots were a politically timed initiative to pressure the Assad regime in the face of heightened Syrian-U.S. tensions and Iraqi Kurdish political gains."

The report said the Syrian Kurds were organized by Kurdish leaders in neighboring Iraq who had been unhappy over Assad's support for the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Kurdish effort, led by Mustafa Barazani, began around 1999 when Assad's father, Hafez, reconciled with Saddam and used Syria as a way-station for illegal weapons to Baghdad and illegal oil exports from Iraq.

Although foreign provocateurs did not directly instigate any of the rioting, the uprising was clearly encouraged by Kurds outside of Syria. Although the KDP and the PUK issued seemingly neutral calls for all sides to reject violence, both allowed thousands of demonstrators to hold anti-Syrian protests in territory under their control. In sharp contrast to the past, Kurdish communities across the globe rallied to help their Syrian brethren. In Athens, a thousand Kurds marched with candles to the Syrian embassy. In Brussels, they came with bricks and smashed the windows of Syria's embassy. Protestors in Geneva forced their way into Syria's United Nations consulate and occupied it for an hour-and-a-half. Other major demonstrations took place in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, and Prague. Coming at a time when Syria was lobbying for economic assistance from the European Union (EU) and striving to fend off American sanctions, the Kurdish Diaspora's collective expression of solidarity was a public relations nightmare for Assad.

The United States, for its part, condemned the Syrian crackdown. State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli called on the Syrian government to "refrain from using increasingly repressive measures to ostracize a minority that has asked for a greater acceptance and integration into Syrian life."[10] This reaction was significant, as American policymakers have long dreaded the prospect of Syria's fragmentation along ethno-sectarian lines - discouraging American words in the midst of ethnic violence in Syria would have been unthinkable a few years ago. All conceivable rationales for this response presuppose that the Bush administration does not fear the ramifications of a Kurdish rebellion in Syria - or, at any rate, is deliberately communicating this impression to the Syrians. Either way, it is clear that Assad faces the first American administration willing to threaten to the stability of Syria's Baathist regime in over two decades.
Kurdish leaders are making a big mistake if they think that sowing discord in neighboring states will reap them political rewards or increase the likelihood of their achieving an independent Kurdistan.

It does seem though that the Kurds are increasingly coming to the determination that they will not be able to work out a satisfactory autonomy deal with the government that is emerging in Iraq. Thus they are turning to plan B.

Seymour Hersh's article in the New Yorker this week about Israel's plan B supports Gambill's assessment. Hersh argues that the Israeli government decided about a year ago that the US was failing in Iraq and has sought to formulate a Plan B, which is based on cultivating the Kurds and helping them to establish a pro-Israeli state, so that Israel will gain some benefit from the US invasion of Iraq should the pro-democracy and pro-West experiment go south. Hersh writes,
“Israel’s immediate goal after June 30th is to build up the Kurdish commando units to balance the Shiite militias—especially those which would be hostile to the kind of order in southern Iraq that Israel would like to see,” the former senior intelligence official said. “Of course, if a fanatic Sunni Baathist militia took control—one as hostile to Israel as Saddam Hussein was—Israel would unleash the Kurds on it, too.” The Kurdish armed forces, known as the peshmerga, number an estimated seventy-five thousand troops, a total that far exceeds the known Sunni and Shiite militias.

The former Israeli intelligence officer acknowledged that since late last year Israel has been training Kurdish commando units to operate in the same manner and with the same effectiveness as Israel’s most secretive commando units, the Mistaravim. The initial goal of the Israeli assistance to the Kurds, the former officer said, was to allow them to do what American commando units had been unable to do—penetrate, gather intelligence on, and then kill off the leadership of the Shiite and Sunni insurgencies in Iraq. (I was unable to learn whether any such mission had yet taken place.) “The feeling was that this was a more effective way to get at the insurgency,” the former officer said. “But the growing Kurdish-Israeli relationship began upsetting the Turks no end. Their issue is that the very same Kurdish commandos trained for Iraq could infiltrate and attack in Turkey.”

The Kurdish-Israeli collaboration inevitably expanded, the Israeli said. Some Israeli operatives have crossed the border into Iran, accompanied by Kurdish commandos, to install sensors and other sensitive devices that primarily target suspected Iranian nuclear facilities. The former officer said, “Look, Israel has always supported the Kurds in a Machiavellian way—as balance against Saddam. It’s Realpolitik.” He added, “By aligning with the Kurds, Israel gains eyes and ears in Iran, Iraq, and Syria.” He went on, “What Israel was doing with the Kurds was not so unacceptable in the Bush Administration.”

Senior German officials told me, with alarm, that their intelligence community also has evidence that Israel is using its new leverage inside Kurdistan, and within the Kurdish communities in Iran and Syria, for intelligence and operational purposes. Syrian and Lebanese officials believe that Israeli intelligence played a role in a series of violent protests in Syria in mid-March in which Syrian Kurdish dissidents and Syrian troops clashed, leaving at least thirty people dead. (There are nearly two million Kurds living in Syria, which has a population of seventeen million.) Much of the fighting took place in cities along Syria’s borders with Turkey and Kurdish-controlled Iraq. Michel Samaha, the Lebanese Minister of Information, told me that while the disturbances amounted to an uprising by the Kurds against the leadership of Bashir Assad, the Syrian President, his government had evidence that Israel was “preparing the Kurds to fight all around Iraq, in Syria, Turkey, and Iran. They’re being programmed to do commando operations.”

The top German national-security official told me that he believes that the Bush Administration continually misread Iran. “The Iranians wanted to keep America tied down in Iraq, and to keep it busy there, but they didn’t want chaos,” he said. One of the senior German officials told me, “The critical question is ‘What will the behavior of Iran be if there is an independent Kurdistan with close ties to Israel?’ Iran does not want an Israeli land-based aircraft carrier”—that is, a military stronghold—“on its border.”

Another senior European official said, “The Iranians would do something positive in the south of Iraq if they get something positive in return, but Washington won’t do it. The Bush Administration won’t ask the Iranians for help, and can’t ask the Syrians. Who is going to save the United States?” He added that, at the start of the American invasion of Iraq, several top European officials had told their counterparts in Iran, “You will be the winners in the region.”
The Israeli-Kurdish connection is at the center of deteriorating relations between Israel and Turkey. Zvi Bar'el has an excellent article, "Erdogan's Israeli dilemma," in Haaretz, describing how bad relations have become between Israel and Turkey over the last year. He explains how Barazani sought to convince Erdogan's government to embrace an independent Kurdistan in Iraq. His efforts were in vain. The Turkish government is not about to reverse a hundred years of anti-Kurdish policy. Instead Turkey has been rapidly building better relations with Syria and Iran so that it will be prepared to take on an independent Kurdistan. The flip side of this policy is a serious downgrading of its Israel alliance.

The Kurds only hope of achieving independence in Iraq is to win the approval of Turkey. It seems that earlier this year they were trying hard to do just that - inviting in Turkish firms to help in the construction on new facilities and roads, boosting commerce and making state visits.

Developing relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds have been badly set back, however, by the PKK's return to terrorism and insurgency. The only way Turks will ever consider an Iraqi Kurdistan benign or even a positive force in the region is if they are convinced that it could somehow guarantee Turkey that they would never again have a "Kurdish problem." An independent Kurdistan could have a future and possibly a powerful ally in Turkey against an irredentist Iraq only if Turks are convinced that Turkish Kurds will not try to join it. This is not going to happen though.

The United States will not be able to get four square behind the Kurds, even though many Americans are sympathetic to their plight. The US commitment to making the Baghdad government stick is too greater than any sympathy for Kurdish rights. Washington will have to choose between Arabs and Kurds. It is hard to imagine how Washington can choose the Kurds. The only hope for the Kurds is if Iraq slips into chaos and the Arabs break up into emulous factions with no center to support. Then possibly Washington would be left with no option but to support Plan B.

If Iraqis opt for independence, they may have 5 years at best to build their state and make regional friends. That is the time it will take Iraq to consolidate its own political center, build an army, and march north ready to fight.

If the Kurds think that they will help themselves by instigating rebellions in Syria, Iran or Turkey, they are seriously misled. Their only hope is to convince as many countries as possible in the region that they can be good neighbors. By turning to Israel for safety, the Kurds are declaring that they have run out of options and friends in the region. It is a sign of desperation, which will bring them noting but grief.

2 Comments:

At 7/06/2004 01:38:00 AM, Blogger Tom said...

It reminds me, strongly, of Bashir Gemayel and the Phalange in '70s Lebanon. Which is not a good sign.

 
At 8/17/2007 12:56:00 AM, Blogger Maldives Islands said...

Syria resources on Web Directory

 

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