From hapless Rohingyas to ethnic Kurds lessons of 2018 apply equally to all vulnerables
Events of the year that has just gone by have underscored once again the stark fact that independent and sovereign statehood is the ultimate currency of power. The patronage of distant powers, the generosity of international institutions and notions of religious solidarity have all proved to be poor substitutes for the exercise of state power. From the hapless Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar to the warring Palestinian factions of the occupied territories, the lessons of 2018 apply equally to all vulnerable peoples, but especially to ethnic Kurds, an estimated 35 million of whom are spread across four countries where they face various levels of persecution and antagonism.
Syrian Kurds may be the most visible metaphor at present for the disadvantages of being a minority, but the difference between the insecurities and injustices experienced by them and by their Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi counterparts is essentially a matter of degree, not kind. Besides, no matter how badly betrayed the Kurds of Syria may feel due to US President Donald Trump's shock decision to withdraw troops from northeastern Syria, they were familiar with the Middle East's gamut of iniquities since decades before the outbreak of Arab Spring protests in 2011. During the long rule of the Assad clan, hundreds of thousands of them were denied citizenship, their history had no place in Syrian textbooks, use of Kurdish names and celebration of Kurdish culture were discouraged, and access to education and jobs was severely restricted.
Caught between a rock and a hard place as the peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule got hijacked by jihadist groups, the Kurds opted for a middle path by carving out their own multi-ethnic, socially liberal statelet in Syria's northeast, which happened to contain rich oil fields and prime wheat-producing lands. In an ideal world of cross-border solidarity, Kurds of the neighbouring countries would have sent their security forces to Syria to fill the void that would be left by the departing American soldiers. Sadly, a coordinated intervention of this kind is inconceivable under the geopolitical circumstances and could even alienate the Kurds from their valuable coalition allies. In sharp contrast to the Kurds' dire predicament is the confidence, strength and self-reliance of the Israelis.
Alert to the clear and present danger posed by Trump's Syria withdrawal order among other signs of creeping isolationism, the Israeli government quickly vowed to pick up the slack -- but only to the extent it was warranted by its security interests. Whether or not Trump's subsequent decision to slow the troop withdrawal was influenced in part by behind-the-scenes Israeli lobbying, it has definitely been a boon for the Syrian Kurds and their local Arab allies, who stood to lose their grip on northeastern Syria rather quickly in the event of a precipitous pullout by the 2,000-strong US contingent.
It is now up to the Syrian Kurds to translate as quickly as possible the global respect and goodwill they command into the guarantees necessary for the preservation of the status quo. While the tactical objective should be to stretch the US withdrawal timetable to a lot longer than six months, the strategic goal should be to amass the defensive arsenal, economic muscle and political prestige of a sovereign country. As things stand, entering into an agreement with Damascus guaranteed by Moscow does seem unavoidable. However, the Kurds would be wise to reach such a deal from a position of relative strength if there is even a slight chance of having time on their side. After all, there is no guarantee Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's magnanimity in victory will match his resoluteness in war.
Moreover, the "deep state" of Iran is unlikely to sit idly by were the Kurdish-Arab entity to end up as a protectorate of the Syrians and Russians. A US force withdrawal would help Iran gain full control over a strategic arc of the Levant, from Baghdad in the east to Beirut in the west. This would further entrench Tehran's position in Syria's security affairs. Admittedly, the setbacks suffered by Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government as a result of the independence referendum of September 2017, are a cautionary tale against another secession attempt by Kurds.
But Iraqi Kurds' caution must be tempered by realism after the abandonment of the Kurds of Syria by a mercurial American President, ignoring his own paeans of praise to their sacrifices battling the Islamic State group since 2014. To sum up, Trump's determination to hand over Syria to Washington's rivals may have momentarily tilted the balance of regional power in favour of the Kurds' foes, but paradoxically it has strengthened the moral and legal arguments for Kurdish assertiveness and self-rule going forward. All that remains to be seen is how soon, and in what form, the Kurds can forcefully claim their reward from a grateful if effete international community.
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