The US never supported Kurdish secession, either in Syria or Iraq

The US never supported Kurdish secession, either in Syria or Iraq
5 min read
15 October, 2018
Analysis: Russian claims that Washington is trying to break up Syria are not grounded in either history or reality, writes Paul Iddon.
Syrian Kurds want greater autonomy for their region, not total independence [AFP]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently accused the United States of plotting to establish a Kurdish entity in north-eastern Syria.

If there is even a semblance of truth to his allegation then it would be a radical departure from US policies towards the region's various Kurds stretching all the way back to the end of the Second World War.

Lavrov claims the US is supporting the Syrian Kurds as an alternative to Damascus' rule over all of Syria and is laying the groundwork for a partition of the war-torn country.

"The question is: why it is not necessary to wait for the launch of a reliable political process on the Euphrates east bank that is controlled by the United States?" Lavrov told Russia's TASS news agency.

"There is only one answer to it - it is planned to establish a territory that would be a kind of a prototype of a new state," he added. "Or it will be another round of the most dangerous game with Iraqi Kurdistan, the idea of the so-called unified Kurdistan."

The Russian foreign minister previously suggested that this was the US goal in Syria last January, alleging that Washington "does not want to keep Syria as a state in its current borders".

While the US is retaining its troop presence in Syria, its support for the Kurdish-led forces there since 2014 has been solely militarily against the common enemy embodied by the Islamic State group. Going forward, it's not likely to support anything more than the de-facto internationally unrecognized semi-autonomous region that exists there, certainly nothing close to a "unified Kurdistan".

Washington did not use its political weight to push for the inclusion of the Syrian Kurds in past Geneva peace talks over the future of Syria. Salih Muslim, the former co-leader of the leading Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), was twice denied a visa to visit the United States when he was invited to attend conferences there.

The PYD believes in decentralisation and increased autonomy rather than the formation of any new nation-state

The US does not recognise the federal system the PYD declared in March 2016, which the Kurdish party sees as the first major step towards realising its vision of a decentralised federal Syrian state.

The PYD has consistently denied that it seeks an independent state for the Syrian Kurdish region. Rather, it believes in decentralisation and increased autonomy rather than the formation of any new nation-state. Even if the US supported an autonomous polity in Kurdish-majority north-east Syria, this would not necessitate the partition or break-up of the Syrian state.

The broader historical record of US dealings with the Iraqi Kurds over the past 40 years unequivocally demonstrates that Washington has never sought to break-up Iraq through its support of the Kurds.

When the US first supported the Iraqi Kurds against the central government in Baghdad - as part of a covert programme carried out along with the Shah of Iran and the Israelis in the mid-1970s - it backed the Shah's efforts to embroil the Iraqi army in Kurdistan.

This policy essentially ensured the Kurds were not given enough support to actually prevail against the Baathists on the battlefield. This cynical initiative was well documented in the US Pike Commission shortly after the Shah withdrew support from the Kurds in early 1975 to cut a deal with Saddam Hussein in Algiers and resolve the Shatt al-Arab border dispute.

Later, the post-Gulf War no-fly zone established in 1991 by the US, along with Britain and France, was created ostensibly to alleviate the humanitarian crisis there and prevent Saddam's helicopter gunships from slaughtering innocent Kurdish civilians fleeing into the mountains.

US officials were nervous about taking any action that would result in Kurdistan seceding from Iraq. Nevertheless, the decisive action did incubate Iraqi Kurdistan's autonomy. As one account retrospectively quipped, Washington's actions "accidentally created Kurdistan".

The 2003 US-led invasion that finally toppled Saddam did see Washington work with the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, which secured the northern front against Baghdad. That came as a direct result of Turkey's decision not to participate in the war, leaving the US with no other feasible alternative to establish a northern front.

Washington publicly opposed its Iraqi Kurdish allies from pursuing their independence referendum

Washington had sought to use strategic Turkish bases to support the northern front. Had that original invasion plan been executed, tens of thousands of Turkish troops would have also crossed the border into Iraqi Kurdistan where they would likely have forcibly dismantled its nascent autonomy - which Ankara staunchly opposed at the time - with American acquiescence.

In September 2017, Washington publicly opposed its Iraqi Kurdish allies from pursuing their independence referendum and sided with Baghdad against their efforts in support of a unified Iraq.

Lavrov voiced some support for the Kurdish referendum as the right of Kurds to express their aspirations, which was more than any senior US official at the time was willing to do. He later asserted, following Baghdad's post-referendum takeover of the Kirkuk region from Kurds, that Moscow fully supported Iraq's unity.  

It was the Soviet Union that backed the only independent Kurdish state in history. The short-lived Republic of Mahabad in 1946 broke away from Tehran as part of Moscow's efforts to secure oil concessions in northwest Iran.

This sparked the Azerbaijan crisis, arguably the first major superpower confrontation of the then-fledgling Cold War.

In adherence to the containment policy it had just adopted against Moscow, Washington backed Tehran in its bid to reclaim these territories and successfully exerted pressure against Moscow to withdraw the Red Army from Iran, which it did. This enabled Tehran to reassert control over its Azerbaijan province, which isolated Mahabad and quickly led to the complete dismantlement of the Iranian Kurdish state barely two years after its inception.

Without decisive US support against the Soviets it's arguable the Mahabad Republic would not have been defeated so rapidly.

In light of these historical episodes, and the lack of any evidence that the US is presently seeking to use Syrian Kurdish forces to spearhead the division of Syria, the prospect of Washington supporting any Kurdish secession in the Middle East is extremely unlikely.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon