Obama Acts to Curb Kurds’ Slippage into Secession and Russia’s Ken
The Obama administration, concerned by the possible Kurdish secession from Syria and fall under Russian influence, dispatched a key official to the war zone of northern Syria last weekend.
Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama’s envoy to the coalition against ISIS, visited northern Syria from January 31 to February 1. His delegation, which included British and French officials, first toured the Kurdish enclave of Kobani on the Syria-Turkey border. They then met with leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its YPG militia, which has taken on the Islamic State in successful battles.
McGurk was the first American official to set foot in Syria since the US launched air strikes against ISIS targets last year. But, according to DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources, the war on the Islamic terrorists was not the delegation’s focal point of interest, but rather to find out how far Syrian Kurdish chiefs were willing to cooperate with the post-Assad regime, which Russian plans to install in Damascus later this year with US backing.
In other words, will the Kurdish enclaves remain part of Syria? Or will they secede and link up with the Kurdish autonomous republic of Iraq, to form an independent Kurdish state?
As an incentive to refrain from secession, McGurk assured Kurdish chiefs they would be granted a measure of autonomy under the future regime in Damascus.
The visitors were also concerned to find out if the Kurds had accepted the offer coming from a Russian delegation to stock their arsenals with the weapons systems American had so far withheld under pressure from Turkey and Iraq. Russian officials made this offer last month while visiting Qamishli, just a few kilometers from the Turkish border
The Kurdish question holds the seeds of a potential schism between Obama and Putin, whose accord for ending the Syrian war is still in its early stages of implementation.
McGurk, who led the US negotiators for shaping this accord, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Putin’s special envoy for the Middle East, had agreed to give Moscow a free hand for lining up Syria’s mixed minorities, in the interests of government stability in Damascus.
In those interests, preserving the framework of central government and maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity are deemed paramount in Washington.
To ensure stability in the post-Assad era, the Russians need the Kurds (a minority of three million which account for 15 percent of the population) to participate in the new government, or at least offer guarantees not to disrupt it.
But the Syrian Kurdish leaders are refusing this commitment for three reasons:
1. Neither Washington nor Moscow promises them a seat on the future ruling council in Damascus. The PYD and YPG were not invited to the Geneva conference this week, even through Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said they would be.
2. The Kurds are not sure President Obama will protect them from the ire of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his army. PYD leader Saleh Muslim accused Ankara of blocking the invitation and facing no resistance from Washington.
3. President Masoud Barazani, of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq (KRG), advised his Syrian compatriots not to trust either the Americans or the Russians. He said that cooperation between the two communities was the key to reaching their goal of independence. And both big powers need the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and the Syrian YPG to drive ISIS out and capture its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa.
Given this standoff, Washington’s main concern now is that Russia will move fast to give the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish armies the tanks, missiles, helicopters and planes which the US has withheld from them. This step may well accelerate the rise of a pro-Russian Kurdish state of 12 million inhabitants across northern Iraq and northern Syria. This prospect not only scares Ankara and Baghdad, but would also jeopardize future plans for Damascus.