American Betrayal Of Kurds in Syria, Lessons for India

American Betrayal Of Kurds in Syria, Lessons for India

by Rajesh Soami - Friday, December 21, 2018 02:18 PM IST
American Betrayal Of  Kurds in Syria, Lessons for IndiaUS President Donald Trump shakes hands with President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)
  • As a buyer of defence equipment India perhaps wields more leverage than it thinks.

The United States of America has announced that it is going to completely withdraw from north-eastern Syria although it has refused to give a timeline for the same. The US forces were there in the region to fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). After hobnobbing with various shades of rebels in the country, including some extremists, the US had allied with the Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to provide the ‘boots on the ground’ for its military operations. The American withdrawal now makes the Kurds vulnerable to an assault from an aggressive islamist regime in Turkey.

The Kurds largely inhabit the regions in northern Syria, Iraq, Iran and south-eastern Turkey. They are minorities in every one of these countries. In Turkey, they constitute approximately one fifth of the population. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, has been fighting for equal rights and autonomy since 1984. Turkey also claims that the PKK is closely allied to its ethnic brothers across the border in Syria, the YPG. Both PKK and YPG follow left-leaning Marxist ideology.

In contrast, Turkey has been shedding its tag of the only Muslim majority secular country in West Asia since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. The founder of AKP and current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is considered an Islamist. In fact, he was convicted and jailed in 1999 for reciting a poem which the judiciary saw as inciting religious hatred and violence. Since coming to power, Erdogan has curbed the power of the Turkish military which was the guardian of secularism in the country since the time of Ataturk. He has also jailed hundreds of journalists and thousands of government workers after the failed coup in July 2016. Kurdish members of parliament who were in the opposition have also been jailed.

Erdogan has also pursued a more muscular policy against the Kurds. The Turkish military has launched attacks against Kurdish ‘separatists’ in the southeast. More importantly, Ankara has also unleashed military operations across the border inside Syria and continues to physically occupy Syrian territory. In May 2016, the US and Russia had inadvertently come together and used their military presence in northern Syria to block the first Turkish incursion inside Syria. Since then, Erdogan has deftly played the US and Russia against each other. This led to a tacit agreement between Moscow and Ankara in August 2016 allowing the Turkish forces to attack a Kurdish enclave inside Syria. This was Turkey’s second operation inside Syria. The US seems to have decided now that it does not value its anti-ISIS alliance with the Kurdish militia over its ties with Turkey either. Erdogan has threatened a third military operation against the Kurds inside Syria. The US withdrawal will facilitate this.

This puts in question the American ability and commitment to support its allies. For India, which has been drawing closer to the US since two decades, this is a time for sober reflection. India has numerous lessons to learn from the developments in Syria. The oldest lesson, of course, is that there are no permanent friends or allies. The Kurds have been used and now can be disposed of without consideration for their interests. The Turkish defence minister has already warned that the Kurds will be buried in ditches after the news of the withdrawal of US troops was announced.

The second lesson is that both international law and human rights are merely tools used by the larger powers to further their own interests. PKK and YPG were instrumental in saving the Yazidis when they were trapped in the mountains in Sinjar by the dreaded ISIS. In contrast, all foreign terrorists reached Iraq/Syria and joined ISIS via Turkey which preferred to look the other way. Moreover, Turkey is holding on to Syrian territory in clear violation of its sovereignty. Rather than oppose this, the US seems to be clearing the way for further Turkish incursions against the Kurds into Syria.

Interestingly, the announcement of withdrawal of its troops has come on the same day Washington approved the sale of Patriot missiles to Turkey. Ankara had earlier decided to acquire the Russian S-400 missile defence systems, not unlike India. This was fiercely opposed by the US. Turkey being a NATO member was obliged to buy only western origin equipment. The CAATSA law, enacted by the US in August, sought to punish countries which have military ties with Russia.

The recent offer by the US to sell the patriot missiles is clearly intended to block the Russian sale of S-400. The withdrawal of American troops from Syria may be a dangling carrot to sweeten the deal and convince Ankara to take the plunge. A more mercantilist approach to geopolitics will be hard to find.

India which has been buying more and more equipment from the United States of America, will do well to note this. The arms lobby in the US is sufficiently influential to change American decisions which may be completely unrelated to the transaction itself but have geopolitical implications in other arenas. India is the largest importer of weapons in the world and Indian policymakers must leverage this in the capitals around the world. They may actually manage to acquire more benefits through lobbying and bargaining in Washington than they may have hitherto imagined.

Rajesh Soami is a Research Scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University currently pursuing PhD in International Relations. He is also a badminton enthusiast. He tweets @RajeshSoami.

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