The recent decision by the Trump administration to withdraw the United States (US) troops from Syria has created new challenges in the region. Many US military officials criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria citing the safety of Kurdish people who fought alongside the US military against ISIS in the region. The former head of US Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel issued sharp warnings over Trump’s decision of a sudden exit of US forces from Syria. As expected, Turkey saw this as an opportunity to attack the Kurdish forces in Syria as they see the neighbours in northeastern Syrian province a direct threat to their internal stability and security.Amid this unprecedented turn of events the rift among the Arab powers too has become apparent after Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar responded to Turkey’s attack on Syria. These responses, however, fail to foster protection and security for the Kurds in Syria as the Arab world is divided and has greater interests in the region than intervening in a complex crisis in Syria to protect the Kurds.


Deconstructing Turkey’s attack on Syria


Although Kurds share the same ethnicity and history, the factions within Kurds primarily spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria have different political objectives. In Turkey, The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is tagged as a terrorist group. The fact that both YPG (People’s Protection Unit) and SDF (Syrian Democratic Front) are constituted by large groups of people from PKK worries Turkey. The SDF and YPG have a strong political affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party and share common strategic interests in the region. They also share a common political understanding based on writings of Abdullah Ocalan, one of the founding members of PKK who espoused a theoretical construct for the party. The Kurdish forces in Turkey and Syria in the past decades have launched several attacksfor greater autonomy and to form an independent homeland in the region. In this contextTurkey’s interest in the ongoing crisis is twofold – clear out the rebels from the border and create a safe zone along the borders. The fear of a unified Kurdistan has prompted Turkey to carry out plans to change the demographics of the region by creating a buffer zone between north-eastern Syria and Turkey. Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring is to repatriate up to 2 million of the country’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees inside the planned border zone. As per the Kurds, Ankara’s real goal is to dilute their demographic dominance of the northeast with an influx of mostly Sunni Arab refugees hailing from other parts of Syria. Erdogan has been waiting for the right time to strike to further accentuate his plan of crushing the Kurdish insurgency within Turkey permanently and creating a buffer zone in the border with a heterogeneous society that can be controlled from Ankara.


Responses from the Gulf States


The priorities in the Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics has its political implications that transcend to other parts of West Asia. The power poles of the region reacted differently to Trump’s decision.The Sunni monarchs of the Arab world have estimated the situation quite contrastingly.Understanding the responses of these countries would further help locate the larger geopolitical interests of these countries amid the dramatic turn of events in Syria, the ongoing rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) between Saudi Arabia and Qatar,as well as tense relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.


The issue of Kurds could be read in conjunction with the strained relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.The two Sunni powers in the world have a longstanding political rivalry. The bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey improved during the time of King Abdullah for a brief period although the ‘Arab Spring’ revolution put the two powers on the opposite sides. The relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia reached a new low after Turkey extended its support to Qatar in response to the blockade by Saudi-led coalition. Turkey’s prompt response by assisting Qatar after Saudi Arabia and its allies declared a blockade led to strong disapproval and rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The diplomatic fallout over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi further deteriorated the bilateral relationship between both the countries.


The decision of the US to withdraw from Syria has been consternated for Saudi Arabia and its allies. The protracted effects of the decision by the US is predicted to be risky and perilous although the responses from GCC have been lukewarm in this case. One of the main reasons for such a response is that for Saudi Arabia or UAE the security situation in Syria is not a priority at the moment. The recent attacks on Saudi Aramco and the warnings from Houthi rebels fighting against the Saudi-led coalitions in Yemen draws more attention of the country towards its southern borders and the war in Yemen.The goal of Saudi Arabia and its allieswith respect to the recent happenings in Syria would only be to essentially counterTurkey’s influence in the region. Hence, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt condemned Turkey’s attack in northeastern Syria and called for immediate action to halt Turkey’s incursion.


On the other hand, Qatar supported Turkey’s incursion into Syria citing the Kurdish groups in Syria as an imminent threat to the internal stability of Turkey. Qatar’s foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, while addressing the Global Security Forum in Doha said, “Turkey is trying to push the threat away from its borders.” Qatar’s support for Turkey could be seen as a token of gratitude for helping the emirate during the Saudi-led blockade. Turkey’s prompt assistance helped Qatar to stabilize its key market domains. Qatar sees a vital economic and political partner in Turkey and does not intend to kowtowto the pressure exerted on the country by Saudi Arabia and its allies. Hence, with respect to the larger aspirations of Kurds for an independent homeland Qatar’s allegiance is tricky.While Qatar supports Turkey’s incursion into Syria, Qatar is also keen on warming up to Iraq’s Kurdistan which enjoys close relations with Ankara. Qatar has established diplomatic relations with the Kurdistan region of Iraq and has also affirmed Qatari investments in the region. The differences between Kurdish political factions in Syria and Iraq enable Qatar to ally with Turkey and enhance trade opportunities with Erbil at the same time.


The Kurds and their divided political ambitions


The Kurds across the region share the same aspiration of creating an independent homeland for themselves, but they have major political differences over the years. These differences are rooted in the tribal affiliation, political leadership and past experiencesof each group. The Kurdish political parties have reaffirmed their differences over the years and it is very much apparent now more than ever. Amidst these differences, the political leadershipof each of the group has overlooked the pan-Kurdish ambitions and have focussed more on their own political aspirations. For example, the Kurdish leadership in Iraq has developed strong relations with Turkey although in Syria the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is an enemy of the Turkish government because of its close links with the Kurdistan Workers Party. This is also because, since the inception of PKK, the affiliates and the leaders of the party have operated from Syria, protesting against the Turkish government. The Kurdish regional government in Iraq is more concerned about empowering Erbil than fighting for the Kurds elsewhere, risking support from the regional powers. After Rojava, the Kurdish name for northeastern Syria, the only self-governed land for Kurds that remains is the Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Regional Government is more concerned about its own survival when it comes to the crisis in Syria.InIraq and Syria, the Kurdish political parties also face significant opposition from other factions within Kurds. This has weakened the stature of these political parties and has pressurized the leaders to work out ways to empower their political parties.

The division within Kurdish political factions in Iraq is a challenge for the cause of an independent homeland for Kurds. Apart from this, the sustenance of the Iraqi Kurdistan will also strongly depend on the diplomatic ties it forges with greater powers in the region to secure a stable independent state. For Erbil, strong business cooperation with the GCC is vital for their dream of transforming Kurdistan to an oil-exporting state. For example, Erbil sees a potential partner for growth in the UAE. The Abu Dhabi National Energy Company, better known as Taqa in 2017 announced that its subsidiary has set a new production record from the Atrush oil field in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The production in the Atrush field started in 2017 and it has produced 17 million barrels of oil in the last two years. The oil field is operated by Taqa Iraq and has a 47.4 working interest while the other partners include the Kurdistan Regional government with 25 percent working interest and the General Explorations Partners with 27.6 percent working interest.


Such partnerships for the Kurdistan Regional Government are vital at the moment. Hence, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq led by NechirvanBarzaniis keener on establishing greater ties with Abu Dhabi, Ankara, Riyadh, Doha and Tehran without taking any strong position on any regional rivalry.So, with respect to the Syrian Kurds,a stern response from the Kurdistan regional government is improbable, considering the internal challenges the government in Erbil faces and also to secure its diplomatic relations with other regional powers. The fact that no Kurdish groups have significant political power elsewhere in the region apart from Iraq limits the options for support for the Syrian Kurds although many of them have already fled to Iraq.


The way ahead for Syrian Kurds


The Syrian Kurds now have announced a deal with President Assad, which allows the Syrian government to deploy its forces along the border with Turkey to save the Kurds from Turkish incursion. This creates a new shift of alliances for Kurds in the region. The pact between Assad and the Kurds in northeastern Syria brokered by Russia shows a new political partnership between the Kurdish dominated SDF and Russia in a vacuum left by the US. Mazloum Abdi, the SDF commander-in-chief said that his people were forced into an alliance with the enemies of the US because of the decision of the US to pullout from Syria that has left them vulnerable to a Turkish assault on them. “If we have to choose between compromise and genocide, we will choose our people," wrote Abdi in an op-ed for Foreign Policy. "The Russian and Syrian regime have made proposals that could save the lives of millions of people who live under our protection”, he further stated.


Amidst different possibilities that have been speculated, a deal with the Syrian government would only minimize the chances for greater autonomy for Syrian Kurds. Bashar al Assad wanted to reassert his rule in the lost territories of Syria and as per experts, it is unlikely for his government to allow the Kurdish led administration to maintain autonomy. As per Marwan Kablan , director of policy analysis at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, this deal would allow the Syrian government to recover most of the territories, east of Euphrates - including Qamishli, Hassakeh, and DeirAzZour - which are rich in oil and gas. He suggests that the Syrian government is exploiting the situation and would not agree for any kind of autonomy for the Kurds in the region. Hence, in a divided Arab world with a politically divided Kurdish community,stuck in between the offer made by Moscow and the decision by Washington, it is clear that the fight is now for, not autonomy but safety and survival. This would only leave the Kurds in Syria to succumb to the pressure of any deal that is extended by the Syrian government.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.