The Kurds: POST-DAESH and beyond

Not long ago, developments in the Middle East seemed to bring closer to reality the idea of a Kurdish state entity, with Kurdish influence increasing due to their military successes against Daesh and in the context of the prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Syria. However, the Middle East is showing again its volatility, and the Kurds are now not only far from statehood but fighting to survive among the opposing interests of more powerful international and regional actors.
Recent developments
a) The 25 September 2017 independence referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan – that resulted in approximately 93.25 percent of votes in favor of independence – was held without taking into account not only the regional and international opposition, but also the lack of unity among the Iraqi Kurdish political groups.
Most local observers and analysts blamed the referendum failure on Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who decided to hold it despite Iraqi and regional objections, including those of the United States. According to his critics, he needed to bolster his popularity by playing the independence card.
The Washington administration attempted to give the Kurdish leadership a face-saving way to postpone the referendum, reportedly promising that the Kurds would receive letters from the United States and Britain offering to facilitate and support their negotiations with Baghdad. The U.S. offer said that if negotiations with Baghdad had not progressed after two years, the United States would recognize the need for a referendum.
Iranian efforts to intervene also failed. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Iranian Quds Force and Iran’s military point man in Iraq, travelled to the Iraqi Kurdistan capital Erbil before the referendum to persuade Barzani to stand down.
Turkey, Iran and Syria were deeply concerned that the vote would fan secessionist sentiment among their own Kurdish populations. Along with Baghdad, they have the power to completely besiege the landlocked region economically.
While the region united in its desire to curtail Kurdish ambitions, the Kurds themselves were divided, first over whether to hold the vote and later on how to deal with the fallout. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) started making plans for state building and negotiations with Iraq before a formal declaration of independence would be issued, and KRG leader Massoud Barzani even created a new “political leadership” body to prepare for independence, but three Kurdish parties refused to join it.
The Baghdad government declared the referendum as illegal, and on 15 October 2017, Iraqi forces took control over Kirkuk, which gave impetus to capitulation across northern Iraq, with Baghdad-backed forces facing no resistance.On 25 October 2017, to avoid the escalation of the conflict, the KRG offered to “freeze” the result of the referendum and begin dialogue with Baghdad, and on 29 October 2017, Barzani announced his intention to step down as President of the KRG, after being in power for 12 years. His gamble of pushing through with the unofficial referendum ended with the disputed territories being recaptured by Iraq and the Kurdish state-building project was abandoned.
b) In Syria, Kurds have been lauded internationally for their struggle with Islamist militants, sometimes as the only viable force to counter them on the ground[1]. However, Kurdish autonomy ambitions have not always sat well with the Assad regime, as well as for its regional backer Iran.
The Assad regime seeks to recapture the territories that it lost in the post-2011 revolution phase. It also has economic interests linked to the presence of two-thirds of Syrian oil in the area, which is also rich in gas resources and has important trade routes such as the highway linking Baghdad to Damascus. The Assad regime views the persistence of a Kurdish autonomous area under U.S. protection as a direct threat.
For Tehran, the region is an essential land corridor stretching from Iran through Iraq and leading into Lebanon.
Both Iran and the Assad regime favor limited confrontation and indirect military operations against the Kurds and their U.S. backers, given the large resources spent in the area by Washington. For Iran and Assad, subversive techniques range from triggering unrest against the SDF, exploiting Arab Kurdish differences and working on an underground network that can be more effective in the war with the United States, even more with Washington’s escalating strikes on Syria.
Local observers noted that the Assad regime is also exploiting Kurdish-Arab rivalries and creating undercover networks, with much of the covert and overt activity targeting Deir ez-Zor, Bukamal, al-Mayadeen, Raqqa, Manbij and Hasakah.
c) In northern Syria, as well as in northern Iraq, the Kurds are facing significant attacks of the Turkish military forces, motivated by Ankara’s position that the Kurdish militias – notably the People’s Protection Units (YPG), supported by the U.S. led anti-Daesh coalition – are connected to the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organization.
Earlier this year, the Turkish government launched the “Olive Branch” offensive against the purported positions of the YPG Kurdish militia in Syria’s western enclave of Afrin, and at the beginning of June, Ankara and Washington said they have agreed on details of a withdrawal of the YPG from northern Syria, during a meeting between visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The State Department confirmedthe agreement on a “road map” for the city of Manbij, but the Turkish foreign minister declared that further U.S. support for the YPG was “unacceptable.” He also said that the city of Manbij would be secured by both Turkish and U.S. forces, and the roadmap will also be implemented in other parts of Syria.
In this context, on June 11 2018 the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Council – the political arm of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – announced that it is ready for unconditional talks with the Syrian government and welcomed the prospect of a “summit for Syrians”, a proposal put forward by a delegation dispatched by Damascus to mediate between the Assad government and the Kurds.
As for northern Iraq, in an interview with CNN Turk on June 7, 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Turkey was ready to attack northern Iraq if the Iraqi central government does not take action against Kurdish militant groups there, and may strike the Iraqi city of Qandil, “at any moment one evening.” A military action would go on to include Sinjar and Makhmur as well, he added. Earlier in the week, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that Turkey had established 11 regional bases in northern Iraq and doubled its troops across the region.
d) The Turkish actions triggered a reaction in Israel, where Yoav Kisch (Likud member of the Knesset) recently proposed to include on the Knesset’s agenda that Israel should back Kurdish statehood. “Facing Iran’s strengthening in the region, Turkey’s extremism and the dissolution of Syria, Israel must lead and support the Kurdish effort to establish an independent state” is the title of Kisch’s motion.
According to Kisch, Turkey is “distancing itself from the West and calling out against Israel, supporting terrorism and continuing to oppress the Kurds in its territory.” As such, “recognizing an independent Kurdistan can be good for Israel’s interests,” Kisch said, adding: “There is a reason that Israel was the first to publicly congratulate moves toward Kurdish independence in northern Iraq.”
Life after Daesh: no victory for the Kurds
Dash’s eventual military defeat, on paper a universally desired good, is already seen as the cause of new waves of chaos to reverberate throughout the country and the region. Its fall down will reopen a series of political vacuums that will likely reshuffle territory in Syria.
A victory for Turkey
The Kurdish people are concentrated in northern Syria and, when Daesh began its blitzkrieg campaign to take over much of Syria and Iraq in 2014, the Kurds initially proved themselves as the only effective force to counter the extremist group. As such, they succeeded in taking over much of the land from Daesh, including much of Syria’s oil fields near Deir ez-Zour. But they have been subject to numerous assaults from Turkey which views the Kurdish militias as terrorists due to their ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
In 2016, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan intervened in northern Syria to oust the Kurdish YPG from the region. The operation stalled after failing to take Manbij from the Kurds, but Turkey kept its forces and influence in the areas it captured. Then, in early 2018, Erdoğan again attacked Kurdish-held territory, this time in the Afrin region, an area just west of the land he captured two years previously. Both times, Turkey threatened Manbij, and has only been stopped by the fact that U.S. forces are present in the area.
In a recent speech, Turkish President Erdoğan said that the Afrin mission was just one step of its larger objectives in Syria, and that more Kurdish-held towns and cities are next: “Now we will continue this process until we entirely eliminate this corridor, including in Manbij, Ayn al-Arab [Kobane], Tel-Abyad, Ras al-Ayn [Serekaniye] and Qamishli,” he threatened. All of these lie east of the Euphrates, mostly along the border between Turkey and Syria. The threat on Qamishli is also an indirect threat on Assad, who still has regime troops stationed inside the city. In other words, the defeat of Daesh means a win for Turkey in its own agenda to capture much of northern Syria.
Assad’s moves
When Turkey invaded Afrin, the Kurds went to Assad for help and he responded by sending militia groups in the defense of the region. For the Afrin deal, the Kurds gave up key positions that they held in Aleppo in exchange for help, in addition to likely losing the Afrin region as a negotiating chip in post-war negotiations for autonomy. The Kurds in Syria have long wanted more sovereignty from Assad and pushed for Syria to adopt a federal system of governance to grant them more independence.
If they ask Assad for aid they are effectively giving up much of their bargaining chips for negotiations of power, which would mean a major victory for Assad.
Assad too may be able to work out a deal with Turkey to oust Kurdish militias from agreed-upon regions in exchange for peace, but it is hard to gauge the likelihood of such a deal given Turkey’s historic support for armed struggle against Assad by sheltering and funding opposition groups.
Abandoned if U.S. troops withdraw
From the Kurdish perspective, defeating Daesh militarily may mean losing large chunks of territory in northern Syria. The only thing holding Turkey back is the presence of about 2000 U.S. troops in Manbij, Syria, but once they leave or are moved from the region – as their primary mission is to ensure Daesh’s defeat –Turkey will move against the Kurds.
Since the U.S. mission is not to defend the Kurds from Turkey but to support them in their efforts against Daesh, sooner or later the U.S. mission’s mandate will be over and the troops may withdraw, since the Administration is not likely to be moved by Kurdish pleas to defend them against Turkish forces. U.S. troops are on their way out even if the timeline is debated, meaning the Kurds are losing their main ally and reason not to be invaded.
Even if they may take a few more pockets of land in southeastern Syria from Daesh, the Kurds will face the overwhelming force of the Turkish Armed Forces, which they were incapable of stopping in Afrin. They may more territory east of the Euphrates River if Turkey decides to continue its campaign.
Also, in withdrawing shortly after Daesh’s defeat, the U.S. would be willingly and knowingly forfeiting both a direct foothold in the country guaranteed by boots on the ground, and a strong partnership with the Syrian Kurds. The Kurds will likely feel abandoned by the U.S. if it pulls out and lets their region be overrun by Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian militias.
Turkey: from “Olive Branch” to ethnic cleansing of the Kurds
In January 2018, Turkey launched the operation “Olive Branch”, targeting Kurdish groups in Afrin to clear the border area of militias it considers to be terrorist organizations. Three Kurdish militias – the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – were the targets of the offensive.
Consequently, four branches of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), approx. 1,700 fighters were diverted from the battle against Daesh and redeployed to the Kurdish enclave of Afrin (northwest Syria), in a development that could hinder the fight against the terror group.
The SDF withdrawal also reflects the deepening complexities of the U.S. involvement in Syria as the fight against Daesh winds down, leaving about 2,000 U.S. troops in de facto control of a vast part of north-eastern Syria alongside a Kurdish-dominated force that is anathema to Turkey.
According to ex-Daesh fighters, for the “Operation Olive Branch”, Turkey was recruiting and retraining Daesh fighters under the cover of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) militia which is a largely defunct umbrella grouping of non-Jihadi Syrian rebels once backed by the West. In fact, most of the 10,000 FSA fighters who crossed into Syria were, until recently, members of Daesh.
Some of the FSA troops advancing into Afrin were open about their allegiance to al-Qaeda and its offshoots, with online videos showing jihadis singing a song in praise of their past battles and “how we were steadfast in Grozny (Chechnya) and Dagestan (north Caucasus). And we took Tora Bora (the former headquarters of Osama bin Laden). And now Afrin is calling to us.”
Daesh fighters are joining the FSA and Turkish-army invasion force because they are put under pressure by the Turkish authorities. From the point of view of Turkey, the recruitment of former Daesh combatants means that it can draw on a large pool of professional and experienced soldiers. Another advantage is that they are not Turks, so if they suffer serious casualties this will do no damage to the Turkish government.
Kurdish groups have accused that operation “Olive Branch” is aiming to create a demographic change by dislodging native Kurdish civilians from their lands and replacing them with Sunni Arabs from Turkish-based refugee camps. They also said that after capturing the Kurdish city of Afrin, the Turkish government and its jihadist allies are discussing plans to rule the city by Islamic Sharia law.
During its military offensive on Afrin, the Turkish government settled several thousand Syrian refugees in border villages that were taken from the YPG. The Turkish military forced Kurdish residents and Syrian rebel fighters to leave their homes and lands. After removing Kurdish forces in Afrin, Turkey continued its campaign to displace the residents of Afrin, and brought in more Sunni Arab and Turkmen families. Large numbers of those settling in Afrin came from the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, where an anti-regime opposition surrendered to Russian and Syrian forces in April, and accepted being transferred to northern Syria.
Other accusations refer to Turkey and jihadist groups forcing religious minorities in Afrin to convert to Islam. Yazidi temples have been destroyed and Yazidi residents have been forcibly taken to mosques to convert to Islam.
The allegations mention that Ankara is not only orchestrating a demographic shift, changing the balance of Afrin’s population from predominantly Kurdish to majority Arab, but – more importantly to Turkish leaders – also changing the composition of its 500-mile border with Syria. Ahead of the January assault, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “We will return Afrin to its rightful owners.”
Erdoğan’s comments followed a claim by U.S. officials that it would help transform the Kurdish militia into a permanent border force. The announcement incensed Turkish leaders, who fear that Syria’s Kurds would use the chaos of war to advance their ambitions – and to move into a 60-mile area between Afrin and the Euphrates River, which was the only part of the border they didn’t inhabit.
Advancing in Iraq
Turkey has also continued its incursion against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region.
Operation “Tigris Shield”, which began on 10 March 2018, is considered the most serious ground operation initiated by Ankara to hinder the PKK in Iraq and Syria and to prevent the group’s cross-border attacks into Turkey. Ankara is concerned about the PKK advances and the group’s attempts to establish cantons in Iraq’s Sinjar district, similar to the model applied by Kurds in Syria.
According to local media, Turkish commandos advanced about 20 km into Duhok and Erbil provinces, part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and the Turkish Army reportedly established several military control points in the provinces. At the beginning of June, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that Turkey has doubled its military presence in the Kurdistan Region to “eliminate terror”, and it currently established 11 military bases in northern Iraq.
Local political analysts consider that Turkish troops could enter PKK strongholds in the Qandil Mountains to consolidate nationalistic votes for the government in the June 24 2018 elections by maintaining a war footing. Qandil, a mountainous area of Iraqi Kurdistan near the Iraq-Iran border has been a Kurdish haven since the Ottoman era and has a significant importance in Turkey’s perception of its territorial security.
However, the operation’s prospect to reach the Qandil Mountains is contingent on the political situation among the Iraqi government, the KRG and Iran. Since the PKK has invested heavily in the areas bordering Iran, the success of the operation requires either the consent of the Iranian government or at the least a unilateral decision on the side of the Turkish government that would put at risk Turkey’s relations with Iran. Such a risk-taking is not seen as impossible since most analysts agree that today, what matters in terms of the foreign and security policies of the concerned actors in the Middle East is no longer long-term strategies, but creating advantageous de facto situations on the ground.
Iran: new opportunities
The Kurds have also to take into account the moves of Iran, which, as Turkey, wishes to play a role in shaping the political settlement concerning Syria’s future.
While Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian arena restricts Iran’s ability to forge Syria as part of its sphere of influence, Iran responded with relative restraint to Turkey’s “Olive Branch” military campaign, only emphasizing the need to preserve the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of Syria. Also, the Chairman of the Majlis Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, declared that Turkey’s actions in Afrin are a response to the U.S. effort to partition Syria and establish a Kurdish force that will operate under American patronage in northern Syria.
Iran’s restrained response can be explained by the benefits that it sees in the Turkish operation against the Kurdish force in northern Syria, especially in light of the plan of the U.S. administration to maintain a military force in the country’s north-east.
Playing the oil factor
In addition to its distancing from the Kurds with regard to Turkey’s military operations and after helping Baghdad to counter the Kurdish push for independence last year, Iran also positioned itself to benefit from the oil exports from the region’s giant Kirkuk field. At the beginning of June, the Iranian oil ministry announced that Iraq and Iran have begun exchanging crude oil.
Baghdad agreed for the first time to divert crude from Kirkuk province, which it retook from the Kurds, to Iran, where it will supply a refinery in the city of Kermanshah. Crude from the Kirkuk field in northern Iraq is being shipped by truck to Iran. Tehran will use the oil in its refineries and will deliver the same amount of oil to Iraq’s southern ports, on the Gulf.
Between 30,000 and 60,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Kirkuk crude will be delivered by the tanker trucks to Darreh Shahr in south-western Iran. Iraq and Iran plan to build a pipeline to carry the oil from Kirkuk to avoid having to use trucks.
The announcement came shortly after an Iranian government trade delegation visited the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil during the fourth economic conference between the two parties on 2-3 May, in order to discuss ways of expanding ties. It is seen as an indication that the Iraqi Kurds are opening a new chapter in their relations with Iran, after Tehran sided with Baghdad in crushing their ambition for independence following the 2017 referendum.
Once the Iraqi Kurdish leadership came to terms with the fact that Iran is the real power broker in Iraq, a KRG delegation headed by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani visited Tehran in January and agreed with Tehran’s demand for a halt to illegal smuggling from Iraqi Kurdistan as well as more restrictions on the Iranian Kurdish opposition groups based in the Kurdistan region, including preventing the opposition groups from conducting cross-border operations.
The steps taken by the KRG to boost bilateral trade and keep a lid on militancy in its territory signal that the Iraqi Kurdish leadership has realized that it needs to be on good terms with the Iranians, not merely to survive in the volatile region, but also to be accepted once again in the Iraqi capital. Erbil’s conceding that the road to Baghdad goes through Tehran reiterates another lesson to Kurdish officials: their role in fighting Daesh has not made them indispensable to the West.
Russia: a new “flag” over the Kurds
Military analysts noted that Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch”, launched against the Kurdish forces in Afrin, could not have started without the consent of Russia, which controls the airspace over Afrin. On 31 March 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chief adviser Ilnur Cevik has confirmed that Russia allowed his country’s invasion of the Afrin region in Syrian Kurdistan.
The Syrian Kurds have been disappointed because their sacrifice in the field has been ignored not only by the Assad Government but also by major powers including Russia. Despite the fact that Russia has expressed a genuine interest in Kurdish issues, so far it has failed to convince the Assad regime to accommodate the long-standing autonomy demands of the Kurds in the region. Moreover, Russia had compelled Kurds to hand over Afrin to the Syrian government in order to prevent the Turkish military offensive, thus giving up its earlier balanced approach between Kurds and the Assad regime.
Russia has also remained reluctant to close its post in Afrin, which houses several high-ranking officials, including a general. The post reportedly falls directly in the Turkish line of fire. The airspace over Afrin is controlled by Russian and Syrian air defense systems. Russia will also be reluctant to give up its leverage on the Kurds in favor of Turkey, which is a NATO member state despite Ankara’s differences with Washington.
A long relationship
In this context, analysts also noted the difference between Turkey’s strong opposition against the U.S. support for the YPG in Syria and the relatively passive attitude when it comes to Russia’s relationship with the Syrian Kurds, a fact that shows that Ankara has historically been vulnerable to Russia’s Kurdish policy.
The Russo-Kurdish partnership goes back to the turn of the last century and might last longer than Turkey would like. The Kurds have historically played an important role in Russia’s efforts to exert influence in the Middle East. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used the Kurds to bypass America’s containment strategy in the region. Shortly after World War II, Moscow supported the creation of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan, and after the Iranian army crushed the Kurdish forces, the fighters led by Mustafa Barzani took refuge in the Soviet Union.
In Iraq, the Soviets supported Kurdish demands for national autonomy. Throughout the 1950s, when Moscow had an opponent in Baghdad, but also when pro-Soviet governments were in power in Iraq, Moscow wanted to preserve the Kurdish trump card. In the 1960s, Moscow led international efforts at the United Nations charging Iraq with conducting genocide against the Kurds. In 1970, Moscow mediated between Baghdad and the Kurds to sign a peace agreement that provided for the autonomy of Iraqi Kurds. After 1973 when the Kurds adopted an openly pro-Western stance, the Soviets supported Baghdad’s war against the Kurds, which generated demand for Soviet weapons.
During this period, the Soviet Union established close relations with Turkey’s Kurds as well. In the 1970s, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was established as a Marxist-Leninist and Kurdish nationalist organization. After the repression that followed the 1980 military coup in Turkey, many PKK members went to Syria, a close Soviet ally, where they received considerable support from Hafez al-Assad’s regime. Moscow’s political support to the PKK was public.
After the Cold War, Russia kept the Kurds as a trump card to exert pressure on Turkey, which sought to cultivate closer ties to the ex-Soviet Turk republics. To restrain Turkey’s influence, Moscow played the Kurdish card and in the mid-990s, Russia entertained the possibility of establishing a Kurdish parliament-in-exile in Moscow. Turkish media even circulated reports that the PKK set up a camp in Moscow where the militants were receiving military training. In turn, Turkey supported the separatists in Chechnya who had launched a coordinated campaign for independence, which led to two bloody wars. Turkish media and Russian officials argued that Turkey was channeling financial and military aid to Chechnya through Turkey-based Chechen organizations. In 1995, Russia agreed not to allow the PKK to set up organizations in Russia. In return, Turkey promised that it would not support the Chechen cause. Despite the agreement, the distrust remained in bilateral ties, until 2005, when Recep Tayyp Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached an agreement to support each other’s positions on Chechnya and the Kurds.
During the Syrian conflict, the Kurdish issue flared up again in Turkey’s relations with Russia. After Turkey shot down a Russian military jet for violating its airspace, Moscow delivered weapons to the YPG in western Syria, and in February 2016, a Syrian Kurdish diplomatic mission opened in Moscow. In March 2017, reports surfaced that Russia was building a military facility in Kurdish-controlled Afrin. Russia has also provided diplomatic support to the Syrian Kurds, and earlier this year it proposed a draft constitution which included Kurdish autonomy.
To Moscow, as in the past, the Kurds of the region serve a larger purpose for Russia’s regional policy. They provide Moscow with a channel of influence in the Middle East. Given Russia’s interest in returning in force to the region, Moscow is likely to deepen its ties to the Kurds. As American power in the region is perceptibly in retreat and Russia is trying to fill the vacuum, the Kurds might provide the Kremlin with further leverage.
Rosneft and the “Energy weapon”
An example was recently offered by the deal signed by the Iraqi Kurdistan authorities with Russian oil giant Rosneft, in order to help Kurdistan develop its gas reserves and build a gas pipeline, thus expanding the Russian company’s dominance in the local energy sector.
At the end of May, Rosneft said it would conduct a pre-FEED (front engineering and design) of a gas pipeline in Kurdistan as part of its plan to build an integrated gas business value chain in the region. Rosneft also said it aimed to produce up to 10,000 barrels per day of oil in Kurdistan by the end of this year.
In the past two years Rosneft invested billions of dollars in Kurdistan’s oil projects including securing control of the region’s oil pipeline, which gave Rosneft access to crucial infrastructure that ships most of the region’s oil to global markets via Turkish territory.
In October 2017 Rosneft bought Kurdistan’s oil export pipelines to Turkey from the KRG in return for $1.8 billion. According to Rosneft, oil industry, Kurdish and Iraqi government sources, the aim of the deal was not only commercial, but to cement Russia’s political influence in Iraq and the Middle East. Control of the pipelines has given Rosneft a central role in ongoing talks between the KRG and Baghdad aimed at resuming full oil exports, which were disrupted by the 2017 referendum and Iraqi seizure of oilfields.
It made the Kremlin-controlled firm the biggest investor in the region, turning Erbil, traditionally a strong U.S. ally, into an important partner for Moscow as Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand influence in the Middle East.
Igor Sechin’s expertise
While always denying that Rosneft’s deals have a political side, Igor Ivanovich Sechin, the 57 year-old CEO of Rosneft, is considered by most analysts as Russia’s second foreign minister and recently confessed in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung[2] that he feels like have already lived several different lives.
Igor Sechin is a former deputy prime minister of the Russian Federation, a former intelligence officer of the KGB, and a close confidant of Russian president Vladmir Putin. Born in St. Petersburg, he was sent in the 1980s to act as a military interpreter in Mozambique and Angola, where Moscow and Washington were fighting proxy wars.
A 2008 Stratfor report described Sechin as commanding the loyalty of the FSB and representing “the FSB’s hand in the Russian energy sector.” Sechin helped Putin nationalize much of the Russian oil industry and was appointed Rosneft CEO in 2012. He has been referred to as the most powerful man in Russia, second only to Putin, and has regularly featured on U.S. sanctions lists.
A business associate of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his time at ExxonMobil, Sechin’s work at Rosneft made him the point-person for wielding Russia’s “energy hand” throughout the world. For example, in Hungary, through Sechin’s hand, Surgutneftegas, a Russian state-owned enterprise, acquired a large share of Mol, Hungary’s largest oil company. WikiLeaks cables published in a Newsweek article[3] mentioned that when the Hungarian Government prevented Surgutneftegas from exercising shareholder rights in Mol, the U.S. Embassy reported to Washington that Sechin had threatened Mol’s CEO that he was “not only fighting with Surgutneftegas, but with the Russian state, which has tools that companies do not have.”
Increasing Russian influence over Erbil and the larger Kurdish issue could become a big problem in the years to come.
As the Kurdish issue is inherently a transnational one that impacts virtually every bordering state in the region, any escalation between Baghdad and Erbil has the potential to escalate and threaten an already unstable region. Kurdish militias backed by the U.S. are being attacked by Turkish forces in Syria while simultaneously fighting against the Assad regime. Nationalist Kurdish terrorist organizations have been a thorn in Ankara’s side from within, and an autonomous Kurdish corridor in Northern Iraq is vociferously demanding independence from an unstable government in Baghdad. There is a possibility of Russia co-opting the Kurdish struggle to challenge American interests in the region. Sowing discord has become a Russian specialty in the new Cold War, and Iraq could become a viable target for those operations. If the KRG abandons its reliance on Washington for a partner that encourages their aspirations for statehood, then the Syrian Civil War may not be the only conflict in the region that helps the new Cold War take form.
The United States: perceived as creating a power vacuum
The post-Daesh Kurdish issue is also marked – according to local analysts – by the quasi-unanimous perception of the United States as not only retreating from the region but also abandoning the Kurds after having benefitted from their support in the fight against the terrorist group.
While the United States has come to accept that it does owe the Kurds a certain amount of attention and even protection, it opposes their independence on the grounds that – in the case of the KRG – this would lead to the partition of Iraq and thus greater instability in the Middle East. Also, the Turkish Kurds are often perceived in the United States as too closely tied to the PKK, which the United States considers to be a terrorist organization. The United States has paid even less attention to the Kurds in Iran, although they might someday serve as a potential ally against the Iranian regime in much the same way as the Iraqi Kurds did against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
A proxy’s bitter experience
The U.S.-backed Kurdish “People’s Protection Units in Syria” (YPG) benefitted from the U.S. mainly for resources consisting in money, weapons, and training, among other forms of support. The United States also conducted over 10.000 air strikes in Syria, helping the YPG against Daesh with operations that the group could not have considered on its own.
However, various Kurdish groups are aware of the setbacks of the foreign support. The United States turned its back on Iraqi Kurds, whom it had backed in the early 1970s against Saddam Hussein’s regime, after the Shah of Iran cut a deal with Saddam in 1975. In 1996, Saddam’s forces made an incursion into Kurdish areas (in theory under U.S. protection), and now the U.S, is reducing the support for the YPG and may end it altogether, due to pressure from Turkey. As the Kurdish experience suggests, states are usually more concerned with the policies and goodwill of other governments and will sacrifice proxies as necessary to advance their ends.
The Kurds’ trust in the U.S. has come under severe strain since Turkey invaded and occupied the Kurdish-majority district of Afrin early this year, and more recently, when the U.S. and Turkey reached an agreement for the withdrawal of SDF fighters from the town of Manbij, liberated by the SDF from Daesh in 2016.The deal is seen as being meant to repair damaged US-Turkish relations at the expense of the Kurds, who have been used to secure American, rather than Kurdish, interests in Syria.
In the same context, the recent deployment of about 15 U.S. military vehicles on Mount Sinjar (Shingal) – with the apparent intention of establishing a military base – while officially aiming to allow the members of the Yazidi religious minority to return to their homes, was seen as being in fact a move to prevent the area from becoming “an Iranian corridor to Syria.” Shingal is one of the more strategic cities in Iraq, located near the border of Syria and 125 km west of Mosul.
An expert but not in favour of independence
The recent appointment in the U.S. of Denise Natali as assistant secretary of state for conflict and stabilization is seen as an indication of Washington’s interest in the area, since Natali is a widely recognized expert on Kurdish issues, but also a critic of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). According to a short bio published by the White House, Denise Natali was director for strategic research at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), National Defense University, where she specializes on the Middle East, Iraq, trans-border Kurdish issues, and post-conflict stabilization. Prior to joining INSS in January of 2011, Natali spent more than two decades researching and working in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria.
While Natali might be expected to be a proponent of an independent Kurdish nation, in fact she is the author of several articles critical of Kurdish elites, American patronage, and the aspiration of independence, among which an October 31, 2017 column for Foreign Policy magazine, titled ‘Iraqi Kurdistan was never ready for Statehood.’ As early as 2012, she warned that failing to rein in the KRG could cause Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria to launch efforts for independence, destabilizing the regional balance.
Natali’s position on the Kurdish issue is seen as coming at odds with the more widely-spread opinion about the value of maintaining a strong relationship with the Kurds, whose contribution in the ground war against Daesh (with western air support) saved the U.S. from having to deploy its own ground forces, but who are currently coming under growing pressure from Ankara and Damascus.
Useful in Iran?
Other analysts point out that good U.S. relations with the Kurds may turn to be important in the context of the confrontation with Iran, including the need to stem Iranian influence in the new government currently taking shape in Baghdad.
After the unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the renewed calls for ‘regime change’ in Iran, Washington’s search for an alternative in Tehran will become more pressing.
While the Iranian Kurds, with a long history of national struggle, are among the key players that could help form an alternative to the Iranian regime, they must address several challenges in order to be taken seriously into account.
The main one is that Kurds, as a small share of the population, cannot be the main force of regime change or become an alternative authority. Moreover, there is currently no unity among the Kurdish opposition parties, who also lack transparency and are probably more reliant on sources outside Iran.If the tensions between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic increase, it is possible these parties will attract political and financial support from abroad. Unless internal reforms are made, the opportunity to further the aims of Iran’s Kurds could be squandered.
Since, for the time being, Kurdish unity and a strategy for statehood cannot be achieved, the Kurdish issue is seen as possibly evolving into quasi-states, existing on adjoining territories but unable to achieve complete sovereignty. Such quasi-states have become a familiar feature of the Middle East and the post-Cold War world in general. They combine de facto sovereignty with an absence of international recognition. Hamas has been running such an entity in the Gaza Strip since 2007. The Hezbollah state-within-a-state in southern Lebanon is another example, with a quasi-state that appears to have largely devoured the legitimate state.
The problem with such entities is that their uncertain status precludes the development of their economies or their civil and political institutions. As a result, they also tend to become centers of paramilitary and criminal activity, such as Gaza and Lebanon, Kosovo, Bosnian Serbia and Transnistria.
While most analysts do not predict the creation of a Kurdish state for the immediate future, the Kurds’ quest for a state of their own plays a significant role in the process of developing a new system in the lands between the Mediterranean and Iran. If achieved, a new Kurdish “historic state”, non-Arabic, similar to the Israeli model, would constitute the core for a whole new regional system in the Middle East and would trigger a process of re-defining the geopolitical order in the area. That would be even more necessary if a Kurdish state will be followed, sooner or later, by, for example, a Baluchi state further East that will mean new problems for Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the whole Central Asia.
[1] The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the U.S.-led coalition liberated Raqqa, Daesh’s “caliphate’s” self-proclaimed capital, in October 2017
[3] Owen Matthews: The plot against Europe: Putin, Hungary and Russia’s new Iron Curtain, 19.04.2018, Newsweek, see

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