x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Kurdish brinkmanship eyes balance of power after Assad

The Syrian conflict could go a long way in determining the future of Kurds in Iraq and Turkey as well.

Over the past two weeks, President Masoud Barzani of the Kurdish region of Iraq has strongly asserted ethnic identity amid regional instability.

In Iraqi politics, Mr Barzani's Kurdistan Regional Government has defied the Arab-led central government in Baghdad on two fronts. First, his government signed yet another oil contract with a US major, despite Baghdad's objections. Building on Exxon Mobil's entry into the region last November, the KRG has managed to convince Chevron to invest, much to the dismay of Baghdad, which has barred the company from operating in the south as a response.

To add insult to injury, the French company Total also purchased interests last week, strengthening the KRG's case that its energy policy is working while Baghdad's is failing.

Second, in a serious standoff last weekend in Kurdish-controlled territory in the north, KRG security forces almost exchanged fire with federal army forces. Baghdad sent its troops to secure a border crossing to Syria, in light of the deteriorating situation in its western neighbour. The Kurds, however, stood firm and Baghdad retreated.

Common sense prevailed to prevent the type of Kurdish-Arab civil conflict that has characterised the country's history.

The KRG has its eyes fixed on the conflict in Syria, where the country's two million Kurds look to claim a stake in post-Assad Syria.

A weakened regime presents as many opportunities as it does challenges. Just days before threatening to declare independence from Iraq, Mr Barzani admitted that his government had been training Syrian Kurds on Iraqi territory.

The move is ambitious, but stability in Iraq's Kurdish region since 2003, and its rapidly developing energy sector, contrast sharply with the deteriorating security elsewhere in Iraq and across the region. It also establishes Mr Barzani as the most powerful Kurdish leader in the region, in effect expanding his sphere of influence and potentially extending Kurdish autonomy into Syria.

Mr Barzani's gamble may be paying off. Syrian security forces have already withdrawn from a number of Syrian Kurdish towns and a military unit trained by Mr Barzani's security forces - numbering close to 700 fighters - may soon take Qamishli, the largest city in Kurdish-majority areas in Syria.

If the Assads do fall, Syria's Kurds will be indebted to Mr Barzani. They could emerge as a major force in Syria, largely because of their numbers. They may also be better organised than other Syrian groups caught up in infighting. Syria's Kurds also sit on most of the country's oil resources.

Iraqi Kurds are positioning for economic and strategic opportunities and, more specifically, an alternative route for oil exports, which would further erode their dependency on Baghdad and its pipelines.

Mr Barzani appears to be building a coalition against possible future enemies. First, these include Islamist fundamentalists asserting their authority, who may flourish in the power vacuum that will follow the Assad regime's downfall. Second, the Arab-led and Turkish-sponsored Syrian National Council has so far offered Kurds few assurances, although the council's nominal leader is Abdulbaset Saida, a Syrian Kurd himself.

Transnational Kurdish cooperation has agitated Baghdad, which already fears a Sunni Islamist takeover in Syria that might embolden Iraq's volatile Sunni territories bordering Syria. Iraqi Sunnis have already sent men, funds and arms to rebel fighters.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki will not approve of Irbil's support of non-regime forces. On the ground sources have suggested that this line of thinking prompted Mr Al Maliki to send troops to Kurdish-dominated areas in recent weeks.

But the fall of the Assads will unfold regardless of Kurdish actions. The Kurds in both Iraq and Syria could actually prove pivotal allies for the Maliki government in a very uncertain future. Baghdad will need reliable partners in Syria; Allawites will probably be marginalised, leaving Syrian Kurds as the most significant minority. Baghdad as well as Iran could look to Mr Barzani to provide a line of communication to Syria's Kurds.

Nor will Mr Barzani have any trouble selling this to his constituency back home. Some Kurds may wonder why the KRG is focused on Syria when there is much to be done at home, but the majority will recognise the strategic importance and, of course, the moral and nationalistic obligation to support their Kurdish brethren.

To maximise these opportunities, Irbil will probably increase its support as the conflict further escalates, continuing to organise, train, fund and arm Kurdish fighters.

Iraq's Kurds offer not only funds and material, but organisational, political and diplomatic experience, in addition to regional influence. This will become crucial if Syria's other opposition forces do not protect Kurdish political and territorial rights.

Mr Barzani and his government will have to convince the United States and other powers to play a role with tangible support. Iran, which maintains strong relations with the KRG, also has to be convinced that the Syrian regime's days are numbered and it is time to choose other partners to further their strategic interests. Tehran will be aware that Syria's other opposition groups will favour its traditional rivals on the Arabian Peninsula.

 

Ranj Alaaldin is a senior analyst with the Next Century Foundation, a conflict-resolution NGO based in London

On Twitter: @ranjalaaldin