Since 2013 President Barack Obama has been repeating the mantra that there would be no American boots on the ground in Syria, explaining, “We are going to have to find effective partners on the ground to push back against ISIL.” No doubt, the Kurds have proved to be effective fighters both in Iraq and Syria, but the crucial question is whether they are really partners or mere tools in a proxy war, to be summarily dispensed with when the war is over.
The Kurds are well known for having played a proxy role for various warring parties, be they old empires or modern states. This record raises questions such as: What circumstances led them to play such a role? Why did they commit themselves to it? How did they expect to benefit from it? And what is the balance of their gains and losses over the years?
Historically speaking, the proxy wars in which the Kurds have taken part assumed three main patterns. The Kurds were either fighting as proxies: for their government against an internal or external enemy; for a neighboring government against their own government; or for regional or international actors against their government or various non-state actors. But while the patterns may have been different, the results have been tediously familiar.
An early case of the first pattern is that of the Kurdish Hamidiye cavalry, established by Sultan Abdulhamid in 1890 and active until the Young Turk revolution of 1908. Since the Ottoman Empire by that time had become weak relative to its encroaching adversaries, the Sultan needed this cavalry, composed of different Kurdish tribes, to fight Russia and contain the Armenians. Indeed, the Hamidiye was said to have played a no small role in the Armenian massacres of 1894–96.
For the Kurds involved in the Hamidiye, the experiment had mixed results. On the one hand, it taught them how to organize, train, and fight; on the other, it deepened rivalries between the tribes and their chieftains. And this doesn’t even factor in the repercussions of their participation in the Armenian massacres. Ataturk promised the Kurds autonomy for their support in the war of independence, but then he reneged on it.
The modern incarnation of the Hamidiye is the Korucular—the village guards system established by the Turkish government almost a hundred years later (1985) to fight the ascending power of the PKK.1 It was designed, as the Turkish saying has it, “to have the Kurds kill the Kurds” (“Kurdu Kurde Kirdirmak”). Numbering between 50,000 and 90,000, the still-active guards have important tactical advantages because they are familiar with the language, the people, and the geography of the region, and they are armed to do a job comparable to that of the regular army. An undeclared aim of creating the Korucular was to revive the tribal regiments in order to control other tribes and build structures similar to those of the Hamidiye. In fact, despite the high salaries and benefits its members have gotten from the Turkish government, the Korucular could not overpower the PKK. It did, however, further divide Kurdish society.
Another example of a proxy involvement aimed at “divide and rule” is the Kurdish auxiliary force that the Iraqi monarchical regime established, and that the Ba‘athi regime revived under the cynical title of the “Salah al-Din Forces” for the purpose of fighting Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s guerrilla force, the Peshmerga. Nicknamed juhush (donkeys), this force did not prove to be loyal to the Ba‘athi regime; indeed, it turned against it on various occasions, especially during the Kurdish uprising in 1991 following Operation Desert Storm.2
The second pattern includes the backing that Iran granted intermittently (1960–90) to the two major Kurdish parties in Iraq—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—so as to destabilize the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. For its part Baghdad, supported the Iranian KDP to destabilize the Islamic Republic.
Another example is the support Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad granted to the KDP and PUK during the 1970s in order to weaken the rival Ba‘athi regime in Baghdad. Shortly afterward, the elder Assad granted asylum and bases to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to engage the Turkish army. However, in all these cases the support of the neighboring countries turned out to be a double-edged sword for the Kurds. When it no longer suited its interests, Iran abandoned the Kurds in 1975 for a deal with Baghdad. Similarly, under Turkish pressure Assad evicted Ocalan from Syria in October 1998 and shortly afterward Syria and Turkey signed the Adana agreement “against PKK terrorist organization,” paving the way to “development of relations in all areas.”
Regional governments and those extrinsic to the region have also employed the Kurds extensively in struggles against certain governments or non-state actors. The most glaring example is the secret tripartite support given to the Kurds of Iraq in their war against the Ba‘ath between 1972 and 1975. Iran, Israel, and the United States, the partners in this plan, had one common target, namely, to destabilize the radical Ba‘athi regime. But when in March 1975 interests dictated temporary reconciliation with Baghdad, both Iran and the United States abruptly stopped their support to the Kurds. (As for Israel, its government was genuinely interested in a Kurdish victory, not just the weakening of Baghdad, but it could not continue its aid since it had to pass through Iran.)
The most recent case of Kurds acting as proxies is the role they are fulfilling today in fighting ISIS on two fronts, in Iraq and Syria. From early on it was clear that neither the United States nor the European Union were eager to send ground forces to combat ISIS. But they could not detach themselves from the several repercussions of this war: Their own citizens were being targeted by ISIS, and the Europeans had to contend with a flood of refugees trying to escape the war zones. In the absence of developing a full-fledged Turkish option to suffocate the violence in Syria, the next-best solution to the dilemma was the well-tested device of Kurdish proxy war.
On the Iraqi front the Kurdish forces—the Peshmerga—have been the most effective boots on the ground. While the Iraqi army collapsed in June 2014 before ISIS’s disproportionally smaller forces in Mosul, the Peshmerga managed to stop the ISIS onslaught and even to take control of important chunks of territory around Kirkuk. Shortly afterward, ISIS initiated another onslaught on the Kurdish region, but Kurdish forces stopped them from reaching Erbil. They were less successful in Sinjar, which proved to be a prelude to the Yezidi massacres of August 2014. Ever since, however, the Peshmerga (with the help of Kurdish Syrian forces) have reoccupied Sinjar and held the line against ISIS along a front of more than 1,000 km.
The secret to this success is the degree of cooperation between Kurdish forces on the ground and the air support the U.S. military and its allies have granted them. This symbiotic relationship goes back to the 2003 Iraq War. At a time when Turkey’s AKP government denied the U.S. military the use of Incirlik Air Base, it was the Peshmerga who performed a proxy role by occupying the whole of northern Iraq. This Kurdish achievement was vital for the U.S. military, which lacked boots on the ground in that part of Iraq. The numbers speak for themselves: While more than 4,000 American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq since 2003, none have died in the Kurdish region.
The Kurdish proxy war in Syria has been much more complicated than that in Iraq. In contrast to the Kurds of Iraq, with whom the Americans had a long-standing acquaintance going back to the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurds of Syria were an unknown quantity in Washington. The PYD and its military organs, the YPG and the YPJ, came to the fore only in 2012 when they took control of three Kurdish cantons in northern Syria and established the autonomous region dubbed Rojava. Furthermore, the PYD is an offshoot of the PKK; its Marxist-Leninist leanings do not fit well with the West.
At the time, U.S. policy was also still pinning its hopes on the Syrian opposition, which it helped establish (to what extent remains a matter of contention) in order to fight the Assad regime. But it soon transpired that this opposition was no match either for the Assad regime or the jihadis, certainly not ISIS and not even Jabhat al-Nusra, then the al-Qaeda proxy in the war. Those who carried the battle to ISIS were mainly the YPG and the YPJ. However, employing them in a proxy war in Syria presented the Obama Administration and its allies with a problem: It sought to support them militarily, but it resisted endorsing their political agenda out of concern for roiled and deteriorating relations with Turkey.
Turkey did not see eye to eye with its NATO allies. The Turkish leadership reasoned, not without justification, that the fuel enabling ISIS to burn the region and beyond came from the murderous Assad regime; it therefore even granted ISIS tacit support in Syria and Iraq at a certain point in the fight.3 More importantly, Turkey regarded the PYD and its military wings as mortal enemies because of their close ties with the PKK. The last thing Ankara wanted was a Kurdish entity on its southern border that could become a model for the Kurds of Turkey, and that might unite Kurdish forces against it in the long run.
The West had thus to reconcile its need for effective Kurdish boots on the ground against Turkish permission to use Incirlik Air Base for sorties against ISIS. The recipe was to refrain from declaring the PYD a terrorist organization and continue supporting the YPG despite Turkey’s remonstrations, but at the same time appease Turkey by turning a blind eye to its attacks against the PKK in Iraq and Turkey.
This arrangement worked for two months—from July to September 2015—when a familiar player re-emerged on the already complicated scene: The Russian regime decided to salvage the Assad regime via air attacks against its opponents. This turned Syria into an expanded politico-military battleground in which various regional and international forces are vying for influence. The proxy war also took a new turn. Russia’s declared aim was to fight ISIS, but in fact its targets were the other opposition and jihadi forces, leaving the fight against ISIS to the Kurds.
Thus both Russia and the United States sought to use the YPG against ISIS. The PYD ably used this new status to leverage an improved standing in the international arena. Unlike the PKK, which is still on U.S. and EU terrorist lists, PYD members have achieved some measure of acceptance. Furthermore, the Kurds of Syria have managed to open representative offices in Moscow and in certain European countries. The Turks don’t like it, but the only way to diminish the PYD and destroy Rojava is for Turkey to undertake the brunt of the anti-ISIS fighting itself.
Looking back, the Kurds’ experience with proxy wars has been rewarding in the short term but mostly disastrous in the long term. The Kurds have been able to best many opponents and establish a reputation for martial skill, but at the cost of exacerbating internal divisions and serially alarming everyone from their state “hosts” to neighbors. So why do they continue playing this role, what are the lessons they may draw from it now, and will it turn out better for the Kurds this time?
On the face of it, the present proxy war is different from earlier ones because there seems to be a greater convergence of core interests between the proxies and their employers. Partly for that reason, the support is overt rather than covert. As for the Kurds, they now seem to display higher degree of national consciousness and cohesion, which conduces to their gaining wide autonomy or even independence. The powers also seem to have changed their stances. The air support the U.S. government had granted to Kurdish forces fighting both in Iraq and Syria was so crucial that, without it, Erbil and Kobani would have collapsed. Similarly, the military training and equipment given to both fighting forces were critically important. So a true mutual dependence has been demonstrated to a degree that transcends all previous engagements.
But here’s the rub: Even during this current bout of proxy war, U.S. and EU policy has been to systematically block Kurdish representatives from participating in any international forum arranged to discuss strategy for combating ISIS or finding solutions to the Syrian civil war. Similarly, the weapons granted to the Peshmerga do not fulfill all their needs; they do not include heavy equipment such as tanks or aircraft—the kind of equipment the Iraqi army lost to ISIS when Mosul was captured. Moreover, for a long time all military support to the Peshmerga had to be transferred via Baghdad, which was reluctant to deliver it to Erbil. In Syria, too, the support given far from covers the needs of the Kurdish forces.
The most recent turn of events in the war in Syria may be an omen of things to come. For the first time since the war erupted, Turkey sent its military forces into Syria in late August to prevent YPG forces from liberating the border town Jarablus from ISIS. Turkey’s main purpose has been to stop the advance of the Syrian Kurds toward de facto autonomy, specifically to prevent the linking up of all three Kurdish “cantons” on the Turkish frontier. So dangerous has Ankara deemed this autonomy that it quickly mended its relations with Russia, which had suffered a blow following the Turkish downing of a Russian ground attack jet in November 2015. One important aim behind the reconciliation has been to diminish or end Russian support to the Kurdish enclave in Syria.
In addition, Ankara called on the U.S. government to bring pressure on the YPG to evacuate their forces from Manbij after they had spilled their blood there in the fight against ISIS. This might have confronted the Administration with the need to choose between a state and a proxy. However, Secretary of State John Kerry quickly solved this dilemma: He called on the YPG to leave Manbij immediately. The only logical conclusion for all Kurds to draw from this action was an old one: State sponsors are fickle. They should only count on their backing for as long as the fight against ISIS continues, and then only to the extent that such aid does not antagonize other central governments in the region. Furthermore, all the major powers—including the United States—continue to pursue the goal of preserving the integrity of the Iraqi and Syrian states, ultimately at the Kurds’ expense.
Can the Kurds manage to evade falling once again into the proxy trap? This question is all the more pertinent now that the Peshmerga and the YPG are poised to play a crucial role in liberating Mosul and Raqqa respectively from ISIS. Since they remain a non-state actor, they must prove to their partners that they are important not just for short-term tactical military tasks, but also for longer-term strategic considerations—namely, that they are reliable partners and a buffer for the duration against jihadi forces in the region.
Ultimately, the Kurds will only stop getting shafted by opportunistic or desperate state sponsors when they take their fate into their own hands. That means getting and staying unified, and proving that they can govern people and places effectively. In that regard, the recent troubles in the KRG are not helping. Alliances are not typically meant to dole out philanthropy to their members; payoffs are earned, not begged. The Kurds must either rise to the occasion, or they will once again validate the famous line from Friedrich Schiller’s 1783 play, Fiesco (Act III, Scene 4): “Der Mohr hat seine Arbeit gethan, der Mohr kann gehen.” (“The moor has done his duty, the moor may go.”)
1Ismet G. Imset, The PKK (Ankara: Turkish Daily News Publication: 1992), p
2Bengio, The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State, (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012), pp. 33–4. The use of the name of Salah al-Din, a Kurd, for fighting other Kurds is indeed very cynical.
3A Kurdish source who wishes to remain anonymous claimed that Turkey was hoping that ISIS would occupy the Kurdistan Regional Government.