Henri J. Barkey, adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at CFR and the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen chair in international relations at Lehigh University, discusses the future of the Kurds in Syria, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relation’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.
We’re delighted to have Henri Barkey with us today. Henri Barkey is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies here at CFR, and he is the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen chair in international relations at Lehigh University. Here at CFR, he works on the strategic future of the Kurds in the Middle East, and writes extensively on Turkey, the Kurds, and other Middle East issues. From 1998 to 2000, he served on the State Department Policy Planning Staff, focusing on issues related to the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and U.S. intelligence. He also currently serves as the chair of the Academic Committee on the Board of Trustees of the American University in Iraq, Sulaimani.
Henri, thank you very much for being with us today. I think I will just turn it over to you to talk about the Kurds in Syria, relations with Turkey, and ask for an update of what’s going on—especially given, we just saw, the visit of Erdogan of Washington, DC yesterday.
BARKEY: Yes, thank you, Irina. Thank you for the listeners for coming into this call. You know, I think this was billed as the future of the Kurds in Syria. And I hate to say this, but the future doesn’t look very good at the moment. Had you asked me the same question a month ago, I would have given you a completely different answer, in that President Trump’s decision to give a green light to the Turks to invade northern Syria has really upended much of what the Kurds were trying to do in Syria.
Let me just say a few things about the Kurds in general, and then Syria. The Kurds live in four different countries in the Middle East—Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. And they are obviously a minority in each one of them. And it depends on the percentage. They tend to live in their areas, like in Turkey it’s really the southeast of Turkey and in Syria it’s the northeast of Syria. In Iran it’s in the western Iran, and in Iraq it’s northern Iraq. So you can see that there is essentially a general area that is contiguous, except that there are international borders that divide them.
And the Kurds in all four countries have, at different times with different levels of intensity, rebelled against central authority. We saw a lot of it with Iraq, because United States was involved in both after the war—the Kuwait War, and also the invasion of Iraq in 2003. United States was directly involved with the Kurds, helped the Kurds, collaborated with the Kurds. And in the end, Iraq has now a new constitution that recognizes the rights of the Kurds that actually allows them to have an autonomous region within the federation of Iraq. And the Kurds probably in Iraq are in the best possible shape, in a sense that they have complete control of their own daily lives in terms of education, in terms of justice, in terms of the planning of municipalities, and so on and so forth. So they’re autonomous.
But the same cannot be said, obviously, for the other countries. And historically, for example, in Turkey the Kurds really got a raw deal in that they were not allowed to use their language, write their language, teach their language to their kids. Sometimes not even say that they were Kurds, because they were supposed to be Turks. And while things had relaxed a little bit in about—I would say about ten years ago, or less, unfortunately things are going—sliding backwards in Turkey.
But when it comes to Syria, in Syria the Kurds really had a raw deal in that they were not only not recognized by the central government, but under the Assad family they were particularly harshly suppressed. Bashar Assad, as you know, is the son of Hafez al-Assad, who was in power for the longest time. He had come to power through a military coup. The Assad family represents essentially a minority sectarian group, the Alawites in Syria, which amount to probably between 12 and 15 percent of the population but control political power. And the other minorities, whether it is the Sunni Arabs, or Sunni Kurds, or the Christians, have fared—well, I will say the Christians may have fared better than the others, but the Sunnis and the Kurds have not fared well. And that’s why we have the rebellion in Syria that started in 2011.
So when Syria—let me just say one more thing about the Kurds. At one point under Hafez al-Assad hundreds of thousands of Kurds in Syria, people who have lived there for generations, were suddenly deemed not Syria. So their identity papers were withdrawn, which meant that they couldn’t send their kids to school, they couldn’t go to a hospital to treat themselves or their kids or, for that matter, get a job in the government. So suddenly they were made stateless. Not kicked out but made stateless. So when the Syrian civil war started, the Kurds, essentially, decided to take advantage and organize themselves. And among the Kurds there were many different factions, one of whom emerged essentially as the most powerful, the strongest, and the one with which the United States has allied itself since 2014.
And these are Kurds who are very close to the Turkish Kurds. And in fact, the Turkish insurgent organization, the PKK, which the United States, and Turkey, and the European Union has classified as a terrorist organization, were the ones who trained the People’s Protection Units, or the YPG. These are the units that the United States has allied itself with. And they ended up coming on top of all the different, shall I say, Kurdish groups that existed in Syria because they were well-organized, they had armed militias that were well-trained, and they’ve benefited a great deal from the PKK cadres that were sent over the years to train them.
So they emerged as the strongest Kurdish group. But the real change occurred after the emergence of ISIS. When ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, whose leader Baghdadi was killed a couple weeks ago—ten days ago. And so when Baghdadi suddenly emerged, his forces swept through northern Iraq and northern Syria, defeating Iraqi armies in the process and really taking over huge territory. The only people who stood up to fight them, and fight them effectively, were the Syrian Kurds, but the YPG in particular. And as the ISIS forces were sweeping, they essentially were stopped at the town of Kobani, which is a small—well, a moderate town on the border with Turkey in northern Syria.
And at that point, President Obama—this is 2014—President Obama asked the Turks to help and stop ISIS. And the President Erdogan at the time basically said, no way. He would rather see ISIS win than the Kurds get any kind of legitimacy or any kind of support. So at that point President Obama decided to start bombing ISIS positions around the town of Kobani. And you saw the beginning of a relationship between the YPG and United States, which was very successful in that with American help, initially bombing help, the ISIS forces were defeated, pushed back. And you saw then the alliance between United States and YPG becoming more solid, as United States started to send ground troops into Syria. In December 2018, before President Trump halved the number of troops in Syria, there were two thousand American soldiers.
And they together worked on the counterinsurgency that really managed to eradicate the visible parts of ISIS. I mean, ISIS as an organization tried to be a state, so you could see its institutions. I mean, it controlled towns. They had military units, and so on and so forth. But also it has an underground, if you want, the sleeper cells and people. But at least most of the ISIS infrastructure was taken down. And it was a very successful—probably of all the different American interventions of late, whether it’s Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, this was probably the most successful that was achieving its goals, and also not very—not in an expensive manner.
But the YPG paid a very, very high price for its help to the United States in the fight against ISIS. It lost eleven thousand of its fighters, men and women. But what is very important about—and I’ll stop very soon—what is very important about this, is that the YPG and the Syrian Kurds because of their ability to fight, and fight effectively, garnered a great deal of support in the Kurdish areas of the region, but also outside obviously—in Europe and the United States. But they also got a great deal of legitimacy because they were aligned with the number-one superpower in the world, United States. And this is something that never—had never happened.
For the Turks, this was really, really problematic because—it was problematic on two levels. That the YPG is essentially close to the Turkish Kurdish group the PKK, as I mentioned earlier. I mean, the Turks always complained that the YPG is a terrorist organization, it’s a threat to Turkey. Well, I think that’s not the real reason they were opposed to it, because the YPG never threatened Turkey. There was not a single bullet that crossed the border from Syria into Iraq.
What the Turks are really afraid of is that eventually when the dust settled in Syria and at the end of the civil war that the Syrian Kurds, because they control territory, they have created very effective institutions in whether it is municipalities, schools, justice system, you name it—all the trappings of a state—that eventually the Kurds in Syria would get what the Iraqi Kurds got in Iraq—i.e., an autonomous region that would essentially be able to conduct its own affairs. And for the Turks, that’s a real strategic threat.
They will not say this in public because that will acknowledge the fact that they have a Kurdish problem. Because if you have an autonomous region in Iraq and then one in Syria, the natural next step would be Turkey. And the other factor here that’s bothering the Turks is the fact that, remember, that in Iraq the United States was the midwife to the creation of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, or the KRG, as it’s called, the Kurdistan regional government, and very likely in Syria when the dust settled, as I said, United States would still be the midwife of another Kurdish state, in the Turkish minds not only aligned with the PKK but also would become an example to Turkish Kurds.
And that’s the real reason why Erdogan wants to go into Syria. He hasn’t achieved the victory he wants. I mean, he really wants to hammer the Kurds in a way in which they cannot recover, and delay, if you want, this process or completely stop it. And I will stop here.
FASKIANOS: Henri, thank you very much for that analysis. Let’s open it up to the group for questions.
OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.
FASKIANOS: OK, while we wait for the questions to queue up, Henri, can you talk about how closely linked the Kurdish communities are of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran in terms of the politics and the culture?
BARKEY: Well, they are very close. I mean, they are close in the sense that they’ve always had this aspiration of having a Kurdish state, an independent Kurdish state—the same way there’s an independent Turkey, an independent Iran, and a series of independent Arab states. But they have always been stopped from achieving this goal by very powerful states, whether it’s Turkey, Iran, or Iraq, or Syria. The relationships between each of these communities varies a little bit. I mean, the Turkish Kurds were very happy with the Iraqi Kurds got autonomy. They were happier when the Syrian Kurds became very active and aligned themselves with the United States. The Iranian Kurds are a little bit off the chart because, in part, I have to tell you, that we don’t really know that much because it’s hard to do research in Iran.
And we don’t hear that much about Iran. But I do know that the PKK, the Turkish Kurdish organization, has done exactly the same thing in Iran that they did in Syria. It has created a group in Iran called PJAK. And it has trained it. And occasionally we do hear of insurgent activities by PJAK against Iranian military facilities, institutions, et cetera. But there is not a much—a great—a real rebellion, as far as I can see in Iran. But you can be sure that Kurds there too aspire to have some kind of self-governance. I think the Kurds realize that they will never be able to create an independent—at least not in the near future—and independent Kurdistan, because we’re dealing with, as I said, very powerful states that have very powerful backers who will not allow this.
However, at the minimum what they would like is to be able to have local controls, so that they could run their own affairs, and you know, teach their language, teach their kids to read and write in Kurdish. I mean, have both languages. If you’re living in Turkey, teach both Turkish and Kurdish at the same time, and English as well. So these are not unreasonable demands. None of them are unreasonable, except that central governments have always interpreted those demands as the beginning of, shall we say, a greater demands, like independence. So they have tended to squash them, and very, very violently.
And in Turkey, for instance, there’s a Turkish Kurdish political party that has of late become very, very successful. It’s the third-largest party in Turkey. They swept most of the municipalities in the majority Kurdish areas in the southeast and east of Turkey. And so their candidates became mayors. And the Turkish central government is now, one by one, removing every single Kurdish mayor on make-believe charges that they invent, and replace them by certain people who are appointed from Ankara, from the central government, because they’re really afraid that if you control the municipalities then you’ll be able to build up the infrastructure for an autonomous state.
I don’t know if you want me to stop. I can also talk about President Trump’s decision.
FASKIANOS: Why don’t you talk about President Trump’s decision, and then we can go to questions.
BARKEY: President Trump’s decision to pull the troops out of Syria and give Erdogan a green light has been a real puzzle in Washington. I mean, nobody can explain it rationally because if you talk to anybody in the American military, even the State Department which tends to be quite pro-Turkish, everybody believed that the alliance between the United States and the Kurds in Syria was really, really successful in defeating ISIS and maintaining ISIS on the defensive. And also, because the Syrian Kurds also controlled or under their control, I should say, something like ten thousand seasoned ISIS fighters which they captured, who are in prisons in northern Syria, and up to seventy thousand family members of ISIS fighters, women and children, some of whom are extremely radicalized, again, in very large prisons or settlements.
So that has also been part of the counterinsurgency. So why would Mr. Trump undo all of this? And nobody can figure it out, because the system was working. The United States only had a thousand troops. I mean, he keeps saying that he wants to bring the troops home. Well, he wants to bring the troops home at the same as he was increasing the number of troops in Saudi Arabia by more than the number of troops that he was pulling from Syria. And he did not listen to any of his advisors. Initially, he wanted to pull the troops out in December 2018. And Secretary of Defense Mattis not only resisted very, very forcefully, and he resigned in protest. And that created a shock in Washington. And so President Trump only withdrew a thousand troops.
In both instances, the decision to remove troops were taken suddenly after phone calls with President Erdogan. Erdogan and Trump seem to have some kind of relationship that most of us who follow Turkey, and all this, cannot really explain. Senator Romney has suggested that it is really a financial relationship, because there are Trump Towers in Istanbul. That may be so. I think it’s deeper than that. But you see when President Erdogan was invited to the White House, the second time he’s come to the White House in the three years that Trump has been president. President Trump has praised him and said they’re really good buddies and he really looks up to—or, he really is in awe of Erdogan.
But Erdogan is the largest jailer of journalists. And President Erdogan has just bought S-400 missiles from Russia that endanger the most important American military investment of this decade and next, which is the F-35 airplanes. The U.S. administration pleaded with Erdogan not to buy the Russian system. He went ahead and bought it. So Congress is vehemently upset and against Turkey. Yet, you’re having in Washington essentially a city where the foreign policy establishment or outside government on the Hill is completely opposed to Turkey and wants to impose sanctions on a variety of things, and the Turks have only one friend. And he happens to be in the Oval Office. And President Trump, as a result, has been able to block every single attempt at imposing sanctions or punishing Turkey. In fact, he’s gone out of his way to reward Turkey.
And I think the key problem is that the more you reward an authoritarian leader, the more he will ask, and the more difficult it will be to stop him. Now, in Syria, as the Turks went in, they went in with their own troops, but they also brought a large number of Islamic jihadist fighters to do the dirty work for them. And those people have killed, executed. And there is real ethnic cleansing going on in northern Syria. At least two hundred thousand people, Kurds and non-Kurds, including Christians, have been uprooted from their towns and villages. And these jihadist fighters are basically looting and taking over the houses and possessions that these people left behind.
It is a disaster. I mean, the Europeans are very upset. Every single international institution or human rights organization has criticized the move. And President Trump, unfortunately, is completely oblivious. And it’s also very clear that he really doesn’t know anything about the region. I mean, he had made some outlandish comments about the Kurds, sometimes parroting Turkish talking points and sometimes inventing facts. The most—I think the most hilarious ones in some ways, I mean, in some ways also the saddest to hear, is that he basically said, well, you know, what have the Kurds done for us? They didn’t fight with us in Normandy in 1944. I mean, as if there was a Kurdish state that, you know, could send troops to Normandy. I mean, even the Turks were not in Normandy. The Syrians were not in Normandy. You know, I can list you a hundred countries that were not in Normandy. That’s going to be the measure by which we would like countries or groups? It’s ridiculous.
But again, you know, I think Mr. Trump has done a great disservice. And he has created question marks about American commitment. I mean, here you have an ally and you turn around and you allow the ally’s number-one enemy to run through your ally’s territory and kill people. So imagine whether you’re the Saudis, or you’re the Israelis, I’m talking people in the region—in the Middle East. What do you—you know, if the United States so quickly turns on its allies for convenience, what does it mean for their own future? And what does it mean for the word of an American diplomat who tells them, you know, you have the backing of United States? Because clearly that doesn’t mean anything anymore.
FASKIANOS: It is sobering. Let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Thomas Zain from the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America.
ZAIN: Hi. Good afternoon. My question is regarding the—what is the relationship between the Kurdish groups and the Kurdish people and the Christian communities that live among them? Because we often see in the U.S. press the Kurds as being victims and so on and so forth. But at the same time, the relationship with a lot of the Christian communities and the way they treat the Christians in the areas they control hasn’t been the greatest either. So I wanted to get your thoughts about that.
BARKEY: Well, I mean, from everything I know, and also from all the reporting we’ve heard from American troops and American diplomats who have worked with the Kurds in northern Syria, the Syrian Kurds have gone out of their way to be nice to the minorities. Most of the stuff that you hear about the Kurds not treating the Christians well I think is not true. And let’s face it, I mean, if you are the YPG and the Syrian Kurds, and you align with the United States, the last thing you will do, even if you wanted to do it, but from a logical perspective—the last thing you would want to do is essentially antagonize your ally by mistreating Christian communities, right? So there really is no logical basis or no evidentiary basis for what some of these stories are. And they are manufactured. I mean, the Turks make also up a lot of these stories.
But look, I mean, just to give you an example, I mean, this is not the Turks and not the Kurds, two Armenian religious people, a priest and I think his aide, were killed the other day. They were killed by ISIS, right? ISIS would not have—the real danger of what has happened now with President Trump’s decision is that the Syrian Kurds have had to pull back from some places. They now have to not deploy the same number of soldiers, of troops to fight ISIS. So ISIS is making a comeback. And despite what has happened in terms of the American stabbing in the back, they still are maintaining those prisons with those ISIS folks. And they could have said, OK, this is America’s problem. It’s not our problem anymore.
So I think, is the YPG completely a democratic organization? No. But who’s very democratic in the Middle East? But they have done certain things exceedingly well, especially when it comes to men-women relations. I mean, they appoint a man and a woman for every important position—as mayor of a city, et cetera. And besides, I mean, they have created quite sophisticated political infrastructure. I would really recommend to people who would like to read more about it, Peter Galbraith, who was a former U.S. ambassador and somebody who’s worked in the region quite a bit, wrote a really superb piece for the New York Review of Books about ten days ago, or two weeks ago. And what he actually went, and he spent a lot of time on the ground and looked at especially this particular issue.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from David Wildman, United Methodist Church.
WILDMAN: Yes, hi. Mr. Barkey, thank you so much for your briefing.
I’m wondering if in addition to the future, you could look back a little bit on the history of U.S. relations with the Kurds, because it seems there have been several times in the past where the U.S. administration has abandoned or betrayed the Kurds, like today. So to get beyond President Trump to look at that historical issue. In ’91 after the Gulf War, when the U.S. encouraged the Kurds and then stepped back as they were being attacked by Saddam Hussein, and also attacked by Turkey. And then also in the 1970s. The second part of my question is just what, if anything, you would comment on relations of the Kurds with Russia. Thank you.
BARKEY: Look, it’s a great question. I mean, yes, there is a history, of course, of Kurds being abandoned by the United States, because of convenience. The two instances that you mentioned, one was in 1975 when the United States in alliance with the shah of Iran had supported a significant, major insurgency of Kurds in Iraq. And it was really, as I said, a significant effort by the Kurds to fight. They provided arms. They provided all kinds of things. And when Saddam Hussein essentially agreed to the conditions that the Shah wanted in 1975, and the deal that was made was about the division of the waters of the Shatt Al-Arab, the waterway that is created when the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers join. And so when Saddam Hussein agreed to the shah’s condition in exchange for the shah stopping aid to the Kurds, the United States went along with the shah because that’s who we had allied ourselves with. And we abandoned the Kurds, and lots of them were slaughtered, and because Saddam Hussein could come back and fight the Kurds.
So in 1991, you’re right, when the United States intervened to push Iraqi military out of Kuwait, President Bush called on both the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south to rebel against Saddam Hussein, because clearly Saddam’s armies had been defeated. This would have been a good opportunity for further weakening the regime. And when they did adhere to the call, thinking that United States would help them, Saddam Hussein’s military, which unfortunately one of the mistakes that was made in the Kuwait War was that the Republican Guard divisions, the most formidable divisions of the Iraqi Army, were allowed to withdraw from Kuwait with most of their equipment intact. So Saddam used them to move into the north, and you had essentially a refugee calamity take place.
But then at least President Bush, realizing his mistake, established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq and pushed the Iraqi military south, and allowed for the creation—or the beginning, if you want, of what we have now in Iraq, which is the Kurdistan regional government. Yes, we’ve abandoned them. At least in 1991 we made up for the mistake. And look, the Kurds—it’s easy to—I mean, they don’t have a state. They don’t have great powers. And you know, in the world we live in central governments, states, have a great deal more bargaining power. So it’s easier to ignore them.
And I would point out something else. I mean, at the moment there are supposedly negotiations in Switzerland and elsewhere about the future of Syria, and a new constitution for Syria. Everybody has been invited except for the Kurds, all right? And nobody—and no one comes up—I mean, this is stuff that’s mostly done by Russia. So the Russians and the Syrians have worked together. Let me answer the second part of your question—the relationship between Russia and the Kurds. The Russians also have been kind of taken advantage of situations, supported Kurdish insurgencies when they were against regimes that they were opposed to, or it was in Iran or Turkey.
In Syria, all right, what they really want is for Assad to completely take control of the country. The two areas that Assad doesn’t control are northeast Syria where the Kurds are with the Americans, part now—there’s also the Turks, obviously. So I should say there’s three areas. The areas that the Turks control directly, the Turkish control. And there’s a zone called Idlib north of Syria—where Baghdadi was, by the way; that’s where he was found—which is full of jihadis of all types, where probably the Syrian regime will have Russian help and will try now to conquer. So what Russia wants is for Assad to assume complete control. So what they want, essentially, is for the Kurds to be weakened, for the Americans to leave Syria so that Assad can come.
But at the same time, they’re playing a very interesting game. I mean, yes, they don’t want the Kurds to be very strong, but at the same time they don’t want the Turks to establish themselves in northern Syria, because that violates Syrian sovereignty, it gives the Turks too much power. And in fact, it is the Russians that have put the limits on the size and extent of the Turkish area in northeastern Syria. So but Putin is playing, as I said, a great game in which everybody is a little pawn. I mean, the Kurds are a pawn. Assad is a pawn. The Turks are a pawn. So it’s all about the reemergence of Russian, I wouldn’t say necessarily power, but Russian importance in the Middle East and elsewhere.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Nathan Hosler, Church of the Brethren.
HOSLER: Hello. Thank you. Nathan Hosler.
I was recently, last week, on a trip with Churches for Middle East Peace, a small delegation to northern Iraq—Iraqi Kurdistan. And we visited with Christian Peacemaker Teams on the Kurdish border, where there’s cross-border violence. So I would be interested to know how you see that in relation to the bombing in Syria. It feels rather similar, but of course a different, and more sustained, and lower intensity. And another piece of—or another question would be for those being displaced into Iraqi Kurdistan from Syria, we talked a little bit about the similarities between the Kurdish communities. Do you suspect those individuals will be integrated into Kurdish society in Iraq, or will they likely go back, or is that solely contingent on the situation in Syria? Thanks.
BARKEY: I grasped the second question, but I wasn’t sure about the first part of your question. That you were in northern Iraq and you saw certain Christian communities that were under stress or under fire? I missed that, I’m sorry. I was not very clear.
HOSLER: I’m sorry. I work with Christian Peacemaker Teams, which is an international NGO. And they have a team working along the Turkish border with communities there. And they both do accompaniment and monitoring of cross-border bombing by Turkey as well as shelling from Iran. So on the Turkish component, how similar is that to what’s happening in Syria with the Kurds there? Or is that, you know, entirely—in a way it feels similar, but how different is it? And how does Syria then affect that in Iraq.
BARKEY: So, I mean, first of all, it’s an excellent question, because in Iraq there are actually large contingents of Turkish troops in Iraq—northern Iraq itself. And the reason they’re there is because the PKK, that I mentioned earlier, has its headquarters in the mountains of northern Iraq. Parts of northern Iraq are very, very mountainous. And there’s a mountain range called Qandil. And that’s where the leadership of the PKK essentially has found refuge. And there are lots of PKK cadres there.
So the Turks have entered northern Iraq with the permission of the Kurdistan regional government, because the Kurdistan regional government is very, very dependent economically on Turkey. And in fact, most of Kurdish trade is with Turkey and not with the rest of Iraq. And so they have to essentially basically obey what the Turks want. So what you see in northern Iraq is different a little bit from what you see in Syria. In Syria, you have a full-blown invasion, where they are literally uprooting people deliberately. In northern Iraq, it’s much more a long-counterinsurgency operations in which, yes, shelling takes place and so on and so forth, but it is not an attempt by the Turks to dislodge people like it is in northern Syria. In northern Syria, they essentially are trying to de-Kurdify a significant part of northern Syria. They can’t do that, and they would not be allowed to do that in northern Iraq. But they are present in northern Iraq and conducting operations.
As for what will happen to the people who’ve been displaced in Syria, whether they will go to Iraqi Kurdistan, some of them have. Look, it depends on how long the Turks stay in northern Syria whether or not the Kurds ultimately succeed in getting back their own territories. Yes, Kurds have moved to, for example like Iraqi Kurds also live in Baghdad. Turkish Kurds also live in Istanbul. There are large Kurdish communities in Istanbul, and Ankara, and other parts of Turkey. So they don’t always stay, obviously, in Kurdistan. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all these Kurds who are being displaced will not want to come back. I think their first preference is to come back and, if they can, they will come back.
And some of them, you know, may find jobs, et cetera, and decide to stay in northern Iraq. But the economy of the KRG, of the Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq is not great. I mean, they’re under a lot of stress because all of Iraq is under stress, as you can see from the news cycle. So I’m not sure that those Syrian Kurds will find hospitable people who will help their brethren, but they won’t necessarily find jobs, et cetera. And so if they could come back, I suspect they will come back to their own city. I mean, we should not underestimate how much people are attached to their hometowns, and where they were born, and where they live, where their ancestors lived. So that’s what has been essentially also one of the stamps of the Kurdish community throughout the region, that they haven’t given up. So I suspect the Syrian Kurds will slowly try to fight the Turks and the jihadists in northern Syria. And make it costly for the Turks. But we’re not there yet.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. While we wait for a few more to queue up, Henri, you briefly mentioned Russia. Can you talk about Russia’s role in Syria and the region, and how it will affect the fate of the Kurds?
BARKEY: So, I mean, first and foremost, I mean, we have to understand that Russia has always been an ally of the Syrian regime’s. So when the Arab Spring started in Syria, it was really a major setback for the Russians, because there are military bases and naval bases in Syria, Russian naval bases, that have sort of always been very involved, I mean, in that. Just like when you think of United States-Russia competition in the Middle East in terms of everybody has their own allies, Syria was a stalwart ally of the Russians. And for the longest time, people thought that Bashar al-Assad, the current strongman of Syria, would not survive the Syrian uprisings. And the Russians decided, in conjunction with the Iranians who are also closely aligned with the Syrian regime, to basically support the regime that was really tottering on complete collapse.
And they managed to save Assad’s position, and also enable him to reconquer territories that has been lost to the insurgency, to the rebellion. And so for Putin, as I said earlier, he has two goals in Syria. One is, not to let Assad be defeated, because Assad is an ally. And if Assad would be replaced, it would certainly be by somebody who would not be sympathetic to the Russians, because they would be tied to overthrow of Assad, and Assad’s number-one ally is Iran and Russia. So the Russians know exactly what would happen if Assad were to go. So it’s to maintain Assad in power, and thereby maintain Syria on their side of the ledger.
And also, had the Syrian regime fallen, it would have been a major setback for Russian influence in the region, because that’s one of the most important places where the Russians are involved. The Russians used to be with Saddam as well, but we saw what happened to Saddam. I mean, he was taken down by U.S. military. And they really could not afford to lose Syria, because Syria give them an entrée. Syria’s an important country. Syria opposes Israel. And so from that—from that perspective losing Syria would be losing a great deal of face and influence in the region.
But Putin is also using the current situation to show that he stands by his allies, unlike us. That he will essentially support them through their victory. And he will do whatever it takes. And unfortunately, whatever it takes in the Russian terminology is bombing hospitals and bombing civilian installations, and so on and so forth, to kind of break the back of the rebellion. The moderate forces that initially started the rebellion in Syria have all but disappeared. And now, as I mentioned that area called Idlib, it’s basically jihadis of all color, flavor that you can think of. There are pro-ISIS folks. There are pro-al-Qaeda folks. There are independent jihadis of all stripes. And maybe one has an organization.
So what happened as a result of the continuation of the Arab Spring, and the rebellion, and the suppression of the rebellion, is that people have become very radical. And the center of the rebellion has collapsed. And you have five million Syrians who are outside of Syria. And then the Kurds, essentially, are with Idlib, the single other part of the country that is not controlled by Assad. And now it is true that the Kurds and the Russians have talked, after the American decision. I mean, the Kurds were forced to engage the Russians, because clearly the U.S. was pulling out. And although now we have supposedly to protect the oil, if you listen to President Trump, we have now six hundred troops there.
But he says it’s to protect the oil, which of course is a terrible thing to say in the Middle East, where everybody in the Middle East believes that the United States is there to steal Middle Eastern oil, whether it’s in Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait, or elsewhere, that everything we do is motivated either by our greed for oil or by (inaudible). He’s not doing, shall we say, the American PR any good by saying that. But in fact, when you listen to other American officials who are in charge of this, they see those troops not to defend the oil installations, but rather to continue the fight against ISIS. Ambassador Jeffrey said that all yesterday in a meeting that was reported in the press that as far as he’s concerned, the Americans are there to fight ISIS.
And in the process American troops cannot fight ISIS without the Kurds. So they have to continue their alliance with the Kurds. But the Syrian Kurds essentially have had to talk to the Russians and to see what kind of deal they can get from the Russians. But they are obviously negotiating with the Russians from a position of weakness and not strength because of what has happened in the last few weeks.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take our next question from Steve Studebaker, McMaster Divinity College.
STUDEBAKER: Hello. I’m just wondering how the United States relationship to the Kurds, vis-à-vis Turkey reflects the—kind of a classic paradigm in American foreign policy. When it’s caught between its ideology of promoting freedom and people who are trying to get out from under tyranny on the one hand, and then faced with sort of a pragmatic or realistic foreign policy on the other hand, which would seem to be what Trump is doing now, where he’s favoring Turkey, which is the dominant power and the dominant ally in the region.
BARKEY: So that’s an excellent question. The policy of United States has always been to side with Ankara. And if—because Ankara is a very important country—Turkey is an important country. And Turkey is a member of NATO. And a very important member of NATO. So the tendency even before Trump has always been to side with the Turks, with the central government. Previous governments, Republican or Democrats, have always criticized Turkish behavior vis-à-vis the Kurds in terms of human rights violations, you know, the erasing of villages. And all you have to do is look at State Department human rights reports that are published once a year about every single country. I mean, we criticize them. How the executive branch takes that and makes policy out of it changes, obviously.
But I think in the case of President Trump, it’s not a function of having to choose—well, in Syria, it’s not. In Turkey, yes. I think you’re absolutely right. In Turkey we will always choose a central government unless it does really terrible things, because the Kurds don’t really have any power in Turkey and I would say that if there was significant unrest in Turkey—think of it like a Turkish spring in which lots of people rose up and the Kurds would rise up too in the process, against the central government, then we may change our mind. But as things stand now, when it comes to Turkey, yes, absolutely. We have always chosen.
But that does not explain President Trump’s decision to allow the Turks to go into Syria. So I think the difference between the U.S. relationship with the Syrian Kurds, which is exceedingly new. It’s only five years old. I mean, it’s less than 2014. But it was a very deep relationship because thousands of Americans rotated through and built bombs with those Kurds, and they saw the fight, and they have a great deal of admiration for them, and so on and so forth. So realistically speaking, given the fact that the Kurds were fighting ISIS, and ISIS is the most important threat the United States faces really, what Trump did is not the application of realism. It’s something else. As I said, I’m having a hard time explaining.
Look, the former joint chief of staff, General Dunford, was here in Washington at the Council on Foreign Relations. And he gave an on-the-record talk, which I attended. And I actually was showing them to my students in a class where I teach on national security. And I had completely forgotten that I had asked the last question about ISIS. This was September 5, so a month before Trump made his decision. And General Dunford was emphatically in favor of continuing the relationship with the Syrian Kurds, because he thought that was the most important thing we were doing in the Middle East and it was working.
So if you talk about the realism, the generals tend to be the most realistic. And they tend to always side with Turkey and so on and so forth, because they have a relationship from NATO. Their military relationship is very strong. But you see in this particular case the American brass, so to say, represented by the number-one person at the time, was completely on the side of continuing the relationship with the Kurds, at a time when the Turks were threatening everything they did, right? So General Dunford knew exactly what he was saying at the time, but he didn’t think the Turks should go in. He thought the Turks should be stopped. And that we could continue our relationship with the Syrian Kurds. And that to him was the realist policy.
FASKIANOS: I think that we are out of time. We have a couple of people who are on the call who wanted to ask questions. I apologize that we are unable to get to you.
But, Henri Barkey, thank you very much for being with us today, for sharing your analysis, and to all of you for your good questions. We encourage you to follow Henri’s work on the future of the Kurds in Syria and across the Middle East on Twitter at @HBarkey. You can also follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. As always email us at [email protected] with any suggestions on topics or speakers for future calls or events. And, again, thank you, Henri, and to all of you.
BARKEY: Thank you.