The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which saw the Taliban taking control of the entire country, has worried Kurdish officials in Syria and Iraq.
Therefore, Kurdish officials, especially the Syrian Kurds, have been in more contacts with officials in the US, Britain, and Russia. To further explore the possibility of a US withdrawal from the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and northeastern Syria and its consequences, Kurdpress news agency interviewed Dr. Benjamin Priest, an Indiana University Professor and an expert on Kurdish issues, who does not rule out the possibility of the Afghanistan scenario in the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq.
The danger of Afghanistan scenario in Syria and Iraq
About comparing the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the US forces from the country with Iraq and Syria and the situation of the Kurdish in the two countries, the professor said: "Unfortunately, yes, it is a very apt description. The decision for pulling out of Afghanistan has been a long time coming, and the turning point was the calculation on returns – the strategic gains from being in Afghanistan have been deemed as being less than the cost in physical and political capital of keeping American forces involved in propping up the Afghan government. Thus far, the White House and military leadership all see continued involvement – albeit, in a far more diminished capacity – as remaining on the ‘positive gains’ side of that equation."
"The Biden administration has decided to give over the issue of Afghanistan to Pakistan, China, and Russia with the hope that the current trend of Islamo-fascists keeping the fight local remains the case," the expert further said.
"Another way in which these two situations are similar is that Americans pulling entirely out signals the region that siding with America is an even weaker guarantee than they might have previously assessed. While the Biden administration has projected confidence in its ability to monitor potential terrorism “over the horizon,” it requires partners on the ground. Recent events have massively disincentivized every country bordering Afghanistan when it comes to hosting airbases or other physical means of staging counter-terrorism activities. American drones can get most anywhere given enough time and radar-jamming gear, but the difference between bombing a terrorist camp and a wedding party includes human intelligence alongside signals intelligence. That so many Afghans that worked with Western forces were unable to reach Kabul in time for evacuation is yet another massive disincentive for others to work with American forces now and in the future. Necessity will compel some, but the opportunity cost – already quite high I many cases – has notably increased," he said about the reasons for comparing the situation in Afghanistan with those in the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria.
About the impact of the governing system change in Afghanistan on Iraq and Syria Kurds, professor Priest added: "Personally, I expect that the combination of militant Islamist groups keeping their movements confined to controlling localities and the sudden availability of training grounds in Afghanistan will result in a gap of two to three years for them to coalesce, at which point Islamo-fascist groups will once again start posing a problem for Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria. In this time, it will be disaffected young men from bigger cities like Hewler [Erbil] and areas with a history for extremism like Tawela that trickle over one by one."
"For now, it seems that the potential cost of Daesh or some other iteration of Islamo-fascism coming back to force in the wake of a full American departure outweighs those associated with staying in the game. While I hope I’m wrong about the potential Afghanistan as a beacon of extremism with the potential for creating future jihadis as well as the extreme shortcomings in the “over the horizon” approach, I also hope there are Americans in much higher stations than mine taking these possibilities seriously."
After the U.S. leaves Syrian Kurds
About the possible withdrawal of 900 US forces from Syrian Kurdish regions, the expert said: "Eventually that will happen, but with the Syrian front being far from the American media mainstream and no real attacks taking place, the American soldiers there will probably remain until there are substantive changes. The real questions to me are when it will happen and how will the state of things be in Syria. As we’ve seen between the time when President Trump pulled American troops out of major bases in the north and exposing the various Kurdish forces to the Turkish army, it’s going to be an uneven patchwork of behind-the-scenes deals between the leadership and forced demographic changes as Kurdish populations relocate to avoid violence."
About a possible Turkey attack on the Kurds in Syria, the Indiana University professor said: "While Turkey holding onto even more Syrian territory increases the land-buffer between itself and regions previously used by PKK and its branches, it doesn’t change the animus for the conflict itself. For all intents and purposes, Turkey is trying to squeeze a water balloon, and instead of popping, it simply displaces the water further from their fingers and increases the overall pressure. If American forces leave before facts on the ground could preclude the AKP immediately filling in the gap as they have elsewhere, all that will happen is more and more Turkish military operations taking place in northern Iraq. “Hot pursuit” will be even more regular than it already is."
"For America, particularly after what has happened in Afghanistan, pulling out of Syria entirely would amplify all the worst aspects of the situation, and the ‘horizon’ becomes a great deal larger and more obscure."
PUK internal tensions and a possible situation in KDP
Answering a question about the internal tensions in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the possibility of the same situation in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the professor added: "What’s going on in the Talabani clan [PUK] as being a continued fallout from the 2017 Referendum, the death of Jalal Talabani [ revered PUK Leader and founder], and all the events in Kirkuk. All of this in turn has been complicated and protracted by the Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve watched both the Talabanis and the Barzanis [KDP] with a mind on the family-business concept that in many cases the wealth and capital built up by the first generation of entrepreneurs ends up being spent and squandered by the end of the third generation. The differences between political and business dynasties are negligible, particularly in cases like these. The modern generation of Talabanis and Barzanis was brought up away from the front lines of combatting the Ba’athists, many having their education abroad in private schools as opposed to in the mountains.
"That the most recent altercation took place in Manchester is particularly telling. Even though Lahur’s business interests have been subject to armed harassment, I think there’s a background understanding in the PUK that any and all actual violence needs to stay out of the Kurdish spotlight. This is more difficult when recordings of the beatings went online, but there’s still something to be said about it not having been in Sulaimaniyah."
"In terms of internal security, it is worrisome to see rifts that affect the cohesion and communication in security and intelligence. While I don’t see the Taliban’s win as ushering in a second wind to Daesh or other Islamist elements in the near future, this is a bad time for family politics to distract from the bigger issues facing the country," Professor Priest said about the negative impact of the events on the PUK.
He refuted any foreign intervention in the PUK tensions and stated: "On a regional level, I’ve been interested to see if there were any signs of outside patrons in Turkey or Iran acting as king-makers in this dispute, but every source seems to say more or less the same thing – this is a family problem."
"As for whether we could expect something like this to happen in the KDP after the passing of Masoud Barzani, it seems from the outside that their house is more in-order, as is the line of succession. I doubt we’d be seeing the same amount of friction had Jalal Talabani had not passed away. It’s an impossible counter-factual to test, but I think it’s a safe bet that more time to prepare and transition during a non-crisis would have made a massive difference in outcomes," he said about possible tensions among the thirds generation of Barzanis.
Turkey and US differences over the Kurdish issue
About the impact of the Kurdish issue on ties between Ankara and Washington, Professor Priest said: "My first impulse was to disagree, but Turkey’s primary security concern has been ‘the Kurdish question’ since 1984, if not since its foundation in 1925. If the AKP didn’t feel threatened by the Kurds of northern Syria, would it be enough to rebalance the arithmetic that has Turkey at odds with America elsewhere in the region, from Libya to Israel to Afghanistan, as well as undoing the deepening ties between Turkey and Russia and China? I genuinely don’t know."
"While President Trump [former US President Donald Trump] proved to be far more malleable for President Erdogan, I’m not sure even the Biden administration is quite ready to leave in the absence of direct attacks on American troops in Syria. For as much ground as they’ve easily given way to Iran, I think there is a wariness of not even having a toehold were a repeat of 2011 and 2014 to take place in Syria and northern Iraq," he said about the difference in US President Joe Biden's outlook with that of former US President Donald Trump over the presence of the US troops in Syria.
Reporter's code: 50101