Yousif Ismael: US is to withdraw from Syria and stay in Iraq

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  • 11:26 20 September 2021
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NEWS CENTER - Stating that the chance of the US staying in Syria is lower than in Iraq, Yousif Ismael, the director of the Washington Kurdish Institute, said, “The US will do its best to stay in Iraq. If it decides to withdraw from Iraq, it will also withdraw from the Kurdistan Region”.

 
When we imagine the Middle East, turmoil, proxy wars, oil barony, jihadist formations, imperialist dreams, and suzerain-vassal relations come to our mind. In this chaos, the Kurds, as the autochthonous people of Mesopotamia, are trying to build their own future. Their sole aim is to be the subjects of the land on where they live. They dearly paid for their land, and still are paying for it. Kurds are also aware that it would be an “utopia” to reach their purpose without sharing any idea with leading powers in the multipolar world. The US undoubtedly is one of these powers.  Months ago, there was a change of government in the US, which is the part of the proxy war in the Middle East. It is estimated that the new government headed by Joe Biden, compared to Trump, will adopt more "constructive" policy in the Middle East. We interviewed Yousif Ismael, the director of the Washington Kurdish Institute, about the Biden administration's stance on the Kurds and the strategy it will folllow in the Middle East:
 
 
There is an idea that Biden administration doesn’t want to confront the Turkish state and is trying to refrain from putting the Kurdish issue above his ties with Turkey. Is that true? Does he really give priority to Turkey’s interests in the Middle East? 
 
 
There is a saying among the current and former US policymakers in Washington: ‘Turkey was important, is important, and will be important.' This approach has been ongoing from both US political parties, Democrats and Republicans. In comparison between the Turkish state and non-state actors, the Kurds, the US will always be taking the Turkish side for many reasons, including, since Turkey is a “NATO ally” and by law the US and European countries are obligated to defend it. Further, despite its current authoritarian regime, the US remains committed to Turkey for its geopolitical importance and the competition among superpowers in the Middle East.  I think the Kurds, leaders, and parties appear to forget that that politics means interest. The approach should be more realistic and less emotional toward a lot of issues.  In 2018, the prominent expert in Washington, David Pollock, warned the Kurds not to make America choose between them and Turkey since the US will choose Turkey’s side. A year later, Turkey and its Jihadists proxies and even former ISIS launched a war on Syrian Kurds and ethnically cleansed the Kurdish region of Syria (Rojava) with US acquiescence.
 
 
More examples of the US taking the Turkish side against the Kurds is listing the Kurdistan Workers’ Parrty (PKK) in the US Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).  The Bill Clinton administration in 1997 decided to label the PKK as a terrorist organization to appease Turkey and pursue some arm deals with Turkey.  Unlike the rest of the armed groups and organizations in the FTO, the PKK never imposed threats on the US or Americans. But consecutive administrations continued the same policy toward the Kurds in Turkey. At the same time, an organization like People's Mujahedin of Iran was removed from the FTO in 2012 after lobbying efforts that coincided with US interest despite its record of killing American diplomats and having profound anti-US stances since their establishment.
 
 
The current administration is continuing the same approach with Turkey, not for the sake of Erdogan, but looking ahead and post Erdogan era. Erdogan has done significant damage with US-Turkey relations, including getting Turkey involved in trades and arms dealing, like those with Russia, that would be hard for the next Turkish government to avoid its obligation. The US will always try to win Turkey back, and it is hard to see any prospect for Kurds in Turkey within the US foreign policy in the short term. That said, the US is pushing for a more democratic Turkey that would include fair participation of the Kurds.
 
 
Nonetheless, I must state that Erdogan’s far push against US, NATO, and western Allies' interests, has led to alternatives of Turkey. For example, so far Greece's newly established international and regional partnership has shown that Turkey can not be the only ticket for the west into the region. Greece today enjoys the best relations with the US, Israel, EU, and United Nations (UN). Perhaps, at some point, the US will focus more on Greece than Turkey as alternative geography with a much better record of human rights and support of terror groups. But such an approach will be harder for the EU since Turkey remains the first step into Europe and controls the refugee card.   
 
 
Biden administration, as known, has undermined Delta Crescent's contracts that were supposed to bring over 2 billion dollars a year to the AANES (Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria). It is thought that Joe Biden’s denial to renew the company’s license would be a major blow to the AANES. What would you like to say about this?
 
After two years of the Syrian revolution or civil war, in June of 2013, the Obama administration issued limited sanction exemption on areas under the Syrian opposition. These exemptions included energy, agriculture, and telecommunication sectors, in an attempt to ease the economic burden on the areas under the Syrian opposition. The law remains active up to today. However, the primary US mission in Syria is to defeat ISIS. That’s the US congress's authority to deploy any troops to fight terrorism. After pulling out of most of Rojava when Turkey attacked the region,  President Trump launched a media campaign claiming that the US stayed in Syria for the oil. Distracting and misleading Americans, resulting in furious reaction by the public against the “oil approach” in Syria. When the new administration came into power, they refuted President Trump’s claims and approved that the US stays in Syria for US national interest and fighting ISIS.  They decided to end Delta Crescent's role in Syria- a company that signed a deal with Rojava under the Trump administration. So, in my opinion, there was a partisan approach to the issue between democrats and republicans. Still, also it had some to do with broader dialogue between Russia and the US over Syria’s future. If Delta Crescent or any other company continued working in Rojava, it would have been better for the US’s goal of “stabilizing after liberation”. The US would not have spent its own resources. This would have been also beneficial for self-administration, and it would have been a semi-recognition of its entity. 
 
 
I think the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria (AANES) should approach other companies or even the same company should try and educate US lawmakers and policymakers about the benefits of having them operate in Syria. Further, the AANES can also approach Arab Gulf States or the EU  for the same idea, which will also benefit them in future talks with the Syrian regime. They have better relations with the Syrian regime than the US. 
 
 
US pullout from Afganistan created a chaos, and the Taliban forces shortly after took over the power. If US troops withdraw from Kurdistan Regional Government or from AANES, would Kurds face kind of disorder? Would they protect themselves without any foreign support?
 
Afghanistan is a bit different than Iraq and Syria though I disagree on the way the US left the country, also there is a big difference between Syria and Iraq. The US chances of remaining in Syria is much less than Iraq, simply due to US policies since 2011 and Russia’s taking over the country. The Syrian Kurds must be reminded every day that the US is in Syria only to fight ISIS and have not invested much in it while they have no plans to lose Turkey over Rojava or the AANES. That said, the US has been a tremendous military support, and the AANES should always maintain strong relations with the US. However, unless circumstances change, the US will be in Syria only in the short term, and for sure, if the next administration, a Trump-like President, if not Trump himself, wins, then the US withdrawal is inevitable.
There are two different arguments in Washington about both Iraq. First, Iraq is essential for the US, and since 2003 the US has been attempting to build the country. In Iraq, the Kurdistan Region is necessary as long as they do not have secession plans and seek independence. Russia is in Syria, and Iran has become a de facto China colony; the US might see Iraq as the only chance to compete for its interest. 
The second argument is that the US will leave Iraq, especially if a Pro-Iranian politician becomes the next prime minister who could quickly pressure the US to leave the country. In this scenario, the Kurds will be vulnerable to aggression by Ankara, Tehran, and Baghdad, like those we saw in the aftermath of the Independence Referendum in 2017.  The US public is also tired of “endless wars” which have taken much of US financial sources.
 
Both arguments are realistic, but I think the US will do its best to remain in Iraq, but if it decides to leave, they will leave the Kurdistan Region as well, contrary to what we hear once a while that the US will stay in Kurdistan alone. Unless the “One Iraq” policy changes. 
 
The AANES and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have no choice but to put their differences aside and unite on Kurdish national security. Both must establish and promote peaceful transition of power and democratic values to attract some international support for their safety. Both sides need to open up more relations and lobby the EU and the Arab Gulf States since both sides can help them via the United Nations (UN) or the EU, or even the League of Arab States. Building united military forces and institutionalizing it will make it much easier to rally international support and make their enemies think twice. 
 
In fairness, the AANES has done all it can do in the light of Turkish invasions and aggressions. They have continued to call for peace and good neighboring relations with Turkey. At the same time, they are open to talks with the Syrian regime, but Russia and Assad have not been serious so far. Same case with the KRG, where they continue to face obstacles by Baghdad and yet endure talks with the federal government. 
 
 
The AANES needs to be recognized internationally. For this purpose, it has been making several diplomatic negotiations and also has opened new representatives in Europe. What kind of agenda does the Biden administration have? Will it take new steps on international recognition?
 
This is a great question. Before the US withdrawal, the AANES can be more direct with the US for a semi-recognition. For example, the US can include the AANES in the UN-backed Geneva Peace Talks as a third side if Turkey continues to have a veto in their participation. The same pressure should be applied to the Arab States and the EU, which have significant national security interests with the Syrian Kurds. I do not see the current administration moving in that direction unless continued lobby efforts in Washington and talks with US policymakers occur. 
 
 
Some experts claim that Biden administration will focus on struggle against Russia and China rather than AANES. Is Biden administration really planning to put away the AANES?
 
 If the US wanted to compete with Russia, then Syria is an excellent place for that. The US has a symbolic presence in AANES areas. The US deployment into Syria has been the best example of US interventions, much better results than the Iraq war or Afghanistan.  The Kurds of all parts have immense support among Americans. Though public support might not mean much but with Kurdish efforts and the US democratic system, I think the approach toward the AANES is possible. This takes time and exhausting work but it is doable. I believe the US, including its policymakers, want a stable, peaceful life for the Kurds, but when it comes to their interest, the non-state actor will not have a seat at the same table with States. 
 
MA/ Ismek Konak
 

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