Kurds Hold Key to Re­gional Bal­ance of Power

The Washington Times Daily - - TURKEY - By Ernie Audino Re­tired U.S. Army Bri­gadier Gen­eral Ernie Audino is a se­nior mil­i­tary fel­low at the Lon­don Cen­ter for Pol­icy Re­search. He is also the only U.S. gen­eral to have served a year as a com­bat ad­viser em­bed­ded in a Kur­dish pesh­merga brigade in Ir

The Turk­ish ref­er­en­dum on April 16 has the po­ten­tial to ef­fect the great­est con­sol­i­da­tion of con­sti­tu­tional pres­i­den­tial pow­ers in the his­tory of the mod­ern Repub­lic of Turkey. Nat­u­rally, Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan ex­pects a big win. His chal­lenge is that Turkey’s real prob­lem — an as­cen­dant Iran — will still be there on the day af­ter. He needs the Kurds to help him. Here’s a good rea­son why.

His Euro­pean friends are fed up with him, and he has few oth­ers.

Mr. Er­do­gan’s sup­port for anti-demo­cratic trends, in­clud­ing the re­pres­sion of his own Kur­dish cit­i­zens, is ob­jec­tion­able to Turkey’s NATO al­lies and clouds Turkey’s long-term need, which is a mat­ter of unavoid­able ge­og­ra­phy. Should Mr. Er­do­gan fall asleep at the switch, he will wake to Ira­nian neigh­bors mov­ing in against the Turk­ish (and NATO) south­ern bor­der. As a re­sult, Iran, the dom­i­nant power in the Gulf, stands to dra­mat­i­cally im­prove its abil­ity to con­strain Turkey and project Ira­nian com­bat power into the Mediter­ranean.

Turn­ing this around is pos­si­ble, but it re­quires ap­pre­ci­a­tion for some prac­ti­cal re­al­i­ties.

First, all ma­jor ac­tors in the re­gion need Kur­dis­tan. She is the ter­res­trial com­mon denom­i­na­tor in the re­gion. Gain­ing con­trol of Kur­dish soil in Syria and Iraq is essential to Tehran, in par­tic­u­lar, as it pro­vides a seam­less link from Iran through Iraq, into Syria along the south­ern bor­der of Turkey, to the city of Afrin west of Aleppo, and nearly to the Rus­sian naval base at Tar­tus on the Syr­ian shore­line.

The ay­a­tol­lahs have a spe­cial lust for the Kur­dish soil to the west of Mo­sul in Iraq, which is why they have in­vested a siz­able proxy force to seize it. Th­ese are the 15,000 Iraqi Shia mili­ti­a­men — armed and in­flu­enced by Iran — who now oc­cupy ter­rain near the town of Tal Afar, lo­cated be­tween Mo­sul and the Syr­ian bor­der. Tehran’s abil­ity to con­sol­i­date com­bat power there sets the foun­da­tion for an Ira­nian land-bridge into north­ern Syria.

Of course, dis­rupt­ing th­ese Ira­nian am­bi­tions is in the long-term in­ter­est of the United States, as well as Turkey, which is why they too need Kur­dis­tan. She pos­sesses the last re­main­ing geo­graphic po­si­tion open for the in­tro­duc­tion of com­bat power in quan­ti­ties ca­pa­ble of coun­ter­bal­anc­ing Iran.

Sec­ond, a Kur­dish-based so­lu­tion can be ac­cept­able to Ankara.

Ankara’s brutal pas­sion to crush the in­ter­nal threat posed to it by the gueril­las of the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers Party (PKK) is well known, and to a West­ern au­di­ence, Turkey seems spring-loaded to­ward dis­trust of any for­eign-pol­icy op­tion that en­ables Kur­dish in­ter­ests any­where in the re­gion. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of the mil­i­tary units of the de facto Kur­dish gov­ern­ment in north­ern Syria — the Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPG), which pro­vide the main ef­fort in the U.S.-led op­er­a­tion to seize Raqqa, cap­i­tal of the Is­lamic State. Ankara re­fuses to help with this fight be­cause it con­sid­ers the YPG a branch of the PKK.

In the face of this, a sil­ver bul­let is re­quired — a course of ac­tion pur­posed to de­velop a per­sis­tent coun­ter­force, be­gin­ning in Kur­dis­tan, but one that is also ac­cept­able to Ankara. It can be­gin with three el­e­ments.

--Es­tab­lish a U.S.-led safe zone over Ro­java, the Kur­dish-pop­u­lated re­gion in north­ern Syria. This is nec­es­sary to help re­tain ter­rain seized from the Is­lamic State, but it also checks Ira­nian (and al­lied Rus­sian) in­flu­ence in Syria. Ankara de­manded a Turk­ish-con­trolled ver­sion last year, but will pro­vide sup­port to one led by the United States if the ground force that com­ple­ments it is not pri­mar­ily of the YPG.

--Raise an indige­nous ground force in the Kur­dish north of Syria that is ca­pa­ble of de­ter­ring re­gional threats but not threat­en­ing Turkey. So long as the YPG re­mains un­ac­cept­able to Ankara, a suit­able force must in­cor­po­rate other Kurds, such as those of the Kur­dish Na­tional Coun­cil (KNC). The KNC is the um­brella group of Syr­ian Kurds not aligned to the YPG or its po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship in the Demo­cratic Union Party (PYD). The KNC has the sup­port of both Ankara and Erbil, and with their help raised the Ro­java Pesh­merga as an armed al­ter­na­tive to the YPG. Com­posed of Kurds dis­placed from Syria, they have been op­er­at­ing against the Is­lamic State in Iraq for the past two years.

They have only 6,000 fight­ers, but Erbil and Ankara have ex­pressed in­tent to add 4,000 more. The KNC says they have an­other 20,000 wait­ing. The real chal­lenge comes from the YPG, who are op­posed to the re­turn of the Ro­java Pesh­merga to Syria. Three pre­vi­ous agree­ments to do so ran aground. A fourth will be needed, and that will likely re­quire heavy pres­sure from Wash­ing­ton, com­bined with the car­rots in­her­ent in a U.S.-led safe zone.

--Con­struct a per­ma­nent U.S. base in the Kur­dish Re­gion of Iraq. Make it sim­i­lar to U.S. bases in Ger­many dur­ing the Cold War. Ex­ploit the 7,300foot run­way the Coali­tion Forces cur­rently use at Bashur Air­field at Harir or the 15,700-foot run­way at Erbil In­ter­na­tional Air­port. The Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment (KRG) has long en­cour­aged such a base. Ankara will wel­come is too, as the U.S. pres­ence will greatly com­pli­cate Tehran’s abil­ity to throt­tle the KRG, Ankara’s pri­mary source of Mid­dle Eastern crude oil.

Of course, few things are easy in the Mid­dle East, but that doesn’t make the nec­es­sary any less nec­es­sary. Nor will pas­sage of the Turk­ish ref­er­en­dum make the dif­fi­cult any eas­ier. Iran will still be there on the day af­ter.

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