ON Friday, the Bashar al-Assad regime suffered another symbolic defeat when the UN General Assembly voted 133 to 12 with 31 abstentions for a Saudi-sponsored resolution that criticised the Assad regime and castigated the UN Security Council for failing to act against the Syrian regime.

Pakistan was one of the countries that abstained, presumably because of reservations on the demand for international intervention in the internal affairs of Syria and more likely because of the strong connections the Assad regime enjoys with the PPP. During the debate the UN secretary general talked of a “proxy war” and called upon the rival powers to end their differences so that the situation could be resolved. The Russians denounced the resolution, calling it one-sided, while the Syrian ambassador asserted that the sponsors, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were acting as both firemen and arsonists in a bitter reference to the assistance that these countries are providing to the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups.

Worse is probably yet to come. Reuters has reported that President Barack Obama has signed off on an intelligence ‘finding’ that would in effect authorise the CIA to provide assistance to rebels and that the current policy of providing only non-lethal assistance and helping other donors provide the right lethal equipment may now move towards a direct provision of such assistance by the Americans.

This vote came close on the heels of Kofi Annan’s decision not to seek a renewal of his mandate — expiring on Aug 31 — from the UN secretary general and the Arab League to mediate a peaceful settlement. Acknowledging the failure of his six-point plan, Annan held both the Assad regime and the Security Council responsible. He also disclosed that this plan had called for Assad to step down. In the eyes of the regime and possibly many of Assad’s Alawite supporters, this would have been tantamount to suicide.

Last reports from the area suggest that the Free Syrian Army and other freedom fighters have fought the Syrian armed forces to a standstill in Aleppo, which is currently the main battleground; they may even be close to establishing permanent control over parts of the city. The prime minister has defected. In the meanwhile the death and destruction mounts. Economic activity in this, Syria’s main commercial hub, is at a standstill. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries, mainly Turkey.

Turkey has by all accounts been the principal conduit for the flow of arms and other material to the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council (SNC). Its border towns are overflowing with Syrian refugees. Prime Minister Erdogan had spent a great deal of effort in cultivating Bashar al-Assad and on strengthening Syrian-Turkish relations from which Turkey’s trade benefited a great deal. But his efforts at persuading Assad to take a more conciliatory attitude towards what was then a dissident movement proved unsuccessful, and Turkey has since then become a supporter of the freedom struggle.

Turkey’s attitude has largely been determined by its desire to see Syria remain a unitary state with no separate autonomous area being carved out by the Kurds on Turkey’s borders. Such an autonomous region is unacceptable to Turkey since it believes that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), against whom the Turks have been waging a battle within Turkey and on many occasions in Iraqi Kurdistan, will then dominate it.

Turkey has said that it regards the Democratic Union Party, now the dominant force in the northern Syrian region known as Jazira, as being synonymous with the PKK. Turkey has held two military exercises along its borders and Erdogan has stated bluntly that Ankara would not accept the creation of a “terrorist” structure in the region and that “It is our most natural right to intervene [in northern Syria] since those terrorist formations would disturb our national peace.”

In another move designed to frustrate any such development the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, visited Kirkuk without the blessing of the Iraqi central government. In a meeting with Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, he reportedly struck a deal to jointly address “Any attempt to exploit the power vacuum [in Syria] by any violent group or organisation”, an apparent reference to Turkish Kurdish rebels who are now operating in northern Syria.

Perhaps as a sweetener before Davutoglu’s visit, Turkey had agreed to import oil from Iraqi Kurdistan through a pipeline that would be used in addition to the Iraqi central government’s pipeline that is already operational.

Barzani’s reported agreement with Turkey represents quite a change since he had earlier acknowledged the existence in Iraqi Kurdistan of a military training camp where Kurds from Syria had received training. The former head of the SNC, Burhan Ghalioun, maintained in a media interview that Barzani had been in agreement with the SNC when it informed him that it wanted to ensure three things for the Kurds in Syria: “1) genuine equality and the elimination of injustices against Kurds and compensating them; 2) guaranteeing the cultural and national rights of the Kurdish people, i.e. the right to identity, education in Kurdish and assisting the development of Kurdish culture and literature in Syria; 3) recognising a system of administrative decentralisation in all the areas of Syria, among them the areas mostly populated by Kurds.” He said he was surprised when Barzani later said, according to Ghalioun, that “as long as the rights of the Kurdish people are not recognised in Syria, Kurdish parties will not be part of the Syrian National Council.” Has Barzani really changed his mind?

Now the SNC has elected a Kurd, Abdelbasset Sieda, as its president. Hopefully this will give the Kurds the feeling that their rights will be protected once the SNC comes to power.

The aspirations of 20 million Kurds for an independent state of their own are of long standing. Despite Turkey’s valiant efforts it is likely that the Syrian crisis and the pivotal role that the two million Kurds in Syria can play in its resolution will keep this aspiration alive. The consequences could be devastating for the region and particularly for Syria since it would mean perhaps an Alawite enclave at one end and a Kurdish enclave at the other.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.



Updated 28 May, 2022

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