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The Defeat of Isis in Raqqa Will Bring Problems for Syria's Kurds
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The expected fall of Raqqa will mark the latest defeat for Isis as it loses its last urban strongholds in Syria and Iraq and reverts to being a guerrilla movement launching raids from hideouts in the desert. The siege of Raqqa started on 6 June and Isis fought skilfully against overwhelming odds until it now holds only a small enclave amid the ruins.

Success will bring problems for the victors as well as the defeated. The attackers in Raqqa are the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) , a mixed Kurdish-Arab force, but its military punching power comes from the YPG, the committed, well-organised and experienced Syrian Kurdish fighters linked to Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. The SDF have shown that they are excellent ground troops, but they owe their sweeping successes not only to their undoubted military prowess but also the devastating firepower of the US-led coalition using bombs, missiles and drones.

The Kurds in Syria have always wondered what is going to happen to them once the US no longer needs them as an essential ally against Isis. They are a community of some 2.2 million people who were marginalised and persecuted until the uprising against the Syrian regime in 2011. The Syrian army withdrew in 2012 from Kurdish territory and the Kurds established what they called Rojava, linking up Kurdish enclaves in a wedge of territory in north east Syria south of the Turkish border.

In 2014, the Kurds were attacked by Isis who almost captured the Kurdish city of Kobani, but were defeated after massive intervention by the US air force. The Pentagon had long been looking in vain for an ally on the ground in Syria and in the YPG it found one: the US-Kurdish alliance has been highly successful, but could now be a victim of its own success.

The Kurds are today operating in Sunni Arab areas that they cannot hope to retain permanently. They have pushed some SDF units further south downriver on the Euphrates into Deir Ezzor province where they risk colliding with the Syrian army coming from the west. Isis has retreated to this area which produces half of Syria’s oil production.

Some in the White House are reported to be pushing for the YPG and Sunni tribes to be used in pursuit of President Trump’s plan to weaken Iran and its Syrian ally. But such a policy has several serious drawbacks: it is much too late because President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanese Hezbollah, Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Iraqi Shia paramilitary groups have effectively won the war in Syria. The SDF would have to be strongly reinforced by local Arab allies in order to fight them and use of them as American proxies might lead to conflict with Russia.


Kurdish commanders are now speaking of negotiations with Damascus since Mr Assad has largely defeated the Arab opposition and will now have to deal with the Kurdish minority. Mr Trump said many belligerent things about Iran last Friday, but it is not at all clear that he is wiling to get entangled in an unwinnable war in Syria which might do more damage to the US than Iran.

The greatest threat to the Syrian Kurds will come from Turkey which sees the Kurdish quasi-state running along its southern border as a permanent threat. Worse, there is not a lot that Turkey can do about this while the US and Russia are deeply engaged in the region. If it does expand its limited military involvement in Syria it will want air cover, but the Russians would not allow it to deploy aircraft over Syria.

The Syrian political and military chess game is very complex and has many players. Raqqa is one more in a long list of defeats for Isis which it will have difficulty surviving, though it would have known the city would fall and will have made preparations to take refuge in desolate areas with bunkers, weapons caches am food stores where it will seek to survive. Much as it did in 2008-11 after being driven out of much of Iraq by the US and its Sunni Arab allies. In Syria and Iraq the main issue has shifted from being the defeat of Isis to the future of the Kurds who will struggle to hold onto the gains they made during the war.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Kurds, Syria 
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  1. Anonymous [AKA "keithy"] says:

    The overtly, sometimes covertly, up-and-down-jumping fanboy of the Yinon plan Cocky Cockburn has encountered an insurmountable setback now that Iraq, all of it, is back under Iraqi control which leaves the US (israel) trapped in Syria with nowhere to go. Time will only tell if Syria’s opportunistic, backstabbing and female genital mutilating Kurds are smart enough to break with “israel” and the US before they, or rather most certainly, the US, do.

    Only a year ago he was so sure of the plans to divide “Syriac” along sectarian lines (according to “israels” wishes) as if it was a mere fact. A done deal. Isn’t it funny how things change?

  2. The Kurds are screwed. They needed US assistance to survive, so American support for the Kurds benefited both sides. We provided the weapons, munitions and air support, and they provided the warm bodies to feed into the meat grinder. The problem is that the transaction is now complete – the Kurds have survived the ISIS onslaught and the US has no further concern that ISIS might complete its conquest of Iraq and Syria.

    The one thing that might save the Kurds is Iraqi or Syrian government atrocities against them. This might require a blood sacrifice numbering in the tens of thousands. If that occurs, then they may achieve the Kurdish holy grail – national independence under Uncle Sam’s aegis, complete with military and economic aid as far as the eye can see.

    • Replies: @Virgile
  3. Virgile says:
    @Johann Ricke

    There are many Kurds in high position in the Syrian army and the syrian government.
    The Kurds in the SDF have realized that the USA will backstab them as they did to the KRG.
    They will negotiate a deal with the Syrian government despite Israel and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to keep Al Raqqa separate from the rest of Syria

  4. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The traitor kurds are US army against people in the Middle East targeted by Zionism and Imperialism for destabilization and ‘regime change” to implement “Greater Middle East” for the interest of US – Israel – Britain. That’s why MI6 agents pose as ‘journalist” are trying so hard to sell corrupt Barzani CLAN as ‘democratic’ to carve a state out of Arab’s land stealing their oil and gas resources to ship it to Israel. For this reason, the MI6 ‘journalists’ call Kirkuk – an Iraqi’s land, a “disputed land”, since 2003 when Iraq was attacked by US, and kurds took the moment to occupy Kirkuk because there is not much oil in the region of ‘kurdistan’. The same concept is used for stolen land of Palestinian since Clinton regime came to power.

    The Kurds are used as destabilization agents since 1990s against Iraq, Syria and now Iran by the West and Israel where the Kurds cooperated 100% with the invaders. Last terror in Tehran carried out by the kurds: NYT writes:

    [The Iranian authorities arrested 41 people Friday in connection with the twin terrorist attacks in Tehran this week, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported, as evidence mounted that Iranian Kurds affiliated with the Islamic State had carried out the assault.]

    Sarah Abed in “Kurdish Nationalist Group PJAK Utilized to Weaken and Divide Iran” writes:
    [Documents leaked by WikiLeaks in 2010 suggested that Israeli Mossad Chief Meir Dagan wanted to use Kurds and ethnic minorities to topple the Iranian government. The Israeli spy service was aiming to create a weak and divided Iran, similar to the situation in Iraq, where the Kurds have their own autonomous government, the spy chief told a U.S. official.
    The Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistane (PJAK), a militant Kurdish nationalist group based in northern Iraq, has been carrying out attacks on Iranian forces in the Kurdistan Province of Iran (Eastern Kurdistan) and other Kurdish-inhabited areas. Half the members of PJAK are women. The PJAK has about 3,000 armed militiamen. They represent yet another example of the Kurds finding themselves in the middle of a conflict and being used as a pawn by the West.
    The party is closely linked to the PKK. Iran has often accused PJAK and other Kurdish nationalist groups from Iran of being supported by Israel. Journalist Seymour Hersh has also claimed that the U.S. supported PJAK and other Iranian opposition groups. However, both the U.S. and Israel have denied supporting PJAK. In fact, the U.S. Treasury branded PJAK as a terrorist organization in 2009. As Hersh noted in 2004:
    “The Israelis have had long-standing ties to the Talibani and Barzani clans [in] “Kurdistan” and there are many Kurdish Jews that emigrated to Israel and there are still a lot of connections. But at some time before the end of the year [2004], and I’m not clear exactly when, certainly I would say a good six, eight months ago, Israel began to work with some trained Kurdish commandos, ostensibly the idea was the Israelis — some of the Israeli elite commander units, counter-terror or terror units, depending on your point of view, began training — getting the Kurds up to speed”.
    Why are the so-called Kurdish “freedom fighters” willing to get in bed with any and every group that has an interest in destabilizing Syria, Iraq, and Iran? The provocative manner in which the SDF has teamed up with terrorist organizations during the war in Syria is a glaring contradiction to the “revolutionary” public relations image that they have fought hard to establish in recent years.

  5. @Virgile

    The Kurds in the SDF have realized that the USA will backstab them as they did to the KRG.

    No backstabbing required. The US prevented ISIS from annihilating the Kurds, using a combo of air strikes, truckloads of cash aid and shipments of food, weaponry and munitions. The US is no more responsible for keeping an independent Kurdistan afloat – that has to be resupplied by air at huge cost through hostile airspace – than the Kurds are responsible for hunting down Muslim terrorists across the globe for Uncle Sam. If the Kurds had access to the sea, keeping a notional Kurdistan afloat would be a lot easier and probably in the American interest. The problem for the Kurds is that they are landlocked and surrounded by enemies on every side. If Kurdistan were in the part of Syria bordering Israel, aid to them would be a gimme. Unfortunately for them, they are not, so they must make the best deal they can.

    Ultimately, Washington is waiting for a clear indication that the Kurds can and are willing to fight to attain independence. We’re not prepared to do all their fighting for them. We still have thousands of GI’s in Iraq, whose physical safety would be endangered if we started bombing Iraqi troops. I expect that any help for the Kurds would have to wait until all of them have been withdrawn. And that’s if policymakers decide that helping them would be in the American interest, i.e. worth all the headaches that will come to the fore re financial costs, US casualties and damage to relations with Iraq and sundry Muslim nations concerned that Uncle Sam will help their minorities realize their separatist dreams.

  6. Igr says:

    USA created the problem in Syria first, isn” t it, Ms. Clinton, Mr Soetoro?
    Usa transfered them from Lybia to Syria
    Usa delivered them the weapons
    Usa delivered to them the intelligence
    Usa delivered to them via Israel medical care
    Usa delivered to Al Qaida a political coverage.
    Now they slipped into SDF uniforms.

    And Mr. Coburn places here his propaganda.

  7. @Virgile

    As this speech by John Kelly, Trump’s Chief of Staff and former SouthCom commander, indicates, his son is in Iraq training Iraqi government troops. For the US to support the Kurds would require an immediate departure and perhaps a fighting withdrawal, as US troops attempt to leave while under attack from Iraqi forces.

    The Kurds should have scheduled the referendum at a more propitious moment. Generally, the way this works is that you get all your ducks in a row, i.e. prepare to fight while getting as many on your side as possible, before doing the deed. Then you fight, and both take and inflict casualties to show everyone you’re serious. And you actually defeat the incumbent government in a few battles (as Gates and Arnold did at Saratoga, thereby obtaining French aid) to show that you won’t need anyone to do your fighting for you, although you will need money, weaponry and supplies.

    It’s early days yet, and Washington did kick off the Revolutionary War with a long string of defeats. But he did fight. The Kurds have not begun to fight yet. Only time will tell whether this referendum was just an elaborate rhetorical gesture.

  8. Bianca says:

    There are many problems with the article. FACTUAL problems. While it is correct thst Kurds will face problems liberating areas from ISIS, and then becoming occupators. But US knew of the risk — and went along anyway. This is called nation building, and such triffles as the wish of population never bothered US neocons — who are still very much in charge in Washington.

    Second, hopefully we have noticed a glaring “coincidence” that ISIS always hit only targets that were key to achieving some US tactical or strategic goal. And while ISIS soldiers are dying for religion — as any other religious cult does — their leadership is clearly linked with US, British or Israeli intelligence. Examples are galore — but let us start with Syrian Kutds. ISIS attack on Kobani was vicious and involved hundreds of civilian hostages. This resulted in YPG that was favored by US win internal political battle. Kurds did not want to secede from Damascus, but YPG — the branck of Turkish PKK — was for independence. ISIS attack proved that Damascus cannot defend them. Thus, YPG won the keadership battle, and many in opposition conveniently disappeared. ISIS merely accomplished US goal of getting allies on the ground. After that, ISIS never bothered Kobani. This allowed YPG to move on Manbij, not defending Kobane. Manbij, a majority Arab and Turkmen town was ethnically cleansed — and Kurds still control it. In spite of Biden’s solemn promises that Kurds must withdraw.

    This brings to another set of inaccuracies . Turkey, Russia and Damascus got the ISIS game correctly. A string of ISIS villages and towns all along Turkish border were instrumental in trade with Turkish Kurds, trading oil, and smuggling weapons. Turkish Kurds are always well armed, and the trade flourished. Russia blew a whistle, but US neocon dominated press attributed the trade of oil to Erdogan — leader that was demonized ever since his break with Israel. US wanted Davutoglu splinter of the rulling party to oust him, and a series of manuevers saw the diminishing the role of Erdogan after stepping diwn as Orime Minister, assention of Davutoglu, shooting down of Russian plane, Davutoglu’s deal with Germany, no confidence vote to Davutoglu’s government, appointment of Erdogan’s government — and 6 weeks later a coup that had all the hallmarks of an assassination attempt. This short history of power struggle in Turkey explains the rest. Author is wrong on all issues of Turkey’s involvement after the coup. First — Turkey sent in troups to clear a string of ISIS held towns along the border, recruited former anti-Assad groups, and proceeded to cut a corridor between Jarabulus on the border, and Al-Bab. US planned to have Al-Bab under ISIS control until Kurds were in position to “liberate” it — and secure for thrnselves connectivity between Afrin Kurds and US supported YPG from Kobane. All propaganda was already in place about “all female brigade” and their “defending their land”. Never mind that Kurds are 5% of polulation. The name Al-Bab means the door. And it is a geographic location of extreme value. The battle for the city cost Turkey dearly in equipment lost and lives lost. Contrary to what author says, Turkey used its airforce in the operation. ISIS clearly had intelligence assistance, as it on several occasions outflanked Turkish forward possitions. Russian airforce came in SUPPORT if Turkish army, and in two operations they FLEW JOINT MISSIONS, in formations if three Turkish and two Russian planes. It was clear that US, Turkey’s NATO ally, did not support Turkey in fighting ISIS. All sorts of gleefull reports claimed that Syrian forces that approached from the West were going to clash with Turkey employed former rebels. But none of that happened — as Turkish and Damascus forces joined at Al-Bab — blocking every possibility of Afrin Kurds to break out and connect along Turkish border. This corridor is still intact today. Not that Afrin Kurds did not try to break out — always blaming Turkey for attacking them.

    Now, a political games are afoot. As Astana agreement is tasking Turkey with Idlib deconflict zone, Afrin Kurds are legitimately afraid of Turkey military operations. Moving against Al-Qaeda in Idlib will be difficult, and Russia will supply military police and humanitarian assistance, as areas are secured. What we see is the game played by Damascus, irritated at the role of Turkey. But this is all for the Afrin Kurd consumption. They will have to chose — accept Damascus offer of autonomy, or be left to deal with Turkey’s government on the terms of relationship with Thrkish Army waiting orders to move into Idlib. Accepting Damascus offer would mean clear role in Idlib, protection from Turks, but giving up Rojava state. It is almost academic at this point, as they cannot physically join — but would under YPG and US pressure like to remain loyal to Rojava. But many Kurds that have been bullied by YPG would prefef deal with Damascus. US clearly would do anything to continue conflict, in this case to the last Kurd in Afrin. But also it means additional time for Al-Qaeda (under its third name) to prepare and rearm. Another ISIS role was to ferry arms supply between Iraq and Syria’s coast where Syrian Army was most vulnerable. The collective West was in mourning when Al-Nusra was kicked out of Aleppo.

    Our entire media skipped the joy of population that was liberated from the monsters after several years being their hostage. No distressing stories about their suffering, no reporting on medical assistance to people who were deprived medical care, and used medical facilities and food supplies from iutside for fighters only. US ibjected to any government giving any help to liberated pooulation that had nothing. While fake civil defense White helmets — won Oscar. Whatever the battle will shale to defeat Al-Qaeda in its last real territorial control — it will be supported by Russia, and the criticism from the West regarding human rights.

    Right now, Kurds are going to keep Raqqa — as it is in ruins and largelly uninhabitable. The questins of Arab oooulation will be swept under the rug, and why not, if it is posdible to ignire millions of Palestnians. Right now, it is all about Kurds. But in the long run — it us all about region comming together to craft a peace process, a process in which no Western power has a role at a table, and ISIS noo power to direct conflicts.

    In Iraq, contrary to all the appearances Barzani and Peshmerga are close allues with Erdogan and Baghdad. US trued to remove Barzani as he allowed Turkey to bomb PKK Kurds in Iraq. But US favored PKK, and as ISIS took Kirkuk and Sinjar from Iraqi forces — US litteraly gifted both towns to PKK Kurds by “helping” Kurds liberate Kirkuk and Sinjar. Remember poor Yazidis? Well after liberating Sinjar only PKK was allowed to enter, not Peshmerga. That was telling Iraqi Kurds that only PKK would save them with US help. I am certain that Barzanis vote for independence was cleared by Turkey and Baghdad. This is why US objected — such referendum would put Barzani’s party in power. And sure enough — right after the vote, Iraq took back both Kirkuk and Sinjar, weakening the PKK base. Kirkuk was not majority Kurd, and Sjnjar was Yazidi town. The process will lead to a pre-ISIS Kurdustan, area that was recignized by Iraq as Kurdish autonomous region. Politics will do the rest. US still controls YPG — but then it does not explain why did YPG turn over to Russia the gas fields they rushed to grab in Deir Azzor.

    While nobody is accepting defeat yet, it is clear that Syrian government is winning. And that in spite of rage driven hit and run operations by ISIS or Al-Qaeda, nothing is affecting the fact that they are neutralized. And Kobani Kurds can hope for some US help — they themselves have a diminishing value to US. Having failed to secure connected Rinava, now they do not have numbers to expand outside their majority areas. Thus keaves US stuck behind ISIS, and Russia is questioning the fact that US forces are there without any perimeter security, and not fighting ISIS that surrounds them. While US may keep presence in Kurdish dominated area — it is a big if. YPG took Kurds down this primrose path — and with PKK either losing outright as in Iraq, or kept on leash tightly as in Turkey — what has YPG brought to Kibane Kurds? Alluance with US and Israel, allienation from Damascus, and allienation from the entire region. From Lebanon to Iraq, Iran and Egypt — all are behind Astana process. Opposition to YPG has been residing in Moscow for a while. It is unlikely that US would give support to independence, while denying it to Iraqi Kurds.

    Author is also not understanding the position of Kurds. They have historically been always priviledged, especially during Ottoman period and French colonial period. They lost their priviledged status — but not their rights. If Syrian government really wanted to make them pay — they would have forced them to return lands they appropriated from Christians.

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