The Kurds and the Syrian Quicksand Box

Syria is an area of conflict with porous boundaries both inside the country and along its national borders. But violation of those national boundaries by a foreign force raises the ante in the conflict. Of the many fuses attached to bombs that may detonate and bring down whatever stability is left, the plight of the Syrian Kurds is one of the most salient. 

The Kurds in Syria are divided between those who look to the PKK for help in their struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, those who look to Iraqi Kurdistan for help in forming an autonomous region in the northwest of Syria, and those who want to be left alone. The Syrian government at the outbreak of the civil war declared definitively that "there is no Syrian Kurdistan", but then promptly withdrew military and most security personnel from the region, giving the Kurds at least a temporary autonomous zone. The Turks, perceiving that this might become another staging area for PKK attacks on Turkish soil, rattled their sabers and threatened to invade if the Syrian Kurds declared themselves separate from the rest of Syria.

Since then the situation stabilized in an unstable sort of way. The PKK entered into peace talks with Turkey, and it seemed as if that decades-long conflict was drawing to a close. But then pressure has been building up on another front. The Syrian opposition forces, in particular those aligned with Islamist elements, have begun to attack the Kurds. Turkey has been supporting these opposition forces, which puts Turkey in an awkward position, where it would seem that its interests lie in supporting both sides of the conflict - the Kurds to keep them peaceful and the Islamist groups in order to keep up pressure on Assad. 

Into this mess rides President Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan with the threat to send in his powerful  Peshmerga army to save the Syrian Kurds. This would put  him in direct opposition to forces supported by Turkey, his recent "strategic ally". It would also mean that armed conflict would have openly spread across the Iraq-Syrian border.

Meanwhile the United States is wrestling with the fact that if it supports the Syrian opposition more strongly, it may end up with hostile Islamists in control of the country. If it does not do anything if may end up with everyone hating the US even more than they do today. If Turkey and Barzani intervene, they should think carefully about the law of unintended consequences. If those who attack the Kurds continue, they may shift the whole focus of the conflict away from their stated goal of replacing the Assad regime. 

All sides should realize if they enter into the conflict in Syrian Kurdistan, they will soon be caught in a large patch of quicksand from which it will be very difficult to get out. If caught in quicksand, apparently all you can do is move very, very slowly until the quicksand becomes more viscous and you can creep out.

The ancient Chinese Taoist writing by Lao-zi contained advice for rulers which was written in a panel that was hung over the throne of the Emperor in Beijing. (It is still there.)

"Do nothing [so that all may be accomplished.]"


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