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Rapporteur Notes

FDD Event with Fuad Hussein, John Hannah, Ilhan Tanir, Tony Badran, and Soner Cagaptay

September 10, 2012

On Monday, September 10, 2012, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies hosted a panel discussion on the rising fortunes of the Kurds as Bashar Assad and his regime lose control of substantial portions of Syria. Before a capacity crowd, panelists argued that the Kurds had gained a great deal of autonomy, but would hesitate to declare an independent state, for fear of Turkish and Arab reprisals that could spark a regional war.

Fuad Hussein, Chief of Staff to Masoud Barzani, President of the Iraqi Region of Kurdistan; joined Ilhan Tanir, Washington correspondent for the Turkish newspaper Vatan Daily, who has traveled to Syria three times in 2012; FDD research fellow Tony Badran; and Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The event was moderated by John Hannah, an FDD senior fellow, and national security advisor to former Vice President Richard B. Cheney.

“In Syria, a slow-motion train wreck has been underway for 18 months now,” said Hannah. “With the rest of the world watching from the sidelines, the situation has only gone from bad to worse. By some counts, as many as 25,000 people are dead. Sectarianism has deepened, warlordism is on the rise, and Islamic radicals of every stripe are involved.”

But, he added, the conflict has also witnessed “the emergence of a liberated Kurdish region in the northeast.”

“Who’s winning?” asked Hannah. “Do we believe the fall of the Assad regime is inevitable? How is it most likely to happen?”

“In Idlib and in Aleppo,” said Ilhan Tanir, “there are no regime forces. 10 kilometers from central Idlib, the last time regime forces were there was last November.”

But, he cautioned, “that doesn’t mean that these places are under full control.”

“In Aleppo, you see total destruction. A house that five or 10 people just got killed in that morning,” Tanir continued, noting that it was unclear whether the regime forces were targeting Free Syrian Army elements or just killing people at random.

“The opposition is winning right now,” said Tanir. “That doesn’t mean it’s decisive,” as the regime still has relatively advanced artillery and an air force.

“When you ask rebels ‘what do you need?’” Tanir concluded, they say “all we need is a no-fly zone and missile [man-portable air defense systems] that can hunt jets or helicopters.”

In Tony Badran’s estimation, the war is becoming “less about the collapse of the regime than the territorial contraction of the regime. Aleppo, for example, becomes like Beirut during the civil war: It becomes a divided city.”

In cities of mixed sectarian identity, the Assad regime is employing communal militias manned by minorities. In Damascus and Aleppo, Badran explained, it is “using Christians to keep out the FSA -- whether this is voluntary or not. It may be just out of fear that if the FSA comes in, the regime is going to bombard the quarter and they’re going to lose their livelihood.”

“This becomes a good way for the regime to create a stalemate,” Badran concluded. “It doesn’t reinstate control of the regime over the entirety of Syria, but it keeps it in the game.”

Refugees from the fighting are now forming “ink blots” near border crossings between Turkey and Syria, Soner Cagaptay said. There are “about 180,000 refugees officially, and probably another 30, 40, or 50,000 have crossed illegally. Many of them are in camps right on the border, and Turkey and European NGOs are providing them with relief.”

“Turkey’s position on this is evolving fast,” Cagaptay said. “The Turks don’t want to end up with a million refugees, similar what they faced in the 1990s after the Gulf War,” but they recognize they have a humanitarian disaster on their hands, and “in the coming months, we’ll see Turkish officials saying ‘what do we do with people on the other side of the border?’”

With Assad’s regime losing its grip on so much of its territory, Hannah asked, is this an opportunity for Syria’s Kurds?

“There are two scenarios,” said Fuad Hussein. “It could be a situation like Lebanon, which continues for 15 years.”

“Or we see various areas which gradually come under control of either FSA, or in the case of the Kurdish movement, Kurdish political parties.” Hussein continued. “It is obvious that the regime is weaker and the opposition is stronger, but which kind of opposition?”

“The FSA is not united, and it doesn’t have a structure. It doesn’t have a clear leader. This is a problem for the political groups inside Syria, but it also a problem for many countries supporting the opposition,” Hussein said. “All these factors, internal factors, regional factors, and international factors, must be included in dealing with Syria. The problem with Syria is that we have got many, many players in the field.”

“Syrian National Council leaders have been in discussions with Kurdish leaders in Kurdistan, in Iraqi Kurdistan,” said Hussein. “We are trying to advise them to be part of the opposition and to fight for their rights, but peacefully. They must not use violence.”

“Assad will use anything available to scare the Turks,” Cagaptay noted. He will “use the PKK. Support in Turkey for intervention in Syria has dropped precipitously over the summer, in view of the rising number of PKK attacks” on Turkish territory.

“Turkish policy,” particularly as prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads into local elections in 2013 and presidential and parliamentary ones in 2014, is to “make sure that post-Assad Syria does not produce a Kurdish regional government with the PKK in it. That’s not something you can live with in terms of security policy.”

“Ankara’s fear is that the longer you wait, the more difficult it becomes for a soft landing, because people will become sectarianized, radicalized,” Cagaptay said. It becomes “a war for identity, not a war for regime change or democracy.”

Amal Mudallali of the Wilson Center asked about Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s policy toward the Kurds.

Iraqi president Nuri al-Maliki supports Assad not simply because of his links with Iran, Hussein explained, but also because he fears Sunni control in Damascus.

Maliki’s government worries that “then the fight between Shia and Sunni in Iraq will come to the border of Baghdad,” Hussein said, “because the Iraqi Sunnis will be supported by a new government in Syria, and they will bring their fight to Baghdad. This fight is between, let’s say, Sunni fundamentalists and Shia, and it will threaten the unity of Iraq.”

Sectarian tensions are already running high, and Hussein played down speculation that the Kurdistan regional government of Iraq would support an independent Kurdish state that could spark a regional war.

“In our meeting with PYD leaders,” Hussein explained, they were “not pushing for an independent Kurdistan, and our advice is even if they’ve got that hidden agenda, it will not be implemented.”

“They are talking about self-determination,” he continued. “Some of them are talking about political decentralization, or autonomy. Some of them are talking about federalism. None of them -- I met all of them -- none of them are talking about an independent Kurdistan.”

“I don’t think Syria is going to break down,” Cagaptay said. “Iraq survived.”

People will say “it’s not a real state, it was created by the allies,” but “I think Syria will survive.”

“As I said, though,” Hannah concluded, “with 100,000 American troops.”