Iranian Islands of Influence
At a Pentagon news conference on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that Iran is building and training a militia to buttress the Assad regime in Syria. As the Syrian war drags on and the prospects of the country fragmenting increase, it's become clear that the Alawistan option-a consolidated Alawite enclave protected by an Iranian-sponsored sectarian militia-will be the main avenue for maintaining Tehran's influence.
However, alongside this primary option, Iran will also be on the lookout for other openings to maintain its foothold elsewhere in the country. The unleashing of Syria's centrifugal forces, and their problematic interactions with their surroundings, affords Iran the potential to exploit contradictions and cultivate another pocket of influence in the Kurdish areas.
It's now been widely reported that, as the Assad regime moved to concentrate its forces in the two largest cities of Damascus and Aleppo, it withdrew from several other areas, including the Kurdish regions. In late July, a number of Kurdish cities, from Efrin in the northwest to Qamishli in the northeast, were declared free of any regime security presence.
Stepping in to fill the vacuum has been the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The KNC is a coalition of the main Kurdish parties, formed under the aegis of Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan. The PYD, meanwhile, is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)-the militant group that once enjoyed the support of the Assad regime in its war against Turkey.
Relations between these two groups have been tense, and by June they had reached boiling levels. On July 11, Barzani managed to broker an agreement between these rival Syrian Kurdish parties. Among other things, the agreement established a joint Supreme Council to manage the Kurdish areas. But more generally, the agreement is meant to prevent-or at least postpone-infighting while the Kurds consolidate their gains as the Syrian regime retreats.
Over the last year, however, the Assad regime has deliberately allowed and facilitated the PYD's drive to strengthen its position in the Kurdish areas over and against other parties, especially those more amenable to working with Turkey. This was an opportunistic convergence of interests. For Assad, entrenching a staunch enemy of Turkey in the border region was a useful tactic. The PKK and its Syrian affiliate are not invested in the Assad regime, but they took advantage of the opening to attempt to solidify their primacy on the Syrian Kurdish scene.
In this context, Barzani's recent revelation that Syrian Kurdish fighters were being trained in Iraqi Kurdistan is, at one level, a flexing of muscles against the PKK and its Syrian branch. For Barzani, projecting power in Syrian Kurdistan is an important way to shore up his position as the preeminent figure in Kurdish politics around the region. Moreover, the Kurdish president has been pursuing a complex, strategic relationship with the Turks. He cannot allow for the PKK to threaten either objective.
On the one hand, brokering the agreement between the PYD-the PKK's Syrian affiliate-and the KNC would suggest that Barzani attempted to position himself as a mediator between Turkey and the PKK. On the other hand, the Kurdish leader made clear where he stood with regard to his strategic partnership with Turkey. Following a meeting with the Turkish Foreign Minister in Irbil at the beginning of the month, the two issued a joint statement stressing that "any attempt by any extremist group or organization to exploit the power vacuum [in Syria] will be considered a common threat and should be settled jointly" - a clear reference to the PKK.
Barzani, in other words, is trying to box in the PKK's Syrian affiliate. However, his power play and his budding strategic relationship with Turkey are bound to create a desire for a counterbalancing influence. This is where Iran comes in.
Tehran already has some friends among Barzani's rivals in Iraq. In addition, the conflict in Syria has also shown that Iran and the PKK can find room to work together. Iran's capture and release of PKK chief Murat Karayılan last summer was seen by Turkey as an Iranian message that it could find common cause with the PKK against Ankara. As recently as last week, the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister made comments implying that a recent surge in PKK terror attacks in Turkey's southeast has the backing of Iran, and that the PKK was infiltrating Turkey from Iranian soil.
Rivalry between Kurdish groups and its interaction with regional power politics suggest that the current intra-Kurdish agreement will not hold down the road. Facing pressure from Barzani and his local allies, and the threat of Turkish military incursions, the PKK's Syrian branch could turn to Iran for support.
What's more, the Kurdish areas in Syria are not contiguous and it may very well end up that the PKK affiliate and the pro-Barzani parties control different areas, thereby creating a Kurdish subset of the broader Syrian civil war. This brings into focus the kind of fragmentation we might potentially see in Syria, which could in turn afford Iran additional islands of influence in northern Syria, aside from the Alawite region.
While Syria's fragmentation is not, per se, a primary concern for the U.S., eliminating Tehran's ability to project power in that country is. Syria is fracturing, and Iran will look for any opening, including exploiting the situation in the Kurdish region. Washington, meanwhile, currently has no policy to address this scenario.