Tehran Tries to Woo Kurds Away from U.S. Amid Threat of Iran-Israel War in Syria

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga take part in a graduation ceremony at the Zakho military academy in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Zakho, some 500 kilometres north of Baghdad, on January 30, 2018. Some four-hundred eighteen male and female Peshmerga fighters completed their military training and graduated from the academy. / AFP …
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish officials met with Iranian counterparts this week as Tehran makes a bid to convince the Kurds to abandon their relationship with the United States.

In Iraq, the Islamic Republic is trying to woo the country’s Kurds after clashes between the two sides over the Kurdish efforts to break away from Baghdad. 

While testifying before a Senate panel last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis acknowledged that the potential for war between mortal enemies Israel and Iran is very real.

Asked whether an escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria is likely, Mattis said:

I believe the short answer is yes, Senator. I can see how it might start. I’m not sure when or where. I think that it’s very likely in Syria because Iran continues to do its proxy work there — through Lebanese Hezbollah … and so I could imagine this sparking something larger.

Both Tehran and Moscow also want to secure dictator Bashar al-Assad’s future and overall control of Syria, which requires bringing in the Kurdish-controlled north into the fold and pushing out the U.S. military and any of its allies.  

Speaking during a meeting with a delegation of Syrian Kurdish leaders in Tehran on Tuesday, Ali Akbar Velayati, an international adviser to Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, indicated that the Kurds would never allow the United States and Israel to gain a permanent foothold in Syria, the Islamic Republic’s semi-official Tasnim News Agency reports.

Velayati reportedly said:

Fortunately, in Syria, different tribes, including Arabs and Kurds, and followers of various religions are fighting against foreign aggression alongside each other and they have been victorious so far … Undoubtedly, the key to the victory of the dignified nation of Syria is the national unity that exists among the tribes and religions of the country … Our Kurdish brothers in Syria have demonstrated that they would never allow the United States and the Zionist regime to enter this important country.

The Iranian official claimed that even Christians have sided with the Iranian- and Russian-backed Assad regime. 

Although the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) failed to ultimately prevent Turkey from taking Syria’s Afrin region this year, they received military assistance from the Assad regime, not the United States. 

The U.S. chose to maintain its relationship with its NATO ally Turkey over backing its Kurdish allies in Afrin.

YPG fighters are the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that controls swathes of northern Syria. 

Turkey considers the YPG to be linked to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), but the United States continues to support the Kurdish group. 

The YPG fighters lead and make up the majority of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that recently resumed their offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) following a hiatus in operations prompted by the failed efforts to defend Afrin from Turkey.

In Iraq, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and an Iranian delegation met the Kurdish capital of Erbil to discuss expanding bilateral relations.

Iran’s state-run Mehr News Agency noted on Wednesday: 

The Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi and some other Iranian officials in Iraq have traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan capital Erbil to attend a conference on developing economic ties between Iran the Kurdistan region.

According to the KRG Prime Minister office, in the meeting, Nechirvan  Barzani and the Iranian delegation headed by Masjedi discussed developing all-out bilateral ties.

The two sides also discussed expanding Iranian firms’ presence in Kurdistan region as well as removing customs barriers to develop bilateral trade relations.

In an unusual turn of events, the U.S. and Iran were on the same side in opposing the KRG’s efforts to become an independent country last year. 

Iran, however, went a step further and backed Baghdad’s military efforts to force the Kurds to abandon their independence campaign.

Kurdish forces from Iraq and Syria have been essential to the U.S. in decimating ISIS in the Middle East. 

Some Kurdish community representatives like Etugrul Kurkcu, a veteran lawmaker from Turkey’s Kurd-friendly, left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), argue that the U.S. has “abandoned” the Kurds in Iraq and Syria now that their help is no longer vital to toppling ISIS. 

Iran and Syria could very well capitalize on that sentiment to bring the Kurds onto their side. 

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