Belgium (Brussels Morning) The war in Gaza has introduced new challenges to the already unstable Middle East, transforming localized conflicts into potential regional crises. Beyond the Israel-Hamas confrontation, the ripple effects have extended into neighboring nations such as Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, and disrupted international shipping in the Red Sea. Despite the potentially perilous implications of the Gaza War, this article zeroes in on two regions that are rapidly becoming hotbeds of tension in the Greater Middle East: Northeastern Syria and Northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan).
Both of these areas have been conflict zones for over a decade, grappling with shared challenges. Recent developments, including the ongoing war in Gaza, have heightened the focus on these geographic areas, marking them as the next potential flashpoints in the region.
Northeastern Syria has been a focal point of the Syrian civil war. It is predominantly under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by US troops stationed along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. Since 2019, the Syrian regime, with the support of Russia, has also established its presence. Additionally, Turkey and its Syrian Arab proxies occupy a substantial portion of the Syrian-Turkish border.
Regarding Northern Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan, the situation appears relatively stable. The majority of the region is under the governance of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). However, the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in specific areas near the border with Iran and Turkey, as well as in the Sinjar Mountains, has drawn Ankara’s intervention, perceiving the PKK as a terrorist organization. Alongside Kurdish forces, parts of Northern Iraq remain under government control, facilitated by the predominantly Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Furthermore, the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS/Daesh) persists in both regions, carrying out terror attacks against Kurdish and government forces.
Northeastern Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan have endured instability for numerous years, prompting the question of why these regions should be of concern.
Currently, there are two major risks:
1. The Turkish-Kurdish Conflict: Over the past few months, the Turkish Armed Forces, alongside their Syrian allies, have escalated their assaults against the SDF, which is perceived by Ankara as a PKK affiliate. Air and drone strikes targeting Kurdish-inhabited areas and critical civilian infrastructure have been accompanied by disruptions to water supply, leading to a water crisis. Similarly, Turkish forces are conducting airstrikes and drone attacks against PKK positions within Iraqi Kurdistan.
There is a looming risk of renewed ground attacks by Turkey against the SDF in Syria and the PKK in Iraq.
In October, amidst global attention fixated on the repercussions of the October 7 attack, apprehensions surged that Turkey might imminently initiate a fresh offensive in North Syria with the intent of expelling Kurdish-led forces from the Syrian-Turkish border. Despite the absence of an outright invasion, the specter of renewed ground assaults by Turkey against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq looms large, underscoring the persisting volatility in the region.
2. Gaza War Spillover: Before October 7, sporadic US strikes against pro-Iranian militia groups in Syria and Iraq, along with retaliatory attacks on US military bases, were observed. The frequency of such attacks has surged since Hamas’ attack and Israel’s response, with more than 130 incidents targeting US military bases and assets in Northeastern Syria and Northern Iraq. In response, the US has heightened its airstrikes and drone attacks against pro-Iranian groups and targets linked with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Iran further escalated tensions by launching a missile attack on a compound purportedly used as Mossad’s headquarters in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has maintained a cautious silence on recent developments since the onset of the Gaza War. This silence stems from concerns that its ties with the US and Israel could strain relations with the PMF, which is willing to expand its presence in Northern Iraq. Additionally, the Iraqi government’s decision to initiate the removal of US troops from Iraqi soil poses potential challenges between Baghdad and Erbil due to the crucial role of American troops in ensuring the security and autonomy of the KRG.
These recent developments are deeply disconcerting, and the prospect of an escalating conflict between the US and the Iran-led ‘Axis of Resistance‘ could exacerbate the turmoil in this already troubled region, leading to renewed clashes, as part of a wider regional conflict.
In addition to the risks of new Turkish offensives in Syria and Iraq and an open war between the US and the so-called Axis of Resistance, Northeastern Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan grapple with additional challenges. These include the conflict between the Assad regime and the SDF in Qamishli and other parts of Northeastern Syria, intra-SDF conflicts between the Kurds and Sunni Arab tribes in the Eastern bank of the Euphrates River, political instability and violence among competing factions in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the persistent ISIS insurgency in the wider region.
In conclusion, the intricate web of conflicts in Syria and Iraq, exacerbated by the recent developments stemming from the war in Gaza, presents a precarious landscape with far-reaching implications. The risks posed by the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, the potential spillover from the Gaza War, and the multifaceted challenges within these regions necessitate urgent global attention. The delicate balance of power and the presence of multiple actors with conflicting interests underscore the fragility of the situation.
As the international community navigates this complex terrain, diplomatic efforts must be intensified to prevent further destabilization and mitigate tensions in these troubled areas of the Greater Middle East. The stakes are high, as a conflict in Gaza and the Red Sea could minimize international attention for Northeastern Syria and Northern Iraq.
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