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Kurdish Dilemmas in Syria

Gregory Aftandilian

An independent consultant, writer, and lecturer
  11/02/2021  |    139 View
The Syrian Kurds, who constitute about 10 percent of Syria’s population, are at a crossroads, trying to preserve their shrunken statelet in the northeastern part of the country while various powers are maneuvering in the area. In the aftermath of the abrupt US troop pullout last October from the border region adjacent to Turkey, which showed that Washington was an unreliable partner as Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies brutally attacked Kurdish troops and civilians, the Syrian Kurds have been engaged in discussions with Russian and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad about their desire to have autonomy within a federated Syrian state. This goal, however, is strongly opposed by both Turkey and the Assad government as well as by the Syrian opposition.

Although the United States did not stage a complete withdrawal in October 2019 and has maintained a small force in northeastern Syria––chiefly to guard the oil fields and pursue remnants of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in conjunction with the Kurds––the latter welcomed the electoral defeat of President Donald Trump and the victory of former Vice President Joe Biden, who has shown much more sympathy for the Kurds. However, pinning their hopes on the incoming Biden Administration might be overly optimistic. While Biden is likely to use US leverage to forestall another Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria, it is unclear whether he will support a federated Syrian state that the Kurds keenly desire.

Seeking Autonomy

The Kurds, as a non-Arab ethnic group, have had an uneasy relationship with the Assad regime whose ideology—Baathism—emphasizes pan-Arab nationalism. Although Hafez al-Assad, who ruled from 1970 to 2000, gave sanctuary for several years to Turkish Kurdish militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), this was done to keep Turkey off-balance and not out of sympathy for the Kurds. In 2004, after his son, Bashar, had come to power, the Syrian regime reportedly used live ammunition against unarmed Kurdish civilians in the city of Qamishli after clashes between Kurdish and Arab soccer fans. About 30 people were killed and another 160 were injured during this episode.

When the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, the Kurds did not side with the Assad regime or the opposition, which they regarded as opposed to Kurdish autonomy as much as Assad. They were generally excluded from opposition meetings, particularly those  about the Geneva talks with regime representatives. Moreover, as some Syrian rebels grew more Islamist in orientation, the Syrian Kurds viewed them with alarm. Although Syrian Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims, they are more mainstream in their religious beliefs than the Islamist factions, and the most militant among them are secular adherents of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) who share a kind of utopian commune ideology with the PKK. Hence, in the chaos of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian Kurds did not want to choose sides but to be left alone so they could create an autonomous statelet which they initially called Rojava, meaning “west” in the Kurdish language, signifying the western portion of what they consider “Greater Kurdistan.” They also undoubtedly took some inspiration from Iraqi Kurds who maintained their autonomous status in post-2003 Iraq.

Proving Their Worth as Anti-IS, Pro-US Fighters

In 2014, the Syrian Kurds were confronted with a more ominous enemy, the Islamic State, which took control of much of eastern Syria and established a self-declared caliphate in the city of Raqqa. As the United States and its allies joined the anti-IS fight, they came to see the Syrian Kurds as their most reliable partners and fighters. US military commanders on the ground displayed great respect for these fighters, most of whom were affiliated with the PYD’s military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), because of their performance on the battlefield.

Over time, the United States encouraged some Arab tribes in the area to join an expanded military entity called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to make this force more palatable to ethnic Arab inhabitants of eastern Syria, though the leadership remained Kurdish. This partnership between the United States and the Syrian Kurds was criticized by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who accused Washington and its European allies of aiding Kurdish “terrorists” because he saw the YPG as an extension of the PKK and vowed to strike them. Such comments provoked the ire of US Army Lt. General Paul Funk, one of the top commanders of US forces in eastern Syria, who stated the following in February 2018: “I’m very confident in the (Syrian Democratic Forces) leadership,” adding, “When nobody else could do it they retook Raqqa … I think that has earned them a seat at the table.” Funk even got into a public tiff with Erdoğan who threatened US forces in Syria, asserting that if “you hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves.”

Trump’s Impulsiveness and Its Impact on Syrian Kurds

This alliance between the United States and the Syrian Kurds, however, was threatened by Trump’s impulsiveness and personal friendship with Erdoğan. After a phone call between the two leaders in December 2018, Trump declared that he would pull all US troops out of Syria. Even though he did not go through with this withdrawal at the time, his stance led to the resignations of Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, who was the US envoy to the anti-IS coalition, and both of them saw the policy as an abandonment of a US ally. Another Trump-Erdoğan phone call in October 2019 was even more consequential. The Turkish president persuaded Trump to withdraw US troops from a 20-mile-wide east-west corridor in northeastern Syria and this was done in short order. The withdrawal paved the way for the Turks and their Syrian allies to invade the area, killing hundreds of Kurdish fighters and civilians and leading to the flight of more than 100,000 Syrian Kurds to northern Iraq. Erdoğan also announced that he intended to relocate more than one million Syrians to this corridor by the Turkish border.

The abrupt US withdrawal caused anguish not only among the Syrian Kurds, who felt that Washington had betrayed them, but among US military leaders and Special Forces, members of Congress, and the press. US veterans of the anti-IS campaign who had partnered with the Kurds told reporters that they felt a sense of shame over what occurred, particularly as video footage of executions of Kurdish prisoners by pro-Turkish forces circulated on the internet. In the face of this criticism, Trump doubled down on his decision, stating that the Kurds are “not angels” and added that “they didn’t help us with Normandy” (a reference to the D-Day invasion of World War II)—an absurd comment. Another video of a Russian journalist examining the contents of an abandoned US base in northeastern Syria also circulated on the internet. These videos vividly showed the price of the US retreat.

Hedging Their Bets

Eventually, Trump agreed to keep about 700 US troops in Syria to guard the oil fields around Deir Ezzor to deny revenues to the Syrian government and to help pay for SDF operations such as running detention camps for IS fighters and pursuing IS remnants. In these operations, which are still ongoing, the United States has continued to partner with the Kurdish-led SDF, but the Kurds came to the realization that they could no longer rely on the United States for their protection and sought other partners to maintain what was left of their autonomous region, now called the “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.” They have held discussions with the Syrian government through Russian intermediaries, for example, but these talks have gone nowhere because of Assad’s opposition to a federated state. Although Russia has displayed sympathy toward the Syrian Kurds and has even invited rival Kurdish groups to Moscow in an attempt to bring about unity between them, the Kurds, particularly the dominant PYD faction, are distrustful of Russia’s intentions because of its tacit alliance with Turkey. In October 2019, Turkey and Russia, under the Sochi Accord, agreed to joint military patrols along the eastern and western borders of the Turkish-controlled corridor in northeastern Syria.

The Kurds understand that Russia’s main goals are to shore up the Syrian government, which has now established more bases in northeastern Syria, and to cultivate friendly ties with Turkey to draw the latter away from Washington as much as possible. Although Russia and Turkey are often on opposite sides in the Syrian conflict, such as in Idlib province, larger strategic interests have mitigated such disagreements. For example, Turkey continues to cooperate with Russia on the deployment of the Russian S-400 missile system despite opposition from NATO and newly imposed sanctions by the United States. Russia is likely using friendly ties to the Syrian Kurds as leverage on Turkey, dangling the prospect of warmer Russian-Kurdish relations when it sees Turkey being uncooperative. Unfortunately for the Syrian Kurds, they lack good options: they need Russia to protect them from Turkey but they know the Russians can sell them out in a heartbeat.

The Ayn Issa Conundrum

An example of this hesitancy to hitch their wagon to the Russians, and by extension the Syrian government, is a reported agreement over the town of Ayn Issa in eastern Syria, which lies just south of the corridor controlled by Turkey and its Syrian militia allies. In November and December 2020, Turkey ramped up attacks against Kurdish positions in this vicinity, including the shelling of villages. The Russian media reported that the SDF then reached an agreement with Russia and the Syrian government on December 9 to establish three joint observation posts in Ayn Issa, a report that was denied by some Kurdish officials. One analyst noted that the agreement is just a preliminary understanding and that there is disagreement within the SDF on “handing over Ain Issa to the [Syrian] regime.” Some SDF elements see this as preferable to the Turks taking over the town while others do not want to end the Kurdish administration over it.

Banking on Biden and His Team

The election of Joe Biden has led SDF political and military leaders to believe that the United States can still be their savior. Biden has expressed sympathy for the Kurds over the years and was even reported to have said to Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani that we “will see an independent Kurdistan in our lifetime.” He also invoked an old Kurdish proverb when addressing the parliament of the Kurdish Regional Government in 2002, saying that the “mountains are not your only friends.” In addition, Biden, during the presidential campaign, blasted the decision to withdraw troops from northeastern Syria in October 2019, calling Trump “the most reckless commander in chief we’ve ever had.” Biden went on to say that the “brave Kurdish and Arab forces paid a steep price” by defeating IS and “they lost over 10,000 soldiers … They made the ultimate sacrifice,” and “then Trump sold them out.” The Kurds are also heartened by the fact that Brett McGurk will be the Middle East coordinator in the Biden White House. McGurk not only has been supportive of the Kurds in the fight against IS but has reportedly been critical of Turkey’s role in allowing thousands of militants in the recent past to cross Turkish territory to join IS in Syria and Iraq.

SDF leaders have called upon Biden to double the size of the US troop presence in Syria, noting that IS still remains a threat, urging Washington “to translate this military partnership into a political one, so the administration of northeast Syria will be recognized politically as a part of a decentralized Syria.” The SDF representative in Washington, Sinam Mohamad, underscored that the Kurds are not represented in the Geneva talks and “that’s why we hope the Biden Administration will bring more political support for us to be included in talks that will determine our future and that of Syria as a whole.” Meanwhile, a Kurdish affairs analyst noted that the main SDF goal now is to obtain a commitment from the incoming Biden Administration to keep US forces in northeastern Syria and provide “protection from future Turkish attacks on the region.”

Given how complicated the Syrian situation is, the most the Biden Administration can probably do in the short term is to prevent future Turkish attacks as it toughens the US response to Erdoğan. However, achieving political support for the Kurds—meaning US recognition of their autonomous entity and endorsement of a federated state—is much more problematic. Biden and his team know that such an idea would incur the wrath of the Syrian opposition, Arab leaders in the region, and Turkey who all fear that autonomy for the Kurds might eventually lead to Kurdish independence and a truncated Syrian state. Moreover, US policy even during the Obama Administration, of which Biden was an integral part, was never explicitly in favor of federalism for Syria. While Biden is likely to continue to partner with the SDF militarily, how he contends with the SDF’s political demands will be one of his many foreign policy challenges.