Throughout the Syrian Civil War, one of the few constants has been the strengthening of the Kurdish community. Their self-proclaimed autonomy in the north of the country has become an important part of Syria’s political landscape.
As the fight against ISIS seems to be entering its final stage, the critical task for Rojava (the region’s unofficial name) is to consolidate the gains achieved by Kurdish rebels, and, no less important, to attain formal recognition from both Damascus and the outside world.
Meanwhile, the plight of the Syrian Kurds has become increasingly complicated internationally. In the northern part of the Aleppo and Idlib provinces, the Turkish army is consolidating its positions. Ankara claims that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which dominates northern Syria, is a direct offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey claims to be a terrorist organisation, and is listed as such by the EU and the US.
In recent years, however, the US has been assisting Syria’s PYD, arming and training its military wing, the YPG, and assisting it in the fight against ISIS. However, since the capture of Raqqa, Washington has been faced with the challenge of either continuing its support, r improving its relations with Turkey, which have declined since the failed military coup in 2016.
Although the US remains committed to the PYD, Turkey is one of Washington’s most important allies in the region, and the Trump Administration wants to strike a better balance between them. Particularly given its deteriorating relations with neighbouring Iran over its nuclear weapons program.
Trump’s cautiousness was particularly evident in the approach Washington took in Iraq in October, when, despite years of close cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government, the United States refrained from intervening when the Iraqi army and Iranian allied Shiite armed groups occupied Kirkuk, previously held by the Peshmerga, Iraqi Kurdistan’s de facto military.
It is also unlikely that Russia would support the Kurds at the expense of relations with Turkey. Hypothetically, Moscow could use the Kurdish issue to bargain with Ankara over Syria, and the Turkish Stream pipeline. Tactically, cooperation with Turkey has acquired additional importance in light of Russia’s crisis-ridden relations with Europe and the United States. Anti-Western rhetoric has become one of the hallmarks of rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara.
In Ankara, there are serious concerns about the fact that, having entrenched themselves in Rojava, PKK-friendly Kurds will destabilise Turkey itself. In such a situation, it would be much easier for Russia to make concessions over the Kurdish issue and get support from Turkey in a more important sphere instead, for example, when discussing options for the post-war reconstruction of Syria.
In September 2017, according to an agreement with the Syrian government, the Russian military police entered Afrin. The main task is to ensure a ceasefire, but the Russian presence may also have the aim of preventing clashes between Kurds on the one hand, and Turks and pro-Turkish groups on the other.
At the same time, it was from Russia that the Kurds received the recognition they had been waiting for: Representatives of the PYD were invited to the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi. Russia, in fact, stands to exert greater influence on the Kurds than the US, given Moscow’s greater presence in Syria.
Rojava can hardly expect any kind of empathy on the part of the Gulf states, though they could view it as a potential counterweight to Iranian influence in Syria. Israel could also adopt the Syrian Kurds, as it once did Kurdish resistance fighters in neighbouring Iraq. It is important to keep in mind that Iraqi Kurds cannot be regarded as allies, since Erbil is very different from Rojava politically: the former is dominated by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, while the PYD is a decidedly leftwing European-style anti-capitalist party, closer to the PKK.
Continuing the comparison with Iraq, Syria may yet be transformed into a federated state as a result of a post-war settlement. The PYD would undoubtedly support this, as would many Syrian Sunnis. Kurdish autonomy is one of the few points where the interests of Russia and the United States could also coincide, as it would leave Syria intact. Understandably, Iran and Turkey would try to prevent such a scenario.
There were signs recently indicating that Damascus is ready to consider this issue. The Syrian government is extremely weakened by the protracted civil war and definitely will not be able to restore status quo ante. In these circumstances, granting a certain autonomy to the Kurdish areas that have so far shown the least antagonism towards the government could be one of the first steps towards a final settlement.
In this case, the viability of autonomy will largely depend on its territorial coherence. It is unlikely that Turkey will leave the areas it currently occupies, thus opening a corridor between Afrin and Manbij for the Kurds. Theoretically, this could be imagined only after the Americans, Russians, and Iranians leave the country. Since this will obviously not happen in the foreseeable future, further Turkish efforts aimed at curbing the YPG are to be expected.
A further evolution of US policy will be critical. There is still a high degree of probability that the Kurds will become a bargaining chip. If the US does not resume pressure on Assad, it may well curtail assistance to the Kurds. In this case, the latter will be trapped between Turkey, Damascus, the armed Syrian opposition and radical Islamists.
On the other hand, if regime change becomes the top American priority in Syria again, the most unexpected and unpredictable opportunities may emerge for the Kurds.