Western Kurdistan is a territory in the north of Syria, often simply called Rojava (which means “the West” in Kurdish). Recently, Rojava has been assuming an increasingly large place in the news on the crisis in the Middle East. Syria’s six-year civil war has provided the Kurds of Rojava with opportunities to assert themselves and their rights in a new way. In a situation of increasing chaos, the Kurds have demonstrated their ability to organize themselves effectively, and in 2016 they announced the creation of an autonomous territory, which eventually became known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Since then, a multi-ethnic federation with Kurdish leadership has successfully defended its right to exist. The Syrian Democratic Forces, the federation’s militias, gradually ousted ISIS from their territory and today constitute the main component of forces preparing to recapture the ISIS capital Raqqa.
These achievements have created considerable difficulties, since now the Syrian Kurds are a focal point of regional and global powers involved in the Syrian crisis; this primarily refers to the United States, Turkey and Russia.
The United States, which is extremely interested in the participation of the Kurdish troops in the fight against ISIS, is equally interested in maintaining stable relations with its ally Turkey. It has apparently not been successful enough to combine these two vectors in the best way, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, the Americans continue to support the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). On 8 May, Donald Trump decided to arm Kurdish forces fighting for the liberation of Raqqa. Along with this military aid, the moral support rendered to the Kurds is of exceptional importance. This move understandably caused a negative reaction in Turkey, but Ankara does not have the potential to significantly influence American activities – a fact that was confirmed by Erdogan’s relatively unsuccessful visit to Washington on 15-17 May. At the same time, there are few real reasons for Turkish concerns, since in arming the Kurds the United States in all likelihood has stipulated the non-use of these weapons against its Turkish ally. Assuming otherwise would mean a radical revision of the US Middle Eastern policy, and there are no indications for such a conclusion yet.
It should be added here that besides contributing to the struggle with ISIS, supporting the Kurds of Syria provides the Americans with yet another loyal territory in the Middle East in the future. With a high degree of certainty it can also be assumed that afterwards, the United States will seek to use the disagreements between the Kurds and Damascus to their advantage.
Turkey reacts negatively to any Kurdish achievement, regardless of where in Kurdistan it takes place. Ankara’s rationale is that any Kurdish success entails a risk of provoking disturbances among the Turkish Kurds. At the same time, the People’s Protection Units are considered by Turkey to be a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is recognized as a terrorist organization in Turkey, the United States, and the EU. The YPG representatives themselves insist that they have no relation to the PKK. Operation Euphrates Shield, conducted by Turkey in the north of Syria in 2016-2017, was officially directed against ISIS militants, but it was regarded by most observers to be a step aimed primarily at preventing the creation of a continuous Kurdish corridor along the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey managed to achieve this goal, which resulted in cutting off the Kurds living in the Afrin region from the bulk of Northern Syria’s federation. The viability of potential Kurdish autonomy in Syria is therefore at serious risk.
From the Russian point of view, Syrian Kurds are also useful in the fight against ISIS. At the same time, Russia is not so much concerned about Kurdish-Turkish antagonism. Moscow’s concern can rather be caused by the Kurdish focus on the federalisation of Syria, and at the extreme (although it is not discussed openly yet) – on complete secession. Another problem is the possible exacerbation of the Kurds’ relations with Damascus as the Assad government strengthens and terrorist groups are ousted from the Syrian Arab Republic.
Russia does not provide large-scale support to the Kurds, but maintains close contact with them, which is understandable since Russian Aerospace Forces and Kurdish units are fighting side by side with radical Islamists. A telling fact is that the Syrian Kurds’ first foreign representational office was opened in February 2016 in Moscow.
The central Syrian government’s attitude towards the Kurds is characterized by great ambiguity. So far, Assad has had to solve so many problems that there have been no resources left for the Kurds, to such an extent that even the recent Turkish invasion was barely noticed by Damascus. In a way, the weakening of the Kurdish positions that followed is even beneficial to the central Syrian authorities. As well as the fact that the Kurds are confronting ISIS. However, if the Syrian government will continue to win back its positions, relations with Rojava will require some certainty. Today it is very difficult to predict how compliant Damascus will be towards the autonomist aspirations of the Kurds. This is particularly so because as the Kurds reach new successes, their ambitions only grow. Not long ago, for example, they announced the desirability of creating a corridor that would link the Kurdish-controlled territories to the Mediterranean.
Under certain conditions, it cannot even be ruled out that Turkey would welcome restoring Damascus’ control over the north of the country, since one of the key aims for Ankara is to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish entity at its border. And here it can be supported by Iran, which has a significant Kurdish minority (up to 8 million people according to some estimates).
Of great importance for the future of Rojava are relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, which so far leave much to be desired, including the fact that the dominant entity in Southern Kurdistan – the Kurdistan Democratic Party – is a Turkish ally. It should also be noted that the Syrian Kurds are in a much more complicated situation than their neighbors in Iraqi Kurdistan: in Syria they are not so numerous and do not reside so compactly. Moreover, they do not possess the wide international support that the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq has been enjoying for a quarter of a century.
Thus, the prospects for the development of Kurdish autonomy in Northern Syria are quite unclear. For the time being, it can only be said that after liberating Raqqa, which may well happen in the near future, and after suppressing the main extremist centers in Syria, the key challenges Rojava faces will persist, and most likely become even more acute.