Future Possibilities for the Kurds in Post-IS Syria

On the way back from the Sochi meetings with his Russian and Iranian counterparts, Turkey’s President Erdoğan accused the United States of breaking its promise by continuing to send heavy weapons to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), despite the fact that the war on the Islamic State (IS) was coming to an end. Erdoğan cited reports on the heavy weapons deployment in Afrin—a Kurdish enclave that was encircled by Turkey-backed forces—adding that he would not rule out cooperating with the Assad regime against the YPG and its political representation, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Erdoğan’s statements were followed shortly by a phone call to US President Donald Trump, and Turkish officials stated that the United States agreed to cut the arms supply to the YPG. Surprised by Ankara’s statements on behalf of Washington, the White House issued a press release to confirm the plans for the weapons cut-off without providing any details on timing. The White House, however, communicated an emphasis on post-IS stabilization, and thus, did not mention the possibility of the YPG returning arms previously supplied by the United States—which was Ankara’s main demand.

The fall of Raqqa and the ensuing victories against the Islamic State in Deir Ezzor have not brought relief; instead, they posed the most puzzling questions for Washington, which has not developed a coherent vision for post-IS Syria. Loath to see an emboldened Assad regime that has strong relations with Tehran, US officials expressed their willingness to use the American military presence in northern Syria as a card to pressure Damascus as well as to counter Iran. Russia has outperformed the United States in diplomatic leadership for Syria’s future; Washington’s options are quite limited indeed. Perhaps the most critical decision that awaits the Trump Administration is the nature of US-PYD relations in post-IS Syria.

Will Washington perceive the Syrian Kurdish cantons as its military outposts, reminiscent of Iraqi Kurdistan after Operation Desert Storm in 1991? Unless the United States accomplishes the daunting task of satisfying both Turkey and the Kurds, the Kurdish cantons will be economically dependent on the Assad regime, which will hamper the PYD’s dreams of autonomy.

Will Washington Use the Kurds against Iran?

The Syrian Army’s recent victory in Boukamal, a strategic city next to the Iraqi border, is widely interpreted as a failure on the part of the United States to get an upper hand in eastern Syria and the Iraqi border areas. The Assad regime has now guaranteed access for Iraqi gas and oil to the Mediterranean, which would enable Syrian transit activities to generate remarkable revenue. Also, given that Iraq was a chief market for Syrian goods before the civil war, the Assad regime’s control over Iraqi borders would provide significant financial support to Damascus. What disturbs Washington is that Iranian-backed Shia militias will likely deploy more forces from Iraqi border areas in order to exert pressure on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the YPG in Deir Ezzor and other hydrocarbon-rich areas.

Washington faces a dilemma. If it supports the SDF as Shia militias allied with the Assad regime attack oil fields in Deir Ezzor, the ensuing escalation may demand a long-term commitment to eastern Syria, and therefore a potential proxy war with Iran. On the other hand, if American troops remain reluctant to defend the SDF’s territory, negotiations with the Assad regime may not produce a satisfactory outcome for Washington.

A major challenge for Washington is the fact that SDF forces are still an extension of the YPG—despite the Pentagon’s longstanding efforts to increase the numbers of Arab fighters in SDF ranks—and Syrian Kurdish dominance in the Arab populated region is impractical. The Assad regime has already won over some Arab tribes by offering a share of oil revenues. Regarding governance in Raqqa after the defeat of IS, some US officials envision replication of the arrangements in Manbij where Kurdish and Arab leaders have settled local power sharing mechanisms. The Manbij model, however, is hard to implement in eastern Syria where tribal networks are stronger, territory is vast, and the economy is based on natural resources. Aware of these difficulties, some YPG leaders have stated that they will seek diplomatic negotiations with the Assad regime. In fact, the PYD recently brokered a deal with the regime for oil fields in the Rimelan region, handing over control of the production in return for 20 percent of the revenue share.

Under such circumstances, Washington’s protection of Kurdish areas to exert influence is only feasible if the PYD accepts a significant retreat from Arab populated territories to Kurdish zones near Turkey’s border. Even in that case, the PYD’s autonomy will be precarious in the long run as Damascus has an upper hand in determining the economy of the Kurdish zones. Similar to Iraqi Kurdistan, PYD-controlled cantons—what Kurds call Rojava, or Western Kurdistan—are landlocked. After the fallout from the Kurdish referendum, Iraqi forces captured the Fish Khabbour border crossing from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is the only option for humanitarian access to Rojava, given Turkey’s blockade. Thus, in coordination with Baghdad and Ankara, Damascus may effectively punish Rojava if and when it wishes. Similarly, the Afrin canton in the western Euphrates is dependent on the Syrian government’s mercy as Afrin’s access to Aleppo and Manbij is controlled by the regime.

Damascus and Rojava: A Complicated Relationship

For Washington, another major challenge stems from the fact that the Syrian Kurds have long been dependent on the central government. Since the initial days of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian Kurds have been most careful not to directly target the Assad regime, aside from some short-term clashes at certain places in Rojava. In the words of the PYD’s former co-president, Saleh Muslim, the PYD has been “part of the Syrian revolution, but it is not prepared to be used as its soldiers.” Sharing a common enemy—i.e., the Islamic State—with the Assad regime served the PYD’s strategy well: the regime has continued to pay salaries of civil servants in Rojava and pursued an accommodative policy. With the Assad regime’s resilience and likely maintenance of its power for the foreseeable future, the Syrian Kurds would likely continue to follow this strategy of realpolitik.

The Syrian Kurds’ ideological framework on “autonomy” has been very useful in this regard. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s writings on “democratic confederalism” support Kurdish demands for autonomy in Syria while not posing a real threat to the Assad regime, as Ocalan instructed the Kurds not to seek independence. For Ocalan, the reason is that the modern nation-state is intrinsically a top-down project that is based on homogenization and assimilation—which have been the primary causes of Kurdish suffering in recent history. Ocalan argues that capitalism enforces “the centralization of the state” and fascism is the “purest form of the nation state.”

Such complicated dynamics between Damascus and Rojava will be critical in shaping negotiations for the future of Syria. For Rojava, economic and financial factors constitute the most important challenges. Rojava’s economy is still very much dependent on the Syrian regime, and without economic independence, an autonomous Kurdish zone would be a mirage. PYD officials blame the Turkish and KRG embargo for their economic deficiencies and dearth of essential products such as medical supplies. Financial suffering, however, also led to accusations of incompetence and nepotism at the local levels. The local administration still lacks control over large sectors of the economy. Despite efforts to regulate the food market by imposing taxes on goods traded within Rojava, residents sometimes witness spikes in the prices of basic items.

Stronger relations with Iran could be an alternative for Rojava’s economic challenges, but the question for the PYD will be how to maintain US support while, at the same time, cultivating long-term relations with Iran. Iran has been most interested in better access to the Mediterranean and now, with emboldened Shia militias and increasing influence over the Assad regime, Tehran empowers its friends only.

Turkey’s Spoiler Role for the Kurds

Frederic C. Hof, a former diplomat and now an analyst in Washington policy circles, put forward another alternative for the United States. The United States should work on a strategy with both Ankara and the PYD/SDF, as the argument goes, “aimed at a mutually acceptable arrangement for the interim governance of a protected eastern Syria.” In exchange for Turkey’s acquiescence over the PYD’s retreat to Kurdish populated areas in Hasaka, the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition—namely the Syrian Interim Government (SIG)—should be rewarded with governing Arab-majority lands including the Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces. Such an agreement assumes the SIG’s representative legitimacy among the local population, the effective management of local councils, as well as significant financial support from international donors.

The argument is worth considering. Although the SIG has lost its significance in the past two years, Turkey aims to unite the opposition under the SIG umbrella with ample logistical and financial support. A few weeks ago, Ankara arranged a major agreement among the factions of the Free Syrian Army to form an official national force and to unify the border crossings and administration of the local councils. Having its headquarters in Azaz, in Turkey’s Euphrates Shield zone, the SIG now supervises 12 provincial councils and about 400 local councils. Moreover, although Turkey rejected any negotiations with the PYD, the United States’ demands of Turkey have thus focused on western Kurdish cantons, therefore signaling a de facto acceptance of the Kobani and Jazira cantons in the eastern Euphrates. Hence, Ankara may choose to pursue an engagement policy with the PYD if Washington starts serious negotiations that would guarantee the PYD’s retreat to the eastern zones.

Washington’s challenge, however, will be in strengthening the SIG’s legitimacy in eastern Syria while maintaining a delicate balance between Turkey and the PYD. More forceful now than at any time during the past five years, the Syrian regime will exploit any Turkish-Kurdish rift, and Russia will not easily allow the SIG to rule in the oil-rich east.

An Uncertain Future for Syria’s Kurds

The future of Kurdish cantons will not be determined solely by outside actors. Although it was skillfully avoided during the war on IS, the PYD now faces inescapable critical decisions such as its future relations with Russia. The group’s Marxist roots and anti-American discourse, for example, were not scrutinized by the western media. Instead, in the US-led bloody battle with IS, global essentialist views helped frame the Syrian Kurds as “blood-thirsty jihadists” versus “secular freedom fighters,” and “malevolent Islamists” versus “free women.” The PYD even achieved the most incredible and bizarre feat: recruiting from the American extreme right-wing and extreme left-wing at the same time.

Unsurprisingly, the PKK has viewed the Syrian context as an unprecedented and historic opportunity. It not only benefited from such essentialist depictions for public relations purposes in the West but also utilized them to strengthen its organizational “we” strength among the larger Kurdish constituency in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. That is perhaps why the PYD never unequivocally rejected the ties with the PKK despite frequent demands from the United States. American pressure, however, led the PYD to present itself as a local Syrian movement inspired by Abdullah Ocalan’s ideas, but one that was organizationally distant from the PKK. Still, the PYD’s organizational concerns encouraged Kurdish activists to lobby for removing the PKK from the terrorist group listings of the United States and the European Parliament.

For the PYD leadership, the genie is out of the bottle. The PYD is now seen as the legitimate representative of the Syrian Kurds after the group’s consolidation of power at the expense of other Kurdish parties in northern Syria—and as a result, the PYD, YPG, and Syrian Kurds are generally used interchangeably in the western media. Such inconsistent usage may not be purposeful framing by the western media, and yet, it surely serves the PYD’s claim of being the “people’s authentic voice.” Thus, no matter what follows the demise of IS, Syrian Kurds will remain restive in the foreseeable future and the Rojava project will be interpreted as “successful.” From the PKK’s organizational lens, such conclusions are sound indeed. In the Syrian context, however, the PYD’s choices are shrinking and the group’s global communication strategy will face hardships as the war on IS comes to an end.