Syrian Kurds Are Hoping for, but Not Banking On, Continued US Partnership

The massive earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northwestern Syria has given the Syrian Kurds a reprieve from a possible Turkish military invasion of areas under their control in northeastern Syria, but anxieties remain high. The Kurds’ dream of holding onto their autonomous entity in a future, federated Syrian state is threatened not only by Turkey but by a resurgent Syrian regime backed by Russia, which is opposed to any autonomous zones in Syria. Consequently, the Syrian Kurds are clinging to their partnership with the United States, which they see as their protector after several years of joint military operations against the so-called Islamic State (IS). But while the Biden administration has indicated that it has no plans to exit from northeastern Syria, a future US administration may not be so inclined to stay. Hence, the Syrian Kurds are exploring ties with Damascus, but the results so far have been deeply disappointing.

Turkish Threats, Followed by a Reprieve

Turkey has long been opposed to the autonomous zone in northeastern Syria that was formerly called Rojava but is now the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). This is because Turkey sees the entity, which is controlled by a Syrian Kurdish faction, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as an extension of its own radical Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turkish government has long designated a terrorist group. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has frequently labeled the PYD and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as “terrorists,” and has vowed to crush them. Over the past several years, Turkey has sent troops into northern Syria to battle these Syrian Kurds. The latest episode occurred in October 2019 when, with its Syrian allies, Turkey took over a long corridor in northeastern Syria near the Turkish border, an operation that resulted in the killing of over 200 civilians (some reportedly by execution) and the fleeing of tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds into northern Iraq or to areas in Syria south of the corridor.

In 2022, Erdoğan again threatened many times to invade northeastern Syria, but the United States and Russia have apparently dissuaded him from doing so. Both the Biden administration (as well as members of Congress) warned Turkey that such an invasion would have profound consequences for US-Turkish bilateral relations. Russia also opposed an invasion, not so much because of any genuine sympathy for the Kurds, but because it would upset its own efforts to broker a Syrian-Turkish rapprochement.

Nonetheless, Turkey, which alleged that the YPG and the PKK were responsible for a terrorist attack in Istanbul in November 2022 (a charge both groups vehemently denied), did launch airstrikes, drone strikes, and artillery on Syrian Kurdish positions in late 2022, including one incident where it allegedly targeted Kurdish guards watching over the large al-Hol detention camp that houses thousands of IS detainees and their families. According to Mazloum Abdi, the Kurdish commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is made up of Kurdish YPG fighters, Arab Sunni tribesmen, and some Christian minorities, and which is the military force protecting the AANES, these Turkish strikes resulted in the deaths of 18 civilians and 17 combatants, and the destruction of 45 vital infrastructure facilities.

The recent massive earthquakes have put any Turkish military plans against Kurdish groups in Syria on hold.

In any event, the recent massive earthquakes have put any such Turkish military plans on hold. Given widespread anger in Turkey over what the public perceives as a slow and insufficient government response to the earthquake, it is unlikely that Erdoğan would risk jeopardizing any more political capital by deciding on military moves against the Syrian Kurds while hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens and residents are homeless and suffering. Moreover, with the PKK having signaled a truce in its fight against the Turkish state shortly after the earthquakes, and with Turkey still seeing the PYD as an extension of the PKK, it would be hard for Erdoğan to justify a military invasion at this time.

However, even under the new political atmosphere that has resulted from the earthquake, Erdoğan’s antipathy toward the Syrian Kurds has not abated. Turkish authorities that control parts of northwestern Syria refused for seven days to allow for the transport of humanitarian supplies from residents in the AANES to cross over into earthquake-affected areas of Syria. Although some Syrian Kurds were also tragically killed in the earthquake, particularly in the Kurdish-majority town of Jindires, these supplies were not directed solely to their ethnic brethren but to all victims regardless of ethnicity. Reportedly, only after US pressure did Turkey allow these humanitarian supplies to move westward. Syrian Kurdish officials believe that the delay was caused by Erdoğan not wanting to lend any legitimacy to the AANES. Even in the midst of this controversy over the aid convoy, Turkey unleashed a drone strike on the Kurdish-populated town of Kobane, near the Turkish border.

Russia Playing a Double Game

In the aftermath of the US pullout of troops from along the Syrian corridor with Turkey in October 2019, which former President Donald Trump facilitated by giving the green light to Erdoğan, and which caused much bitterness among the Kurds, Russia attempted to fill the void. Russian ground troops have been jointly patrolling parts of this border area with Turkish and Syrian government troops, and are seen at times by the Kurds as keeping the latter two forces in check. In late November 2022, the SDF’s Mazloum Abdi met with the chief of Russian troops in Syria, Lieutenant General Alexander Chaiko, in response to Turkish invasion threats. And a few days later, Russia sent some ground reinforcements to Tal Rifaat in northern Syria, in part to hold Turkey off.

The Syrian Kurds understand that Russia’s ultimate goal is to maintain its mutually beneficial relationship with the Assad regime in Damascus.

Abdi has described the Russian role as “standing in a neutral position” between the SDF and Turkey. However, the Syrian Kurds understand that Russia’s ultimate goal is to maintain its mutually beneficial relationship with the Assad regime in Damascus, which affords it important naval and air bases in Syria. Moscow is not going to jeopardize this strategic relationship for the sake of the Kurds. Although Russia has attempted to mediate between the Syrian Kurds and Damascus, the former has no illusions that Russia is going to carry their water regarding their desire for a Kurdish autonomous zone in a federated Syrian state. Similarly, Russia is also seeking to stay in the good graces of the Turkish government to keep NATO off-balance. So, while Russia played a role in dissuading Erdoğan from invading northeastern Syria in recent months, there are limits to its role of pressuring the Turks.

Staying Relevant for the United States

After the bitter disappointment of the Trump administration, in which the former US president seemed more interested in pleasing Erdoğan than in protecting the Kurds, who took thousands of casualties in the anti-IS campaign, the Syrian Kurds were happy that Joe Biden won the presidency. During his presidential campaign, Biden sharply criticized Trump’s October 2019 pullout from the Kurdish-inhabited corridor in northern Syria, and was seen as the US president who was most sympathetic to the Kurds, a view that was based on his many travels to the region while he was a US senator and vice president, as well as on his statements supporting Kurdish aspirations short of independence.

However, hopes among AANES officials that Biden would formally recognize their autonomous entity have not come to pass. The Biden administration has not been willing to take that step, partly because it would upset the Syrian opposition, which has never endorsed Kurdish autonomy, and partly because it would be seen in the larger Arab world as a possible truncation of Arab lands. Nonetheless, Biden has kept about 900 US troops in Syria because, even though the so-called IS caliphate had fallen, IS cells remain active. Hence, the US partnership with the SDF in the fight against IS has continued. In the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, many Syrian Kurds feared that they would be the next group to be abandoned; but they were soon assured by the Biden administration that the US was not going to leave Syria anytime soon.

In the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, many Syrian Kurds feared that they would be the next group to be abandoned.

In a recent interview, Mazloum Abdi of the SDF stated, “We have distinctive relations with the United States with whom we coordinate security and military efforts within the framework of the international campaign to eliminate ISIS.” In other words, the SDF will be a key partner of the United States in counterterrorism operations as long as the US remains in Syria. But to underscore that this assistance in the fight against IS cannot be taken for granted in the midst of ongoing threats, Abdi temporarily suspended counterterrorism operations with the United States in late 2022 to concentrate on preparing for a Turkish invasion. When this threat abated, cooperation between the SDF and the US resumed.

Outside of strictly counterterrorism operations, the SDF is also showing its relevance to the United States (as well as to other countries in the anti-IS coalition) by guarding several IS detention camps in northeastern Syria. Although many countries are supposed to repatriate their detained IS nationals and their families, only a few have done so; and that has made the SDF even more valuable as a partner because there are few alternatives to these detention centers, even though they are in poor condition and said to be a breeding ground for future IS fighters. An early 2022 IS attempt to break into one of these camps in Hasaka to free the detainees demonstrated just how active IS remains and how necessary the US-SDF partnership is.

Reaching Out to the Assad Regime

While the Biden administration is unlikely to remove US troops (and to end its partnership with the SDF) as long as it remains in office because of the ongoing IS threat, the Syrian Kurds cannot count on this administration winning a second term; nor can they be assured that any new US administration will keep US troops in Syria, despite lobbying efforts by AANES officials in Washington to reach out to Democrats and Republicans alike. Hence, the Syrian Kurds are hedging their bets and are trying to negotiate with the Assad regime about their future. Several delegations from the AANES have been sent to Damascus, but they have not made much headway in talks.

Serious Obstacles Remain

Mazloum Abdi has said that the Syrian Kurds are in agreement with Damascus about maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity, but that “problems” arise when discussing administrative affairs and issues related to education. In addition, he said that he is not opposed to the SDF becoming part of the Syrian Army, provided that there are “constitutional and legal” changes and that the SDF have a “specific distinction” within the Syrian military.

From these demands, it seems that the AANES and its SDF military wing want to emulate what the Iraqi Kurds have by way of the Kurdish Regional Government and its Peshmerga forces. In other words, the Syrian Kurds want to maintain their own governing institutions and educational systems, as well as their autonomous military apparatus, which would be tied only loosely to the regular Syrian Army.

Such demands are unlikely to be accepted by the Assad regime, as they would be seen as a step toward an independent state and a truncation of Syrian territory. Although Syrian Kurdish officials have tried to dilute the Kurdish character of the AANES and of the SDF by

emphasizing their multiethnic and multireligious characters, the leading positions in the AANES and the SDF are dominated by Kurds. For the Assad regime, however, it seems that such distinctions do not matter, as the Baath Party, which remains the governing party of the country, has never countenanced any ethnic or regional autonomous zones or the idea of a federated Syrian state. Moreover, since the end of the French mandate for Syria and Lebanon, no party, inside or outside Syria, has ever formally recognized such autonomous zones for Syria.

Next Steps

The future, therefore, is highly uncertain and precarious for the Syrian Kurds, as they have no good options in front of them. While the United States and Russia may continue to hold Erdoğan back from invading northeastern Syria, the US might not stay very long, and the Russians are unlikely to put themselves in the position of crossing the Assad regime. The one advantage that the Syrian Kurds have is that the SDF is a formidable military force, and one that would be a match for whatever army and pro-regime militias the Syrian regime might throw at them in the event that it tries to retake the region by force. This balance of forces might then lead to a situation where the regime allows for some autonomy, but not as much as the Syrian Kurds want. US policymakers could help this process by including it as an issue in any future deliberations about Syria’s future, while recognizing that if the US does decide to leave northeastern Syria, its leverage there would be greatly diminished.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: US Army