A negotiated accommodation between Damascus and Rojava has the potential to reconfigure relations on the ground in Syria. The Syrian government and Kurdish forces both stand to gain from negotiating an end to hostilities between their two military forces, and forging a separate peace against Turkish-backed rebels and ISIS.
Turkey Invades Syria
The United States betrayed their Kurdish allies in Syria when the White House chose to meet with the government of Turkey and agree to support militarily and politically Operation Euphrates Shield. The military operation entailed the invasion of Syria by Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) in alliance with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and a collection of Turkish-backed Islamist rebels, some of which have ties to Al Qaeda (now rebranded as Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, the Front for the Conquest of the Levant). With the support of US air power, a de-facto No Fly Zone was created while Turkish tanks lead the charge. The rebels seized the city of Jarablus, an ISIS-held border town that the terrorist group had retreated from beforehand. Without firing a single shot, the rebels occupied the city.
In the first week of the invasion, no battles were fought between Turkey and ISIS, while the scope of the formers objectives in Syria dramatically increased. Levant Front officials claimed on day 2 of operation Euphrates Shield that their forces would make for ISIS-held Al-Bab, nearly 100 km deeper into Syria than Jarablus.At the same time Levant Front officials were claiming their next fiefdom, Prime Minister Yildirim of Turkey was announcing that “the operations will go on until PYD & YPG retreat to East Euphrates.” Instead of going around villages and towns occupied by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Turkish operation went directly into them. The path to Al-Bab is through Manbij.
Rebels moved south of Jarabulus, pounding Kurdish-held villages. The expulsion of Kurds from the Syrian towns came with the death of at least 35 civilians, according to activists. The rebels are quickly approaching Manbij, a city that was originally taken by the Kurds with U.S. support. Now, the White House is perfectly content to let these lands fall into the hands of Turkey’s Islamists. In fact, they are threatening to cut off their aid to the Kurds if they don’t retreat back across the East Euphrates. Until they do, the YPG and SDF will bear the majority of casualties from Erdogan’s new strategy in Syria.
The U.S. may see this operation as a compromise with Turkey on the positioning of Kurdish forces, but it is less clear that the Turks feel the same. Threats on Tell Abyad and Kobane have already been made, and Arab tribes from Tell Abyad have amassed near the Turkish border, perhaps in an effort to eventually put pressure on Kurdish forces. These cities, both of which lie east of the Euphrates, are also critical to the eastern Canton of any future Kurdistan. Their loss would be a deafening defeat for Kurdish aspirations in the region.
With any hope for the unification of Kurdish forces in the Eastern canton meeting those in the Western canton all but ended; a Turkey taking a more active military role in Syria in the aftermath of a failed coup; and a United States prepared to give up on their Kurdish ally against ISIS in favor of an Islamist coalition directed by Turkey and largely aimed at the Kurds; the Kurdish forces find themselves at a crossroads. By refusing the United States request to go towards Raqqa, the Kurds are increasingly friendless in a region where a lack of allies and patrons can squash any greater ambitions.
If the Kurds can accept an accommodation with the Syrian government, they may find themselves as an ally within a powerful coalition. The road to that accommodation will be tough, in light of recent events.
Kurds at a Crossroads
The only major power in Syria to have not taken part in any of the tactical retreats or strategic expansions that came about as a result of operation Euphrates Shield has been the Syrian government. Damascus was understandably upset that their sovereignty had been illegally breached, condemning the Turkish invasion and calling for all military operations in Syria to be run with cooperation from the Syrian government.
There is little the Syrian government can do about this breach militarily while still fighting in south Aleppo and on many other fronts. As chaos engulfs the north, the government has focused on negotiating a peaceful settlement in Daraya, which saw rebels evacuate and civilians head for IDP (internally displaces people) camps run by the government.
There could, however, be a political opportunity found in the Turkish offense and the U.S. betrayal of Kurdish combat troops and aspirations.
A proxy for the U.S. no more?
While the United States has erratically drifted from supporting one rebel group and state actor to another, the Russians, Iranians, and indeed increasingly the Chinese, have remained consistent in their support for the Syrian government and the fight against extremist rebel groups. If the Kurds would scale back their ambitions, they may find themselves planning strategic joint operations with this coalition soon. The required sacrifice on behalf of the Kurds may be difficult to swallow. Their forces have been on a remarkable rollercoaster, advancing through one town after another backed by their former ally the United States. So swiftly did they sweep through the Islamic State lands in Syria, that the alarm bells raised in Ankara and Washington that their capabilities were becoming unmanageable. The planning for a significant reduction in those capabilities was imminent after the successful occupation of Manbij. The United States and Turkey chose the timing of their push against the Kurds carefully, after drawing them into hostilities with the Syrian government.
The Kurdish forces, doing so well in other parts of Syria, fell into a brutal conflict last week against Syrian government forces, including the mostly Assyrian National Defense Force (NDF), a militia in Hasakah.
The Kurds went so far as to order the evacuation of the NDF Assyrians from their ancestral homeland and the removal of all supporting government forces. This lead to intense clashes. Each side, blamed their counterpart for starting the violence and began to up the ante, eventually deploying heavy weapons. Syrian jets were forced to make their first raids against Kurdish forces in the area. It has even been reported that U.S. special operators were advising the Asayish (Kurdish police force in the province), providing assistance and encouragement in the new fight against the Syrian government; a startling departure from the Syrian-Kurdish detente that had been maintained throughout most of the Syrian Civil War. With hostilities between Damascus and Rojava kindled, and the Kurds well east across the Euphrates, Turkey was given the opportunity to roll them back, and with U.S. support, there was no other power willing to militarily involve themselves on the Kurdish behalf. After all, these were U.S. allies.
A Separate, Syrian Peace
The White House has proven once again it is not a reliable ally. They have never supported the creation of a Kurdish state or Kurdistan, neither has Turkey, or almost any other power in the region. The Syrian government, however, has not pushed back against local Kurds defending themselves from ISIS, so long as they did not make attacks on government forces. Hasakah was a dramatic escalation orchestrated by the United States to drive a wedge right before a Turkish invasion. It seriously injured their relationship with Damascus and even Moscow, at least momentarily. Russia has been supporting the Kurds, believing they will not oppose keeping the regime of President Bashar Assad in place. Hasakah could have seriously jeopardized that support. In light of operation Euphrates Shield, there may be room for a new, separate peace between the Syrian government, which still claims to represent the will and aspirations of all Syrians regardless of their ethnicity or religion. A new accommodation, despite how distant that seemed ten days ago, may be on the table today.
The Syrian government would have to be prepared to allow the Kurdish citizens of Syria the right to learn and practice their own language, build Kurdish language schools, create Kurdish radio stations; the Syrian government would have to approve of Kurdish newspapers, and yes, even a fair amount of community policy-making and policing, not unlike we’ve seen the past few years, but in a post-war era, and in cooperation more closely with the Syrian government forces, who would have to be stationed on a reclaimed border of a sovereign Syria.
The Syrian Kurds would preserve their language and their culture, and be represented within the Syrian polity. Part of the nation, rather than independent of it. If the Kurds are to once again join the greater Syrian community, they will have to give up on a Kurdistan in Syria. The President of Syria Bashar Al-Assad has made it clear that the objective of the Syrian people is to reclaim the nation’s sovereignty, every inch of it. What life looks like for the Kurds within that sovereign Syria would have to be radically different than in the past, all parties know the past can never occur again. Syria has fundamentally changed, but there is still time for Syrians to come together and reclaim their nation.
The Islamist rebels sponsored by Turkey and backed by the U.S. are a threat to both the government in Damascus and, more urgently, the Kurds. The Kurds, if the Turks are successful, could find themselves losing all their gains West of the Euphrates, and see Tel Abyad and Kobani east of the Euphrates as the new front-line cities against fanatical Islamists and their Turkish patron; a patron that would ally with any terrorist group to cut off the Kurds of North Syria with the Kurds of South Turkey, and see them under the rule of a brutal Islamist-Arab interpretation of culture, law, and religion.
An accommodation could join forces between the Kurds and the government. It is in both of their self-interest. Russia has already shown a willingness to play peacemaker, but it is up to the government and the Kurdish groups themselves to ultimately see that living side-by-side in a nation that will allow them all a great number of freedoms, is better than being under the yoke of Turkish-backed terrorist groups that practice a strict interpretation of Islam neither the Syrians nor the Kurds could find freedom or tolerance under.