How viable is the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Northeast Syria? – Eurasia Review
By David Romano *
Ilham Ahmed, head of the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has lobbied in Moscow and Washington to support the Kurdish representation in the long-stalled United Nations-backed Syrian peace process.
Ahmed, who has visited both capitals in the past few weeks, also wants the Kurdish-ruled region of the country to be exempted from the sanctions imposed under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act 2019, the US piece of legislation that the regime by President Bashar Assad for war crimes against the Syrian people.
But what exactly do the Syrian Kurds hope for and how sustainable are their proposals?
Russian jets, Iranian-backed fighters, Turkey-backed insurgents, Islamist radicals, US and Syrian government troops, and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) operate in the patchwork of areas that make up northern Syria.
The US regards the YPG as a key ally in the fight against Daesh in northeast Syria, while Russia has troops on the ground to support President Assad.
While some media reported that Ahmed, as president of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), was lobbying for American or Russian support for the creation of a breakaway state, the Syrian Kurds are not really pushing for such a maximalism goal.
The Syrian Kurdish parties understand the ideology of the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ãcalan. They say they reject nationalism, secession and statism in general, in line with Ãcalan’s post-2001 writings.
At the same time, however, Syrian Kurdish organizations seem to be establishing all the insignia of their own separate state in the territory they control.
Your armed forces – including the SDF, the YPG and the YPJ, the YPG’s all-female militia – are working diligently to build up and maintain their monopoly of violence in the northeast.
This not only resulted in clashes with Turkish armed forces and various Islamist extremist groups in the region, but also occasionally with armed Kurdish groups, the armed forces of the Assad regime, rebels of the Free Syrian Army and others.
Rival political parties in the territories they control have also been pressured or even banned as the SDC and its alliance, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), seek to bring everyone under the same institutional and governing structures that they created and have dominated.
The Kurds of the SDC and the PYD have proven to be very liberal in a certain way and are happy to accept Arab tribes, Christians, Yazidis, Armenians, Turkmen and other groups and ethnicities into their ranks and government structures.
However, they seem to be far less accepted and tolerant of those who try to operate outside the political umbrella of “democratic autonomy” they have established.
With their own security forces, political institutions, schools and a large number of party-affiliated civil society organizations, it sometimes looks as if the Syrian Kurds want to found their own state. But what choice did you have after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011?
The Assad regime had brutally suppressed the Kurds for decades before the war. After Assad withdrew his troops and much of the Syrian government personnel from northeast Syria at the beginning of the conflict to focus on the western and southern parts of the country, where the rebel threat seemed greatest, someone had to fill the vacuum that had been created.
Syrian Kurdish groups affiliated with the PKK advanced to defend the area against Daesh and other extremist groups trying to take power. They fought extremely hard against the radical Islamists and brought Daesh his first defeat in Kobani in 2014.
Freed from the iron grip of the regime for the first time in their lives, the Kurds seized the opportunity to set up Kurdish and other minority language programs, cultural centers, schools and institutions.
Fearing the vicious “divide and rule” tactics of the neighboring powers, the new Syrian Kurdish authorities rejected attempts by other Kurdish parties, especially those influenced by the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Arab rebel groups to bring rival parties and militias into their conquered territory .
Meanwhile, the authorities in Turkey were concerned about what they saw as an emerging PKK-controlled proto-state on its southern border. In three military raids in the past five years that displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds, Ankara captured hundreds of kilometers of the border strip and advanced around 30 kilometers into northern Syria.
In 2018, Moscow appeared to give the Turkish invasion of Afrin, at the time under the control of the SDF / YPG / PYD, the green light to withdraw its troops and allow Turkish jets to operate in the airspace previously controlled by Russia.
The following year, Washington appeared to be doing the same, withdrawing US troops from the Tal Abyad area on the border with Turkey just before the Turkish invasion.
These incursions have put the Syrian Kurdish government in a serious dilemma. Without American support and the presence of a symbolic US stumbling block, Turkey could expand its control area in northern Syria.
Just this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was determined to remove suspected threats from northern Syria and that an alleged attack by the YPG that killed two Turkish police officers in Azaz was “the last straw”.
Meanwhile, the Assad regime does not seem interested in proposals for a âdecentralized Syrian stateâ in which parts of the northeast nominally remain part of the state but actually fall under Syrian Kurdish control.
Ahmed’s most recent diplomatic forays have therefore focused on Moscow and Washington. In the former, the Syrian Kurds hope to convince the Russians to persuade the Assad regime to come up with some kind of compromise that will secure as much autonomy as possible in northeast Syria. In the latter, they want to secure the US’s promise not to let them down again.
Ahmed outlined her hopes during a conference hosted by the Washington Institute on September 29.
“The Syrian Democratic Council seeks a lasting political solution to the conflict and advocates internal dialogue and ultimately political and cultural decentralization that respects the diversity of the country and promotes economic development,” she said.
âContinuous support from our partner, the US, is critical to this mission. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria faces numerous obstacles, including insecurity, poverty, foreign intervention and terrorism.
âIn addition, the Geneva peace and constitutional process has stalled. The US could help alleviate these problems in the pursuit of a more stable Syria free of arbitrariness, proxy conflict and terror. “
America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan in August will no doubt unsettle Syrian Kurds, who are already worried about their own futures. Assad, Turkey and Daesh would all welcome a similar US withdrawal from northeast Syria.
It is unlikely that the âAutonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syriaâ, whose governing body is the SDC, can withstand such combined pressure.
However, the botched American withdrawal from Afghanistan could actually work in favor of the Syrian Kurds, as the Biden government is likely to try to avoid a similar embarrassment in Syria anytime soon.
After meeting officials from the White House, State Department and Pentagon in Washington last month, Ahmed appears to have received a reassuring response.
“They (the Americans) have promised to do everything possible to destroy the Islamic State (Daesh) and to work on building the infrastructure in northeast Syria,” she told Reuters. “They said they will stay in Syria and not withdraw – they will continue to fight the Islamic State.”
She added: “Before, they were unclear under Trump and during the Afghan withdrawal, but this time they made everything clear.”
Without a change in attitudes in Damascus or Ankara, the Syrian Kurds will have no choice but to continue to rely on the American presence, cooperation and support. At best, they can extend the status quo and the longevity of their precarious autonomy.
If they can convince Washington and Russia to help them reopen the border crossings with Iraq, exempt them from sanctions against the Assad regime and allow international aid to be delivered directly to their enclave rather than through Damascus through him rarely reaches the northeast, then the political and economic situation improves.
With no more permanent political solution on the horizon, this is probably the best the Syrian Kurds can hope for.
* David Romano is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Policy at Missouri State University