Kurdish Rojava region in northern Syria faces uncertain fate

The PYD have few strong options as American priorities are shifting and reconciling with Damascus is a risky gamble

The PYD have few strong options as American priorities are shifting and reconciling with Damascus is a risky gamble
The PYD have few strong options as American priorities are shifting and reconciling with Damascus is a risky gamble

Kurdish Rojava region in northern Syria faces uncertain fate

The de facto autonomous region of north and north-east Syria — referred to as Rojava by the Kurds — appears to be in an increasingly perilous state.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish party that dominates Rojava, is regarded as a terrorist organisation by Turkey due to its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and Ankara has, on many occassions, threatened to invade Syria, having already captured swathes of territory in 2016-2018.

American protection of Syrian Kurds has clearly wavered as the Biden administration turned a blind eye to a Turkish aerial campaign on 20 November last year, dubbed Operation Claw Sword.

The campaign came after an Istanbul terrorist attack on 13 November 2022, which killed six people on İstiklal Avenue — an act that the Turks claim was carried out by a Syrian woman working with the PKK.

On its part, the Syrian government in Damascus continues to deny Kurdish self-rule claims in Rojava, dismissing them as illegitimate. Their Russian backers, who have played a key role in brokering deals between Rojava and Damascus in the past, are distracted by the Russia-Ukraine war and seem increasingly accommodating to Turkish security concerns.

Rojava, today, arguably faces more uncertainty than at any point in the 11-year Syrian conflict, or more specifically, since its Kurdish fighters defeated Islamic State (IS) terrorists in 2019.

Is this the beginning of the end for Kurdish autonomy in Syria? Or will it survive?

Rojava is born

Rojava’s life began in 2012, one year after the Syrian conflict started. When government forces withdrew from parts of the north and east to focus their attention on more populated areas, the PYD asserted control in the vacuum.

The transition to PYD rule was so swift that some accused the Kurds of collaborating with Damascus — a plausible theory given the Syrian government’s long-held ties to the PKK, whose leader, Abdullah Ocalan, had been a guest of Syria until his forced exodus in 1998.

Kurdish relations with the regime of Bashar al-Assad remained ambiguous, however, with Damascus continuing to pay salaries to government employees in the vacated Kurdish areas and largely avoiding military conflict with them.

As the PYD consolidated their control over cities and towns east of the Euphrates River, rival Kurdish groups were outmanoeuvred, allowing the PYD to declare, in early 2014, the territories under its control as the three cantons of ‘Rojava’— the Kurdish word for West, meaning ‘West Kurdistan’.

While this seemed like a declaration of Kurdish autonomy, the PYD leadership insisted that independence was not their goal, but rather, the implementation of Abdullah Ocalan’s vision for Kurdish territories — progressive autonomous local democratic councils.

To Kurdish supporters in north-eastern Syria, and among their admirers in the West, this was progressive utopia — a true democracy in an overwhelmingly autocratic Middle East.

Especially celebrated were the Kurdish cantons’ gender equality, where male and female co-chairs became compulsory in every council, along with the creation of an all-female militia, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), mandated to fight for Kurdish rights, arm-in-arm and shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts, the People’s Defence Units (YPG).

To their detractors, however, these local Kurdish councils were nothing but a front for PYD dominance, allowing for little real opposition in ‘West Kurdistan’.

The rise of IS

The real transformation for Rojava and the PYD came with the rise of IS, whose troops swept across entire swaths of territory in the Syrian north-east after declaring their caliphate in 2014.

The brother of YPG fighter mourns above his grave on October 11, 2014 during the funeral of YPG militants fighting against Islamic State (IS) group.

The presence of IS gave the Kurds almost immediate support and protection from the United States. Washington forged an alliance with them after YPG and YPJ fighters, against all odds, triumphed over IS in the battle for Kobane in early 2015.

With US encouragement in the form of military and financial support, the PYD attempted to broaden its support base by trying to appear less Kurd-centric.

It created the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which brought east Syria’s Syriac Christians and some Arabs into the alliance, and then, quietly replaced the name ‘Rojava’ with the more functional ‘Autonomous Region of North and North-East Syria.’

This made them appear to be more inclusive, though its previous name continued to dominate all Kurdish literature and discourse.

Top SDF posts, both military and political, were given to PYD Kurds as the US continued to provide weapons, money, and training to the PYD. That allowed them to eventually defeat IS, overrunning their last stronghold in Baghouz (Deir ez-Zour province) in 2019.

Under SDF control, the Kurds also expanded their territory rather aggressively, all the way to the Iraqi border, surpassing Kurdish-majority areas in the Syrian north. These back-to-back successes raised alarm and red flags in Turkey.

Turkish security concerns

In Turkey’s view, the PYD is the PKK — a militant separatist organisation that Ankara has been fighting since the early 1980s. Many of Turkey’s Western allies, including the US, had already designated the PKK a terrorist entity.

The PYD, however, stressed that Turkish and Syrian Kurdish militants were different — a distinction that Washington seemed to accept, regardless of how flimsy it sounded.

Some PYD Syrian Kurds had taken up arms to fight the PKK back in the 1980s and 1990s, including the SDF’s current commander, Mazloum Abdi. On the other hand, the PYD had proudly declared its adherence to Abdullah Ocalan’s ideology, unveiling a huge portrait of the PKK founder in central Raqqa, after liberating it from IS.

A picture of Abdullah Ocalan in the northern Syrian city of Al-Hasakah.

For that, and other reasons, Ankara views the Kurdish group with great suspicion, and was furious with its American allies for providing it with money, weapons, and advanced training.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has genuine security concerns regarding the empowerment of all PKK-affiliated Kurdish groups in Syria. However, launching military strikes against them always plays well with his domestic audience, boosting his approval ratings ahead of elections or whenever he needs to rally the Turkish population.

As the SDF continued to expand its hold over former IS territories throughout Syria, Turkish operations increased — numbering at least three in less than three years — all with the declared objective of combating terrorism and securing Turkish borders from the Kurdish threat.

First, the Turks captured the border town of al-Bab and its hinterland in 2016, to prevent the SDF from taking the area. They then moved on the PYD-held Kurdish town of Afrin in mid-2018, followed one year later by the area around Tal Abyad.

On both occasions, the SDF and PYD were jointly expelled, and friendly Syrian rebel groups were brought in to rule what became pro-Turkish client statelets.

Erdogan is still not finished though and has repeatedly stated his intention to clear the entire border area of Kurdish militants, up to 30-km deep into Syrian territory. In mid-2022 he suggested targeting the strategic towns of Tal Rifaat north of Aleppo, Manbij, and possibly even the symbolic city of Kobane.

During the last three months of 2022, rumours swirled throughout the region of an imminent Turkish incursion, prior to the Istanbul bombing of November 2022, which Erdogan linked to the PYD.

Tensions were raised to new levels as Turkish forces began bombing Kurdish positions deep within Syria, threatening a full-fledged ground operation against Kurdish heartlands that form the bedrock of PYD support.

The Kurds had already suffered a huge blow with the 2018 occupation of Afrin — the city in which the PYD was originally founded — and Rojava’s leaders understandably fear that a new Turkish operation of similar magnitude would potentially leave their project as an indefensible rump made up of mostly Arab rather than Kurdish-majority areas.

Outside help

Wanting to avoid that scenario at any cost, the SDF began reaching out to outsiders for help. The US was their obvious first port of call, given it still had troops stationed within SDF areas in eastern Syria and continues to control their airspace.

In a recent interview on 7 December 2022 with the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi asserted that the Biden administration would not permit Turkey to launch “a destructive ground operation” against the SDF, adding that the lull in Turkish air strikes was due to US pressure on Ankara.

He nevertheless expressed dismay at Washington’s relative silence regarding earlier Turkish attacks, claiming that they did little more than “make statements to the media.”

There is widespread concern that the US has ultimately gotten what it needs from the SDF and will, therefore, prioritise its alliance with Turkey — a Nato member — over the Kurds of Syria.

These fears are not unfounded. Now that IS has been defeated, Syria has become far less of a priority for the Biden administration, which finds itself more focused on the war in Ukraine — a conflict that requires Turkish neutrality. In return, Washington may well turn a blind eye to Ankara’s attacks on SDF territory in Syria.

Now that IS has been defeated, Syria has become far less of a priority for the Biden administration, which finds itself more focused on the war in Ukraine — a conflict that requires Turkish neutrality.

Moreover, the US has a bad loyalty record with its Kurdish allies. It first abandoned them in the 1970s and, more recently, did little to aid them in Iraq when they lost control of Kirkuk in 2017.

The SDF then got first-hand experience of American betrayal when US President Donald Trump greenlit Erdogan's invasion of Tal Abyad in 2019. Joe Biden may have given assurances that he will restrain Turkey from any future action in Syria, but the PYD are right to be sceptical about what the future holds.

Reconciling with Damascus

Some in the PYD argue that Rojava should seek to reconcile with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad under the protection of his Russian allies. Moscow and the SDF already enjoy functional ties.

In 2019, Abdi had struck an agreement with Russia, against the backdrop of a Turkish operation and President Trump's announcement that he would be withdrawing US troops from Syria.

Under terms of the 2019 agreement, which ultimately was never implemented, al-Assad and Putin would send troops to the Syrian-Turkish border to prevent Turkey from expanding further into SDF territory and oversee an armistice agreement in Sochi.

While the US values its relationship with Turkey, Russia attaches great importance to its alliance with al-Assad, more so than its relationship with the Kurds. SDF members are fearful that Moscow could potentially sell them out, as it did in 2018 when, after Russia gave permission to the Turkish air force to use Syrian airspace, which led to the fall of Afrin. 

PYD leaders realise that if the US were to leave Syria or stop supporting them, they would then have no choice but to seek Russian protection from Turkey, and this would require submission the al-Assad regime.

Optimists in the PYD, however (Abdi among them), have suggested that reconciling with al-Assad would not necessarily end the Rojava project.

Given that Damascus is weak after more than a decade of civil war and Russia is distracted by the war in Ukraine, it might be possible to nominally accept al-Assad's rule while maintaining the autonomous structure of Rojava's democratic councils. Abdi has even suggested that the SDF could be incorporated into the Syrian army.

Getty Images
Mourners chant slogans during the funeral of a fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria's northeastern Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli on August 10, 2022.

A gamble of trust

Sceptics, however, say that al-Assad is not to be trusted, claiming that he and his Russian allies might accept a range of SDF demands, without respecting them in the long term.

If, and when, US troops leave Syria — which no doubt remains a condition for both Moscow and Damascus — there would no longer be any external protection for the PYD. Al-Assad could then slowly start to reassert his control over Rojava.

Read more: Escalation in Syria comes amid regional détente

The al-Assad regime has decades of suzerainty experience from Lebanon, where for nearly 30 years it cynically played different factions against one another, resorting to targeted assassinations when needed to manoeuvre politics in its favour.

The PYD is, therefore, understandably wary that if the Syrian regime is allowed back into Rojava, it will try to exercise the same control, no matter how long it takes.

The Rojava leadership, therefore, faces an unpalatable choice — either to maintain trust in the US, hoping that the Americans will protect them from any future aggression, or give up on Washington and seek reconciliation with Damascus through Moscow.

The Rojava leadership, therefore, faces an unpalatable choice — either to maintain trust in the US, hoping that the Americans will protect them from any future aggression, or give up on Washington and seek reconciliation with Damascus through Moscow.

The first scenario would depend on how committed Biden and his successors would be to the Kurds of Syria, while the second would have to take into consideration al-Assad's untrustworthiness and the likelihood that he will disregard, over time, whatever concessions he promises today.

The Iraq example

Some Syrian Kurds may find inspiration from their brethren in Iraq, who were in a similar position back in the 1990s when the US was protecting them from Saddam Hussein.

At the time, the US stuck by its Kurdish allies, eventually toppling Saddam and facilitating the creation of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Conditions are far less favourable, however, for the Kurds of Syria.

For starters, unlike in the 1990s, US global and regional power is waning and not what it was under George H. Bush, or his son, George W. Bush. Since the Obama administration, Washington has been seeking ways to disengage from the region, whereas in the 1990s, it was increasing its footprint in the immediate aftermath of the USSR collapse.

Read more: Biden's security strategy reflects waning US interest in the Middle East

There certainly seems to be little chance of the US launching an invasion of Damascus in the way it did in Baghdad in 2003.

Secondly, al-Assad is not Saddam. While Saddam was internationally isolated, unable to prevent external players peeling the Iraqi north from his control, al-Assad is backed by Russia and Iran.

Finally, Turkey's position on Syria is very different from that of Iraq, where it accepted Kurdish autonomy and ultimately proved to be a key trading partner for the KRG after it gained formal autonomy in 2003.

In contrast, Turkey loathes the PYD of Syria and would resist any kind of formal autonomous region in the war-torn country.

Yet even the KRG realised that its ambitions were limited when it called an independence referendum in 2017 that was flatly rejected by all its neighbours, triggering an economic blockade followed by a military incursion from Baghdad.

Rojava is in a far weaker state, both legally and internationally, than its Iraqi equivalent. Whether Abdi and other SDF leaders opt to keep their faith in the US or roll the dice with al-Assad and Russia, few would wager on Rojava eventually enjoying the same formal autonomy as northern Iraq.

Rojava's demise is not guaranteed, but it faces a difficult path ahead.

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