MISSOURI, United States: Ilham Ahmed, head of the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), lobbied Moscow and Washington to support Kurdish representation in the long-standing UN-backed Syrian peace process .
Ahmed, who has visited both capitals in recent weeks, also wants the country’s Kurdish-ruled region to be exempt from sanctions imposed under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act 2019, the US law that sanctioned the regime of President Bashar Assad for war crimes against the Syrian people.
But what exactly do the Syrian Kurds hope for and to what extent are their proposals viable?
Russian jets, Iranian-backed fighters, Turkish-backed insurgents, radical Islamists, US troops and Syrian government forces, as well as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), operate across the mosaic of territories that make up northern Syria.
The United States sees the YPG as a key ally in the fight against Daesh in northeastern Syria, while Russia has forces in the region to support President Assad.
While some media reported that Ahmed, as chairman of the executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), was pushing for US or Russian support for the creation of a separatist state, the Syrian Kurds are not really pushing for such a maximalist. goal.
The Syrian Kurdish parties are in favor of the ideology of the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. They say they reject nationalism, secession and statism in general, in line with Ocalan’s post-2001 writings.
At the same time, however, the Syrian Kurdish organizations appear to be setting all the traps of their own separate state in the territory they control.
Their military forces – including the SDF, YPG and YPJ, the all-female YPG militia – work diligently to establish and maintain their monopoly on the use of force in the northeast.
They clashed not only with Turkish forces and various Islamist extremist groups in the region, but also on occasion with Kurdish armed groups, military forces of the Assad regime, rebels of the Free Syrian Army and of ‘others.
Competing political parties in the territories under their control have also come under pressure, even outright bans, as the SDC and its ally, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), seek to bring everything the world under the same institutional and governmental structures that they created and dominated.
In some ways, the Kurds of the SDC and PYD have proven to be very liberal, happily welcoming Arab tribes, Christians, Yazidis, Armenians, Turkmens and other groups and ethnicities into their ranks and structures of government. .
However, they appear to be much less tolerant and tolerant of those who seek to operate outside the political umbrella of “democratic autonomy” that they have established.
With their own security forces, political institutions, schools and various civil society organizations created by the party, it sometimes seems that the Syrian Kurds intend to create their own separate state. But what choice did they 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 forces and much of the Syrian government personnel from northeastern Syria at the start of the conflict, to focus on the western and southern parts of the country where the rebel threat appeared greatest, some ‘one had to fill the resulting void.
Syrian Kurdish groups aligned with the PKK moved to defend the region against Daesh and other extremist groups trying to gain control. They fought extremely hard against radical Islamists, inflicting its first defeat on Daesh, in Kobani in 2014.
Freed from the regime’s iron grip for the first time in their lives, the Kurds seized the opportunity to establish programs, cultural centers, schools and institutions in Kurdish and other minority languages.
Fearing the malicious “divide and rule” tactics of neighboring powers, the new Syrian Kurdish authorities have rejected attempts by other Kurdish parties, especially those under the influence of the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government, and Arab rebel groups aimed at establish competing parties and militias in their hard work. territory gained.
Turkish authorities, meanwhile, were concerned about what they saw as the emergence of a PKK-controlled proto-state on their southern border. In three military incursions over the past five years that have displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds, Ankara has seized hundreds of kilometers of the border strip and pushed some 30 km into northern Syria.
In 2018, Moscow appeared to give the green light for the Turkish invasion of Afrin, which at the time was under SDF / YPG / PYD control, withdrawing its troops and allowing Turkish jets to operate in the airspace. previously controlled by Russia.
The following year, Washington appeared to do the same, withdrawing US troops from the Tal Abyad area on the border with Turkey just before the Turkish invasion.
These incursions have left the Syrian Kurdish administration in a serious stalemate. Without American support and the presence of a token American triggering force, Turkey may well expand its area of control into northern Syria.
Just this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was determined to eliminate alleged threats from northern Syria and that an alleged YPG attack that killed two Turkish policemen in Azaz was “the last straw. “.
Meanwhile, the Assad regime does not seem interested in any proposal for a “more decentralized Syrian state” in which parts of the northeast would nominally remain part of the state but actually fall under Syrian Kurdish control.
Ahmed’s recent diplomatic forays have therefore focused on Moscow and Washington. In the first case, the Syrian Kurds hope to convince the Russians to coax the Assad regime into some sort of compromise that would preserve as much autonomy as possible in northeastern Syria. In the latter, they aim to obtain a commitment from the United States not to abandon them again.
Ahmed set out his hopes at a conference hosted by the Washington Institute on September 29.
“The Syrian Democratic Council seeks a lasting political solution to the conflict, advocating internal dialogue and, ultimately, political and cultural decentralization that respects the diversity of the country and strengthens economic development,” she said.
“The continued support of our partner, the United States, is critical to this mission. The autonomous administration of northern and eastern Syria faces many obstacles, including insecurity, poverty, foreign intervention and terrorism.
“In addition, the Geneva peace process and the constitutional process are at a standstill. The United States could help alleviate these problems in the pursuit of a more stable Syria free from despotism, proxy conflict and terror. “
The chaotic US exit from Afghanistan in August will no doubt have pissed off Syrian Kurds who are already worried about their own future. Assad, Turkey and Daesh would all be in favor of a similar US withdrawal from northeastern Syria.
It is unlikely that the “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria”, whose governing body is the SDC, will be able to withstand such combined pressures.
However, the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan could actually work in favor of the Syrian Kurds, as the Biden administration will likely try to avoid a similar embarrassment in Syria anytime soon.
Following meetings in Washington last month with officials from the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, Ahmed appears to have received a reassuring response.
“They (the Americans) have promised to do everything in their power to destroy the Islamic State (Daesh) and to work on building infrastructure in northeastern Syria,” she said. told Reuters news agency. “They said they were going to stay in Syria and not back down – they would continue to fight the Islamic State.”
She added: “Before, they weren’t clear under Trump and during the Afghan withdrawal, but this time they made everything clear. “
Without a change of attitude in Damascus or Ankara, the Syrian Kurds have little choice but to continue to rely on American presence, cooperation and support. At best, they can prolong 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 targeting the Assad regime, and allow international aid to flow directly into their country. enclave, rather than going through Damascus with the result that it rarely reaches the northeast, then the political and economic situation will improve.
Without a more lasting political solution on the horizon, this is probably the best that the Syrian Kurds can hope for.
* David Romano is Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle Eastern Politics at Missouri State University