The Kurds Trapped By The Military Escalation In Syria

The escalation of the war in Syria which began early in January 2018 has clearly reshuffled the cards as to the balance of forces on the ground. Potentially allies of both Moscow and Washington, yet weakened in Afrin Canton by the onslaught of the Turkish army, have the Syrian Kurds lost all hope of seeing their demands for autonomy in Northern Syria satisfied at last? Analysis.

Afrin, 19 January 208. — Demonstration to support the YPG and the YPJ.

The reconstruction of Syria is still a long way off. While the end of 2017 seemed to mark the achievement of a new political-military “equilibrium” due to the decisive victories won against the Islamic State (ISIS) at Mosul in Iraq, Rakka and Deir Ez-Zor in Syria, plus what still seemed to be promising negotiations - under the aegis of the UN (in Geneva and Vienne) and Russia (in Astana and Sotchi) – 2018 has begun with the clash of arms. In just a few weeks a wave of military operations has reopened the wounds of civil war in Syria. Caught in the middle of this escalation of violence, the fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) suddenly have the feeling their political and military survival is once again at stake.

The year 2017 had ended on a note of hope: the United States (allied with the FDS since 2015), and Putin’s Russia as well, seemed ready to acknowledge Kurdish demands for autonomy in Northern Syria, as defended by the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Founded in 2003 in conjunction with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the PYD has complemented its military progress with a political experiment in “radical democracy” in Afrin, Kobanî and Jazira, the three cantons that make up the province of Rojava (Western Kurdistan).

But after the new year, there was a sudden sea change with the opening of two new fronts: the Turkish army’s attack on the Afrin Canton (operation “Olive Branch”) along the Turkish-Syrian border; and before that, an intensification of Syrian bombing (assisted by the Russian air force) at Idlib, in the North, and then the Ghouta area near Damascus.

But there were also two major “incidents”: the bombing of pro-Assad forces in the night of 7-8 February in the oil fields around Deir Ez-Zor to the East of the Euphrates carried out by the Washington-led coalition in support of the FDS; and finally on Saturday 10 February, a series of raids by the Israeli air force on a so-called “Iranian base” near the city of Palmyra. This multifaceted military escalation reshuffled the cards of the alliances in the region which only a month earlier had seemed favorable to the Kurds.

“This new situation on the ground could well turn out to have tragic consequences for the Syrian Kurds, but it also has the merit of clarifying the various parties’ real intentions with regard to our demands for autonomy,” a PYD cadre on a visit to Paris told is in mid-December of last year. He insisted on being cautious, however. Talking to a journalist, in the heat of events, with history being written as we spoke, could also “inflect scenarios which were still uncertain and open-ended.”

Born in Turkey and close to the PKK for many years, Bêcan B. prefers to remain strictly anonymous. His present responsibilities in the PYD place him “at the center of the internal debates” among the party leadership. He agreed twice to share his analyses, in mid-December 2017 and again on 9 February 2018.

The Two Focuses of Kurdish Strategy in Syria

© Fabrice Balanche, 2017
© Fabrice Balanche, 2017

At the end of 2017, the balance of military power on the ground put the Kurds in a position of strength. Besides the three Rojava cantons, the fighters of the YPG and the FDS and conquered territories to the East of the Euphrates, even beyond Rakka and the strategic oilfields. After their successive waves of territorial conquest, the Kurds controlled nearly a third of Syrian territory, with the official and active support of the US-led coalition. But also, around Deir Ez-Zor, with the backing of the Russian military by virtue of a “secret” command coordination with the officers of the YPG. In November 2017, Moscow went so far as to draw the ire of Ankara by officially inviting the Kurds of the PYD to attend the talks scheduled to take place in Sotchi. In November, Russian aircraft carried out several raids in support of the Kurdish forces fighting Jihadists to the East of the Euphrates. “Military cadres of the YPG were even decorated in Moscow,” Becam B. observes. “That Russian focus was all the more comforting to us as we sensed a kind of tacit tutelage in Moscow, aimed both at restraining Recip Tayyip Erdoğan’s anti-Kurdish rage and advocating vis-à-vis Bachar Al-Assad our scenario of autonomy in the Syria of the future.”

Another alliance focus for the Syrian Kurds since 2015 has been the link between the US-led coalition and the FDS. But can that alliance last? While US support in the form of weapons, logistics and military advisors is undeniably precious, the Kurds of Syria have been wondering for months about the American medium term “strategy” in Syria. “We had to be sure to stay in the good graces of both our allies, the Russians and the Americans,” Bêcan B. continued. “But while we knew the Russians were in the region to stay, we also knew the Americans might pull out at any time, as many people in Washington were already urging Trump to do. And there was another question in the air: would Trump finally decide to bring pressure to bear on Erdoğan? At the risk of a “clash” over NATO? At the time, Putin seemed better able to stop Erdoğan than Washington...”

And that question is far from negligible. Because the organizational ties between the PYD and the PKK are such that the Kurdish strategy in Syria includes a larger perspective: the fate of the 18 million Turkish Kurds: “Since 2012 the PKK has imagined a joint pan-Kurdish trans-border strategy aimed at weakening Erdoğan’s capacity for oppressing the Kurds,” said Bêcan B.

Russia’s New Tactical Options

Has Erdoğan’s “Olive Branch” operation put an end to the Syrian Kurds’ prospect of alliances with Washington and/or Moscow? By withdrawing his Russians troops from Afrin on 19 January, Vladimir Putin was clearly giving the Turkish intervention a green light. All the more so as that operation will have ultimately made it possible for him to pursue a threefold tactical goal: to preserve his good relations with President Erdoğan by allowing him to carry out his military campaign against the “terrorists” of the PYD-PKK; to counter the US project, announced in mid-January, of creating a border force of 30 000 men with the FDS in Northern Syria; and lastly to strengthen Damascus’s position on the ground by stepping up operations against the remaining rebel strongholds in Idlib and Ghouta.

Aside from the tragedy of the many Kurdish casualties, civilian and military, already caused by this Turkish aggression, operation “Olive Branch” has made clear Turkey’s intention to permanently occupy this area which, ever since the Turkish army’s precedent incursion (“Euphrates Shield,” August 2016), has been an obstacle to the territorial junction between the three Rojava cantons.

By using thousands of soldiers, Arab Jihadists and radicalized Turkmen from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), like the Failaq al Sham brigade or the one commanded by Sultan Moran, Erdoğan wishes to create in that area a kind of “permanent army of the north” which could extend its occupation to the city of Menbij or beyond.

This Turkish military aggression has already had one impact on the Russo-Kurdish alliance, the Kurds’ refusal to take part in the Sotchi Conference on 30 January. Coupled with the withdrawal of the Syrian Negotiations Committee (SNC) composed of nearly all the anti-Assad factions, this Kurdish defection turned that “Syrian national dialogue congress” into an empty shell. The fiasco was all the more complete as the recent military tensions in Syria have rendered meaningless those highly touted “zones of de-escalation” provided for by the Astana agreement (Kazakhstan, May 2017).

“We had no choice but to refuse to go to Sotchi,” Bêcan B. observed during our second conversation in Paris on 9 February 2018. “But just because Putin has let Erdoğan carry on with his operation in Syria, it doesn’t mean he has permanently abandoned the Kurds. He is (temporarily) avoiding any conflict with his Turkish ally and is above all trying to force us to make overtures to Damascus to obtain their protection, which we will never do!” And there we have another consequence of the new military equation in Syria: the Turkish aggression has prompted some Kurdish leaders to heed the siren song of Damascus. Aldar Khalil, a cadre in Rojava, even claims the Russians offered the Kurds, before the hostilities began, to cancel the Turkish offensive in exchange for a return of the Syrian army to Afrin. The PYD refused. But on 25 January, according to the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat1, the Kurdish authorities in Afrin asked Damas “to fulfill its sovereign obligations and to protect its borders from the attacks of the Turkish army of occupation and deploy its armed forces to secure its frontier in the Afrin District.” This scenario was also envisioned in a recent report from Omram for Strategic Studies (OSS), a think tank close to the Syrian opposition. “Rojava will never negotiate anything of the sort with Damascus!” Bêcan B. exclaimed angrily. Yet the actual history of the Syrian conflict shows that the Syrians Kurds have maintained a “pragmatic” relationship with Damascus since March 2011. In a larger perspective, the whole history of the Kurds in the Middle East is rife with similar turnabouts, prompted by the realpolitik of the Kurdish leadership . On 20 February, in accordance with the agreement which finally was reached between Damascus and the PYD, pro-Assad militias entered Afrin canton to engage with the Turkish army2

The United States: a Trustworthy Partner?

© Fabrice Balanche, 2017
© Fabrice Balanche, 2017

As for the alliance between the Syrian Kurds and the USA, what do these new developments reveal? Contrary to Kurdish expectations, the Turkish attack against Afrin Canton did not prompt any clear-cut condemnation, either from Washington or any European capital, all of whom merely called upon Ankara to use “restraint.” And yet a week earlier, secretary of state Rex Tillerson had declared: “the United States will maintain military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge.” And this was only a few days after Washington had announced it would deploy a force of 30 000 men in Northern Syria, with the support of the FDS.

“Of course, we were very disappointed when the Americans let us down,” Bêcan B. stressed. “But there again, anything can happen. And later reactions have shown that the Western camp is well aware of having been forced into a corner by the triple alliance between Turkey, Russia, and Iran”. At the end of January, when Erdoğan demanded that the United States withdraw their troops from Menbij, to the East of Afrin, the American president advised his Turkish counterpart to “avoid any action that might lead to a clash between Turkish and American forces.” Better still, on 7 February, Washington decided to come openly to the defense of the FDS near Deir Ez Zor, to the East of the Euphrates, by blocking the advance of pro-Assad troops. Two days later, the Israeli air force, in response to the alleged incursion of an Iranian drone, bombed a so-called “Iranian base” near Palmyra.

And finally, at the same time, the issue of the alleged use by Damascus of “chemical weapons” was revived once again in Berlin, Washington and Paris. For the Kurds, of course, the risk is to see these firm verbal stands end up like Barack Obama’s notorious “red line” speech in the summer of 2013. But with these military responses by two international players (the US and Israel), this time aimed directly at Damascus (and Tehran) the Syrian conflict has taken a step towards internationalization which is more than symbolic.

“Compared with our hesitations at the end of 2017, the Washington focus now seems safer for the Kurds. True, Russia remains a potential partner, but Putin has several scenarios up his sleeve to ensure a durable Russian presence in the Middle East. In his view, the Kurds are only one of many possible cards to be played. Whereas in the long term the Americans (and the Western powers generally) will not be able to remain in Syria without courting and supporting Kurdish forces. Then too, we must not forget that while Iran is Trump’s ultimate target, the Kurds of the PKK could be his allies, both to weaken Erdoğan in Turkey and undermine the Iranian regime through the PJAK guerrillas3", says Bêcan B.

On 15 February, there was another surprise: after all that tough talk, Washington sent its secretary of State to Ankara with a mandate to negotiate with Turkey the formation of a “task team” meant to overcome “together” the Afrin crisis. One certainty is taking shape in the new Syrian situation, as Fabrice Balanche has stressed in his latest study on Syria. Rojava offers a future corridor of access to the Mediterranean on which Moscow and Washington, but also Damascus, Tehran and Ankara now have their eye.

1Article reprinted in Le Monde under the title “Après l’attaque turque à Afrin, le pouvoir de Damas en embuscade”, 29 January 2016 (subscribers’ edition).

2Cf. among others, Olivier Piot, Le peuple kurde, clé de voûte du Moyen-Orient, Les petits matins, 2017.

3EDITOR’S NOTE: Kurdistan Free Life Party, engaged in a struggle against the Iranian regime.