The Kurdish Road to Peace in Syria Ends in Damascus

 In Land, Forces & Capabilities, FVEY, P5

With the Syrian Arab Army emerg­ing increas­ing­ly vic­to­ri­ous over its foes, inter­nal and exter­nal actors are left with fewer and fewer options. With other non-state actors large­ly out of the pic­ture, the Kurdish-led forces are now forced to decide how they will align. Though their ties with the United States are still strong, the only stable long-term solu­tion for Syria’s Kurds is a rap­proche­ment with the Syrian gov­ern­ment.

Over the course of the nine-year-long con­flict, an array of Kurdish and Kurdish-dom­i­nat­ed bodies have emerged in Syrian ter­ri­to­ry along the Turkish border. At the fore­front are the Kurdish-dom­i­nat­ed Syrian Democratic Forces, the mil­i­tary force of the self-declared Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. The mul­ti­par­ty assem­bly known as the Syrian Democratic Council, to which the Syrian Democratic Forces answer, is the foun­da­tion for the region’s political institutions and leads negotiations with the Syrian government. Rather than oper­at­ing as a con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary force, the Syrian Democratic Forces con­sist of a coali­tion of ethnic mili­tias, with the People’s Protection Units being the most promi­nent. Though pre­dom­i­nant­ly Kurdish, the People’s Protection Units and their aux­il­iaries are increas­ing­ly becom­ing more polyethnic fol­low­ing offen­sives out­side of tra­di­tion­al­ly Kurdish areas (although this process has not been with­out dif­fi­cul­ty and ten­sions).

These inter­twined groups have large­ly been suc­cess­ful at bal­anc­ing their seem­ing­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry rela­tion­ships: While receiv­ing weapons from the United States, they have been nego­ti­at­ing with Russia. This seem­ing­ly strange sit­u­a­tion has large­ly been the con­se­quence of geog­ra­phy. Following the Syrian Arab Army’s with­draw­al from north­ern Syria in the early stages of the war, and with fight­ing large­ly con­cen­trat­ed in other parts of the coun­try, nei­ther the Syrian Kurds nor Damascus have been com­pelled to address the inher­ent para­dox in their tacit alliance against jihadist rebels such as the Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front, and Salafi groups attached to the Free Syrian Army.

This non-con­flict has at times man­i­fest­ed itself in var­i­ous forms of active assis­tance. In the final stages of the Battle of Aleppo in 2016, while the United States and its allies were con­demn­ing the Syrian government’s offen­sive to retake the rebel-con­trolled por­tions of the city, the People’s Protection Units were busy play­ing their part by cutting off crucial supply routes for the rebels. Conversely, as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ini­ti­at­ed an inva­sion of north­ern Syria, Damascus deployed government-aligned militias to Afrin. The par­al­lels between the two polit­i­cal author­i­ties extend beyond the field of combat. Key in any post-war Syria will be the preser­va­tion of the country’s his­to­ry of sec­u­lar­ism, an objec­tive explicitly stated by President Bashar al-Assad and mir­rored by the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Its cur­rent status as a paras­tate leaves the Kurdish-led polity in a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion: It has all the bur­dens of an actual state while lack­ing the ter­ri­to­r­i­al integri­ty and sov­er­eign­ty that come with formal state­hood. As long as Rojava con­tin­ues to oper­ate as an inde­pen­dent actor, Turkey will remain rest­less. Consequently, the only mean­ing­ful short-term pro­tec­tion that can be offered to north­ern Syria, in the absence of the Syrian state, will be under the guise of inter­na­tion­al bro­ker­ing — such as the Russo-Turkish agreement in October 2019, which result­ed in the with­draw­al of Kurdish forces from the Syrian-Turkish border and there­by their sur­vival by the grace of others.

Shortly after­ward, Syrian Kurdish forces and the Syrian gov­ern­ment reached an agreement, bro­kered by Russia, that result­ed in active mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion. Implicit here is the under­stand­ing that only the Syrian state can offer any long-term sup­port, where­as coun­tries like the United States or the United Kingdom cannot be wholly relied upon. Joint gov­er­nance, how­ev­er, is not a sus­tain­able solu­tion. With the gov­ern­ment unlike­ly to yield exclu­sive domains to the Syrian Democratic Forces, and with the latter lack­ing the strength to seize such domains on its own, a nego­ti­at­ed set­tle­ment will be required. Should the Kurdish forces not be open to this, Damascus could always turn to Ankara as a last resort to increase pres­sure.

The Kremlin has been eager to accom­mo­date the Syrian Democratic Forces as part of a polit­i­cal set­tle­ment for Syria. In February 2016, a Syrian Kurdish rep­re­sen­ta­tive office was opened in Moscow. The fol­low­ing year, a Russian-proposed draft constitution for Syria sought to estab­lish an offi­cial status for the Kurdish lan­guage while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly seek­ing to create a “decen­tral­ized Syria.” Russia has advo­cat­ed for the inclu­sion of the Syrian Democratic Forces not only in the United Nations-led Geneva peace talks but also in par­al­lel efforts such as those in Sochi.

However, the Russian government’s objec­tive has been to rec­on­cile the Syrian gov­ern­ment with Kurdish forces, not simply to ally with both. Friendly and strate­gic Russo-Syrian rela­tions pre­date the pres­i­den­cies of Vladimir Putin and Assad by decades and are cen­tered around the exis­tence of strong, cen­tral­ized states. Following Moscow’s inter­ven­tion in Syria in late 2015, Russia began engag­ing in a multiyear project of not just rebuild­ing the Syrian Arab Army but also inte­grat­ing semi-autonomous mili­tias, a move that they will likely wish to see repeat­ed in the north of the coun­try. Given the sign­ing of a forty-nine-year lease deal for Russian bases in Syria and the expansion of exist­ing ones, along with ongo­ing negotiations about building more, the Kremlin will not want to see a weak­ened gov­ern­ment and there­fore will push for fur­ther com­mand and gov­er­nance inte­gra­tion under a Damascus-led gov­ern­ment with long-term incen­tives to make that happen.

Yet here lies a cause for resis­tance from the Kurdish lead­er­ship. With no sign of the Syrian gov­ern­ment aban­don­ing its pur­suit of an inte­grat­ed com­mand struc­ture, the People’s Protection Units will either be forced to disarm or, more likely, be assim­i­lat­ed into Syrian Arab Army units. Once such a path is fol­lowed, the pri­ma­ry source of lever­age enjoyed by the Syrian Democratic Forces — mil­i­tary strength — will large­ly dis­ap­pear. So far, this has large­ly been a deal­break­er for the Syrian Democratic Forces, with Jihat Omar, co-chair of the Foreign Relations Office of the Syrian Democratic Council, having asked rhetor­i­cal­ly, “with­out defense forces, how should we be able to pro­tect our people and our polit­i­cal vision?”

This remains pri­mar­i­ly a ques­tion of com­mand. The Syrian gov­ern­ment has proven itself will­ing to rein­te­grate those who were not explic­it­ly against it. In an October 2018 decree, Assad granted amnesty to desert­ers and draft dodgers who did not join rebel forces. As such, should Damascus gain greater direct con­trol of north­ern Syria, some fight­ers might choose to hedge their bets in case the Syrian Democratic Forces cease to be a de facto inde­pen­dent author­i­ty in the region — leav­ing the issue of whether or not Kurdish com­man­ders will be quick to join the Syrian Arab Army.

The government’s path to vic­to­ry, how­ev­er, may prove to its detri­ment when it comes to win­ning hearts and minds. The rep­u­ta­tion of the state’s secu­ri­ty appa­ra­tus not only pre­cedes it but also is likely to inspire both fear and oppo­si­tion to north­ern Syria’s com­plete rein­cor­po­ra­tion. In light of the October 2019 deal, local journalists highlighted concerns about the return of intel­li­gence ser­vices to Rojava. Sameyyan, the pseu­do­nym of a Kurdish jour­nal­ist in north­east­ern Hasakah province, went so far as to say, “If the Syrian gov­ern­ment comes back as it was before, its secu­ri­ty appa­ra­tus and such, I will cer­tain­ly leave.” While most inhab­i­tants are unlike­ly to leave, in the case of a final Kurdish-Damascus set­tle­ment, rogue ele­ments opposed to any such deal could emerge — and this could result in an inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the con­flict in areas that are cur­rent­ly mostly peace­ful. If Syrian Democratic Forces dis­si­dents choose to engage in armed con­fronta­tion, the Syrian gov­ern­ment is likely to revert to sim­i­lar tac­tics to those it has pur­sued suc­cess­ful­ly through­out the rest of the coun­try, which risks bifur­cat­ing soci­ety in Rojava and strength­en­ing anti-gov­ern­ment seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion.

Without the back­ing of a strong, cen­tral state, the Kurdish pop­u­la­tion is likely to be exposed to con­tin­ued for­eign aggres­sion. In neigh­bor­ing Iraq, recent incursions by Turkish military forces have result­ed not only in the deaths of com­bat­ants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party but also in the killing of two Iraqi border guards. Baghdad’s impo­tence is itself a prod­uct of the schism between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi gov­ern­ment, which has result­ed in a weak­ened state.

Territorial integri­ty can only be actu­al­ized through the eco­nom­ic inte­gra­tion of Syria’s var­i­ous provinces. While some Gulf states have been reestab­lish­ing ties with Damascus and are eager to be among early investors in recon­struc­tion efforts, the con­tin­ued close­ness between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the United States is likely to set back not only the former but all of Syria. The deci­sion of the Syrian Democratic Forces to sign an oil deal with an American firm, which is likely moti­vat­ed by short-term finan­cial needs, has already pro­duced ten­sions with the Syrian gov­ern­ment, which has condemned “in the strongest terms the agree­ment signed between al-Qasd mili­tia [Syrian government’s name for the Syrian Democratic Forces] and an American oil com­pa­ny to steal Syria’s oil under the spon­sor­ship and sup­port of the American admin­is­tra­tion.” Though the deal might pro­vide the Kurdish forces with what President Donald Trump referred to as “some cash flow,” it will make the Syrian Democratic Forces finan­cial­ly, and con­se­quent­ly polit­i­cal­ly, depen­dent on the United States while being cut off from the rest of the coun­try and likely from the rest of the region. Should a com­plete polit­i­cal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion take place, it would not be sur­pris­ing were the Syrian Democratic Council to be forced to for­feit any assets abroad as a result of U.S. sanctions on Syria, which have only inten­si­fied in recent weeks and months.

National Interest source|articles

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