Afrin a wake-up call for Syria’s Kurds
Pro-Turkish Syrian armed groups proceeded to pillage Afrin after its occupation. The city’s defenders, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), withdrew from the area after 58 days of fighting. Now the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), must reevaluate their position in light of what has unfolded in Afrin. Since they are the dominant political force in the Kurdish-populated areas of northern Syria, their political calculations are crucial to the fate of Syria’s Kurds.
The PYD leadership should realize that international and regional powers will not accept a change in the established political borders of the Middle East, with the independence referendum fiasco in Iraqi Kurdistan last year decisive proof of this. For almost three decades, diplomacy was a lifeline for Iraqi Kurdistan’s leaders, as they enjoyed a special relationship with the United States. Unlike the areas now under Kurdish control in Syria, they were not dominated by forces linked or close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This has allowed Iraqi Kurds to enjoy political relations with Turkey, as well as economic interdependence. Overall, they drew legitimacy from their international relations. However, this top-down approach to building their “state” crashed and burned, with their main international backer, the US, rejecting the independence referendum.
Syria’s Kurds, although not demanding secession from Syria, should be mindful of their reliance on international diplomatic support. When the Iraqi Army overran Kirkuk, there was little the international community could do. At the end of the day, Kirkuk was Iraqi territory. In Afrin, even though the Turkish Army is a foreign occupation force waging unprovoked aggression, the international community also remained silent. The American diplomatic umbrella did little to help the Kurds. Moscow, which once had a PYD proto-consulate, did not act. Neither Russia nor the US would support a change in Syria’s territorial make-up, or go out of their way to protect whatever autonomy the Kurds enjoy now. More importantly, neither power will risk its relationship with Turkey for the PYD’s sake.
The US had relied extensively on the YPG in its anti-Daesh campaign. Its presence in Syria, save for the camp at Tanf, is built on working with the Kurds. Many US bases, and hundreds of soldiers, are stationed in areas under YPG control in northeastern Syria. The YPG also forms the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which continue to receive American arms and funding. However, the US cannot sacrifice its alliance with Turkey, despite their current strained relationship. Turkey is NATO’s second largest armed force and for decades it has served as a linchpin for US strategy in the Middle East. American policy planners will still think of Turkey as a bulwark against Russia and Iran — a role Ankara is not playing at the moment. Despite Afrin, the American administration is now negotiating with Turkey over the fate of SDF-controlled Manbij.
The Russian calculation regarding Turkey is based on realism. At the end of the day, why would Russia protect a force (the YPG) that had allied itself with the US? The option of developing relations with Turkey, an important geopolitical and economic regional force, is far more important for Moscow — even if it came at the expense of the PYD/YPG.
The PYD leadership should realize that international and regional powers will not accept a change in the established political borders of the Middle East.
Another important point the Kurds should be mindful of is that international sympathy does not necessarily translate into political action. The YPG’s experience in fighting Daesh has generated a lot of admiration in Western media and politics. Many academics in the West are fascinated by the “burgeoning democracy” in Kurdish-held areas in northeastern Syria. Kurdish politicians, however, should not count on such popular sympathies to affect the policy-making process in the West.
It is quite understandable why Damascus and Baghdad would reject Kurdish autonomy. For regional powers, the calculation is also simple. When Iraqi Kurdistan took active steps toward independence, Tehran and Ankara converged against the endeavor, despite both having good relations with Erbil. For Turkey and Iran, this is an existential Issue. Iran worries about its own Kurdish minority, while Turkish nationalism has, from its foundation, fed on animosity toward burgeoning Kurdish nationalism. The ensuing conflict with the PKK only reinforced this tendency. When the PYD/YPG, with their well-known PKK links, started to gain power in Syria, they provoked another round of Turkish aggressive anxiety. At the end of the day, the territory controlled by the SDF and YPG does not exist in a vacuum and its fate will always be determined by the position of regional powers.
Apart from their regional and international entanglements, Syrian Kurdish political leaders must reconsider their political project in northeastern Syria. Autonomy under a “democratic federation” is their primary endeavor. They have built up political institutions and introduced their own administrative divisions, but the representative nature — let alone the legality — of these institutions, despite being “elected,” is in doubt. Furthermore, the Kurds are hardly a numerical majority in the areas under SDF control, which further puts into question the inclusivity of political structures inspired by the Kurdish idea of “democratic federation.”
Federalism, above all, cannot be proposed and implemented by one part of the country regardless of the rest. The economic resources of northeastern Syria are for all Syrians. While representatives of the PYD and other Kurdish political proto-institutions have been excluded from political talks in Geneva and elsewhere due to Turkish pressures, these existential issues concern all Syrians and should be a subject for dialogue, no matter the forum.
- Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics.
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