How viable is the Kurds’ autonomous rule in northeastern Syria?

Members of the Syrian Kurdish internal security services known as “Asayish” march in a procession ahead of the body of their fallen comrade Khalid Hajji. (AFP/File Photo)
Members of the Syrian Kurdish internal security services known as “Asayish” march in a procession ahead of the body of their fallen comrade Khalid Hajji. (AFP/File Photo)
Short Url
Updated 17 October 2021

How viable is the Kurds’ autonomous rule in northeastern Syria?

Members of the Syrian Kurdish internal security services known as “Asayish” march in a procession ahead of the body of their fallen comrade Khalid Hajji. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Bashar Assad appears uninterested in a more decentralized state in which the Kurds have greater autonomy
  • America’s botched Afghanistan exit might work in the Kurds’ favor if Biden wants to avoid similar scenes in Syria

MISSOURI, USA: Ilham Ahmed, head of the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has been lobbying Moscow and Washington to support Kurdish representation in the long-stalled, UN-backed Syrian peace process.

Ahmed, who has visited both capitals in recent weeks, also wants the country’s Kurdish-run region to be exempted from sanctions imposed under the 2019 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, the US legislation that sanctioned the regime of President Bashar Assad for war crimes against the Syrian people.

But what are the Syrian Kurds hoping for, precisely, and how viable are their proposals?

Russian jets, Iran-backed fighters, Turkish-supported insurgents, Islamist radicals, US troops and Syrian government forces, as well as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), operate across the patchwork of territories that constitute northern Syria.

The US views the YPG as a key ally in the fight against Daesh in northeastern Syria while Russia has forces in the area to support President Assad.

While some media outlets reported that Ahmed, as the president of the executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), was lobbying for American or Russian support for the creation of a breakaway state, the Syrian Kurds are not actually pushing for such a maximalist goal.

The Syrian Kurdish parties are sympathetic to the ideology of jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader 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, Syrian Kurdish organizations appear to be establishing all the trappings of their own separate state in the territory they control.

Their military forces — including the SDF, the YPG and the YPJ, the YPG’s all-female militia — are working assiduously to establish and maintain their monopoly on the use of force in the northeast.

They have clashed not only with Turkish forces and various Islamist extremist groups in the area, but also on occasion with Kurdish armed groups, the military forces of the Assad regime, Free Syrian Army rebels and others.




A member of the Kurdish internal security services known as Asayish stands guard during a demonstration by Syrian Kurds against the Turkish assault on northeastern Syria and in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in Syria's northeastern city of Qamishli. (AFP/File Photo)

Competing political parties in the territories under their control have likewise faced pressure, or outright bans, as the SDC and its ally, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), seek to bring everyone under the same institutional and governing structures that they created and dominate.

In some ways the Kurds of the SDC and PYD have proven to be very liberal, happily welcoming Arab tribes, Christians, Yezidis, Armenians, Turkmen and other groups and ethnicities into their ranks and governing structures.

However, they appear much less accepting and tolerant of those who seek to operate outside of the “democratic autonomy” political umbrella they have established.

With their own security forces, political institutions, schools and a variety of party-established civil-society organizations, it does at times look as though the Syrian Kurds are intent on creating their own separate state. But what choice did they have after the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011?

The Assad regime had brutally repressed Kurds for decades prior to the war. After Assad withdrew his forces and much of the Syrian government’s personnel from northeast Syria early in the conflict, to focus on the western and southern parts of the country where the rebel threat appeared the greatest, someone had to fill the resultant vacuum.




Syrian Kurdish women carry party flags, as they take part in a rally in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People's Protection Forces. (AFP/File Photo)

PKK-aligned Syrian Kurdish groups moved in to defend the area against Daesh and other extremist groups that were trying to take over. They fought extremely hard against the radical Islamists, handing Daesh its first defeat, 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 Kurdish and other minority-language programs, cultural centers, schools and institutions.

Fearing the malign “divide and conquer” tactics of neighboring powers, the new Syrian Kurdish authorities rejected attempts by other Kurdish parties, particularly those under the influence of Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional government, and Arab rebel groups to establish competing parties and militias in their hard-won territory.

Authorities in Turkey, meanwhile, were concerned by what they saw as an emerging PKK-controlled proto-state on their southern border. Through three military incursions in the last five years that displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds, Ankara seized hundreds of kilometers of the border strip and pushed around 30 km into northern Syria.

In 2018, Moscow appeared to greenlight 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 air space previously controlled by Russia.




Woman watch from a rooftop as US troops patrol in 2020 along the streets of the Syrian town of Al-Jawadiyah and meet the inhabitants, in the northeastern Hasakeh province, near the border with Turkey. (AFP/File Photo)

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 bind. Without American support and the presence of a token US tripwire force, Turkey could well expand its area of control in northern Syria.

Just this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was determined to eliminate alleged threats originating in northern Syria and that a suspected YPG attack that killed two Turkish police officers in Azaz was “the final straw.”

Meanwhile, the Assad regime appears uninterested in any proposals for a “more decentralized Syrian state” in which parts of the northeast would remain nominally a 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 former, the Syrian Kurds hope to convince the Russians to cajole the Assad regime into some sort of a compromise that would safeguard as much autonomy in northeastern Syria as possible. In the latter they aim to secure a US commitment not to abandon them again.




Cars drive past election campaign billboards depicting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, a candidate for the upcoming presidential vote, in the capital Damascus, on May 24, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

Ahmed outlined her hopes during a conference hosted by the Washington Institute on Sept. 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 country’s diversity and bolsters economic development,” she said.

“Continued support from our partner, the US, is crucial to this mission. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria faces numerous obstacles, including insecurity, poverty, foreign intervention, and terrorism.

“In addition, the Geneva peace process and constitutional process have stalled. The US could help alleviate these issues in the pursuit of a more stable Syria free of despotism, proxy conflicts and terror.”

America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan in August undoubtedly will have unnerved Syrian Kurds already apprehensive about their own future. Assad, Turkey and Daesh would all welcome a similar US withdrawal from northeastern Syria.

It is unlikely the “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria,” the governing body of which is the SDC, would be able to hold up against such combined pressures.




US troops patrol along the streets of the Syrian town of Al-Jawadiyah. (AFP/File Photo)

However, the botched American withdrawal from Afghanistan might actually work in Syrian Kurds’ favor, as the Biden administration will probably try to avoid a similar embarrassment in Syria any time soon.

Following meetings in Washington last month with representatives of the White House, State Department and Pentagon, Ahmed seems to have received a reassuring response.

“They (the Americans) promised to do whatever it takes to destroy Islamic State (Daesh) and work to build infrastructure in northeastern Syria,” she told the Reuters news agency. “They said they are going to stay in Syria and will not withdraw — they will keep fighting Islamic State.”

She added: “Before, they were unclear under Trump and during the Afghan withdrawal, but this time they made everything clear.”

With no change of attitudes in Damascus or Ankara, the Syrian Kurds are left with little choice but to continue to rely on the American presence, cooperation and support. At best, they can extend the status quo and the longevity of their precarious autonomy.

If they can convince Washington and Russia to help them reopen the crossings on the border with Iraq, exempt them from the sanctions designed to target the Assad regime, and allow the delivery of international aid directly to their enclave, rather than being routed through Damascus with the result that it rarely reaches the northeast, then the political and economic situation will improve.

Without a more durable political solution on the horizon, this is probably the best the Syrian Kurds can hope for.

--------------

* David Romano is Thomas G. Strong professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State University


Explosions heard inside US base in eastern Homs near Iraqi border — Syrian state TV

Explosions heard inside US base in eastern Homs near Iraqi border — Syrian state TV
Updated 8 sec ago

Explosions heard inside US base in eastern Homs near Iraqi border — Syrian state TV

Explosions heard inside US base in eastern Homs near Iraqi border — Syrian state TV
DUBAI: Syrian state television reported on Sunday that multiple explosions had been heard inside the US base in the Al-Tanf region in eastern Homs, near the Iraqi border.

Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Vatican meeting to discuss Document on Human Fraternity

Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Vatican meeting to discuss Document on Human Fraternity
Updated 17 min 49 sec ago

Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Vatican meeting to discuss Document on Human Fraternity

Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Vatican meeting to discuss Document on Human Fraternity
  • The two discussed their vision of what the relationship between followers of religions should be
  • Last month, Sheikh Al-Tayeb met Pope Francis on the sidelines of the Religious Leaders on Climate Change summit

Cairo: Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, held a meeting in the Vatican with Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, to discuss how to implement the provisions of the Document on Human fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.

This joint statement, which was signed by Pope Francis of the Catholic Church and Sheikh Al-Tayeb on Feb. 4, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, includes various proposed solutions from a religious standpoint to the current problems facing the world.

During the meeting Sheikh Al-Tayeb said that “the relationship of Al-Azhar and the Vatican remains an effective and real model for spreading tolerance and peace and combating extremism, hatred, wars and conflicts, and that the path of peace and dialogue is a difficult path, but the path is moving and making efforts,” adding that the world is in urgent need of the values of brotherhood, peaceful coexistence and respect for the other.

He stressed that religious leaders and scholars have a religious and societal duty to confront negative phenomena, especially with regard to moral aspects.

The two discussed their vision of what the relationship between followers of religions should be, and the role that religions should play in our contemporary world. The document seeks to activate dialogue about coexistence among human beings.

Ayuso said that the Grand Imam and His Holiness Pope Francis had the courage to fight battles for the good of humanity, and that the signing of the Document on Human Fraternity was not an easy thing.

But their persistence and sincerity helped to break barriers and repair broken bridges between some Muslims and Christians, and continued the dialogue between Al-Azhar and the Vatican after a rupture of nearly six years. They said they had begun to reap the fruits of this document in a rapprochement not only at the level of official institutions and institutes, but also between individuals among the wider masses.

Ayuso spoke about the great efforts of the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity that emerged from the document, noting that this committee includes religious and cultural leaders from different ethnic, social and cultural backgrounds around the world.

He said that even in their diversity the members of the committee represent a group of friends loyal to their humanity, united by their concern to work for mankind and end its suffering. They seek to replace hatred with love and intolerance with dialogue, especially between young people, to ensure healthy relations and a better future for coming generations.

Last month, Sheikh Al-Tayeb met Pope Francis on the sidelines of the Religious Leaders on Climate Change summit, where they said that returning to the teachings of religions is the way to save the world from extremism and division.


Israel urges hard line against Iran at nuclear talks

Israel urges hard line against Iran at nuclear talks
Updated 05 December 2021

Israel urges hard line against Iran at nuclear talks

Israel urges hard line against Iran at nuclear talks
  • Israel has been watching with concern as world powers sit down with Iran to jump-start talks on the tattered nuclear deal
  • Talks in Vienna aimed at re-imposing curbs on Iran’s nuclear program restarted last week after a more than five-month hiatus

TEL AVIV: Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday urged world powers to take a hard line against Iran in negotiations to curb the country’s nuclear program, as his top defense and intelligence officials headed to Washington amid the flailing talks.
Israel has been watching with concern as world powers sit down with Iran to jump-start talks on the tattered nuclear deal. Iran last week struck its own hard line as talks resumed in Vienna, suggesting everything discussed in previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated. Iran also isn’t slowing down the advances in its atomic program, further raising the stakes in the talks, which are crucial to cooling years of tensions boiling in the wider Mideast.
Talks in Vienna aimed at re-imposing curbs on Iran’s nuclear program restarted last week after a more than five-month hiatus.
Israel has long opposed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, saying it didn’t go far enough to halt the country’s nuclear program and doesn’t address Iran’s military involvement in countries bordering Israel.
“I call on every country negotiating with Iran in Vienna to take a strong line and make it clear to Iran that they cannot enrich uranium and negotiate at the same time,” Bennett told a meeting of his Cabinet. “Iran must begin to pay a price for its violations.”
Israel is not a party to the negotiations but it has made a point of keeping up lines of communication with its European and American allies during the talks, which are set to resume this week.
Israeli spy chief David Barnea headed to Washington late Saturday on a previously unannounced trip and Defense Minister Benny Gantz leaves Wednesday for meetings with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was in London and Paris last week to discuss the talks with Israel’s European allies.


Jordan jails hospital chief over Covid deaths

Jordan jails hospital chief over Covid deaths
Updated 05 December 2021

Jordan jails hospital chief over Covid deaths

Jordan jails hospital chief over Covid deaths

AMMAN: A Jordanian court on Sunday sentenced to three years in jail the director of a state hospital over the deaths of 10 patients at the facility which treated coronavirus patients.

Abdel Razak al-Khashman and four aides were convicted of "causing the deaths" at the Salt state hospital where the patients died after it ran out of oxygen.

The verdict can be appealed within 10 days. 

The deaths in March sparked public anger in Jordan and led to the resignation of health minister Nazir Obeidat.

Hundreds of angry people gathered outside Al-Hussein Salt New Hospital, northwest of Amman, when news of the deaths spread.

King Abdullah visited the hospital and protesters surrounded his car as it neared the building.  

(with AFP)


Israeli police questioned on Palestinian attacker’s shooting

Israeli police questioned on Palestinian attacker’s shooting
Updated 05 December 2021

Israeli police questioned on Palestinian attacker’s shooting

Israeli police questioned on Palestinian attacker’s shooting
  • A widely circulated video shot by a bystander appeared to show an officer from Israel’s paramilitary Border Police shooting the attacker
  • Israel says its security forces make every effort to avoid harming civilians and that it investigates alleged abuses

TEL AVIV, Israel: Israel’s Justice Ministry said Sunday that two police officers were brought in for questioning following the shooting death of a Palestinian who had stabbed an Israeli man in east Jerusalem.
Israeli police released surveillance video in which the attacker can be seen Saturday stabbing the ultra-Orthodox Jewish man and then trying to stab a Border Police officer before being shot and falling to the ground. Police identified the attacker as a 25-year-old from Salfit, in the occupied West Bank. Police could later be seen carrying the body away on a stretcher.
A widely circulated video shot by a bystander appeared to show an officer from Israel’s paramilitary Border Police shooting the attacker when he was already lying on the ground, and another appeared to show police with guns drawn preventing medics from reaching him, prompting calls for an investigation into possible excessive use of force.
The shooting drew comparisons to a 2016 incident in which an Israeli soldier was caught on camera shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker who was lying on the ground.
The Justice Ministry’s police investigations unit said the police officers were questioned shortly after the incident and released without conditions.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett released a statement in support of the officers. Other leaders also defended their actions.
“It’s not clear if the terrorist maybe has an explosive belt. All sorts of things could happen,” Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees the police, told Israeli Army Radio Sunday. “They acted correctly.”
The incident happened near Damascus Gate just outside Jerusalem’s Old City, a tense and crowded area that is often the scene of demonstrations and clashes.
The Old City is in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war along with the West Bank and Gaza. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and considers the entire city its capital. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state, to include the West Bank and Gaza.
There have been dozens of attacks in recent years in and around the Old City, nearly all carried out by individual Palestinians with no known links to armed groups.
Palestinians and Israeli rights groups say security forces sometimes use excessive force in response to attacks, killing suspected assailants who could have been arrested or who posed no immediate threat to security forces.
Rights groups also say Israel rarely holds members of its security forces accountable for the deadly shootings of Palestinians. Investigations often end with no charges or lenient sentences, and in many cases witnesses are not summoned for questioning.
Israel says its security forces make every effort to avoid harming civilians and that it investigates alleged abuses.
In the widely publicized 2016 case, Israeli soldier Elor Azaria was caught on camera shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker who was lying on the ground. Azaria later served two-thirds of a 14-month sentence after being convicted of reckless manslaughter.
His case sharply divided Israelis. The military pushed for his prosecution, saying he violated its code of ethics, while many Israelis, particularly on the nationalist right, defended his actions.
In a more recent case, a Border Police officer was charged with reckless manslaughter in the deadly shooting of an autistic Palestinian man in Jerusalem’s Old City last year.
The indictment came just over a year after the shooting of Eyad Hallaq, whose family has criticized Israel’s investigation into the killing and called for much tougher charges. The shooting has drawn comparisons to the police killing of George Floyd in the United States.