How US diplomacy can provide a solution in northeast Syria
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has once again raised the issue of an incursion into Syria. Such operations are a periodic assignment for the Turkish military. Every time they feel the heat of the Kurdish militants and every time they feel they can exert pressure, they conduct an incursion to set the People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, back. However, this policy is not sustainable and the idea of a safe zone to house relocated refugees is not feasible. There needs to be a more sustainable arrangement that can contribute to a permanent and comprehensive solution to the Syrian conflict.
The Kurdish issue did not arise with the YPG and the fight against Daesh. It goes back to long before that. To understand the YPG in Syria, you need to understand the Kurdish issue in the region. The Kurds as an ethnic group are spread over four countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. Each of those countries has been suspicious of the Kurdish national movement.
In Syria, under the fake Arabization policy of the Baath regime, the Kurds were displaced in order to separate them from their kinsmen in neighboring countries. They were displaced from their villages and towns and replaced by Arabs. Kept under the thumb for decades under the rule of the brutal Assad regime, the Kurds did not have much to say. However, the opportunity for emancipation came with the eruption of Daesh.
The Obama administration found them to be a safe bet to fight the terrorist group. The US had question marks about other Arab Sunni fighters, fearing that they might have affinity with fundamentalist groups. So, the US relied on the Kurds to fight Daesh and started arming them, as well as giving them political support, with minimal supervision.
This goes back to the “by-with-through” approach that the US pursued following the Iraq war. The Iraq war, in which the Americans themselves were heavily invested, proved to be very costly in terms of both money and blood. Hence, the policy the US now follows is to have a light footprint and to rely on local partners to achieve its goals. This is why the Kurds were empowered.
Even though the fight against Daesh is now over, the US still needs the Kurds to prevent the reemergence of the group, as well as to guard the Al-Hol camp, which has an estimated 56,000 inmates with affiliations to terrorist groups.
The Kurds today find themselves in a position where they can reclaim what was theirs. However, this would be like opening Pandora’s box. If some government employee was transferred to the north and given a house in the 1960s, his grandchild who now lives in the house is not at fault. However, the attempt by the Kurds to regain their land and their empowerment has created tensions with the local Arab population.
On the other hand, Turkey believes that the YPG is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. They both follow the cult of Abdullah Ocalan and his ideology. There is a general consensus in Turkey, which extends beyond Erdogan, on the need to push the YPG away from the border areas, hence the successive incursions. However, this policy of going into Syria every now and then and giving the Kurds a slap does not work. It also inflames the tensions between the Arabs and the Kurds, as the Turks are supported by local Arab groups.
Here, the US can play the role of mediator and put pressure on the YPG, which is now negotiating with the Assad regime. Washington has to acknowledge the security concern of Turkey, its NATO ally, especially as the US needs Ankara more than ever in order to rein in Russia.
The YPG has been controlling local councils and dominating their decision-making. Though the councils have legislative and executive councils, it is usually the YPG’s informal network of “kadros” that call the shots. In this respect, the US can pressure the YPG to make the local councils more representative. The White House can empower the councils and make them directly elected by the local people, which would ensure greater Arab representation and ethnic diversity.
The most important issue is for the US to render the YPG accountable to the local councils and not the other way round. Also, when the local councils are more representative of the different factions and not dominated by the YPG, Turkey would be encouraged to engage with them. So far, for example, water restrictions have been used as a punitive measure against groups Turkey considers as hostile. But if the local councils were acceptable to Turkey, then there could be coordination on the water issue. This would be a big advantage the local councils could bring to the population.
If Turkey used water as an incentive instead of a weapon, it would empower the local councils and, in turn, create a balance in the northeast of Syria that could diffuse the tensions between the Arabs and the Kurds and decrease the control of the YPG.
The most important issue is for the US to render the YPG accountable to the local councils and not the other way round.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
At the same time, this arrangement would allow the northeast to prosper economically. Turkey would be enticed to promote cross-border trade if its security concerns were answered. As water from Turkey would be flowing across the northeast, life and agriculture would improve. This could be important for Turkey as, sooner or later, it needs to nurture good relations with its neighbors.
This is the time for the US to put its diplomacy to work. It needs to condition its aid to the autonomous region in the northeast on power-sharing and government reform. To do that, it needs to send a large number of diplomats to monitor the reform process and ensure transparency and compliance. This would prevent the periodic Turkish incursions, while guaranteeing the rights and security of both the Kurds and Turkey.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II.