Syria’s Kurds are a force to be reckoned with
by PAUL IDDON
Russia’s aerial campaign in Syria is well underway, as the heaviest strikes focus on anti-regime rebel groups near Aleppo. But further north, Syria’s Kurds have expanded their territory and essentially cut off most of the Turkish border from Islamic State.
The expansion of Kurdish territory under the Democratic Union Party, a left-wing Kurdish political organization also known as the PYD, is one of the most significant events in the civil war. The PYD has its own agenda, with some similarities to other rebel groups, and some important distinctions.
We know this for sure — Syria’s Kurds are a force to be reckoned with. And the Kremlin will have to deal with them. The question is how, and what that means for the country’s future.
Unlike the other three Kurdish nations of the Middle East, Syria’s Kurdish region is not a contiguous territory. Not yet, anyways.
Instead, there are three cantons — Jazira, Kobani and Afrin — divided from east to west. The latter two are the biggest, but became connected after Kurdish militias pushed Islamic State from the border town of Tal Abyad in June. This gives the PYD control over a 236-mile stretch of territory from Syria’s northeastern tip to the Euphrates River.
Across that river sits the city of Jarablus, which Islamic State occupies. Sixty-eight miles farther west is Afrin canton, which is cut off from the other two.
If the PYD uproots Islamic State from Jarablus and links up with the third, smallest and most westward canton, then the Kurds and their allies will effectively dominate the Turkish border — and Islamic State will find it doubly difficult to funnel volunteers through the northern frontier.
This is a major strategic setback for Islamic State and may well prove to be a decisive factor in the group’s defeat. But Turkey is not happy about these developments. Ankara certainly doesn’t want to see all three Kurdish cantons become one contiguous polity, let alone one controlled by an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party.
In the middle of all of this, the PYD has taken a pragmatic approach. PYD chairman Saleh Muslim told The Independent that it would “be a disaster” if Assad suddenly fell from power, as he feared that jihadist groups would fill the power vacuum. Muslim also told Al-Monitor that he opposes Assad’s rule and wants a democratic government in Damascus.
There’s more. Sunni Arab fighters who oppose Assad are working alongside the Kurds. In Hasakeh, a pocket of Syrian troops have held out and co-existed with Kurdish fighters.
Remember, the PYD has not called for independence or separation from Syria. The groups seeks an autonomous Kurdish region that will work in tandem with a multi-party Syrian government. In addition, the PYD considers Islamic State its primary current threat and fears Turkish intervention the most. To counter those two threats, the PYD welcomes any help it can get.
That includes help from Russia. “The Russians will not meddle in the north,” Muslim told Al-Monitor. “But should Turkey attempt to intervene, then they will. Russia has a joint defense agreement with Syria. They will prevent Turkish intervention not to defend us [Kurds] but to defend Syria’s border.”
Turkey has opposed the United States’ support of the PYD, but has not acted against the group. The United States planned to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria between Kobani and Afrin. But plans to do so haven’t materialized and the Pentagon’s program to train Syrian rebels has been an abject failure.
Now the Kurds are fighting Islamic State in Jarablus and likely comprise the most competent ground force in that part of the country.
To make matters even more complicated, Turkish air strikes on Islamic State deterred the Syrian air force from bombing anti-Assad rebel groups in Aleppo. Now the presence of Russian warplanes may deter those same Turkish jets from later turning their guns on the Kurds.
On Oct. 3, Turkish F-16s intercepted Russian jets that violated Turkish airspace. The Russians claimed it was a navigational error, but the incident demonstrated Turkey’s willingness to defend its unstable border. Whether this escalates into a dangerous situation is yet to be seen.
Turkey has shot down Syrian aircraft which strayed over the border before. However, a NATO air force shooting down a Russian plane, or vice versa, would be a much more serious matter.
Muslim is adamant that the Kurds are a new on-the-ground reality. He’s certainly not wrong. The PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units — or YPG — field a 40,000-strong force of battle-hardened men and women who are determined to die in defense of their newly acquired autonomy.
Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin knows this. During his recent address to the United Nations, Putin called on the world powers to recognize that “Assad and the Kurds are valiantly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.”
It’s interesting Putin made a distinction. During the summer, Kurdish fighters and Syrian soldiers fought on the same side against Islamic State in Hasakeh. But the PYD rejected the notion that they were allies. They’re more like frenemies, really.
“The regime has collapsed [in Hasakeh],” PYD spokesman Redur Xelil told Reuters. “It could not protect the city and its continuation has become symbolic in limited positions only.”
It’s possible the YPG will coordinate with Russian and Syrian forces, in a limited sense and only in some places. Muslim has made clear he will work with essentially anyone who is fighting Islamic State, and therefore welcomes the Russians on that basis.
That does not mean that he will accept a reunited Syria under Assad’s one-man rule.
In a recent piece for the Kurdish news agency Rudaw, analyst Paul Davis explored the possibility that Russia would attack Syrian Kurds on behalf of Assad. His scenario is well worth evaluating. After all, if the Kremlin is trying to help Assad retake control over the whole country, then it might, at some point, attack the Kurds if they refuse to accede control.
As unlikely as such a scenario might be, it would be foolish to dismiss it outright. Kurds in the Middle East know their history — and they know they have to be skeptical of outsiders. It’s a matter of survival.