Will the Syrian Kurds Team Up with Bashar Al Assad Against Turkey?
There's reason to believe they will
The Syrian Kurds have announced they are willing to work with the Syrian regime against their remaining opponent – the jihadist Haya’t Tahrir Al Sham group, which currently controls the country’s northwestern province of Idlib – in return for Damascus’s help against the Turkish occupiers of the nearby Syrian Kurdish exclave of Afrin.
Syrian president Bashar Al Assad has reconquered most of the country — with Russian and Iranian help, of course. His conquest of the southern region of Daraa in the summer of 2018 leaves only Idlib and the Syrian Kurdish territories, known as Rojava, outside of his control.
Al Assad has already said — in an interview with Russia Today on May 31, 2018 — that he is open to negotiations with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, but quickly added that he will resort to military force if the SDF fails.
The Kurds have already begun talks Damascus over the return of Syrian state employees to the country’s Tabqa Dam, which is currently under their control, and have ceased naming their local police security forces with the Kurdish name Asayish. Along with earlier reports that they began removing banners and flags depicting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s imprisoned leader Abdulla Ocalan, this signifies the Kurds are trying to make nice with Damascus ahead of negotiations.
Given frequent talk from U.S. president Donald Trump about pulling pro-Kurd U.S. forces out of Syria, the Kurds may well seek to work with Damascus to secure their interests. Furthermore, avoiding antagonizing Damascus would help them maintain control over their primary northeastern territories along with the Arab regions of Raqqa and large swaths of the eastern Deir Ez Zor province, the latter of which they Kurds seized during their offensives against ISIS.
“The YPG have an obvious incentive to explore working with the regime, given that the U.S. has signaled that it intends to leave Syria, and soon,” Aaron Stein, a senior resident fellow at The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told War Is Boring. “The challenge, of course, will come when the two sides try and decide on a definition of autonomy for Kurdish held areas, and what regime return looks like in certain areas.”
“I also assume there will be challenges about command and control and how the YPG would fit into an Assad-backed grouping of militias,” he added. “Only time will tell, but a grand bargain is really the only way the YPG can try and maintain their war gains.”
Prof. Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and director of the Middle East Studies Department at the University of Oklahoma, said the Kurds might cooperate with Al Assad. “Cooperation between the [Syrian Arab Army] and YPG is a possibility,” Landis told War Is Boring. There has already “been an uptick in YPG operations around Afrin,” Landis added.
“The possible deal to be struck between the YPG and SAA is one of security,” he elaborated. “The YPG needs help from the SAA to protect the Kurds from Turkey’s military and the SAA need help ruling north Syria and policing against both rebel and ISIS attack.”
The possibility of an American withdrawal is also a key factor motivating the Kurds to reach a deal since they “need another military to take the place of the Americans should they decide to withdraw from Syria.”
“The SAA and Russian air force could play that role at the price of the PYD [ruling Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party] giving up much of its autonomy,” Landis concluded. “How much? We don’t know.”
Al Assad has strongly opposed Turkey’s military incursions into Syria. Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield beginning on Aug. 24, 2016 pushed ISIS out of a 60-mile wide swath of northwestern Syrian border territory separating Rojava’s main northeastern territories from the smaller, isolated Afrin. Turkey still retains forces in this area.
At top — Kurdish YPJ fighters in Afrin. Photo viw Wikipedia. Above — Kurdish YPG fighters. Photo via Flickr
In its second cross-border operation, Operation Olive Branch beginning in January 2018, Ankara invaded Afrin. The Turkish military has also established 12 so-called observational posts in Idlib as part of its deescalation agreement that is allowing Russia and Syria to sequence operations against opposition-held areas across the country.
“For now, Turkey has an incentive to work closely with Russia,” Stein explained. “However, Russia needs to balance its relationship with Assad and [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, and I think Assad is deemed more important. Therefore, I’d argue it’s beholden to Assad’s ability to sway Russia to pressure Turkey on its behalf. If Assad empowers the Kurds, Russia doesn’t have much of a choice but to follow.”
This implies that sometime in the future, rather than seeking to reconquer Rojava and the aforementioned SDF-controlled territories in Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor, Al Assad will support the SDF/YPG against Turkish forces in Afrin and possibly the Euphrates Shield zone, as well.
“The possibility of the YPG coming to terms with the Assad/Iran system around a deal where the YPG assists in the pro-Assad forces reconquering Idlib and then they conduct joint attacks against Turkey in the Euphrates Shield and/or Afrin zone is very plausible,” Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, told War Is Boring.
“The Assadists and PKK are deeply intertwined and have long been close allies,” he added. “The YPG’s tilt towards the Americans is the more anomalous part of this picture, and with the Americans drawing down normality is returning.”
“A U.S. withdrawal would finalize the transfer of this instrument they have built up, the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, into the hands of the Assad-Iran-Russia coalition, who can use it as a governing body in the north-east and as shock troops for terrorist attacks and so on against Turkey.”
Orton noted that if the Turkish military chooses to “stand its ground” in those areas it currently controls in Syria, “it is not clear that the pro-Assad forces, even assisted by the YPG, can force Turkey out.”
He pointed out that the Russians recently managed to “neutralize Israel in Daraa” by convincing Tel Aviv to acquiesce to a regime takeover of the border region with the Golan Heights in return for a promise not to allow Iranian-backed militias into those areas. “That kind of political skill might well be brought to bear against Turkey.”
Compared to Daraa, however, Idlib “is more difficult,” Orton said. Any potential regime offensive could result in another enormous influx of refugees fleeing across the Turkish border. The United Nations anticipated that as many as 2.5 million people could be displaced, adding to Turkey’s already enormous refugee population.
“But the steadfastness of American allies in the face of a determined regime axis, and an absent America, has proven less than rock solid on nearly every occasion it has been tested so far, so the outcome is difficult to predict,” Orton concluded.