Syria’s Kurds are mistaken if they imagine Assad will let them flourish as equal partners in a federalized post-war settlement, argues James Snell.
Syria’s civil conflict is not over, or even nearly over, but some of its participants are keen that this perception travels. They hope it becomes commonly-held. The regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian allies are busy pretending the war is winding down and that they have won. Assad himself met the Russian president Vladimir Putin in Sochi last month in the simulation of a victory lap.
This notion combines with the collapse of the Islamic State (ISIS), whose last urban strongholds are being recaptured across Iraq and Syria. In Syria, much of this recapturing is being done by the United States’ designated proxy: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella organization steered by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
As the campaign against ISIS grows more successful, talk of its being wound down is beginning to surface. James Mattis, the American defence secretary, recently signalled an accordant change in the United States’ relationship with its proxy, suggesting that the Americans would cease arming the SDF and even attempt to recover heavy weapons and vehicles from its fighters.
This would place limits on the ambitions of the YPG. But it retains its political freedom of movement within Syria. Its leaders work within an interesting dynamic vis-à-vis the Assad regime.
The regime’s pretence of being close to victory leads to the transmitting of some mixed messages. It gestures aggressively across the Euphrates, suggesting, in line with Assad’s vain boasting, that its own and allied forces may yet take the whole country by force. The YPG, and, by extension, the SDF must contend with this posturing.
At the same time, however, SDF figures feel it necessary also to prepare to be part of what its leaders assume will be an Assad-led Syria in the future. Some of them have begun to make outlandish predictions of how this eventuality may be orchestrated.
Their predictions present the possibility of YPG and SDF forces reflagging as 'Northern Syria Protection Units' and effectively taking up places in the service of an Assad-dominated, federal Syria.
Last month, Riad Darar of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF, told Rudaw TV that “if Syria was united, we believe there would be no need to have a separate force because they would join the Syrian Army.” This suggestion was quickly picked up by foreign analysts such as the American academic Joshua Landis, and featured in pro-regime and Russian outlets, for example Al-Masdar News.
Darar later recanted some of the implications of his first statements, but the bare point remains. The SDF and its leaders are actively considering accommodation with the regime, which bears ultimate responsibility for the shape and brutality of Syria’s civil war. This result may seem surprising, even counterintuitive at present, as the debate is confused and the waters muddied by pro-Assad forecasts. But it is entirely unsurprising.
Co-operation between Assad and Syria’s Kurdish forces is not new. The regime and YPG have governed al-Hasakah in tandem for years. Admittedly, this arrangement is fractious, but it came about and continues by the deliberate choice of both participants. There is also the example of Manbij, which, after its liberation from ISIS by the SDF, has suffered a de facto return to regime rule. The Manbij Military Council (MMC), a constituent part of the SDF, apparently agreed this arrangement with the regime and its Russian backers to frustrate Turkish-supported Syrian rebel forces.
Contemporary events like this play into the hands of those promoting an Assad-YPG deal more broadly. There are also historical factors at work. In Kurdish areas before the revolution, there was a willingness, from both Kurdish political parties and their militias, to acquiesce to regime demands. This took place despite official discrimination against Kurdish culture and restrictions placed by Assad père et fils on teaching the Kurdish language. It took place in spite of the repeated persecution of Kurdish pro-democracy campaigners. Despite the dictators being no friends of the Kurds, Kurdish leaders saw a rationale in working with them, and took political steps to make it happen.
The same motivations are present among Kurdish leaders, civil and military, today. They know that the support of the Americans, especially under an unsentimental and erratic president in Donald Trump, is not likely to be extended indefinitely. The Turkish state is understandably perturbed at the YPG, an effective branch of Turkey’s internal enemy, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), carving out a large part of northern Syria for its own. It will exert increasing pressure on the Americans, a NATO ally. Turkish intervention is, in part, behind Mattis’ promise to cease arming the YPG.
Many behind the SDF think it is time to start planning for the collapse of the global coalition ranged against ISIS. Accommodation with Assad is a possible route to follow in the aftermath of such an event. And Kurdish leaders place the regime's inconsistent threats to cross the Euphrates in context. Part of this is caused by a correct diagnosis of regime weakness; Kurdish leaders doubt Assad will ever be powerful enough to threaten them. But it would be unwise of them to count on it.
If it could, the regime would subjugate all of Syria beneath fresh tyranny. It would punish all who dissented; it would subject minorities to new persecution.
For the YPG to allow the regime to imagine a federated Syria in which both would operate, and to extend its influence east of the Euphrates, would be immoral and likely counterproductive. But it also makes Syrian Kurds vulnerable.
It makes them vulnerable to living in a state once more dominated by a murderous dictator reliant on sectarian violence and beholden to ruthless foreign backers. It makes them vulnerable to the suppression of their culture, language, and political freedoms. And it makes them vulnerable to the accusation of underwriting the above—by participating in its unhappy formation, and by protecting this new arrangement with their own forces, men and women who could end up the bearers of new flags and new loyalties.