Manish Rai

Way Ahead For Syrian Kurds

With the recent re-election of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkey has escalated its attacks on Kurdish-held regions of north and northeast Syria. Erdogan’s animosity toward the Syrian Kurds has not abated. It became evident when Turkish authorities that control parts of northwestern Syria even refused to grant permission for seven days to transport convoys carrying humanitarian supplies to cross over into earthquake affected areas of Syria controlled by Kurds. And with recent victory President Erdogan has got emboldened and is likely to carry on with his aggressive policies towards Kurds. It’s not that Syrian Kurds don’t have any support from the United States. The small contingent of American troops have been in Syria since 2015 supporting Syrian Kurds. The Kurdish experiment of self-rule inside Syria, long facilitated by the U.S. military presence, is looking precarious now. While the United States says it has no intentions of leaving Syria anytime soon but with the war in Ukraine and the strategic challenge from China, Syria is no longer a top priority for the Pentagon. With the US commitment dwindling and its ongoing military presence unlikely to be indefinite. The Kurds would be playing a risky game by solely depending on long-term US protection. As their immediate and biggest neighbour i.e. Turkey poses an existential threat to them.

At this stage, the only thing that might make Syrian Kurds safer in the long run is a political deal with the Syrian regime. The Kurds will ultimately need to reach an accommodation with the Syrian state, as they have in Iraq, to secure a sustainable existence. But that’s not as simple because the Kurdish dream of holding onto their autonomous entity in a future federated Syrian state is threatened not only by Turkey but by a resurgent Syrian regime which is opposed to any autonomous zones in Syria. But definitely some common grounds for mutual cooperation can be explored between Damascus and Kurds. Syria’s Baathist state and Kurds have broadly stayed out of each other’s way during the conflict, despite occasional clashes. There was always a tacit understanding between President Assad and Kurds with regard to the administration of the region from which the Syrian army withdrew in 2012. For example, the state government employees serving in this region continued receiving salaries from Damascus and the regime controlled the airport in Kurdish-dominated city of Qamishli and maintained some security centres in the city. This basic understanding can be used for future detailed negotiations. Though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to take back “every inch” of his country, he still lacks the forces to do it and more than a decade of war has severely damaged and eroded the capabilities of the Syrian armed forces. If the battle hardened Kurdish forces can be integrated with the Syrian army it will be a great added advantage to Damascus. The Kurds need help from the Assad forces to protect them from Turkey’s onslaught and the Syrian Arab Army will find Kurds essential for ruling north Syria and policing against both rebels and ISIS attack.

But to reach certain accommodations both the parties have to accept the truth. For Kurds it is a hard reality that under current circumstances when they have Turkey standing on their head and with little support from the US or West. They have to abandon the demands for extensive autonomy within a decentralised federal state in Syria and the preservation of the Kurdish forces as an independent military force. As these demands will never be accepted by Damascus. On the other hand, President Assad also has to acknowledge that although he emerged victorious in this conflict he still can’t rule Syria with the same authoritative mindset of pre-war time. Moreover, Kurds are not unreasonable in their demands. As the two million Kurds in Syria, accounting for 10-15% of total population, have only aspired before the civil war to nothing more than a degree of autonomy, an aspiration always denied to them. Syrian Kurds never thought to break away from the country. At least some of their basic demands can be fulfilled by Damascus like- cultural rights and some sort of autonomy for local governance.

Syria is a multiethnic society consisting of Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkomans, Alawites and Yazidis. All of them have to realise that they have to rebuild Syria collectively to ensure their own well-being. To start with this Syrian government and Kurds have to come together as the territory held by Assad and the Kurds accounts for most of Syria. It should be noted that in the 2000s when President Erdogan of Turkey led his AKP party to victory in the general election and formed his first government a deal was actually reached with the outlaw PKK. Some cultural rights were granted to Kurds like- Kurdish language began to be used in broadcasting, education and in print media. In return PKK also softened their demands for a separate state for Kurds. If Turkey and Kurds can come to some sort of deal then why not Assad and Syrian Kurds. Only sincere and honest efforts are required from both sides.

About the Author
Manish Rai is a columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region; Editor of a geo-political news agency Views Around (VA)
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