After liberation of Raqqa from ISIS, no ‘Syrian Kurdistan’ on the horizon
Beirut- The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) promised last March to incorporate Raqqa within Syrian Kurdistan once it was fully liberated from the Islamic State (ISIS).
The SDF declared victory in Raqqa on October 17, ending the saga of the Islamic State in Bilad al- Sham or “Wilayat al-Furat” as its self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi used to say.
Instead of celebrating, Arab tribes are trembling, wary that the SDF will put its past words into action, with the direct blessing of the United States and Russia.
However, the reality is very different. Despite its recent battlefield gains, the SDF realises that an independent, cohesive and sustainable Syrian Kurdistan or Rojava, is impossible, at least for now.
The three major Kurdish territories of Qamishli, Hasakah and Afrin are separated by land or river and none of them has a clear-cut Kurdish majority. For Rojava to materialise it would require uprooting entire towns or repeating what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds of Iraq when he expelled them from strategic cities such as Mosul 40 years ago. They were replaced with Arab tribesmen, to give Mosul an “Arab identity.”
Iraqi Kurds tried acting to reverse this, demolishing Arab homes in Mosul after the city was liberated from ISIS and it gave them a very bad name. Syrian Kurds do not want to go down that path, especially as they need total Arab cooperation for their new project to create a “federal government of Northern Syria.”
This is what Syrian Kurds are after, rather than a Kurdish state. “There is no such thing as a Kurdish project (in Syria),” boomed Saleh Muslim, chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). “What you see now is a Syrian federal democracy, which was suggested by the Kurds and taken up by all components of northern Syria.”
The liberated city of Raqqa would be vital for the federal project for its political symbolism as the former self-proclaimed capital of ISIS but also because of its geography, bordering Aleppo in the west, Hasakah in the east and Deir ez-Zor in the south-east. Northern Raqqa contains the Euphrates Lake and the 60-metre-high, 4.5km-long Euphrates Dam, constructed with Soviet help in the 1970s. It manages irrigation and water supplies of all northern Syria.
Instead of stuffing it with Kurds, the SDF would most probably restore Raqqa to its pre-2011 demographics, allowing Arab tribes to return to their homes.
The Syrian opposition fears that the SDF might go a step further, handing Raqqa to the Russians or to the Syrian Army, as it did with Manbij in August 2016.
SDF Commander Sipan Hamo was in Moscow for high-level talks and to seek guarantees that Russia would never allow a Turkish assault on Afrin, west of the Euphrates River. Russian generals assured him that Kurdish federalism would be protected and so would its victory in Raqqa, if they looked the other way as Syrian troops advanced towards the oil-rich city of Deir ez-Zor and that of Mayadin in its countryside.
Although opposed to Kurdish independence in Iraq, Damascus and Moscow don’t seem to mind giving Syrian Kurds limited autonomy within the framework of present Syrian borders. There will be no Kurdish breakaway state and its finances and services will remain the job of a central government in Damascus, while Kurdish territories will get to name their own governor, elect their own councils, police their own streets, run their own judiciary and, finally, receive a share of their region’s riches.
This had been taboo for Damascus but during a recent meeting in Moscow, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said that such limited autonomy was “negotiable.”
Approval from Damascus is not enough, however, if Kurdish leaders want the federal project to pass. They need the cooperation of Arab residents of northern Syrian. If they vote against federalism, either in the upcoming municipality elections of early November or the parliamentary ones of January 2018, then the Kurdish project in Syria is finished.
Arab grievances need to be properly addressed, and high on the list is keeping Arab cities Arab, for the Kurds to confine their project to Kurdish cities such as al-Malikiya, Qamishli and Kobane. Otherwise, everybody in the neighbourhood infuriated by the Raqqa victory will team up to fight the Kurds.
The Turks are furious, having wanted the honours of defeating ISIS in its capital for themselves. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan explicitly asked US President Donald Trump for that last March but was given a cold shoulder. Iran is unhappy with the military development as well, fearful of anything that empowers the region’s Kurds. Damascus, however, is surprisingly and hauntingly silent.