Dark days ahead for Syria’s Kurds
BEIRUT - Speaking March 18 from Damascus, Syrian Defence Minister Ali Ayyoub said his country was going to liberate all territory held by Kurdish separatists in north-eastern Syria either through reconciliation “or by force.”
His threats were made just one month after Syrian President Bashar Assad addressed the Kurds in a live speech on television, saying: “No one will defend you except the Syrian Arab Army.”
Talks between Damascus and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) started last year after US President Donald Trump announced he would be withdrawing US troops from Syria, spreading panic among the Syrian Kurdish community.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was first to react, saying he was sending troops to dismantle Kurdish positions north-eastern Syria. The SDF pleaded for help from the Syrians, saying that, in return, they were willing to surrender the cities of Raqqa and Qamishli.
The momentum halted, however, when Trump declared a policy reversal and said he would be keeping 400 troops in Syria.
On the other side of the battlefield, a decision was taken to march against Kurdish towns and cities, agreed on by seemingly everybody in the neighbourhood except the United States.
Syria made up its mind hours after a military summit in Damascus, bringing the Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi chiefs of staff together, two days before Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu landed in Syria for the same reason.
They reasoned that Trump would never get into a military confrontation with the Russians — or the Turks — for the sake of the Kurds. In return, they agreed that the 400 US troops were “symbolic” and would not deter them from military
Erdogan has not objected to the Syrian-Russian position, seeing it as a blessing in disguise. Inasmuch as he wanted to do the job himself, he feared an erratic response from Trump, who threatened just three months ago to “devastate” the Turkish economy, sending shockwaves throughout Turkish banks and stocks.
The Turkish leader can take no action before municipality elections in his country on March 31. Any similar reaction from Trump might prove fatal for the Justice and Development Party on Election Day. If somebody else can finish off the Kurds on his behalf, then why not?
Although he is not talking to the Syrians, Erdogan has an excellent working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He will gladly support and even facilitate a major offensive against Syrian Kurds and might even launch one of his own after the elections in his country.
The most powerful of his Syrian proxies, Ahrar al-Sham and the Zenki Brigade, were withdrawn from Idlib in February and repositioned in the countryside of Aleppo in anticipation of such an operation.
Left confused are the Kurds. One camp has said it would be political madness to trust Trump while others argued the opposite, saying nobody sane would reject US military support when offered.
Sceptics accused Trump of abandoning the Iraqi Kurds in September 2017 when he supported their bid for independence, looking the other way as Iraqi troops besieged Iraqi Kurdistan and overran the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
He turned his back on them again in March 2018 when Turkish forces occupied the city of Afrin, bombing Kurdish strongholds. There was no telling when Trump would abandon them again, choosing to side with Turkey, a strategic NATO ally, over his sympathy with Kurdish statehood.
A date is yet to be announced for the battle and many questions are still to be answered. Primarily, how will Trump react? Also, what about the humanitarian repercussions that come with such an operation?
When Erdogan attacked Afrin last year, Syrian and Russian authorities allowed Kurdish refugees to flee into the northern countryside of Aleppo.
Where will they go now if the operation is being carried out by government troops with air cover from the Russians?
Turkey will certainly not allow them to cross the border and moving into the Syrian heartland would be fatal.
Realists among the Kurds say this is an uphill battle that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to win without US military assistance.
If they get the upper hand within their community and go for reconciliation rather than confrontation, much can still be saved for the Syrian Kurds.