In north-eastern Syria, Kurds’ future hangs in limbo

The Syrians promised to usher the Kurds back into public life and to uphold their rights at the constitutional talks that are under way in Geneva.
Sunday 17/11/2019
Kurdish demonstrators hurl rocks at a Turkish military vehicle during a joint Turkish-Russian patrol near the town of Al-Muabbadah in the north-eastern part of Hasakah on the Syrian border with Turkey, November 8. (AFP)
Gone are the dreams of autonomy. Kurdish demonstrators hurl rocks at a Turkish military vehicle during a joint Turkish-Russian patrol near the town of Al-Muabbadah in the north-eastern part of Hasakah on the Syrian border with Turkey, November 8. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Much has changed in north-eastern Syria since Turkish troops rumbled across the border October 9, promising to dismantle Kurdish strongholds after US President Donald Trump said he would be withdrawing 1,000 troops from Syria.

For starters, Trump — yet again — said he decided not to withdraw but only to downsize the presence and geographic scope of US forces, ostensibly to prevent an Islamic State (ISIS) comeback to Syrian oilfields.

“The Trump administration says this is about providing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with money to battle the Islamic State,” said Deutsche Welle journalist Chase Winter, “but, really, it’s more about the United States maintaining some leverage vis-a-vis other players on the ground. It also gives the Syrian Kurds leverage in their political talks with Damascus.”

Once in control of all areas east of the Euphrates River, the Americans are now present only in and around the oilfields, which means in the vicinity of Deir ez-Zor, Qamishli, Hasakah and al-Malkiyah.

The rest of the territory is shared with the Russians, who have deployed along the border, and the Turks, who were given a safe zone 32km in depth and approximately 150km wide, between Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad.

Trapped between all three armies are the Kurds, who signed an agreement with the Syrian government on October 13 seeking protection from the Turkish onslaught. Gone were their dreams of autonomy and their 5-year tenure as rulers of north-eastern Syria.

Among other things, they relinquished control of Manbij and Raqqa to the Syrian Army and OK’d redeployment of Syrian forces along the border area, bolstered with Russian military police. However, after it became clear that the Americans were not leaving completely, they have been trying to seek better terms in their agreement with Damascus.

“The deal between the SDF and Assad is a military one, not political and there remain huge differences between the two sides” added Winter, who has been studying the Kurds for years.

It was originally agreed that their two main militias — the SDF and People’s Protection Units (YPG) — would disband and join the Syrian Army, police and intelligence services. They are now suggesting they revamp rather than dissolve completely, creating two Kurdish divisions that are part of the Syrian Army, while maintaining their original structure and identity.

This is the first sticking point that is being flatly rejected by Damascus, given that there are no units in the Syrian armed forces for specific ethnic groups or minorities.

Additionally, they were supposed to surrender their weapons to the Syrian state or to the Russians but they are trying to keep those arms, arguing they are needed to police the area and control the 11,000 ISIS prisoners in Kurdish jails.

High on their priority list is al-Hol camp, with its 70,000 residents, 11,000 of whom are believed to be either ISIS affiliates, sympathisers or family members.

The Russians wanted the Kurds to join the Syrian Army and deploy throughout the country, just like other Syrian soldiers. The Kurds are saying they will serve only within their geographic area, refusing to be commissioned to faraway places such as Daraa in southern Syria, Homs in central Syria or the

Damascus countryside.

The verbal part of the agreement has the Kurds willingly reincorporating into Syrian public life, allowing the Syrian state to reopen schools, police stations and hospitals while raising the flag of the Syrian government. They say they are willing to do that but want the Kurdish flag to fly alongside the Syrian one.

The Syrians promised to usher the Kurds back into public life and to uphold their rights at the constitutional talks that are under way in Geneva.

That would include their right to use the Kurdish language, administer Kurdish schools, elect their own municipalities, chose their own governor and get a share of their territory’s natural resources. Neither the SDF nor the YPG has a seat on the Constitutional Committee and, overall, Kurdish representation is very weak, with only one seat on the drafting committee.

Syrian law, however, states that no political party can be established along ethnic or religious grounds, meaning that all Kurdish parties need to dissolve and cannot join the political process to voice demands.

Amending that law is currently not on the table — yet another hurdle for positive engagement between Damascus and the Kurds. Deprived of Kurdish political parties, they cannot advance their programmes in any future election nor can they campaign for

language or schooling.

With those issues hanging, the materialisation of the Syrian-Kurdish deal will probably take much longer than what most people predicted. It is also vulnerable to numerous outside variables, starting with progress on the Constitutional Committee to renewed violence in the north-western province of Idlib.

It is always possible that Trump walks out on the Kurds — for a third time — leaving them to sort out their own mess with Damascus and Ankara, a move that undoubtedly would also speed up the process.

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