Syrian Kurds, the referendum next door and US policy
Although Syrian Kurds insist they are interested only in autonomy, not independence, their nationalist aspirations have been buoyed by the Iraqi Kurds’ independence referendum. This could place the US relationship with the Syrian Kurds — Washington’s best ally in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) — in a difficult position. The official US stance remains the territorial integrity of Syria.
Over the past few years, Syrian Kurds established an autonomous zone in north-eastern Syria they call Rojava — “West” in the Kurdish language — as it is the western part of the traditional Kurdistan homeland. They defend Rojava with their militia, set up a functioning civil administration and fly their own flag.
Local council elections September 22 in Rojava were overshadowed by the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan a few days later. The elections signal that Syrian Kurds are essentially operating on their own and do not want to be dominated by the Syrian government, ISIS or any rebel faction.
Although the Syrian Kurds, led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have said they favour autonomy in a federated Syrian state, events on the ground could compel them to push for more. In Qamishli, a Kurdish-populated city in the north-east corner of Syria, there were public celebrations of support for the Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence.
Undoubtedly, many Syrian Kurds believe that if the Kurds next door can vote for independence, why can’t they? Many Syrian Kurds fought and died in the battle against ISIS and say they have earned their right to independence.
This sentiment creates a quandary for both the PYD and the United States, though its manifestations have yet to be realised.
The PYD and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), know Turkey is strongly opposed to both Syrian Kurdish independence and Syrian Kurdish autonomy. Turkey claims the PYD maintains links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which Ankara considers to be a terrorist organisation, and fears that autonomy for the Syrian Kurds could encourage Turkey’s Kurds to press for the same.
Turkey conducted military incursions into northern Syria against Syrian Kurds over the past few years and a full-blown military invasion by Ankara remains a possibility. The main thing holding Turkey back is that the US military not only is providing logistical support for the Syrian Democratic Forces — a mostly Kurdish military unit that includes some Arab tribal forces — against ISIS but is also serving as a kind of protective shield for them to preclude a Turkish offensive.
US military commanders have praised the fighting prowess of the Syrian Kurds against ISIS and are directing them to take on ISIS forces in the Deir ez-Zor region in eastern Syria, a mostly ethnic Arab area.
The key question is what happens after ISIS is destroyed in Syria, which could be only months away. Does the US military remain in Rojava? And would a US presence encourage or discourage the Syrian Kurds to press for independence?
US calculations are multifaceted. For one, Washington does not want to change its official position that Syria should remain united. Moderate Syrian rebel groups as well as Arab countries oppose the break-up of Syria. After opposing the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum, the United States cannot easily take a different stand vis-à-vis the Syrian Kurds.
Additionally, while Washington has continued to support Syrian Kurds despite strong Turkish opposition, the United States sees Turkey as an important ally in the region. When push comes to shove, the United States has historically sided with Ankara in such disputes and there is no reason to think post-ISIS that it will not do the same.
The Assad regime, which has become more resilient in recent months after battlefield successes, has offered the Kurds carrots and sticks. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said, in late September, that, while Damascus is opposed to Syrian Kurdish independence, it would be willing to negotiate an “autonomy” arrangement.
Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that Iraqi Kurdish independence would lead to “internal wars” in the region and open the door to “partition.” Although he was directing his message to the Iraqi Kurds, he was signalling the Syrian Kurds, perhaps implying that Hezbollah, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, could send its fighters against them if they also press for independence.
If the Syrian Kurds stick to autonomy, they may weather the post-ISIS phase in Syria. In their favour is that any enemy knows that they could defend their autonomous region. If they press for independence, however, all bets are off, including continued US support. This means that the Syrian Kurdish leadership will need to temper the aspirations of their own people, a difficult task, indeed.