Syrian Kurds, the referendum next door and US policy

October 08, 2017

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.