Syria’s long-shunned Kurds are on their own again
London - Syria’s dominant Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has — unsurprisingly — been excluded from the ceasefire agreement announced by its Russian co-sponsor just before the turn of the year.
And, if and when peace talks open as anticipated on January 23rd in Kazakhstan, it will be no surprise if the Kurds are not represented.
Russia’s reliance on Turkey’s partnership in the joint ceasefire initiative made the exclusion of the Kurds inevitable.
On the day of the ceasefire announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said: “No group that we regard as a terror organisation will sit around the negotiating table and we regard the PYD as a terror organisation.”
Salih Muslim, co-chairman of the PYD, told Russia’s Sputnik network: “Nobody asked us to join the truce because countries in the region deny that there is a nation called Kurds.”
The Kurds are not alone in thinking that the latest manifestation of Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian conflict has less to do with combatting the jihadists of Islamic State (ISIS) than with preventing the consolidation of Kurdish advances made during the Syrian war.
The Turks have certainly given the impression they were less concerned about the continued presence of ISIS in Raqqa, de facto capital of the self-proclaimed jihadist caliphate, than with the PYD taking the credit for ousting them.
To the consternation of Washington, Yildirim declared publicly in 2016 that if the PYD’s People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia was involved in an operation to take Raqqa, Turkey would not take part.
US support for the YPG has been a major factor in the deterioration of relations between Washington and Ankara and in Turkey’s subsequent pivot towards the Russians.
The YPG has proven to be a central player in the international coalition confronting ISIS. Under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated army in which Arab and minority community units are also involved, it has sought to cast itself as a non-sectarian force.
Since the ceasefire was announced and subsequently endorsed by the UN Security Council, Yildirim has demanded that the incoming US administration of Donald Trump halt weapons supplies to the YPG if it wants improved relations with Ankara.
“The United States should not allow this strategic partnership to be overshadowed by a terrorist organisation,” Yildirim declared. Only Turkey was fighting ISIS, while the US and its allies “do nothing”, he said.
Washington last autumn said that small arms it has supplied have gone only to Arab units of the SDF.
In the face of persistent accusations by Turkish officials that it is airdropping weapons to the Kurds, the latest of which came from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a few days before the ceasefire announcement, the US embassy in Ankara issued a categorical denial.
Despite the denial and Yildirim’s “do nothing” comment, the reality is that the United States is continuing to back the YPG indirectly with air strikes against ISIS. In the first week of 2017, US planes struck a range of ISIS targets, including five near Raqqa.
The SDF said these helped it move forward on that front as part of Operation Euphrates Wrath and to expel ISIS from villages west of the town.
Whether that cooperation continues will depend on how Trump responds to Turkey’s demands that he ditch the Syrian Kurds.
It is a delicate time for the Kurds, despite their battlefield successes. They have always been regarded with suspicion by most of the Syrian Arab opposition because of their ambivalent attitude towards the Damascus regime during the war.
Although Kurdish and regime forces have clashed during the conflict, for the most part there has been an effective truce in which the two sides have best been described as “frenemies”.
Turkish-backed rebels accused the YPG of coordinating with the Syrian Army during the assault on Aleppo in late 2016.
The Kurds’ overriding concern is to maintain the gains made since 2011 in terms of establishing autonomy in the predominantly Kurdish regions bordering Turkey.
The announcement of a ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey came the same day that Syrian Kurdish groups and their allies met to unilaterally declare a federal region in north-eastern Syria and even to promise early elections. The SDF would operate as the new federation’s military.
The move was intended to cement the de facto autonomy established in the region since the war began by centralising the government of three majority Kurdish cantons. Logically, that might provide a model for a future federal Syria.
However, opposition to a federal model is one thing on which Turkey, Damascus and most of the Syrian opposition can agree. Russia even appears to have dropped its lukewarm support for a federal plan in the face of resistance from the Assad regime.
Given this unanimity among their enemies, it was no surprise the Kurds were not included in the ceasefire and it will be no surprise if they are not at Astana.