Chronic fractures within the main components that form the Kurdish fabric in the region in general and Syria in particular — exacerbated by conflicting affiliations and agendas of major Kurdish factions – have rendered the historic dream of an independent Kurdish state an illusion or a mirage that is fading away once again.
Failure to Form a Kurdish State
Kurdish fragmentation has played into the hands of nations that have long rejected and vehemently opposed the idea of a Kurdish state within their boundaries or even along their borders. It is hard to recall one single issue apart from this one, whereby there has been Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian unanimity; refusal to recognize an independent Kurdish state has been a common denominator between these four regional powers.
Syrian Kurds Pull Together Ahead of US Withdrawal from Northeastern Syria
Many Kurds in the region and worldwide have become disillusioned with the dream of an independent homeland following a number of setbacks, such as the aborted independence referendum in northern Iraq in 2017 for separation of the “Iraqi Kurdistan” region from Baghdad, and last October’s controversial decision by US President Donald Trump to pull out his troops from northeastern Syria. This move left his supposed key Kurdish allies, the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) at the mercy of Recep Erdogan’s Turkish army and proxy militias which ravaged the area with overwhelming fire power. The Turkish forces also committed massive atrocities against the civilian population and war crimes against Kurdish fighters only days after Trumps sudden move.
Suffering a chronic abandonment complex, and sensing their dream slip away, US-backed Syrian Kurdish groups last week announced the first step toward uniting efforts to run the northeastern part of Syria. But even a self-rule formula is much easier said than done. The SDF is the main Kurdish umbrella group and consists of an Arab majority that makes up to 70% of the militia’s man power.
YPG and PKK
Moreover, YPG, the main element within the US-backed SDF, is branded a terrorist group by Turkey, which claims the YPG is the Syrian arm of Ankara’s historic nightmare and arch enemy, the outlawed PKK. The PKK has been fighting the Turkish army for decades, and is designated a terrorist organisation by both Washington and Ankara. “Whatever their names are, those who are with the YPG-PKK are not different in our eyes from the YPG-PKK, and they are legitimate targets,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week in an interview with CNN Turk television.
Washington has always maintained that the SDF was a key US partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria, and the SDF still has thousands of ISIS terrorists and their families in custody in Kurdish-controlled areas of northeastern Syria. Since 2012, the oil, gas and water-rich region has largely been controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The US administration has been trying hard to mend fences between these belligerent groups and the so-called Kurdish National Council in Syria (ENKS) which constitutes a major bloc comprised of several political parties.
Does the US Want a Turkish-Backed Kurdish Formula in NE Syria?
Washington claims that ENKS leaders — who are considered close to Turkey and have long opposed the PYD and its autonomous administration in northeast Syria — are now willing to participate in the local administration established by the PYD. This would be a Turkish-approved compromise formula that might assuage Ankara’s concerns about a PYD-dominated Kurdish administration in northeast Syria. This is a deal that Erdogan may be able to sell at home in order to justify any freeze in military action, particularly since he has vowed so many times to take action against the SDF before and after his 9-month old “Spring of Peace” major Turkish military operation in northern Syria.
“The success of this agreement depends on how much the US can support it while investing in our region politically,” said ENKS leader Suleiman Osso. In the past two years, Turkey and its allied Syrian militias have seized several Kurdish towns in northern Syria that were previously held by the YPG. In what appeared to be a response to the recent Syrian Kurdish talks, Turkish officials said that any organizations that work with the PKK will be considered legitimate targets, including the ENKS. The process is back to scratch as far as Ankara is concerned.
Turkish intransigence over the Kurdish issue could jeopardize months of difficult US mediation efforts between opposing Kurdish forces attempting to convince the two parties to put their differences aside and focus on improving the local administration in northeastern Syria, obtain agreement on a political framework that will allow them to participate in a joint administration for the region under their control.
“We are here tonight to celebrate the progress that has been made, which is significant,” Ambassador William Roebuck, deputy special envoy to the Global Coalition against ISIS, told reporters last Wednesday in the northeastern Syrian city of Hassakah.
Syria’s Kurds Hang in the Political Balance
However, this symbolic gesture deal, despite American celebrations, and let’s-raise-the-glass sentiments in Washington and allied circles falls far short of the Kurdish independence dream; after all, Damascus has never objected to self-governance of Kurdish-majority areas, as long as they remain an integral part of Syria. Many observers and pundits believe that the US-sponsored agreement could be a prelude to an imminent withdrawal of American troops from Syria before the US presidential elections in November 2020.
On more than one occasion, Trump has publicly expressed his intention to pull troops from Syria back home, but some of his representatives have thwarted the move so far.
“A major US goal is to diversify the political actors in northeast Syria and to provide a Turkish-approved Syrian Kurdish party with the opportunity to participate in governance and security in northeast Syria,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East expert at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “Uniting the Syrian Kurdish factions is a local move with geopolitical implications for U.S. policy on Syria and the U.S.-led effort to execute counter-ISIS operations,” Heras added in an interview broadcast by the state-run Voice of America (VOA).
When Trump declared his Syria troops withdrawal last October, many Kurds saw that as typical US abandonment of their allies and a green light for Erdogan’s army to storm and crush Kurdish forces along the border areas. Many Kurdish political figures and military leaders rushed to Russia and even Damascus for help in the face of Turkish overwhelming military firepower and Turkish threats to wipe militant Kurdish groups out. Since then, the SDF — backed by US troops — has strengthened its grip on Syria’s strategic oil and gas fields, refusing to let through any supplies to government-held areas. Nonetheless, last week, hundreds of oil-filled giant fuel tanker trucks were reported crossing from Kurdish-controlled areas to other Syrian cities.
The Sun of Kurdish Independence Dreams is Setting in Northeast Syria
For one reason or another — with Moscow’s mediation or without it — Syrian Kurds appear more convinced than ever before, that they have no long-term interest in burning all their boats with the government in Damascus. After all, Syria’s President Bashar al Assad has vowed to recapture every single inch of his country’s territories. After almost 10 years of a vicious war against hundreds of thousands of local, regional and international terrorists and fanatics, supported by oil-rich Arab countries, major regional as well as some world powers, Assad’s army — with the help of Iran, Russia and some allied factions — has managed to regain control over all of Syria, except for Idlib and several Kurdish areas east of the Euphrates.
A resolution to the battle for Idlib can be expected any time now, as it seems rather imperative to resolve and settle the two major remaining military challenges before the presidential elections in Syria in 9 months’ time. The complicated and intricate Kurdish issue still remains. For the near future at least, many Syrian Kurds appear resigned to the idea that the sun of their independence dream has once again set, this time in the northeast of Syria.