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Rudaw

Analysis

Stuck between Ankara and Damascus: Rojava's uncertain future

By Paul Iddon 2/3/2019
A handout picture on February 25, 2019 shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. Photo: AFP/Iranian Supreme Leader Office
A handout picture on February 25, 2019 shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. Photo: AFP/Iranian Supreme Leader Office
The Syrian regime has recently dismissed outright the very notion of discussing autonomy for the country's Kurdish-administered areas, invariably conflating it with partitioning. This indicates that Damascus expects the Kurds and their allies to essentially surrender their hard-won gains and resubmit to its direct rule.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on February 17 that he is ready for talks but rejects what he calls "comprehensive decentralization that would undermine the authority of the state."

Kurdish-led forces currently control about one-third of Syria. Their administration is currently called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and consists of the major Kurdish territories in Syria, known as Rojava, as well as Raqqa city and the wider region and huge swathes of the eastern Deir ez-Zor province.

All these Arab regions were captured and then incorporated into the autonomous entity, during the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces' (SDF) many offensives against the Islamic State (ISIS).

The Syrian Kurds gained de-facto autonomy in 2012 for the first time ever when the regime withdrew most of its forces from Rojava to fight insurrections elsewhere in the country. They have since focused on combating jihadist attacks into their territory and have proven an indispensable ally for the United States-led coalition in its campaign against ISIS.

While the Kurds are not friendly with the regime they have not fought it either, with the exception of a few minor clashes with pro-regime militias in the Kurdish cities of Hasakah and Qamishli.

The Kurdish-led administration began negotiating with the Assad regime last year. When US President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria in December the Kurds were given new impetus to reach a settlement with Damascus to safeguard their autonomy and avoid war.

With Damascus presently refusing to discuss autonomy the Kurds find themselves in a precarious position.

"Dialogue is necessary, but there is a difference between the proposals that create dialogue and others which create a partition, and we should focus on the common things," Assad added in his February 17 statement, according to the Syrian state-run SANA.

It's unclear what Kurds can hope to achieve through talks with Damascus, aside from buying time, if the prospect of some limited autonomy or self-rule is not even on the table.

On February 19, US Army Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera warned that the United States will stop working with the SDF altogether if they make a deal with Assad.

"Once that relationship is severed, because they go back to the regime, which we don't have a relationship with, [or] the Russians ... when that happens then we will no longer be partners with them," he told reporters.

Since LaCamera made this comment the United States backtracked on its initial decision to withdraw all its troops from Syria. Now it will keep at least 400 of the original 2,000 in the country for the time being. While those US troops remain in Syria the de-facto no-fly zone against Syrian regime aircraft over northeast Syria will likely remain in place.

Without naming the SDF directly Assad also said that the group cannot rely on US protection.

"We say to those groups who are betting on the Americans, the Americans will not protect you," he stated. "The Americans will put you in their pockets so you can be tools in the barter, and they have started with [it]."

"Nobody will protect you except your state," he added. "If you do not prepare yourselves to defend your country, you will be nothing but slaves to [Turkey]."

Assad's invocation of the eternal Turkish threat to Rojava was clearly his way of urging the Kurds to sacrifice their autonomy in order to avoid having their homeland ultimately invaded and subjugated by Turkey and its Syrian militia proxies.

Russia essentially let Turkey invade Rojava's northwestern enclave of Afrin in early 2018 by leaving the Syrian airspace open throughout most of that campaign. They likely did so at least partially because the Kurds refused to heed Moscow's suggestion that they hand over control of that entire region to Damascus in order to stave off the Turkish invasion.

As it did in Afrin, the SDF would likely consider, especially if the U.S. withdraws its remaining troops or lets Turkey play a major role in the proposed safe zone, handing over the border areas currently under its control to Damascus since direct Syrian control over those northern border areas could serve as a bulwark between the group and Turkey. Damascus, however, would not likely settle for that alone, at least not in the long-term.

While surrendering control over their lands back to the regime could limit what Turkey could do against their regions the historical oppression of Kurds under the yoke of Damascus is also not reassuring, to say the least.

"Syria is a country that is a melting pot for all people and all people are equal in front of Syrian law and in front of the Syrian constitution," claimed Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior advisor to Assad on February 19.

She went on to call the Kurds "a precious and very important part of the Syrian people."

Contrary to her claims is the reality that Damascus has not adopted Russia's proposed draft constitution for Syria, which recognizes Kurdish cultural and linguistic rights, nor changed its current constitution, which unequivocally declares, using antiquated Pan-Arabism terminology, that: "The people in the Syrian Arab region are a part of the Arab nation."

Kurds in Syria have been very harshly oppressed by both the Assad dictators, as well as previous regimes, for many decades now. In the 1970s, Hafez al-Assad deported thousands of Kurds from Rojava and settled 4,000 armed Arab families, who were essentially armed settlers in 41 so-called "model state farms", on their lands to fundamentally alter the region's demographic make-up.

The plan, which encompassed relocating all Kurds from the border regions, was ultimately never fully realized. Nevertheless, the settler state farms remained and those thousands of Kurds uprooted and relocated were not allowed to return to their homeland.

In retrospect, this was a model not wholly dissimilar to the one used historically by the Iraqi Baathists in Kirkuk and currently by Turkey and its Syrian militia proxies in Afrin today.

Additionally, the initial Arab belt project aimed to keep the Syrian Kurds a few kilometres away from the borders with Turkey and Iraq. This is likely something similar to what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in mind today when he talks about creating a safe zone for those very same parts of northern Syria and returning those regions to its 'rightful owners'. 

Under the Assad rule many Kurds were also denied Syrian citizenship and, as a result, were rendered stateless. 

Years before the Syrian uprising that sparked the current conflict in the country that began eight years ago, Bashar al-Assad dispatched the Syrian military into Rojava to crush the Qamishli protests back on March 12, 2004. Those protests began as a result of football riot caused by Arabs provocatively waving pictures of then recently deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to taunt the Kurds in their own city. At least 25 Kurds were killed and thousands more had to flee into the neighbouring Kurdistan Region.

Today, the Syrian Kurds find themselves increasingly stuck between a rock and a hard place with no desirable options available to them going forward.

Comments

 
Renas | 2/3/2019
There is only ONE way out, unite with Basur. Remove the border and unite your armed forces.
Hamid Sayadi | 12/3/2019
We do not have an alternative, Just our guns, and perseverance! Kurds don't have but the mountains as friends.
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