Syrian soldiers stand flashing the victory gesture next to a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hanging on a tank at the Nassib border crossing with Jordan in the southern province of Daraa on July 7, 2018. Photo: Youssef Karwashan | AFP
As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continuously gains ground with his latest offensive in the south, the future of the Kurdish-administrated parts of the country will increasingly come into question.
Assad's latest offensive in Syria's Daraa region is bringing him ever closer to his vow of reconquering "every inch" of the country. Russia essentially disregarded the legitimacy of one of the de-escalation zones it earmarked in negotiations with Iran and Turkey by supporting this latest operation against an increasingly outgunned and disordered ragtag opposition. Victory in Daraa will mean that only the northwestern province of Idlib and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-controlled territories in the northeast and east will remain outside of his regime's control.
In his May 31st interview with Russia Today, Assad talked about the status of the latter, stating that he will employ two methods to deal with the SDF. The first being negotiation, "because the majority of them are Syrians. And supposedly they like their country." If this fails he unequivocally declared that Damascus will resort to force and re-conquer all territories currently in the hands of the SDF.
Given the number of UN negotiations, US-Russian brokered ceasefires and other agreements, such as the aforementioned de-escalation zones, Assad has violated it's unclear at best, and highly unlikely at worst, that he really means the surrender of the SDF when he says negotiations. Surrender could well mean the dissolution of Kurdish self-rule in Rojava's cantons and the relinquishment of the other territories the SDF have taken control over in their fight against Islamic State, namely Raqqa and large parts of Deir ez-Zor Province.
Salih Muslim, the ex-leader of the ruling Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), outright dismissed Assad's claim that he is willing to negotiate. "The fake leaks by the regime apparatus and outlets about meetings and agreements despite north Syria administration's denial indicates the regime is not serious and unwilling for any solution to rescue Syria," he tweeted on Monday. "The regime still believes that surrender means peace, and they don't respect the people's will."
The PYD have already taken down flags of Abdullah Ocalan in areas they control, including Qamishli and Hasaka, which possibly indicates they are ready to make compromises to stave off potential war.
Rojava was able to survive and focus on fighting the Islamic State over the past four years since it never joined the uprising against Assad. Damascus therefore withdrew many of its forces from the Kurdish regions to fight its opponents elsewhere.
For now the SDF still have some time. For one, Assad is unlikely to launch any large scale attack against Rojava before Idlib. Furthermore, a powerful American military force remains in Rojava. These forces have an excellent track record of deterring regime attacks to date. Most notably the United States shot down a Syrian warplane near Tabqa, when it targeted SDF forces in the vicinity last summer, and also launched an enormous aerial bombardment against pro-regime fighters on February 7, 2017, when they attacked an SDF headquarters on the banks of the Euphrates River.
But the SDF cannot count on a continued presence of the US presence on their territories. President Donald Trump has said on numerous occasions in recent months that once Islamic State is defeated the 2,000-or-so American troops in Syria will pullout. It's unclear if the US will maintain any no-drive or no-fly zones in northeastern Syria like the no-fly zone it spearheaded over Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham visited Rojava earlier this month and told locals that he "will tell President Trump that it is important that we stay here to help you." It's unclear if he can sway government or public opinion in the US and garner support for an indefinite American presence in the region that could deter or repel any regime attack.
Another problem for Rojava is the PYD's federal system of governance there is not recognized by anyone else inside or outside of Syria. Iraqi Kurdistan's autonomy, by contrast, is enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution. There was only so much Baghdad could do after its unpopular move of closing the autonomous region's airspace and then seizing the disputed Kurdistani territories of Kirkuk and Shingal late last year. Even if it wanted to it had absolutely no legal means to send either its military or paramilitary forces beyond the legal and internationally-recognized boundaries that the Kurdistan Regional Government control.
SDF-controlled Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor are by no means legally disputed Kurdistani territories between a recognized Kurdish regional authority in Qamishli and the regime in Damascus. Unless the SDF are capable of mounting a successful resistance against Assad's armoured forces, helicopter gunships and warplanes there is little to stop Assad from pouncing on Kobane and Jazira if he successfully forces the SDF out of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor – without the strategic depth that control over these areas provides them against Damascus the SDF would be faced with a very difficult task in defending Rojava proper. Turkey too may seize a ripe opportunity to launch another cross-border operation into Rojava, as it did in Afrin earlier this year, if the Americans withdraw.
With all this being the case the future of Rojava may now be in more doubt than at any other time since the Islamic State infamously invaded the region four years ago.