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What Next for Rojava?

By DAVID ROMANO 26/11/2017


Kurdish-led forces in Syria have now ended the “Islamic State” (ISIS) there, although a few small remnants of the Jihadis will no doubt continue to linger here and there for some time. For this, the world owes a heartfelt “thank you” to the brave men and women of the Kurdish movement in Syria, by which we mean the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Unfortunately, the PYD and SDF are unlikely to receive such a “thank you”. Already, Turkey and the Assad government seem to be planning their next steps, none of which seem likely to involve anything resembling gratitude. Even the United States continues to refrain from expressing any political, if not military, support for the Syrian Kurds and their allies. Washington may simply declare “mission accomplished” and withdraw its support for the SDF, as well as its soldiers assisting them. Those American forces have served as a crucial deterrent to Turkish and Syrian attacks on the Syrian-led cantons in Rojava.

The worst-case scenario for Rojava would thus involve an American withdrawal followed by increasing military pressure from Assad, Iranian-backed militias, non-ISIS Sunni Arab Jihadis, Russia and Turkey. It seems hard to imagine how the Syrian Kurds, no matter how brave, battle-hardened and committed, could withstand so many enemies, especially without allies of their own to help them. At most, the PYD-SDF could fight hard enough to make the price of a military offensive against them so high that their opponents try to negotiate a compromise. Such a strategy would contrast markedly with the recent Iraqi Kurdish withdrawal from Kirkuk and other territories in dispute with Baghdad. 

Such a strategy remains possible, however, mainly because the Syrian Kurdish movement is no longer divided like the Kurds in Iraq – the PYD enjoys clear hegemony there. The Assad regime’s forces are also exhausted from so many years of brutal civil war in other parts of Syria. Were Turkish forces to launch a major campaign against Afrin or other Syrian Kurdish areas, they would be operating in hostile territory. This would entail significant risks for Turkey, as it might quickly find itself in its own version of Vietnam for the Americans, Algeria for the French or Afghanistan for the Soviets.

A best-case scenario, in contrast, probably depends on at least some American effort to protect their Syrian Kurdish allies. Keeping some American forces in the Kurdish cantons, accompanied by American demands that Assad negotiate a new, mutually acceptable political status for Rojava, would do wonders. The American presence would deter not only Syrian government forces, but Turkish and Russian ones as well. 

Especially after the recent abandonment and route of America’s Kurdish allies in Iraq, Washington may wish to retain at least some credibility for the next time it seeks out allies in the Middle East. If America wants to stay relevant in Syria, their only option lies with continuing their support of the Kurds (this stands in contrast to Iraq, where the Americans mistakenly believe that leaders in Baghdad are also their friends).

From the Assad regime’s point of view, Damascus will at a minimum want to regain some measure of control over Syria’s only oil fields (currently under SDF control in north eastern Syria). Having an autonomous Kurdish region on Turkey’s border might even prove desirable for Assad, as a lever against Turkey. One should recall that last year when Turkey abandoned the Sunni rebels in Aleppo, the change in strategy occurred only because of Ankara’s desire to refocus its efforts against the Syrian Kurds. If Turkey in the future intervened too much in Assad’s “Sunni problem,” he could retaliate by meddling in Turkey’s “Kurdish problem.” Damascus, with Russian backing, could continue to deter Turkey from further moves in northern Syria and Rojava (preventing a repeat of events in 1998, when Ankara moved over 100,000 troops to the Syrian border and threatened to invade if Syria continued to provide PKK-leader Abdullah Ocalan a safe haven there). 

All of which takes us to Ankara’s point of view. Leaders in Turkey are not crazy when they accuse the Syrian Kurdish movement of being an affiliate of the PKK. Since Turkish president Erdogan abandoned the peace process with the PKK two years ago and resumed the war there, Turkey will naturally do whatever it can to stymie PYD-SDF gains next door in Syria. Just like in Turkey itself, nothing short of the Kurds’ eradication as a political movement will satisfy Mr. Erdogan and those around him. As long as Turkey fails to resolve the Kurdish issue within its own borders, it will continue to intervene in the affairs of Kurds elsewhere. If a Kurdish astronaut were to plant a red, yellow and green flag on the moon, Ankara would immediately launch a space program to go and take it down. 

It thus falls to the people in Rojava to prepare for a Turkish policy they cannot negotiate with. They must find ways to gain either Washington and/or the Assad regime’s support for a little autonomous room in northern Syria, despite Turkey’s stance on the issue. This will not be easy – but neither was the defense of Kobane or the defeat of ISIS in Syria.

David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.


David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.


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United Kurdistan | 26/11/2017
Well done. I Always Thank you and thank you thank you ..,,,,Kurdish People will only be saved when they have 2 Americans president friends like you.... ., Long live Fraiends of Kurdistan...,, Long live units Kurdistan.., Long live Apo and Barzzni.., Mr Romano god bless you and all of Kurdish Friends
The Kurdish Boy | 26/11/2017
Sorry to tell everyone here that ,since the demise of the I.S., one should not expect any concessions to be made to the Kurds whatsover ...since America does not need them any more .America prefers to side with its powerful enemies such as Turks, Persian and Arabs and to throw its Kurdish friends like sheeps to the wolves.America does not feel , as a worldpower, bound to considerations such as morality ,decency or credibility. Even strategey is no more an Ammerican concern.As a matter if fact it has left the M.East under Iranian control. Just letting Kurds down , leaving them unarmed to be killed and massacred : this is what America is doing . During his presidential campaigne Trump has declared himself being a "big fan of the Kurds".
The Observer | 26/11/2017
The West has left the Kurds to be massacred after they have spared the European streets from many and many deadly Islamist attacks.The Kurds have been betraid by Europe and the U.S
Qasemlou | 26/11/2017
It is time for the Kurds in Syria to give that lesson to their brothers in Iraq that if they are committed to defend their lands at any cost, enemies will backdown. Sadly, all kurds are paying the price for the mistakes in the Iraqi Kurdistan. I hope you will relocate your analysis to this. We were not, by no means, defeated in Kirkuk. we were not defeated , because we had not established strong international relations with the world. We were defeated in Sulaimani. Iranian elements in PUK caused this defeat. But, the way that parties in power reacted to the situation is/was equally immature. Unfortunately, the politician in Erbil were not clever enough to use the opportunity to crowd out Iranian elements in Sulaimani.This was the moment. We will regret this again and again in the future. If they have acted so, 99% of people would have supported Barzani and Kosrat Rasoul as they were so much heartbroken by the accident. We lost Kirkuk! That is true ,but at least there was an opportunity to create a centralised government for the remained territories in Kurdistan, at least militarily.We were defeated at home by the cancer of the internal division. As the kurds in Syria don't have this, they have already won the battle.
K | 26/11/2017
Kurds will be butchered as long as they are not UNITED, no matter what, or who backs them. Kurds, STOP selling yourself for the money, fame and status and unite. You can't WIN otherwise... Learn from your 100+ year history. You have always fought for others and look where you are now... When Iraq was week and ISIS made their army disappear, you should have declared INDEPENDENCE back then. But you waited and helped Iraq to win the battle against ISIS, and then, Iraq has gotten stronger, and then, you sold yourselves for money to Iraq and Iran and thus they took over Kirkuk and 50% of the territory without a fight from you...!!!??? STOP being so STUPID anymore...
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