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.