On March 17 the leaders or Rojava’s three cantons – Kurds, Christians, Arabs, Turkmen and others – declared themselves a federal region within Syria. The declaration was unsurprisingly condemned by Turkey, Damascus, the Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition, Iran and even the United States. An Assad regime officials stated that the move “has no legal basis and will not have any legal, political, social or economic impact.” Turkey made its usual dark warnings about never accepting a “terrorist entity” on its southern border. U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner announced that Washington “Won’t recognize any self-rule autonomous zones within Syria,” adding that “This is something that needs to be discussed and agreed upon by the relevant parties in Geneva and then by the Syrian people themselves.”
The Syrian Kurds were barred from the Geneva talks, of course, so it seems a bit ironic for American officials to demand that they discuss this with other Syrian groups and Damascus. Even more ironic is the fact that the Rojava leadership appears to be a more genuine reflection of Syria’s people – in all its diversity – than the Alawi Ba’athist regime in Damascus or the Sunni Arab, mostly Islamist Syrian opposition clients of Gulf Arab states and Turkey (never mind the “Islamic State” Salafis). Then of course we have further irony in that everyone knows autonomy and federalism are really Syria’s only option for ending the current civil war while remaining territorially intact.
At the risk of using the word “ironic” a few too many times, we should also marvel at a world where the Russians appear to be the only honest, straightforward diplomats in the room. While rejecting any a priori demands that Assad step down, Foreign Minister Sergay Lavrov said Moscow would support any solution that Syrians could devise together to end the war, including “any form of government whatever it may be called: federalization, decentralization, unitary state.” The Russians also appear to have few qualms -- in spite of opposition from Damascus, Iran and others – when it comes to helping the Kurds of Rojava advance their project. This has increasingly pushed the Democratic Union Party (PYD) into the arms of Moscow, where the group opened its first representation office abroad a short time ago. The PYD’s gains in Syria enrage Ankara, of course, which suits the Russians just fine. President Vladimir Putin seems ready to make his counterpart in Ankara regret shooting down a Russian jet last year for a long time to come.
According to officials in Ankara, Turkey’s worries stem from the PYD’s organic links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with whom they recently resumed fighting. That much is understandable, as Turkey has its interests to pursue just like any other state. Unless Turkey resolves Kurdish disaffection within its own borders, however, problems will continue to fester with or without federalism in Rojava. Unfortunately, Turkey seems unlikely to reconcile its Kurdish population with a strategy based on laying siege to whole cities, endless curfews and its current political narrative and discourse. These things might be useful for concentrating more power in the government’s hands (or the hands of one man), but the Kurdish complaint in Turkey has always centered around insufficient democracy and human rights.
Recent statements from President Erdogan that "We do not want to see what is happening in Northern Iraq in Northern Syria" also convinces Kurds everywhere that the old Turkish chauvinism against them remains as alive as ever. The Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (which Turkey usually calls “northern Iraq”) is one of Ankara’s only remaining friends in the region, after all. Why wouldn’t Turkey’s leaders want to see more of that? If the Syrian Kurds were not led by the PYD, would Ankara be supportive of Kurdish autonomy in Syria? Probably not.
Ankara’s foreign policy lies in shambles in any case. Threats to invade Syria remain hollow, especially with Russian backing of Assad and the PYD. The grandiose dreams of just a few years ago, wherein Turkey was supposed to become the world’s 10th largest economy by 2023 or even a superpower on par with Russia and the United States, now seem like a bad joke. European Union membership will not happen no matter how many refugees Ankara threatens Brussels with. At most, Turkey may be able to crush the dreams of the Syrian Kurds, a goal which probably explains Prime Minister Davutoglu’s visit to Teheran after the declaration of federalism. Alternately, it may even be too late for Ankara to accomplish this.
As for the Kurds in Syria, they understandably do what they can to survive the Syrian maelstrom. Their declaration of a federal region is the most sensible thing to come out of that sorry state in a long time. It also serves as a reminder to Washington that they will try not be used militarily but ignored politically. Those days are hopefully over for the Kurds.
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.