As the fight against Islamic State winds down and Syrian President Bashar Assad looks like he will come out on top of the bitter seven-year civil war, Syria’s Kurds must navigate a delicate diplomatic path if they are not to lose the gains they have made.
Support from the United States and other Western states against Islamic State (ISIS) has helped Syrian Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) expand control beyond the traditional Kurdish heartland of Syria’s northeast. The YPG and its umbrella group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), now control more than a quarter of Syria, the second biggest entity in the country after the Syrian government.
But with ISIS-controlled territory dwindling to a few small pockets, Syria’s Kurds feel Western support will inevitably come to a halt, despite constant assurances from the U.S.-led coalition that it will continue aiding local partners in the post-ISIS era.
With that in mind, the YPG and its political wing the Democratic Union Party (PYD) have begun considering their options in the next phase of the conflict.
An uneasy détente between Kurdish forces and the Syrian government that has been in place since 2012 could come under threat after Assad’s forces regained control of most areas they lost to rebel groups after the civil war began in 2011.
In June, Assad threatened to use force against Kurdish forces in the northeast if they refused to negotiate with him. A few weeks later, a high-level Kurdish delegation headed to Damascus for talks with the government that included security and military matters.
The PYD became the de facto ruler of much of the Kurdish-majority areas of Syria almost without a fight in 2012 after most government troops withdrew to battle rebel forces elsewhere, leading to widespread accusations that the PYD was collaborating with the government.
Since aligning itself with the United States in the fight against ISIS, the PYD has tried to distance itself from the Assad regime, so the decision to agree to direct talks with Damascus was not easy, especially as there was no international mediation between the two sides.
Despite having established a region with its own system of governance, the PYD has failed to gain solid international recognition of its political project. That became clearly evident when no one lifted a finger to stop the Turkish military and its Syrian proxies seizing the Kurdish district of Afrin in a two-month offensive that began in January this year.
The Afrin experience has made it clear to everyone, including to the PYD, how fragile Syrian Kurdish dynamics are, regardless of the military gains they have made.
And now Assad’s forces appear poised for victory, Syrian Kurds, including those who oppose the PYD, fear the gains they have achieved are at serious risk. Particularly alarming is Assad’s pledge to retake every inch of Syrian soil.
The PYD has made many strategic mistakes in the past few years. Its has not been politically inclusive, persecuting and imprisoning Kurdish opponents and members of rival groups such as the Kurdish National Council, backed by the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the only other Kurdish entity that has managed to establish control over a sizeable territory.
Most importantly, the PYD has failed to distance itself from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast for more than 30 years. That gives Turkey a standing excuse to attack the Syrian Kurdish regions of Syria.
But the future is not entirely bleak for Syria’s Kurds. They still hold several important cards for further negotiations with Damascus, including control of oil and gas fields in eastern Syria, strategic hydroelectric dams in Raqqa and other resources the Syrian government needs. The other advantage the Syrian Kurds have for now is the U.S. military presence in their region.
Syria’s Kurds will certainly not be willing to go back to the situation before 2011, but if Assad stays in power, and it looks like he will, it is likely the Kurds will be forced to concede some gains so as not to be marginalised once again.