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Jul 31, 2015 | 09:15 GMT

The Fragile Gains of Syria's Kurds

A Kurdish marksman stands on top of a building in the Syrian town of Kobani in January 2015. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
(BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • As Turkish involvement increases and Islamic State loses ground, the Kurds will find themselves increasingly hedged in by hostile forces.
  • In the long term, the dissolution of colonial boundaries and Syria will make it difficult for any centralized government in Damascus to control the northeastern part of the country.
  • Syria’s Kurds will maintain some degree of autonomy but Turkey's direct involvement in Syria will slow down the momentum of Kurdish forces, leaving them vulnerable.

The past three years have been heady times for Syria's Kurds. Since forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad withdrew from the northeast in July 2012, the Kurds have enjoyed more autonomy than at any other time in recent history. Presiding over this autonomous region is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish political party founded in the wake of 2004 riots in the majority Kurdish city of Qamishli. The PYD's primary objective is to attain Kurdish autonomy within the context of a democratic Syria and its armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), has proved capable on the battlefield. YPG fighters have managed not only to fend off Arab attacks on Kurdish territory but have also scored victories against Islamic State targets with U.S. support, even entering alliances with some of the Free Syrian Army militias fighting the Islamic State.

But Turkey's recent decision to also target the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey as part of its direct intervention against the Islamic State does not bode well for the Kurds preserving their gains in Syria. There are few if any parties interested in propping up Kurdish autonomy. It will be difficult for the Kurds to maintain the autonomy they have seized, and Turkey's forays into the Syrian conflict directly challenge the relative autonomy the PYD has been able to establish in northeastern Syria.

While Turkey has openly targeted Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey, the precise nature of its actions in Syria have been murky. Turkish newspaper Hurriyet cited Kurdish forces who alleged that Turkish tanks fired on YPG fighters in the Syrian village of Zur Maghar on July 27. The Turkish Foreign Ministry officially denied the report and said that its target set was limited to PKK militants in northern Iraq and Islamic State positions in Syria. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also told Turkish newspaper Milliyet that U.S.-Turkish cooperation would mean nothing if the United States were to privilege YPG interests over those of Ankara.

Turkey has long been open about its discomfort with YPG successes. Since 2012, the group has managed to use its strategic location and willingness to fight the Islamic State to its advantage. Today, the YPG has managed to carve out a realm of general self-rule in northern Syria and obtain the support of the United States, which seeks to contain the Islamic State through local proxies. But the geography of the Kurdish territory also works against YPG interests. It is highly desirable for surrounding groups and powers.

The Jazira

Syrian Kurds are concentrated in three main regions in northern Syria along the Turkish border. In the northwest, the Kurdish population lives in the area around Kurd Dagh and Afrin. They have also inhabited two parts of Upper Mesopotamia, known as the "Jazira," since the seventh century. The first of these two pockets is around the town of Jarabulus at the northwest end of the Jazira, while the second is in the northeastern corner of Syria in al-Hasaka governorate.

The Jazira is a large alluvial plain extending from the foothills of Anatolia south to Mosul. In the ancient world this was the homeland of the Assyrians. Unlike the more mountainous Afrin region in the northwest, the Jazira is flat and lacks defensible natural barriers. It is therefore difficult territory to control and is vulnerable to attack from neighboring groups and aspiring empires. Until World War I, the Syrian portions of the Jazira were sparsely populated. Kurdish tribes would spend winters on the plains, moving back to the Anatolian foothills during the summer grazing months. Bedouin tribes would then occupy the area during the summer, seeking relief from the harsh climate of the desert to the south. It was essentially shared territory between two ethnic groups, a sort of timeshare in the heart of the Middle East. While the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq has taken advantage of its mountainous terrain to secure its autonomy, the same cannot be said of the Kurds in the Jazira.

The Ottoman Empire's defeat in World War I kicked off changes that transformed the Jazira. As the empire collapsed, convulsions across the region pushed Kurds, Sunni Arabs and various Christians, including Armenians and Assyrians, to settle on the plain. In 1931, al-Hasaka governorate in the northeastern corner of the Jazira had only approximately 40,000 residents. Today, over 1.5 million inhabit the area. Ethnic and sectarian violence accompanied the massive influx of disparate peoples. For decades, Kurds were the largest of the plain's ethnic groups but a 1975 Syrian government push to create an "Arab belt," or "al-Hizam al-Arabi," led to the loss of a great deal of Kurdish land in the Jazira.

As more people migrated to the area, competition over resources grew. The relative emptiness through the beginning of the 20th century belied the region's high level of fertility. By the 1960s the region had essentially replaced the Hawran region in southwestern Syria as the country's breadbasket. Before the Syrian civil war, al-Hasaka governorate was responsible for more than 20 percent of Syria's total wheat production. In addition, crude oil was discovered in Qarachuk and Rumaylan in the late 1950s. Though Syria's oil production before the Syrian civil war was relatively modest compared to other countries in the region, it was still enough to account for nearly 25 percent of total state revenue before fighting took production offline. The area is then both valuable and indefensible — a treacherous combination for the Syrian Kurds attempting to hold it. 

Kurdish Gains

In the first years of the Syrian civil war, the PYD was able to take advantage of the chaos to pursue its interests. Government forces pulled back from the north, unable to hold areas so far from the Alawite core. Fragmented Syrian rebel groups, too, proved unable to occupy the Jazira as a result of the difficulty of fighting both the al Assad government and the Islamic State. The Islamic State was the biggest threat to the Kurds, but with U.S. support, the YPG were able to not only retake lands from the Islamic State but also push the group back from some of its gains.

The success of the YPG was boosted because Turkey was passively engaged in the conflict, only stepping in to provide support to its favored proxy groups. Washington clamored for Ankara to become more involved, but Turkey faced both domestic and strategic challenges that made it hesitant to become involved in an active, direct manner. Because of this, the PYD was able to establish a sphere of relative autonomy in a political and security vacuum, and the United States supported Kurdish fighters in northern Syria in order to have a partner in a space Turkey refused to occupy.

Turkey even tacitly facilitated YPG objectives from time to time. Ankara, for example, facilitated the movement of Kurdish reinforcements to Kobani. The YPG meanwhile earned a reputation as the region's most effective anti-Islamic State fighting force, particularly in the Western media. Growing Turkish unease with YPG success drove Turkey to its recent intervention and spurred its proposal to create a buffer zone in northern Syria with the assistance of the United States. The zone would exist between Kurdish-dominated Afrin and the Jazira. Groups backed directly by a Turkey hostile to Kurdish interests would occupy the gap instead. Besides impinging on the ability of Syrian Kurds to travel between Kurdish areas in Syria, it would also shift attention back to Turkey as the most effective fighting force in the region. Finally, it would enable Syrian rebel groups to focus on attacking loyalist forces and pushing for the ouster of al Assad, an outcome both Washington and Ankara favor.

Any negotiated political settlement to end the Syrian civil war will undoubtedly include measures that ensure that the fertile, oil-rich lands of the Jazira remain in the hands of a Damascus-based central government. The PYD has already declared an autonomous Western Kurdistan (which the Kurds call Rojava). While the party has said it is willing to settle for an autonomous region within a Syrian state, it would not give up enough control to satisfy any central government.

The prospect of centralized rule itself is dubious, however, even if it was buoyed by Turkish support. A more likely outcome would be a loose confederation of different regions, allowing Syria's Kurds to retain at least some of the autonomy they have achieved. Even if this were to be the case, other groups would still encroach on the area. The YPG has entered into partnerships with Sunni Arab militias fighting the Islamic State, but once the conflict abates, those same Sunni Arabs will look to exert control over northwestern Syria. A loose confederation that grants coastal autonomy to Alawites and Kurdish autonomy in the fertile northeast, while leaving the remaining territory to the Sunni Arabs, would be unstable at best. It would only fuel further conflict, leaving the Kurds vulnerable. In fact, the current turmoil is probably the most beneficial state for Syrian Kurds. The longer their opponents are distracted, the longer they will have to consolidate their territorial gains.

The YPG can do little to resist Turkey's actions on its own. Its best hope is to convince the United States to lean on Turkey to soften its activities. As was demonstrated last week, however, Turkey will not hesitate to target what it sees as the its Kurdish problem, even as it cooperates with the United States against Islamic State. For its part, Washington will not raise much objection because it considers the Turkish PKK to be a terrorist organization. Turkey has carried out airstrikes against the PKK since July 24, and there are no indications that the pace of activity is going to decrease. Kurdish forces in Syria cannot do anything to help the PKK and the Turkish shelling of a YPG-held village, whether accidental or not, underscores how little recourse YPG has toward Turkish actions. Even if Syria's Kurds were to threaten to join forces with al Assad, this would be little more than an irritant. In fact, it would give Ankara the pretext to target the YPG as it has targeted the PKK.

The Syrian Kurds' only natural allies nearby are the closely related Turkish Kurds in the PKK who already have their hands full dealing with Ankara's onslaught. The Iraqi Kurds are another possibility, especially in northern Iraq where tribal and linguistic ties between Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are strong. But Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government has its own reasons for not being able to break with Turkey: It relies on Turkish pipelines and port infrastructure to get its oil to market and many of the construction companies in the region are Turkish. Another regional power, Iran, could perhaps help the Syrian Kurdish cause. An Iranian military official criticized the Turks for their attacks against the Kurds fighting the Islamic State, and an Iran security delegation met seperately with Kurdish political parties in Arbil on July 29. But what support, if any, the Iranians would actually be able to give the Syrian Kurds is little more than speculation at this point. That said, Iran does have a history of propping up small ethnic groups in positions of power in Syria and has connections in Iraqi Kurdistan. The embattled Syrian government cannot do much for the Kurds of the north but likely would look more favorably on Kurdish autonomy if such an outcome creates more trouble for Turkey.

Chaos in Syria has been an unprecedented opportunity for the Kurds. The longer it drags on, the longer they have to entrench themselves in the lands they have seized. Syria's sectarian divisions and Sunni Arab rivalries will make the re-establishment of any kind of centralized power in Damascus difficult, and that makes the prospects of an autonomous Western Kurdistan feasible. But Turkey's entrance into the fray will make this harder going forward. If Turkey means to commit its resources to shaping the future of Syria to its liking, Syrian Kurds will not only be landlocked but will be surrounded on all sides by groups actively hostile to its autonomy. Syria's Kurds will have to hope that its successes can inspire its comrades across the region, that the United States and the rest of the West will not betray them, or that Tehran might find it in its interests to offer help. As Turkey's involvement in Syria grows, and as the Islamic State continues to falter on the battlefield, the Kurdish position in Syria will grow weaker. The PYD may be self-administering Rojava, but its fate is not entirely in its own hands.

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