Can Syria's Kurds Hold the Ground They've Gained?

8 MINS READMar 19, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
Military police members of the Kurdish People's Protection Units march in al-Muabbadah in northern Syria on Feb. 24, 2018.

Military police members of the Kurdish People's Protection Units march in al-Muabbadah in northern Syria on Feb. 24, 2018, to denounce Turkey's military campaign against Kurdish forces in Afrin.

  • Turkey's offensive in Afrin reveals the limits of Kurdish aspirations for autonomy in northern Syria.
  • The United States protects Kurdish fighters in Syria as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, but that protection will not last.
  • Syrian Kurds will be exposed to a permanent threat from both Ankara and Damascus, one that threatens the future existence of their semi-autonomous Rojava region.

The tyranny of the map haunts Syria's Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Turkey's offensive in Afrin, the northwestern canton largely controlled by the YPG, is reminding Syria's Kurds that their journey to independence, or even autonomy, must always proceed beneath the geographic shadows cast by Ankara to the north and Damascus to the south.

The Syrian civil war's chaotic conditions distracted Kurdish enemies and facilitated the gains attained by the YPG since the conflict began in 2011. It also helped that the YPG was useful to some of the big powers that entered the fight, particularly the United States. But the current Turkish offensive in Afrin reveals much about the weaknesses of the YPG's position. The Kurdish militia cannot expect the permanent protection of the United States and Russia, the two extraregional powers capable of prevailing on Turkey to halt its campaign. And forces loyal to the Syrian government, which entered the fight to support the Kurds against Turkey, almost certainly will demand the YPG abandon its military and political gains in exchange for their protection.

The Big Picture

Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast highlighted Turkey's determination to divide and weaken Kurdish forces in Syria and noted that Syria's Kurds would be central to military activity in the country this year. The offensive that Turkey launched in January against Kurdish forces in northern Syria supports that forecast.

The Case of Afrin

Afrin is distinct from the rest of the territories that the YPG holds across northern Syria, primarily because it does not have U.S. protection. Yet even the YPG areas that fall under the umbrella of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are not free of the dual threats from Turkey and loyalist forces. While the YPG has achieved significant gains, it has done so as a temporarily useful tool of the United States and Russia, and when its value to those distant powers diminishes, it risks being tossed to the mercy of its neighborhood. Neither Russia nor the United States want to bring a Syrian Kurdistan into existence. Russia is more interested in having a productive relationship with Turkey than in protecting the YPG, and it doesn't want to manage Syria's internal conflicts beyond what is necessary to keep its ally in Damascus in power. Meanwhile the United States, the guarantor of YPG security in SDF areas, wants out of Syria as soon as possible.

Thus Turkey, which sees the YPG as a threat, has the time to wait out Russia and the United States in Syria. Turkey will always be the northern neighbor. For the YPG, this means that one day it must confront a Turkey unrestrained by the United States.

Yet even if the YPG hopes to join forces with Damascus to forestall Turkish attacks against it, the price almost assuredly will be its independence and autonomy. Just as Turkey will always be the YPG's northern neighbor, Damascus will always seek to restore its full control over all of Syria. That leaves little room for the YPG's military and political gains.

Seizing Opportunities

The YPG has achieved a good measure of success by acting opportunistically throughout the Syrian civil war. It first took advantage of the distraction caused by the initial wave of rebellion against the central government. It then leveraged support from the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State to take more territory and gain more influence in northern Syria. But as it did so, its success alarmed Turkey, which saw a strategic threat growing on its border.

Military pressure against pro-government forces in Homs, Aleppo, Daraa and other strategic areas forced Damascus to steadily withdraw troops from the Kurdish north. By mid-2012, loyalist forces were left only in small enclaves in the northeast, and they mostly avoided clashes with the Kurdish forces that had rapidly filled the void. The YPG was thus well-placed for the next stage of the war: the battle against the Islamic State. As the Islamic State emerged along the Euphrates River, in central Syria and in much of Sunni Iraq to become a major threat to Western powers, the YPG positioned itself as an indispensable ally of the United States. Feeling secure, the YPG helped lead the 2016 autonomy declaration for Rojava, the combined Kurdish-controlled northern Syrian regions of Afrin, Jazira and Kobani.

The Kurds' success alarmed Turkey, which saw a strategic threat growing on its border.

At the same time, the United States increasingly leaned on the YPG in its fight against the Islamic State, and the YPG's military successes only increased U.S. support for the group. With the YPG attaining ever more sophisticated arms, the Turkish government worried that the YPG would slip its weapons to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Turkey. Starting with Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016, Turkey began to take direct steps to roll back the YPG's gains.

But Turkey could not risk an all-out offensive against the YPG. U.S. troops and equipment had appeared alongside the YPG within the SDF, shifting the dynamic considerably. Neither the Turks nor the Syrian government loyalists could attack the SDF without risking fighting U.S. troops, who were deployed to fight the Islamic State but who also found themselves blocking Turkey and its proxies, especially at Manbij west of the Euphrates River.

Afrin was beyond the Americans' writ, however, since the Islamic State was nowhere near it. For a time, Russia filled the gap. From August 2017, a Russian force prevented a Turkish assault, as Moscow looked to build leverage against both Turkey, a party to peace talks hosted by Russia in Sochi, and the United States. Russia wanted to freeze the conflict rather than outright win it, and the peace conferences were central to Moscow's strategy in Syria.

But by early this year, it was apparent that Russia's leverage had reached its limits. Turkey made it clear it was deadly serious about a military offensive against the YPG in Afrin. The Russians could not afford to lose their relationship with the Turks, since they needed them to preserve the deconfliction zones in the north that were a cornerstone of Russia's strategy to freeze the Syrian civil war. Thus Russia withdrew most of its forces from Afrin, and the Turkish campaign began.

Fickle Great Powers

Russia let the YPG twist in the wind once it saw the group as a liability to its goals. Such a risk also exists for the YPG in its relationship with the United States, which has no interest in remaining in Syria forever. Unlike Russia, the United States doesn't have a strong interest in permanent basing rights in Syria, since it can continue to rely on its use of Turkey's Incirlik air base, as well as its Gulf allies, to project power throughout the region.

Nor do Russia or the United States want to see a free Kurdistan come into being, as their behavior after the Iraqi Kurdish referendum in September illustrated. Even if a peace deal comes along that allows the YPG to hold its gains in northern Syria, the United States is not guaranteed to be around to enforce it.

So with no other option, the YPG has allowed Damascus to return to Rojava. Since the group took the northeast largely bloodlessly in 2012, there are fewer historical problems with it doing so, and loyalist forces were in the northeast already. With loyalist troops alongside the YPG, Turkey might be stilled from launching further attacks.

But the assault on Afrin reveals that not even Damascus can protect the YPG. The loyalists have allowed the YPG to send fighters through its territory, while sending loyalist militias to bolster YPG ranks in Afrin. Damascus does not want to see Turkey occupy yet more Syrian territory; it knows that Turkey can stay and fight in Syria much longer than Russia or the United States.

Despite the Syrian government's decision to keep the army out of Afrin, the YPG has likely invited the fox into the henhouse.

Loyalist forces do not have the military strength to deter the Turkish military. Moreover, they are still fighting in many areas across the country and cannot afford a showdown with Turkey's army. Knowing this, the Syrian government has refused to send regular army units to Afrin, preferring to keep them deployed where they can win against rebels elsewhere.

Despite the Syrian government's decision to keep the army out of Afrin, the YPG has likely invited the fox into the henhouse. Damascus does not want to protect Afrin as equals with the YPG. For the loyalists, the return to Afrin aims to restore the status quo before the civil war. In their view, the YPG cannot be allowed to retain autonomy, weapons or political positions that might undermine a restored loyalist state. The loyalists might concede cultural and small-scale political rights, such as reducing restrictions on the Kurdish language or extending citizenship to Afrin's Kurdish population, but such concessions are a far cry from recognizing the autonomy that the YPG believed it had carved out in Rojava.

Beyond Afrin, the prospects for Rojava look dim. On a long enough timeline, Turkey and the Syrian government's own interests could align as other aspects of the civil war wind down. They may cooperate to crush the YPG in the rest of Rojava together. Or one may stand aside while the other does the job. Either way, trapped between the loyalists and Turkey, the YPG have few viable options as the years wear on.

The conditions that gave rise to the YPG's many gains are not permanent. Turkey's geography is, as is Damascus' interest in restoring its control over all of Syria. As the Syrian civil war winds down, the YPG's Rojava region will be seriously threatened.

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