Syrian Kurdish groups announced a new political vision on Wednesday after many years where internal political divisions and war had made political unity difficult. The Syrian Kurds have been holding talks between the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which plays the major role administering eastern Syria, and other Kurdish groups linked to the Kurdish National Council (ENKS).
This historic round of discussions, with US support from William Roebuck, the deputy special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, could pave the way for a new vision for eastern Syria. The Kurdish controlled areas have been threatened by both a Turkish offensive in October 2019 and the Syrian regime. This complex set of hurdles has encouraged Kurds to seek out this unity based on a 2014 agreement. Why has it taken so long to get here?
Kurds in Syria historically suffered brutal discrimination and were sidelined by the Arab nationalist regimes in Damascus. Western diplomats and the Soviets preferred to work with the dictatorship in Damascus and Ba'athist style nationalism for many years, leaving millions of Syrian Kurds outside the political process. Discrimination extended to attempts to force assimilation, name changes, and language suppression. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were denied citizenship The Assad regime however was not always systematic in its approach, it had been accused by Turkey of hosting the Kurdistan Workers Party, which was fighting Turkey, in the 1990s.
Things changed in 2011 after the Syrian Civil War began. Kurdish groups were able to form their own units and parties as state control weakened. The rise of ISIS and other extremist groups cut Syria in half and isolated Kurds in their cities and towns such as Kobane, Qamishli, Derik and Hasakah. Lack of support against ISIS and an open Turkish border enabled the extremists to grow until ISIS laid siege to Kurdish areas. Kurds, formed into People's Protection Units (YPG) linked to the PYD, fought a grueling battle against ISIS, saving thousands of Yazidis fleeing the ISIS genocide in 2014. The US intervened to help stop ISIS taking Kobane.
Historic divisions among Kurds in eastern Syria meant that the PYD and YPG, linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), were hostile to Kurdish parties linked to the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq. This complex political landscape was hammered into a crucible by war. At the time Turkey had a ceasefire with the PKK and Peshmerga and artillery from the autonomous region of Iraq, linked to the KDP, were even sent to help the YPG defend Kobane.
Then things took a new turn. The ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK ended in 2015 and war erupted across the border in Turkey. As ISIS was pushed back the US helped create the Syrian Democratic Forces, an umbrella group of fighters in eastern Syria of which the YPG was a component. Turkey's inaction in allowing ISIS to grow along the border in 2014 had helped bolster the YPG's role, but this backfired for Turkey because after 2015 Ankara shifted to view the YPG as a threat linked to the PKK. The US moderated that threat and the SDF essentially changed the YPG, as it fought ISIS. The SDF took Raqqa in 2017 and liberated eastern Syria, capturing more than 10,000 ISIS members and totally defeating ISIS in 2019. Now it hunts down ISIS cells with US support. It includes thousands of Arabs, Christians and other fighters in its ranks, a model unit for inter-ethnic and inter-religious unity in Syria, compared to other areas that are often run by sectarian groups.
While the SDF changed and grew and became a model, things on the ground in eastern Syria are more complex. Economically the area is under siege, without trade with Iraq, Turkey has built a wall along the border and the Syrian regime is collapsing economically. As a non-state entity the SDF can't get aid from the UN and local administrators can't even test for Covid-19.
The isolation of eastern Syria has led now to unity talks. How did things get here though? While the war was being fought politics on the ground in eastern Syria didn't change. The PYD closed the offices of rival political groups in 2016 and 2017, sending ENKS members packing. Anger was palpable in Erbil in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, where the KDP is powerful. Anger that the PYD would sideline their Syrian Kurdish political allies and that they might be fueling Turkish aggression rather than reducing tensions. That disaster unfolded beginning in August 2016 as Turkey invaded Syria to stop the offensive of the SDF near Manbij. Then Turkey invaded Afrin in January 2018, pushing out 160,000 Kurds and destroying the YPG in Afrin. Turkey got the US to agree to leave Syria and shift its pro-SDF to an Ankara policy. In October 2019 US forces who were training the SDF pulled back and Turkey attacked SDF areas that had once been held by ISIS.
This crisis led the PYD into discussions with the Syrian regime and Russia, which foundered. Fearful that the US would withdraw from Syria and the Kurds in eastern Syria would be worse off than under Assad, being ethnically cleansed as Turkey had done in Afrin, the Kurdish political parties sought out unity.
The problem for the Kurds is that they have seen themselves attacked and abandoned, losing gains they fought hard for in 2014 to 2016. In Syria those gains could be handed to the Syrian regime and Turkey in a partition agreement brokered by Iran. Iran has signed on to help Turkey fight the PKK in northern Iraq and a new Turkish army operation, backed by Iranian artillery, has been raining down on Kurdish areas of Iraq. Yazidi areas, saved by the YPG in 2014, have also been the target of Turkish airstrikes in the last week. Ankara's message is that not one PKK member will be left alive, and wherever PKK members are will be hit with airstrikes. Iran and Turkey appear to agree on this. The US also agrees, having put a bounty on PKK leaders' heads in 2018. But the US is working with the SDF in Syria, which Turkey accuses of being linked to the PKK but the US military says the SDF is the best force fighting ISIS.
While some in the US administration are virulently anti-Kurdish, arguing Kurds should assimilate, and even working in the past with Turkey to support ethnic cleansing, or even working with Baghdad to drive Kurds out of Kirkuk using Iranian-backed militias, others believe Kurdish groups have created stability in Iraq and Syria. These are the only areas of Iraq and Syria that are pro-American and where ISIS and Iran have no presence.
This has led to support for unity talks. The preliminary understandings put forward what was called the Dohuk agreement of 2014 that would have seen power-sharing in eastern Syria between Kurdish groups linked to ENKS and the PYD. This dialogue includes key Kurdish officials such as General Mazloum Abdi of the SDF and also Masoud Barzani and other KDP members who have backed the work.
The Kurds fought hard against ISIS and created stability in eastern Syria and northern Iraq. But many countries want to undermine that. Turkey wants any groups historically linked to the PKK destroyed. Iran's parties in Baghdad want the autonomous Kurdistan region weakened or sidelined. This leaves years of success from 2014-2019 in jeopardy. Unity talks are a beginning for eastern Syria. But it's unclear if the US will leave and the US has generally worked closely with Kurdish groups. The general tone from Washington has been to tell the Kurds not to work with the Syrian regime in Syria but then also not to help them receive UN or other humanitarian support or trade with Iraq, or even get political backing as part of a Syrian political process in Geneva. Whether the current unity talks can lead to the US actually working with its partners on the ground to achieve political success is unclear. But it's a start.
Seth Frantzman is a Middle East Forum writing fellow and op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post.