Twilight of the Kurds
Kurdish officials once dreamed of forging their own state out of the ashes of the war against the Islamic State. Now they are fighting for their very survival.
The group ruling Kurdish districts in Syria’s north may soon face similar challenges. It too has been willing to fight America’s battles in exchange for military hardware, and it too may prove disposable as the Islamic State’s remaining strongholds crumble and Washington’s attention is drawn elsewhere. What will then happen to the de facto autonomous region Syrian Kurds have managed to carve out over the past five years?
Like their brethren across the border in Iraq, the Kurds in Syria have taken advantage of a weakened central state. In 2012, President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime pulled out of the north, leaving a vacuum that was filled by a local affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. This group — known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG — has received U.S. military largesse despite the fact that its leaders are trained by the PKK, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.
As in Iraq, armaments and training have enabled the YPG to deal the Islamic State defeat after defeat. These victories have had two contradictory consequences: They have fed Syrian Kurds’ appetite for building an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria like the one in Iraq, and they also have empowered PKK-trained commanders operating in Syria, the primary U.S. interlocutors. These commanders are torn between wanting to invest their gains in Syria in support of the PKK’s struggle in Turkey and securing first and foremost autonomy in Syria.
The political monopoly exercised by PKK-trained cadres has alienated the YPG from northern Syria’s Kurdish merchant and professional middle classes, who may be thankful for the group’s protection but chafe under its tight control and feel increasingly pushed aside by the war profiteers gravitating around it. As one middle-class resident of Qamishli put it: Taxi drivers have become powerful police officers, and “simple shopkeepers can now be seen driving a 2017 Mercedes because they’re smuggling oil and exporting cement.” He went on to lament that such changes are especially galling at a time when teachers, lawyers, and doctors are doing small jobs on the side simply to survive.
The YPG faces a serious dilemma: In order to be militarily strong, it needs to remain tied to the PKK, from whose training grounds it draws its senior commanders. Yet doing so will prevent it from gaining support from a local population that finds no benefit in PKK-trained commanders carrying the flag of the Kurdish cause in Syria. Whatever the local people think of the group’s ideology, they object to its exercise of power, which tolerates zero opposition. At the same time, the YPG’s PKK affiliation makes it a direct enemy of Turkey, which has tried to strangle northern Syria economically. If the Syrian Kurds are not careful, they will find themselves isolated by their neighbors; Ankara and Damascus may in the future collude to oust the YPG and restore central control, just as Ankara gave a green light to Tehran to set back Kurdish aspirations in northern Iraq.
The YPG has two potential routes to avoid this fate. It could relinquish control over non-Kurdish areas to local non-Kurdish allies following the Islamic State’s military defeat and then focus on building a more viable autonomy for majority Kurdish districts. To do so, it would need to rely on the educated middle class affiliated with parties other than the PKK and its trained military cadres and hope that the United States will provide protection. This might also be acceptable to Turkey, which can tolerate a Kurdish entity on its border, as it has in Iraq, but not one dominated by its mortal enemy, the PKK.
That strategy, however, is complicated by the fact that the U.S. alliance with the Syrian Kurds is even less stable than Washington’s partnership with the Kurds in northern Iraq. In late November, President Donald Trump suggested that the United States might end military supplies to the YPG. If this was a signal that the United States intends to abandon its proxy in the foreseeable future — a possibility that is the subject of vigorous debate within the YPG and PKK — the Kurdish group will have no choice but to diversify its alliances if it wants to survive.
Given this reality, the Syrian Kurdish leaders’ other path would be to integrate their local governance and security institutions under the framework of the Syrian state, whose capability has been severely eroded. The YPG has been present in northern Syria at the tolerance of the regime and its powerful backers, and its fighters have mostly coexisted with Syrian security forces in the cities of Qamishli and Hasakah. The PKK also has a history of making deals with the regime since at least 1978, when it had offices in Damascus and trained its fighters in Lebanon’s Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley.
The YPG would do well to focus on creating effective governing institutions in cooperation with local Kurdish parties and consider inviting the return of the Syrian state’s service delivery ministries. Such an approach might unlock the doors to trade with Iraq through the shared border, now controlled by Baghdad and Iran-affiliated armed factions on the Iraqi side, because the Iraqi goverment might look favorably upon an understanding between the YPG and Damascus.
It is unclear whether Assad will agree to anything less than full restoration of Syrian sovereignty over the Kurdish areas, but it’s equally unclear whether he will have the capacity to pull it off. Moscow has suggested that it might not oppose Kurdish autonomy. Much will therefore depend on whether the United States, with Russia, will agree to broker a post-conflict arrangement that would allow the Kurdish districts to emerge from the Syrian war with a measure of self-rule.